Wednesday Morning Pony Cult – Part 1

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Nov 092011

Alright. Five episodes into My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.

And the short of it? It’s OK, I guess.

The first two episodes do the usual introductory spiel while tossing in some obligatory conflict. At the request of the ruler of this pony-centric world, Twilight Sparkle moves to Ponyville to help with some lunar celebration. The catch is that Twilight has been tasked with “making friends.”

See, Twilight Sparkle is more than a little full of herself. She the sort that thinks intellectual pursuits can replace, well, just about everything. She’s downright apprehensive about making friends. She doesn’t need that shit so long as she can discover some obscure fact and prove herself to be intellectually superior to those around her. She’s like that Sheldon dude from Big Bang Theory if he was painted purple and got a sex change. I’m sure she’s gonna appeal to certain kids who can relate to that personality, so in that regard I can buy into the socially awkward smart girl who needs to “learn” how to make friends and stuff. But when it comes to being an adult watching this show, she’s already kinda grating on me. Since she’s the main character, that isn’t a good sign.

At least her unwanted friends are a good deal more tolerable. The first episode basically sets up each of the other five characters by having Twilight Sparkle run into each of them– sometimes literally. They’re all broad stereotypes– Applejack the cowgirl, Rainbow Dash the athlete, Rarity the diva, Fluttershy the hippie, and Pinkie Pie the comedian. You can take one look at each of them and know exactly what their shtick is gonna be. Between all of them you hit enough points and have a pony for almost any kid watching. These two episodes don’t delve into any of them far enough to really make any kind of judgement beyond stating one’s natural bias towards these types. That means Pinkie Pie seems to be a little too bubbly and loud for my tastes and Fluttershy makes me want to punt her into the uprights with her overt shyness. The others are pretty decent right off the bat, though.

So we get the main cast established right away. I dig that since we don’t spend a third of the season or so introducing the cast before things start to happen. I may not dig half the cast, but we got them right away so they can play off of each other right away. That’s a nice move.

But this fast-paced intro kinda makes the second episode feel a bit forced. Nightmare Moon comes down and lays the smack down on the world, declaring that the sun will never rise again and that the world will be cast in perpetual night. The six ponies band together, each gets a chance to save the day in the evil forest, and thus each of their strengths is brought to the forefront. That in and of itself is decent, so the kids can get a feel for the characters right away, but it’s the way all of this comes together that kinda sucks. It just so happens that each of these strengths represents one of the “five elements” that are needed to drive back Nightmare Moon. So we get a Final Fantasy-like crystal collecting thing going, where we have a pony for honesty, loyalty, laughter, kindness, and generosity. Combine them all Captain Planet-style and funnel them through Twilight Sparkle’s revelation that “FRIENDSHIP IS MAGICAL” and they put down the big bad super-quick. It’s a well-executed happy ending for the kiddies, but for a cynical bastard like me it was a little too convenient and easy.

With the intro out-of-the-way, I wasn’t really feeling it. I could see where a young girl would be fascinated by the whole thing. The show didn’t talk down to kids, and it presented just enough relatable characters, adventure, and other good stuff. But it’s decidedly made for kids who are new to this sort of stuff. There wasn’t a lot of the sort of self-awareness you see in some kids shows where things are happening just outside of the target audience’s awareness that people with a bit more knowledge and experience will get. It isn’t a matter of overt pop culture jokes and the like that you see in shit like Shrek that people end up calling “humor for the parents,” but there isn’t the sort of “see what we did here” gags and the like you see in a show like Adventure Time or a broader sense of humor that hits on multiple levels. That wasn’t really there in any of the episodes I watched.

As for those other three episodes, they were basically 30 minute morality plays. A situation comes up where the characters’ friendships are mildly threatened: Twilight Sparkle only has two tickets to a party and her buddies argue over who should go, Applejack refuses to accept her friends’ help with the harvest, and Rainbow Dash runs into an old friend who isn’t exactly friendly towards Dash’s other buddies. The party episode was the weakest of the five episodes I saw, since the gags that play out as the five friends compete for Twilight’s attention just didn’t quite work. I did like the way the episode ended, with Princess Celestia basically telling Twilight “Well, why didn’t you just ask for more tickets, you moron!?”

The other two episodes got progressively better, mainly because they were the first episodes where specific characters got some room to “breath” so to speak. They played out as you’d expect, with Applejack finally accepting help and with Dash realizing who her real friends are, but by centering on specific characters we finally got to see characters play off of one another, and that’s exactly what this sort of show needs to work. And these were the first episodes where the humor started to really work as well. They weren’t amazingly funny or anything, but there were some genuine laughs.

So yeah, as far as this being a kid show goes, it’s solid stuff. It isn’t condescending. It’s well-made, with the characters’ facial expressions being especially good. It’s downright good kids shit. But thus far I’m not seeing why adults like this show. I can appreciate it thus far, but I’m not seeing how the internet peeps caught onto this, especially based on how it started. Maybe that comes along later, but as-is the internet’s fascination with this series remains a mystery to me.

But I don’t hate it. Not yet at least. But I do kinda hate Twilight Sparkle. God damn, girl, making friends is not that painful. Especially when said friends are literally throwing themselves at your feet.

Wednesday Morning Pony Cult – Preamble

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Nov 072011

My Little Pony. This shit is fascinating. And disturbing. Like a wreck between a car filled with cute bunnies and a truck filled with adorable puppies. Yeah.

A few of my online friends dig this show.They like a lot of the same US cartoons as I do: Venture Bros, Archer, Adventure Time, and so on, and they figured if they liked My Little Pony, I might dig it as well. So they nagged me to check it out.

I was hesitant at first. Not because of the fact that it’s My Little Pony, though. I got no beef with watching “girlie” cartoons. It isn’t even my exposure with anime and its shoujo and josei genres that doesn’t make me flinch in the face of “emasculating” animation. I grew up in the 80′s and I’m all too used to the sort of show My Little Pony grew out of. In the first and second grade my dad’d pick me up after school and take me to his office, and I would watch shit like She-Ra on a tiny black and white TV. By the time I got to his office it was the only cartoon on at that time in the afternoon, and I wasn’t gonna not watch cartoons. And I sat through plenty of other cheesy, moral-ridden, mascot-driven 80′s drivel. I loved The Smurfs when I was, like, 4 years old. Hell, I even had a plushie from The Get Along Gang (It was the cat.).

It isn’t the nature of My Little Pony that I initially found off-putting. It’s the internet culture that’s sprung up around the series. Why in the hell would grown men be enamored anthropomorphic ponies who were created to appeal to elementary school girls? Why would they create obnoxious memes based on these characters? Why would some of them find the series to be “deep” and “meaningful?”

And why was I hearing people comparing it to that bastion of banality known as K-On?

That’s what turned me off initially. I’m down with checking out silly kiddie cartoons. I’m not down with suffering through what seems like the invasion of nauseating slice of life anime into western animation.

But those friends persisted in their pestering. Those that understood my hesitance said it wasn’t what I thought it was. Well, it was sorta like that, they said, but it also had its own charm. And so I gave in. I decided that I would give My Little Pony a chance.

In fact, I decided that I would watch the whole damn thing. All 26 episodes. No turning back. No “this sucks, I’m gonna go watch Cobra.” Even if it means my brain will melt into a sugary pile of cotton candy slop, I would finish this. And I’m gonna blog this descent into the ponypocalypse. Starting tomorrow and every Wednesday after that, I’m gonna post something about My Little Pony. Each post’ll cover roughly 5 episodes or so. It should be horrifically awesome and stuff.

Virtua Food Fighter

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Nov 062011

I don’t give much thought to anime studios. I recognize the names and I know that certain studios have a tendency to make certain types of series, but that’s about it. Most studios are far too uneven quality-wise for me to ever say “Hey, soandso is making a new series this season, I so gotta see it.” Madhouse may put out some cool stuff like Redline or whatever, but then they turn around and make something utterly banal like Chihayafuru or Kobato. Production IG is the same way. One second they’re doing Eden of the East or Ghost in the Shell, the next they’re making us suffer through Bunny Drop or Kimi ni Todoke.

But these David Production guys got my eye. They haven’t done much of anything, but the stuff they’ve done has my attention because it tends to drift away from popular trends.

I have no idea if it’s a conscious effort, but David Production seems to be making adaptations out of things that wouldn’t normally get adapted in the current anime climate. Book of Bantorra may be based on a series of light novels, but it’s a convoluted fantasy thriller that has little similarity to the usual fantasy stuff. Level E may have been published in Shounen Jump, but it’s from the 90′s. You hardly see peeps go back and make an anime out of something nearly 20 years old that isn’t a remake of a previously popular series.

They’re doing the same with this season’s Ben-To. Ben-To may have some “safe” fan service shit and the like, but it doesn’t really play like your usual lame duck lead + harem story. This is because Ben-To is about fighting over food first and pseudo-slice-of-life, clichéd anime tropes second.

The series has yet to lose focus. We may get some conveniently placed camera angles and otaku-centric gags, but the show hasn’t devolved into being about that sort of stuff. Each episode is fully centered around the “I like to beat the shit out of people for half-price food” lifestyle. Each episode shows us a new facet of this world, whether its delving into the code of honor the “wolves” have amongst each other, how said wolves react to peeps who don’t play by their rules, or the petty rivalries that blow up into larger conflicts.

Ben-To, thus far, is a fighting anime that hasn’t lost its focus on the fighting. It’s established its rules and shown what happens when someone tries to break these rules, and it’s also established a larger scope that grows out of these rules. It’s a true fighting anime that hasn’t gone off into powering-up tangents or drawn out fights to last more than a few minutes. It also hasn’t ignored its set-up in favor of focusing on high school hijinks and other shit you can get from any other anime. It really is an anime about people who fight over cheap bento boxes rather than your typical high school comedy that just happens to have a gimmick to slap on the cover to make it look different from everything else (Like, say, Maji de Watashi.).

It doesn’t hurt that the lead dude actually fights and is good at it. He doesn’t even need to go through some lengthy training process to become a wolf. He might be a punching bag for other characters’ antics, but he’s fully capable of doing what he’s supposed to do: punch people so he can afford a decent meal. He may have gotten the shit kicked out of him in the latest episode, but that was one of those “Yeah, this new villain is so powerful so let’s establish his power by having him whup the lead character” moments that’s entirely acceptable in this sort of show. The lead character and his buddies finally have a worthy opponent. Let’s just hope that things don’t devolve into “I gotta train to beat this guy!” But given everything else that’s happened in this series, I don’t think it’ll sink that low. Hell, the series only has, like, 6 or 7 more episodes. Most training arcs in shounen series take far longer than that. They don’t have time to suck that much.

Also: I love the way the series does its next episode previews. It isn’t just scenes from the next episode with some inane drivel spouted over the instrumental version of the opening song, it’s always a little scene in and of itself where the characters break the fourth wall and give their own impression on what’s coming up next. It’s good stuff.

Also Also: Digging the Sega references. It’s blatant advertising, but it’s cool that this dude still plays shit like the original Virtua Fighter. I’d make a comment about how this series seems to take place in the late 90′s or something, then go off on some conspiratorial tangent tying it into the Occult Academy and Level E or some shit, but the fact that peeps have modern-day phones ruins that. Damn. And do you see this, Future Diary (And almost every other anime out there.), high school anime characters can have smartphones. Get with it and quit giving them shitty flip phones.

Nomads and Spiritualists

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Nov 052011

I should have seen the connection between Honto ni Atta! Reibai Sensei and Haiyore Nyaruani right away. They’re both done by the same anime studio that specializes in these cheaply done, 5 minute episode Flash series. Also, they’re both about the mundane clashing with horrors man was not meant to know about.

But I’m a fucking moron and didn’t catch the connection until Honto ni Atta! busted out a reference to the Sega Nomad.

You see plenty of references to video games in anime. Blame it on the fact that we anime fans are lifeless nerds whose only form of entertainment consists of various forms of animation, be it drawn, pixellated, or computer generated. But you only see the usual suspects. Someone’ll be playing something resembling a Playstation or Game Boy or whatever. Maybe someone’ll go old school and have a Sega system like a Genesis or something like that. But Nyarlko and Honto ni Atta! give those assumptions the middle finger and bust out some downright esoteric references. Nyarlko did a whole bit based around the WonderSwan, and tossed in some Virtual Boy bits as well. Not only did Honto ni Atta! pull the same Virtual Boy riff (I think they even used the same mock-censored pixellated image.), it descended even further down the path of portable gaming obscurity.

During the episode where the awesomely-fucked-up occultist teacher main character brings a Zashiki Warashi to the school. The evil spirit thing proceeds to “update” everything in the school in order to make it a better place to live, but it does it with the usual unexpected effects: clocks become digital, the leaky faucet becomes even worse (thus perfecting its leakiness), and the blonde foreign girl who has a fetish for retro gaming has her Game Gear turned into a Nomad. Because, y’know, the Game Gear was Sega’s first attempt at a portable system and the Nomad was its second.

And I found that to be the height of hilarity. Seriously. It was damn funny.

As for the rest of Honto ni Atta!, it was the sort of mean-spirited, quirky, evil-infused shit that I love. Chick who digs the occult gets a job as a home room teacher. She does her occult shit. Kids get possessed by Nobunaga. Alien cats try to invade Earth. It’s pretty good for one of these quick Flash series. Not as good as, say, Kogepan, but awesome in its own right. Not much else to say about it beyond that. Funny shit.

(^ ^ ;;

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Nov 032011

Yeah, yeah, yeah. AI right-for-life and justice and all that stuff went down during this Un-Go two-parter. But I wanna talk about the “cliffhanger” from last week’s episode first. That was fucking awesome.

The “mystery” to last week’s episode was pretty obvious. Dude makes robots, so the culprit had to be a robot. Like we’ve established before, Un-Go ain’t about the actual mysteries but all the other craziness going on around said mysteries. And the matter-of-fact way that the mystery was revealed was borderline brilliant. It’s one part timing and one part awesome exploitation of banality: The episode ends with the main dude dead-panning the revelation that the murder victim was a RAI all along, tapping on a computer cabinet. With that cue, a text sequence scrolls across the computer’s display, and it’s written in the sort of banal cutesy manner you expect someone to use in a throwaway IM. And BAM! cut to the end credits.

The episode could have easily played out this moment with a good deal more drama and suspense. It could have tried to make this moment shocking. For the most part, we the audience saw this coming, and by having this moment play out in such a subdued, nonchalant manner helps alleviate that somewhat. The revelation is still seen from a mile away, but we aren’t hit over the head with its non-existent surprise.

At the same time, it helps ground the existence of artificial intelligence in Un-Go’s world. We already know about the existence of AIs in this world, but we haven’t been shown just how accepted the concept is among the public. It isn’t some groundbreaking concept for the characters, it’s as familiar to them as an iPod is to us– the sort of thing that seems alien to people not familiar with it but seems perfectly natural to those in the know. And it’s touches like this that help build the world’s vibe in a far better manner than endless exposition and the like. It may be shocking that this particular person was a RAI, but the existence of such things isn’t.

And that plays into the sort of thing that this week’s episode deals with. The Moe Sucks peeps do a good job of detailing all of that, so go check their shit out. But one way that accepting AIs as an equal form of intelligence is the acceptance of them as something mundane. By using them as a purely exploitative contraption– for violent bloodsport and extreme sexual gratification– you’re denying these AIs the potential to be accepted. And little touches like the one I mentioned above help paint the picture in favor of this acceptance that seems to be a major point of the series.

And I dig where they’re going with why the RAIs were outlawed. The government hides behind the veil of morality, claiming that the exploitative use of these robots will harm society (Which is a point the series seems to support to some degree.), but that’s just an excuse for them to have a monopoly on the technology. The Japanese government wants to weaponize them, which is never a good thing in sci-fi. You may be morally corrupting the public by allowing these robots to be some sort of unneeded hedonistic, sociopathic release, but when you turn an AI into a weapon, you always get a Terminator or a Hal 9000 or some other human-killing abomination.

So the government wants sole control of a technology that the public wants to exploit for its own selfish ends. Sounds kinda like the internet, don’t it?