This month’s POP CULTURE DESTRUCTION is dedicated entirely to the one and only KING OF THE MONSTERS. Well, okay, only partially. But do I really need to admit that I’m a big fan of the big green biffer? Do I give the impression I’m not?
A fortunately timed work trip to London allowed me just enough time to check out COMICS UNMASKED, a (duh) comics-related exhibition currently going on at the British Library. It’s a bit hit and miss, and the space is populated by far too many mannequins clad in V FOR VENDETTA masks, but it’s still worth a visit if you’re in the area.
A Thing Bought: McSweeney’s Latin Crime issue. One hell of a handsome package, and near-entirely excellent reading too.
So I’ve been watching PENNY DREADFUL, a LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN-style affair featuring any number of familiar fictional characters. Pulp tosh, of course, but tosh with enough style and gusto to be actually watchable rather than (wait for it) dreadful. Also it stars Eva Green, who’s reason enough to watch just about anything.
Here’s a group working on a shot-by-shot live action remake of the seminal opening to GHOST IN THE SHELL. Interesting, even if one has point out its being a slightly pointless endeavour – that very opening has already been remade with all the CG money can buy in GHOST IN THE SHELL: INNOCENCE… (WARNING: hilarious misuse of “Clair de Lune”)
And to close, a piece of awesome Kilian Eng art.
GODZILLA (Gareth Edwards, 2014)
Over the past sixty years Godzilla has truly been a monster capable of wearing many hats, from thinly veiled metaphor to nuclear warfare to repeat Tokyo Bay destroyer, from force of nature to a friend of all the children and even special effect in a forgettable Roland Emmerich blockbuster. Now the king of the monsters returns on the big screen, where he gets to wear all aforementioned hats. Except the Roland Emmerich one, of course, as Gareth Edwards (MONSTERS) directs.
Not that you’d even notice the big green city stomper and his many hats in this film’s first hour, mind. In true classic monster movie from GODZILLA 2014 starts off slow as it tells the story of one Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), whose wife (Juliette Binoche in five minutes’ worth of screentime) dies in the course of a massive accident at a Japanese nuclear power plant back in the nineties. Obsessed with finding out what actually happened during that fateful night, fifteen years later Brody returns to the site together with his son, bomb disposal guy Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), where they learn about what actually destroyed the plant – an honest to goodness giant monster, or Massive Unknown Terrestrial Organism (aka MUTO since the term “kaiju” belongs to PACIFIC RIM now) in the film’s lingo. Long story short, an unfortunate series events awakens one such MUTO, which in turn awakens another MUTO, and causes Godzilla’s first return to surface since the 1960’s. You see, back in 1954 nuclear tests awakened the beast, spurring further “tests” and the creation of an international cover-up effort known as Monarch. One that’s clearly fucked up, as not one, not two, but three giant monsters are set to converge in the home of the newly moneyed tech startup class and (shock!) Ford’s wife and young son – San Francisco!
So far, so classic. Even once the monsters are well and truly unleashed, one is only allowed glimpses of their form – a claw, a tail, maybe some blurry TV footage – before witnessing the aftermath of their attacks. And as benefits the genre, all cliches are brought about in sheer force. Yes, there’s repeated Spielberg-style closeups of children looking in awe/horror at the camera, a dog running away from some destruction, best laid plans going awry and, of course, the none-too-subtle condemnation of capitalist excess (there’s a reason why Honolulu and Las Vegas get turned into rubble). Unfortunately there’s also the tedious human characters and their frankly tedious storylines. With Bryan Cranston leaving the film early, leading man duties are left to Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who while having all the square jawed good looks demanded of a clean cut American hero is blessed with all the dramatic chops of a CALL OF DUTY player character. Meanwhile Ken Watanabe is wasted as the obligatory Japanese scientist whose lines can be boiled down to “Mutos are… Ancient creatures! Who feed on radiation because reasons! DON’T USE NUKES!” But then again these are not GODZILLA’s true stars. That role belongs to the monsters, and the destruction they bring about.
And what monsters! The two unnamed MUTOs feature a surprisingly organic design for what amounts to a patchwork of numerous GODZILLA beasties (there’s shades of Rodan, Gigan, Megalon and more) and, massive size aside, are portrayed as actual creatures, with basic needs of the nutrition and reproduction variety – a theme Edwards already touched in MONSTERS, only further expanded upon. As for Godzilla, well, he’s truly the most gigantic and awe inspiring King of the Monsters seen on celluloid yet, and once the film ramps up its climax the sheer scale is nigh on unbelievable, even in these days where every other blockbuster insists on razing at least one city’s worth of architecture to the ground. There’s a heft and weight to both the monsters and the destruction they partake in, while San Francisco is turned into a vast quasi-nightmare landscape worthy of a monster nursery. There’s also a handful of truly amazing shots – at one point Godzilla’s visage near materialises from thick, dark dust clouds before it is swallowed right back into the darkness, and once his spines crackle blue and the fire breath makes a showing… that’s the money shot.. And it’s so very worth it. The goodness continues until the very end, with an ending that near made me give the damn film a standing ovation.
GODZILLA 2014 is what we’ve been wanting from a giant money film, even in these post-PACIFIC RIM days. As ambitious as its creatures are vast, with a true understanding of what makes one love the genre in the first place. Welcome back, King of the Monsters. Here’s your throne.
GODZILLA (Roland Emmerich, 1998)
While even the most ardent of Godzilla fans will insist GODZILLA 1998 is best not remembered, one has to admit that, just like feces, it is very real, and we have to talk about it. For a little bit, at any rate. You see, a recent partial rewatching of a wholly unplanned nature caused my realising a couple of things I’d like to share with you, dear readers.
- GODZILLA 1994 caused my turning from fat kid who merely liked movies to fat kid with overtly strong opinions about movies
- You won’t believe how badly the special effects have aged.
- The Puff Daddy take on Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” remains alright. Kind of.
- It’s still (surprise!) a shit film and in no way some unappreciated “classic.” Don’t do like I did and avoid it!
GODZILLA: FINAL WARS (Ryuhei Kitamura, 2004)
In the name of “research” for GODZILLA 2014 I also got to watch another Godzilla movie – GODZILLA: FINAL WARS, the 28th and (so far) final Japan-produced Godzilla film. A 50th anniversary celebration of the franchise, FINAL WARS takes a weak stab at combining all the various roles Godzilla has taken during the years, even if camp ultimately wins out. I’ll be frank, it’s not a very good movie whichever way you slice it – it feels overlong at 123 minutes, with too much screentime dedicated to THE MATRIX-style fights starring uninteresting human characters, and aside from some fine monster costumes (the rubber suits are FINAL WARS‘ punto forte) and model work the special effects are ropey even by 2004 standards. Also the script is sheer nonsense, even by the all-too-low bar set by the genre.
All opens with Godzilla getting trapped in Antarctic ice by the Earth Defence Force, an organisation dedicated to stopping all those pesky giant monsters that have been stomping around since 1954. However some asshole aliens led by a Derek Zoolander lookalike decide to invade the Earth via the application of, well, giant monsters to various capital cities. So the EDF realise the only way to stop the aliens is to unfreeze Godzilla, as he’s clearly the only one who can fight all those damn monsters off. Clever!
Added to this mess is some bollocks involving the human cast, and as such the performances range squarely in the underbaked range of the spectrum. The one exception is wrestler turned bit thespian Don Frye, whose every minute of screentime is sheer scenery-chewing delight. Here, have a look at his best line in the entire film.
Truly words to live by, those.
Thankfully there’s pleasure to be had from the monster battles, which are fun in the most old school of monster fighting ways. Many beasties from the Godzilla canon make a showing – for the curious, these include Anguirus, Ebirah, Gigan, Hedorah, Kamacuras, King Caesar, Kumonga, Manda, Mothra, Rodan AND King Ghidorah. Also making an appearance is “Zilla”, aka Godzilla from the 1998 film, and Minilla, who has an extended cameo. Yes, fucking-spawn-of-Godzilla Minilla, enemy of all that’s good and holy in this goddamn world.
So, yes, it’s in no way good – no film featuring Minilla is – but it still manages to entertain, even more so if one’s not too picky about their Godzilla canon. Oh, and watch the American dub, as it ratchets the camp factor up to eleven (funnily enough the Japanese dub retains Don Frye’s English performance, no doubt because he’s THAT good). I’d even describe it as a “guilty pleasure” if I were capable of feeling guilt over the watching of men in rubber suits biffing each other. But I’m not, so I won’t.
So it looks like Teodor liked his contributing to POP CULTURE DESTRUCTION so much he has another book review… fine by me, that’s all I can say! Unless, of course, he decides to take over this column and turns it into TEODOR’S PONDEROUS RUMINATIONS or somethi… (that would be for the best – Ed)
HOME AND HEARTH (Angela Slatter, 2014)
Horror fiction is always at its best when it pokes away at our most intimate taboos. That tugging feeling of familiarity and discomfort jostling side-by-side; less outwardly scary and more about that creeping sensation of something, somewhere going incredibly wrong and renting your world apart before you can act to stop the destruction.
And what could be more familiar than family (the connection is suggested even on word-level, after all)? Horrors from without are one thing – the arrival of Dracula from the then-scary and exotic Transylvania; zombie hordes tearing through your flimsy shelter with dreadful certainty – but the intensity is ratcheted up even higher when the thing you’re supposed to be afraid of is also the thing you love and care for the most.
Angela Slatter’s latest chapbook, HOME AND HEARTH belongs, happily – or unhappily, as it were – to the latter tradition. The 28-page story tells a tale of terror that shares a genetic link to other pop culture milestones that have grown to become key narratives of the horror genre: think THE OMEN, think THE EXORCIST… think, even Lars Von Trier’s ANTICHRIST.
This is a cutting, crushing tale that dares to compromise that most sacred of bonds: the bond between mother and child. Wisely keeping key details to her chest until the very last moment, Slatter opens her story with the return of ‘problem child’ – this is, of course, and understatement – Simon to his mother Caroline. Now a single mum, we see her parrying unwarranted attention from neighbours and acquaintances. After it becomes known that Simon has returned – to Caroline’s chagrin, his crime appears to have been rather tabloid-worthy and gossip-friendly – even going to the supermarket becomes a chore.
As evidenced in her collection THE GIRL WITH NO HANDS – in which Slatter adapts and re-imagines various folk and fairy tales – the author is excellent at creating tightly-woven conceits that unspool with tension and precision. Our fears are calibrated keenly: it’s Caroline’s growing pool of bitterness and resentment that keeps us on edge more than anything else throughout.
This virtuoso sliver of domestic horror certainly deserves to be read.
HOME AND HEARTH is available from Spectral Press, 5 Serjeants Green, Neath Hill, Milton Keynes, Bucks, MK14 6HA, UK for £3.50 (plus 50p P+P) either through Paypal (firstname.lastname@example.org) or cheque (made payable to ‘Simon Marshall-Jones’) to the address above.
Read our Schlock Talk with Angela Slatter
Read ‘Bluebeard’ by Angela Slatter
Teodor Reljic, 2014
TRANSISTOR (Supergiant Games, 2014)
Singer Red is having a pretty bad day. Not only has she lost her voice, she is now saddled with the task of saving her home city from the organisation responsible for said loss and the Process, an alien-esque parasite hell bent on devouring the city of Cloudbank. Red’s weapon of choice? The titular Transistor, an oversized sword imbued with the soul – and voice – of the man (friend? lover?) whose chest it had just been used to fatally stab (TRANSISTOR KILLS TODAY: 1, the game kindly informs you). Welcome to the odd, beautiful world of TRANSISTOR.
Coming from the success of 2011’s BASTION, Supergiant Games could have taken the easy route in making its second game. After all, BASTION is proof of how a merely solid action role playing game can be in no small part elevated with the application of beautiful art, a memorable soundtrack and rather special narration. So all Supergiant needed to do was slap some new Jenn Zee art, Darren Korb tunes and a Logan Cunningham voice track onto BASTION‘s framework and call it a day, right? The answer’s yes… and also no.
Sure, that’s what it looks like at first glance. While the (similarly silent) protagonist might be female and the setting shifted from fantasy to science fiction, in the end of the day it’s still about a character trotting around and hitting things on the head, DIABLO-style. And there’d be no complaints here, since lord knows how much I like both DIABLO and BASTION. Not to mention the environs one gets to trot around in are stunning – equal parts TRON LEGACY and Klimt, Cloudbank is a towering art deco metropolis like no other, if one whose citizens are seemingly too busy voting for the weather and commenting on vacuous “news” reports to care about the dark secret threatening their very existence. And as mentioned earlier BASTION narrator Logan Cunningham returns to a similar – yet not identical – role. As the Transistor he’s no omniscient figure detached from the action, but instead is plunged right in the thick of the action. Cunningham guides Red and the player through the city in hushed, almost noir-ish tones, at times gently chiding inelegant turns in combat (“that’s one way to do it” he sighs if one is particularly graceless), other times slurring in broken fashion when affected by one adversary thrown by the plot. Cunningham’s performance provides a soul to TRANSISTOR, even if the silent Red also gets frequent chances to speak via typing into regularly placed news and data terminals – in other words the duo becomes one, more than mere weapon and beholder. And just as well, since uncovering what exactly is happening to Cloudbank is an opaque task, to say the least. It might not be a long game (it took me 10 hours to finish the campaign, but one’s mileage is variable) but the writing is delicately crafted as the world it describes, if sometimes slightly too vague in its telling what’s an ultimately simple tale of well intentioned plans gone horribly wrong. Either way one has to admit it’s still more than pleasing to have videogame writing that actually treats the player as a grownup able to piece a narrative by themselves. Thus, as a whole it’s a tight, emotional piece, one bolstered further by how well it all sounds, both in terms of aforementioned vocal performances and Darren Korb’s superb soundtrack.
(MUSICAL ASIDE – on one can indulge in endless arguments over which Supergiant soundtrack is the best, BASTION or TRANSISTOR?. Arguably BASTION has the stronger songwriting, as none of TRANSISTOR‘s songs match “Build that Wall” or “Mother I’m Here”, but TRANSISTOR‘s memorable mixture of scuzzy guitars and electronic effects has grown on me).
However TRANSISTOR’s biggest surprise comes from how it actually plays. Contrary to expectations, it’s no traditional hack ‘n’ slash ’em up – Red moves too slowly for that, her actions too unwieldy to dispatch the creatures spawned by the city’s devourer. But that’s where the Transistor’s other ability (beyond touching your heart, of course) comes in. The player can actually stop time at the squeeze of a trigger, allowing them to plot out a limited set of moves moves – say, in a most basic example of examples, moving behind an enemy and stabbing them – before squeezing the trigger for a second time to execute attacks at blinding velocity. This wondrous ability has a cost though, as post-attack Red is left vulnerable for a while before her abilities recharge. Efficient tactics are required – and for that one can spend an unlimited amount of time thinking out strategies in this frozen state, planning and undoing moves before eventual execution. As for attacks, Red can only carry up to four (one for each joypad face button) from an increasingly large and varied arsenal at a time, demanding an extra level of decision making – will you choose Breach, which allows Red to smack multiple enemies at a distance, or the corrosive Flood? Do you have space for the ever-useful Jaunt teleport, or do you prefer to summon cyber-dogs with Friend?
Adding even further strategy are upgrade slots on equipped attacks, allowing one to add further effects to their arsenal. This means plenty of time will be spent poring the attack selection screen at specific Access Points, and since the use of different attacks unlocks further lore about select inhabitants of Cloudbank (each attack effectively tells a character’s story), variation and creativity are encouraged. If not, should Red get defeated during combat she temporarily loses one ability, demanding tactical rejigging. Such unusual mechanics take a while to get used to, but once they “click” combat transforms into something more akin to a puzzle game – even if some encounters positively grate, being set in overtly small arenas inhabited by nastily upgraded versions of an all too small selection of enemy types.
Still, despite some misgivings TRANSISTOR is a game with a bold, ambitious vision, one that doesn’t talk down to the player and that actually has something to say. And how can one not love a game where one accesses a variety of challenge modes via backdoors leading to a tiny slice of beach complete with hammock, physics-enabled beachball and beautifully airbrushed sunset? Or a moment where Red takes a breather in the shape of a pizza break in her apartment? And what about the Hum button? Faced with these and more details, one can rejoice – Supergiant have done it again
MASAAKI YUASA APPRECIATION STATION
As mentioned in the last POP CULTURE DESTRUCTION, the start of PING-PONG has spurred me on a Masaaki Yuasa kick throughout the past month. For those not in the know, Yuasa is something of a Japanese animation legend, if one less appreciated than his peers both in his homeland and beyond for what I believe are a couple of reasons. The first is a lack of feature-length work – his only film is the delirious MIND GAME (2004), which shamefully still lacks an actual release outside of Japan (and thus barred from mentions in best of lists such as this one) – and a filmography consisting of either shorts (the most recent being KICK-HEART, a neon-tinted Kickstarter-funded tribute to TIGER MASK) and TV work. The second is a style best described as idiosyncratic and far removed from what one normally thinks of “anime”, even more serious and respected work from the likes of, say, Mamoru Hosoda (SUMMER WARS) or the late, great Satoshi Kon (interesting to note that Kon’s one TV series, PARANOIA AGENT, is less known than his film work). Which is a shame, since Yuasa’s work is a treasure to behold, replete with bold and expressive animation, judicious use of colour, believable characters and subtle psychological themes. Below are some words on his three pre-PING-PONG shows – all different from each other, yet similar enough to warrant being spoken about within the same breath. That said, if you want an even more in depth look at Yuasa and his work, one can do worse than checking Ben Ettinger’s analysis over at AniPages, THE definitive resource on the man as far as I’m concerned.
Star crossed lovers and forbidden love are hardly anything new, but leave it up to the director of MIND GAME to bring about a fresh spin on the overtly familiar. KEMONOZUME tells the tale of Toshihiko, skilled swordsman and monster hunter, and Yuka, a pretty blonde who’s actually a man eating monster in disguise, who fall hard (in love, or merely lust?) with each other. Following the initial meet-cute and the violent death of Toshihiko’s father the two are forced to choose between opposing sides – the Kifuuken, the monster hunting order to which Toshihiko is heir, or the other monsters making Yuka’s loosely connected family. Predictably the couple’s choice is neither, preferring to head on the run with both Kifuuken and monsters hot on their trail.
Trite summary said and done, the focus here is squarely set on the characters, not the loosely written plot they’re supposed to follow. Despite their fantasy-tinged origins Toshihiko and Yuka are as realistic and rounded as characters can get, and as such they quarrel, make all too obvious mistakes and learn more about each other as their relationship matures from lust (this show’s not too squeamish when it comes to sexual themes) to mutual respect and, ultimately, love. And what better way to depict a couple’s ups and down than a literal road trip of the kind involving obstacles of an at times violent nature? It all might sound rather serious, but while the tone is fairly dramatic the writing and direction also provide plenty of light touches, from gentler character moments and sequences involving a rather cartoony monkey – although these lighter moments also act as a contrast to the darkness, putting the violence contained within to relief. Episodes shift starkly in tone and theme, and while a slapdash approach to the series’ overall plotting is evident (KEMONOZUME’s middle section is particularly flabby writing-wise, perhaps betraying production issues) a fairly cohesive tone is retained throughout, no doubt aided through the actual animation on show. After all, this is a Yuasa piece, and the visuals are were all comes together.
The overall look of show is similar to that in MIND GAME, if rendered with an even sketchier line. Coupled with stylised, loose animation, characters look less like marks on paper and more as if sculpted, with movements and actions lended a rare heft and weight – perhaps the result of the mind’s eye “filling” in for the roughness, just as an artist’s sketches tend to look more appealing than actual finished pieces. The sketchiness also fits within the themes of the show – as a young couple Toshihiko and Yuka are essentially works in progress (then again, aren’t we all?), and are subject to change in every day, if not hour, of their lives. Yuasa’s approach to backgrounds is likewise interesting, bringing together both traditional paintings, photographic elements and even live action shots in an odd, yet more than appropriate, collage.
As a while KEMONOZUME is equal parts bewildering and exhilarating, especially when counting the tour de force that’s the ending. It’s a bit like jumping into the deep end of an unfamiliar pool. But set fear aside, and take the plunge.
A floppy haired youth wakes up in a half-destroyed room. He has a locket containing a blurry picture of a girl bearing expression that’s somewhere between a smile and a grimace around his neck, and a literal hole in his chest. Greeting him is a young man in red handling what a strange-looking weapon. Introductions done the fellow in red shoots, the floppy haired youth is picked up by what appears to be an ostrich in a fish bowl helmet and before long a number of strange figures and even stranger machines give chase. Eventually the bird shakes off the assailants and drops its passenger at a little village in the sewers, where he can have a breather and take stock of his situation. But he cannot, not when he cannot even remember his own name.
All of the above takes place in the first 10 minutes of Yuaasa’s second TV series, KAIBA.
Yes, KAIBA involves that hoary trope, the amnesiac protagonist, but one has to point out that here it’s justified entirely – what better way for a viewer to experience a wholly new place than in the company of a protagonist who’s likewise experiencing it afresh? And just as well, as the world of KAIBA is like no other. Not even visually, as Yuasa adopts a style wholly removed from that of either MIND GAME or KEMONOZUME – instead KAIBA looks like ASTRO BOY-era anime as redrawn by the Fleischer Brothers, with chunky retro-styled characters and strange creatures (for the curious the character designs come from Nobutake Ito, who also did KEMONOZUME character designs… amazing doesn’t even half describe it). Later on the amnesia trope proves even more appropriate, as this is a universe where memory is the ultimate commodity. One can digitise, delete and manipulate their memories, even upload their minds to a chip and move it to another body. As for the body, cloning technologies allow the creation for forms as wild as one desires, providing one has the cash. Such concepts should not be unfamiliar to anyone with a working knowledge of transhumanist science fiction (like, say, Richard Morgan’s ALTERED CARBON), but as coupled with the almost childlike visual style they feel fresh and, ultimately, exciting.
When it comes to plotting KAIBA is a show of two halves. First it gently eases the viewer into its universe, as the protagonist – later revealed to be named Warp – ends up on an interplanetary cruise, where he bounces between a couple of bodies, attracts an unwanted lover and generally ambles through what amount to episodic short stories. Eventually previously unknown history catches up with Warp, and the plotting ratchets into high gear with a return to the planet seen in the show’s first episode, one revealed to be a world of massive social injustice and rebels in want of change. Remarkably despite – or perhaps because – a flashback-based nature this second half does not fail to tell a genuinely compelling story, and as Warp learns more about himself the more he is tied with not only his own fate but that of his world and its various inhabitants. And, no, the girl inside the locket is in no way forgotten – on the contrary, she has a major part to play until, and including, a spectacular ending sequence (a very Yuasa thing, this – endings that provide a workout to both the eyes and a mind). Even the actual title has relevance beyond being a cool-sounding made up word.
So, yes, KAIBA is unusual in every – unusual in not only in visuals and scope, but also in character depth and genuine emotion (a couple of episodes are positively heartbreaking). A step up even from KEMONOZUME, Yuasa proves to being not only a great visual stylist, but also a pretty damn good writer to boot.
THE TATAMI GALAXY (2010)
From how many angles can one retell the same story? According to THE TATAMI GALAXY the answer is at least 10 – the series’ episode count minus a finale where a lesson is (finally) learnt – as no matter the decisions taken the nameless protagonist repeatedly fails in his quest to lead a “rose-tinted campus life” during his first two college years. Whichever students’ circle he chooses, be it the movie circle, the English speaking circle or the health product-selling pyramid scheme/Scientology-esque cult, he remains hapless and, ultimately, unfulfilled. Confused? You should be. Let me rewind as means of explanation…
The first episode of THE TATAMI GALAXY proves to be something of a shock, even for the Yuasa fans. Hell, especially for the Yuasa fans – it opens not with animation but a near overload of narration voiced fast enough to be probably hard to follow for viewers with an understanding of Japanese, never mind those of us stuck with depending on subtitles. Also, in a first for Yuasa, it is not an original series but an adaptation (of a titular novel by Tomihiko Morimi) and the narration comes from the overtly wordy style of the source material (at least judging from this work-in-progress fan translation – no, I can’t actually read Japanese thanks for asking). Likewise the character designs are derived from the a series of illustrations by Yusuke Nakamura, as adapted to animation by Yuasa stalwart Nobutake Ito (the very same from KEMONOZUME and KAIBA). The result is something that’s more like conventional Japanese animation – appealing enough if nothing too striking, at least when not in motion. The true Yuasa touch comes from the backgrounds, as the multimedia collage seen from KEMONOZUME returns in force with photography, live action video, painting and CG imagery, not to mention the careful colour choices, stylised animation and lively direction. Then again, THE TATAMI GALAXY is no genre piece with a twist, it’s college-based slice of life comedy… with a twist.
The twist, in this case, is structural. Each episode takes place over the exact same timeframe – the protagonist’s first two years at college, where he joins a student circle with the aims friendship and romance and fails to get either. At the end of each episode the clock resets itself, GROUNDHOG DAY-style, and the protagonist and all the characters he meets return back to College Day One – but unlike GROUNDHOG DAY, no one actually realises the time-based shenanigans going on. As these different-yet-similar stories unfold a colourful supporting cast emerges, including a best friend/worst enemy, the cocky leader of the movie circle, an attractive dental hygienist, a silent, mysterious beauty and even an icy raven haired girl who might actually be the one for our protagonist, if only he shut his damn internal monologue for a half second. Eventually it is evident that, despite a structure based entirely around repetition and wacky situations, there’s an actual plot thread spread across all episodes, one that’s genuine fun to piece together (in part this comes from the source novel, although as seen from KAIBA Yuasa is no stranger to clever plotting). Meanwhile the repetition provides multiple viewpoints at the cast, allowing them to grow from almost superflat cartoons to genuine characters, a point elaborated upon beautifully in the final episode.
Speaking of the final episode, it’s perhaps THE TATAMI GALAXY‘s one disappointment of sorts. While both exceedingly smart and visually stunning, it closes our protagonist’s story all too neatly, unlike the open ended equivalents to Yuasa’s other works. Then again, even a young man with a penchant for tedious introspection deserves a stab at love, no?
FASTIDJU (Fastidju, 2014)
Can something be described as both minimalist and maximalist? Because that’s the best way one can describe this first album from new-ish Maltese act Fastidju – a tall and thin package clad in stark gray*. Within is a 34-page booklet replete with song lyrics (as one expects) and illustrations, all in stark black and white, as well as the two CDs making the actual album. It’s all as aesthetically stripped down as it gets, but it remains an impressive package for a first album – one tends to expect first releases to consist of an EP in a plastic sleeve, if not a digital release, not a menu-size affair holding a double album. A double album! Crazy ambitious, that.
Furthermore it’s a perhaps unusual take on the double album – the first (A) side features Maltese language lyrics, the second (B) in English. I say that only because most local acts appear overly strict in their approach to language (one sings either in English or Maltese), when they should be embracing their being bilingual. In any case both sides here are fairly similar genre-wise, with darkly textured sonics, deeply voiced lyrics and equal parts electronic effects and actual instrumentation. That said, I prefer the Maltese language side, since it’s the more melodic one (either that, or simply it gains strength through being in a language that has little to no music in the quasi-darkwave genre). Not that the English side is not fine, but as the more rock-y of the two it also ends up being the less interesting half, with songs such as “God in a Taxi” sounding better live than their recorded counterparts. It also suffers from some lyrical oddities – “anxieties like cigarette butts on the sides of the road” sticks out as a particular piece of weird phrasing in one of the album’s weaker tracks (“Matching Colours”). Perhaps it’d have been better for the band to release a single CD Maltese language album, even if that would have meant the loss of the interesting bilingual element.
But all in all FASTIDJU remains a worthy addition to any collection, especially coming from a first time band. Listen to it alone, in the dark, with headphones on.
Marco Attard, damn the Japanophilia has struck in strength this month, 2014