Saturday, April 13, 2013

Live Action: Part 2, Movies

I said earlier that Asian live action media's reputation for cheesy special effects is starting to wear thin.  The increasingly popular realm of dramas has given story-tellers even more room to play.  The Asian market doesn't seem to shy from the sci-fi and fantasy areas like the American market, so live action has seen a lot more of it lately.  Nevertheless, I still find myself a little embarrassed on behalf of some shows I adore, because I really wish they could look better.

On the other hand--while dramas have started to fill the role of cheesy practice fodder for special effects and stunt artists--Asian movies seem to have taken the next step. (The same thing happens in economics all the time.  someone has to fill the bottom rung, but no one wants to stay there forever.) In the same way that I didn't want to watch dramas based on my favorite anime series, I wanted to watch live action movies even less. 

In the American market, a comic book, video game, or novel being made into a movie used to mean someone wanted to exploit something vaguely popular for a quick and dirty script idea.  For a good part, it still does.  There are some exceptions, like Marvel and the newer Batman movies.  As for anime, I liked Speed Racer, but it was crucified before it could even hit the screens, and I don't think I need to talk about  Dragon Ball Z. Astro Boy was still marketed to kids.

For a long time, I had forgotten that the Asian media market is different.  Comics and novels are not an underground, they are auditions.  A successful story is usually a manga (comic) or a novel first. If it is popular or seen in the right light it may become an anime (cartoon) (a novel may become a manga and then an anime).  A successful anime is likely to sprout all kinds of media like video games, drama, audio drama, side stories in novels and manga, and perhaps even a feature length animated movie or live action movie.*

*this hierarchy is rather squishy and has gotten more so recently.  rungs may be skipped or inverted but the old order was always (novel =>) manga => anime =< video game, audio drama, drama, movie. Video games seem to break this order more frequently, as popular video games will often become anime then manga.

Despite this knowledge, my preconception was still that live action adaptations of my favorite comics, video games, and anime were little more than insults to the fans as our beloved fiction was stripped, whipped, and sent out to dance for the masses. So long have geeks and our fandoms been ridiculed and abused that we've learned to instinctually horde them in dark holes and often crawl in after them ourselves.  Whenever "normal" people handle them it feels like our dark secrets and precious treasures are being hung on display and held hostage awaiting approval.  We feel naked and don't know what's going to happen.

As "geek" culture becomes more popular, this is less dramatic.  It now feel more like reckless mishandling of unearthed artifacts than a brutal attack on our lairs and souls, but the defense mechanism is the same: we fear and hate it... and we still feel naked.  Whether it's accurate or not, whether they like it or hate it, we've still lost our shield: their ignorance.  Before if we said " I like D&D or Dragon Ball, they would wrinkle their nose and say "never heard of it." Now they think they have some idea of what it is.  they can attack us for it, or pretend they understand us.  More often than not, even if they like it, they still don't understand it like we do.  And sometimes that's worse. 

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: being a geek isn't about WHAT you like, it's about HOW you like it.  There are anime fans that are not geeks, just as there are rock-and-roll or baseball geeks.  There are gamers and people who play games.

Whatever the case, when I found the Rurouni Kenshin movie, I couldn't resist.  When you enter a franchise that is that popular and beloved, particularly for BEING GOOD, if you don't make it up to par, you will be crucified.  While the prequel to this article says we should be able to make things even if they aren't done well, I reserve also that some things just should no be touched unless you are going to do it right.  An established series is one of them.

I needn't have feared. The Rurouni Kenshin live action movie was not only an acceptable addition to the series, it was actually a GOOD movie.  Some of it was a little ridiculous in that "you can totally tell this was meant to be an anime" but none of it left me with the feeling that "they should have just left it as an anime."  It's not only started assuage my fears about live action fantasy and anime adaptations, it actually makes me look forward to more.  While Kenshin is not the most magical of series, it does involve a lot of magic-like movement, which was handled very well.

Dramas may not have the money for it yet (or the techniques are still very expensive), but movies are really getting into shape. After all, movies are about 2-hours long, where a drama averages between 10 and 25 episodes (resulting in about as many hours of aired footage).  And for that long, it seems Asian productions at least have learned to balance good dramatic technique and flashy filming extras.

That established, I'm finally going to dare to say this in a public forum with little fear of being cursed by Murphy.  I first realized it-- believe it or not-- while watching The Dark Knight Rises with my friend, but it's come up since then, particularly with the news that Sony Pictures has bothered to copyright some appropriate titles.*

Devil May Cry the live action movie needs to be a thing.

It doesn't need to be a thing like Dragon Ball Z: Evolution was a thing.  It needs to be a thing like Ruroni Kenshin the live action film was a thing.  DMC is, after all, nothing if not fan service.  It's definitely one of those things that should not be done if not to be done right.  Not because it's an established series, but because it's the sort of thing that you only get one crack at.  It's either done right and the right people like it, or it's done wrong and no one will ever touch it again.

So while I'm less fearful, and even eager to so more in this live action format (the pretty actors doesn't hurt this desire), I'm still guarded about it. What has been seen can not be unseen.

*I will not say anything about the Reboot here.  that's a rant for a different time.  Probably for after I play it. And while, yes, the preemptive copyrighting is probably for the later version of dmc, rather than the former, it did bring the issue back to mind.

Live Action: Part 1, Dramas

In the past, when I wanted to watch something, I've tended to gravitate toward anime.  Anime, cartoons, video games-- this kind of animated storytelling is, to some extent, ideal for a "reader" like me that prefers my fiction bursting with magic, explosions, and-- I'll be the first to admit-- pretty (yes, "pretty" is a both an adjective and a noun in my vocabulary).

Just about any digital camera with a decent frame rate can be used to film a good-looking school drama, or neighborhood intrigue, but when it comes to fantasy and science fiction--particularly the flashy, action-y kind-- a director has two choices: find thousands of dollars or make it look really corny.  Sometimes it still comes out to both.

I've been watching more live action dramas these days, as that's the preferred media in Korean language.  The Asians, for years, have held a reputation for not shying away from action and fantasy-- even on a budget.  I've run into some pretty interesting live action shows this way, including fantasy, action, and suspense. But so far, my previous assumptions have remained relatively unchanged.

The fantasies I currently hold in the highest regard, Faith and Joen Woo Chi, still come down to cheesy wire-work and exaggerated hand gestures with awkward-looking computer-generated special effects.  Even on the good end, it looks weird and hokey.  I find myself thinking, "this wouldn't bother me if it were an anime."  and it's true.  At it's roots, anime was invented on the cheap (see Astro Boy and it's 8 frames per second). While I fully acknowledge that heavy action and fast movement in animation can still be costly, whether someone jumps two feet off a chair or fifty feet up a building doesn't make that much difference in your budget and can look just as good.  Someone throwing lighting bolts can look just as realistic as someone throwing a baseball.  Not so when it comes to filming actors performing super-human feats.

City Hunter holds a reputation for being a magnificent action piece. But you can see the money pouring out the ears. Fast-moving fight scenes, death-defying stunts, good wardrobe and set, and not to mention big-name and established actors.  It was developed from an old and popular series and clearly was produced with the high expectations that fact would precipitate.

The suspense genre seems to do the best on field of "we have money to pay good (well, decent) actors and cool original music, but not enough to throw around wild action scenes with special effects." (that's really how expensive it is. EVERYTHING can be top notch, and the budget still wouldn't amount to the money in good stunt work and special effects.) Bloody Monday does a lot of chasing and waving around guns, but the fight scenes are all shoving matches; and a main actor never throws or takes a punch.  That bothered me for a while. At first I chalked it up to the character's personalities, but after a while I expected even the gentle-natured main character to break down and hit someone; not even fight, just hit them.  When it never came to that, I knew it wasn't the writing, it was the technical work.  When they finally did pull out a knock-down drag-out martial arts scene, I knew why they hadn't before, and thanked them for it.  If that show had had the fight scenes it was probably meant to but they were done as that one scene had been, I know now that I wouldn't be able to respect it as much as I do.

So what to do?  Obviously, as with City Hunter, if you have the money, you can make things happen (doesn't mean it WILL happen, but it's possible).  For Bloody Monday, while the content was similar, it was impossible for it to be City Hunter.  In this case, I'm glad that they held back.  Since the focus was on the characters, the story is conveyed just as well when the action is implied. (And to be honest, City Hunter would have been fine too.)  I can see now that I'm much more likely to recommend a good story with no (or little) special effects than a good story with bad special effects (why, is probably an article for another time).

But if we hold fantasy and science fiction to the same rule, we end up with a big problem. Even assuming we only make big budget fantasy productions (like Lord of the Rings and Marvel's various cinema productions), where did those masterpieces come from?  People like george lucas and tokusatsu* artists practiced for generations generating techniques that now look rather silly, maybe did even when they were developed.  Without that base, we certainly wouldn't have anything worth showing now.  As for the little guys, they more than deserve a place, too.

*tokusatsu is a rather unique brand of Asian, particularly Japanese, live-action special effects.  They're used mainly for sci-fi, martial arts, and action productions like Godzilla, Ultra Man, and Super Sentai (Power rangers). It reffers both to the art and the type of production that uses it. In some circles it is even called a "genre" for lack of a better term.

I don't really have a solution, other than "grit and bear it."  I know that I can watch a hokey-looking show and enjoy it for what it represents.  I have to admit, when I recommend it to others, I feel a little embarrassed, but I suppose that's what it means to support something you love.

When I started writing this, I had something completely different in mind, and didn't even know what this bit of it would come out to, but there you go. Maybe I should start a social media movement: "Support a hokey sci-fi/fantasy live action, TODAY!"

To be continued...

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

"This show knows exactly what it is."

Hey, long time no see.  As if I'd see anyone around here anyway. I really should be doing other things right now, but I rambled this out a few days ago and felt like procrastinating, so it's going here.


I frequently use the description that a show/book/game ((from here on I'll reference a "show")) "knows [exactly] what it is." It's a quality that's difficult to define as the it involves first, the circular notion that something "is what it is." But it is pretty recognizable in my book, with a little training.  Generally, this kind of show holds a quality of being cliche and/or shameless, but does so in just the right way. It's cliches then become a reason-- if not the main reason-- for liking it. It also may exhibit some genre-savvy and, in more comedic moments, even reference itself as such in a 4th-wall breaking way. This kind of show was created, not to be profound or original or push boundaries, but to be very good at "what it is."  It ends up excelling at being a confident genre piece and tends to leave a bit of room for thought by the time it's finished.  In a sense, if the show were personified, it would have very high, but modest, self-confidence and would strut the world being itself for all it's worth-- and possibly more.

More often than not, this statement has more to do with characters and writing than production quality, but it shows all the more if the production is good, too. Generally if a show "knows what it is," it's a sign that the production staff knows "what it is" and have consequently put forth the effort to make it the best "what it is" that the show can be.

I think it was first used in my circle ((I think I got the description from one of my friends)) to describe Devil May Cry (game/anime/manga/novel/etc., 2001-present) and Star Driver (anime, 2010).  It applies to things like Highlander (movie/TV/anime, 1986-2007), Firefly (TV, 2002-2003), and Slayers (anime, 1995-2009). I've most recently used it on Bloody Monday (J-Drama, 2008, 2010). I think it can also apply to Mackerel Run (K-Drama, 2007) on the writing and production end, but from the politics surrounding the show and some signs that it may have been prematurely cut, it seems that the marketing and producers themselves weren't quite sure what they were dealing with. Mackerel Run is also an example that something doesn't have to be flashy or expensive to show it's colors.

Faith (a.k.a. "신의" [Shinui] or "The Great Doctor," K-Drama, 2012) could almost be described this way, however, as a bit of a counter example.  Sometimes it knew, and sometimes it didn't. Overall, it either didn't really know that it was "what it was" or didn't want to be "what it was," and lost steam.  "What it was," was a video game/anime-like piece of period fantasy;  what it wanted to be, was a time traveling love story.  One of the reviews on states, rather accurately, that Faith "doesn't seem to know how good it is."  It could have been an awesome, super-powered fantasy with political intrigue.  It didn't quite seem to have the courage for that.  In other words, the show didn't want to be itself. Don't get me wrong; it was still pretty good.  But often the most disappointing things are those that were good enough that you know they could have been better. I loved it anyway; if not for what it was, what it could have been... and Choi Young.

In my book, a show "knowing what it is" is a good-- nay, EXCELLENT quality.  It is a point of high praise.  However, these pieces tend to have cult followings, and may be very prone to developing anti-fans, probably most often because of their genre specificity and cliche-ness.  I understand this type of show is not for everyone, but more often than not, it's what I look for these days.