Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Micro Reviews: Final Fantasy XV, Justice League the New Frontier, Black Mirror, Suicide Squad

This is an exercise in concision. I am going to sum up my views on four works of art across four different mediums. I grant myself only one (long) paragraph for each.

Final Fantasy XV

A memorable if flawed entry in the illustrious Final Fantasy franchise. Though occasionally wonky and buggy, the game plays great, and is an enjoyable open world adventure with combat that grows on you. The story feels like something that was rewritten several times over 10 years, roughly this game's development time. There is this strong sense that everything could have been better executed had the game not undergone so much reworking. The story's pacing is awful, and it is rather bleak in its later acts. Still, the ending stays with you. It is an uncompromising story with a very human center thanks to its four protagonists. A solid soundtrack and great graphics add to the experience. Overall, not the series' best entry, but still a fun and memorable experience. 

Justice League: The New Frontier

This is almost a must-own for DC fans. The art alone is worth the price. The gorgeous, classic imagery transports you to middle 20th century America. In particular I loved the costumes - The Flash's red pajamas, the black 'S' for Superman, and Wonder Woman's romantic design. The story is grand and fun, though it falls short in some of its ambitions. Darwyn Cooke's story is clearly meant to transcend contemporary politics and encourage us to come together as Americans. Unfortunately he cannot help but be unnecessarily partisan in some moments. I think it is reductive to paint the 1960's as an era of enlightenment triumphing over all the evil racism / sexism / whateverism of prior eras. I also wish the story had focused on different characters at different moments, though that may just be fanboyism speaking. Ultimately it is a cool story with great art. Very much worth getting if you are a JL fan.

Black Mirror

Written by the always fun Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror is an engrossing examination of technology and its social implications. Each show presents a different vision of the future usually from the perspective of a single character and their daily struggles. As you would expect from this formula it is an uneven show but never boring. As a software engineer naturally there are some episodes I found more interesting / realistic than others. All are worthwhile, but my top three are 'The Entire History of You', ' 'White Christmas', and 'San Junipero'. The first of these three is great because of its plausibility and the details of the technology itself, especially the UI. The second features the delightful John Hamm. Always a treat. The third is easily the best episode of the series. Nothing more need be said about it.

Suicide Squad

I saw this in theaters and immediately forgot about it. It had so few redeeming qualities that I figured it was best to put it out of my mind. Then I was dragged into seeing the extended cut a few days ago, and I remembered just how insufferable this film is. The story is beyond ridiculous. It doesn't even try to get you to suspend disbelief. The script is a disjointed mess of ad hoc plot hooks stitched together with an omnipresent 'am I cool yet?' soundtrack and crappy action scenes. None of the characters are done well, though Will Smith and Margot Robbie at least get enough screen time to have some good moments. Worst of all: It's not even funny. Formulaic MCU movies at least get that right most of the time. It is frustrating because this could have been great. A more down to Earth plot, better character development, and snappier dialogue could have made this DC's answer to Guardians of the Galaxy. Instead we have the third dead on arrival DC universe movie. If Justice League and Wonder Woman can't turn things around next year, they need to scrap this whole experiment. It is getting embarrassing.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

A Difference in Values

There has been a lot of talk about how 'divided' America is as evidenced by the election. Many in the media have tried to take the high road by reaching across that divide and advising those disappointed with the election outcome to do some reflection. They suggest more engagement with the other side.

I think this is sound advice, but there is a more basic principle I think people should consider.

Thomas Sowell I believe was the one who wrote that, often intense political debates really just come down to two people having different preferences. People argue until they are blue in the face offering facts, rebuttals, references, all with the tacit assumption that their point of view is the 'right' one. Progressives say that their world view is informed by 'facts', therefore it is ok for the media to be biased and write off Trump voters as misinformed. Many Trump supporters feel the same about liberals. They see progressives as ignorant.

But in reality the divide may not so much be about 'facts' but rather moral principles. Progressives and conservatives are two groups of people who simply prefer different things. It is not a difference in understanding, but a difference in values.

In any discussion it is important to determine what sort of disagreement you are encountering. Differences in understanding can be worked out through dialogue, research, and compromise. Differences in values are often irreconcilable.

I'll use an example from the tech world.

A coworker and I may have different opinions about how to set up a Cassandra database cluster. He might think we should use a very large number of servers and I might think we should use fewer. This is not a difference in values but rather a difference in understanding. His understanding of Cassandra is that it is best to use lots of cheap small nodes. My understanding is that, while you can get some performance gain from using lots of nodes, there are diminishing returns at a certain point, and the overhead of managing lots of servers is not worth it.

There are two important things about this sort of debate. 1. Neither of us is really emotionally invested in it. Our sense of identity is not embedded in how many Cassandra nodes we launch. 2. There is something close to an objective right answer. Depending on our use-case and data size, there are objectively better Cassandra architectures. Because of this, if we are both rational, we can argue, test, and eventually reach a resolution. This is how differences in understanding should generally end.

But what if we have a difference in values? Lets stay with a simple tech example: I prefer to use Vim, my coworker swears by Emacs. Is one editor objectively better than the other? Well, not really, no, though they have different features that might be better for certain things. What's more, both of us may have some emotional investment in our opinion. I have been a Vim guy for many years and find it hard to seriously consider other editors. My coworker feels the same about Emacs.

So I don't bother trying to convert him. I am about as interested in getting him to use Vim as I am in arguing with people who think Empire Strikes Back is better than A New Hope, or people who think Pepsi tastes better than Coke. Sure I might argue about such things for fun but ultimately I see no point in trying to change people's subjective opinions. Whatever triggers a dopamine hit in your brain chemistry is your business.

And so we come back to the problem of politics. The divide between liberals / conservatives / nationalists / libertarians / etc – ultimately it is often a difference in values. Progressives prefer to live in a more secular society that celebrates diversity, gender equality, alternative sexualities, and encourages the government to manage more of the economy. Conservatives prefer to live in more traditional societies that support gender norms, a homogeneous culture, nationalism, and a more capitalist economy.

Neither viewpoint is objectively better than the other. We could try to scientifically argue that one vision leads to a better economy. We could try to argue that one vision is more socially 'fair', though even that would be steeped in specific values. We could try to make a factual case for one vision over the other, but in the end, some people might just prefer the other one anyway.

So where does that leave us? In a society of 300 million there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Neither side can easily change the values of the members of the other side. People's values evolve gradually through technological change, emerging consensus, and often in response to national crises. In the mean time, as I said in my previous post, I think Americans need to work toward rebuilding a shared culture.

Personally I think the founders of America had the right idea with the tenth amendment. In a nation as big as America, federalism is the only practical answer for keeping people of different belief systems happy. Let the progressives be progressive, and let the conservatives be conservative. In fact that's something all Americans could get behind.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Why They Lost

I didn't support Trump or Hillary Clinton. Were it up to me we would have had Rand Paul vs. Bernie Sanders. Yet now that Trump has won, I can't help but be amused by all of the shocked democrats that thought he would be crushed in a landslide. I too thought Trump would lose, but I never wrote him off. As I said in my previous post, I figured he had a chance if Hillary's turnout was weak and the polls were inaccurate. Both turned out to be true.

Progressive and moderate Hillary supporters need to do some soul-searching. The usual advice given to the defeated party by the victorious one tends to be self-serving; they'll suggest democrats need to moderate their positions, compromise more, yield to republican preferences, etc.

There may be some temporary political benefit in that, but it is not the key advice I would give. To the frustrated leftist out there wondering why Trump won, I would NOT advise them to change their views on gay rights, racial injustice, feminism, Obamacare, immigration, multiculturalism, the welfare state, etc. Fight for what you believe is right. No need to change your values unless something convinces you to do so.

Instead I would just advise progressives to think about their tone.

I'll give an example of what I mean.

Throughout Trump's campaign I heard it mentioned several times that he was receiving high levels of support from poor, uneducated whites. Progressives should have responded to this by saying, "Ok, how can we reach these people. Why are they not buying what we are selling?" Instead, whenever this fact was brought up, it was always said with a kind of snarl. The attitude was, "Hah! see! only uneducated and poor people vote for Trump. Smart, rich people know to support Hillary." There was no attempt made to conceal the contempt for these people. This is why Hillary's "deplorables," comment was so powerful. It was a shockingly honest moment for her.

Progressives used to care first and foremost about the downtrodden. They were the champions of the poor. They were the advocates of the less-educated. Thanks to identity politics they have lost sight of this. They saw that a lot (though not all) of these Trump supporters were white and immediately branded them as bigots. This allowed them to immediately dismiss any and all of their concerns. They closed their ears and their minds.

Once the progressives wrote off Trump's supporters, Trump's supporters wrote off them. They too stopped listening and didn't care about Trump's many flaws or the reasonable arguments for supporting Hillary. It became a numbers game. From there the media did much to help Trump by overplaying their hand. They made Trump into an underdog by endlessly demonizing him. To be fair Trump set himself up on more than a few occasions with some of his rhetoric. But it became obvious to the voters early on that Hillary Clinton was essentially being coronated.

I think this sense of entitlement rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. That all the media, academia, and Hollywood had aligned against Trump only served to create the impression that Hillary was the candidate of the elite and Trump the candidate of the little guy. The #NeverTrump wing of the republican party added to that feeling. You had video games parodying Trump. Celebrities attacking Trump and urging people to vote Hillary on Youtube. Speaking of Youtube, I was watching Epic Rap Battles of History the other day, and I saw that they even made their latest episode into a pro-Hillary rant. I think this all had the opposite effect as these sorts of efforts only end up preaching to the choir. But the creators don't realize this. They don't realize how much they are in their own bubble.

A recent Onion article describes it well:

The problem is not just that progressives are out of touch. The problem is that rhetoric on both sides has gotten so toxic. The problem is also the notion of "sides." This election has shown that the traditional left / right divide is breaking down. Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin all going for Trump is a sign of this.

We need to get out of this factionalized paradigm and start trying to build a shared culture again. Modern society with its internet communities and smartphones, has made it easy for us to wall ourselves off into echo chambers. This is more of a problem for progressives because conservatives have a harder time avoiding progressive viewpoints. Every time they open a newspaper, go to a college class, have an HR meeting at work, watch a movie, play a video game, or just try to watch a Youtube video about rapping historical figures, they end up hearing progressive ideology. What's more there is a perpetually outraged mob of internet warriors ready to attack people's families, employers, and livelihoods if a conservative happens to say something that triggers a progressive.

Again, I'm not saying progressives need to change any of their views. I just think they need to think about how to actually win hearts and minds. Deep down I sense that a lot of progressives don't want to try to persuade the other side. I have heard a lot of people react to the election loss by saying things like "I'm just done trying to reason with these people! They're just racist, sexist, homophobic idiots!" Many progressives I think hope that persuading the other side ultimately won't even be necessary. The Young Turks mentioned this during the election coverage. The demographic trends of the United States favor the democratic party in a number of ways.

The hope seems to be that, given enough time, conservative white voters can be made irrelevant by importing enough foreigners and having minorities outbreed them. This is a dangerous Machiavellian game to play that is guaranteed to invite backlash (see yesterday's election results for evidence). Writing off a massive political constituency that you disagree with is bad strategy. Hoping to gradually disenfranchise them is no better.

Progressives need to look in the mirror and consider their approach if they want to come back strong in 2018 and 2020. I am sure Trump will give them plenty of ammo. Yet none of it will matter if all of their arguments fall on deaf ears.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Eve of the Election

The U.S. election is coming up in a few days.

I want to not care about it. Unfortunately I sort of have to pay attention. What happens in America has a big impact on Japan. Furthermore I still feel some emotional attachment to America.

What's funny is that I know that if I were still living in New York I would not even bother voting. Both candidates are so awful that I think the only way I could bring myself to pick one of them would be a 'lesser of two evils' argument, and that would only really influence me if I lived in a swing state.

But since I do not live in the United States any longer I don't think it really is my place to vote. I don't intend to live there again. It seems unseemly for me to exert political influence on a society in which I no longer intend to participate.

Though I must admit, if Trump wins, I will be curious to see how it turns out.

I don't think he will. The demographics are strongly against him. That the media has been strongly biased against him has been a significant handicap. It also didn't help that he was a pretty terrible candidate to begin with.

The only way I see him winning is if somehow the polls completely missed a large portion of his support. It is possible that Hillary's base turnout will not be as strong as the new voters Trump pulls in with his populist views. Still, if I were a betting man, I'd say Hillary has this locked up.

Hillary Clinton is the establishment candidate. It is strangely fitting. The 2008 and 2016 elections will define the millenial generation in the United States. In 2008 they were inspired by an “outsider” promising hope and change. In 2016 they will shun the outsider and choose the status quo. When they do, I know that I can comfortably wash my hands of America, and get about the business of becoming a full member of my new homeland. America will become whatever it will become. With Hillary at the helm, I can say with confidence that I won't want to be a part of it. With Trump, could at least be entertaining.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

On Assimilation

“When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

I am an immigrant in Japan. For this reason, I study and speak Japanese language every day. I follow the news and keep up with local current events. I wear a suit when I work in a Japanese office. I bow in social situations that require it. I take off my shoes at the entrance of people's homes. I am careful about what subjects I choose when making small talk. I follow Japanese etiquette when eating, or socializing, or riding a subway. In short – I do everything in my power to assimilate.

No one forces me to do this. I simply do it because I do not believe immigrants have the right to expect accommodation for the norms of their homeland. I deliberately use the term 'homeland' here because I think it is analogous to being a guest in someone's house. As I wrote in my article 'Standing,' a house guest does not have the right to demand that his host bend to his every preference and whim. Immigrants are, at least at first, similar to guests I believe.

But how far does this really go? What exactly does a nation have the right to demand from its immigrants? The more militant proponents of multiculturalism would probably answer, ‘nothing.’ Nations should be honored that immigrants want to move there, and foreigners should be encouraged to maintain their unique identities, they might argue. I do not agree with this. I believe good fences make good neighbors. I think if we value diversity, we have to value borders – the right of people to form their own exclusive communities. No one could maintain the unique customs of their own home if anyone could walk in the front door at any time and demand all the house rules be changed.

So what can a country require of its immigrants? There is a line I think. There is the public and the private. I think the private is that which no one can really regulate. Our own thoughts, our own beliefs, and broadly speaking, what goes on in our own homes. Immigrants have every right to maintain their religious traditions, diets, and other behaviors within their own minds and within their own homes. In my own case no matter how long I live in Japan, I know that a little bit of New York will always be within me. Growing up in New York obviously had a big impact on my personality. That attitude will never fully die and that's fine with me; It has made me who I am and I like myself.

But out in the world – out in public, no one person 'owns' that society. It is collectively owned. We are bound by a social fabric that requires mutual compromise and trust. To create that trust we create rituals and conventions that are unique to each culture. This is why I think out in public it is important for immigrants to show solidarity with their new country of residence. Dressing, speaking, and generally acting as other citizens do is a show of good will – a sign that the immigrant seeks to be an equal member of society.

I have no illusions that I will ever be seen as “fully Japanese.” Even if I could make myself look Japanese it wouldn't change the fact that I didn't grow up here. The culture just isn't in my bones the way it is for natives. Nevertheless, I still make the effort to fit in as best I can. I think all nations, rich or poor, have the right to ask that much of would-be immigrants.

I believe nations have this right because a 'nation' is simply a collection of people – a large tribe if you will. Those people have come together and built a society. In the course of building that society they settled on a few standards – language, dress, religion, manners, etc. Those standards and traditions, arbitrary as they may be, become a culture and that culture has its own value. The people that created it have a right to preserve it. They may wish to preserve it because, and here’s the controversial bit, they may believe their culture is better than others.

Can one culture be simply better than another? People certainly seem to believe so. Millions of people every year vote with their feet by emigrating from one culture to another. I certainly did when I left the United States and moved permanently to Japan. While these preferences may be subjective, they are no less valid. I and a hundred thousand other gaijin come to Japan every year because it is Japanese, and we want it to stay that way just as the natives do. Assimilation is the small price I pay to help preserve the society that attracted me in the first place.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Just Checking In

Been a busy couple of months.

I was back in the states for a while. Two months. Good to remember why I left. Got to see some family too, which was great. The distance is still the hardest thing about leaving.

Work has been really busy this month. I foresee something of a pivot in my future. I love what I am doing, however I don't think I am meant to do it forever. I have been studying a lot of math and machine learning material recently. Thinking of going in that direction. May even go back to school if the opportunity is right.

I'm taking a break on writing. Need to focus on studying Japanese and my health for the next stretch. Need to take some time off from the internet and do some meditating. Got a lot to process these days.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016


English Version: Why Trump Could be Good for Japan








しかしトランプの経済観は、日本変革へと続く可能性を秘めた一番の道ではない。トランプは公然と日米安全保障条約を批判する。彼は日本が核兵器を持つべきとすら提案した。トランプの「アメリカ第一」ビジョンは、日本はもっと独力でやるべきとの信念をはっきり示している。彼は日本を、アメリカの善意を利用している裕福な国と見なす。ビジネスマンとして、アメリカから幾らかの 重りを取り除いてそれを日本に戻すようなより良い契約の再交渉を望んでいる。





Monday, July 18, 2016

On Changing Character's Race and Gender

I saw a story today about how Iron Man is now being portrayed by a black female in the comics. This is part of a bigger trend by Marvel to try to increase representation of minorities in their stories by replacing popular existing characters. They have done this with a female version of Thor, a black version of Spiderman, a female Wolverine, and a black Captain America. There are likely others I am forgetting.

It isn't just Marvel or comics doing this either. On TV and in theaters we have seen recently a black version of Perry White, a black version of Jimmy Olsen, a black version of orphan Annie, and a female version of Doctor Watson, Sherlock Holmes' partner. Remember that this is not about actors portraying characters of a different race, such as Scarlett Johansson portraying Motoko from Ghost in the Shell. That's a different issue. This is about the character themselves being altered and made to be a different race or gender. In the case of Marvel comics, what they have been doing is replacing the white man behind the mask with existing or new minority characters. Not quite the same thing but the same basic purpose.

So how do I feel about this as a black man? In general I oppose it. I think making jarring demographic changes to characters can be interesting for Elseworld comics – thought exercises, side stories and the like. However for mainline runs or big budget movie adaptations, I think it is wrong for a number of reasons.

The first thing that bugs me about it is the blatant pandering. These companies switch the race of an already popular character and then pat themselves on the back for “uplifting” minorities and increasing their representation in media. Any minority with a brain ought to be annoyed at how condescending that is. This attitude from media companies, “See! Look! Look! He's BLACK now! She's a WOMAN now! See? Aren't we awesome???” In practice whenever the biggest and most surprising thing about someone is their race or gender, you are almost guaranteed to have a boring character. What's more, it doesn't even really achieve the stated goal of “increasing minority representation,” since everyone knows that they just temporarily replaced a well-known white character. It is equivalent to bringing in a few black substitute teachers at an all white high school and then acting like the school has meaningfully increased minority representation on its staff.

I dislike tokenism. I dislike the idea that a single black comic character can somehow be representative of all black people. It's insulting. Beyond the pandering is the fact that it is incredibly lazy. In the same way that Hollywood increasingly only churns out sequels, reboots, and adaptations, big comic book companies are loathe to launch new heroes. Instead, they just take someone already popular and switch up the demographic details. “Hey, everyone already loves Thor. Lets just do FEMALE Thor!” The implicit message is that women and minorities do not deserve their own heroes. Let them be content to just ride the coattails of a tried and true white male hero who has already paved the way for them. Why take risks on non-white and female characters when you don't have to?

It isn't just insulting to minorities though; it is also unfair to white people. How is it that people can complain about “white washing,” in Hollywood when the same thing is done to white characters again and again? How would we feel if Hollywood remade Blade with a white guy as the main character? Or how about we get Emily Stone to play Storm in the next X-Men movie? Or how about we have a man take over as the new lead of Tomb Raider? The fact is, all characters, white, black, male, female, or whatever, have a history that should be respected.

Greek mythology gave us great characters like Hercules and Zeus. It is unique to that culture and something Greeks can be proud of to this day. In the same way Sherlock Holmes is a uniquely British character. Kuro Hazama (Blackjack) is a uniquely Japanese character. All over the world, from South America, to Africa, to Europe, are civilizations with their own mythologies and literary traditions. Some have been passed down for centuries. When we change those histories – rewrite Annie as black or James Bond as a woman – we disrespect the heritage of that character as well as the culture that spawned it. Implicitly we understand this with non-white characters. No one would dare rewrite Zorro as a blonde German. But because of contemporary PC altruistic philosophy, we think it is virtuous to blot out characters of white or male or European ancestry.

How is it that the same people who whine about Justin Timberlake appropriating black culture by singing R&B can be OK with explicit appropriation of white characters? The common argument as to why it is OK to replace white / male characters but not others centers on nebulous non-concepts like “historical injustice,” and a supposed lack of representation. But this does not bear much scrutiny. For one, no injustice is corrected by erasing white or male characters. All you do is create a new injustice. Secondly, this does nothing to help women and minorities thrive in creative fields with their own unique characters.

Every time you you swap out a popular white character for a minority, you send the message that there is no need for or interest in minority characters that stand on their own. Instead, you teach minorities that their time is better served petitioning corporations to change white characters for them. This has the effect of tacitly affirming the opinion of racist whites who believe that not only are minority characters inferior, but that minorities are incapable of even attempting to compete with whites in creative fields. You are proving them right.

And here we come to my biggest reason for not liking these changes: It is divisive. It creates more hostility between minorities and whites than it cures. It perpetuates the dangerous zero-sum idea that the only way for minorities to gain is by tearing down whites. The minorities that buy into this take it as a victory every time an established white character is 'taken,' and made 'theirs.' Whites, rightly, see their own culture as being unfairly appropriated.

Minorities do not have to 'take' from whites in order to uplift themselves. Instead we need to work and build and create for ourselves in order to excel. We need to build our own stories, our own franchises, our own communities. We cannot blame racism for not doing this. Yes, racism exists, but it is not so powerful as to force us to beg, hat in hand, for noble tolerant white people to give us their sloppy seconds. Insisting that whites temporarily change the race / gender of their own popular characters to make us feel like we are equal creative participants in popular fiction is a degrading idea. It is a continuation of white man's burden. Instead of relying on the charity of whites, we need to show that original black characters can be successful on their own.

This is why characters like Black Panther and Lucius Fox are so important. Black Panther is an original African hero with his own unique background and concept. He's just as awesome as the Dark Knight with the right story. Lucius is an example of an original supporting minority character done right. Fox makes Batman more believable, is a brilliant engineer, shrewd businessman, and a key ally to the Wayne family. He also just happens to be black. No big deal. No need for a parade or a whole lot of self-congratulations on DC's part. Just a cool new character blazing his own trail in movies and comics. That is what women and minorities need. More Black Panthers and more Lucius Fox's.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016




これは国外居住者や一時ビジターにとって、フェアでないだろうか? もしもあなたがアメリカ人革新派であれば、中東や南アメリカの移民がアメリカにやってきて、声高にホモセクシャルの違法や宗教教育プログラムへの政府資金増額を訴えたら、どう感じるだろう? おそらくは、節度がないとわかるはずだ。「そんなに自国の文化が好きなら、さっさと国に帰ったら?」と考えるだろう。そこまでは思わないにしても、アメリカ世論がこんな侵入者をひたすら無視することを望むに違いない。



Sunday, July 3, 2016


Going to start putting Japanese language articles here. I have been working on translating some of my reviews and political writings. I am working with a few different translators and studying on my own as well.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016


I wrote a column for Japan Today.

It is about a recently passed hate speech law in Japan. You should read it. It is very clever.

I am also going to write for Metropolis. Going to pursue a few other publications as well.

It's all falling into place. Heh heh heh.

Friday, May 20, 2016


Imagine two houseguests who stay in your home. Guest 1 likes a lot of superficial things about your home. However within a day he starts complaining about many things. He doesn't like your food, your choice of furniture, your family's daily routines. He finds fault with several customs within your home and insists that you adopt customs he grew up with in his household. After a week, he returns back to his home anyway. Guest 2, absolutely adores your home and family. He goes out of his way to adapt to your lifestyle. A twist of fate causes him to end up living with you permanently. He gets along with people in your household. He works a job and contributes financially. He basically becomes part of the family. After a while, he begins to offer suggestions about how to improve things in your home.

Among the Gaijin community in Japan are two camps, conservatives and progressives. The former adore the culture and want to preserve it. The latter see Japan as backward in many ways, and seek to make Japan become more westernized. The thing is, neither of these camps have standing in my view, unless they become immigrants instead of expats. The expat is not deeply invested in the society. He has fun for a few years then goes home. The immigrant is deeply invested. He intends to live there permanently. He assimilates into the culture, learns the language, raises a family there, establishes a career, pays taxes, and often becomes a citizen and votes. You could say he has “skin in the game.” For that reason, native citizens care about his point of view and generally do not care about the expat.

Is this unfair to the expat or temporary visitor? If you were an American progressive, how would you feel about groups of Middle Eastern or South American migrants coming to the USA and loudly agitating for criminalization of homosexuality and more government funding for religious programs? Most likely you would find it unseemly. You might think, “Why don't they just go back to their own countries if they like their culture so much?” At the very least, you would likely hope that the American public will just ignore these interlopers.

No one is saying that the expat does not have a right to his opinion. We have all been houseguests at one point. After one night at my aunt's crazy apartment, I had A LOT of opinions about her lifestyle. However none of it was really life-threatening, so I kept my thoughts to myself. Similarly the expat can think whatever he wants and voice his views wherever he wishes. However people are more welcome to dismiss him, as he likely does not know very much about the native culture, and his views simply represent his own conditioned preference for the culture of his homeland. By contrast the immigrant has delved deep enough into the culture of his new home out of necessity. He is not on a vacation from his homeland; he is establishing a new one. Because he is more invested and likely better informed, his views are worth considering.

Japanese society will naturally evolve as Japanese citizens live their lives and make choices every day. I think that those foreigners that gain standing by committing to the country have a place in shaping that evolution. My advice to progressives is this: if you don't have standing, don't act entitled to have people care about your opinion. If you do have standing, focus your argument for change on how it will concretely improve things, not simply on the fact that “other countries do it, so Japan should too!!” To conservatives I would say do not blindly defend every aspect of Japanese culture simply because it is Japanese. All cultures evolve and change, including Japan's, sometimes for the better. Pick your battles. Focus on the things worth conserving.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Review: Ghost in the Shell Arise

Note: This review covers the entire anime series as well as the film.

Ghost in the Shell transcends.

It stands above the crowd of typical anime series because it is a genuinely original work of uncompromising cyberpunk. It offers a believable yet imaginative setting and a fantastic cast of characters. It gives us great action and a plethora of interesting sci-fi ideas. It leans on a few fun anime tropes without ever feeling cliché or too embedded in Japanese culture to translate. Simply put, Ghost in the Shell is an anime perfect storm. While they are not all equally good, every manga, film, and TV show is worth your time.

The same is true of the latest release, Ghost in the Shell: Arise. Arise was created by Production I.G., the same studio that gave us the fantastic Ghost in the Shell TV series Stand Alone Complex (SAC). Arise reboots the franchise by retelling the origin of Motoko and her Section 9 squad. It features new writers, directors, and a new voice cast, but for the most part keeps the designs of Motoko's squad mates the same. Motoko Kusanagi, the iconic hacker extraordinaire lead, is really the only character to get a complete makeover.

Her stoic personality remains mostly unchanged, but her origin and appearance are revamped. She no longer looks like an adult woman; her new design is more of what the Japanese might call “chibi,” or cutesy. Frankly she looks to me like a teenage boy thanks to her short hair, small stature, and masculine demeanor. Her back story is tweaked to help explain her talent as a hacker and cyborg soldier. We learn that Motoko is unusually skilled at controlling cyborg bodies because of her birth. Her cyberization began while she was still in the womb, and thus she has no memory of ever having a flesh and blood body.

The special snowflake birth back story combined with her childish look gives the Major a distinctly “magical girl” feel. This is a pervasive trope in Japanese fiction, and it can work well in some contexts. It just does not really suit a character like Kusanagi. She was never meant to be some mystical little fairy with a hidden ultimate power. Instead she was a world-weary pro with skills honed from experience. In Arise it is hard to understand why someone as young and small as she is so incredibly powerful. It never crosses into Mary Sue territory, thankfully. Kusanagi is not invincible in Arise; she makes mistakes, is more than once bested by adversaries, and generally only succeeds with the support of her team. But still, the look just seems incongruent with the world and the character, especially given the fact that she is the only major character with this childlike form.

So what is the point in making a great character like Kusanagi suddenly look like a kid? Kusanagi being a strong female character I think may have been part of the motivation. The contrast between Motoko's conspicuously feminine, slender frame, and the swift, violent actions she often carries out, has always been an interesting visual trope in GitS. By making Kusanagi even more small and frail – literally making her into a little girl – that contrast is even more emphasized. I don't see it as a worthwhile tradeoff, however. Just in terms of looks I find it less appealing and rather boring compared to previous incarnations.

The good news is that the Major's redesign is my only major (heh) criticism of the show. Everything else about it is excellent. Arise is similar to Stand Alone Complex in that it is very much a details show. It never shies away from complexity. The sparse humor, efficiently packaged technical explanations, the natural personality conflicts – all of it gives the show a real sense of life and rewards people for paying attention. I love the way the show always digs into inter-agency politics and questions of jurisdiction and procedure. It adds a level of believeability to the narrative without ever bogging things down.

I like how Motoko cares about the nature of her team. She does not want her squad to just be another police force, or military unit cleaning up political messes. She insists on an independent offensive unit that has full authority and funding to resolve threats no other agency is suited to handle. For this reason she and her squad mates bristle whenever they are asked to formally join the public security agency, liaison with other departments, or even serve under American CIA operatives in one instance. There is this meta theme about the importance of how governments solve problems and maintain security. Motoko has to balance her and her team's desire for autonomy against their need for government clearance, top of the line equipment, and expensive maintenance for their cyborg bodies.

On top of the richly layered narrative is an incredibly stylish show, more so than SAC at times. The animation is fantastic, particularly the dazzling action scenes. Every episode has at least one really solid, tense fight scene that harkens back to the great set pieces in the original film. While some of these callbacks feel a bit forced, they are at least well-executed. 'Visual feast' is an apt term to summarize the look of the show.

The stories are also all quite good and the longer runtime allows for meatier plots. The first episode gives us a solid introduction to Motoko with a tightly-paced whodunit murder mystery that makes us question the reliability of the protagonist's point of view. The second episode brings in the rest of Motoko's future section 9 squad mates, only the narrative takes a fun twist and sets them up as antagonists. You get lots of great action that avoids feeling like 'jobbing' – battles that diminish one character to boost another. Episode three brings in section 9's resident non-cyborg Togusa, whose no-nonsense detective work one-ups The Major in a story that displays her more vulnerable side. Episode 4, perhaps the most ambitious yet weakest entry, plays with the idea of false memories and identities as a super hacker triggers a mass shooting. Though the ending felt a bit random, the concepts it explores are interesting.

There is a fifth border that was divided into two shorter episodes called “Pyrophoric Cult.” It was released under the Alternative Architecture version of Arise as a prelude to the Arise film named Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie. Both the fifth border and the movie are excellent. The former has some of the coolest action scenes in the series, as we see the squad go after a man believed to be the elusive hacker Fire Starter. The movie serves as a perfect capstone to the series. In the same way that Solid State Society added depth to numerous characters with its winding narrative, Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie will make you see Motoko and several supporting characters in a new light. It is just as good a story as SSS only I did not find it as captivating thematically. SSS dealt with a very topical issue – the social consequences of the aging Japanese population. The New Movie juggled some interesting ideas too, though they were less relevant and not handled with the same nuance.

As good as it all is, nothing in Arise seems to justify a reboot. The plot arc of the four 'borders' essentially covers the birth of Motoko's team, and it is a solid narrative in its own right. The thing is, SAC had a good thing going, and you could have easily told the same good stories we get here in Arise in that world. Rebooting everything now only adds unnecessary complexity to an already fragmented canon. The fact that Arise is filled with homages to SAC and the original movie only emphasizes the sense that there really was no need to start over (they reference the manga's opening scene twice). What's more, the Major's redesign just does not work for me. It clashes with the world she inhabits and is aesthetically a downgrade for my tastes.

Once you get past these issues you are left with an engaging, meticulously crafted work of art. You get gorgeous animation, fantastic action scenes, a rich sci-fi universe, complex, multi-dimensional characters, classic noirish mystery, and a spectacular soundtrack to boot. While it is not exactly the direction I would have wanted the franchise to go, it is still a great addition to the series that stands on its own well for newer viewers and is an absolute must-see for fans.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Review: Wonder Woman Earth One

When a writer attempts to retell the origin story for household name characters like Wonder Woman, they have to start with a few difficult questions: Who is this character supposed to be? What are the fundamental qualities that define this character and make them endure? Zack Snyder got these questions wrong in two Superman movies, and all the marketing and special effects in the world could not save them from critical and audience backlash. Grant Morrison, a comic writer with a fairly good track record in this regard, absolutely nailed it with All Star Superman, a colorful and inventive take on the character that reminds us why Superman is still the top dog among heroes. Unfortunately, Morrison I think misses the mark in answering those core questions with respect to Diana in Earth One. He gives us a well-crafted story with a number of clever and risky elements that nevertheless fails to ever really feel like the story of Wonder Woman.

Good critics make a distinction between how much they like something and how good it is. Funny Games and Matchpoint are both excellent films that I absolutely hate. By the same token, Wonder Woman Earth One is a very good comic that I do not like very much. This dislike is a product of my answer to the above question about what Wonder Woman should be. As good as Morrison's writing is, I don't think Wonder Woman should be the sort of character he gives us.

WWE1 is a provocative, unique take on the world's most iconic female superhero. The story takes the character back to her roots – to the golden age origin established by original creator William Moulton Marston. Marston's Wonder Woman challenged a lot of the cultural and sexual norms of the middle 20th century. Golden Age Wonder Woman explored ideas such as bondage, female domination, submission, and matriarchy. Marston was a psychologist by trade and one of the original inventors of the polygraph, hence Wonder Woman's 'lasso of truth'. His writings at times suggest a belief in female superiority, his work with lie detectors apparently leading him to believe that women were more honest than men. The early Wonder Woman comics show the Amazon society as a kind of utopia. There is a motif of characters constantly being tied up and physically bound with “loving submission” presented as a kind of virtue.

The Wonder Woman we all know and love today is quite different from Marston's original take. Morrison clearly wanted to re-examine that history in WWE1, and he does it with style and wit. He gives us a society of gorgeous immortal Amazons in a hidden city filled with sci-fi gadgets and flying machines. These Amazons make no bones about how they look down on our world for tolerating flaws like disease, death, obesity, and men. The Amazons, including Diana, see themselves as paragons to be emulated by human women and worshiped by human men. The basic conflict of the story concerns the accidental arrival of Steve Trevor, the first man to set foot on the island. When Diana sticks her neck out to protect him she is forced to stand trial for violating Amazon law.

It is a great setup and a daring comic overall, especially as an origin story. Morrison confidently puts his own twist on some of the Golden Age concepts and characters. The feminism is more militant and in your face than Marston ever dared. Wonder Woman is made openly lesbian when she casually lets Steve know that one of the Amazons is her lover. Morrsion makes Etta Candy into an unlikely spokeswoman for the ladies of “man's world.” He also makes Steve Trevor black and treats him the way female 'damsel in distress' characters often get treated in the comics of male heroes. While I don't like when writers change the race of established characters (I find it to be both pointless and patronizing, and I say that as a black guy) I found Morrison's use of Steve effective in the way he melded the theme of bondage with the racial history of the character. In spite of all the risks Morrison takes, it is still a very authentic Wonder Woman story that leverages parts of her history modern readers may not recognize.

It helps that the art is top notch. Yanick Paquette's rich visuals are almost worth the price of admission. His Amazons are full-bodied, athletic, and beautiful. His Themyscira is both fantastical and futuristic. While I wouldn't put it on the same level as Jim Lee or Alex Ross' work, the art of WWE1 is powerful and is more than a match for any of the other books in the Earth One series.

The reason I don't see it as a good Wonder Woman story is because I think the character has evolved beyond her kinky 1940's origins. This is not a bad thing; all characters evolve. The original Superman was a bald villain with psychic powers. It goes without saying that Superman today is much more than that. The original version of Motoko from Ghost in the Shell was a snarky tough girl who did online sex shows for money in her spare time. The film version dropped all of that and created a brooding, stoic heroine that became the iconic interpretation used in subsequent TV series, comics, and films. I doubt Hollywood would be launching a big budget live action film with Scarlett Johansson if the character had stayed true to her campy roots.

Great characters endure because they evolve. The core aspects of the character that resonate with fans remain while distracting details are shed. The same basic issue applies to Wonder Woman. The bondage-loving femdom character of Marston's Matriarchal fantasies is no longer the essential version of the character most of us recognize, and that's a good thing. She is so much more now. In the same way Batman is no longer just a gun-toting crime fighter. Superman no longer cares only about fighting for the American way. They have transcended their Golden Age trappings and become something greater. In Wonder Woman's case I would argue that George Perez and Alex Ross created the most definitive versions of the character. The latter's work Spirit of Truth in particular I would argue is the best representation of the character as a compassionate champion of justice who fights for the rights of men and women. There's no partisanship – just heroism.

Morrison's Wonder Woman in Earth One is not terribly heroic or even kind. She is bold and strong, sure, but never do we see a willingness to confront evil – to risk it all. Sure, she stands up to her sisters, but there is not much tension here given how much more powerful Diana is than them. The lack of action in the story doesn't help. The bulk of the conflict happens through conversation and flashbacks, including the finale. Certainly it is very possible to make a good climax that is all dialogue, and I like that Morrison is willing to defy convention. Still, all the talk does not serve the character very well. Diana, Hippolyta, and her Amazon sisters all come across as sanctimonious hypocrites.

For example in one scene Hippolyta shows Diana images of man's world and we see a woman in her underwear on a leash held by a man. This is meant to show how man's world has 'degraded' womankind. But this feels weirdly chauvinistic and puritanical coming from an island of women who engage in drunken lesbian bondage orgies. What if that woman is getting paid a lot of money to wear that leash, and is using it to pay for a degree in astrophysics? What if she finds it empowering? What if she is exactly where she wants to be in that moment? If we're going to go heavy with feminist politics in Wonder Woman in 2016, lets at least upgrade her to the third wave where she can respect women's right to make their own choices. To see Diana and the Amazons berate women for everything from how they dress, to their body types, to their desire to enjoy the company of men – it just feels regressive, and not in the fun way.

Reading the book, I was not sure whether or not Morrison intended for us to like the Amazons at all. It is kind of funny how they castigate men for being violent, then send a horrific monster into a crowded city just to murder Steve out of spite. I assume, given Diana's opposing stance to the Amazons, that she was meant to be a figure the reader would root for, but she does little to really earn it. She comes across as haughty and self-righteous. She is harshly critical of almost every character with whom she interacts. She has not one word of praise for anything in man's world. When the question of Steve Trevor's romantic intentions toward Diana is raised, he quickly self-flagellates, saying she is “out of his league.” Diana does not dispute this. I doubt any writer would dare have Lois Lane say such a thing about Superman, but we all know that if she did, good old down-to-earth Clark would be quick to dismiss it with a smile. For me, there was not much to smile about in WWE1. It is an interesting book, but not a very fun or inspiring one.

The book made me long for the Lynda Carter version of Diana. Cheesy as it was, it was the most natural expression of Wonder Woman as someone both tough yet feminine. Carter's Wonder Woman embodied typical feminine virtues – grace, beauty, kindness – while also displaying the strength and fearlessness of a superhero. Your typical “strong female protagonist” these days tries to copy male heroes by being either an emotionless killing machine or a rude, snarky grrrrl power type. Carter's (and Ross' and Perez's) Wonder Woman would have none of this. She never apologized for being a lady and having class. She could go from beating up monsters in one scene to charming Nazi spies in an evening gown in the next, and make it look easy. Morrison's Wonder Woman prefers the more typical tough girl approach.

Earth One Wondie is aloof, supremely confident, and constantly standing in judgment of those around her. Sure, she helps people, but always in a way that seems self-serving. She is calculating and cold – ever ready to shame, mock, and condemn her fellow Amazons and mother should it serve her purposes. Her decision to disgrace her Amazonian lover in one scene is of dubious necessity. She reminded me of Batman in several moments. Sure, Batman is super cool. I just don't think Wonder Woman should copy his personality. The best versions of Diana incorporate a bit of humility.

What do you think Wonder Woman should be? Fans should ask themselves; “Is this what we want from Wonder Woman? Is this the direction she should go?” Ultimately I think WWE1 is a book that comic and Wondie fans alike should take the time to read and judge for themselves. The artwork alone makes it a nice addition to any comic book collection. What's more, WWE1 is as imaginative and layered as any Morrison story, and it mines an old, rich part of the character's heritage. It would be unfair to call the story inauthentic. WWE1 pays homage to the character's creator with a respectful treatment of his ideas. It is a worthwhile exercise to examine this side of Diana and her Amazons.

Nevertheless, it is not an ideal origin story. Morrison's Wonder Woman is too mired in her own politics to really feel like the classic hero we all know and love. I almost wish it were called “Wonder Woman: Golden Age,” as it does not fit with the other Earth One comics that did a better job of modernizing their subjects. Like Superman, Batman, and Motoko, Wonder Woman has evolved, and trying to turn the clock back serves only to make her smaller. Simply put, she should be better than this.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Some Music

This is the catchiest song in the history of songs: (Starts around 1:11, though the opening is important for context)

Some Japanese rock. Kind of a Weezer vibe. These guys are actually pretty cool.

Comfy as fuck

Bluesy as fuck

My son really loves Waits' voice and this video is more tolerable for him:

Wednesday, March 30, 2016


I am now officially a member of Japan Mensa. Pretty sure I'm the only black member too, which is kind of funny.

I took the test and joined American Mensa and Mensa International a few months ago.

I am not especially interested in high IQ societies as a concept. I took the test as a personal challenge and did not assume I would pass. When I did and saw the cool discounts membership offers, I decided to join.

IQ is an interesting thing. I believe that it does matter, even if our tests are flawed. Intelligence is extremely relevant to social policy and our understanding of human behavior. I read The Bell Curve a while ago and found it compelling.

At some point I may write up a whole thing about intelligence, genetics, and the political implications of their relationship.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice Review

Batman vs. Superman is a grand dramatic deconstruction of superhero mythology – an ambitious film that ultimately does not live up to its big vision. It is, if you follow its marketing, at once a simple popcorn blockbuster action flick and also a modern day fable about the obligations of power and the will to do good in an amoral society. It is a story of three orphan boys – Lex Luthor, Bruce Wayne, Kal El, and their attempts to live up to their father's ideals, and the misplaced anger at god that the first two men focus on the third. Batman vs. Superman moreso than any other comic book movie in recent history is a film that had the potential to really transcend, but as one character in the film says of another, the movie “flew too close to the sun,” and ultimately crashed under its own weight.
To fairly criticize a film you have to understand what it is trying to do. Once you understand a film's goals, you can break down how effectively it accomplishes them. In terms of goals, some films are more ambitious than others. The Avengers, for example, had only a few simple goals: Put together a bunch of heroes against a decent villain, have tons of great action, and be funny. It succeeded in all three cases and thus was very well-regarded. By contrast, consider The Dark Knight. It had far more complex goals. It had to complicate and develop the story of Batman, introduce a new Joker, improve on the action and effects from the first film, tell the tragic story of Harvey Dent and Rachel, and all the while, tell a noir-ish story that exemplifies complex moral themes about sacrifice, justice, and the nature of heroism. It succeeded on all fronts, some spectacularly (Joker) and thus is by my measure a better film than Avengers.

Man of Steel and Batman v Superman are similar to Dark Knight in that they too are films with lofty ambitions. In that regard, I have a genuine respect for them, in the same way I respect the guy who falls short trying to paint a Mona Lisa more than someone content to make really good stick figures. I also respect Warner Brothers' willingness to take risks. They tried to appeal to nostalgia with Superman Returns, and failed. They went in the other direction and gave us not-your-daddy's Superman in Man of Steel. It was ballsy to go so dark and heavy with a character that iconic. In BvS, they go even further. They make Superman emotional and menacing at times, do away with Batman's no kill rule, and present an unsettling, mercurial version of Lex Luthor that fans are not likely to recognize. In a world of endless safe, soft remakes, reboots, sequels, and rehashes, I have to give credit when I see a big corporate studio put hundreds of millions of dollars into such a daring interpretation of their biggest properties.

That said, not all risks pay off in the end. One of the problems Warner Brothers has run into with Nolan and Snyder helming their DC properties is that their movies seem to assume that, for a movie to be 'serious', it has to be bleak and oppressive in tone. This is a false dichotomy; DC does not have to copy the light, popcorn-flick tone of Marvel to be successful. The issue is that the dark, angry tone worked for the Batman trilogy as his story is very much about the blacker parts of human nature. Superman, however, represents something different. His film needed a serious but more aspirational tone, something between The First Avenger and Interstellar. In fact the better parts of Man of Steel have that vibe, and it isn't just because of the soundtrack. BvS unfortunately doubles down on the grittiness, resulting in the narrative's inadequacies coming into sharper relief.

So what exactly is BvS trying to do and how well does it do those things? Lets start with the first question. It seems to me the movie has six goals:

1. Introduce Batman, give us his basic characterization, and establish his motive for fighting Superman.
2. Develop the character of Superman by having him wrestle with his role in the world.
3. Present a thought-provoking moral theme about accountability and power.
4. Introduce Wonder Woman, make her intriguing, make us care about her story.
5. Introduce a new take on Lex Luthor.
6. Build a foundation for the Justice League movie and other individual character movies.

As we have learned from Spiderman 3, movies with more than three or four big goals are likely not going to succeed at all of them. BvS is a movie trying to do a lot of stuff, even with a full three-hour runtime in the uncut R-rated version. Before I break down each goal and how the film did, I'll just give my basic grade for each one:

1. B
2. D
3. C
4. C+
5. C
6. B-

Lets start with the introduction of Batman. The movie economically gives us the tragedy of Bruce's parents in a well-done opening section. His motive for mistrusting Superman is established convincingly. I thought Affleck embodied the character with a quiet rage that worked well for the film's first half. In terms of the look – the suit, the car, the gear – this is probably the best Batman that's ever been put to film. I was even OK with him being willing to use lethal force as this is a much more jaded war-weary character whose no kill rule probably led to personal tragedy. Where it breaks down is in the film's final act. The setup for the fight involved a needlessly convoluted plot with Luthor forcing Superman to attack Bruce. They should have just let Batman strike first (there's even a great mention of the Wayne family having a heritage as hunters) by tracking Superman. Furthermore, Batman's change of heart regarding Superman felt really contrived and abrupt. Not much payoff for such a long-hyped showdown.

Superman is not done many favors by the story either. When he isn't being a tough guy, saying things like “consider this mercy,” and “I'll take you in without breaking you, which is more than you deserve,” he is either babysitting Lois or feeling sorry for himself. The relationship with Lois I felt dragged down his presence a good bit. What's more his one big opportunity to make a speech and maybe say something interesting is literally blown up. Superman has some great moments, to be sure. He genuinely tries to be a hero and is willing to sacrifice himself when needed. He also has some of the greatest visuals in the film. There is one really powerful scene where he rescues a girl from a fire and is surrounded by an awe-struck crowd. Unfortunately the movie just does not do much to improve the character.

Part of the reason the character is not served by the film is the fact that the core theme is basically abandoned by the film's final act. The story takes pains to set up a reasonable critique of Superman's choices with a subplot involving his intervention in Africa to save Lois. There is a fantastic montage featuring some very famous writers and thinkers that digs into some of the more abstract ramifications of a being like Superman. It's great stuff that the rest of the film does not live up to as the story instead opts for wacky villain plots, kidnappings, and monster fights. In The Dark Knight, the action of the story embodies the abstract ideas. “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the bad guy,” “We burned down the forest,” “When the chips are down these civilized people will eat each other.” The story's ending is powerful as a result. In BvS, by contrast, there's just a lot of self-serious talk divorced from heavily contrived fight scenes. As a result of this (and other reasons), the ending felt quite cheap.

As for Wonder Woman and Lex, I think both were a mixed bag. Gadot looked the part and was great in the action scenes. She just does not have much charisma out of the costume. Great actors own the role – make you feel like no one else could do what they did, like Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man or Ledger's Joker. I am pretty sure 100 other actresses could have done what Gadot did and likely better. Still, she wasn't bad, and her plot thread got me intrigued about Wonder Woman's story. I am looking forward to that film next year.

Eisenberg's Luthor was also interesting but flawed. I really respect what he was trying to do with the role. He did not ride the coattails of Hackman and Spacey, which is good as the cigar-chomping real-estate scheming Luthor of the 70's would have felt anachronistic. Instead Eisenberg went for a manic narcissistic millennial vibe. He speaks cryptically and drops lots of references, to show off his intelligence. He dresses like a hipster, plays pick up basketball, awkwardly flubs public speeches, and does inappropriate things with candy (I'll leave that to your imagination if you haven't seen it yet). He is young, a genius, and extremely rich, so it makes sense that he has some idiosyncrasies. I think Eisenberg succeeded in making the character unpredictable and unnerving. The problem is that he never came off as a true mastermind type of threat, and it is for a simple reason: His Big Evil Plan was dumb. I don't even really know why he hated Superman to begin with. In the comics, Luthor is one of the smartest men on the planet with ten different contingency plans and a thoughtful, humanistic motivation for hating Superman. In BvS, he's just a snotty weirdo who isn't even clever enough to stay out of prison.

Finally there is the question of future movies – the universe building. BvS does this in a few points. Batman's dream sequence which foreshadows the true DC big bad, Darkseid, is one of the film's most interesting moments. A cameo from the Flash at the scene's end will add to your curiosity. Beyond that what we get is a weirdly-timed montage of security footage confirming the existence of three other Justice League members. On the one hand, I like that the movie introduced the characters in a way that did not feel forced or interrupt the main story. On the other hand, it does feel cheap. It could have used some polish and maybe a bit more screen time. Suffice to say we now know that the next movie will feature Batman seeking out the other Justice League members. There is potential there for an quality, unconventional superhero movie if done right.

Ultimately Batman v Superman is a missed opportunity – another ambitious big budget adaptation from DC that is bound to divide critics and fans. While Warner Brothers is already full steam ahead on Justice League and Wonder Woman films, I do hope they reconsider Snyder, Goyer, and Nolan's approach, if not replace some of these guys. They all have talent, sure, but it just has not translated into good Superman stories. I say this as a comic fan who is glad to see Marvel have some competition at the box office from more mature, challenging superhero movies. Here's hoping Suicide Squad and the next batch of non-Snyder DC movies can keep the genre interesting.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Review: Ghost in the Shell 2 - Innocence

The Perils of Trying Too Hard

I watched Innocence in theaters when it originally came out. I recall finding the film frustratingly dense in spite of its gorgeous visuals. As a fan of the franchise, I picked up the blu-ray a while ago thinking that a few years of maturity and a deeper understanding of the original manga might help me appreciate this film more. Alas, this was not the case.

Innocence is an ambitious film that tries desperately to repeat the successes of the first Ghost in the Shell film. It is a classic case of a work of art trying too hard. Where the film does not explicitly copy its predecessor (the opening montage, the festival scene, etc.) it awkwardly strives to achieve the same gravity of effect in its visuals and dialogue. Innocence is somewhat successful in the former area and deficient in the latter.

The film's greatest strength is its lush, exquisite imagery. There are numerous moments in the film where one could pause the disk and have a work of art on one's TV screen. In spite of a few jarring moments of badly mixed cell animation and CGI, the film is a visual feast on par with the original.

Unfortunately, the images lack the power they had in the earlier film because they are not tied to a coherent narrative. The actual plot - the sequence of events that occur in the film - is quite simple; a group of female sex doll cyborgs malfunction, two section 9 detectives investigate, they go to where the cyborgs are manufactured to learn the truth, and then the film ends. Like Solid State Society, the film takes its inspiration from Shirow's original manga. However the contrived, pretentious dialogue combined with the plodding pace (40% of the film's runtime is comprised of slow walking, scenery shots, and close-ups of basset hounds) makes the story feel vastly longer and more complex than it really is.

The basic problem with the writing can be summed up in one word: Quotes. Half of the dialogue is a quote. Does Batou have an opinion about one of the antagonists? Confucius quote. Does Togusa want to express his anxiety? Time for some 'Paradise Lost'. The film is saturated with dozens of quotes, from all manner of writers and philosophers. This over-reliance on canned smartness creates two huge flaws for the film.

For one it hurts the characters. The film does little to further characterize the members of section 9 (aside from a bit of development for Batou and Togusa's relationship). Having Aramaki and Ishikawa spout quotes instead of finding their own words does not allow us to get to know them as well as characters, as the quotes are clearly just sentiments Oshii (the director) wanted to express. The dialogue feels like a vehicle for Oshii's navel-gazing and not an expression of real people interacting.

Secondly, copious quote usage cheapens the effect of using quotes at all. The viewer finds that once the film is over, he can't remember any particular quote among the dozens he heard. The earlier film only used a handful, and as a result, its dialogue is much more memorable (I still recall the major's quote at the end, Corinthians 13:11). But in Innocence, with so many quotes from so many different sources, it is hard to know which to care about and why.

Bad pacing and dialogue are not the only problems with Innocence's story. There are a handful of exasperating scenes. In particular, the virtual experience maze I found to be tedious. It is only partly comprehensible because Batou is made to explain how he bested Kim's trap. What's more, the scene near the end where Batou scolds the little girl for not worrying about sex dolls is bizarre to me. In the original manga, it was bad enough for Batou to blame the girls and not their captors for the "innocents" (people who use a product premised on child murder are not terribly innocent in my view) who suffered from the sex doll malfunctions. Here, for Batou to worry about the dolls is beyond callous, and Motoko's concurrence ("If dolls could talk they would say 'I don't want to be human!'") is both asinine and damaging to her and Batou's characters. To

The last couple of frames of the film suggest that Oshii thought he was saying something profound about humans and their need to recreate themselves via dolls and cyborgs. Unfortunately, the film wasn't really concerned with making this or any other particular idea comprehensible. In fact I think many viewers will come away from Innocence with the feeling that the movie wasn't really speaking to them, but rather to itself. It's the same problem Donnie Darko had; as interesting as the film tries to be, it does not stand on its own as you need to read additional books and watch a different cut of the film in order to really get it.

It is a shame, because Ghost in the Shell is a powerful franchise that has always managed to be entertaining, exciting, and thought-provoking all at once. The further it removed itself from Shirow's somewhat campy original manga, the more consequential it became, first as the film, then as the brilliant Stand Alone Complex series and film. Innocence is a step in the wrong direction both in terms of style and substance.

I have yet to watch Arise but my expectations are not terribly high. I shudder at the thought of what Hollywood and Scarlett Johannsson will do to the franchise.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Review of CBS' 'Supergirl'

The Pointlessness of Supergirl 

As an old school comic nerd I find myself plowing through episode after episode of every superhero drama on TV these days. I have watched a combined total of 7 seasons of The Flash, Arrow, Agents of Shield, Gotham, Dare Devil, and Jessica Jones. Most of them are mediocre, some aggressively so, yet all have their endearing aspects – well done set pieces, a captivating actor, an intriguing story concept, or some other such thing. There is however one show that is truly irredeemable; Supergirl.

The network TV version of Supergirl is the quintessential safe, corporate, focus-group tested adaptation. In this iteration, we have Kara Zor El, aka Supergirl, working as an executive assistant to a media big wig played by Calista Flockhart. This setup with all of its office drama and the cynical, ruthless lady boss is clearly meant to appeal to women, though I cannot help but think it so stereotypical as to be a bit offensive. If you want to test your liver, take a shot every time a celebrity is mentioned, someone cries, or a female character rewards themselves with junk food.

You have to give it credit for its willingness to stick to a formula. Supergirl is one of the most consistent shows on TV. Consistently awful, that is, consistently inane, and consistently bland. It is a marvel to behold the dedication to hackneyed writing, phoned-in performances, and action scenes devoid of consequence, tension, or even decent special effects.

The main villain is a relative of Kara with his own army of Kryptonians. You would think that a bad guy with the equivalent of a few dozen Supermen at his disposal wouldn't really have much challenge taking over the world. Supergirl begs to differ. See, Kara's human sister Alex works for the show's version of the Men in Black, complete with cool weapons that enable them to kill super-powered aliens with ease whenever the plot demands it or Kara is busy with office romance drama.

The writing is frequently arbitrary and contradictory. Nothing really sticks as far as character development or even just basic physical laws within the show's world. One minute Kara's boss is a ruthless media whore caring only about power and page views and in the next she's lecturing Jimmy Olsen on journalistic ethics with a heavy-handed sob story about a Hollywood actor and domestic violence. Supervillains that can shrug off punches to the face from Supergirl can get pushed around by Kara's sister Alex. Kryptonians wearing armor that nulifies Kryptonite can still be harmed by Kryptonite weapons. A single tough fight can “blow out” Supergirl's powers for several days, while a dozen similar fights across the next ten episodes do nothing. Maxwell Lord is an evil villain who attempts to destroy Supergirl multiple times, until he decides to save her life for no particular reason.

I say all this as someone very willing to suspend disbelief and look the other way when it comes to comic book media. You have to let some things slide. It didn't bug me that Bruce Wayne made it back to Gotham after escaping the prison in The Dark Knight Rises. He's Batman. You don't need to explain. I'm still with you, movie. I get that there are constraints - budget, run time etc. You don't ask for perfection from network action shows. In spite of all that, you can only strain credulity so much. Every shortcut the writers take - every instance of coincidence, unexplained phenomena, shifting power levels, character personality swings, last second perfectly timed saves - takes away a small piece of the show's authority.

Supergirl demonstrates the most ad hoc writing you'll ever witness, though one nice constant is the power of the gutsy speech. Need to stop an armed robber with a gun without using any powers? Gutsy speech. Need to resolve the conflict between a mother and the child she abandoned 25 years ago? Gutsy speech. Need to jar Supergirl out of an alien plant-induced dream world? Gutsy speech. Need to prevent a 300 year old Martian from killing the shape-shifting monster that genocided his species and burned his wife and children? Gutsy speech. It would be funny were the formula not so mawkish and transparent. There isn't a single action scene with an outcome you can't predict.

Supergirl's is a world where there are no hard choices, no conflicts that can't be resolved by a bit of eloquence. Good guys always win because they are good. On Arrow and The Flash, at least the good guys have to be smart or occasionally ruthless. By contrast Supergirl paints merely being earnest as some great virtue, but as Milton Friedman (and I believe Dilbert) once said, “sincerity is overrated.” Sure, it's nice to see tears in Alex's eyes when she learns of J'onn J'onzz's tragic backstory (Batman would have kept a poker face I'm sure) but those tears do not grant her any special insight into J'onzz's character nor do they give her the moral authority to lecture him about his right to pursue revenge. In the show's world, the right bit of verbiage is powerful enough to override any and all character motivations and development in a given moment, but only for that moment.

The episode “For the Girl Who Has Everything,” is one of the best examples of everything wrong with the show. If Alan Moore did not already hate superheroes enough, that episode would suffice to cause him to die from rage and then spin in his grave.

In the original story (written by Moore), Superman is attacked by a symbiotic alien plant that puts him in a dream world where he experiences his heart's greatest desires. He imagines himself living on Krypton with a wife and son. Eventually he is pulled out of the fantasy as he slowly realizes the world is a facade. The twenty minute Justice League cartoon version almost brought me to tears when Clark actually wept and had to look into his son's eyes and say “I'm sorry, but I don't think you're real.” It was powerful because the episode took the opportunity to really show you Clark's deepest dreams – the dream of a normal life, home, and family. That's what made Moore's story so good – the exploitation of the Black Mercy alien plant as a dramatic device allowing for a unique opportunity to develop a character. Sci-fi and writing 101 really.

Supergirl skipped that class. Their version takes the lazy way out scene after scene. They burn half of her time in the dream world with her being skeptical of it (completely unfaithful to the comic). We do not see Kara's ideal vision of herself as an adult on Krypton. We learn nothing about her character. Instead we get a cheap jokey side plot with Martian Manhunter pretending to be Kara so Supergirl doesn't lose her pointless office job (his electing to do this is completely contrary to the character the show spent episodes developing - a super serious military leader reluctant to use his powers). It is a cheap knockoff of a much better Superman story. In fact that basically sums up the entire show.

Some have also complained about the show's politics, but honestly whether you agree or disagree with them you have to concede that they make the show feel dated. The unprovoked discussions of the glass ceiling and double standards about how tough women are perceived feel very late 1990's. When a show has to make white characters loudly complain about “white male privilege” multiple times, you can safely assume the writers are taking their cues from old Twitter hashtag data.

That's not to say shows need to be apolitical. The comic book version of Green Arrow is a staunch progressive. The CW's Arrow could be more intriguing if its titular hero intelligently addressed tough issues (perhaps he will given that he is running for mayor this season). Many comic book shows and movies have touched on political themes in subtle or interesting ways.

Supergirl is about as subtle as a slut walk, with every character dutifully parroting feminist talking points. Personally I think all-powerful characters like Supergirl work better by being above cantankerous debates on social issues. When I think of Batman or Superman, I honestly couldn't guess who they would vote for in this election season. Kara, by contrast, would be all “literally I can't even,” at the thought of Trump. For Supergirl, Whether they are shaming anti-illegal immigration politicians or switching the races of beloved characters for diversity reasons – all of it serves to cheapen its titular hero, turning her into a partisan instead of the beloved and unifying symbol of hope her cousin is.

Taken as a whole the show just feels superficial. There is nothing that pulls you to keep watching. The Flash at least tries to keep the audience guessing with its sci-fi wackiness, and Gotham as well as Netflix's Marvel shows are willing to take some risks with their characters and storylines. Supergirl is just kind of there, plodding along episode after episode with all the charisma of an infomercial.

In spite of that, the show is seeing decent ratings and doing crossovers with The Flash. There is a decent chance it will get a second season. Not really that shocking as a cursory glance at TV ratings data proves that there is a massive audience out there for bad shows. Still, it's unfortunate, as it will likely butcher any other DC characters it sucks into its banal world. Here's hoping they never get Wonder Woman or Powergirl. That level of cringe could be fatal.