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So, this is a thing that I was recently made aware of.

Most people my age have fond memories of Fox’s X-Men cartoon from the early 90’s and one of those fond memories is likely to be the excellent opening theme. For those that don’t remember it,  prepare for a treat.

From the ominous driving church bell to the squealing guitars and the building sense of tension it is a  classic. It also helpfully shows off every member of the team, their name and their powers so it serves as a useful piece of exposition for anyone coming late to the party.

The show was a big hit and, even more importantly, the accompanying toy line was a massive success. And where money can be made off toys the Japanese aren’t far behind. So the show made the rare move from America to Japan with a Japanese dub.

And the Japanese team promptly took one look at the American intro and decided, nah, not nearly Japanese enough.

Thus was born, this.

It’s impressive that only 3 minutes of screen time could produce quite so much baffling insanity:

    • Yes those aliens are brood who do show up in the cartoon (looking nothing like this) but why does Magneto have the ability to summon them from the ground?
    • Brutal violence and decapitation!
    • SHOCK!
    • Beast can punch the ground hard enough to create earthquakes.
    • This shot of Professor Xavier being an absolute pimp.
    • Mummyboon X-Men Japanese Intro Rogue, Storm Pimp Xavier
    • Rogue’s super-power appears to be flirting.
    • Mummyboon Japanese X-men Intro Rogue
    • Jubillee and Professor X seem to need to do Katas in order to use their powers.
    • Oh and telepathy can repel magnetism, apparently.
    • Cable gets his own intro and his super-power appears to be “owns big guns.” (this is not wholly inaccurate). Cable is not a member of the X-Men in this cartoon, he does feature but only as an occasional guest star. I can only imagine that Japanese fans were baffled at why the gun toting guy in the intro didn’t feature in the show.
    • Are those phalanx? On motorcycles?
    • Mummyboon Japanese X-men Intro Phalanx on bikes
    • This amazingly emo bit of Drama with a capital D
    • Mummyboon Japanese X-men Intro Emo Cyclops, wolverine & Jean Grey
    • Iceman makes it into the intro? He’s in this show less than cable. Hell, he;s in this show less than Maverick!
    • Krakoa!
    • Mummyboon Japanese X-men Intro Krakoa

And of course

  • CRY FOR THE MOON! – which is now officially my favourite Engrish sentence in a Japanese song EVER!
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Gatchaman-Crowds-

I’m not a huge fan of Gatchaman having only seen a few episodes of the original series (although I have somehow managed to watch all 3 dubs accidentally) but the show had a transformative influence on me. Gatchaman is the first anime I ever saw and even as a dumb kid I recognised at once that the animation, storytelling and character development were leagues beyond anything I was watching from western animation at the time.

I was therefore very enthusiastic about Gatchaman Crowds. An update of the Gatchaman concept of teenagers in bird themed costumes fighting aliens, done with modern day animation and storytelling conventions and a cool social media gimmick? Sign me up, that sounds great.

Gatchaman Crowds starts off by delivering pretty much exactly what I wanted from it. The first episode introduces the team, the concept and the villain. Hajime Ichinose is a high school girl obsessed with stationery, art and craft. When we first meet her she is having a serious geek out moment over a new notepad she has bought.

Gatchaman-Crowds Hajime

Hajime is relentlessly genki (a Japanese word meaning cheerful and energetic) almost to the point of obnoxiousness but she’s sweet, kind and enthusiastic. All positive traits that draw a mysterious figure named JJ (played by Katsuji Mori the original Gatchaman leader Ken the Eagle) who meets her in a dreamlike state and pulls a notebook from her body.

Hajime accidentally sees one of her classmates Sugane Tachibana transform into a Gatchaman, a super hero with a bird like costume, as he fights an alien that has disguised itself as a human. Sugane has an ability to wipe the minds of people that see his Gatchaman form but now that Hajime has a notebook it doesn’t work on her. Sugane realises that this means Hajime is also a Gatchaman so he takes her to their base to meet the other team members and reveal their mission.

Gatchaman-Crowds JJ

JJ is a kind of godlike being who creates Gatchaman on planets all over the universe. The Gatchaman are civil servants who protect the people on their planets from extra-terrestrial threats but must do so in secret. On Earth this team has been fighting MESS, an alien intelligence that abducts humans.

Gatchaman-Crowds- mess

Okay so, set up is basic but very functional. Secret team, wise mentor, super powers; all in service of fighting bad guys. It isn’t the most original idea in the world but hey, it provides a neat framework to hang a fight scene on every week and lots of opportunities to tell good stories. And it works as an update of the old series concept.

That set up lasts until the beginning of episode 2!

That is how uninterested the creators are in telling a by the numbers shonen anime story. All of your expectations, boom, thrown out the window my friends.

What happens at the start of episode 2 (well the end of episode 1 but it finishes at the start of episode 2) is that Hajime transforms into a Gatchaman against Sugane’s orders. Sugane is fighting a huge MESS and getting his ass kicked by it but Hajime hasn’t transformed to help him in the fight but instead to talk to the MESS. Something that everyone else thinks is impossible. However the moment she touches it with her scissor weapon she establishes a way to communicate with it, and when the MESS realises it has been harming humans it stops. See the MESS was only abducting us as a way to try and communicate in the first place, and now it can. Mission accomplished.

hajimetransforms

Well, that’s totally overthrown all the set-up, now what do we do? New alien threat? Well kind of. What Gatchaman Crowds is actually concerned with from episode 2 onwards is answering the questions:

What is the point of Super Heroes?

How can we make the world a better place?

What are the different ways in which different groups of people can make the world a better place?

On the question of Super Heroes Gatchaman Crowds represents one of the most radical reinventions of the Super Hero concept I have ever seen. I have now written an entirely separate post to discuss this but basically to be a Super Hero story your story needs to conform to the following criteria.

Gatchaman-Crowds-Sugane

  1. Super Heroes have some kind of alternate identity, usually signified by a code name.
  2. Super Heroes have a distinctive appearance that separates them from normal people.
  3. Super Heroes possess the ability to do something beyond those of normal people.
  4. Utilising their abilities beyond those of a normal person and either by their direct actions or the consequences thereof the Super Hero acts to saves lives or improve the quality of lives for others in direct conflict to the intentions of a Super villain antagonist.

Gatchaman Crowds conforms perfectly to all 4 criteria…in episode 1 and then begins dismantling them all to point out why the Super Hero idea is flawed but how it can be re-purposed.

So starting with point 4. The shortened version of this, in Super Hero stories you usually end with the hero punching the bad guy. And so does episode one of Gatchaman Crowds where Sugane uses his sword to defeat some MESS. Genre conventions  thus conformed to, Gatchaman establishes itself as a Super Hero story. But that is the last time that punching will ever be a solution in this series because in episode 2 Hajime tries talking to the MESS and it is immediately shown to be a superior strategy. The G-team has been fighting MESS for 5 years without winning. Hajime talks to them for one day and the problem is solved.

The message is quite simple, communication is better than punching when it comes to solving problems.

Now Gatchaman Crowds is not the first Super Hero work to make this message or to question the usefulness of the Super Hero to solve real world problems. Watchmen, Miracle Man, Squadron Supreme, The Authority, “what’s so funny about truth, justice and the American way?” I could keep going.  The two main conclusions most of these stories fall into is either a) the power a Super Hero has can literally remake the world into a better place and so the hero proceeds to do that (Watchmen, Miracle Man, The Authority) or b) the power of a single man is limited and ultimately being a Super Hero can’t make the world better only maintain a status quo or deal with small threats (any Superman story in which he fails to save someone, almost all Daredevil stories, The Sentry).

You would think with its message of punching is worse than communication that Gatchaman Crowds falls into the b group but really it takes a third path. It’s arguing quite firmly that Super Heroes can change the world but not because they’re super-heroes, just because anyone can.*

This leads us to the second big plot point of Gatchaman Crowds the existence of GALAX and CROWDS.

Gatchaman Crowds GALAX

GALAX is a social media app that, in true visual media tradition, doesn’t work by using words, lists and pictures but instead inefficiently populates a virtual world with virtual avatars that interact within it (see also Oz in Summer Wars). Its main purpose is twofold. Firstly it works to make the world a better place by connecting people based on their skillset and their location. For example, when one character is hit by a car their friend uses GALAX to describe the situation and GALAX alerts a nearby nurse that she should go and help.

GALAX then represents an argument that the world is better when people are doing what they do best for no reason other than doing what they do best benefits all. That is explicitly a Communist idea and like Communism it runs up against a major practical problem. Who decides what your job should be that best benefits society?

Gatchaman Crowds LOAD

Gatchaman side steps the issue somewhat by having the entity in charge of all the decision making be an objective super-intelligent A.I. named X. But that A.I. still had to be invented by someone who created it to reflect their values, and that person is Rui Ninomiya aka LOAD aka the super genius boy who invented X, GALAX, CROWDS and tried to use his intelligence to make the world a better place. And the fact that GALAX isn’t objective but works to reflect the dictatorship of LOAD is not something the series will shy away from.

The other issue Communism and by extension GALAX runs into is how to motivate people to work. Sure some people will help for the sake of helping but not the majority, and not if the job is dangerous or difficult. Capitalism fixes this issue by use of currency as a motivator and GALAX does something similar through the use of gamification. See when that Nurse helped that kid, she got a higher score in her game of GALAX.

Gamification, the idea of turning real world activities into the equivalent of a video game with scores and rewards is sometimes posited as a real alternative economy for the future. The argument goes that when automisation eventually replaces the need for people to work the only way to get them to do the minimal jobs required by full automisation will be to turn work into a game with status and rewards for those who do well at it. Gamification is not some Sci-Fi future though, apps that give you points and badges for working out, organising your life or assisting in charity exist right now and in Gatchaman Crowds they’re the engine that runs GALAX and we see it spring into action when GALAX organises a group of school kids to stop a shipment of tainted milk (???) and they do it for the mix of helping and for the adventure of playing the game.

Gatchaman-Crowds the hundreds

GALAX gives the power to improve the world to the people, not to Super Heroes and it goes one step further. LOAD has picked 100 special high scoring GALAX users and given them the power of CROWDS. A variation on the Gatchaman’s own powers CROWDS is a kind of faceless avatar for each GALAX user that inhabits the real world. Huge, strong and indestructible these weird monsters assist in clearing road accidents and rescuing people from a damaged cable car.

The Gatchaman then aren’t the only people with extraordinary power in this universe, anyone can be a Super Hero if they play enough GALAX i.e. if they help enough people.

Point 3 of my definition then, Super Heroes possess the ability to do something beyond those of normal people, is gone.

So what about point 1? Super Heroes have some kind of alternate identity, usually signified by a code name? Again this is initially true of The Gatchaman and is then discarded. They start out as secret heroes with secret identities but one of the first things Hajime does when CROWDS starts to become a threat rather than an asset is to take The Gatchaman public. She starts a PR campaign harnessing the power of the media (both traditional and newer forms like social and GALAX) to turn the public against the threat of CROWDS and unite people to help. When they were 5 people working in secret The Gatchaman had no chance to stop CROWDS, the only way to stop them is to enlist the aid of others and in doing that their fame and public profile are more useful than Sugane’s sword or Joe’s guns. Again, communication is more useful to fight a threat than punching.

It’s also not a coincidence that Hajime starts her PR campaign at an elementary school. Kids are the easiest hearts and minds to convince but also the most important. The beliefs we hold as children rarely stay with us into adulthood but those that do stand the test of time become our most strongly held principles. Inspiring children is an important part of making the world better and it is as inspirational figures that Super Heroes work, better than as warriors. Especially because kids respond to good vs evil Super Hero stories better than to complicated tales with multiple shades of morality. In both our real world and in the metafiction of Gatchaman Crowds the power of the Super Hero is in inspiring children to do good.

Point 1 is also shredded in Gatchaman Crowds by the fact that EVERYONE has a secret identity. Of course The Gatchaman do but Rui is a boy whereas his alter ego LOAD is a girl. Every user of GALAX has an online avatar, a second identity they can customise and which they show to the world. Even on a more mundane level Joe wears a suit and tie at work and has his hair tied up neatly in a ponytail as he plays the role of civil servant but then when he gets home he slips on cool clothes, lets his hair down, puts a cigarette in his mouth and goes out to the bar. Everyone has multiple identities and roles.

This might be a peculiarly Japanese thing since they have always strongly drawn the distinction between honne and tatemae, home and public, the face you show to the world and the face you only show to yourself. The principle is not alien to the West where we do understand the concept of politeness and not doing things in public you would in private but we’ve also told people to be themselves, express their emotions and be honest whereas in Japan the cultural norms have always been about putting on a false face for the benefit of others. The end result though is the concept of an alternate identity is not exclusive to the Super Hero, it’s an everyday thing for the Japanese. And as social media becomes increasingly the mainstream culture the difference between our real self and a cultivated public identity is becoming an issue we in the West also need to struggle with. What used to be an issue for celebrities and public figures now affects us all.

That just leaves point number 2, Super Heroes have a distinctive appearance that separates them from normal people, and whilst this is never subverted in Gatchaman Crowds in that The Gatchaman always have their costumes there are plenty of characters with outlandish appearances outside of costume from LOAD’s bunny ears, to the GALAX avatars to PaiPai (literally a talking toy Panda, and the leader of the Gatchaman).

So having completely upended the concept of a Super-Hero the series goes on to ask the question “How can we make the world a better place and what is stopping us?”

Let’s start with the characters who are failing to make the world a better place, the original Gatchaman, the 4 heroes who have been failing to save the world for 5 years until Hajime shows up and fixes everything.

Gatchaman-Crowds-Joe Hibiki

Joe is the only direct carry over from the original Gatchaman. In that series Joe was the cocky bad boy rebel but one of the more competent and deadly team members. He was the Wolverine to use a TV Tropes comparison. Here he seems set up to be similar, he’s older than most team members, he goes to bars, he smokes and he often shows up late for meetings. He also has one of the more destructive sets of super powers, flight, guns and fire manipulation abilities.

Joe represents wasted potential. With all his powers Joe should be able to defeat the villain easily but he thinks he can’t, and because he thinks he can’t then he doesn’t try to.  He has a lack of confidence and bemoans his lack of ability when the irony is, dude is a Super Hero! Joe stands in for every person who has ever said “I would make the world a better place if I had x power.” Where x = money, time, intelligence, etc. The irony with Joe is that he has the power and still makes the same argument and this should be read as a direct statement to every person who has ever made Joe’s argument. You do have the power to make the world a better place and wishing for more power will not help.

The defining moment for him as a character is in episode 2 where he is practicing darts. We see him hit the bull with three darts in a row and his friend suggests he should compete but Joe dismisses it out of hand, saying he isn’t as a good as people that compete. This kind of attitude, this feeling like you lack the ability to make the world better is a reason people don’t make the world better.

gatchaman_crowds-01-sugane-g_team-katana-blonde_hair-yellow_eyes

Sugane is the most straight forwardly heroic of the Gatchaman. He’s competent in the use of his powers able to easily take down the MESS in episode 1 and he’ll be the main character to transform and take on problems throughout the series. He’s also a good student, he’s always on time to meetings, he does what he’s told and he’s just generally a nice guy if a little bit stiff and little bit of a stickler for the rules. The problem with Sugane is he lacks creativity, ambition and crucially the ability to make decisions for himself. Sugane is always looking to others to tell him what to do, normally PaiPai as the official leader of the team but he also looks up to Joe, JJ and eventually Hajime. Sugane is a soldier basically, he is fully committed to making the world a better place but he wants orders, he wants somebody higher up to have made the decisions and to tell him what to do. He’s probably best summed up by his weapon, a sword. It’s a tool that does one thing and that thing is destroy. Unlike Hajime’s scissors which can destroy or create Sugane only knows how to do one thing and his lack of imagination is why he can’t make the world better.

Gatchaman-Crowds-paipai

PaiPai is a talking miniature Panda because….merchandise? He’s also the leader of the team and often an active coward. He’s like Sugane but even worse. Like Sugane he craves orders but whereas Sugane at least goes out of the base and does stuff PaiPai spends most of his time at home drinking and bemoaning the fact that he’s a coward and a terrible leader. As leader he should be giving orders but as another soldier he needs orders from someone else. And so he looks to JJ, the god of this Universe. PaiPai then represents religious people, who want God to make the world better either directly or at least by giving them instructions on what to do. And like Gods in our world JJ doesn’t talk to PaiPai so he has no new instructions, as such he has to make do with the old instructions even if they fail to take into account the changing situation. PaiPai is everyone who looks to religious authority to make the world better and why that won’t work.

Gatchaman Crowds Pai Pai

He also has a nice parallel with the Prime Minister of Japan, another character who is too scared to make leadership decisions. Both are people in charge and how many times have you said to yourself, If only I were in charge I’d fix everything. However, now they’re in charge they both feel powerless to make decisions and instead look to the people/god for answers about what they should do. It’s another example of how power ultimately doesn’t make it any easier to make a difference.

notes-of-gatchaman-crowds-episode-8-L-NtJPoX

Utsutsu and OD are very similar characters hence why they’re paired together often. Utsutsu is a very shy, almost to the point of mental illness, girl with long green hair who hangs out in her underpants because…perverts? OD is a flamboyantly gay man in appearance but is actually some kind of alien. OD is kind of awesome, although his voice is hella grating to begin with (I have no problem with people being camp but that doesn’t mean I have to like camp performers) he tones it down a bit when the voice actor settles into the character and OD is consistently one of the more measured, optimistic and pleasant people in this show. In contrast Utsutsu starts the show practically catatonic able to only say utsutsuhimasu (which can be read as I’m gloomy or I’m sleepy depending on the kanji used). She does grow as a character though gaining confidence in her desire to help others.

Gatchaman Crowds Utsutsu

Utsutsu has numerous super powers. She possesses the ability to make multiple versions of herself and I’m honestly not sure what the symbolism behind that is. Easier to decode though is her other power, with one hand she can drain life, and with the other she can give it allowing her to kill or heal with a touch. To heal though requires her to use up energy. So to heal someone requires her either to kill something else or even risk killing herself. Utsutsu represents apathy, a feeling that nothing you can do will make anything better because it could end up worse for others or yourself, so why even try. This apathy extends to every aspect of her character initially but as she matures in confidence she decides to risk doing harm or even risk her life to help. Apathy is probably the thing preventing most people from making the world a better place I’d wager, a feeling that giving of one’s self to help is a waste of time at best and potentially harmful to you and Utsutsu’s arc comes in realising that the apathy disengages her from the world and risk is necessary to experience joy.

gatchaman-crowds-go-bird-transformation-od-utsusu-seventhstyle-001

OD also has powers with a drawback, namely that he is easily the team’s most powerful member and easily capable of defeating the villain Berg Katse. And this is true, in the final episode OD transforms for the first time in the series and kicks Berg Katse’s ass. The issue is that OD is too powerful, when he transforms he risks destroying half the city. OD is a kind of personification of a nuclear option; something we know would be effective but cannot do because there are too many real and important consequences if we did. OD not using his powers is the equivalent of you not quitting that job you hate or leaving a person you don’t love. It is simple to do and undeniably effective but there are good reasons you aren’t doing it.

OD’s arc resolves itself in two ways. Firstly, he uses his powers and everything is fine. The city doesn’t blow up. It’s all good. Sometimes the nuclear option doesn’t have as bad a consequence as you might fear. Like Utsutsu OD allows his fear of consequences to prevent him from doing something and like Utsutsu he learns you get nothing good without risk.

The second way is that it turns out OD transforming and fighting Katse was completely unnecessary to saving the day. He didn’t need to do it. Sometimes the easy but risky way is unnecessary and the safer but more difficult way is better.

Gatchaman Crowds Hajime

This brings us to Hajime. Hajime is pretty much perfect. She’s cute, she’s optimistic, she relentlessly energetic, she’s constantly saying or doing something every moment she’s on screen, people like her and she likes everyone, willing to see the best even in Berg Katse. There is a whole episode of the series where every other character basically tells her how amazing she is.

What an annoying Mary Sue right?

Well, she could be and god knows enough people who have watched Gatchaman Crowds interpreted her that way. Hajime is a real Marmite of a character. If you can’t at least tolerate her by the time episode 2 wraps up then you will not enjoy the rest of this show. But the thing for me that makes Hajime not a Mary Sue is that she ultimately isn’t the one to save the world. That role falls to the ordinary people of the world. What Hajime does do though is bring out the best in others. It is Hajime who convinces Rui to give the power of CROWDS to the common people and then convinces the common people to help. It’s Hajime who convinces the other Gatchaman that they do have the power to save the world. Hajime has only one power as an individual, the power to inspire, but in that power she gets others to collectively save the world.

The defining characteristic of Hajime is that she’s an artist. When we first meet she is massively geeking out over stationery and every moment we see her at home she is making something. Her Gatchaman forms with its scissors and brushes makes this clear, our heroine symbolises art. Gatchaman Crowds is pretty clear in its thesis that communication is what will save the day and what is art but just another kind of communication?

It’s also all very Meta. Super Heroes aren’t real of course so hoping for the power to be one (like Joe) or hoping one will show up to save the world for you (like Sugane and PaiPai) is pointless. It isn’t going to happen. But Super Hero stories are real and the power they have to inspire, particularly children, is as real and as effective at making the world better in the real world as it is in Gatchaman Crowds.

Gatchaman-Crowds civil servants

The Gatchaman are all a small part of a larger group of characters in the story we can loosely class as civil servants. This is made clear by the fact that Joe actually is a civil servant. The Gatchaman are anointed their power by another authority and have to abide by the rules. In this sense they’re like cops, soldiers, firemen and even politicians. They derive power from a system to serve that system. And being part of that system means they are limited in what they can do. The Mayor, the soldier lady and the cop lady all have power, ostensibly more power than Rui, a civilian, do but they can use that power only to maintain the safe running of the status quo. Being granted power by a system means you can’t change that system.

But all these civil servant characters are part of Hajime’s art club, a group that meets up to do literally whatever they want (in an artistic context) with the idea that their free expression will make the world better if only in a small way (decorating areas damaged by an earthquake). The message couldn’t be clearer, all of these servants are more effective at improving the world as people than as their roles, and their roles can only maintain the world.

Gatchaman-Crowds Rui

This brings us to Rui/LOAD. Ultra genius boy wonder transvestite whom is going to level up the world. Unlike the Gatchaman (Hajime excepted) Rui doesn’t have anything stopping him from trying to make the world a better place. He’s already doing it, and doing it quite successfully. With GALAX Rui has created an entirely voluntary system that makes the world better, teaming up the best of people so their individual strengths can be harnessed for the good of all.

It’s a good plan and its working but it isn’t working fast enough. For Rui the main problem is that people still need an outside authority to tell them what to do. They still worship heroes and leaders rather than recognising that the strength lies within them to change the world. And GALAX in its present form is limited in what it can accomplish. Sure he can get a nurse to help with first aid but what can he do to stop a cable car disaster?

So he accepts a shortcut, CROWDS, giant strong avatars given to him by Berg Katse.

Gatchaman Crowds ruirui

With CROWDS Rui can achieve much more, he has real physical power to save more people. He could even go further, he could tear down the government building and declare anarchy, murder criminals, do any of a million things with the power at his disposal. And he fears all that power being under the control of one person. So, ironically, he sets up a series of rules and guidelines to use it. The users of CROWDS, The Hundreds, are handpicked by LOAD to exacting specifications and they can only use their powers when he expressly okays it. This means Rui is now a leader, a dictator in fact with unlimited power that he doles out as he sees fit. He has the best of intentions but he has nonetheless turned into a leader, the very thing he wants to create a world without.

The Hundreds quickly tire of Rui’s self-prevaricating bullshit and when given the first opportunity to rebel, do so, using their powers to destroy the Diet building (where the government of Japan sits) and generally going on an anarchic rampage to try and trigger a revolution in Japan.

Rui/LOAD is another leader character but whereas Rui has the courage and the intelligence to lead he doesn’t want the power and authority that comes with it because he implicitly realises that power corrupts. Rui is an ideas person, he is at his best when coming up with plans and strategies to make the world better but he can’t be the one to accept the responsibility for putting those plans into action. His arc follows that of many revolutionaries. At an ideas stage Rui is full of good plans to improve the world and he quickly attracts followers (a crowd if you will) who agree with him. These followers give him the power to put his ideas into practice and he now has a choice. He can let his ideas go, to be used by others and risk seeing them perverted into something he doesn’t agree with or he can take the mantle of leadership and risk becoming corrupted himself, another authority or status quo he railed against to begin with. Neither solution is ideal and which decision the show ultimately favours brings us to Berg Katse.

Gatchaman-Crowds Berg Katse

Berg Katse is the villain and like all good Super Villains Berg Katse is symbolic of a larger real world problem that the heroes can solve symbolically by punching. Except you can’t defeat Berg Katse by punching him because Berg Katse isn’t an external force, Berg Katse is us. Berg Katse is androgynous and faceless. Berg Katse can literally wear the face of any person in the show and when Berg Katse uses their transformation ability they become invisible, a complete non-entity. Berg Katse represents the dark impulse in every human being, the impulse to strike out suddenly, to stab someone or push them over. An impulse we may have but which we normally ignore. Barge Katse can bring this impulse out and they do it most effectively with The Hundreds. Anonymous figures protected from the consequences of their actions by invulnerable avatars it isn’t a stretch to read The Hundreds as the faceless hordes of internet trolls mindlessly tearing down the art that others create. They may even think they do so in the name of a good cause but they’re misguided at best and malicious at worst as they destroy the world around them. Berg Katse manipulated The Hundreds into doing that because Berg Katse is nothing more and nothing else than the impulse in human beings to destroy, to not make the world a better place but a worse one.

You can’t defeat Berg Katse. OD fights him and takes his physical form down but even then he is regenerating. You can fight the symptoms of Berg Katse, undo the damage they have wrought but at the end he is still there, inside Hajime’s heart, trapped and repressed but still existing and still capable of manipulating someone again.

Berg Katse, the dark human impulse, is the reason all of Rui’s good ideas were perverted but even though his CROWDS became a problem they were defeated. And what were they defeated by……..?

Us, people, you and me, the common man, mankind.

Gatchaman Crowds is ultimately pretty clear in its philosophy. When asking how different groups of people can make the world a better place it firmly establishes that no individual can make the world better. No matter how much power they have, no matter how many followers they have, no matter how smart they are, no matter how much they want to, no individual can change the world.

The best an individual can do is inspire others to be better (Hajime) through their actions, through their art or through communication. Or maybe they can come up with something very clever that helps others to make the world better (Rui), a strategy, a plan, a new tool. Individuals can contribute to improving the world but the ultimate responsibility and the ultimate power to affect change lies with us.

So Gatchaman CROWDS ends with Rui’s Hundreds taken away from him by Berg Katse, manipulated into causing wanton destruction throughout Japan. And Rui saves the day by giving the power of CROWDS to everyone, creating a system where no one has power that someone else doesn’t have also and inspired by the actions of the Gatchaman and the words of the Prime Minister ordinary people band together to stop the threat.

But it doesn’t end there. Having stopped the threat people now use the power of CROWDS to repair the damage, make lunches for people, make new art, etc. Rui feared giving out the power would have bad consequences, and it did, but giving people that power also had good consequences he never imagined.

Gatchaman Crowds is quite simply a master piece. I have rarely seen a work in the Super Hero genre that so thoroughly interrogated the purpose of the Super Hero both within the fictional context and within the meta-context of why we as readers turn to Super Hero narratives. It was an almost life changing experience for me, causing me to rethink my own assumptions and actually question what I do with my life and how I am contributing to improving the world, or more often how I make excuses not to.

It is far from perfect, as a narrative and as a piece of animation it has technical and structural issues that often makes it a difficult watch. However, as a symbolic work of art this might just be the most important work in the Super Hero genre since Watchmen.

*Also most examples of super-hero stories that question the need for super-heroes to fight foes try to have their cake and eat it too by ending the story with a big fight sequence where the heroes win. This is because you can’t fight genre conventions. Your audience wants to see punching and if you deny them punching they will not like your story. Gatchaman Crowds nearly manages to deny the audience any Super Hero action for its entire run time but it capitulates towards the end. Even so all the scenes of the Gatchaman using their powers are heavily symbolically implied to be a failure on the character’s part that is not helping them achieve their goals.

Superman Gary Frank Mummyboon

As part of a lengthy piece I’m writing about Gatchaman Crowds it became necessary to define what constitutes the Super Hero genre, and then that short paragraph spun out into an entirely new post.

Because defining what is and isn’t a Super Hero story is actually very difficult.

You wouldn’t think it would be. It is easy to look at the classic Superman as the archetypal Super Hero and go; powers, costume, secret identity, fights Super Villains that there is a Super Hero.

But it isn’t quite that easy. Powers? Batman doesn’t have them and he’s probably the 2nd most famous Super Hero of all time. Costumes? None of the Runaways have them, Smallville didn’t have them, Hellboy doesn’t wear one but these are all Super Heroes. Secret Identity? Everyone knows Tony Stark is Iron Man. Fights Super Villains? Surely that’s set in stone? But then there aren’t many Super villains in Watchmen, in V for Vendetta, in Miracleman and I would argue all of those are Super Hero stories.

The basic problem with defining the Super Hero genre is that genres are a mix of what can broadly be termed iconographic elements and structural elements (or alternatively connotative and denotative).

Star Wars Poster Mummyboon

Iconographic elements refer to the things in the setting that define the genre or sometimes the style with which the setting is portrayed. If you have aliens, ray guns, robots, spaceships, cyborgs, etc then you have a science fiction story. Similarly elves, dwarves, magic, monsters and wizards are all iconographic elements of the fantasy genre.

Iconographic elements are the easiest for the audience to latch onto but they’re sometimes the least useful in determining what genre a particular story is. Star Wars, for example, has space ships and ray guns but it also has magic, is it SF or Fantasy (many would argue it is a hybrid genre like science fantasy or space opera). Alien has aliens and spaceships but that’s a horror film, right? Spaceballs has space ships and aliens but that’s a comedy.

Conan the Barbarian Mummyboon

Iconographic elements are usually only signifiers of the structural elements that determine who the characters are, what the narrative beats will be and what the aim of the story is. For example, you can tell a science fiction without any of the normal SF iconography because SF is always concerned with answering the question “what if?” SF starts from a stand point of asking a question, usually about humanity and our relationship with technology, and then extrapolating out the outcomes of that question. The Man from Earth for example is undoubtedly an SF story, it asks what if there was an immortal man, but is set entirely in one room of a house and features no technology beyond modern day. The answer of “why is he immortal?” might be magic but that doesn’t make this a fantasy. That’s because fantasies, structurally, are concerned with a quest arc. Find this thing or go to this place to achieve this goal (usually defeating the baddie), and the meat of the story is the journey to get the thing or get to the place. LoTR, Narnia, His Dark Materials, Krull, the list of fantasy stories that conform to this template is endless.

Then you get the genres where the purpose of the story is the main thing defining the structure. Horror and Comedy are the clearest example, if the story aims to make you scared, it’s a Horror, if it aims to make you laugh, it’s a Comedy. Horror does have iconographic elements (ghosts, monsters, vampires, slashers) but if you can scare your audience you’ve made a horror whether or not those iconographic elements are in your story.

The thing that makes Super Hero stories hard to define as a genre is the lack of a firm structural element that is shared across them. Because most Super Hero stories appear in comics, and because comics are a serialised medium, creators are constantly having to think up new things for their characters to do.

And that’s hard. So they steal stuff.

They take inspiration from other genres and have their characters shift into that genre for a storyline. In the X-Men alone I can think of Horror stories (the one where Kitty fights a N’Gari alone at Christmas), Fantasy Epics (the Kulan Gath crossover, Inferno, the recent storyline rescuing Nightcrawler from Heaven), Space Opera (The Dark Phoenix Saga), Mythological tales (the time they all went to Asgard), Science Fiction (Days of Future Past), Comedy (loads but “Girl’s Night Out” jumps to mind) and many, many more. The X-Men switch genres with every story and so do The Avengers, The JLA and any other long running Super Hero team.

And this Post-Modern mixing and matching applies to the iconographic elements as well. The Avengers have had on their team Thor (from mythology), The Vision (an SF robot), Dr Strange (a Fantasy magician), Luke Cage (a Blaxploitation character of all things), Blade (a vampire hunter with his roots in Horror) and yet The Avengers is unquestionably a Super Hero team.

This Post-Modern mixing and matching of elements is actually one of the things I absolutely adore about Super Hero comics but it does make it bloody hard to say what is and isn’t a Super Hero.

So let’s go back to Superman and look at those key things we drew out of him and see what is and isn’t necessary to be a Super Hero.

The Key Things from Superman:

Super Powers

Costume

Secret Identity

Saves People

Fights Super-Villains

 

Super Powers

Goku Mummyboon

The presence of super powers would at first glance seem to be the biggest thing making your main character a Super Hero but it’s actually the weakest criteria of them all. There are Super powered characters in plenty of stories that would never be classed as Super Hero, indeed the leads in nearly every Fantasy story written have some kind of extra human ability. Harry Potter, for example, if he was in the Marvel Universe would put on a costume and go fight bad guys but nobody would dream of calling him a Super Hero.

And it’s just as true on the flip-side. Batman is easily the 2nd most iconic Super Hero there is and he has no powers. And he’s not alone, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Shang Chi, all the bat family; there is a long tradition on non-powered Super Heroes.

What all of these characters can do though is something that ordinary people can’t. Batman may not have powers but he is fantastically wealthy almost to the point of being able to do whatever he likes, he has gadgets and weapons ordinary people can’t access, he is amazingly good at martial arts, he’s an acrobat and he’s the world’s greatest detective. There are plenty of reasons you can’t be Batman and it isn’t because your parents are alive.

This is probably the number 1 iconographic element of the Super Hero, off the top of my head I can only think of a single example of a Super Hero with no abilities beyond normal man and that’s Kick Ass, which is sort of a cheat. However I can name plenty of Super powered individuals in other genres so on its own, this isn’t enough.

The Costume

Batman Neal Adams Mummyboon

Of course, you think! I know what Superman and Batman have in common, they both wear capes and underpants on the outside! Surely it is all in the costume. Batman may have no powers but he and all his friends dress up in silly costumes to fight baddies, that’s what makes a Super Hero.

Certainly if you’ve designed a character with a cape, tights and underpants on the outside then without question there is a Super Hero in your story. However, what is and isn’t considered a costume swiftly gets into dodgy territory. The Hulk doesn’t wear a costume, he wears normal street clothes but he is immediately recognisable as the Hulk because he’s huge and bright green. Hellboy doesn’t have a costume but with red skin, a tail, devil horns and an enormous right hand he sure does stand out.

A better way to phrase this would be that Super Heroes have a distinctive appearance that separates them from normal people. That kind of phrase includes Superman, Batman, The Hulk and Hellboy. It even includes many non-costumed Heroes. The Runaways are probably the poster kids for Heroes without costumes but Nico’s Staff, Chase’s Fistigons and Arsenic’s purple hair and dinosaur give them a distinctive design that would stand out on the street.

Runways Mummyboon

The only examples of Heroes without a distinctive visual that I can think of come from media outside comics like Clark in Smallville and there is a very good reason for this that again is due to the medium. Comics require you to evoke a recognisable character over multiple panels and multiple issues and often drawn by different artists. With the limitations of printing technology back when most Super Heroes were designed you have to do this using only 4 colours and a few quite thick lines. The end result is that Superman’s face can look quite different from artist to artist and panel to panel and it becomes impossible to recognise him just based on the face. So how do you ensure your audience recognises him? You give him something iconic like his s shaped jehri curl and his costume.

In live action though the audience can recognise the actor’s face so there is no need to have these distinguishing visual characteristics. When you start thinking about other comics, comic strip and animation characters though you soon realise that the stipulation “a distinctive appearance that separates them from normal people.” Is far too broad. For starters it seems to absorb most shonen anime characters. Think about Goku in Dragonball, with his monkey tail and red gi he stands out from the background crowd but nobody would call him a Super Hero. How about Edward in Full Metal Alchemist, very distinctive with his red coat and cyborg limbs but not remotely a Super Hero. Hell you could argue that this rule applies to Charlie Brown, Homer Simpson and Tintin and none of those are Super Heroes.

Secret Identity

Spider-Man Mark Bagley Mummyboon

Ah but the key thing about the costume is that it signifies the Super Hero’s secret identity. Clark Kent puts the costume on and now he’s Superman, not Clark Kent. The world may make fun of Peter Parker but when dons his tights the world will love Spider-Man.

The Secret Identity is a great story telling device creating tension between the private life of the character and their adventures as a Super Hero. It generates a huge number of plot devices that comics have reused for decades; “I have to do an important thing but this villain is attacking the city at the same time,” “oh no, the villain has discovered my secret identity and now can threaten my loved ones,” “oh no, a villain is attacking and I’m in my secret identity, how will I escape to change into costume?”  It’s such a good device for generating plots that it’s been used for tons of stories that have nothing to do with Super Heroes. Hannah Montana for example. In fact it pre-dates the Super Hero going all the way back to at least The Scarlet Pimpernel. Now some argue that this makes The Scarlet Pimpernel the earliest Super Hero (he arguably is actually) but I would say that using this device does not make your story part of the Super Hero genre.

And vice versa, not all Super Heroes have secret identities. In fact at this point I’d wager the majority of Super Heroes do not have a secret identity. Amongst the major marvel Heroes Captain America, Iron Man, Hawkeye, Hulk, Black Widow, She-Hulk, all the X-Men,  Captain Marvel, The Guardians of the Galaxy and arguably Thor all have identities known to the public at large. It’s basically Spider-Man and some teenagers with secret identities these days.

But notice I didn’t refer to them as Steve Rogers, Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, Clint Barton and Natasha Romanov. I used their codenames because they all have them. Whether or not their civilian identity is a secret or not most Super Heroes draw a distinction between a personal life and a heroic alter ego. The world may know Steve Rogers is Captain America but he’s not actually being Cap until he puts the mask on.

And notably this excludes a lot of those shonen manga Heroes. Goku, Naruto, Ichigo and Luffy are always Goku, Naruto, Ichigo and Luffy whether they’re fighting bad guys or eating food. They don’t have some normal identity they retreat to. Interestingly this doesn’t include most Magical Girl characters or Tokusetsu characters (Power Rangers, Kanen Rider, Ultraman) all of which feel inherently more Super Heroey to me. This idea of an alternate identity then seems crucial to the definition of a Super Hero.

I propose the rule then is “Super Heroes have some kind of alternate identity signified by a code name.”

Saves People

Superman Saving Someone Mummyboon

Super Heroes are Heroes, that means they save people.

Really? Have you read a Batman story in recent years? I can’t remember the last time I saw him on-panel save an innocent life. Punch thugs? Yup. Do some detective work? Yup. Catch someone falling off a bridge. I can remember something like it happening in Batman #1 3 years ago but since then, nada.

But there is a larger context to consider here. Batman might not be catching falling civilians or rescuing kids from fires but by his actions fighting villains he is saving people in another way. In the current Year Zero Arc, The Riddler has engineered a situation where electricity isn’t working in Gotham City, outside help is barred from entering and people are dying. By outsmarting the Riddler and defeating him physically Batman puts to an end that situation and stops more people dying. By punching the bad guy he saves people’s lives.

My slightly more nuanced way of putting it would be:

“By their direct actions or the consequences thereof the Super Hero acts to saves lives or improve the quality of lives for others.”

Now again, this is massively broad and encompasses nearly every Fantasy, SF, Action and Western protagonist you can name. In fact it’s more a definition of a hero than s Super Hero. But this to me is one of a two part structural component of the Super Hero genre alongside.

Fights Super Villains

The Joker Mummyboon

To me nothing more defines a Super Hero than that they are thrown into conflict with Super Villains. What’s a Super villain you ask?  Well we can apply the same logic for the iconographic elements, if your antagonist has abilities beyond normal people, a distinctive appearance that marks them out as separate to normal people and some kind of alternate identity then you have a Super Villain.

And the conflict between hero and villain is always resolved in some kind of physical sense. This doesn’t have to mean fighting (although, yeah, 99% of the time a Super Hero story resolves in punching) but it can mean the hero making some Superhuman act of endurance, a Superhuman sacrifice, a physical exertion beyond mortal means or outwitting the villain by hacking a thingy, pressing a thingy or inventing a thingy. But the conflict should be resolved as a result of the hero’s own ability to do things normal humans cannot not just by talking nicely, getting the police involved or some kind of deus ex machina.

Doctor Doom Mummyboon

The great thing about Super Villains for me is that they stand in symbolically for the theme of the story. If you’re writing an X-Men story about how racism is bad you can create a Super Villain that symbolises racism and then have the X-Men punch them to symbolise racism being defeated. Is it subtle? Oh Christ on a bike no. Is it satisfying and cathartic? Oh yes!

For me though the fighting Super Villain thing goes hand in hand with the previous point. If your protagonist is punching Super Villains to get rich, score women or to complete their paid job then you’re not a Super Hero narrative.

Structurally then I’d state that the Super Hero narrative is thus:

“Utilising their abilities beyond those of a normal person and either by their direct actions or the consequences thereof the Super Hero acts to saves lives or improve the quality of lives for others in direct conflict to the intentions of a Super Villain antagonist”

That seems pretty comprehensive right, and narrow enough to only apply to Super Heroes?

Yeah…not so much. Whilst it applies to most Super Hero films I’ve seen recently it also applies to most action films I’ve seen recently, as well as a heck of a lot of Fantasy, SF and even some Westerns.

The problem with trying to define a Super Hero story structurally is that the stories go right back to the roots of western literature. Super Heroes are often described as modern myths and I believe this to be true and structurally the idea of turning the subtext into a text that is resolved via conflict goes all the way back to Gilgamesh. As such it has influenced all stories told ever since and so you find that Super Heroes are really lacking in a set of structural elements to call their own.

After much thought then I’ve defined my Super Hero genre test as follows.

Iconographic

  1. Super Heroes have some kind of alternate identity, usually signified by a code name.
  2. Super Heroes have a distinctive appearance that separates them from normal people.
  3. Super Heroes possess the ability to do something beyond those of normal people.

Structural

  1. Utilising their abilities beyond those of a normal person and either by their direct actions or the consequences thereof the Super Hero acts to saves lives or improve the quality of lives for others in direct conflict to the intentions of a Super villain antagonist.

The test works for me like this. If your character possesses quality 1 and at least one other Iconographic element then they’re a Super Hero. Possessing quality 2 and 3 except in rare occasions does not make them a Super Hero. In addition your character must have been involved in at least one narrative that conforms to the structure of 4. If not then yes they are a Super Hero but they are not involved in stories in the Super Hero genre.

So with those rules established let’s do some tests on some core Super Heroes and some marginals.

Superman – 1234

Superman Mummyboon

Batman – 1234

Spider-Man – 1234

Spider-Man John Romita Mummyboon

Wonder Woman – 1234

Wonder Woman Terry Dodson Mummyboon

Goku – 234 (not a Super Hero)

Goku Chibi Mummyboon

Monkey D. Luffy – 234 (not a Super Hero)

Monky D Luffy Mummyboon

Sailor Moon – 1234 (definitely a Super Hero)

Sailor Moon Mummyboon

The Power Rangers – 1234 (also definitely Super Heroes)

Red Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers Mummyboon

Indiana Jones – 234 (not a Super Hero)

Indiana Jones Mummyboon

James Bond – 34 (so we can stop that argument)

Daniel Craig James Bond Mummyboon

The Scarlet Pimpernel – 1234 (so yup, earliest example of the genre I can find)

The Scarlet Pimpernel Mummyboon

The Shadow – 1234 (although a pulp hero he also works perfectly well as a Super Hero, it’s simply an issue of tone as to which aspects of his character you wish to emphasise)

The Shadow Mummyboon

Harry Potter – 234 (and I’m only giving him 2 for the lightning bolt)

Harry Potter Mummyboon

Kane from Kung Fu – 34 (a hero, not a Super Hero)

Kane from Kung Fu Mummyboon

The Bride from Kill Bill 123 (lack of 4 means you could put the bride in a Super-hero story but she hasn’t been in one yet)

The Bride Kill Bill Mummyboon

V from V for Vendetta 1234

V for Vendetta Mummyboon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pokémon X and Y have to be the worst Pokémon main series games I have ever played.

(waits as internet erupts in outrage)

Okay have you guys calmed down now? How about now? Still going? It’s okay I’ll wait.

Feel better? Okay, I’ll continue.

I stand by that statement but I do have to offer two caveats.

The first is that even the worst Pokémon game is still really good and I did enjoy playing Pokémon X.

The second is that Pokémon X and Y are genuinely innovative and they’re trying to change what a Pokémon game can be.

Black, White and their sequels were basically the most polished and well executed version of a game that dates all the way back to the Red, Blue, Green, Yellow days of 1996.

This is a version of the game with sprites, an overhead view and Pokémon battles that have minimal sprite animation. A version of the game where you get given a choice of 3 starters from a Pokemon professor. A version of the game in which your either catch Pokémon and forfeit experience or grind them into the dust. A game in which you start off not being able to catch much but  a few Pidgeys and Rattatas and that when you walk into a cave mobs you with Zubats.

Black, White, B2 and W2 were basically the most perfect possible version of this game. The sprites were gorgeous, colourful, beautifully rendered and full of character but they were still sprites and short of hand animating every Pokémon’s every move they looked as good as they were going to. The story was clever and inventive and challenged the very core of what Pokémon is all about but it was a story that felt very grounded in the rules established by the Pokémon world in previous games. What’s more there were lots of small touches, refinements and improvements that just made the overall game experience better than anything before. Putting shops inside Pokécentres for example, or the BWT or taking away poison in the over world.

Having created basically the perfect Pokémon game the only thing you can do to go forward is to change what Pokémon is, to fundamentally alter what the base level of the games is about and throw loads of new innovations in there. And X and Y have dozens of new ideas and completely game changing shifts. The addition of Fairy type, the nerfing of weather, adding loads more variety of species to each area, Mega Evolution, experience on capture, Horde Battles, Sky Battles, the list goes on.

Some of these innovations are welcome and great improvements to the game. I love that we get more variety of species in each area, particularly early on. Whereas in most games you fight nothing but small birds and small rodents in the first few areas by the end of the second route I pretty much had a full team with a wide variety of types. That’s great, it makes the game interesting and varied from the off. Some of the changes are less well thought out. Horde Battles are basically something I avoided as much as possible. If I’m trying to get somewhere I quite like being able to one shot scrub enemy Pokémon and just get on with the story. Forcing me to attack 5 times doesn’t provide me with a greater challenge but it does drag out the time. Similarly Sky Battles are really ill conceived. They add no depth to the combat except to exclude a bunch of popular Pokémon and provide a much more limited meta game. If Sky Battles had some kind of movement mechanic they might be interesting but as it is I basically skipped them.

Some ideas are good but need more polish. The additional XP should be nice but X and Y were the worst scaling Pokémon games I have yet played. In every game I’ve ever played yet the badge limits to control monsters hasn’t been a factor. Designed properly you should have monsters that are roughly equal in level to your opponents at any time. The badge mechanic is to stop you just grinding out one powerful monster and dominating the game or trading in a level 100 beast from an old game. What it should not do is kick in when you’re playing normally . The gaps between gyms early on in X and Y are ridiculous. My Blaziken had made it past lvl 30 before I reached gym 2 and I was deliberately trying not to use him. Then once you’ve beaten the 8th gym there is a loooooong grind to lvl 100 and not many ways to gain the XP needed to get there. Black and White were probably the most perfectly balanced and scaled Pokémon games yet providing me with a real challenge when I reached the Elite 4 for the second time but lots of ways to gain more XP to beat them.

The biggest changes of course are the graphics, Mega Evolution and the Fairy Type.

In terms of the Graphics Pokémon has gone from a top down sprite game on a fixed grid to a 3D polygon game. This is a mixed blessing. In battles it works amazingly well. The new Pokémon especially take advantage of the opportunities for a greater range of animation and more integration between what the monster is doing and the attack. This is the best looking game for battles yet, surpassing the home console versions easily. In terms of the map it’s much more mixed. Generally it works roughly the same as any old game did with a largely top down viewpoint. Whenever it goes behind your character though it is a mess. Lumiose city is practically unplayable its so hard to navigate. The problem is there’s no camera button so it becomes really hard to orientate yourself in what is basically a big circle where everything looks the same. It’s a nightmare and I avoided going to that city like the plague. And that’s a shame because it is full of stuff to do and clearly the centrepiece of the game but I’m sorry X and Y I just couldn’t find anywhere in order to do stuff. In the end I had to resort to using an FAQ and riding cabs constantly.

Then there’s Mega Evolution

Evolution is where one Pokémon turns into a different Pokémon gaining a stat boost in the process, changing its appearance and sometimes gaining new typing or abilities.

Mega Evolution is the same in every respect but the following.

1. in normal evolution the Pokémon cannot change back to the Pokémon it was before, but Mega Evolution only lasts for the duration of a Pokémon battle.

2. Mega Evolution happens during a Pokémon battle.

3. In order to mega Evolve the Pokémon must hold a special stone and the trainer is required use a special device which looks an awful lot like a wrist watch.

I don’t like it.

It’s hard to explain why I don’t like Mega Evolution but it basically has something to do with the story function of evolution. Evolution in Pokémon is not like evolution in real life since it happens to individuals and not to the species as a whole. Evolution in Pokémon is more like metamorphosis or puberty, an irreversible change that happens to an animal as it gets older. That’s why we get things like Caterpie evolving into Metapod evolving into Butterfree. It mirrors the life cycle of a real caterpillar as it undergoes metamorphosis and turns into a butterfly.

It may not function exactly like something in real nature but it gestures towards it and helps reinforce the nature theme of Pokémon. This isn’t an RPG where levelling up is some kind of arbitrary mechanic but instead relates to an animal ageing and maturing.

It also allows for some cool story telling ideas built into what is ultimately just a game mechanic. Look at Magikarp to Gyarados or Feebas to Milotic which reference an ancient Chinese myth and the ugly duckling respectively. Cool evolutions can lead to some really cool Pokémon concepts. In fact Gen 6 actually has some of the most imaginative evolution mechanics I’ve seen in any games so far.

The key thing that cements the reality of this mechanic for me though is that it isn’t reversible. Once you’ve evolved that’s it, you can’t go back and whilst you always get a stat boost from evolution you can lose something in the change in appearance or even in a type or ability change.

Being reversible Mega Evolution is more like a form/forme change like when Rotom turns an electric ghost into an electric ghost possessing a washing machine, or a refigerator, etc. Or Cherrim opening up its leaves during the sunshine.

Form changes have been a part of the game since the 3rd Gen and I have never had a problem with them, in fact I actually really like them. The reason I like them over Mega Evolution is twofold.

Firstly Form changes usually only have an aesthetic change like Sawsbuck’s appearance changing with the season. When they do have an in-game effect it usually has an advantage and a drawback i.e. the various forms of Deoxys which sacrifice defense for speed as one example.

Secondly the form changes all said something about the Pokémon in question, they opened up a story telling ideas. Why can Deoxys change form? Because he’s virus themed and viruses mutate rapidly. Why does Sawsbuck change forms? Because his horns are tree branches and he’s showing the cycle of trees as season’s change.

Mega Evolution doesn’t do this. Every Pokémon that mega evolves does so in the same way, magic stone plus wristwatch and the designs don’t give any kind of storytelling idea other than slightly spikier version of existing monster.

What Mega Evolution most resembles is the concept of Henshin, or change, that you get in shows like Power Rangers or Kannen Rider. Think about it, with the wristwatch device, the magic stones, the special effects and the striking a pose doesn’t Mega Evolution remind you of the Power Rangers Morphin’ Sequences?

Once you realise that it becomes clear that Mega Evolution fits into a tradition of transforming and powering up that is huge in Japanese culture and all over anime and computer games. Super Saiyans in DBZ, Guyver, Digimon, Power Rangers, Gurren Lagann, Super Mario, and on and on and on.

And so whilst this is an accepted pat of anime story telling it isn’t something that has ever been part of Pokémon before and it has nothing to do with nature or mythology which is traditionally what inspires the designs and stories in Pokémon.

It’s taking a very un-Pokémon concept and inserting it into the game and it doesn’t make a good thematic fit.

It doesn’t help that it isn’t even really a very strong gameplay mechanic, a power-up with no real drawback doesn’t add much strategy to the game. In almost all cases why wouldn’t you just mega evolve any Pokémon you have that can? The only reason not to is if your Pokémon needs another item such as a leftovers to be viable.

It’s also weird that Nintendo generally gave these Mega Evolutions to Pokémon that were already very, very useable. Blaziken is only of only two non-legendaries to make it into the uber tier (well this was the case when I started writing this but now plenty of Megas and Aegislash have made this jump) and is so powerful he’s outright banned in some competitions, he did not need a Mega Evolution, neither did Garchomp or Mewtwo. Charizard appreciates the boost as does Mawile but for the most part these seem kind of superfluous.

Having said my piece let me now say that the presence of mega evolution doesn’t ruin the game for me. I don’t like it but I don’t have to use it and it is really a very minor part of the mythos.

So since we’ve talked about it so much lets review some of the Mega Evolution designs.

Mega Blastoise and Mega Venusaur

images 003_mega

One thing I should stress is that whilst I don’t like Mega Evolution as a concept that has no bearing on what I think about the designs. Most of the Mega designs are awesome and I kind of wish they just replaced the existing final stage of the monster in question. Mega Blastoise is a great example of this. Giant turtle with a cannon on its back is already a pretty neat idea but I always wondered why Blastoise had two cannons pointing at different angles. They couldn’t fire together at the same target and he’d have to angle his head out of line with his target to fire straight. Even as a kid I recognised that this was dumb. Mega Blastoise though has no such problem. His three cannons can all move so they can all aim at one target and his new one massive cannon fires straight ahead! Also his bigger cannon just looks more intimidating and overall his design looks more balanced. I’ve gotta give him points for his stlyin’ goatee too, the first in a theme of awesome beards that defines this generation.

As for Mega Venusaur…..sorry guy but you got screwed. An extra flower, extra leaves and some garlands does nothing to improve your ugly mug.

Mega Charizard Y and X

600px-006Charizard-Mega_Y charizard-mega-x

Most people’s favourite starter gets not one but two Mega Evolutions and both are awesome for different reasons.

Y fixes all the issues I had with original Charizard and in my head canon this is just what regular Charizard looks like now. My main issue was that Charmeleon had all these design elements going on, horns coming out the back of his elbows, a single horn on his head, etc that Charizard just drops. Y puts them back in though turning the elbow horns into arms wings and giving him a crown of horns that again looks more symmetrical and aesthetically pleasing than Charizard’s original horns. I love the bigger scalloped wings too which make it look much more like it could fly. And taking the patch of colour all the way up to the mouth avoids giving the impression that Charizard has a fat tummy like he did before. It’s just all around better than Charizard, more refined and improved and shows off just how far Sugimori has improved over the years.

Charizard X is awesome though because he is METAL AS FUCK! HE’S A BLACK DRAGON WITH AXE BLADE SHOULDERS AND SPIKES AND BLUE FIRE AND HE’S BLACK AND OH MY GOD I NEED TO PAINT MY ROOM BLACK AND LISTEN TO SOME SLAYER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Mega Mewtwo X and Y

Mega_Mewtwo_X704deea25e6443b9009b36281052bdf7

The other OG to get two Mega Evos is Mewtwo one of the most complex Pokémon and one of the few to have a personality, motivation and character. The Mega Evos are one of the rare examples of a Mega Evo that implies a strategy. X gains a secondary fighting type when he evolves so the Evo is far more muscular with more powerful looking legs and arms, a shorter tail and big manly shoulder pads. Y in contrast just goes all out on the psychic power so the body gets smaller, the feet and arms become even less developed and the head becomes much larger combining with the tail. The contrast in designs really sells the contrast in abilities and both designs work. I prefer Y overall though even if that seems to be a controversial opinion. Everything about Y’s design seems to sell unbelievably strong psyker for me whereas there’s stuff in X’s design that either doesn’t work or just isn’t aesthetically pleasing. I hate his feet for starters which look gangly and weird for a fighting type. I also think his big purple diaper looks goofy and so do his shoulder pads.

I can’t let any discussion of Mewtwo’s Mega Evos slip though without mention Freiza. You know Freiza? The popular villain from Dragonball Z. Changes forms and looks at various stages like this.

Frieza 3 FRIEZA4 Full_Power_Frieza

Yeah there’s some inspiration going on there and I’m just going to leave it at that.

Mega Aggron and Mega Tyranitar

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One of the things I do like the in the Mega Evolutions is the idea that these monsters are somehow unnatural. That their evolution isn’t something to do with nature but something forced upon them by an outside force. Consequently many of the Mega designs look like the animal is exploding with power, almost deformed by the strength they now possess. I don’t think any two designs better express this than Mega Aggron and Mega Tyranitar. In both cases they take the design and basically add loads o spikes but they do it in a very clever way, turning design elements from the previous monster, like Tyranitar’s head spikes, into exaggerated versions of themselves. It looks intimidating, it looks effective and it really ties in with the Mega Evolution concept.

Mega Aggron I like because his ability makes him the ultimate tank. He has the highest base defence in the game and is immune to super effective attacks making him a wall. And he now looks like a wall, wider, stockier and dumpier than before. I find his weird linked head spikes going through holes to be fussy and cluttered but overall I like Mega Aggron. Mega Tyranitar similarly kicks Tyranitar’s ass. His design is just so much more balanced. Whereas before he was weirdly lacking in the head and shoulders department compared to his body and legs the addition of head and shoulder spikes makes him look more balanced and overall just bigger and more intimidating. I particularly like his chest face. I don’t understand why his tail now looks like a peeled banana but I’m happy overall.

Oh yeah and he totally looks like space Godzilla now too.SpaceGodzilla

Mega Gardevoir

 

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I’m on record as not liking Gardevoir because a disturingly high number of perverts on the internet seem to be sincerely sexually attracted to her. Putting her in a wedding dress does nothing to fix this issue.

Mega Heracross and Mega Pinsir

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Japan absolutely adores beetles, in particular two varieties of stag beetles they nickname Atlas and Goliath. Elementary school kids adore catching these things, putting them in boxes and making them fight each other. And now you understand why Bug Catchers are a thing in Pokémon games. Every Japanese man at some point in his life put on tiny, comfortable shorts, got a net and captured innocent beetles to fight for his own amusement.

As such I am not surprised Pinsir and Heracross got some Mega Love. Thing is, these both could work as just regular evolutions for these Pokémon who are just single stage evos in the game. They don;t have the exaggerated almost deformed thing going for them that many Megas do nor are they vastly improved versions of the original designs, they just look like what Sugimori’s sketch for an evolved Pinsir probably always looked like.

Of the two I like Heracross  more since his proportions, small head, short body, short legs and massive arms, really sell the idea of strength and power. That and I have no idea what the hell those orange things are in Pinsir’s design.

Mega Manectric

 

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Are you okay Mega Manectric because that looks really heavy. That, that can’t be good for your neck. Do we need to get nurse Joy to help you little guy?

Mega Aerodactyl

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Continuing our theme of awesome beards, Aerodactyl is positively satanic with that Van Dyke and the new spiky evil eyebrows help sell it too.

Mega Alakazam

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So the evolution line for Abra, Kadabra and Alakazam goes like this.

Starts with no spoon.

Gets both spoon and moustache.

Gets an extra spoon and an even bigger moustache.

Following that logic the only place to go with a Mega is multiple spoons and an epic hermit beard. And he pulls it off well. I particularly like the yoga pose.

Mega Alakazam, you can’t fault the logic.

Mega Kangaskhan

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On the one hand Mega Kangaskhan feels very natural. What’s the ultimate form of a Kangashkan? Why using it’s baby in its attacks. Makes perfect sense and helps fill in some gaps in the Kangaskhan life cycle.

On the other hand, I really wish the baby Kangaskhan looked more like a Cubone so that this bit of fan canon could be true.

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Mega Blaziken and Mega Lucario

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Two examples where I massively prefer the mega form to the original design and wish this design just replaced it.

In Blaziken’s case I love Torchic and Combusken and despise Blaziken. May main complaints are that his hair is stupid, he had some weird feather cock thing going on, he didn’t look like a chicken and his hair is stupid. Well he still doesn’t look like a chicken but his feather cock is gone and his hair is much less stupid. In fact the change in shape to his chest and head balance his design much better giving approximately equal space to his body, head and legs. Unrealistic, yes but aesthetically pleasing. The new chest is more reminiscent of samurai garb too typing in with his martial arts theme. And the colour scheme just seems more dangerous and imposing.

Lucario is similarly much improved. I never got the love for the standing up, kick boxing dog before as he looked like a mess of randomly combined elements. I like Mega Lucario though. Like Blaziken his new shapes mean that space is more evenly distributed, the flare to his collar and dreadlocks add much needed visual interest to his head area and his slightly thicker, chunkier thighs balance out his height. Plus the addition of extra smaller spikes make the big hand, foot and chest spikes seem more organic. I like the change in colour scheme too which again seems darker and more imposing.

Mega Garchomp

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You know how adding the colour red and more spikes actually seemed to improve Lucario? Well it doesn’t work for everyone.

Plus the original scythes looked more badass, your Mega can’t be less badass, that makes no sense.

Mega Scizor

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Scyther was such a good design and whilst Scizor wasn’t better he still had charm. This though. It’s all square and boxy where it should be sleek and knife like. And those legs, they looks barely attached and just weird and angular. This is a mess of a design and all the worse because both Scyther and Scizor are really great designs.

Mega Gyarados

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You know how we all think Gyarados is bad ass? How he has such a cool, sleek design that just screams rage and power. Yeah. It is amazing how much of that is owed to his neck. For some reason get rid of his neck and he goes from being bad ass and dangerous to unbelievably derpy. Magikarp is, in fact, marginally less awkward looking than this.

Mega Abomasnow

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What I don’t like about Mega Abomasnow is that design concept has disappeared. Abomasnow is supposed to be a tree covered in snow but nothing about these shapes suggests that in the slightest. Divorced from the concept though and this is a nice design. It conveys power really effectively. The stocky design with the head in the centre suggests size and the hunched over pose where it can’t even support itself really suggests weight. The exploding effect caused by all the lines radiating from the centre says power too, almost as if Mega Abomasnow is nearly exploding with restrained strength. It’s a cool design but it isn’t Abomasnow.

Mega Meditite

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So Meditite is one of the worst design ever, combining slutty lips, hammer pants and the kind of hat stoned people who went to India once routinely wear.

Mega Meditite retains the  hammer pants and draws more attention to them, retains the slutty lips and replaces the dumb hat with, and I didn’t think this was possible, an even dumber hat. It also adds some scarves.

I suppose the logic is that Meditite is ridiculous so for the Mega we’re going to double down on the ridiculous? It kind of makes sense.

Mega Ampharos

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So Ampharos is an electric/pharoah/giraffe. What is the natural next step in that deeply confused concept?

Got it.

Pirate

Male Model from the cover of Harlequin romance. It was the missing link all along.

Mega Absol

 

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I think everybody likes Absol. He has such a unique design. He doesn’t really look like any distinct animal you can name but he does look like an animal and his yin/yang thing was subtly but effectively incorporated into his design.

Mega Absol is more of the same really except they’ve really, really leaned heavy on the emo thing. Absol always had this emo aspect to his concept since he was the harbinger of disaster and as such people hated him. They’ve now refined that by making him a literal angel of death and giving him the hair cut of Pete Wentz from Fall Out Boy. He pulls it off though.

Mega Mawile

 

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I’m on record as not really liking Mawile because on first glance it is nigh on impossible to tell what is going on. Namely that I know it has a second face but could never see it. Mega Mawile though, so much better. Getting rid of the forward facing top knot, adding a second mouth and having the mouths stand up just looks so much better. The mouths both more obviously read as hair and look more like they’re attached to Mawile.Plus the new mouth design looks more threatening. This is another Mega that should just replace the original.

Mega Gengar

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Mega Gengar is considered one of the game’s absolute power houses, banished to uber tier he is regarded as annoying, amazing and powerful.

It is a shame then that his design is horrendous.

What’s wrong with Mega Gengar, oh god what’s right with it? Let’s start with a list of design elements that seem to serve no purpose. What is that gold thing on his head? What are the arm things he suddenly has if they even are arms and similarly what is that weird tail thing? Why is he glowing from beneath? On good Pokémon designs I understand why something is there, it’s either a signifier of some meaningful element (i.e. Bulbasaur has a bulb because he is a grass type) or to improve the aesthetics (i.e.  Charizard has a band of a second colour on his chest to break up what would otherwise be a large flat space. On Mega Gengar though I have no idea what anything is doing.

Even worse he used to have a cleanly defined design concept, he looked like Celfable’s shadow, and now that has disappeared.

However the biggest sin Mega Gengar commits is that he is at worse poorly drawn or at most charitable drawn in a style that doesn’t match the other designs. By this I mean that the other Pokémon are drawn with a realistic approach with regards to perspective, whereas Mega Gengar is drawn more like a comic strip character. Judging from how his body and arms are presented Gengar is in 3/4 profile here so he’s looking at about a 45 degree angle to our left and down. The means we shouldn’t be able to see his whole mouth, it should curve round to the other side of his face where we can’t see. similarly his right eye should be lower and his left eye either higher or gone entirely. It just looks wrong and disconcerting.

Mega Gengar looks better in game but this is easily the worst artwork from Sugimori. Not only is it a bad design, it’s a bad drawing.

 

Mega Houndoom

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Remember back when Pokémon started and became the biggest thing on the planet? Remember the religious groups in America who saw it as a tool of Satan? Can you imagine how hard they would freak out if Mega Houndoom existed back then?

Mega Banette

 

 

 

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Speaking of child unfriendly, hey everyone it’s the gimp themed pokemon. Whose arms and legs are actually evil monstrous tongues. Because you’re never too young to learn about consensual S and M.

One of my running jokes is that the pokemon designs often reflect whatever the designer was looking at in his office that day. I wonder if that implies to the gimp mask pokemon.

 

The Fairy Type

The other massive change to the game in X and Y is the addition of a new typing, Fairy, the first new type since 2nd ed. This is a massive change but a very welcome one as it re-shuffles the meta game making long term threats like Hydreigon weaker whilst boosting some weaker monsters that have been languishing in lower tiers (Azumarill). It’s particularly welcome in that Fairies are Dragon killers and prior to 6th ed Dragons were easily the most over powered typing. With a massive suite of resistances, only two weaknesses and only one type that resists Dragon, Dragons were just the best typing on paper. And as one of their weaknesses is Dragon type the best way to kill them is often to have a Dragon yourself. Fairies having an immunity to Dragon attacks puts a solid counter on this but not so much that Dragon’s have been utterly nerfed, as can easily be seen by the fact that Garchomp is the most commonly used Pokémon in competitions.

In addition to nerfing Dragons, Fairies are pretty tough themselves. Most are specially defensive focused with a sideline in special attack and good neutral coverage. Xerneas using Moonblast can walk through teams until he reaches a special wall and the edge on Fighting and Dark types just makes them better. They lack a diverse movepool to make them as uber as Dragons but Fairies arrived as a top tier challenge. The effect of this is to create the need to try and get some Poison and Steel attacks onto your team to take out Fairies, and Steel and Poison are not normally considered attacking types so this shakes up the meta further.

My main complaint with Fairy types is that I don’t get the concept of the typing. With something like Water the concept is clear, this animal lives in or shoots water, make it a Water type. But what makes something a Fairy? It mostly seems to be the big pink blobs of previous generations like Clefable and Jigglypuff but then Chansey and Audino are big pink blobs and they didn’t get Fairy. Fairies in mythology are tied to elements and usually represent different flowers, rocks and other natural phenomena but that idea largely inspires Pokémon anyway and is way too broad for a typing. In practice the only common theme seems to be that Fairy types are cute, playful and free spirited so it reflects a personality more than an element. But then there are lots of cute playful Pokémonthat didn’t get fairy either (Pikachu, Plusle and Minun, Cherrim, Pachirisu) Fairy doesn’t seem to have a defined conceptual space and that bothers me.

Sylveon

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The first Fairy we ever saw sets the tone for most of the new Fairy designs in this generation. It’s pink, it’s cute, it’s covered in bows and frills and it references some stereotypically girly hobby or activity. In the case of Sylveon that would be the practice of dressing up your dog in cute outfits with little bows. It’s a nice spin on the eeveelutions = dog breeding thing without been too on the nose. Plus I just like Sylveon, it’s a balanced, striking design. One thing that does weird me out though is that the bows and ribbons are a part of her, like, made of flesh. Euuurggh,

Swirlix and Slurpuff

 

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Girly activity number 2, eating sweets. Yes, I know men enjoy cotton candy just as much as the womenfolk but in Japan going out for sweets is seen as a very stereotypically feminine thing to do, so we get the sweet pokemon. Unlike Vanillish, the ice cream monster, Swirlix and Slurpuff do have legs so they’re marginally less silly, only marginally though. And that gap gets wiped out by Slurpuff’s hilarious face. I can’t tell if he’s happy or suffering from a concussion.

Spritzee and Aromatisse

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Hey guys, did you realise that the Kalos region is supposed to be France? Oh, you did? What was your first clue? Was it that the region looks exactly like France? Maybe it was how the game seems to pack in every single stereotypical thing about France Gamefreak can think of. So we get fashion! art! fine dining restaurants! and perfume, personified by giving a cockatoo a big nose and making it pink. It kind of works but the lack of a mouth robs Spritzee of much of her personality.

Then we get to Aromatisse who personifies…can can dancers.

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I know I requested less sexy Pokémon but this, this is not what I wanted. Aromatisse is horrifying, her flirtatious leg haunts my nightmares. Can can dancers may be French but they are not suitable subject matter for a children’s computer game or as the basis for designing cute animals.

Flabebe, Floette and Florges

 

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The most Fairy looking fairy-type. For me the defining characteristic of a Fairy is that it’s a flower spirit. However, Pokémon already has the Grass type, about  a hundred designs of plants with faces so how do you convey Fairy? The solution hit upon here, of having an animal that sits on a flower, carries it and eventually wears it is ingenious. Beyond that though I don’t have nice things to say. I don’t understand Floette’s enormous eyebrows (the work on Florges as exaggerated eyelashes), I don’t understand Floette’s ear/hair, I think the faces for all three lack personality and generally these are pretty meh. Also minus one point for yet another Pokémon in a bra. No! Bad Nintendo. No!

Dedenne

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This generation’s electric rodent is Dedenne (his name is straight from Japan, it’s an onomatopoeia for the noise of electrical wires) and I think he’s great. I love designs that take an element and incorporate their element logically and interestingly and Dedenne is a textbook example of that. His whiskers turn into electrical transmission wires and his tail into a power cable and he looks like a cute, happy mouse. Sugimori can do this kind of thing in his sleep by now but I’ll always welcome this kind of design.

Klefki

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So I’ve started writing the entry for Klefki about 5 times now and each time it just devolves into rarge blargle OMG SO VERY VERY STUPID. Do I even have to write about it? We know it’s lazy, we know it’s dumb, we all hate it right? They didn’t even have the decency to put a spike on it. This is every lazy and horrible trend in pokemon design embodied in one beast, one horrible monstrosity that OMG SO VERY, VERY STUPID!!!!!!

Carbink, Diancie and Mega Diancie

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I’m not normally keen on the inanimate object style Pokémon but there are things you can do with it that I like. Geodude is one of my favourite Pokémon of all time despite being essentially a rock with arms but he has a couple of things going for him. 1. Limbs. 2. a face. 3. a personality. Carbink lacks all these things. It’s a rock with eyes, and eyes drawn in such a way that I can infer no personality. It’s just boring.

Diancie in contrast has limbs, has a face and has a personality and as such I like her. I don’t love her (I wonder where she got the dress from) but she’s okay. If you’re going to do Rock Fairy this is what a Rock Fairy looks like to me, cute, happy, perky with adorable jewels, pigtails and a big poofy dress (the rock). Like other Kalos Fairies she embodies the stereotypically girly notion of precious gems but they don’t go overboard with it in her design. That of course is because they saved the overboard for her Mega which…I like. If the design concept for the Megas is OTT version of the original then yeh, Mega Diancie certainly pulls that off.

Xerneas

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The legendary Pokémon for X is a fantastic design. He looks like a real animal but incorporates dozens of clever ideas and concepts. His X shape is subtly but effectively incorporated(if you can’t see it the X forms between the front legs and the crown of horns), the crown of horns are a striking visual in their own right but really connote the idea of some powerful forest spirit, his sword legs look cool and dangerous, his expression is imperious and proud and the colours in his horns suggest his Fairy typing without painting him pink.

In keeping with the theme for this generation of “plagiarism” I can’t help but feel like I’ve seen him before though.

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Chespin, Fennekin and Froakie

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So normally I review each evolutionary family as a whole but I thought I’d do something different this time. As news was coming out about Pokémon X and Y we got the starter monsters revealed as a trio, then their 2nd stage and finally they’re 3rd stages. I thought I’d replicate the impact somewhat here. So let’s look at these three on their own. Well, out of just this Fennekin is easily the winner. Fennekin is simply but she’s cute and the ear hair being turned into flames is one of those design elements I was discussing with regards to Dedenne. Chespin has more potential but I can’t work out what he is. Is he a squirrel? a chipmunk? a rat? He’s certainly some kind of rodent but I don’t know what. I can’t parse his hat as any kind of plant either. Normally it’s pretty clear what the plant aspect is meant to be but again, no clue.

Froakie meanwhile looks like Benjamin Franklin.

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You can never unsee it now.

Quilladin, Braixen and Frogadier

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BWA HA HA HA HA HA

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Just, oh my god, breathe. BWA HA HA HA HA HA! *gasp* inhale. BWA HA HA HA HA

Really? Really?? Do I even need to say anything? Look at him, just, stare at it. It is majestic in its awfulness.

You know what makes it better. The way its drawn here he looks like he’s fallen over and can’t get up. Like he’s lying on his back. And he’s just so gosh darned cheerful about it! Life has dealt Quilladin a bum hand but he is not going to let it get him down.

Frogadier is just kind of there. Oh and Nintendo, you don’t have to make the water starter always blue guys. We get that frogs = water without the help.

Braixen though is just awesome. She really reads as witch with only a few witchy icons but they work very well. I especially lover how her fur becomes a cute skirt. She looks like a teenager too which works for a 2nd stage. And I just love the flaming branch she uses. I like when Pokemon have natural weapons (Cubone, Leavanny) and a witches staff that shoots fire just feels like a natural fit.

Yes sir the Fennekin family definitely one the design lottery this time.

Chesnaught, Delphox and Greninja

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And then Delphox shits the bed.

She just looks ugly and awkward, there’s too much…stuff. Her design doesn’t feel flowy or balanced it feels baggy. I know she’s wearing a robe but it looks like she has just too much fur, and worse some of the fur doesn’t make sense as witch clothing like whatever is going on at her shoulders. Plus her ear hair is just ridiculous now, it doesn’t look like fire anymore it just looks ugly. What a tragic waste of a good design concept.

Chesnaught however, redeems himself. Revealing himself to be a hedgehog…groundhog…muskrat okay I still have no idea what animal he is, but he does at least look knightly now and suitably intimidating. His overall shape works now, still being rounded but now the round shapes are all in the shoulders and back which convey power rather than roly polly cuddly chubbiness. He still isn’t very planty though.

Greninja goes from meh to undisputed coolest design in this generation. He’s a ninja, always cool and like all the best designs they convey ninja without giving him anything that doesn’t also convey frog, it’s all in the pose, the colouring and the body shape. That and the tongue which is inspired. Turning his long frog tongue into a scarf is just a terrific idea, even if it does go back to this year’s theme of “plagiarism.”

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Playing one of the great enemy’s games were we Sugimori-san? Shame on you.

Greninja also retroactively makes Froakie make sense. To reflect the setting of Kalos we have our fairy tale character, the knight, the witch and the thief. The Ninja look subs for thief but Froakie looks like a stereotypical Japanese bandit.

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Bunnelby and Diggersby

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This years useless mammals you catch early in the game are a better effort that most generations. Rabbits are good animals to base designs on having several iconic features you can fiddle with, in this case the ears. And in my opinion turning the ears into hands is a neat little idea that works well. The Diggersby evolution of that concept I also dig, turning the ears into excavators and giving him a control panel to manouveour them.

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Other than the ears and Diggersby 5 o’clock shadow (another one for the beards list ) there isn’t a huge amount else going on here though.

Fletchling, Fletchinder and Talonflame

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Talonflame….?

Talonflame?

You didn’t even try did you localisation team? Talonflame is actually a really neat design, He’s a hawk, on fire!!! And he has warning stripes on his tail. He looks menacing and you just panicked didn’t you.

Talonflame.

Here are 10 more creative names for a bird on fire than Talonflame.

1. Falcook

2. Hawkindle

3. Falcomet

4. Napalcon

5. Scorchawk

6. Firaptor

7. Robinferno

8. Peregrill

9. Hinoraptor

10. KFC

Scatterbug, Spewpa and Vivillion

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God, do I have to?

Scatterbug and Spewpa are just a mess, somehow bland and cluttered at the same time and I have no idea what the high concept is behind them. Easily the worst caterpillar in all of Pokémon.

Vivillion though, I like, a lot. She’s themed around LCD televisions and consequently that’s why her wings look like patterns of pixels and why her antennae resemble digital TV antennae. She’s a nice twist on a butterfly design already but what really makes her is all the different wing patterns.

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Sure it’s a blatant ploy to make it feel like there are more designs in this Gen than there actually are but it’s kind of cool. I also like that the different designs are linked to different geographic regions. That’s something that’s true of real animals and so  it’s nice to see it incorporated into the games. It also forces you to trade internationally which is a nice way to big up the new GTS and Wonder Trade improvements.

 

Lileo and Pyroar

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So we have had a lion Pokémonbefore (the Shinx family) but Lileo and Pyroar are the first lion monsters that really resemble the animal. Again, considering how iconic lions are and how often they feature in children’s picture books I’m surprised it took us this long.

There isn’t a huge amount to say about these two, they’re basically just cartoony drawings of lions, I’d have liked a bit more fire integration personally.  The one cool bit of fire integration they have done is incorporate the Kanji for fire into the pattern of Pyroar’s mane.

Skiddo and Gogoat

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In contrast Skiddo and Gogoat are much more what I like. Animal they haven’t done before? Check. Element incorporated sensibly into the animal’s shape? Check. Lack of unecessary clutter? Check. Use of patterns to break up large areas of flat colour? Check. Everything I want and in addition to the element these two also have a secondary theme of being motorbikes. Can’t see it? Check the horns, Skiddo is meant to be a dirt bike and Gogoat has the swept back handlebars and backrest of an old school Harley chopper.

Pancham and Pangoro

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Another pair that tick all the boxes, animal we haven’t done, no flat blocks of colour, uncluttered design, element incorporated, etc. What really sells me on Pangoro though is his evolution mechanic. Pancham only evolves when he levels up and there is a dark type in your party. And when he does he goes from being slightly cocky troublemaking kid to a full on bancho.

What’s a bancho? Well it means delinquent or gang member, and they look like this.

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I love that, he only evolves when another dark type acts as bad influence on him. That’s such a fun idea and such a great example of how evolution can be used a story telling tool (and another reason why I hate Mega evolution.)

Furfrou

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Furfrou is a pokemon that exists for one reason and one reason only. As if there weren’t enough clues, may I remind you that the KALOS REGION IS MEANT TO BE FRANCE!

DO YOU GET IT YET?!!!

So of course we have to have a French poodle. But wait, Furfrou doesn’t look like a French poodle? Well he does when you take him to the hair dressers and pay to have him styled like thus.

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The concept of a customisable Pokémon design is one I quite like. I’m a big fan of Rotom for example and adding more options like that I think is a good thing. But beyond the gimmick there isn’t anything else to Furfrou.

Espurr and Meowstic

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Please enjoy some of the internet’s finest Espuur death stare Memes.

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86f

8ce

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Also female Meowstic has a beret becasue IT’S SET IN FRANCE!!! FRANCE!!!!! FRAAAAANNNNNNNNNNCE.

 

 

Honedge, Doublade and Aegislash

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So this is a much better way to do the “it’s set in France” thing. France of course has a long history of chivalry and knights and the chivalrous values to some extent are still relevant in France today. Doing something with knights is a good idea and Honedge is a truly fantastic idea. A ghost sword is just inherently cool. Weapons are cool and weapon themed monsters are cool but the idea of this ancient blade coming to life to fight again just resonates with so much personality.

You can ruin a good concept with bad design though but fortunately Honedge is great. I love how the scabbard works as face but also reads as believable scabbard design. I love how the ribbon becomes a hand grasping the blade and I love the eye that appears to be part of the scabbard but is in fact built into the hilt. It’s a great idea executed flawlessly.

Doublade and Aegislash I like less but I still like. I’ve never been a fan of the combine two together evolution style so Doublade gets points off for that and Aegislash’s handle doesn’t look like any sword handle I’ve ever seen but overall a fantastic set of designs.

 

Inkay and Malamar

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So these two are just weird. In case you don’t know, to evolve Inkay you actually have to turn your 3DS upside down. This is because Malamar is just Inkay upside down so the tentacles turn into Malamar’s hair and the head fins turn into Malamar’s legs.

It’s a very clever idea and takes great skill to pull off effectively as they have but I can’t say I’m in love with the actual design of either monster.

Binacle and Barbaracle

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So its fair to say that Binacle is dumb. It’s a hand stuck to a rock with a face. Worse, it’s two hands stuck to a rock and I never liked the designs that feature more than one monster since something about it just strains my credulity. For example, you hatch an egg, you should get one Binacle, not two and a rock.

That said your theme is barnacle pokemon. I’m impressed you did it this well.

Oh and in case you’re wondering why they look like hands, they look like a Goose Barnacle which is a variety native to Japan.

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In case you’re wondering why that’s in a bowl, it’s because it’s food. Japanese people will eat anything that comes out of the sea.

Barbaracle should be everything I hate. I hate monster designs where more than one animal comes together, I didn’t like Binacle and I don’t like anthro monsters but Barbaracle is just kind of brilliant.  Having each limb also be a head is just neat. This isn’t like having three Diglett’s hanging out somehow equals a new organism this is 5 different organisms working together as one monster. That makes Barbaracle a  siphonophore, a colony of specialised multi-cellular animals so closely integrated they cannot survive on their own, like a Portuguese man of war. It also makes perfect sense, you never see just one barnacle you always see a few sticking to one rock, but having them co-operate to turn that rock into a body is clever.

Plus he looks grumpy, and I love all the grumpy faced monsters.

Skrelp and Dragalge

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I’ve said it before and I will say it again. I completely understand why they have so many fish, that doesn’t mean any of them are interesting.

Clauncher and Clawitzer

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I fucking love this!!!!

Firstly Clawitzer is based on an animal which is inherently awesome. He’s a mantis shrimp and if you don’t know why they’re fantastic watch this video.

 

BTW Nintendo, the one time it would have made sense to colour your animal like a clown having an accident in a paint factory you chicken out and make it blue.

So a mantis shrimp has the fastest punch in the animal kingdom, it can punch so fast it literally makes explosions!!! So how do we exagerate and cartoonify that?

Let’s turn one of its claws into an enormous cannon which is also shaped like a shrimp!

Genius!

I love Clawitzer and everything about it except it’s boring blue colouring, I want my Mega Evolution with an even more enormous cannon and a tiny body still the same size and I want it now Game Freak!

Helioptile and Heliolisk

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I don’t know why but I’ve always had a thing for frilled lizards. I think I can trace it back to The Rescuers Down Under where a frilled lizard is one of the cast and I just always thought he looked cool. Heliolisk however is no frilled lizard. This is a frilled lizard.

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That pathetic wimpy thing Heliolisk has round his neck can’t compare. I get that it’s meant to be a sunburst but  don’t get why they’re sun themed in the first place. They’re an Electirc type, sun is more of a fire type thing.

Tyrunt and Tyrantrum

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and

Amaura and Aurorous

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It has taken us 6 generations to get the most obvious dinosaurs out of the way. A T-Rex and an Apatosaurus,  probably the most famous and iconic dinosaurs that every kid aged 6 knows about. Before we got to them we did ancient sea scorpions, archaeopteryx and even trilobites (all hail Lord Helix). And I can easily see why, Sugimori just doesn’t have any interesting ideas for what to do with a T-Rex and an Apatosaurus.

Tyrunt starts well, the proportions sell baby dinosaur well and he looks both cute and powerful. Tyrantrum though, it’s a T-Rex. Admittedly It’s a T-Rex with an awesome beard but aside from a head crest (which is okay) and a fur collar (which is baffling) it’s just so-so.

Aurorous is much better. The basic problem with an Apatosaur design is one of body proportions. To fit the shape into the size restrictions in Pokémon you end up with a massive gap between the head and body. Adding the fin helps this and balances out the design but turning the fin into the Aurora Borealis and the curve of the Apatosaurus’ neck into a snow covered mountain side is just inspired.

Hawlucha

hawlucha

I think we’re all agreed that Hawlucha is everyone’s favourite design this generation right? I mean, it’s a luchador hawk. All luchadors are inherently awesome and have visually interesting designs and the choice of animal, a high flying beastie with an intense stare just suits it perfectly. This little guy just exudes personality.

Goomy, Sliggoo and Goodra

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Okay, let me spoil Goomy for you.

Those two adorable little dots. Those aren’t eyes, they’re nostrils. The cute green chubby cheeks? They’re its eyes. Instead of being a cute cuddly wuddly goofball Goomy is in fact creepy and alien.

So Goomy, Sliggo and Goodra are based on slugs, snails and a H R Geiger guest directed episode of My Little Pony respectively. You’re probably thinking, okay, snails, that means France again right. And you’d be right. But you might also be wondering why the hell they’re dragon type? Well, let me tell you all about the Lou Carlcolh.

From Wikipedia

Lou Carcolh, or the Carcolh, is a supposed mythical beast from French folklore. It was described as being both a serpent and mollusk at the same time, taking characteristics from both types of animals. Its massive and long body carried an enormous shell upon its back, much like a snail‘s shell, that was believed to live in underground caverns in southwest France. Its gaping mouth was surrounded by several long, hairy, and slime covered tentacles that could extend for miles. These appendages stretched out from the cave it inhabited for a long distance and laid upon the ground among its own viscous slime. They would ensnare and drag back to its abode anything within reach. It would then swallow the victim whole with its gigantic mouth.

Lou-Carcolh-Blog-Post

image taken from Atlas Games

And since Dragon type refers more to being based in myth than any physiological characteristics, Goodra is a dragon.

Also beard. Horrible slimy chinbeard but still, beard.

Phantump and Trevenant

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So is Gen 6 the generation of “I can’t believe it took them this long to do that idea?” Because evil tree seems pretty obvious. Evil tree is like on of the first 10 monster ideas I come up with when I’m DM-ing. Certainly way before evil mask, evil candle or evil keys.

That said the reason it may have taken this long is again that I don’t think Sugimori has anything new to add to the idea. Trevenant is a generic evil tree that could appear in anything from Final Fantasy to a Mario game. In fact, with the relatively realistic proportions and high level of detail it doesn’t even feel particularly like a Pokémon design.

Pumpkaboo and Gourgeist

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I showed my fiance Pumpkaboo’s design when X and Y first came out and I don’t think she’s stopped squeeing since. I personally don’t get it. I agree he has a cute, fat bottom and his name is inherently funny but I kind of find him creepy.

I also like that they avoided the obvious route when making a Jack O Lantern monster. The added bat touches really make Pumpkaboo his own monster and give him his own distinct feel.

Bergmite and Avalugg

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I do like these two. Avalugg in particular has such a unique design, the flattened top is so distinctive and so different from not only every other Pokémon but most monster designs in general. And in a weird way it makes him seem powerful and imposing. It’s also a nice spin on the idea that iceberg’s are small on top and huge underneath. Bergmite is all top and is small, Avalygg is all bottom and is huge. And in addition to that it references one of the more bat shit insane moments from history. Check his Pokédex entry.

“The way several Bergmite huddle on its back makes it look like an aircraft carrier made of ice.”

That is a reference to a plan the British had in WW2 to build aircraft carriers in the North Sea made out of Pykrete, a sort of frozen cement made of wood chipping. Pykrete is actually an amazingly durable material, about as strong as steel and very cheap to make….provided of course you keep it frozen, but that isn’t as hard as you might think. Ice is a great insulator and the original Pykrete aircraft carier took 3 years to melt. Yes, years. The Mythbusters once made a boat out of it. You can read more about it here and find out why it was ultimately scrapped.

Noibat and Noivern

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It is entirely possible to read Noivern’s ears as the eyes of an owl looking sideways, this marginally improves this dull ass design.

Also another fur collar. Going back over the designs I actually count 18 fur collars this generation. That compares with only 5 awesome beards and that is catastrophic.

Yveltal

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Fur collar number 19. I know why it is here though, it helps balance out the shape.

I really like Yveltal. I’m a sucker for a few things and birds with horns are one of them plus turning those wings into hands. Yveltal has not one, not two but three weird hand wings (beating previous champion Lugia) and his pose makes him look like one massive grasping talon reaching out to get you. It’s all very cool and intimidating helped further by the black and red colour scheme, the lack of a mouth (which is always scary) and the weird but sinister black veins. It also incorporates the Y shape subtly but effectively. Between Xerneas and Yveltal we got two great legendaries this generation. Also, Gen 6 gives us the fewest legendaries yet with just 3. Yveltal, Xerneas and Diancie. Yeah I know about Hoopa and Volcanion but until they officially release them I won’t be reviewing them because I won’t be able to get a decent image and…

I forgot one?

Which did I forg..ohh. Oh.

Zygarde

Zygarde

 

Is a piece of shit.

You want more, okay. He’s a Ground/Dragon. Nothing on his design says ground or Dragon. His Z is barely there and the shape is ruined by his back crest which is just one of many design elements which signify nothing. Why the back crest? Why is he covered in hexagons? Why is he asymmetrical?  This design is a combination of elements that neither work individually nor as a whole, he’s crap and I didn’t want to end the generation on him so let’s look at Hawlucha again.

hawlucha

 

So much win.

In general Gen 6 is a mix of trying too hard but failing and succeeding but being boring which applies to the gameplay as much as the designs. That said Gen 6 has staked out a course. The first 5 Pokemon were all in one evolutionary tree getting better and better. But now, now nothing will ever be the same again and franky, I’m excited to see what comes next.

 

 

Summer Wars

Summer Wars 1

Summer Wars is very nearly a flawless movie.

And I use that term very specifically. A flawless movie means that I can’t find a single thing wrong with it. It doesn’t necessarily mean the movie is great merely that you can’t find fault in its execution. I’ve seen a very few flawless films in my time but even of the ones I have seen they aren’t my favourite kind of film. I’m much more interested in films that are trying to do something new or interesting even if their reach exceeds their grasp. Ambitious failures are more exciting than lazy successes.

Summer Wars is flawless and its got just enough creativity, engaging themes and new things to say to compensate for a straight forward plot and ideas that are not particularly original.

Summer Wars tells the story of Kenji Koiso (Ryûnosuke Kamiki) a high school student who has just missed out on the chance to represent Japan at the math olympics. He’s preparing for a dull Summer in a job as an administrator for OZ.

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What’s OZ? Well it’s a social media platform that has kind of replaced traditional browsers. In OZ you can do anything you can on the internet, banking, work, shopping, social interaction and of course play games. But rather than just reading text on a screen you have a custom avatar that inhabits a virtual world and interacts with its surroundings visually and in multiple dimensions. Want to go shopping? Well you can take your avatar to a shop and have it wander around the same as you would on the high street.

Kenji’s boring Summer plans get interrupted when he gets offered a Summer job working for Natsuki Shinohara (Nanami Sakuraba) a girl who has just graduated high school this year and also a girl that Kenji has a massive crush on. She wants him to accompany her to her Grandmother’s home to attend her 90th birthday party. What Natsuki doesn’t tell our hero until he arrives is that he’s pretending to be her over achieving fiance from a perfect family. Turns out Granny Shinohara hasn’t been feeling well recently and Natsuki said she wasn’t allowed to die until she met her boyfriend, a boyfriend that didn’t exist.

Kenji of course thinks this is both unfair and impossible and has a stressful day answering questions and being sized up by the extended Shinohara family including black sheep uncle Wabisuke Jin’nôchi.

He gets distracted from his problems though when a mysterious message arrives composed of numbers. Thinking it’s a maths problem he spends all night deciphering it and then sends the finished code back to the mysterious sender. And this turns out to be the secret backdoor password into OZ. And Kenji has just given the password to a malicious A.I. named Love Machine that immediately starts causing chaos and havoc in OZ. Worse, since OZ effectively is the internet the chaos has major ramifications for the real world, fire engines are dispatched to fake emergencies, traffic seizes up into miles long gridlocks, medical monitoring equipment stops working. Whoops.

Now the race is on for Kenji to fix what he did and he discovers along the way just how much the Shinohara’s are inextricably linked to the fate of Oz, himself and the world.

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At face value Summer Wars is a Cyberpunk story, and not a particularly original one. The notion of an alternate virtual world that reflects how the internet works goes all the way back to William Gibson’s Neuromancer in 1984 and variations on the idea have appeared in Snow Crash, The Matrix, Johnny Mnemonic, Tron, ReBoot and even Digimon.  In fact Summer Wars is in part a re-make of the second short from the first Digimon movie known in Japan as Bokura no wô gêmu! Or “Our War Game.” Director Mamoru Hosoda was also responsible for that short and the plot, basic concept and a lot of the animation is freely recycled from his earler effort.

What many of those other examples share though is that they’re set in the future and so feature other sci-fi or fantasy elements. Tron and Digimon feature people actually travelling to the digital world. Neuromancer and snow Crash features cyborgs and other SF technology that reinforce their theme of how people and technolgoy interact.

summer wars 8

In contrast Summer Wars is firmly set in real world Japan pretty much exactly how it works, looks and feels in 2010. And this is because Summer Wars is only half a cyberpunk story. The other half is concerned with the family and relationship drama of the Shinohara’s. The dynamics, tensions and alliances of the Shinohara’s are beautifully observed and feel so real to me. Kenji’s stress and panic when he’s the one outsider in a group of 20 or so people, all with names he struggles to remember, completely echoes the way I felt when I first stayed with my fiance’s relatives in Tokyo. Even if you don’t have any experience of Japanese culture though you’ll recognise and empathise with the way each family member teases the others, slots into a defined role, makes sub-groups within the larger family, etc.

Summer Wars really is about the contrast between communication amongst families and communication online. It’s about how the human dynamics of 2 thousand years adapt to the technology of the modern world. And it’s a story that could not be told more perfectly than in Japan. I’ve remarked numerous times that one of the things that stands out to me about Japan is about how the very high tech and the very ancient live together. Outside of Japan countries adapted to the changes of technology gradually, each new invention necessitating changes in how human beings lived and thought. But Japan remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years until the Meiji Revolution when, boom, all the benefits of the industrial revolution came completely overnight.

It meant that Japan had to adapt fast to change and the way they managed it largely was to isolate and section off their lives, this bit is traditional, this bit is new. Like the paper walls that section off a Japanese home they could create invisible notional walls that left both the old and the new in the same place, but separate.

Summer Wars 3

The Shinohara’s are a particularly good example of this. A samurai family with a large traditional house that made their money from silk. They have unusually strong ties to Japan’s past and are proud of their heritage. But they all have cell phones, the kid’s all have game boys, one son is a professional baseball player, another is a computer programmer and one more sells computers. They’re as much a part of the modern world as anybody.

Summer Wars is not alone in being about the tension between technology and tradition in Japan, Mononoke Hime and Hi-No-Tori cover similar ground in greater depth and complexity. What Summer Wars does get right though is that it doesn’t pick a side. Very often in films about the importance of family or the environment tech gets demonised and the audience is encouraged to root for nature. Not so in Summer Wars. Tech can cause problems but it also, ultimately, saves the day. The strong family bonds of the Shinohara’s help them organise and get through the crisis but it’s a failure in family dynamics that inadvertently causes the threat in the first place. And one character dies explicitly because tech that was keeping them alive no longer works. Tech is not the bad guy, nor even is the reliance on tech.

What is the bad guy though, in every instance, is a lack of communication.  Kenji not knowing the situation he’ll be in stresses him out, which leads him to solve the maths problem and not knowing who sent that problem leads to the problem in OZ. Wabisuke not knowing that he is loved and forgiven leads to the creation of the Love Machine. Equally every problem is solved through communication. There is an amazing sequence of Granny Shinohara phoning people up during the first OZ crisis and pulling seemingly the whole of Japan through the problem with stern words of admonition and others of encouragement. Kenji is able to get the gear he needs to fight Love Machine due to the family connections of the Shinohara’s each of who can contribute a particular skill or talent showing that we’re stronger together than fighting alone.

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If there is one criticism of Summer Wars it is that technology doesn’t work that way. The depiction of OZ is one thing but the damage that Love Machine is able to do because he hacks OZ is simply impossible. And the idea that punching a giant monster, which is rendered in code in a graphics engine, with a rabbit avatar which is equally rendered in code in a graphics engine would somehow re-write or alter code is frankly silly, a useful visual allegory but silly. I think the film gets a buy on this though. Every film gets to do one impossible thing and for me with Summer Wars I’ll let it slide that the internet doesn’t work that way. Partly because although the internet doesn’t work that way the way the film depicts how people use the internet, what our relationship with communications technology is and what it does to us is 100% spot on. I know for some people though this is an insurmountable obstacle, and all I can say is I wish you could get past it to experience just how good Summer Wars is.

Every other element is, as I say, flawless. The acting and script are just perfect. The movie has a very naturalistic feel despite the big SF concepts which again supports the contrast between the real world and OZ. Even better the script is brimming with humour and nice character moments. This film has a huge cast of characters, many of whom get maybe one line of dialogue and most of whom have names I couldn’t tell you. Yet they don’t feel interchangeable, everyone feels like a real person and distinct from the others. With only a few lines of dialogue, the acting and the animation everyone is able to bring each character to life.

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The animation too is spectacular, right up there with Ghibli. Supplied by Madhouse, who also did the stunning The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Millennium Actress, the scenes in the real world look nearly photo realistic with amazing attention to the background details. The characters are just stylized the right amount, nobody looks like an obvious cartoon like Disney or Ghibli but they still move and emote with energy whereas many realistic animated films feel stiff and lifeless.

That realism is crucial for selling the contrast between the real world and OZ. In OZ though the animators are free to indulge in their wildest fantasies and OZ is full of striking, inventive and memorable visuals to rival other eye candy anime like Evangelion or Spirited Away. I particularly like how there are no  black lines in OZ, everyone is instead outlined in another primary colour such as red. It gives the effect of making OZ seem more ethereal and the real world more real by comparison.

Pacing, direction, music, atmosphere; everything else is just perfect for what the film needs them to do.

Summer Wars is an absolute must see.

 

 

Summer Wars 2

It’s all coming together.

Last year I wrote a piece explaining why I thought Disney had chosen Big Hero 6 as their first Marvel property to turn into an animated film and highlighting some of the issues in adapting the comic in a racially and culturally sensitive way.

I’m pleased to see from this trailer that a lot of what I talked about has come to pass. However, Disney have opened up a whole new can of worms with some of their decisions.

Let’s start with the good. I love the tone this trailer gets across. The low key slapstick, the mixture of humour with a genuinely threatening villain and the easy going heart to it. I wish more Super-Hero stories in any medium had this tone and it certainly gives me Incredibles vibes.*

They’ve also chosen to focus on ” a boy and his robot” as their main story telling angle which I think is a good choice. Big Hero 6 is not a thematically dense concept, it basically amounts to “Hey Japan is different, lolz” so grabbing onto something in the property that shows more promise for exploration is a good idea. A boy and his (insert noun here) stories work well for animation and children’s cinema and some of the greatest animated films of the past 20 years (The Iron Giant, How to Train your Dragon) have used it as a basis.

The animation is good, as to be expected of Disney, although you can now add me to the chorus of people who are getting a little sick of how samey Disney’s character designs are getting.

Also is that Lord Deathstrike?

Lord Deathstrike Big Hero 6

I mean, I know that the odds that a character named Lord Deathstrike will appear in a Disney movie are about as likely as me voicing him but he sure does look like him doesn’t he?

big hero 6 lord_deathstrikeWhere this goes wrong is San Fransokyo. Oh my, San Fransokyo.

When it was announced that this film would be set in an amalgam city of Tokyo and San Francisco I thought it could go one of two ways. Either it could be clever and cute, a good way to point out cultural differences and make some gentle jokes about them, or it could be horribly, horribly offensive combining every stereotypical Japanese thing the creators could think of.

What I did not expect is that they would get the wrong country. Because San Fransokyo looks great, it it’s meant to be San Beijing.

Seriously, those “Japanese” touches like the lanterns and the roofs that flare up at the corners. Those are Chinese. You will find them in Japan, in fact they’re not uncommon but that’s because China has had an incredible cultural impact on Japan. But in the style and colours used in this trailer they feel way more Chinese to me than Japanese. And even then they’re a touch that goes back to the pre-Meiji era and are only seen nowadays in temples and other historical buildings. There are so many icons of modern Japan you could include and other than some Katakana and Kanji Disney simply hasn’t!

What San Fransokyo really looks like is the China Town in San Francisco expanded out to encompass the whole city. And while I know a lot of Japanese people live in the San Francisco China Town, guys the clue is in the name as to which country it more closely resembles.

Here’s hoping the trailer just gives off a wrong impression and the film gets it better.

The stripping out of Japanese culture though continues onto the characters. Big Hero 6 is a team composed of 1 robot and 5 Japanese people or Japanese-Americans. Big Hero 6 in the movie? 2, maximum. That’s a big cut Disney. The premier Japanese super-hero team now has Japanese members as the minority. I know why you’ve done it, the setting demands a mix of Asian and Caucasian people to reflect the mixed up Asian and Western architecture and you don’t think an all Asian cast will fly for American audiences. In fact you’ve actually increased the team’s diversity in one way by adding a black man to the mix, which I applaud, but, I still feel like it has missed the point a little bit.

In fact let’s dig into the characters a bit more. Starting with our hero, Hiro, and his pet robot Baymax.

big-hero-6-character-rollout-baymax

big-hero-6-character-rollout-hiro

Here’s what I wrote about Hiro and Baymax in my original piece.

Big Hero 6 2

Hiro and Baymax are clearly affectionate homages to a number of Japanese characters. Hiro is a super-genius kid who builds a robot protector for himself. That’s an idea that mixes bits of Getter Robo, Tetsujin 28 and even the Kenny’s from Godzilla.

And here is some info from screencrush.com

Ryan Potter portrays Hiro, a robotics prodigy who has “the mind of a genius—and the heart of a 14-year-old. His state-of-the-art battle-bots dominate the underground bot fights held in the dark corners of San Fransokyo. Fortunately, big brother Tadashi redirects Hiro’s brilliance, inspiring him to put his brain to the test in a quest to gain admission to the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology. When a tragic event changes everything, Hiro turns to a robot named Baymax, and they form an unbreakable bond—and two-sixths of a band of high-tech heroes on a very important mission.

It sounds to me like Hiro is largely unchanged from his comic incarnation of “boy genius.” I suspect that Hiro is the character that Disney saw the most potential in, making him the hero and basing the film on him. To that end he is basically the same character. Baymax however has been tweaked considerably.

Baymax (voiced by Scott Adsit) cares. That’s what he was designed to do. The plus-sized inflatable robot’s job title is technically Healthcare Companion: With a simple scan, Baymax can detect vital stats, and, given a patient’s level of pain, can treat nearly any ailment. Conceived and built by Tadashi Hamada, Baymax just might revolutionize the healthcare industry. But to the inventor’s kid brother Hiro, the nurturing, guileless bot turns out to be more than what he was built for—he’s a hero, and quite possibly Hiro’s closest friend. And after some deft reprogramming that includes a rocket fist, super strength and rocket thrusters that allow him to fly, Baymax becomes one of the Big Hero 6.

Baymax in the comics was designed and built entirely by Hiro. However, when Hiro’s Father died he used some of his Father’s brain engrams to program Baymax. That makes Baymax a combination of Hiro’s friend, his bodyguard his father and his nanny. Disney however have switched the tragic death from Father to Brother and also made Baymax a construction of Hiro’s Brother. This simplifies the relationship considerably emphasising that Baymax and Hiro are in effect brothers. It’s a bit more conventional than the comic’s version but riffs on many of the same emotions and probably works better in the limited running time of a film.

Next up is our only other remaining Asian, Go, Go Tomago, played by Jamie Chung.

big-hero-6-character-rollout-go_go_tomago

 

She’s tough, athletic and loyal to the bone, but not much of a conversationalist. Popping bubble gum and delivering well-placed sarcasm are totally her speed. The daredevil adrenaline junkie is at her best on wheels, and when Go Go joins forces with Big Hero 6, she rolls like never before, using maglev discs as wheels, shields and throwing weapons.

Big Hero 6 Go Go Tamago

Wild rebellious Go Go was the Wolverine of the group, the bad ass outsider who don’t take no bull. She’s been de-aged and her criminal past is gone but her personality and team function are largely the same. Also her name is still misspelt. She should be Go, Go, Tamago i.e. the Japanese word for egg. Although considering they changed her powers the egg joke doesn’t work any more anyway. I dig the new costume too, it’s both more sentai than her original sentai inspired outfit and more modern.

big-hero-6-character-rollout-fred

Fred, voiced by T.J. Miller, has been de-aged, gone from Asian to White and gone from having a Godzilla shaped ki aura to just turning into a Monster.

Big Hero 6 Fred

Other than that he’s mostly the same, a stoner in a hat with badass monster related powers. He’s the comic relief of the group and it looks like he’ll continue to be playing that role. Also, I like his new Monster design. It does feel quite Asian without specifically referencing a particular monster design I can think of. I will miss his Devil Dinosaur t-shirt though.

big-hero-6-character-rollout-honey_lemon

So that is what Honey Lemon, who will be voiced by Genesis Rodriguez which is a Super-Villain name if I ever heard one, looks like in the film. Here is what she looked like in the comics.

Big Hero 6 Honey Lemon

…..

…….

That’s, um, that’s quite the change.

Honey Lemon was a play on Cutie Honey, a popular anime character who is mainly famous for being full on naked during her magical girl transformations. Honey Lemon the comic character is consequently, sexy, confident and playful with some stuff from other anime characters (most notably Doraemon) thrown in.

From the character design alone it’s clear that Honey Lemon in the film is not going to be the same character. Other than a power-set and a name they have nothing in common. Problem being that now Honey Lemons’s power-set and name don’t make sense. She’s called Honey Lemon as a play on Cutie Honey, a character she now no longer resembles. And her power-set is grabbing things from her purse, not exactly the most subtle of satirical jabs.

That said I am not surprised they changed her. Whilst Honey Lemon was hugely inappropriate for a kid’s film the bigger problem is that she’s a parody character, not a character intended to work on her own merits and she needed something done to her to appear in this film.

Finally we get to Wasabi, formerly Wasabi no Ginger.

Here is what Wasabi no Ginger looked like in the comics.

Big Hero 6 Wasabi No Ginger

And here is what I wrote about him.

Finally there’s Wasabi-no-Ginger which is a name that is simply unacceptable. Honey Lemon is stretching it but Wasabi-no-Ginger isn’t a clever pun so much as it is the equivalent of a Japanese comic introducing a morbidly obese character in a cowboy hat called Burger McRanchdressing. Try and count the stereotypes in this short character description guys. He’s a sushi chef (1) but also a samurai (2) who fights by using katana (3) and sushi knives (4) that he makes from his body whilst wearing wooden sandals (5) and a Hawaiian shirt (6?). Whilst the other characters are a spin on existing Japanese characters Wasabi-no-Ginger is the result of throwing everything Chris Claremont knows about Japan (sushi, samurais…Hawaiian shirts?) into a blender and calling the result a character. You know in the Super Friends how the Native American guy who grew got called Apache Chief rather than something that described his powers like Giant Man, or Gigantor. That is the level of patronising we’re dealing with here in Wasabi-no-Ginger.

I hate, Wasabi no Ginger.

Now, here is what he looks like in the film.

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Wasabi (voiced by Damon Wayans Jr.) is committed to precision. He’s super smart and just a touch neurotic, but the big and burly neatnik can’t help but join the cause when Hiro needs him most. As part of “Big Hero 6,” Wasabi amplifies his martial arts skills with jaw-dropping plasma blade weaponry. Sharp doesn’t even begin to describe this guy.

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!

He’s not a sushi chef. He’s not a Japanese stereotype, he can’t be because he’s not Japanese. He doesn’t wear geta, he doesn’t fight using katana and he has a personality beyond “everything Chris Claremont knows about Japan.” Even his name makes more sense since both wasabi and plasma are hot. Plus, he adds further diversity to the team and avoids being a black stereotype too! It’s such a low bar to hurdle but thank you, thank you so much Disney for doing it.

So based on all this info I’m still looking forward to Big Hero 6 and cautiously optimistic that this will be another Incredibles. I’m nervous about San Fransokyo but Disney’s last 2 films have really clicked for me and I’m hoping they continue on with their mini renaissance.

 

*The Incredibles is in my top 5 favourite Super-Hero films and until Marvel got their shit together was basically number 1. It still remains the best Fantastic Four film ever made too.

 

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Is it possible to admire a film and not really like it? Because that is how I feel about Millennium Actress.

This is a good movie, a great movie, easily one of the smartest and best anime I have ever seen but at it’s core it is one of the most frustrating and upsetting cinematic experiences I’ve ever had too.

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The conceit of Millennium Actress is absolutely brilliant. Two documentary film makers Genya Tachibana (played by Shoozoo Izuka) and his cameraman track down film actress Chiyoko Fujiwara (played at various parts of her life by Miyoko Shooji, Mami Koyama and Fumiko Orikasa) to interview her about her life. As Chiyoko recounts her life story the film moves the three characters from standing in a room to actually inhabiting scenes from the various films Chiyoko has starred in, facing armies of samurai, Manchurian bandits and ninjas.

But it’s not just a case of inter-cutting the life story and the fiction of the films but that the film scenes actually stand for the events of Chiyoko’s life. So her starring as a nurse that has gone to Manchuria to find her lost love stands in for her becoming an actress travelling to Manchuria to star in a film and also look for her lost love. Or her becoming a Geisha and being refused to allow to leave her dwelling to see her love one last time before he is executed stands in for her being an actress and not being allowed by the studio to spend time searching for her lost love.

I’ve seen plenty of films that blurred the lines between fiction and reality before but never before have I seen it done so fluidly and confidently as Millennium Actress. There are barely any scenes in the film at all that take place in the reality of the plot, almost everything we see is the scene from a film Chiyoko has starred in, and yet without letting us see much of anything of Chiyoko’s real life we come to understand her life story anyway. That is masterful plotting and directing from Satoshi Kon, director of another excellent anime about an actress Perfect Blue.

And there are further moments of inspired confusion, one scene which is clearly supposed to be Chiyoko’s domestic life after she gets married is revealed mid-scene to take place on a stage; another has the background turn into a ukiyo-e wood block print, and on and on.

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Visually the film is phenomenal both in the quality of the animation and the varied and interesting imagery employed. This is a film that gives us samurai battles, geisha, acrobatic ninja fights,  space rockets, Godzilla, etc, etc. The acting is confident, the tone is perfectly assured switching between humour, pathos and drama smoothly and effectively. It’s a damn near perfect film in many respects.

It’s just a shame then that the actual story is so frustrating and often so dull.

Very briefly Chiyoko’s life story goes like this. She’s a school girl born in 1923. She gets asked to star in a movie as part of propaganda for the war in Manchuria. Her stifling mother refuses on her behalf.

She then bumps into an artist who is a dissident rebel protesting the war. He has been injured and is running from the police. She saves his life by directing the police the wrong way and helping him to hide. He flees to Manchuria the next day to help his friends but not before leaving her with a key that he says opens “the most important thing in the world.”

Chiyoko then decides to become an actress because this will let her go to Manchuria and look for him.

All of the above takes place in the first 10 – 20 minutes of the film. The remaining hour goes like this.

Spoilers.

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Chiyoko looks for the man, fails to find him repeatedly and then dies.

Kind of a bummer ending guys.

We don’t learn much of Chiyoko’s life at all really. We don’t know what her married domestic life was like, we don’t know if she enjoyed film making, we don’t really get to know her as a person beyond her love for this strange artist and hr obsessive need to find him, And she doesn’t find him, the whole film is about her search and it ends with her ultimate failure.

Which could work if the love story was convincing but it isn’t. If we got to know the artist better, got to see the love between him and Chiyoko blossom and then watched as fate cruelly tore them apart that would be one thing. It would still be a sad ending but it would be a tragic sad one and somewhat satisfying.

But it is impossible to shake the feeling that Chiyoko and the artist don’t really love each other at all. Chiyoko and the un-named man meet for two days at most, they share very few words and no names. They talk but the conversation they have in no way implies some kind of loving connection between the two of them, especially from his side and we see no evidence of their deep and abiding love for each other at all in the film. It is just impossible to believe that someone would spend their entire life obsessed with a person they met for two days and whose face they did not see.

And that’s a problem because that is all there is to the story. For all the clever plotting and imagery the story is incredibly simple and just isn’t very good, leaving a gaping void at the heart of what should have been a fantastic film.

But Adam, you cry out at your computer, which, seriously guys won’t work. Write me a comment instead or something. Adam, you type furiously in the comments, surely this is all a symbolic work right? We aren’t supposed to really believe that she loves the man, clearly the man is a symbol for something like the history of cinema, or the need to keep changing oneself in life, or the search for a national identity for Japan in the post war period?*

Well, yes, obviously. The thing with Millennium Actress is that what we as the audience see happen isn’t what actually happened, we’re seeing bits and pieces from Chiyoko’s films. And she says at the beginning that she sometimes can’t remember things very well so for all we know she’s just confusing reality and her film roles and there may never have been any dissident artist. And the film is rife with obvious symbolism like a key for the “most important thing in the world.”**

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But it doesn’t matter if a film has some kind of deeper symbolic meaning; it also needs to have a decent narrative to hold the viewer’s interest and pull them through the story. If you’re just showing symbolic imagery divorced from a proper narrative what you have is moving art installation not a film.

So yes, a skillfully made film with a wonderful conceit and a terrible story.

*no seriously, I read a review that tried to argue that. It was pretty compelling actually.

** so what symbolic reading do I have for the film? Well for me it all hinges on the very last line of spoken dialogue. “After all, it was the chase I loved.” This throws the events of the film into a completely new context, acknowledging that yes, Chiyoko didn’t really love the artist, she loved the idea of searching for the artist, of having some great lost love. I still think that doesn’t work as a character study because it implies that Chiyoko never found anything in her own life to love she just dreamed about love, and that is depressing and slightly repellent. However, this is a film about films and I personally think that the last line is a commentary on the nature of cinema. That we as the audience love the chase, not the happy ever after. Films with a romance plot are typically about the two characters in love with each other struggling to be together over the obstacles life throws at them. Once they get together the film ends, it doesn’t concern itself with their life together. It is the chase we love, the goal of the chase is seemingly irrelevant. Chiyoko basically isn’t a character but a stand in for cinema itself (since she has no life out of cinema, literally in the reality of the film) and her failure to find her lover is symbolic of how cinema will never end and how love stories will carry on forever. The device of having her love story take place across a thousand years in different settings and periods also suggests this as it shows that these love stories re-occur again and again.

Like I say this is a very smart film, I don’t doubt that all the character faults are deliberate to the symbolism but it doesn’t stop it being a frustrating watch.

 

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