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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

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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

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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

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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.

cubone_marowak_kangaskhan_by_periculant-d34ejtb

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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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

 

 

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As a critic I don’t think I’ve ever been presented with a film that’s easier to review than Pacific Rim.

The high concept here is giant robots and giant monsters hitting each other. If that concept sounds like fun to you then you will love Pacific Rim because everything in this film that is related to either robots, monsters or hitting is absolutely perfect. If, however, that concept sounds kind of dumb and boring, then there is nothing in this film that is going to change your mind.

Pacific Rim tells the story of a world where giant monsters called Kaiju (the actual Japanese word for giant monsters such as Godzilla) periodically emerge from an interdimensional portal at the bottom of the pacific and wreak destruction in human cities. After being blind-sided by the first few Kaiju, humanity collectively gets our shit together and starts building giant robots called Jagers (the German for hunter) to stop them.

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The film then flashes forward 7 years and we learn that whilst initially successful the Jager programme has started to become a problem. The Kaiju emerging are getting bigger and more frequent and the Jagers are losing fights more often. It is becoming too expensive to keep the programme running and instead the world is going to build a giant wall around the pacific to keep the monsters out.

The film then flashes forward another 5 years and we learn that the wall isn’t working either. The Kaiju are still getting bigger and getting even more frequent and neither our Jagers or the wall are stopping them. With only 4 Jagers remaining it’s up to a rogue military group based in Hong Kong to make a last ditch effort to take the fight to the monsters and end it once and for all.

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There are is an awful lot to love about Pacific Rim almost all of it to do with the high concept and how well it’s executed. The Jagers are cool, they have distinct intimidating and memorable designs and are filled with all sorts of fun giant robot weapons like whirling blades, chest missiles, plasma cannons and other weapons I won’t spoil here. The monster designs are absolutely amazing (as you’d expect from Guillermo Del Toro) full of creepy and bizarre alien touches such as a tongue that opens up to reveal another tongue, and then another all glowing like a fibre optic Christmas tree.

The fight sequences are just brilliant too. There is one fight towards the end of the film (although not the actual final battle) that without hyperbole is one of the greatest action sequences I have ever seen, right up there with the Death Star trench run and the final fight in Avengers. Not only are they shot and edited beautifully but the action scenes all remember that a key to a good action sequence is risk and reversal of fortune. It can be fun for a short while to watch an unstoppable action hero wade through a horde of enemies but that quickly gets boring. Instead in a good action scene you genuinely feel that there is some chance that the character could fail and the fortunes of the hero and villain should switch so sometimes the hero looks like their winning and then suddenly the villain does. Pacific Rim not only nails this principle it absolutely blows it out of the water and each action sequence is punctuated with moments of such awesome inventiveness and surprise that I at times screamed out loud “no fucking way!” from the audience.

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Also on the positive side is the score. Some have criticised the film for being far too loud and whilst I can understand that, this is a very loud film, I quickly acclimatised myself to the volume and I found the sound mixing and particularly the music (written by Ramin Djawadi the same guy that did the Game of Thrones opening) worked phenomenally well. I still have the main theme stuck in my head days later.

Oh the hell with it, this may get taken down soon but just listen to this here.

There are plenty of subtle references to existing mecha and kaiju films too for the fans such as designs that subtly echo famous film monsters (like a very King Kong-esque monster at one point) and even a plot point that I swear is a reference to the horrible American Godzilla remake.

If you are already a fan of Kaiu films, mecha anime or just like the sound of the concept you will love Pacific Rim.

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However; it’s not a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination, there are plenty of flaws here and they’re all on the non-robot, non-monster side of the equation i.e. the human cast. The fact of the matter is the human characters are just not particularly interesting. I’ve seen some very scathing reviews of the human parts of the film accusing them of being terribly acted and that all the characters are walking stereotypes. I don’t think the human stuff is that bad but it isn’t great. The acting in this film is pretty much fine, not great, not bad, but fine. The exceptions being Ron Perlman (who eats so much ham his scenes look like a barbeque restaurant) and Idris Elba who, shockingly, is just awful. I love Idris Elba, he was great in Thor and easily the best thing in Prometheus but he’s so stiff and lifeless in this film. I get that his character is meant to be stiff but even in moments when he should be letting the mask fall and showing emotion it feels like he just wanted to say his lines as quickly as possible and get off the set.

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The film also has major issues with character development. Our main hero is Raleigh Beckett (played by Charlie Hunnam and as an aside everybody in this film has just terrible character names) has an arc set up involving his dead brother. We spend most of the first act talking about this and then absolutely nothing comes from it. Similarly our heroine Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) has a huge arc about overcoming her fear of the Kaiju that dominates the entirety of the second act and then gets resolved almost in a throwaway line. The only character who gets a complete story arc would be the irascible Australian Jager pilot Chuck Hansen (Robert Kazinksy) and he’s a minor character.

This is symptomatic of a larger pacing problem too. The film starts with a long expositional narration, then jumps forward 7 years, then jumps forward again 5 years effectively giving us two first acts. We then get a looooooooooong second act and finally the third act feels really rushed. With the amount of world building and exposition that needs to be done I completely understand why the film has two first acts, the alternative would have been to drop the audience in the middle of the story and trust us to figure out the past from context clues and I understand why they didn’t trust a mainstream audience to do that. I also understand why the third act was so rushed as it’s basically just one big fight sequences and every extra minute was likely another million on the budget to animate these monsters. Nonetheless whilst I understand the film maker’s choices the film is poorly paced.

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And if it weren’t so poorly paced the issues with the human characters would be less of an issue. Let’s compare it to a film I review last week, 300. Now whilst these films have very different settings and budgets they function similarly in that they’re both action films and so their purpose is to present the audience with action and spectacle.  To get this to work you do need stakes so you do need to establish the characters, the world, what the stakes are and make the audience care that the characters succeed so the character building stuff is a necessary evil to get to the hitting. Pacific Rim does the character building much better than 300, as it has (barely) more nuanced characters but it also spends an awful lot longer with those character whereas 300 rushes through the set-up to get to the good stuff as quickly as it can. 300 is a much more efficient film and if Pacific Rim either had better character development or cut down on the time spent with the characters in the second act it too would be a much more efficient and much superior film.

Because ultimately we didn’t come here for a character piece, we need just enough character stuff so that we care when robots start hitting Kaiju and Pacific Rim unfortunately gets this balance wrong.

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There are other things one can criticise if you’re aiming to nit-pick, such as, the absolutely ridiculous science (somebody needs to explain to the scriptwriter what analogue means, hint unless you have a lot of reel to reel computer banks in it I highly doubt your building size robot with a holographic computer display is analogue) but giant robots are inherently bad science anyway, you’re either on board with it and choose to ignore it as a convention of the genre or you were never going to like this film anyway.

And really that’s my long and circular way of saying if you expect to like Pacific Rim than it has everything you wanted to see in it.

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Big Hero 6

When Disney bought Marvel a few years ago one of the first things fans wanted to know was when we’d get a Marvel property animated by Disney. It’s not that people don’t love the live action films but moving into animation grants a much wider and grander canvas to play with and would allow for properties that would be difficult, or at the very least expensive, to do in live action (Eternals, Warlock and a decent Silver Surfer for example).

I do not think anyone thought that the first Disney/Marvel animated film was going to be  Big Hero 6.

Since approximately 10 people know who Big Hero 6 are here’s a brief explanation. Initially spinning out of Alpha Flight (yes, these guys are less famous and popular than Alpha Flight, the super-hero team whose high concept is, we’re Canadian) and a 3 issue mini in the late 90’s; Big Hero 6 are the national super-hero team of Japan. The team is composed of a mix of established Japanese characters like Sunfire and the Silver Samurai and some newer oddball creations like Go-Go Tomago. They later got a mini by Chris Claremont in 2008 and bar a few cameos that’s it. That’s pretty much all you need to know.

Why then would Disney want to make a film of this?

Well because Disney is very interested in Japan right now. Japan wasn’t as badly affected by the recession as America and Europe (don’t get me wrong, it was affected, the but the economy was still fairly flat from the mid-90’s Japanese recession and so it was a smaller dip than experienced in the west) making Japan the largest and most attractive non-China market out there. And since there are plenty of reasons Disney expanding in China is a problem (that we won’t go into today) it makes sense that they want to expand into Japan. It also helps that Disney is already huge there, in fact it’s easily the biggest non-native cultural force in the country, with two Disney theme parks and merchandise is as seemingly omni-present as it is in Orlando. Licenses for things like Stitch and Winnie the Pooh are huge.

And if you know anything about Japanese culture you’ve probably spotted some attempts to make Disney products more palatable to Japanese consumers recently. Take Wreck-it-Ralph. As well as including numerous cameos from Japanese characters (Bowser, Sonic, Pac-Man) it prominently featured the mascot of a Japanese cream puff company, Beard Papa, and even a song by idol group AKB48. This is the most Japanese film Disney has yet released.

And yet Wreck-it-Raph wasn’t so Japanese that it alienated domestic audiences either. Partly that’s because guys like Sonic are well known to U.S. audiences already but also it’s because Japanese culture is more widely known in America these days anyway. Disney may have missed the anime and manga bubble by a few years but Japanese culture has impacted western culture in a way that isn’t going away any time soon. You only have to look at Transformers or Pacific Rim or the upcoming Godzilla to see that Hollywood still sees a lot of potential in repurposing Japanese ideas.

So coming out with a super-hero animated movie with a distinctly Japanese feel makes a lot of sense. It has the potential to sell well back home, sell hugely in Japan and leave a licensing legacy Disney can exploit for years to come.

But.

Big Hero 6 may not be the best characters to do this with.

And it’s not because they’re lesser known characters. Iron Man was widely considered a second string super-hero prior to the first Robert Downey Junior film and he’s now one of the biggest and most popular supes in the wider pop culture consciousness. And let’s not forget Blade, the film that started off the current Super-Hero movie era. Nobody outside of comics, and most people who do read comics, had heard of Blade, and for those that had he wasn’t exactly their favourite character. But there was enough potential there to make a very competent action film and the rest is history.

No, Big Hero 6 has the potential to be a great film, but there’s also the strong potential to be an offensive one. That’s because the characters in Big Hero 6 walk a very thin line between affectionate homage to Japanese icons and a patronising joke about how stupid and silly those characters are.

Discounting Sunfire and the Silver Samurai, because they’re mutants and so tied up with the X-Men rights and setting and probably won’t make it into the Big Hero 6 film, you’re left with Hiro, Baymax, Honey Lemon, Go-Go Tomago, Wasabi-no-Ginger and Fred.

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. However it’s also a strong idea without the Japanese elements.  A boy and his pet robot? You can easily imagine that as an animated film *cough* Iron Giant *cough*

Big Hero 6 3

And then there’s Go-Go Tomago who, aside from Hiro, is the only character to have much of a personality. She’s a former biker gang member and criminal given a second lease on life by volunteering to pilot a suit of armour that lets her bounce around like a human pachinko ball (a kind of Japanese version of pinball that is the most mind numbingly boring activity a human being can possibly engage in) and makes her look a little bit like a Power Ranger. Again she’s a combination of Japanese concepts but one that is played straight and still works as a straight super-hero.

Unfortunately her name is wrong. She’s called Tomago because she’s supposed to resemble an egg but the Japanese word for egg is tAmago, not tOmago as the Official Hand Book to the Marvel Universe would have you believe.

And then with Honey Lemon it starts to get silly.

Big Hero 6 4

Honey Lemon (a play on long running Japanese superhero Cutie Honey) has a purse that allows her to draw weapons and devices from other dimensions (shades of Doraemon) which is really pushing what you can get away with in a straight super-hero story and is verging on parody territory.

Big Hero 6 5

Fred is just some guy in a t-shirt and hat, but when he fights he manifests his ki, or spirit energy, in the form of a giant ghostly dinosaur that’s not unlike Godzilla. It’s kind of a silly concept but I like Fred for just how oddball he is and the interesting visual he offers.

Big Hero 6 6

Finally there’s Wasabi-no-Ginger which is a name that is simply unacceptable. Honey Lemon’s 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.

So it’s a concept that can easily go either way. Played straight it can be an affectionate pastiche of Japanese super-heroes but one that also functions as a proper super-hero narrative with good strong character hooks such as boy and his robot or former criminal seeks redemption. Play it for laughs though and it could quickly lapse into a series of embarrassing stereotypes.

What we’ve     heard so far from Disney doesn’t really help us know much either way. The concept art looks amazing but the setting, San-Frantokyo, sounds fairly hokey.

Oh, and for those that might be interested in tracking down the original comics, don’t bother. The original 3 issue mini has never been collected and whilst it’s okay it isn’t worth the effort to find it. The later Chris Claremont mini is aggressively terrible. Not only does it feature trademark tedious Chris Claremont mind control (editors, please, please stop letting Chris Claremont write mind control stories) but the characters all get turned into his stock types too, that’s if they’re not reduced to boring ciphers. The plot is so thin as to be barely there and it spends most of two out of its 5 issue run focused on our heroes infiltrating an American high school and taking part in an American football game for absolutely no reason.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hey gang. Fair warning to you that this article is a little bit out of date as it has been sitting on my desk at school for a week. However it’s something I feel really strongly about and my thoughts still stand.

Those who know me know that among my many passions in life one that rates more highly than my interest in Japanese culture is my interest in comics. Specifically my interest in super-hero comics. So I was very excited recently when not only one of my favourite comic authors (Grant Morrison) but one of my favourite artists (Cliff Chiang) debuted mash-ups between western super-hero archetypes the Justice League and Japanese culture.

And I feel it necessary to talk about them and judge, as someone who kniows both a fair bit about Japan and Super-heroes, how successful they were.

Firstly let’s look at Grant Morrison’s efforts. Morrison, for those unfamiliar with comics, is one of my favourite writers. He is generally famed for his big concept ideas, use of philosophy and bleeding edge physics in otherwise straightforward super-hero work and a sort of joyous surrealism. He is presently writing an enormous story for DC Comics called Final Crisis; a cross-over event story that ties up a lot of plot developments in the D.C. Universe over the last 5 – 10 years. Morrison has invented 2 super-hero teams for Japan that he has retroactively added into the continuity. By continuity I mean the general storyline of the D.C. Universe. So for example, whilst neither of these teams existed until a few weeks ago everyone in the D.C. Universe is pretending they’ve been around since the 1970’s. Wakarimasu ka?

Anyway, nicked from Scans Daily, who in turn nicked them from the Final Crisis Sketchbook here they are.

First lets start with the “original” Japanese super-team i.e. the JLA spliced with some of the bigger and more famous manga genres.

First up we have the team itself known as “Big Science Action.” An attempt at Engrish which isn’t hugely convincing but it works for me.

Ultimon.
So far so good. Here we have Super-man crossed with Ultraman. This works perfectly fine for me since Ultraman, bar possibly Astro Boy, is the most super-heroic of all the Japanese Super Sentai (basically their version of super-heroes) mostly due to his secret identity, costume and the fact that his name ends in man.

Morrison also has this to say about Ultimon.

Together in the ruins of Tokyo, young Dai Yokohama and his master fought the three COLONIZERS (all the monsters we see him fight look like “real” versions of POKEMON creatures, as if nature had actually created Pokemon horrors to run around causing real devastation):

SCARRBA the PROTECTOR leads the charge — a multi-headed Hydra thing spitting a different death ray from each head. Eyes of one head fire lasers. Mouth of another shoots fire. Horns on the third launch electrical bolts, etc. KRY-TORR the BURROWER digs up the streets, and the rubble of fallen buildings flies from his hellish, centipedal multi-legs. LORLOXX the LAYER squats and releases fuming glass eggs from rows of pipes in its sides, all filled with squirming monstrosities.

Making him fight monsters also works since a) this is what Ultraman does and b) you can’t do a Japanese pop-culture pastiche without having some kaiju in there. They may not be the most popular thing in Japan but they’re emblematic of Japanese pop-culture to the west. Although Pokemon as real monsters is very, very Grant Morrison-ish I think it works. It sends up the differences in style between Western and Asian comics, that there is a greater tradition of cartooning here whereas in America art has gotten progressively more realistic. Oh and there’s a King Ghidorah pastiche in there too which I approve of because King Ghidorah is my favourite Kaiju.

Cosmo Racer
Not a brilliant name (but oh my god is there worse to come) but not a bad mash-up either. Silver Surfer with Atom/Astro Boy. Morrison says Silver Surfer with Pinocchio but considering Atom Boy was/is basically Pinocchio if Pinocchio was an atomic robot in underpants it’s Astro Boy. The problem with that mash-up is that Atom Boy was already in part a mash-up of East and West, with Tezuka openly borrowing from many famous western sources such as Pinocchio, Superman and Walt Disney.

I’m not a huge fan of the design either which is a little bit too much silver surfer, except with roller skating instead of surfing. As far as I can detect there’s nothing overtly Japanese in this design. At least nothing that isn’t already largely incorporated into Western comics.

Boss Bosouko
Akira plus the Human Torch plus Ghost Rider. Again like with Ultraman or Kaiju Akira is such a visible example of the history of manga that you would be silly to pass it up. Kaneda (the hero of Akira) maps so perfectly onto the human torch (plus the borrowed visual from ghost rider because, let’s be honest flaming heads on bikes look awesome) too. Both are young impetuous hot headed heroes but with their hearts in the right place. In fact the elements Morrison has chosen to join together here gel so well that it doesn’t feel like a pastiche, I can actually see Boss Bosozuku working as a legitimate character. He does have a rubbish name but I love the nuclear warning symbol motorbike jacket.

Hammersuit Zero-X
I like the “spunky young girl” creating a giant robot. What’s actually working here is less of an East/West pastiche and more of a combination of Japanese elements. So we have the spunky school girl from Magical Girl Manga with the small boy has big robot friend stuff from Gigantor or Giant Robo. The design is appalling though. Morrison sights Gundam and Gigantor but this doesn’t look anything like either of those. Gundam suits look blocky and militaristic (or like fish and windmills) and Gigantor looks like clean 1950’s sci-fi. Nor does it look like any modern mecha series which have all followed the Evangelion template of organic mecha. It basically doesn’t look like any mecha series I’m familiar with. What it looks like is a mid-90’s Iron Man villain crossed with an X-box. The concept is fine but the suit needs work.

Junior Waveman
Spot on basically. Junior Waveman is Aquaman crossed with the classic Sentai super-team (think Science Ninja Team Gatchaman or Power Rangers). Sentai teams are characterized by matching outfits/powers and the notion of a junior member. His costume is a bit lifeless though although his name works quite well.

Those are our heroes that we’re meant to take seriously “Big Science Action Team.” Now I’d complain about the name but considering my favourite Japanese super-hero team is called “Science Ninja Team Gatchaman” I think it’s largely appropriate. Especially since these are meant to be a 1970’s style team both in the Justice League members they ape and the Japanese characters chosen and the 70’s were really the era for the silly/badly translated names.

The next set are all summarized from the opening text in Morrison’s introduction. These are wannabes. Mindless and inane fashion drones with no real desire for heroism but rather are emblematic of the inane/superficial/random elements of Japanese culture (i.e. the bits I love so much).

For starters we have “Most Excellent Super-bat.” Now this may be the finest name I have ever heard for a super-hero ever. Just try saying it to yourself, most excellent super-bat, most excellent super-bat. Does it or does it not just make the day seem that much brighter? Most Excellent Super-Bat is Batman and Superman blitzed together with bright colours, cute accessories and the post-apocalyptic/nihilist psychedelic/mass-consumerist philosophy of Shibuya denizens. He is meant to be utterly bizarre and stupid beyond all possible words and he is masterfully successful in it. Morrison gets this one right, there are guys exactly like this on TV in Japan already, except less super-heroey.

The problem is Morrison kind of makes his point with Most Excellent Super-Bat and then has nothing left to say. Most of the other characters in the Super Young Team (which isn’t Engrish enough to sound fun like Big Action Team and is too stupid to work as something a Japanese teenager would actually call themselves) are just the same joke again, take a Justice League member and re-arrange them plus add in some bright colours and mad fashion accessories to point out the inane superficiality of some Japanese teens. Big Atomic Lantern Boy is a fine example of the problem. There isn’t much pastiche here or thought going into it, it’s a ridiculous looking guy with a silly name and some Green Lantern elements nicked from a proper super-hero. He doesn’t map onto a Japanese fashion or sub-culture nor does he directly reference any manga or anime he’s just a goofy looking idiot with a silly name.

Shy Crazy Lolita Canary would work a bit better because she actually maps onto a Japanese sub-culture, Gothic Lolita. Except she doesn’t because Morrison gets every single element of her character wrong. For starters if she’s a Lolita canary why is she in a school girl outfit and not a Gothic Lolita costume? Secondly why does she shout sumimasen? Sumimasen means sorry in Japanese and although they’re not exactly the crowd I move with Gothic Lolita aren’t known for yelling sorry very loudly. I think that what Morrison wants her to be saying is “Irrashaimasen” since he mentions shop girls and shop girls in Japan say this. It means welcome and shop keepers yell it at you when they see you in their shop. HwoevEr again, why is a Gothic Lolita yelling irrashaimasen? Unless Morrison is thinking of maid cafes because maid costume is quite similar to Gothic Lolita fashion but again why isn’t she in a maid/Lolita outfit? And why is she shy crazy Lolita canary? Lolita are amongst the most extroverted Japanese people around, unless that’s why she’s yelling sorry (but then there’s something weirdly inverted about yelling sorry, not really a shy action). I’ll give him making a black canary analogue winged is quite a nice touch considering the fetish-isation of angelic imagery in this country but generally shy crazy Lolita canary doesn’t work at all.

Shiny Happy Aquazon is a bit better again. We’ve reverted from trying to say anything about Japanese subculture and have gone back to fusing manga characters with super-heroes. In this case we’ve got Aquaman, Wonder Woman (an amazon) and the sort of happy bright but dumb and clumsy characters that populate a wide swathe of manga (i.e. Sailor Moon, Lum, belldandy). Her outfit is quite nice too, very super-hero but still looking like something Lum would wear. Her name is rubbish though, mostly because shiny happy sounds less like engrish than it does an R.E.M. song. Engrish works when you have two words that we don’t regularly combine in colloquial English (science ninja being a good example of words that would never meet each other in normal English) but we’re all used to hearing shiny and happy next to each other so it doesn’t work as Engrish and just sounds dumb as a standard super-hero name.

Well Spoken Sonic Lightning Flash
Well spoken? What? Okay so the description is sonic the hedgehog meets Impulse. So for those that don’t know Impulse was a super-fast scatter brained teenager raised inside a virtual reality computer game like world whereas sonic the hedgehog is a….super fast scatter brained hedgehog that actually is a computer game character. Yeah, that’s less sonic meets Impulse than Impulse meets the character that inspired Impulse in the first place. Oh but it’s okay because he has a ridiculous top heavy anime inspired design….y’know, like Impulse. Oh and he’s living for the now…a bit like Impulse and.

Basically the problem with Well Spoken Lightning Flash is that he’s EXACTLY the same character as Impulse but with a more ridiculous design and a name that I cannot begin to fathom the joke behind.

I realise that the whole point behind the Super Young Team is that we’re meant to dislike them as shallow poseurs and they contrast with the heroic and noble Big Action Team. I get the point Morrison is trying to make and I love the joke behind Most Excellent Super-bat but none of the other characters work in the slightest bit. Shy Crazy Lolita Canary and Well Spoken Sonic Lightning Flash in particular entirely fail as jokes or pastiches because they don’t reflect anything Japanese, either in real life or in manga.

So ultimately I think Morrison ahs failed here. Potentially Big Action Team could work as a real comic with some tweaking but Super Young Team fail entirely as jokes and were never meant to be real characters.

However, Cliff Chiang also recently showed off some Super-hero manga mash-ups, although he created his nearly 10 years ago. Chiang’s gone for a more direct pastiche approach, simply taking one character and re-imagining them in the form of an existing Japanese manga. These are all specific homages but some of them work excellently and really draw parallels between the western characters and the eastern characters.

To start with we have science ninja hero Batman and his partner Robin. Robin’s costume is a little bit too on the nose and looks exactly like a Gatchaman costume only re-coloured. I’m a big fan of Batman’s Gatchaman inspired look though. It’s still recognizably a bat but with the clean lines associated with 1960’s Japanese sci-fi. Visual Kei joker is fun too, observe this photo of Gackt…

…and now look at the Joker. And yet it’s still recognisably the Joker, and it works better for a Japanese joker since it incorporates the androgyny and attractiveness that Japan likes to instill its villains with.

Superman as Gigantor is hilarious. He really is a man of steel. The Super-man robot looks like an anime super-robot (actually a genre of anime) and the shorts wearing kid who commands it with a signal watch is spot on. Unfortunately it wouldn’t quite let you translate stories as easily as the science ninja batman would. Batchaman would still fight super-villains and could still have the same origin but Super-Robot would have a vastly different origin without all the Christ/immigrant imagery in the original character.

Aquaman as a Kanren runner/Ultraman type is just genius though. Kanren Runner or Ultraman are the most obviously super-heroic of any Japanese super-heroes and Kanren Runners design works well for an alien being that lives in the sea. And having him grow to enormous size to fight sea monsters (Kaiju actually does translate as sea monster) is a spot of brilliance. I would happily read the adventures of a king of the seas protecting his civilization and the surface world from marauding giant monsters. It would be an infinitely better character than Aquaman.

Flash Go Go Go is just speed racer with a red car. The homage is spot on but there isn’t much to say about it. Green Lantern I sadly cannot place and Wonder Woman as Princess Luda from Starblazers doesn’t work too well because the character is no longer recognizably Wonder Woman. The homage is fine since both are princesses but the design needs a little work to bring out the super-hero sides more.

Overall then I vastly prefer Chiang’s mash-ups but sadly there isn’t as much to say about them.

And finally let’s take a look at what happens when it occurs in the other direction and Japan does the mashing. Well you end up with this.

That was the Japanese Spider-man show from the 1970’s (Supaidaman). You may have noticed, as I did, that there is a giant robot. Moreso there is a giant robot that Spider-man summons by yelling “change me lepardomon!” Why spider-man has a giant robot is an easy mystery to figure out.

Japanese Scriptwriter: Well boss you know how you bought the rights to that American super-hero Spider-man?

Japanese TV Exec: I did, well what about it?

JS: Well I worked out a story concept for you.

JTVE: Oh cool,. So what does this supaidaman do?

JS: Well he shoots webs, climbs walls, does flips and martial arts and beats up bad guys.

JTVE: Hmm, sounds good. Kind like Gatchaman but with a spider instead of birds.

JS: Right boss.

JTVE: So how does he fight giant monsters?
JS: Sorry?

JTVE: How does he fight giant monsters?

JS: Um….. he doesn’t?

JTVE: Well that’s no good. You’ve gotta have giant monsters so you can sell toys. Tell you what why doesn’t he have a giant robot?

JS: Genius sir.

Why he has A LEOPARD ROBOT rather than say a spider one is a mystery that may never be unsolved.
And I have it on good authority that in a later episode he gains a car with machine gun lamps.
Catchy theme tune though.

Hanami.

The Japanese obsession with nature culminates in two events every year; Hanami and Momijigari. The latter is the practise of going out to appreciate the autumn leaves, the former is going out to appreciate the sakura (cherry blossom).

And it should be stressed here, Japanese people are mad for the sakura. Amongst the sakura related products I have come across since Spring sprang are sakura crisps (pretty nice), sakura chu-hi (basically sakura tonic), sakura charms, sakura clothes, sakura stickers, sakura phones, sakura tea (very, very salty), sakura jam, sakura sweets, sakura kit-kats and sakura bloody hello kitty.

The Japanese love the sakura.

Circumstances arose last week to grant me two days off work. Admittedly I did have to use up my precious nenkyu in order to do so but it was that, spend a day pottering around the KEC learning Japanese or attend an all day meeting in Japanese at my school. So having been more or less forced to take the day off I decided to make the most of it and see more of Kyoto.

My recently arrived girlfriend has sort of thrown my travelling patterns into a bit of disarray. Since I know that I want to visit places in Japan with her and I know that I only have a limited amount of time in Japan I don’t really want to see every single place I visit twice. As such I was frantically flipping through the guidebook looking for a place I think Fran wouldn’t want to see. Mostly this meant looking for anything that wasn’t described as being “particularly stunning in April when the sakura is in bloom” which seemed to be bloody everything.

Eventually I settled on ginkakuji, The Silver Pavilion, which seemed interesting enough to divert my attention for a day but not so especially amazing that it would necessarily require a second visit.

As it happens it will definitely require a second visit because it was shut! Well not entirely. Ginkakuji started out in life as a villa for a samurai but was later on converted into a Buddhist temple. It consists of two main buildings and an elaborate and beautiful garden built partly into the mountain (a practise known to the Japanese as borrowed scenery). The garden and one of the buildings was open but the main building that the area derives its name from was shut as it was being refurbished.

You would think this would be exceptionally annoying but as it happens I was in too good a mood to be particularly irked. You see, the sakura was in bloom.

The approach to ginkakuji was a canal/river thing in the centre of the road with a row of grass and sakura trees either side of it and the actual road beyond that. I had no idea that the sakura was already out in so much force and was gobsmacked by the sight of it all. It was a little avenue of nature, an oasis of calm right smack dab in the centre of a busy city. It was beautiful and perfect.

And busy, well not terribly busy but surprisingly so for a Wednesday morning. The streets were pulsing with people and vendors, wandering around, taking photos. There were even some girls in Yukata out and about getting their photo taken. I purchased a sakura ice-cream and had a perfectly pleasant meander. Eventually I made my way to ginkakuji.

(Just to interject for a moment lets talk about Ice-cream in Japan. The stall I bought my ice-cream from had nearly none of the standard ice-cream flavours we’re used to. No strawberry, no vanilla, no mint. Furthermore this wasn’t just restricted to this guy; strawberry, vanilla and mint seem to be completely absent from Japanese ice-cream sellers. In fact this guy seemed to have the “standard” Japanese flavours. These would be, melon, mango, milk, ramune, which is a sort of Japanese version of lemon/lime only slightly odder. The bottle usually has a marble in the top, I’m a big fan. He also had green tea, chocolate, sakura and black sesame which I haven’t tried yet but desperately want to.)

The first thing that greats you when you enter ginkakuji is an enormous hedge, fully 13 or 15 foot high! You pass into the hedge which becomes a kind of alleyway bordered by hedges. This is surprisingly intimidating, possibly because it’s a blind corner and all you can see in front, behind and to either side of you is hedge. You can peer through the hedge and glimpse an impenetrable bamboo forest on either side of you, dampening the noise from the outside world.

Eventually you turn a corner and leave the hedge and step into what must be one of the most beautiful gardens I have ever seen.

Alas I was so stunned I pretty much forgot to take photos.

It’s done in the bonsai style, all miniature trees and recreated lakes and mountains. The centrepiece of the bonsai style is a fantastic waterfall at one end of the garden with a koi carp pond beneath it. It’s perfectly tranquil and still and supremely relaxing.

The other major feature was an immaculately smooth sand sculpture of a mountain and a lake. Whilst I was there 5 or 6 men were continuously smoothing and layering the mountain but the lake was unattended and was unbelievably smooth.

There was a distinct lack of sakura in the graden but it was so lovely that I didn’t particularly care and just wandered about in a tranquil daze.

Eventually I drew myself from my daze and set off in the vague direction of Hoonen-in.

Hoonen-in is the main temple for Buddhists practising the Joodo Shuu or “pure land” school of Buddhism. It was founded in honour of the creator of this school the monk Hoonen, a very controversial figure during his lifetime. The temple seemed like much more of a working temple than others I’ve visited. Whilst most temples which are tourists attractions are primarily tourist attractions Hoonen-in seemed to be mostly about teaching people. There were classes being attended whilst I was there and a library of Buddhist materials that visitors can stay and read. It was huge too and pretty mazelike.

The main appeal to Hoonen-in seems to be the various artworks and treasures inside it. The building itself is pretty unimpressive even though it’s one of the largest temples I’ve been to but it has some interesting artworks and murals inside. I was particularly fond of a dragon done in what looked to my untrained eye to be charcoals. In any way the only colour used was black but the dragon had a strange organic quality to it, like it hadn’t been painted so much as scratched into the wall. Or maybe burnt there?

The garden was quite nice too, not a patch on ginkakuji but it did give me one very awesome photo.

Making my way back to the station from the two temples I realised that it was still pretty early and I could do two things I have wanted to do in Kyoto for ages.

The first was to go up to the top of Kyoto tower. Nearly every major city in Japan has one of these viewing towers, Kobe has port tower, Tokyo has Tokyo tower (which looks like the Eiffel tower), Osaka has the Umeda Sky Building (which looks like a flying saucer dangling between twin towers) and Kyoto has the Kyoto tower, which they describe as looking like a candle but which I am convinced resembles an upside-down mushroom.

Anyway the view from the top was mightily impressive, vertigo inducing even and having looked at it for a bit too long I had to have a sit down and stop looking at anything but the inside of the tower. My vertigo is weird, 90 % of the time it doesn’t bother me at all but then on that 10 % I’ll be looking at something from a great height and my brain goes YOU’RE GOING TO DIE RUN, RUN YOU FOOL. Stupid brain.

Not that the inside of the tower was dull, Kyoto city-council evidently faced with a tower they’ve constructed and paid for said, “well lads, now what do we do with it?”

The answer apparently is to use it as an usual gallery space for art installations. Some of these made fantastic use of the unusual space and incorporated the view into their presentation but most of them were bafflingly obtuse. Place your bets as to whether this is because they’re modern art or merely Japanese?

Kyoto tower was nice but pretty pricey just to get to the top and I was about to find out that the money I spent was entirely wasted. Next to Kyoto tower is the train station and from the top of the train station the view is almost as good for free!

Bugger.



Kyoto station has the distinct honour of being included in the Lonely Planet guidebook as a distinct attraction in its own right and not merely a way of getting into Kyoto. This is mostly because Kyoto train station is a stunning architectural achievement. It is big, really, really big and is constructed in such a way as to make it seem even bigger than it is. It is intimidatingly big. I mean in terms of actual size it is nothing, it’s probably actually smaller than Newcastle station (although taller, and actually Newcastle station is a pretty gorgeous building itself) but it seems like some kind of giant staring down at you chuckling at your puniness.

It basically consists of a central hall and then two slopes rising up on either side of the central hall making a kind of V. At the top of each point there is a skywalk joining the two going across the central hall so I guess it’s more of a triangular shape. It’s meant to evoke the geography of Kyoto, sitting in a basin with mountains on either side. I certainly agree that the slopes seem mountainous.

Incidentally it’s yet another building that I have been to that I have seen Gamera destroy in a film.

On the right hand side is an escalator that rises all the way from the 4th floor to 11th! At the top is the brilliantly named “happy terrace” (oh Japan) at a height that rivals Kyoto tower. From there you have a commanding view of the surrounding city and a horrendously vertigo inducing view down the escalator which is ten times scarier than any mountainside I’ve ever stood on.

Just below the top floor was a door mysteriously marked “ramen restaurants”. Now long time readers of this site will know of my passion for ramen, I bloody love the ramen. I am so in love with ramen that I am nigh on incapable of refusing ramen if offered it even if I have just finished a bowl of ramen. Therefore a door marked “ramen restaurants” intrigued me greatly. Surely this isn’t what it seemed? The door could not lead to a space consisting only of ramen restaurants could it?

As it happens, no, that would be too good to be true and there was a takoyaki and a hamburger restaurant behind the magical door. There were however about 10 ramen restaurants ranging from the cheap and dodgy to the high end and covering the entire spectrum of variety that one can achieve with ramen.

They also all had a pointless little gimmick, the menu was a vending machine. Rather than go in, sit down and order, you perused a vending machine featuring pictures of the food the restaurant sold. Then you selected and paid for your food and got a little voucher. When you went in the restaurant you handed over the voucher and got your food.

Completely pointless but it did liven up the experience a tiny little bit.

So that was Kyoto day 1. Come back next week for far more exciting adventures in Kyoto featuring geisha and drunken men.

Right then, back on schedule.

KARUTA

One of the best aspects of my job is getting to see and participate in all the special activities my school puts on. I think more than anything else this is the biggest insight into Japanese culture. I get to see what Japanese people do as they grow up. Unlike my shrine visits this is simply something a tourist never gets access to.

So I was really excited last Friday afternoon when Kosuga-sensei asked me if I would come watch the students play cards.

Yes you heard me, watch them play cards.

The game was karuta (literally card), specifically “iroha-garuta” which is the original karuta game and something of a Japanese tradition.

Karuta is a sort of listening version of snap. Students sit in small teams surrounding a set of cards placed face up. One person (i.e. a teacher) reads out a word or phrase and the students have to grab the corresponding card. I use it all the time in classes, say by putting a load of pictures of emotions on a table and saying “I’m happy” so the students have to grab the “happy” card. However “iroha-garuta” differs slightly from the way I play it. In “iroha-garuta” one person is reading out various tanka (or poems). He reads the first 3 lines of the poem and the students have to find the card with the last two lines.

The students study tanka in their Japanese classes so playing this game is the culmination of a lot of months hard work memorising poems.

This just sums up Japan so much for me. Not just taking time out from lessons to play a card game but actually studying it in lessons in order to prepare. And for no other reason than that it’s a tradition.

It was a pretty fun afternoon too. Of course I had no idea what the teachers were reading out but the answer cards were written in hiragana not kanji. This meant I could have a go at reading them (although I didn’t have a chance in hell of understanding them) and I was pretty pleased with how well I was doing.

The kids seemed to be having a ball too. One group of boys did the respect fist every time they won a card. So of course after a while I came and joined in.

Traditional school card games. I love this country.

JAPANESE CRISPS ARE WEIRD: PART 2

Ladies and gentlemen these are Strawberry flavoured Cheetos.

Some madman has combined the flavours of cheese, potato and strawberry!

This truly is the upper limit of weird food, surely.

Nothing more insane than this could possibly exist, could it?

Dare I eat them.

I must, for how could I pass up something so tremendously bizarre.

If I do not taste them now I shall forever wonder.

They shall haunt my dreams forever more, a nightmare vision in pink.

And so I must.

Yet, I still fear.

But what is man if he cannot overcome his fear.

Pray for me friends.

*crunch*

Actually.

They’re quite nice.

To provide some explanation for this. In Japan pink is considered to be a lucky colour. It’s a mix of the red and the white of the imperial flag. After the New Year everything turns pink for the whole of January and a startling amount of pink food goes on the market. My sakura crisps were one example of the pink food phenomenon but I’ve also seen a huge variety of pink crisps, sakura flavoured kit-kats and lots of stuff made with prawns.

G-GUNDAM

I usually don’t talk about the Manga (comics) and Anime (cartoons) that I’m into at any moment in time because I generally assume that the people reading this blog either a) already know about them or b) couldn’t care less.

G-Gundam is an exception because it is profoundly and gloriously stupid.

Gundam is a catch all title for various series all about giant robot vehicles called “mobile suits”. If you want to know all the details then by all means check out wikipedia but take it from me, you don’t want to know all the details. My friend Ryan is obsessed with Gundam to the point of frightening normal people but I can’t judge because I find the series to be quite cool myself. I watched “Gundam Wing” back home in England and bought a Shenlong Gundam model (my favourite gundam) shortly after I arrived. I even sent some gundams to my nephew for Christmas.

G-Gundam is set in a universe where most of the countries of the world have established colonies in space and given up on life on Earth. To avert the possibility of a catastrophic war between space colonies they hit upon the idea of deciding all conflicts by gundam combat. So once every 4 years each colony competes for the right to rule the entirety of space in a pitched gundam battle. Earth is the battleground and anything goes.

So far so laboured but serviceable set-up to watch robots hit each other. However, it is the designs of these robots that sets G-Gundam apart from its more normal sister shows.

This is the robot of Neo-Japan. It looks like a standard gundam. Humanoid, coloured in red, blue and gold with a white body. In every gundam series there will be a robot that looks like this and it will be the hero.

In sharp contrast here is the Mexican “Tequila Gundam”

That there is a robot with a sombrero. A giant robot sombrero.

Yes, you guessed it. The whole series is little more than one national stereotype after another. But the humour comes from seeing what the Japanese think about other countries. For example China and Hong Kong get relatively sensible robots. But Denmark.

They get a robot dressed as a fish. The “mermaid gundam”.

America fairs slightly better with an American football themed robot.

That transforms into a topless boxer.

I’m not even going to touch the Spanish “Taurus Gundam”

What have Sweden got?

Why yes, a leggy blonde, of course.

Japanese people love France and the French “Gundam Rose” is actually pretty dignified and cool. Although the Napoloen hat cracks me up.

And of course now I’ve shown you France you’re all curious what the English gundam looks like right? Well presenting the “John Bull Gundam”.

Yes, they gave us a robot bearskin. You’ll be pleased to know that we beat up the French Gundam, but then the Japanese guy kills our pilot (we’re baddies in this series).

But undeniably the king of the stupid is the Dutch Gundam, or “Nether Gundam”

Plus the theme tune features the phrases “bright you now” and “shining finger”. This is obviously hilarious but unfortunately the theme tune is incredibly catchy. This means I’ve been wandering around my house and school singing “bright you now” without noticing. Damn catchy gibberish.

GAMERA

Mentioned in the Aquarium post was Gamera. Here he is again.

Gamera is an enormous turtle. He breathes fire, he can fly by retracting limbs and shooting fire out of the holes and he is amongst other titles “guardian of the universe” and “friend to all children”.

I have recently been watching a lot of Gamera and again I wouldn’t mention it, except that recently I watched a film called Gamera vs Barugon.

This was much like any other Gamera film, in fact all told it was a pretty poor Gamera film (right up until the part where barugon shot rainbows from his back that somehow destroyed missles) with one exception.

At one point Barugon destroys Kobe.

You have no idea how much we cheered.

Having seen years of asteroids destroying the empire state building, aliens blowing up the white house or the Eiffel tower, dragons eating London or Godzilla stomping Tokyo I finally got to see something I know and love destroyed on camera.

It was awesome. Nothing makes a disaster movie more fun than recognising what’s been destroyed. I’m sure there’s the basis of an interesting essay in there but at the moment I’m just too happy to think about it properly.

I mean a giant lizard knocked over Port Tower with his tongue. Glee!

The other cool thing about Gamera is that the film company that makes his films, Daiei, is the same company as my supermarket.

And finally.

I have been sick recently and bought tissues. Hilarious tissues.

Aroe? That isn’t an ingredient, it’s what my kids say to greet me in the morning.

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