Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Anime Review: Gurren Lagann - My MacGuffin Shall Pierce the Heavens

Gurren Lagann is a strange beast. It’s a 26 episode anime that is self-aware yet sloppy, childish yet undeniably clever. The same studio that created the critically acclaimed half-season anime FLCL is responsible for Gurren Lagann. Whereas FLCL aggressively subverted genre norms to the point of nearly disowning it altogether, Gurren Lagann is not quite as daring. It ends up relying heavily on winks and nods to the absurdity of giant fighting mech animes combined with a blistering pace to keep viewers interested.

The vantage from which one views Gurren Lagann will have a drastic influence on what you see. I have little doubt the show was created for those with an appreciation of (as opposed to disdain for) common anime themes and tropes. Various fighting robots in downright silly designs attack each other with their signature moves while yelling the move’s name in a way that reminded me of watching Digimon when I was eight years old. Characters regurgitate inspirational “good guys win through fighting spirit” babble and “resistance is futile” taunts. No one (well, almost no one) seems to face ultimate defeat when they lose. They’ll be back.

From my perspective, there are three real reasons to watch Gurren Lagann.

The first reason is the pacing. Even if you find yourself predicting the outcome of the episode or even the next five episodes, your prediction stretches further into a story than many shows would dare go in two entire seasons. Just as Gurren Lagann has a hyper-sweet anime flavor, it also has a skim milk sensibility for getting to the point. The story travels outward (figuratively and literally) at an alarming rate, functioning as both an element of the plot and a great way to avoid boring those who feel they’ve seen much of it before.

The second reason to watch Gurren Lagann is the way it subverts expectations. This does not contradict the earlier point about playing into the hands of the classic hero-with-special-abilities-versus-evil plot skeleton; on the contrary, the story relies on the way the protagonist has a special power and drives nearly the entire plot forward using this MacGuffin. Gurren Lagann uses the ham-fisted and full-frontal anime elements to deliver sucker punches at several key points in the series right where viewers least expect it.

As opposed to Game of Thrones, in which it becomes apparent for better or worse that anyone is fair game for any kind of misfortune, Gurren Lagann has some internal consistency issues. Still, it keeps the story fresh and signals unexpected shifts in tone and motivation. These dramatic shifts are why many Gurren Lagann fans will say they loved one portion of the series, but were lukewarm on another.

Finally, Gurren Lagann is an anime for people who like anime. The hero has an explicable power making them better, but they have to grow as a person. Pilots will have long-winded conversations in split-second timespans. Epic fights full of overblown carnage will generally leave anyone important unscathed. Everyone thinks grunting and nodding is a valid response. Events that don’t make sense visually will be explained in completely unapologetic forced exposition. And if you watch much anime, you’ll see that even when events take an unexpected turn, they’re turning from homaging one kind of played-out anime storytelling to another. 

The show knows what it’s doing. It’s just checking to see if you do too.

I enjoyed Gurren Lagann, and I can appreciate what it was trying to achieve. However, after 26 episodes, I had become frustrated and bored with the laziness of the storytelling and the constant stream of nonsensical escalation and plot devices. One can't hold a conversation entirely with winks and nods. I can recommend it primarily because it’s short and because after this review, you should know what you’re getting into: if you don’t watch anime, Gurren Lagann will not change your mind. 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Book Review: The Cuckoo's Calling - From Wizards to Detectives

“The Cuckoo’s Calling” has received more than its fair share of buzz following the news that Robert Galbraith is actually a pseudonym for J. K. Rowling (which is, itself, a pseudonym). The book is simply too solid to be a true debut, as many critics agreed upon release. As the author of a series so famous and universally loved as the Harry Potter books, it’s no surprise then that Rowling has created an enjoyable novel that scores high on easy readability while still providing quality storytelling that readers crave.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is a lean story. Like Rowling’s previous books, there’s very little fat dangling off the edges, ready to bloat the reader with unnecessary information. This is quite a feat for a 464 page detective thriller, a genre that Rowling had not yet touched and now attempts for reasons unknown. The result is a story that starts where it should start, ends where it should end, and keeps the reader guessing and turning pages the whole way through.

Private Investigator Cormoran Strike is not a man who is friends with good fortune. A leg lost to a landmine in Afghanistan, a rollercoaster romance ending in a wreck, and his struggling business leave him with almost nothing. It’s only when he is approached to reinvestigate the months-old suicide of world-renowned super model Lula Landry that he finds an outlet for his energy. All the evidence points toward suicide, with little information to lean on. He throws himself into this high-profile case that has long since been closed because he desperately needs the money and distraction, but soon finds that perhaps there’s more happening in the high-flying world of the super rich and regrettably famous than meets the eye. His temp that he can’t afford, Robin, brings a contagious enthusiasm for detective work helps keep Strike on the right track and sane.

Rowling makes the shift from the puerile though enjoyable wizard fiction of Harry Potter to the world of the reader, shared by this detective. Removing the whiz-bang of wands and puberty, “The Cuckoo’s Calling” instead offers an edgier, grown-up and worn-down character in the form of Strike that succeeds spectacularly considering how much more practice Rowling has in the realm of coming-of-age and ministries of magic.

As mentioned, Strike doesn’t have much going for him at the outset of the book:

“Other people his age had houses and washing machines, cars and television sets, furniture and gardens and mountain bikes and lawnmowers: he had four boxes of crap, and a set of matchless memories.”

Despite his troubled childhood of frequent free-spirited uprooting and shabby parenting, Strike is a cool, calm, and nearly unshakable figure. With nerves of carbon fiber (because steel isn’t strong enough), he extracts what he’s looking for from witnesses, suspects, family members, and friends-of-friends. Each new encounter is a pleasure to read, as Strike exercises his practiced and perfected art of gathering a thousand little puzzle pieces and fragments of memories from eccentric figures throughout London’s social strata.

From his office in London, Strike embarks on a distinctly modern detective tale. While historically famous investigative thrillers might take place before the advent of the computer or even electric lighting, Strike gathers information with the help of London’s ubiquitous security cameras, smart phones, and Google. Deducing the past with the help of designer brands and records of who-called-who while chowing down on a Big Mac helps lend the drama an air of recency.

Strike’s emotional duress also ensures that our expert detective is a human with emotions and needs. Of course, his stoic avoidance of self-pity both endears him to his reader and keeps him going through a time that would crack most people. In a moment of self-reflection, Strike considers:

“Seven and a half million hearts were beating in close proximity in this heaving old city, and many, after all, would be aching far worse than his.”

“The Cuckoo’s Calling” is littered with “Strikisms”, little observations of human nature and the modern world vaguely pertaining to the case. His thoughts, even unspoken, always reveal themselves in the calm and clinical verbiage of a detective accustomed to considering and including all available information:

“Couples tended to be of roughly equivalent personal attractiveness, though of course factors such as money often seemed to secure a partner of significantly better looks than oneself.”

The story tightly follows a theme of social class, income and privilege. Strike himself has a complex background reaching both up and down the social ladder. Each person he interviews is clearly represented as having their own unique destitution or opulence, each placed in stark contrast as Strike alternates from speaking to the homeless to investigating a night club.

And yet, Rowling (and by extent, Strike) stays refreshingly far away from the temptation to editorialize about the superior lives that the wealthy and famous live. If anything, it makes clear the toxic nature of fame and money on both those who seek it and those who have it. As Strike ponders:

“How easy … to capitalize on a person’s own bent for self-destruction; how simple to nudge them into non-being, then to stand back and shrug and agree that it had been the inevitable result of a chaotic, catastrophic life.”

The story breathes life into London as Strike walks down Charing Cross, takes the tubes, grumbles at construction and grabs a pint. With each new character testimony introduced, readers find themselves slowly piecing together the tragic life of Lula Landry. Disaffected and detached, The Cuckoo’s Calling presents the glitz and glamour of the celebrity life in all of its dismissed irritating details, casting a garish light on our infatuation with rich humans.

“The Cuckoo’s Calling” deliberately defies and subverts many genre norms of crime fiction. Far from a hard broiled detective in a noir world of dames and robbery, it features a protagonist with real problems, real (though stereotypically masculine) responses, and a tragic crime. The suspects, the secretary, everything about the supporting cast doesn’t just fall into a lame trope. It’s down to earth and so is Strike, which is to his distinct advantage in his investigation.

The book may be lean, but it also sticks insistently to the kindergarten advice of using words instead of violence. In our day to day lives this is excellent advice, but in a detective thriller tailored for modern audiences one might expect a bit more action instead of pure, Holmesian deduction. Rowling puts the weight of developing the investigation almost entirely on characterization and conversation for most of the book, and like Strike’s hulking frame on his prosthetic leg, carrying such a burden for so long can cause irritation.

Without giving away too much, I also found the conclusion of the story to be unsatisfactory. After putting so much effort into making a detective novel fresh and exciting, it felt like a cheesy about-face.

Taken together, “The Cuckoo’s Calling” is a modern detective story about fame, fortune, and family ties. It’s not a heavy read, it features “tell me more”-worthy characters, and it’s all tied together with that inherently suspenseful IV drip of clues for the case. While some might complain that they expect more zip-bang-pow action for their buck in crime fiction, I think the book is more palatable, interesting, and universally enjoyable as a result of the shifted emphasis.

Despite the few disappointments, I still like the idea of a sequel with Cormoran Strike. If Rowling grew as attached to the characters as I did then perhaps she will oblige.