Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Chinoiserie Genre

Readers familiar with the Pulp Revolution have certainly by now heard that with the death of the pulps, many genres fell out of favor. Hero pulps, sword and sorcery, and planetary romance have all declined from the heyday of the 1930s, often replaced entirely by other expressions of fantasy and science fiction. Yet as we return to reading the pulps instead of what people say about the pulps, whispers of other genres appear. For instance, hidden among the three proud pillars of weird fiction – horror, science fiction, and fantasy – is a fourth genre, one as exotic as its name: chinoiserie.
Chinoiserie first started in the 18th century in the visual arts. European artists impressed by Chinese artistry began to imitate the Eastern designs, incorporating them into pottery, furniture, decor, gardening, and even music. The appetite for chinoiserie grew with the perception of China as a highly civilized culture, even beyond the European norms. The artistic movement continues to the present day, with many works of chinoiserie available online. As with many artistic movements, this fascination with exotic cultures made a jump into literature.
Literary chinoiserie began as an exploration of unfamiliar Oriental cultures as perceived by Western writers.  While the visual arts quickly distinguished between Chinese-influenced chinoiserie and Japanese-influenced japonisme, no such distinction was made in the literary world, with chinoiserie describing Persian, Byzantine, Japanese, Tibetan, and Chinese stories. (Despite convention, I will be using chinoiserie and japonisme to differentiate the two flavors of literary chinoiserie.) However, the term quickly narrowed to Pacific Asian cultures, with the Chinese association dominating. Literary chinoiserie expresses itself in three major forms; the exploration of Chinese lands, the exploration of Western ideas of Chinese culture in both its homeland and its diaspora settlements, and the exploration of an idealized China that never was. Occasionally, Western culture would dress up in chinoiserie robes for the purpose of satire, as in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. But common to all expressions is the idea of the outsider looking into another culture not his own, and not always understanding what is seen. One does not write chinoiserie of their own culture. The Chinese author of the Three Body Problem, Cixin Liu, writes Chinese science fiction, while Peter Grant writes chinoiserie science fiction dealing with Chinese triads in space in his Maxwell Saga.
Perhaps the most sensationalized version of chinoiserie, yellow peril is the tendency of pulp writers to use Chinese as villains, as popularized by the Lord of Strange Deaths himself, Fu Manchu. Hidden in every shadow were copycat secret societies led by cunning occult mentalists and sensuous deceitful dragon ladies. This was primarily a staple of weird menace, a sensationalist genre of lurid stories where a dreadful and mysterious terror, usually occult or supernatural, threatens to overtake the hero unless he acts. This Chinese threat was not the only staple of the genre, as fantastic, mythological, and scientific terrors would also loom in the pulps, however the trope was common enough to have its subversions and aversions, with the honorable and heroic detective Charlie Chan as the most famous antithesis to yellow peril villains.
Chinoiserie’s fascination with exotic China found a home in the pulps. The Shadow’s first adventure, The Living Shadow, found the Knight of Darkness playing master of disguise in Chinatown to root out a hidden killer. Counter to convention, this killer, Diamond Bert, only posed as a Chinese mastermind. Among the imitators of the Shadow, the Green Lama featured an American student of the Tibetan Lamas using Eastern secrets to defeat Western criminals. Sidney Herschel Small wrote adventures of Asia and American Chinatowns. E. Hoffman Price led the parade of writers of Weird Tales who would use chinoserie, many of which would claim that their stories had been discovered in the markets of China and Istanbul. Clark Aston Smith wrote a prose poem describing two lovers separated by centuries in his “Chinoiserie.” Manly Wade Wellman’s occult investigator, John Thunstone, would test his metal and that of a holy blade against a cursed Gurka honor sword in “The Dai Sword.”
As the pulp age faded, so did literary chinoiserie. But the fascination with China lived on. Robert van Gulik found a copy of The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee in a second-hand store and translated the fictional account of Tang dynasty judge Di Renjie into English. Van Gulik then wrote an entire series of new adventures for Judge Dee, starting with The Chinese Maze Murders. The adventures of the Sinanju master assassin Chuin and his worthless assistant Remo Williams filled book after book of the men’s adventure series The Destroyer. Andre Norton brought a taste of China to gothic romance in The White Jade Foxwhere an antebellum governess must keep her charge’s Chinese treasures safe from her stepmother. E. Hoffman Price would return to chinoiserie in The Devil Wives of Li Fong with the tale of the serpent Mei Ling as she protects her family from Taoist magic. Finally, in perhaps the brightest gem of the chinoiserie crown, Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds chronicles the adventures of the sage Master Li and the villager Number Ten Ox as they face off against crooked peddlers, rabbity tax assessors, exalted lords, and the machinations of the gods themselves in search of a cure for the kuu poison affecting their village’s children.
Inspired by Bruce Lee’s fame and Hong Kong cinema, movies such as John Carpenter’s cult-classic Chinatown misadventure Big Trouble in Little China and Disney’s Mulan took the torch of chinoiserie from literature, created beloved classics of the silver screen in the process. Chinoiserie also moved to video games with the gory martial-arts fighting series Mortal Kombat and Bioware’s  Jade Empirean RPG homage to the Shaw Brothers‘ kung-fu movieswhile the short-lived Firefly television series added a Chinese voice to the strange conversation between Japanese samurai films, American westerns, and science fiction as a whole. More recently, the martial arts cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender explored a fantasy version of China, mixing Western alchemical elements with Chinese martial arts. The tradition continues into this decade, with Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA starring in The Man with the Iron Fists, a loving tribute to the grindhouse days of blacksploitation and the Shaw Brothers’ cinema.
As China moved from the written page into the theaters and small screens, Japan took over the written word. James Clavell’s Shogun and Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s fantasy adventures of female samurai Tomoe Gozen are among the first novels reflecting the shift from chinoiserie to japonisme. As Japan rose again to become an economic power and a media giant in the 1980s, American fascination with the Land of the Rising Sun grew, spilling over into its stories. Perceptions of present day Japan are explored in thrillers like Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun, lost-in-translation misadventures like Isaac Adamson’s Tokyo Suckerpunchand lost to reality gamer webcomics such as Megatokyo. Continuing the tradition created by Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaidan, the folklore and mythology of Japan are explored in novels such as Kij Johnson’s The Fox Woman and Lian Hearn’s Tale of Shikanoko series. Japanese history from the Heian court to the Warring States forms the backdrop for I. J. Parker’s Akitada mysteries, the Yamada Monogatari series of Richard Parks, and the classic Tales of the Otori. Japanese elements flavor John Wright’s Daughter of DangerNeil Gaiman‘s Sandman and American Gods, and indie works such as Rawle Nyanzi’s Sword & Flower and countless others. And the thirst for all things Japanese (and japonisme) has yet to be quenched.
Perhaps the reason why chinoiserie and japonisme do not get the recognition that other genres do is because they combine so well with other genres. Chinoiserie rarely stands alone in a story, but crosses with action, with detective mystery, with noir, with fantasy, and even with science fiction to bring a exotic flavor to those genres. It has been easy to lose sight of the influence of chinoiserie as this weird fiction genre has drifted into the historical fiction and literature shelves. However, the influence of the East upon weird fiction is unmistakable, and chinoiserie is as much a founding genre as fantasy, science fiction, and horror.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Review - The Living Shadow: Chapter 1


Out of the darkness came a being of the night to give Harry Vincent another chance; a chance to live his life with enjoyment, danger and excitement; a chance to risk it for an honorable cause in the service of the mysterious character known only as The Shadow!


*****

Far be it to me to add one jot to the advertisement for the very first novel of The Shadow, 1931's The Living Shadow, especially when it sums up the events so well. Written by Walter Gibson under the house name of Maxwell Grant, this novel would create new genres, from the hero pulps to superhero comics, and usher in the media empire that was The Shadow.

Yet for how ubiquitous the Knight of Darkness would become, his first case begins not with the narrative eye on Kent Allard, Lamont Cranston, or whatever nom de guerre The Shadow claims as he fights his war against crime. Instead, we are introduced to Harry Vincent, a man who had just received a "Dear John" letter from the woman who used to be his girl back home. Overtaken by a pity party, he heads out to a bridge and jumps. But his suicide is not to be...
Something clamped upon his shoulder. An iron grip held him − balanced between life and death. Then, as though his body possessed no weight whatever, the man felt himself pulled around in a sweeping circle. He staggered as his feet struck the sidewalk of the bridge.
He turned to confront the person who had interfered. He swung his fist angrily, but a hand caught his wrist and twisted it behind his back with irresistible power.
It was as though the man's strength had been wrested from him when he faced a tall, black−cloaked figure that might have represented death itself. For he could not have sworn that he was looking at a human being. 
The stranger's face was entirely obscured by a broad−brimmed felt hat bent downward over his features; and the long, black cloak looked like part of the thickening fog.
This mysterious stranger demands a price for Harry's rescue:
"Your life," said the stranger's voice slowly, "is no longer your own. It belongs to me now. But you are still free to destroy it. Shall we return to the bridge?" 
"I don't know," blurted Vincent. "This is all like a dream; I don't understand it. Perhaps I did fall from the bridge, and this is death that I am now experiencing. Yet it seems real, after all. What good is my life to any one? What will you do with it?" 
"I shall improve it," replied the voice from the darkness. "I shall make it useful. But I shall risk it, too. Perhaps I shall lose it, for I have lost lives, just as I have saved them. This is my promise: life, with enjoyment, with danger, with excitement, and − with money. Life, above all, with honor. If I give it, I demand obedience. Absolute obedience. You may accept my terms, or you may refuse. I shall wait for you to choose."
Harry instantly agrees, and the man ushers him into a taxi which will take him to a hotel that will provide him food, lodging, and clothing--and a way to recieve this man's future orders. Along the way, though, some highwaymen force the cab off the road. They attempt to rob him, but get only lead from the mysterious man's pistol
***** 

So far, The Living Shadow is relatively straightforward, using Harry's plight to hook the reader on who this mysterious rescuer might be. It even ends with a quick action sequence, that, from Harry's perspective, is akin to a thriller movie where a person can hear fighting outside, but only occasionally sees the combatants when they crash against the glass. This fight is both suspenseful and economical, accomplishing its mission in four paragraphs. 

Already the difference in story telling fashion is apparent. With the success of Star Wars, the monomyth structure known as The Hero's Journey has become ubiquitous. Certain beats, like the Call to Adventure and Refusing the Call are now expected and expected to fill the first quarter of the adventure. The Living Shadow breezes through this phase in the first 1200 words, tossing the idea of Refusing the Call out the window in the process. Not only is The Shadow that convincing, his adventures were written in a time where writers were relatively unconcerned with delving into the motivations and reasoning of making a decision. Instead, they focused instead on exploring the consequences of a decision, as was expected in a morality play. Good intentions could lead to bad results, and bad results were the effect of a poor decision. Thus Harry leaped at the opportunity given to him. We will see if he made the right choice in the next 36 chapters.

But it is also important to remember that Harry Vincent is not the hero of The Shadow. He's just the protagonist and occasional viewpoint character. At the dawn of the hero pulp, Walter Gibson introduced the idea of a proxy hero. And while The Shadow's methods, agents, mysteries, and stories were copied by his imitators in both the hero pulps and superhero comics, few copied this device. Walter Gibson explains more in "A Million Words a Year For Ten Straight Years":
You must treat your character as a discovery, rather than your own creation. Treat him, not just seriously, but profoundly. Picture him as real, and beyond you, in mind as well as prowess. Feel that however much you have learned about him, you can never uncover all. This mental attitude gives you a deeper knowledge of the character than the story itself discloses. 
The plot induced by this process will normally require a lesser character who may be termed the "proxy hero." He is the person, along with others like him, who is matched against the villains of the piece, in a theme which is really the personal saga of that all-important lead character, who is developed through his influence and action towards the lesser figures. 
The proxy can be replaced by another, even from the wrong camp. The unity lies in the lead character's identity with the plot. When incidents and situation are fed to him, they are used or rejected, according to how they rebound to the writer.
Harry is but one of The Shadow's agents, and is here used to start filling in the mystery of just who The Shadow is. A similar demonstration can be seen in Tim Burton's Batman, where Vicki Vale is used to introduce and then explore who Bruce Wayne is--and who is the Batman. The Living Shadow keeps the focus tight on Harry Vincent, though. And when perspective jumps to The Shadow, he is just as reticent to reveal anything about himself as any other time.


***** 
Who had been wounded − the shadowy stranger or the assailant who had tried to enter the limousine? Vincent could not guess; he only knew that in the brief struggle the man who had found him on the bridge had left the automobile − unseen and unheard − and the door had closed behind him. 
The mysterious stranger had vanished − like a shadow! 



Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Nelson Bond's "The First Thousand Words"

Earlier, we took a look at Nelson Bond's 5,000 word pulp formula, where the old pulpster split the story into five 1,000 word sections, and gave advice for each. (Originally posted over at StoryHack, and mirrored here.) Bond would elaborate further on "The First Thousand Words" in Writer's Digest, focusing on the openings to pulp stories.

As a point of comparison, here is Bond's advice from "It's All a Matter of Timing: A Foolproof Fiction Formula":
First 1000 Words. Ends on Page 5. 
Get going with a bang! Remember, you’re writing a short story, not Gone With the Wind. You can’t waste words, nor will the editor permit you to waste his or the readers’ time. Your first thousand words must tell who are to be the central characters of this work-of-art, when the story takes place, where the scene is set, what the problem is, and set the question as to how the hero expects to take care of it. 
Get me straight! I don’t mean you should start off anything like this- 
“John Marmaduke Frasier, tall, blonde and handsome Sheriff of Burp’s Crossing, Arizona, strode down Main Street wondering what he should do about saving the property of his fiancĂ©e, sweet Hildegarde Phlewzy, from the clutches of rich bank president, Phineas Gelt, who threatened to foreclose the mortgage on August 19th, 1904, twenty days hence . . .” 
You think I’m crazy, eh? Nobody ever introduced a story that way? Guess again! I sat beside Harry Widmer of Ace Publications for a full hour one afternoon, reading over his shoulder unsolicited manuscripts that opened in exactly that fashion. Needless to say, the stories were not offered by “regulars,” nor did they come in the folders of an agent. They were the “unrush” mail, i.e., the free-lance offerings that earn pale blue slips reading, 
“We regret to say-” 
But get the thing moving. Start with something happening to somebody; not with mental maunderings, Grab your hero by the neck and shove him smack into a mess of trouble. Then show who started that trouble-and why. Introduce the other persons involved in the problem, make their opening speeches depict their characters. As you write, keep an eye on your page numbers. Remember that this phase of the story must be finished by the middle of page 5. 
End the opening sections with the implication that Our Hero recognizes his difficulty and knows what he’s going to do about it.
And now, Nelson Bond expounds on this advice:

*****

 The First Thousand Words

By Nelson Bond

(Writer's Digest, November 1940)

One of the great faults of the writing profession is that, like any other trade, it tends to get formularized. We within in develop a language peculiarly our own; we start to talk a jargon of catch phrases and keywords which are, or can be, completely meaningless to the outsider and sometimes, worse luck, to ourselves.

Writers get together. They talk glibly of "tagging characters," "the narrative hook," "timing the pace"...

Mumbo-jumbo! Miss Dorothy Dase, presumably a young writer (though I may in my ignorance, do her an injustice with this hazard) wrote a letter to the editor of Writer's Digest. It appeared in the September issue. It asked: "Will you explain just what is meant by the 'narrative hook'? So many writers refer to it--and so help me--I don't know what it means!"

The editor's answer was clear and concise an explanation as, in my humble opinion, can be given:
A "narrative hook" is a literary device employed by many professional short story writers to "hook" the reader immediately into reading the author's story. The trick consists of plunging the lead character into a difficult situation, with definite promised action to come in the first 200 words of the story.
Thus was Miss Dase inducted to the Inner Circle; so she became proud possessor of a Trade Secret. It is now her privilege to use the phrase "narrative hook" whensoever she chooses, to mystify lay friends with the catch-verbiage of the writing profession.

But take down your hair with me, pals! Does Miss Dase know any more than she did before? Does she know how to go about handling the "narrative hook"? Do you? Do I? Or do we just hopelessly confuse ourselves by accepting the premise that a narrative hook is the best way to get the reader's ear?

Monday, August 14, 2017

X Minus One: The Vital Factor - Nelson Bond

While I'm typing up another writing lesson from Nelson Bond, here's a radio drama of one of his stories:



Sunday, August 13, 2017

50 YEARS OF LUPIN III: The Fuma Conspiracy

Well, if it ain't the smell of villain.--Lupin III

In 1987's direct-to-video movie The Fuma Conspiracy, the utterly unthinkable has happened: Goemon Ishikawa, famed ronin of the underworld, is getting married. The Lupin gang reunites to attend his wedding to Murasaki Suminawa, the daughter of his martial arts instructor. The wedding ceremony is interrupted by ninjas of the Fuma clan who try to steal a Suminawa heirloom vase but make off with the bride instead. Over the objections of his in-laws, and trusting in Lupin's skills as a thief to retrieve it, Goemon trades the vase to the Fuma clan for Murasaki, unaware that the vase is a map to the hidden treasure of the Suminawa clan. Now the bride and groom must race to the family treasure to keep it from the Fuma clan's clutches, aided by the master treasure hunter Lupin III.

If Dead or Alive was the Lupin III franchise's take on a James Bond movie, The Fuma Conspiracy is its Indiana Jones, paying lip-service to thievery while sending Goemon, Lupin, and company through an underground maze of lethal traps to keep a legendary treasure out of the hands of a historical group of villains. For just like the Nazis, the Fuma clan of ninjas actually existed, and were feared for their strength, their murderous methods, and their utter lack of honor in battle. And, just like Raiders of the Lost Ark, an anti-hero must take on the mantle of a true hero to defeat them. On the Miyazaki to Monkey Punch scale of heroism to villainy, The Fuma Conspiracy is the most Miyazaki-like of any Lupin film to follow his Castle of Cagliostro.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Moral Panic at the Dragons

So the Dragon Award nominees have been announced. Since the Dragons draw from a wider population of voters than just a small coterie of industry insiders, the selection represents a broad spectrum of works, including tradpub stalwarts like John Scalzi, a heavy leavening of books published by Baen, releases from small presses like Castalia House, and a growing segments of independent writers, such as Richard Fox, B. V. Larson, David vanDyke, and newcomer Mark Wandrey. This is what should be expected at any award claiming to be a fan award, as a quick look at what is selling at Amazon reflects the diversity of authors and publishers that people are actually reading.

Cosplay of "2B" from Nier: Automata
Well. mostly. I'm not sure how the utterly panned and ridiculed Mass Effect: Andromeda--a game whose poor sales caused the closure of its development studio--got on the ballot for video games. But I think that little aberration will settle itself out in the voting process. It's a flip of the coin if Nintendo nostaglia or Nier: Automata's cosplay hotness will take that category. But one thing is clear about ME: Andromeda's chances: the guys don't want to play it and the girls don't want to dress up as it.

What is also clear about the Dragons is that the moral panic that has seized tradpub science fiction and fantasy, and thus the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the laughably named Worldcon, and the Hugo Awards, has swept into the Dragon Awards. This shouldn't be a surprise as the industry insiders that make up the traditional publishing houses, SFWA and Worldcon have, since the late 2000s, acted as an inquisition looking for a witch to burn. But tradpub's moral panic is a microcosm of the greater moral panic sweeping through the West, which Styxhexenhammer666 describes in detail in his video:



In quick summary, a moral panic arises when a false consensus of society is challenged, usually during the rise of a new communications technology, by the existence of people that contradict it. Styx details how this worked during the Red Scare and the Satanic Panic. He also how today's current false consensus that everyone in the West is Progressive and fascinated with ideas of equality. He also reminds us that those who stood up and fought against the moral panic are remembered fondly when it is over.

The cry of the current group of witch hunters is to label their opponents as "racist", "sexist", or "fascist", labels that the tradpub mob use incessantly to maintain their false consensus even as challenges such as Baen, Sad Puppies, and indie show the cracks in their reality. Not only are there some people who actively oppose the false consensus on the grounds that it does not describe reality, there's an even more sizable portion who just don't care and fail to include in their stories the concessions to the false that the witch hunters demand must be included. And, most damningly to the tradpub consensus is that these rebels make more money and sell more stories than the tradpub favorites. But the cry of "heresy" still holds some power, so some authors who want to court the favor of the tradpub group attempt to disavow connection with rebel thought so that the witch hunters will pass them by.

This has led three writers to try to pull their nominations from the Dragon Awards, acts that have brought the usual witch hunters in the media running. And the same old lies are spouted in the hopes of dusting off that old scarlet letter and perhaps even burning a witch. Meanwhile, the cracks in the false image of reality continue to show. Among the amusements this time around is that a black author claims racism in a convention hosted in Atlanta, America's Black Mecca, and one certainly racially more diverse in attendance than the collection of lily white authors at Worldcon.

So far, the Dragon Con administrators have tried their best to walk a middle road through the battlefield made by the witch hunters, albeit with a few missteps. What they should do is open the floodgates wide. Use a little convention money to advertise, especially with such actual celebrities that attend Dragon*Con as an Adam Savage or Austin Creed/Xavier Woods. Get a Pewdiepie or other prominent YouTubers to shill for the Awards. And then sit back and watch as the loud voices screaming against heresy get deluged by the greater fandom who only wants to have fun and reward the books, movies, and games that they enjoy.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Audiobook Wednesday: Rappaccini's Daughter

"Rappaccini's Daughter", by Nathaniel Hawthorne, represents one of the earliest science fiction stories. Adapting an explorer's tale from India, it gave birth to a number of "Poisoned Garden" stories, where literary naturalists would use the poisoned garden as a vehicle to investigate the scientific progress of the age. Fans of weird fiction and science fiction will also see the influence of "Rappaccini's Daughter" in C. L. Moore's Northwest Smith stories. As foundational to science fiction as Frankenstein and The Castle of Otranto are, Hawthorne's novelette is a key to understanding not only weird fiction, but the American tradition of the short story.

The complete text can be found here, hosted by Columbia University.



Tuesday, August 8, 2017

From the Book of the Dead: C. L. Moore

Where were you when you first read "Shambleau" by C. L. Moore? In his Book of the Dead, E. Hoffman Price remembers; he was there when Farnsworth Wright plucked it out of the slush pile!
Whenever Farnsworth found an outstanding story, his enthusiasm was wonderful to see. His talks on the fine points of each yarn made it seem that he was the author's agent, and I the prospective buyer. 
H. Warner Munn's horror story, The Chain, and Donald Wandrei's striking cosmic concept, The Red Brain, were things I had to read, at once, and be damned to sociality. The peak was reached in 1933, when he handed me something by one C. L. Moore. 
"Read this!" he commanded, the moment I stepped into the new editorial rooms at 840 North Michigan Avenue, in Chicago. 
I obeyed. The story commanded my attention. There was no escape. I forgot that I needed food and drink--I'd driven a long way. For nearly six years, I'd not lived in Hammond, as Farnsworth's neighbor. The stranger's narrative prevailed, until, finally, I drew a deep breath, exhaled, flipped the last sheet to the back of the pack, and looked again at the by-line. Never heard of it before. 
"For Christ's sweet sake, who and what is this C. L. Moore?" 
He wagged his head, gave me an I-told-you-so grimace. 
We declared C. L. Moore day. I'd met Northwest Smith, and Shambleau.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Book of the Dead: Farnsworth Wright and the Slush Pile

Finally getting around to E. Hoffman Price's Book of the Dead, a memoir of sorts covering his interactions with many authors and editors at Weird Tales. Just scratching the surface, and already it has proven its worth in entertainment and in advice.

For example, E. Hoffman Price recounts a lesson he learned from Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright after reading through the slush pile on a sleepy day:
One day after an unusually long night shift, I was too groggy to do justice to a script. I told him so. 
Farnsworth said, "You're quite wrong. We do have many quick witted readers, very much alert. But most of them are dull, really thick headed. If you're fifty per cent below par, it'll take a solid impact to make an impression on you. Anything that stirs you now is sure to make the standard reader sit up and take notice." 
Though I had my doubts, I nodded and blinked my way through half a dozen scripts. some were well written, aptly phrased, nicely composed. Finally, I said, "This isn't working out at all. I'm too dopey to follow the stuff. It's good material, some of it is, but I'm damned if I can keep my eyes open." 
"Go ahead," he persisted. "I'll check them later." And then, "You'd be surprised if you realized how very alert you were when you tried to convince me that you were in a stupor, open eyed sleep." 
Another half dozen scripts, purely soporific--ranging from sedative to outright anaesthetic. Then came one which brought me to my feet with a whoop. Farnsworth had been right, was right! Vitality made the thing sparkle. The "good ones" which had put me to sleep had everything except life. All they needed was embalming.
Farnsworth chuckled. "It's not necessary to read a dud all the way to the end. If a script doesn't show life within the first two pages, it'll prove out to be a zombi to the finish. 
After reading a hundred or more impossibles to the final line, I knew he was right. The duffer who grimly, laboriously or hastily and sloppily, composes a couple of stories annually is inclined to feel that every line deserves careful reading, no matter how much of the reader's effort is required. The stern and dedicated novice has the notion that it's a reader's duty to have comparable fortitude. It never occurs to the self centered blockhead that it is his job to win and hold the reader's interest: and regardless of whether that reader is a dull witted clod or a bright person weary from a long day's work, he is entitled to entertainment. 
Much of the time which Wright saved through realistic refusal to wade through dull verbiage was devoted to analyzing living yarns which, although not acceptable, could be made so if the author cared to revise his good start. All too often, Wright's effort got him a reply packed with the indignation and fury of a "sincere and sensitive artist" who would not cater to any "crass and mercenary" editor.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

50 YEARS OF LUPIN III: Dead or Alive

"Believe me, the painting doesn't do him justice. He's worse than me."--Lupin, describing General Headhunter.

To keep his nation's treasury out of the hands of thieves, the king of Zufu moved his nation's gold reserves to a safe house on Drifting Island. After a coup topples the heads of the king and his son, Prince Pannish, Zufu and the Drifting Island fall into the hands of General Headhunter. The general has spent lucre and lives trying to break into Drifting Island's vaults, only to be frustrated at every turn. Now Lupin and his gang have turned their talents to the task. Getting to Drifting Island is simple enough, even while dodging General Headhunter's agents, Inspector Zenigata, and double agents, such as the prince's lover, Oleander. But as Drifting Island's mechanical defenses continue to stymie Lupin and his gang, the nation rises in revolution. For Prince Pannish has returned to take his country back from General Headhunter.

The fifth Lupin III theatrical movie, 1996's Dead or Alive had been plagued with issues throughout its production. With no one else willing to helm the project through the short production schedule, Lupin III manga artist Monkey Punch stepped up to lead. Quickly overwhelmed, he relied heavily on his staff, generally staying out of their way while the deadline approached. What should have been a disaster instead turned into a solid action film, although one with the slower pacing of manga instead of the relative frenzy of Hollywood. Dead or Alive steers the series back towards its darker roots without abandoning the formula that established the franchise. With the theatrical animation quality and the shift in tone, Dead or Alive stands out from the the TV specials that propelled the franchise through the 1990s.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Review: When the Death-Bat Flies 4-6

Last time, when we looked at the first half of Norvell Page's "When the Death-Bat Flies":

Hirotoyo had lost his smile, “Speak, my friend, and if I can help you….” 

“You can,” Dunne said shortly. “Donald Henderson was murdered last night and the death arranged to look like hari-kari. Another associate of his, Paul Tarsus, said he had been threatened as a result of a death in your own honorable family, Hirotoyo. I know this is false, but in order to clear myself of the murder charge against me, I must solve this crime which the police call suicide.”

*****

Aubrei Dunne and Socks Bee flee from his shot-up apartment and the dead policeman inside. Dunne seeks out Natsuki Hirotoyo to learn more about the Bat of Death, but it is Hirotoyo's guest, Chu Pei-yi, who tells Dunne of its significance. Hirotoyo offers sanctuary, but Dunne instead leaves, only to be picked up by a set of indistinctly Asian thugs, who blindfold him before driving him away. They deliver him to a secret room, where an silhouetted Asiaitic man warns Dunne to stay out of his way, for the Hendersons must be punished. After a second blindfolded tour of the city, Dunne is released, angry that his friend Hirotoyo would treat him in such a manner. He finds Socks, who identifies one of Dunne's kidnappers as Paul Tarsus, whom they met at the Hendersons' mansion. Spoiling for a fight, Dunne and Socks go to the Henderson's where they find a dying man--and the cops!

After enduring a bit of police brutality back at the precinct, Dunne attempts to win the police's assistance in arresting Tarsus by showing how, with a little manipulation and help from an assistance, a man might turn a murder site into a locked-room suicide. The inspectors instead treat this display as a confession, and lock Dunne up. Dunne pleads with them, saying that if they don't free him and arrest Tarsus, there will be more murders. But as accusations of blackmail mount, and no more corpses are found, the blame shifts solely on Dunne's shoulders. After overhearing news of Tarsus's apparent locked-room suicide, Dunne escapes from the police station, eager to ensure Margaret is safe.

At the Hendersons' mansion, Dunne finds another dead cop. After a flash of insight, he calls the police, demanding that they arrest Hirotoyo. After he leaves the mansion, the Asian thugs abduct him once more, dragging him in front of the Bat Throne, where he had be taken before. There, he is forced to watch as Professor Henderson and Margaret are both drugged and forced into the proper posture for ritual suicide. With a single suggestion from the shadowed man on the Throne, father and daughter will take their lives. The shadowed man forces Dunne to be Margaret's second, to end her suffering with the swift stroke of a sword. Dunne instead knocks Margaret unconscious In the resulting melee, Dunne frees the Professor and beats down the Chinese thugs. But the man on the throne escapes. To confront him, Dunne races back to Hirotoyo's house, where the cops shoot him. Bleeding out, Dunne staggers into the house, only to interrupt Chu Pei-yi's attempted murder of Hirotoyo. Confronted by his crimes, Chu Pei-yi kills himself in the Japanese manner. Dunne collapses, but not before he gets a kiss from Margaret.

*****

The significance of the Bat of Death:

“There is a Mongol superstition about the bat. They believe that the bite of a bat steals a man’s soul and that subsequently the man will destroy himself.”

This is echoed in the unique method of murder used in the story, the suggestion of ritual suicide when drugged. Yet it also becomes a moral, as Chu Pei-yi's cleverness (and bat motif) turns on him at the end, leaving him no choice for his pride but suicide. Here, it is the theme and method of murder that force the jumbled chinoiserie on this detective story, and not some lingering Yellow Peril.

*****

Page draws upon the spicies during Margaret's final peril. Female ritual suicide in Japan tended towards the opening of veins, not disembowelment, but this inaccuracy allowed Dunne to linger on a rare display of cleavage and bare tummy. Like many of the spicy adventures, the display of skin is tame compared to what is seen today on small-screen and red carpet, but at a time when pornography was just getting under way, it was risque and sensational. Now, it's mere fanservice. And it was this escalating mix of sex and violence common to the field of weird menace that would prompt a government crackdown within a matter of  years. 

*****

Car crash theater continues. While Dunne is not completely swept along by the course of events, only rarely is he ever truly a master of his own fate. In specific high spots, he is able to use his own skills to extricate himself from his perils, but most of the time, the only true escape from one peril is the sudden crash into another, greater peril. It's a little too much action in a small space, and there was more that a few times I had to read back to see just how Dunne got from one disaster to the next.

*****

Rumor has it that "When the Death-Bat Flies" was supposed to be the first of a series of heroic detective pulps had its host magazine not folded. And, if one looks closely, the stamp of the first hero pulp,  The Shadow, is apparent throughout. For in many ways, "When the Death-Bat Flies" revisits the elements of the first Shadow adventure, "The Living Shadow." Dunne and the Shadow both rescue an assistance from self-destruction, both rely on their assistants for important investigative leg-work, both men are masters of the illusionary arts, and both adventure in a Chinatown where Asiatics can be thug, and villain, hero and pillar of society. And, at the end, the assistant's role gives way to the hero's triumphant confrontation of the criminal mastermind. But where Gibson explores his hero through the relationship with his assistant who acts as the protagonist, Page keeps Dunne in the central role of hero and protagonist. As the author of The Spider, Page had his own take on the hero pulps, and while he was not shy about borrowing, he made his work uniquely his own. Something Detective Comics should have done with the Batman...

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Review: When the Death-Bat Flies 1-3

The burglar fumbled in his pocket, and Dunne leaned forward sharply, the gun jutting out. It was only the jewelry. It glowed on the man’s big palm and Dunne whistled softly. 

“You damned fool,” he whispered. “You utter damned fool. That’s moonglow jewel jade! Worth a fortune. Good lord, it’s priceless! That bit there shaped like a bat….” 

He caught it up, and the burglar scrambled abjectly to his feet, round eyes bulging while Dunne examined the intricate carving of the precious stuff. The bat was really superb workmanship. 

“Geez, chief,” the burglar gasped. “You gotta take it now. No fence would touch stuff like that."

*****

Norvell W. Page is best known for writing the adventures of the pulp hero The Spider, one of the more successful hero pulps to follow in The Shadow's wake. But when he wasn't writing for the hero pulps and comics, to include The Shadow and The Phantom, he indulged in the growing field of weird menace, a sensationalized form of the detective story that mixed a generous heaping of over-the-top violence, a dash of dread, a sprinkle of the spicy,and a bit of that black magic into the conventional detective recipe.

His "When the Death-Bat Flies" is a six chapter novelette that mines one of the most common veins of 1930s occult menace, the mysteries of chinoiserie. Reflecting the West's growing fascination with all things Asia--East, West, and South, the lands of China, Japan, India, and Persia were ready sources of exotic mysteries for writers to spin into their stories. But where in the 1910s, this would have led to unadulterated Yellow Peril racism in the mold of Fu Machu (who still acted more honorable than his Western nemesis), exposure to such tales as Charlie Chan had changed the hero pulps. While men from the East would still be villains, they would also be sidekicks, teachers, and heroes in their own right. And in "When the Death-Bat Flies", Norvell Page brought this sensibility into his weird menace.

On to the story...

*****

A thug tries to mug tinkerer and stage magician Aubrei Dunne, but Dunne manages to turn the tables on his attacker using a mix of stage-props and jiu-jitsu. To pay for the damage the thug caused, Dunne decides to empty the thug's pockets instead. The thug, better known as Montmorency "Socks" Bere has in his possession an unfencible jade bat that he tries to push on Dunne. Before Dunne can take the jewelry, a red-haired girl bursts in and mugs them by gunpoint, believing Socks to be the thief and Dunne his boss. But before she can finish her stick-up, a car full of Chinese drives by and empties a drum of machine gun fire at all three. As they vanish, a bat flies into the room, and the redhead declares it an omen, hai chei p'ing or the Bat of Death.

The redhead introduces herself as Margaret Henderson, the daughter of Professor Michael Henderson. She panics as she realizes her father might be attacked next. After cutting a quick deal with Socks, Dunne leads all three to the Henderson mansion, only to find burglars smashing their way inside. The burglars see Dunne and run away, leaving a corpse bowing on the ground. As Margaret screams, another death bat flies past.

Dunne, Socks, and Margaret follow a man's screams and find the professor, who is terrified of the Bat of Death. But rather than show relief at his daughter's return, Professor Henderson takes umbrage at Dunne's presence. Accusingly, he asks if Dunne saw the Bat of Death and demands what the magician-sleuth knows. After Margaret explains how Dunne helped, her the professor stands down, claiming he is distraught over the recent suicide of his brother. After Margaret leaves, the professor asks for Dunne's assistance when another bat flies through. The professor takes him to his brother's corpse, which has been disemboweled by a sword wrapped in silk embroidered with a bat. Dunne takes a closer look, and declares the brother's death murder instead of suicide and points out the killing blow. Henderson names Natsuki Hirotoyo, Dunne's jiu jitsu partner, as the murderer. Dunne calls him a liar, and the men come to blows. Margaret intervenes, and Dunne returns home, only to have the policeman investigating the drive-by die in his arms!



*****

Socks stared from the doorway. "Geez, chief," he whispered, "what happened to the bull? Dead! Boss, we gotta get out of here fast. What they do to cop-killers in this town ain't pretty!"

Dunn said irritably, "I didn't kill him, you fool!"

Socks' laughter was hollow. "Yeah, but try and make them coppers believe that! Boss, we gotta take it on the lam!

*****

So far, "When the Death-Bat Flies" has been a pleasant mix of detective story and general chinoiserie. However, it has been reliant on car-crash theater, slamming one run-in after another without giving time for the tension to build. The first chapter, for instance, runs through an entire Dent's formula of twists in a fourth of the wordage. But Dunne only had one chance to extract himself with his own skill. After Margaret's appearance, he escapes one peril because a newer peril intervenes. If it was not for the sudden appearance of Natsuki Hirotoyo, an apparent good guy whose family has been wrapped up in dealings with the Bat Tong, the constant smash of plot points would have been wearying.

The chinoiserie appears to be sorting itself out so that the Chinese is ominous and the Japanese virtuous. The blending of chinoiserie and japonisme makes sense in hindsight, with the Hirotoyo family's involvement with Chinese crime families, but just how the Hendersons are mixed into this has yet to be clear. The professor, by employing Chinese servants, is clearly at the Chinese pole of foreign virtue here.

It was an interesting surprise to find a reference to jiu jitsu so early (1937), especially with the popular perception of the martial arts being virtually unknown in the West prior to the 1960s. However, I was quickly disabused of that popular perception when I brought it up online. Spencer Hart found judo and jiu jitsu ads filling WWII era pulp magazines. And Kevyn Winkless pointed out that:
In storage I have a 1920s era book that purports to teach gentlemen the key skills of jujitsu. According to Google's ngram viewer, karate gets virtually no mention until exactly 1960 when it takes off to become the most commonly mentioned by far, kung fu was invisible until its brief popularity in the 1970s. But various spellings of ju-jitsu see raised visibility around 1900-1910 and again from '35-'45. It's not particularly common in either period. Judo starts to take off in about 1910 and keeps going up to be the most mentioned until karate surpasses it in 1970.
Regardless of how novel the grappling arts might be in pulp times, will knowledge of jiu jitsu be enough to save Aubrei Dunne from the menace of the Death Bat and the Bat Tong?  We shall see soon, as "When the Death-Bat Flies" concludes...

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Pulp Radio Wednesday: The Lives of Harry Lime - It's a Knockout

"Orson Welles reprised his role of Harry Lime from the celebrated 1949 film adaptation of Graham Greene's novel The Third Man. The radio series is a "prequel" to the film, and depicts the many misadventures of con-artist Lime in a somewhat lighter tone than the character's villainy in the film."

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Meeting Howard A. Jones at PulpRev.com

Over at Pulprev.com, a review of Zelazny's Jack of the Shadows introduced the PulpRev movement to Howard Andrew Jones, an earlier voice in reviving pulp sensibilities and sword and sorcery to fantasy. 

Mr Jones wrote:
I’m following the discussions of a pulp revival with great interest because it seems to dovetail a lot with what some of us have been trying to do for years with sword-and-sorcery, which was to hone it and give it a new edge. Chris Hocking, William King, Clint Werner and some other folks along with me were talking about that during the years I was involved with Flashing Swords and Black Gate. In some ways it seems like our interests overlap profoundly with those of this movement, but in other ways it feels like we have our borders in different places. 
When you write that Roger Zelazny doesn’t feel like pulp, I think you’re right in that he doesn’t feel much like The Shadow, or E.E. Doc Smith. But to me it’s more important if the author took root in the same rich soil and delivered some great storytelling thrills.
So what does the pulp revival search for? What defines it? Is there a manifesto of some kind? 
If you’re interested, here’s what we cooked up (my God, I’m getting old) back in 2008 on the old Black Gate forum page when we were discussing a new way to craft sword-and-sorcery. I’d be very interested to hear how it lines up with the goals/outlook of the new pulp movement. 
http://bg-editor.livejournal.com/22488.html 
I’ve since updated my definition of sword-and-sorcery, here, which might make a better starting point to ensure we’re starting from the same standard of reference as to what we mean when talking about sword-and-sorcery. 
http://www.howardandrewjones.com/sword-and-sorcery/a-new-edge
I took a moment to answer in the comments:
PulpRev started out of two distinct sources. One was Jeffro Johnson's survey of the Appendix N literary inspirations for Dungeons and Dragons, the other was "Cirsova's" dissatisfaction with the fiction of both sides of the Hugo Awards dust-up, which led to him publishing his own periodical of heroic fantasy short fiction. A bunch of us found that the older pulps and the Cirsova fantasies to be more satisfying than the current tradpub fiction, so we started to devour the pulps as inspiration for new works. 
A lot of this enthusiasm is still new-born. While a couple of us have attempted to distill some guidelines from the pulps, there are few real rules. Unlike newpulp, we don't want to be limited to pulp as a millieu, even if some of us do like pulp-punk or diesel-punk settings and write in that vein. Some of us even turn to the pulp-descendants of New Wave, wuxia/xianxia, and Japanese light novels for inspiration in addition to the classic days of the pulps. 
As for inspirations, the most common among the PulpRev are Burroughs, Merrit, C. L. Moore, R. E. Howard, and Leigh Brackett. But there's a large tapestry of pulp and pulp-descended works out there, so it seems like every month, someone new discovers a new writer who broadens the horizons on what pulp-style can be. 
If you haven't read these already, I'd recommend Thune's Vision by Schuyler Hernstrom, Cirsova Magazine, and StoryHack Magazine as examples of what PulpRev and fellow travelers are currently writing. 
I look forward to taking a closer look at your own experiences with sword and sorcery.
I do beg forgiveness of many of the PulpRev writers my suggestions might leave out. Mr. Jones likes sword and sorcery, so I tailored it accordingly.

Curious of how Mr. Jones attempted to define his new approach to sword and sorcery, I took a look at the first link. There, he lays out five goals:
1. We can find inspiration from the pulps without pastiching them. Specifically I mean setting aside the sexism and racism and the suspect politics, but embracing the virtues of great pulp storytelling: The color. The pace. The headlong thrill and sense of wonder. The celebration not of the everyday and the petty, but of those who dare to fight on when the odds are against them. 
2. We can create new characters. Not homages. And not ironic sendups. I would prefer to go a long time without seeing any more “comedy sword-and-sorcery.” 
3. We can craft exotic settings and/or settings that live - as in NOT faux Tolkien of faux Howard. We need to make our own worlds and look past the groundbreaking ideas that have now become limiting barriers set in place by Tolkien’s imitators and bookshelves stuffed with gaming manuals. 
4. We must restore the sense of fantastic. Once magic is banal or easy, once magic rings can be found at the corner market and wizards are everywhere, sense of wonder all-too-easily goes straight out the window. It may be possible to write good fantasy in such an environment, but it would be very challenging to craft good sword-and-sorcery there. 
5. We can check the irony at the door. Sure, humor and irony can be found in the world our characters walk, but we don’t need to write, as Martin Zornhau says, with “amused detatchment to revel in swordfights.” We should either embrace the genre or not, but we shouldn’t pretend to do so then try to excuse it to our literary friends by claiming it’s all just a joke and is really beneath us. Pfah.
I see PulpRev as harmonious with these ideas. We do want to bring some of the writing techniques of the pulps back, and since much of our inspiration is found in Weird Tales, to be honest, most of us have yet to grapple with the problems of the spicies, weird menace, and Yellow Peril. Personally, I'd like to see more of the chinoiserie and japonisme found in those days, but I am more critic than writer. As for not creating pastiches or retreads or ironic reinterpretations, we agree. We wish to take our turn in the Great Conversation instead of mimicking others like a myna bird. The exploration of the exotic and the sense of wonder/fantastic are key parts of what makes pulp pulp. And on poisonous irony, we agree as well. Restoring the sense of the fantastic means restoring the heroic, and to do so requires stepping away from ironic detachment and literary realism's fascination with the mundane.

As for comedy in sword and sorcery, I much prefer the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser that tried to be published in Wright's Weird Tales than the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser molded by Campbell's vision of fantasy. But on that, I won't dare speak for others.

I do hope that Mr. Jones may find PulpRev kindred spirits or fellow travelers in bringing back a little of that old time sword and sorcery.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Superversive and PulpRev: A View From Outside.

Brian Niemeier reports the impressions that some of his readers have on the Superversive Movement, Pulp Revolution, and Castalia House:
For those who are unfamiliar with the Superversives and the #PulpRev, the former seek to overturn the rampant nihilism in contemporary SFF from above with stories informed by genuine virtue, while the latter identify post-World War II Campbellian sci-fi as the point where the genre went off the rails. The PulpRev revisits the classic pulps for the inspiration to make science fiction and fantasy--which are really the same genre--fun, heroic, and truly romantic again. 
A brief rundown of my readers' opinions on both movements: 
  • The Superversives have more high profile authors.
  • The #PulpRev has a far bigger cultural footprint--due to their greater willingness to interact with the public on social media.
  • The Superversives lag behind in terms of marketing their ideas.
  • On the whole, the #PulpRev has the upper hand--though the two movements aren't exactly in direct competition. There's a high degree of overlap. 
To any Superversives who feel inclined to take umbrage: don't shoot the messenger! This is just what I heard.
No one's saying that there's only room for one movement, and with how interwoven the two groups are, success for one is a rising tide for both. But with two publishers and a third sympathetic to their goals, Superversive has a real opportunity to make a difference in SFF now, while PulpRev still is spinning up. I hope they will be able to make the most of the opportunity.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

50 YEARS OF LUPIN III: Green vs. Red

One of the stranger entries in the franchise, Lupin III's 40th anniversary special, the 2008 Green vs. Red, took a risk by not featuring its namesake character at all. Instead, it pitted two of the most iconic versions of Lupin against each other in a fight for the Lupin name, the Green Jacket against the Red, each worn by an impostor to the name. Through non-sequential story-telling, the audience learns about the man who would wear the Green and why he would become the world's greatest thief.

Yasuo, a down on his luck ramen cook, comes across a green jacket and a Walther P38 by accident. Mistaken by the police for Lupin III, Yasuo decides to become yet another of a long line of impersonators trying to take the place of the missing master thief. As he studies the skills of the master, Yasuo starts picking pockets, first to buy presents for his reporter girlfriend Yukiko, and then to help pay for her family's medical bills. As his dissatisfaction with his life grows, Yasuo retreats into the persona of the Green Jacket Lupin until he decides to prove himself as the real Lupin. When another impersonator gets arrested for mere shoplifting, a legion of Lupin look-alikes descend upon the town, each wanting to prove themselves the real deal. But Yasuo proves himself better than the rest, and to crown himself as Lupin, he sets his eyes on the Ice Cube diamond, setting out on a heist with Jigen, Goemon, and Fujiko. He is stopped, however by a Lupin in a Red Jacket. Claiming  to be an impostor as well, he challenges Yasuo to a duel for the Lupin name. As Green and Red square off, other impostors swarm, Zenigata chases, and Yukiko learns the truth behind Yasuo's new hobby. And when things can't get any worse, the Red Jacket Lupin might be the real one...

This 40th anniversary special is not really a Lupin heist. Rather, it combines the story of a discontent salaryman with the escapist fan fantasy of becoming one's hero. As such it is aimed at middle-aged men, both the office drones tired of slaving away in a cubicle and the arrested-development cases who give the medium the same stigma that computer games once had in Japan. But where fannish hero fantasies inevitably plunge towards cipher main characters and middle school hijinks, Yasuo's concerned with keeping his relationship with Yukiko and working his job. The out-of-sequence storytelling and the ambiguous ending are also aimed at a more mature audience than the standard anime fan of its time. But it is Yasuo's thirst for something more adventurous than the every day which resonates with both. As such, there's more heart here than in most Lupin movies. Yasuo is a lovable Average Joe doing the best he can, until he finds what he's truly good at. But his nightly sprees affect his relationship with Yukiko, even as his willingness to help with her family's medical issues further compels him to the next heist. But as the cares build on Yasuo's shoulders, the temptation to escape responsibility be becoming Lupin grows. Like many recent remakes, this makes an engaging story--or it would if it bore any other title without the expectations brought by the name of Lupin III.

It's no surprise that the most self-referential and fan-fantasy oriented Lupin would come in the middle of the otaku1 years of anime. In addition to the at least five different Lupin character models seen in the million Lupin march of the credits2, the theme to Castle of Cagliostro opens the show, a treasure from the $1 Money Wars TV special appears again, and a fleet of yellow Fiats fills the screen like police cars in a Blues Brothers movie. Keep an eye out for the Lupin-in-an-afro Nabeshin, the anime avatar of former Lupin director WATANABE Shinichi3, a common cameo in anime during the late 00s boom. But perhaps the most telling and subtle nod to both the fans and Lupin history can be found in the names of the main couple, Yasuo and Yukiko, who take their names from the first voice actors for Lupin and Fujiko, Yasuo Yamada and Yukiko Nikaido. And that's just scratching the surface. It's fanservice galore, although of a different type than the nudity that has become synonymous with that term.

Yet that fanservice caters mostly to the hard-core fans, and is a warning sign to the health of the franchise. With such reliance on past glories and a small but fanatic fanbase other shows have allowed writing and animation quality to slip as they chase the short-term windfall from eager spenders. And, as in any group where the extreme drive out the causal, the audience shrinks and the show spirals towards cancellation 4. From 2002-2012, the franchise turned to celebrating three anniversaries and the departure of a beloved voice cast, so a host of familiar villains from previous adventures came back. And the ratings of the annual Lupin III TV special slid year to year, until 2013 saw the last. While the Lupin franchise has reinvented itself, between The Woman Called Fujiko Mine and the Italian adventures, this self-referential fanservice still lingers, with the shadow cast by Castle of Cagliostro as the longest over the franchise.

Red Jacket Lupin's ruthlessness coming to the fore in his duel with Yasuo heralds the return of Lupin's darker side. Prior to Castle of Cagliostro, Lupin was portrayed as almost a Bond villain, with henchmen everywhere, a cavalier attitude towards life, and a ruthless glee in plunder, rapine, and rape. Starting with Miyazaki's involvement from the first series and all but complete in Cagliostro, the sinister mastermind was pressed into the role of a buffoonish hero, the legacy of the animation master's different vision for the character. Even Dead or Alive, the single film directed by manga artist Monkey Punch, still clung to the post-Cagliostro depiction. But as the 2002-2012 anniversaries prompted a return to the roots, Lupin's backbone and cunning returned slowly, culminating in the display of outright mastery lauded in Daisuke Jigen's Gravestone. As a character, Lupin works best when the buffoonery is balanced over his intimidating menace, an act that few have mastered. Fortunately, the pendulum continues to swing towards displaying his competence.

Green vs. Red is both a departure from the classic Lupin adventure and a celebration of its history. Intended as an ode to the fans, Lupin's absence may put them off. Although square in the middle of the merchandise moving anime boom of the late 00s, this strange experiment does point towards the darker reimaginings of the future. As such, this one is best saved for fans alone, and after having watched a few of the more standard heists first. Long time fans should take a chance on this heart-felt story, but those taking a chance on Lupin for the first time should try Castle of Cagliostro, The Fuma Conspiracy, or Daisuke Jigen's Gravestone instead.


Footnotes

1. The otaku years are my name for the years between 2006-2011 where anime worried more about selling tons of merchandise to a small number of rabid fans instead of creating quality shows to a wide audience. At first there was a boom, then the bubble burst, and then the medium crashed.
2. These include the Green Jacket Lupin of the first TV series, the Red Jacket from the second, the Pink Jacket from the third, a formal-dress Lupin from the wedding in The Fuma Conspiracy OAV, and the Lupin from the Mystery of Mamo movie.
3. Forgive the divergence from the Anglicized name order I normally use (given name before family name), but the Japanese naming order (Family name before given) is necessary to see the origin of Nabeshin's nickname.
4. For an example in real-time, watch Marvel Comics' current plummet in sales.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Valerian: the Short Review

So the reviews for the Valerian movie are out. They are not kind, especially towards the acting. Personally, I see it as a fault of the writing, specifically that by shoe-horning Laureline into the mold of a Pixie-fu waifu, it destroyed the character dynamics and themes that the movie rested on. (More on that over at the Castalia House blog). And who in their right mind would turn a joyful character into such a surly ball-buster?

That said, I enjoyed it, mostly for the sense of wonder. Like the Solomon Kane movie before it, had it not borne the name of its source material, Valerian would have been a passable film on its own. But don't just take my word on it. Bande-dessine enthusiast Razorfist has his own take on this flawed, but fun movie.