Gyo: Tokyo Fish Attack (2012)

Anime adaptation of Junji Ito’s excellent horror manga Gyo that is not quite as accomplished in terms of art direction (it’s okay, but cannot compare to Ito’s style and it looks more generic, while the animation quality is so-so), but due to the unique core concept is still worthwhile to watch. While the adaptation follows the structure of the 2-volume manga in broad strokes, it does something clever by inverting the relationship observed in the manga.

There Kaori became infected and Tadashi was trying to save her and ended up following her around, while the world was slowly going mad. In the anime version, Kaori is searching for Tadashi, who later becomes infected and transforms into something hideous. The anime adds some other characters as well (none who get out alive) and has a few unique scenes (the plane landing or the subway crash) while still following the plot template from the manga.

While not looking as creepy and weird as the manga, instead offering bright colors and less refined character designs, it still cool to see zombie sharks walking on land and become machines of destruction as they reign the streets of Tokyo, while swarms of smaller fish and even other sea creatures (a squid) roam around and threaten the population.

It’s gory, it’s bloody, extremely violent and often just disgusting. For all its flaws, you don’t see something like this very often and I can only recommend it for any fan of horror (read the manga first, though, its better).

Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid (2017)

I have a low tolerance for the modern flood of cute anime, but MKDM caught me off-guard with real emotional depth below its fluffy and easy-going surface. A female dragon from a secondary fantasy world ends up in our reality, gets saved by female programmer and starts to work for her as a maid (in more or less human form).

As usual with these kind of setups, more and more dragons or similar creatures turn up, though this is less action and more slice-of-life show with a very subdued romance woven into the mix. Another addition from early on is a small dragon girl (small by dragon standards), who takes on the role of substitute child for the two.

Its undeniably a cute show, with beautiful artwork that reminds me of watercolor paintings and character design that just scream cute and cuddly and lots of funny situations and misunderstandings born out of the general setup.

And yet its also a slow burning romance that packs some real emotional punch as the characters and their relationship feels so engaging and well-done (if not overly realistic, but then, dragons). Its easy to get engrossed in the show and feel tense about whether Kobayashi will admit to herself that she’s fallen for Tohru, just as Tohru has been into her from the beginning.

Judge Dredd (2012-2015)

This is the 2012 Judge Dredd series from IDW written by Duane Swierczynski and with art by mainly Nelson Daniel that run for 30 issues and was collected in 7 TPBs. I got the whole run from one of the recent Humble Bundle bundles, and while it was overall an okay read, I have to say it hasn’t left any deeper impact.

I’ve never read much of Judge Dredd, just the odd comic here and there, and seen the impact it had on creators and other titles over the years, and what I got from that is that Mega-City One just like Dredd himself is one of the major characters. It’s a place that has depth and history and geography and should feel real. But in Swierczynski’s run MC1 and most of the people inside it feel like interchangeable set pieces, easy to destroy and rip apart, a stage for lots of cool action, but with almost not hint of being anything more than just special effects or staffage.

Basically, reading the series, none of the events felt like naturally occurring things in a real place, the fiction machine churning below the pages was all too visible and distracting me from immersing myself in the story. On the surface there was lots of stuff happening and lots of action, but it all felt just so arbitrary with stuff coming out of the blue, plots abandoned and few things making much sense.

More like a walk through Alice’s Wonderland than a hard-edged, darkly satiric future I was expecting and hoping for. Maybe something deeply British like Dredd only feels right when written by actual British.

I do have to mention the art by Nelson Daniel again, which was of consistently high quality and always great to look at, without it this might have felt more like a chore.

Ugly Americans (2010-2012)

Two season animated series that has probably one of the oddest setups I’ve seen in a long time: in a present where supernatural or plain weird beings (sorcerers, devils, robots, humanoid Koalas and far stranger creatures) are part of daily life, a human civil servant for the department of integration in New York has to deal with trying to integrate immigrants (most of them said weird beings) into society while also dealing with personal issues (zombie roommate, devil boss who shags him for fun).

Style-wise it looks a bit like old EC comics, but its not really horror, though there’s lots of gore and blood going around. Its just never horrifying, only darkly amusing in all sort of ways. The first season is really the best, with Mark Lily (said civil servant), trying to be politically correct even when his approach could cost him life and soul, while also get some insight into the other characters around him, with each episode trying to teach a lesson of less than useful morals.

The second season shifts gear into flanderization of most of the main cast to the point that there is a massive difference in tone between the two seasons, despite the fact that they looks so similar and produced close to each other. Each of the characters became less complex and more and more completely defined by single character traits, like Mark Lily going from insufferable but well-meaning goody two shoes who felt like a normal person to utterly obnoxious single-minded political correct twat with nothing else going on.

The second season was still fun to watch due to the overall bizarre setup and the weird plots and crazy ideas, but really felt like a big drop in quality overall.

Cars 3 (2017)

The third and likely final Cars movie is a return to form after the misstep that was the second part. The focus is back on Lightning McQueen, now aged and under threat from a new generation of racing cars who are faster and just better than him. What looks like a setup for a return-of-the-champion plot, a typical sequel in sport movie series, where a former champion got lazy, has to rediscover how to train hard and climb to the top again, is actually a more nuanced look at how our definition of success changes with age.

The first Cars movie remains my favorite Pixar movie, but this sequel is a serious contender for the top stop as well by packing a similar emotional punch in a way I didn’t think was possible. The first one seemed like such a finished story, that the first sequel had to completely change character and plot focus to get going (with overall terrible results), but Cars 3 proves that there are always other great stories to tell if you dig deep enough.

And its really nice to see a Hollywood movie where the main characters success is not defined by learning how to be the best, but realizing what it means to be part of a legacy, to teach others, to actual enjoy growing old and realizing its normal to make place for others. There’s always a younger, faster generation coming up behind, but that’s not terrible, it’s an opportunity.

Wind River (2017)

Murder mystery set in a Native American reservation that shows the investigation into the murder of one of the girls from the reservation and the impact that has on the people close to her. It’s pretty well acted, but that at the same time makes watching it a harrowing experience. The cast really conveys the pain the murder has caused and just how terrible a thing it is. It’s not easy to watch, like say movies where murder and mayhem is more action-focused than on the reality of what it really means.

At the same time, while its a great movie that really digs into its characters and tries to do all of them justice, even the murder victim to some degree, its hard not to notice that none of the two main actors are Native American. Doesn’t make it a bad movie, but you have to wonder whether they couldn’t at least have given one or even both roles to the people the movie is supposed to be about.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

I wonder if I’m suffering from superhero fatigue or something else, because while I can see objectively how the third Thor outing is good or at least on the same quality level as previous Marvel movies, I just didn’t feel it. Part of it may be that its set entirely in places I don’t care about, but then I did like the two Guardians of the Galaxy movies, and they have the same problem.

Part of it may be that the Planet Hulk arc, from which the Sakaar parts are taken, is one of my favorite Hulk stories and just superior to what we got in Thor 3. But I think one of the biggest problems, which was one of the biggest draws for others, was the tone. The Thor movies had funny one-liners here and there previously, but Thor 3 is more non-stop comedy than ever before, which undercuts all the serious parts.

The movie has a great villainess, epic scope, but it all felt underwhelming and just not quite right. GotG managed the difficult balance between humor and emotional gut-punch perfectly, Thor 3 does the humor well, but has no human stakes that make it work for me.

Kiznaiver (2016)

One thing that is always an easy sell to me, at least to get me to start watching or reading something, is when you do something that seems nobody has done before. And Kiznaiver, another anime by Studio Trigger, hits it big out of the gate, both on the character and conceptual level. The main chars is somebody who has lost the ability to feel pain (nope, its not CIP) and then he suddenly gets connected to a group of six other teenagers by implants, which makes all of them feel the pain of each other.

The variety of personalities that makes up the cast of the seven-member group is both curse and boon: all are quite different and its fun to see them forced to work together, when it looks like they can’t stand each other from the start. The problem, if you can call it that, is that some of their personalities are so over-done, so extreme that it just hurts their development a bit (especially the eccentric and the pain slut) as to make the whole story work most of them need to show they are more than just archetypes.

The show manages that more or less, and again, its fun seeing these characters interact with each other, but I think more subdued, down-to-earth characters would have worked even better.

As for the overall plot, it mostly succeeds at what it sets out to do, explore a unique idea and then explain how it came to be. I though the explanation was ingenious, as its start out with increasing empathy, but as it turns out, connecting people’s pain is the much easier option. It’s an overall crazy idea that would have never been allowed to take place for real. The show even admits at some point how evil the whole thing sounds (the researcher used their own children, couldn’t kidnap others, ho ho), though it glosses over the legalities of the experiment (both in the past and present) quite a bit.

The ending didn’t really work for me, but then I just don’t think talking it out has ever been a good option for a climatic scene. On the other hand, action wasn’t really an option either, so not sure how the ending could have been improved. But overall definitely something worth watching and also something you don’t see every day.

Wu Kong (2017)

Since I read a twice-removed translation of the Monkey King saga as a kid (Chinese-to-Bulgarian-to-German made for kids book), I’ve been a fan and whenever I have a chance see various adaptations of it, and usually I know exactly what part of the massive story gets adapted. With Wu Kong, from beginning to end, I had no clue which part it adapted and even after reading up on it I’m not quite sure how well its fits with the overall narrative (as its based on a new novel, not the existing story).

That said, its quit fun at times. The Monkey King has been transformed into a human, attends a university for heavenly gods in training and as usually wreaks havoc among them, fighting to expose one of the higher ups who uses her position to impose her will and has forgotten that its not for her gain but higher powers she’s working for. Meanwhile, the Monkey-King-as-Human gains friends and comrades while at the university, then they are exiled for some time and finally fight against the big boss.

As usual with Chinese-style fantasy/martial arts movies, the fighting and action scenes are splendid (if you like people flying around and over-the-top magic spells/attacks), the humor is utterly terrible and the acting could be better, but at least its not outright terrible (well, most of the time, some characters like the Monkey King one are better than others and have less ridiculous backstories or dramatic moments).

Batman: Gotham by Gaslight (2018)

Like most Elseworld stories (the DCU brand of alternate histories based on their superheroes) this relies to a large extend on the characterizations of the characters from the main universe and what kind of spin the story has done on them. This is basically Batman meets Jack the Ripper in a Victorian-era Gotham (one wonders whether this Gotham is even set in America, as POCs are suspiciously absent for a American city), and the biggest selling point is the twist of who Jack-the-Ripper is.

The animation is quite ok actually, not always a given for DCU animated movies, where quality in recent years has ranged from outright terrible to excellent (this is somewhere in the middle, but pointing toward the better half). The action scenes are well done as well. Writing is good too. On the surface, there’s really nothing wrong with the movie, it’s a better-than-average, and yet I can’t really recommend it.

This is the kind of movie that is worth one viewing, just to see the references to the mainline heroes, villains and their version of Jack-the-Ripper, but that’s it. If there were no DCU, the movie would be utterly forgettable. There are Elseworld stories that are great on their own (Justice League: Gods and Monsters comes to mind), that people could enjoy even if they knew nothing about the DCU and what they reference. This is not one of those.