Surfing the Netflix: Animation Edition #1

Originally, I was planning to review the first season of The Witcher…then ditched that to review the first season of Space Force as well as do a retrospective on Community. But, now, I ditched writing those as well. They felt less relevant as time went on and, honestly, I wasn’t really happy with how either of them were turning out.

However, I did want to start my new site with both some positivity (for the most part) and “Surfing the Netflix” installments dealing specifically with animated series. Though they may’ve been out for a bit, they still deserve the attention as delayed as it may be on my end. Each is wonderfully distinct in tone and presentation, and all of which I’d highly recommend watching – if you haven’t already (I assure you that they’re worth it) – and will clarify as to why.

Starting with…


Dorohedoro (Season 1)

NOM NOM NOM NOM NOM!

When it comes to fiction, transgressive morality is often more interesting than reaffirming accepted social norms as it calls into question certain traditions and practices we take for granted, as well as how far boundaries can be pushed before its considered too much to handle. That sense of transgression in fiction, due to its very nature, should be equally defiant of storytelling tropes and narrative rules we accept too readily – as many are the factualized tastes of older and out-of-touch figureheads of an industry. Despite the influence of Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces it is, admittedly, utterly irritating how it’s treated as law by some than simply one of many possible guidelines for narrative structure. The three act rule, far from obligatory despite the name, is simply a template to build upon, rather some scientific formula to be followed to the letter. Even Shakespeare wrote five-act plays, and others only one or two!

My point is that, next to a Goichi Suda videogame, the anime adaptation to Q Hayashida’s long-running manga series displays refreshingly transgressive sensibilities to both moral standards and “common sense” storytelling – all accompanied by an aesthetic that could be best described as dystopian goth-punk chic.

Just about every character is (excluding a rare few like Dr. Kasukabe) a reprehensible person with the line between protagonist and antagonist almost nonexistent. Kaiman (or “Caiman,” but I prefer it with a K), our ostensible protagonist, simply needs to find the sorcerer who caused him to become a reptilian-headed amnesiac in a rather…unique process. However, even if the sorcerers he subjects to this is proven to not be the guilty party, he still murders them while assisted by Nikaido – a self-hating and closeted sorcerer herself – with an almost genocidal glee. En, the ostensible antagonist, is a vainglorious fungivore and powerful sorcerer who – in the dimension his kin reside – functions as an odd combination of community leader, businessman, and mob boss (he’s got hit records too!) that seeks a way to travel six years back into the past to prevent a mass slaughter: even if it means kidnapping and brainwashing a person with the power to bend time and space at his beck and call. The culprit who instigated that event may’ve been Kaiman prior to his amnesia, with the recent serial killing of sorcerers making him a prime suspect and priority target to En. Their well-meaning intentions, as valid as they are by themselves, are pursued with such abhorrent methods that lack much concern for human life and tortuously rationalizing the indefensible ultimately renders them meaningless.

“I’m gonna make ya grilled portobello ya can’t refuse…”

Despite all that, the series goes out of its way to humanize them, and I can’t help but find them relatable. Similarly to Daredevil‘s first season, two of the (supposed) antagonists – Shin and Noi – are given a romantic subplot instead of the (supposed) protagonists, who’re entirely platonic and without an ounce of sexual tension between them. It really helps that, since the fights are as brief as they are bombastic, most other scenes act as a vehicle for small but significant character moments – like Kaiman working his part-time job cleaning up a hospital, or En and his associates preparing for a quadrennial oath-making holiday called “Blue Night” – around some incredibly well-integrated world-building.

The Hole (I’d like to think it was named after that Tom Waits song used on The Wire), Kaiman and Nikaido’s home city, is a perpetually dilapidated place that looks no different from Los Angeles in Blade Runner minus the futuristic technology but, hey, there’s still toxic rain! To contrast with “Blue Night,” The Hole has an annual “Living Dead Day” where – due to the residual effects of the sorcerers’ magic usage – zombies spring forth from the ground and are hunted down, wherein small metal plates from their body are collected and traded in for prizes (it’s as awesomely morbid as it sounds). The Sorcerer’s World, on the other hand, is absolutely delightful in how it eschews so many traits typically associated with wizards/warlocks/magi/etc. to be something satisfyingly modern and stylish. It’s an urban fantasy in the most literal way imaginable.

Sorcerers tend to wear casual contemporary clothing (save for dandies/fops like En) as opposed to scholarly robes, not much different from most residents of The Hole, but there’s a social practice where – made darkly amusing by COVID-19’s presence – sorcerers have customized masks, rather than conical hats, that are worn frequently if not constantly. That said: they do travel by way of enchanted broom and carpet. Except, in this case, brooms have developed to the point they can resemble hoverbikes (it also shape-shifts into a house-cleaning appliance!) while carpets function as taxicabs. Did I also mention all the juxtaposed Satanic and Buddhist imagery? That demons are entirely real and act like Juggalos with the business tactics of Wall St. CEOs? Or how it’s possible to become one of them by accomplishing bizarre trials of strength and perseverance, such as carrying and feeding giant fruit bats while in a 350-lbs suit of armor? ‘Cause, honestly, that’s just the tip of the iceberg…but I want y’all to still be surprised!

Big Barda, but albinistic and anime.

If it wasn’t obvious by now that the series is unconventional in telling a tale, it somehow manages to make the “Mystery Box” formula – something I’ve come to despise next to the found footage subgenre – actually work. Clues are dropped almost constantly, some of which could be red herrings, but Hayashida establishes enough of a coherent timeline of events that is leading somewhere, as opposed to a convenient way to make shit up with no real plan in mind. They may feel like mere twists and turns but, given how often flashbacks are used and connected to hints made elsewhere, are most certainly not. However, it never feels telegraphed or boring…

The reason a series like Game of Thrones fail as a narrative by the end is the over-reliance on the mystique of an eventual “big reveal.” Yet what occurs around the unveiling gradually has less and less of a connection to that event and comes off as, far from being well-realized and thoroughly constructed, creatively lazy and random – the length becoming interminable as it turns ten minutes into three hours with an agonizing pace. One may continue forth, due to the sunk cost, but it’ll always end with regret over the wasted time and energy you put into something devastatingly mediocre. It’s the equivalent of a carriage slowly being pulled by a horse tempted forward by a small carrot kept out of range on a long stick. Wait, no, at least the horse already knows its subpar reward. The mystery as to who Kaiman really is – along with the what, when, where, why, and even how – is genuinely intriguing with its deft use of anarchic unpredictability as a pretense even with the trail of breadcrumbs it leaves. You don’t have to choose between anticipating the destination or concentrating on the journey, as the false dichotomy often tells us – why not do both?

An on-going issue for me is that many anime series, and films, on Netflix (not to mention non-Japanese animated works like The Dragon Prince) suffer from the usage of cheap-looking CGI. It’s tolerable if restricted to various kinds of transportation or monsters, when occasionally interspersed with traditional animation, but usually an eye-sore when applied to humanoid characters throughout. They all look like animatronic dolls with a ceramic shell but their gears, pistons, and so forth are in such disrepair that every movement creaks or grinds – sounds so piercing that it makes your teeth rattle and ears bleed. As inconsistent or limited as traditional animation can be, there’s a certain quality – much like with stop-motion (or “claymation”) – where the flaws can be charming while over- and badly-implemented CGI distracts to the point I can’t enjoy anything else.

Tasha Yar, but androgenously teenaged and anime.

Thankfully, much like with the “Mystery Box” formula, Dorohedoro‘s usage of CGI evades this problem due both to Hayashida’s art style being complementary to it and the liberal usage of more traditional methods alongside it. It’s a great blend and the only other series I’ve seen equitable to it, Beastars (that’s for next time!), understands that CGI works best for fast-paced action or minor movements that’re almost seamless when cutting to shots utilizing frames of traditional animation.

I only just started reading the manga, having been tired of watching the same dozen episodes several times over, and Hayashida’s early artwork on the title is…rough. Really rough. Which makes it fortuitous that those producing the anime use her more refined style seen in later chapters, not to mention improving the visuals of certain locales like En’s vivid mushroom garden or the grungy-yet-cozy atmosphere of the Hungry Bug restaurant. Early on in the manga, backgrounds had a tendency to be these blank white spaces, making it less interesting to read than it is to watch the episodes – since it never gives a sense of time and place the way more detailed backgrounds engender. There’re other minor changes made, like the sequencing of events, as well as omitting some superfluous lines. They also toned down the nudity by not displaying any nipples, though I’d rather Ebisu (the fact she’s apparently thirteen years old is greatly obfuscated) wasn’t topless at any point, but at least she isn’t sexualized as much in the anime as she was in what I’ve seen of the manga.

It’s rare for me, moreso now than before, to find anime that manages to enthrall me as much as Dorohedoro does. It’s unabashedly bizarre and subversive with a sense of style and energy all its own, a unique creative vision that makes it a gem amongst the rubble. As fun as something like Seven Deadly Sins can be, what with being a shōnen-style take on Arthurian mythos, it’s still hampered by so many tropes and character stereotypes (both problematic and overused) that make it almost indistinguishable from other series in the genre. It’s kind of telling that one of the only other Netflix Original anime series that I’ve felt as strongly about is Carole & Tuesday and that’s not a surprise given it was directed by Shinichirō Watanabe (of Cowboy Bebop fame). It’s a nice feeling to have, in these otherwise depressing times…

Part of that isn’t just the prominent aspects of the series, which I’ve already described as much as I can without spoiling too much, but that even secondary or tertiary elements are a pleasant surprise. Most 24/26-episode anime series, if not simply using one song each for the opening and end credits throughout, will change both by the halfway mark. Dorohedoro has only twelve episodes so far and a single song for the opening credits – but has six different songs for the end credits. I can only imagine the scenario making it possible; that K(NoW)_NAME, the musical group involved, were workshopping a perfect song for the end credits but came up with several. The series director, Yuichiro Hayashi, perhaps couldn’t decide on picking one over the others and said “fuck it, let’s use them all!” How could he not? They’re all fantastic – I’d go as far as to say all are better than the song for the opening credits – and it’d have been a shame to throw any one of them out. Even the end credits change up the visuals to coincide with the episode they’re featured in and, by God, I’d love to see more of that done in the future.

So, it’s only apropos to finish with my favorite song of the bunch for the end credits – “Night SURFING”:

Apple v. Orange Review: Dark Souls and Bloodborne (w/spoilers)

Apples and oranges aren’t that different, really. I mean, they’re both fruit[…]I could understand if you said ‘that’s like comparing apples and uranium’ or ‘that’s like comparing apples with baby wolverines’ or ‘that’s like comparing apples with the early work of Raymond Carver’ or ‘that’s like comparing apples with hermaphroditic ground sloths.’ Those would all be valid examples of profound disparity.

– Chuck Klosterman (Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs)


What’s on the docket today?

After the trifecta of disappointment that was L.A. NoireMass Effect 3, and BioShock Infinite (that’s a story for another day) — I lost a lot of my faith in the AAA videogame industry. When coupled with other titles like Watch_Dogs or The Order: 1886, I just couldn’t trust any gameplay demonstrations or the hype by way of the press and masturbatory events like E3. The cycle of being given empty promises, getting my hopes up, and then having them quickly dashed was wearying.

His favorite song is “Staring at the Sun” by TV On The Radio. Obviously.

Then, I discovered Dark Souls. It reminded me that the AAA industry can be capable of creating fantastic experiences with their resources if they bothered to have ambitions beyond cranking out mediocre spectacles. It provided actual challenge in an age where almost every title comes with training wheels, it treated its plot as integral as the gameplay rather than an obstacle to it, and could occupy well over a hundred hours of your life without forcing you to partake in pointless busywork.

Needless to say, I had become obsessed with getting my hands on a copy of Bloodborne (along with a PS4) after its release. When I finally did — thanks to the grand generosity of a younger cousin — I could not contain my excitement or overwhelming urge to dedicate as many days of my life to playing it as humanly possible. The only downside was the sense of confliction I felt on whether I liked it more than Dark Souls or not. It could drive one mad…

Dear God, enough with the gushing!

No.

Okay, you asshole…so why compare at all?

Both were developed by FromSoftware — known for the Armored Core and King’s Field series — but Dark Souls was published by Bandai Namco and Bloodborne by Sony. However, the more important connection is Hidetaka Miyazaki (no relation to Hayao Miyazaki the legendary animator) who acts as director for both titles, as well as some other individuals such as programmer Jun Ito and artist Makoto Sato.

Don’t sound that different.

Oh, but they are!

[Cue Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale”]

Dark Souls (as well as its sequels) is an apocalyptic, surreal high fantasy while Bloodborne has a whole Gothic-Lovecraftian steampunk vibe. Though the overall style of the storytelling is incredibly recognizable, minimalistic and relying more on implication than exposition, their different settings and subject matter give them disparate narrative beats. Also, the gameplay of Dark Souls rewards patience and punishes recklessness while Bloodborne contrarily rewards boldness and punishes hesitation.

Point taken — so, what about those “disparate narrative beats”?

A primary trait in both titles is the sense of player disempowerment. The whole environment is hostile, where you can be easily overpowered by those stronger than you either by intimidating stature or in overwhelming force. The big picture, however, is obscured and the player character is continuously manipulated and misled by those who may know more and whose motivations are never quite clear. Other characters are perfunctory, serving one specific purpose or another, but many either become tragic victims of a cruel world or lose their mind and attempt to slaughter you mercilessly. It’s almost impossible to find a genuinely decent person, moreso for them to survive. The road to success is a war of attrition and willpower is the key to victory — to quit is to surrender and admit defeat.

The point of divergence may seem insignificant but, with everything I described, it is important to note that the Chosen Undead of Dark Souls is a prophesized hero — downright counterintuitive to instilling a sense of disempowerment. The Paleblood Hunter of Bloodborne is constantly reminded of their position as an expendable pawn within a cosmic chess game. No matter how many god-like tentacle monsters from outer space slain, you never forget that your place in these events are wholly circumstantial and the ultimate outcome of one’s actions is even beyond comprehension. Why wouldn’t they be? You’re enacting a task based on the vaguest instructions from a being that interacts with you as indirectly as possible, unless agitated enough to become direct. You are little more than a fly caught in the web constructed by a spider of planetary proportion. It is surviving these horrors with as much sanity intact, not prophetic fulfillment, which is the ultimate goal.

Don’t ask. Just…don’t.

The way other characters react to the protagonist is indicative of how the player is encouraged to continue and succeed. Dark Souls’ cast is an affable bunch, save for an underhandedly malevolent few, and willing to assist — even applaud your achievements as you progress. Not only are you prophesized, but others tell you how awesome you are regularly. Bloodborne does the opposite with inhabitants of Yharnam that constantly mock you, despite protecting them against the plague-ridden beasts and providing them safe haven. The environment despises your presence — but those living in it hate you more. You can’t help but try and prove them wrong…

Though argued that Dark Souls and its sequels’ emphasis on a never-ending cycle — of how many empires rise and fall, only to be forgotten — negates prophetic importance, this only came about from the game becoming surprisingly popular. It was a spiritual successor to the PS3-exclusive Demon’s Souls but intended to be a cross-platform release, thus wider exposure and ensuring sequels. But it’s an inherent flaw with the lore: the fact that it can be described (as I have earlier) as “apocalyptic” is oxymoronic when the subsequent installments are suggested to take place millennia afterwards. At that point, can it really be “apocalyptic”? If anything — that just makes it business as usual, like superheroes saving earth from an alien invasion on a monthly basis…

And how about the fun stuff? Y’know, the gameplay?

There’s a basic template: a third-person, exploration-heavy action RPG with level design similar to “Metroidvania” titles (albeit in 3D) with shortcuts that open as one progresses or gaining access to other areas after acquiring specific items. Combat emphasizes timing attacks and managing a cool-down phase — the agility bar itself acting as something of a secondary health meter that regenerates. It is integral to observe and memorize the behavior of antagonistic A.I. and strategize accordingly, as they are capable of delivering hard-hitting blows when one is left open or cornered. The means for combat as well as the amount of mobility given to the player is probably one of the starkest contrasts between both titles.

Weapons in Dark Souls are traditional melee types — swords, knives, spears, etc. — accompanied by varying shields along with spell-casting staffs as well as bows and arrows for ranged combat. Bloodborne adopts far more fantastical instruments, including an edged cane that transforms into a steel-plated whip and a hammer that can cause small explosions or set opponents aflame upon impact. Ranged weaponry comes in the form of firearms, from flintlocks and handheld flame-throwers to an arm-mounted cannon and portable Gatling gun — either riposting enemy attacks with good timing or simply to deal (often lesser) damage from afar.

Make Contact, Not War

If those descriptions did not make it clear enough, Bloodborne’s armaments are simply more memorable in terms of design and function. Each one is different from the last, all with secondary modes that are not only varied but add strategic versatility even with the intense and fast-paced fights. Dark Souls may have a greater quantity available but a sword is still a sword, a bow shoots arrows, and wands cast spells as they usually do. Though melee weaponry functions satisfactorily (at least in single-player mode — multiplayer is prone to odd glitches), spell-casting and ranged combat do not. Using magic missiles and arrows are simply nowhere near as viable a tactic as wielding a sword, dagger, spear, axe, or mace.

The average player in Dark Souls is usually weighted down by shining steel-plated armor, accompanied with a shield, as most enemies are prone to physical attack and blocking is one of the more effective ways to defend one’s self from damage (with parrying as a counter-attack function). Evasion is an option, especially for more skilled individuals, but the character — whether they dodge-roll, back-step, or side-strafe — is still kinesthetically cumbersome.

The attire available in Bloodborne is entirely light-weight and the stats for such equipment vary little between one another. One outfit may be more fire- or lightning-retardant than others, giving the edge in a certain boss battle or two, but much less emphasized as the game encourages evasion above all else. The Paleblood Hunter can gracefully skip about every direction and practically dance around a mob of diseased madmen, herding them into a narrow passage to be efficiently slaughtered. Even the misshapen behemoths can be dealt as such since they’re placed in large, open environments and their movement laborious enough to reasonably counter. In fact, being aggressive — even to one’s detriment — is encouraged by being able to recover any health lost to an enemy by retaliating quickly.

There’s a constant sense of forward momentum in Bloodborne, even during quieter moments, whereas Dark Souls is a stop-and-start affair due to being very methodical.

Is that it?

Well, no, those sensibilities are reflected in the layout of their level design as well.

These guys. These fuckin’ guys.

When it comes to enemy and checkpoint placement, Dark Souls is fairly conservative as most fights are one-on-one, with an occasional mob or two, and the distance traveled between bonfires make them seem scarce. The upside is that there’s a sense of dread even when you know what to expect — the downside being it makes backtracking unbearably tedious. Though perhaps heretical to fans of Dark Souls to say, I hated Blighttown and The Great Hollow. Navigation is purposefully confusing, as part of the challenge, but no decent shortcuts are given back to The Depths (a rather generic sewer area too) as an award. Before attaining the Lord Vessel at the game’s midway point — it was the most frustrating part of the experience. Even better areas, like The Catacombs and Tomb of Giants, suffer from this problem when encountered early on not simply because those areas are harder but because any enjoyment to be had would be ruined by backtracking.

The overly-generous approach to checkpoints as shown in the sequels or even Bloodborne shouldn’t be the alternative — yet allowing teleportation between them cuts down on so much of the monotony that comes from backtracking. Bloodborne, as a console-exclusive title, streamlines itself for both better and worse. The single-player campaign is less reliant on summoning other players and NPCs to take on bosses and environments offer much more visual storytelling even within a smaller space. Admittedly the main hub, The Hunter’s Dream, is nowhere near as interesting as Firelink Shrine was in Dark Souls and even the downloadable content — “The Old Hunters” — feels heavily recycled when “Artorias of the Abyss” was an improvement on the main game. Yet Bloodborne connects Gothic horror to Lovecraftian horror seamlessly in such an interesting fashion that it makes Dark Souls’ subversions of high fantasy seem quaint.

This makes the Chalice Dungeons of Bloodborne incredibly disappointing as a procedurally-generated dungeon-crawler by FromSoftware makes a lot of sense. The actual result, however, is generic and lifeless when the abandoned streets of Yharnam were lively in detail. One can’t help but think this is some secret beta version of another title to be released years down the line. Hopefully it’ll be improved a ton and knock it out of the park then.

I’m pretty sure you prefer Bloodborne.

As much as I hate to admit it, yeah, I guess I do. But that game would’ve gone ignored had I never played Dark Souls and became as enamored as I was by FromSoftware’s approach to gameplay and storytelling — it feels intrinsic to why I enjoyed Bloodborne as much as I did.

Blood Moon Rising

What bothers me about Bloodborne the most is that, as a console exclusive for the PS4, lacks the same exposure and support as the cross-platform Dark Souls as well as its sequels. Console exclusivity in this day and age has become antiquated and counterproductive yet (given industry avarice) the practice is continued despite the obvious obsolescence. That makes Bloodborne kind of an underdog, in a strange way, and I want to be more supportive of it due to such.

Though I warmed up to Dark Souls 3 despite being so riddled with fan-service and recycled assets — it’s difficult to not see the success of the initial game being a bane on the series now. Dark Souls 2 and Bloodborne, despite their (respectively) poor reception by fans and a limited audience, were at least trying to go in new directions and expand on the material. Dark Souls 3, on the other hand, feels like the moment a serpent has begun to devour its own tail. Though I suppose that’s fitting, all considering…

[Originally posted on 8/12/17 @ Medium.com]