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”:

Pop Culture Heresy: Marvel Studios Is Awful, Part 2 — Anti-Social Commentary

Within Marvel Studios’ catalogue, Captain America: Winter Soldier is one I consider to be their best. The reason being that it managed to be about something of import — in fact, it was about many things of import. It wasn’t just a bunch of gaudily-dressed crime-fighters who talked in Whedonesque quips while fighting a villain who does villainous things ‘cause reasons. The film dealt with the dubious morality of warfare in modern times, the increasing prevalence of a surveillance state (“This isn’t freedom, this is fear.”), that soldiers are treated as expendable commodities by bellicose politicians with nothing to lose and everything to gain, that democratic institutions have been slowly sabotaged by the interests of disaster capitalists, and (more relevant than ever before) how we’ve let fascist ideology continue and grow in the shadows by acting as if it ceased to exist long ago.

All of that is far more meaningful than anything in the other films, an overglorified series of bells and whistles with little else on their mind (even when claiming otherwise like Guardians of the Galaxy’s supposed theme of “family” — but I’ll go into that another time). That the narrative was centered on Captain America made it more profound because he represents the United States at its most ideal and optimistic. After having slept through so many decades he finds himself lost and confused by the cynicism, deceit, and opportunism that is prevalent in our socio-political landscape presently. The fact he was not around to keep it from happening, being quite literally frozen in time, gnaws at his conscious and what drives his actions throughout the plot. He may’ve not been able to stop it then but, by God, he was going to now

It was why I looked forward to Luke Cage as much as I did. If there’s any superhero that needed a live-action adaptation with this kind of social commentary, it would be Luke Cage. He’s a proud black man who is bulletproof and, gee, isn’t that topical? I was more than ready for a neo-blaxploitation series where someone of a marginalized group used their newfound powers to fight back against racist cops and the businessmen who profited from their suffering. To put it another way: I wanted to see the physical embodiment of the Black Lives Matter movement on-screen. If Captain America represented the U.S. as a nation at its best, Luke Cage could represent the need for social upheaval when the U.S. fails as a nation.

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What Luke Cage Should’ve Been

Except that wasn’t the case at all. It was something far worse — an ode to respectability politics. But what, exactly, are “respectability politics”? As described by the Wikipedia page on the topic:

“[A]ttempts by marginalized groups to police their own members and show their social values as being continuous, and compatible, with mainstream values rather than challenging the mainstream for what they see as its failure to accept difference[…]was practiced as a way of attempting to consciously set aside and undermine cultural and moral practices thought to be disrespected by wider society, especially in the context of the family and good manners.”

In essence, it is about those among the marginalized (black individuals in this case) trying to appease the more privileged and affluent of society (who are almost entirely white) rather than challenging and perhaps changing mainstream social values for the benefit of all. It is the assumption that the marginalized are still marginalized not due to economic or political roadblocks based on discrimination but because of their own behavior. That an unwillingness to not just assimilate and behave no differently to mainstream sensibilities (even when they’re outdated horseshit traditionalized by those who’ve never suffered a day in their lives) is the source of further oppression, not those who had been responsible for such going on centuries now. Obviously, it’s quite appealing to many right-wingers and centrists who just so happen to be white — alleviating responsibility and admittance of a system skewed in their favor…

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What Luke Cage Actually Is

It’s not because the show starts off with the titular character taking issue with another black individual using the N-word, a legitimate grievance given its historical usage, but that does set a precedence. So many scenes involve older individuals speaking condescendingly to youths about “responsibility” that goes beyond simple intergenerational tensions. There’s this notion that those youths take part in criminal activities not because it may be their only way out of poverty, next to joining the NBA or becoming a rap/hip-hop star, but as a lifestyle choice. That, somehow, they’d become doctors or politicians or CEOs if they just rejected any form of criminality and “worked hard.” Nevermind how many actually get stuck “working hard” at several dead-end jobs at once in order to barely pay for food and shelter until the end of their miserable life. Though Luke Cage does the same during the series — he’s not “uppity” about it and doesn’t complain. There’s something incredibly naïve about all its finger-wagging by ignoring such real-life scenarios. It dismisses the myriad of disadvantages that community has faced and still faces whenever it’s inconvenient, pushing this disingenuous idea of meritocracy that white people love so goddamn much these days. An idea that, as of yet, has never been explained to me properly or consistently as to what does or does not constitute as “merit” — probably because human beings are biased in favor of behaviors they personally prize (or, more accurately, are socially conditioned to prize).

This is reflected in how Luke Cage is portrayed as a character, with the show going out of its way to make him as inoffensive and good-natured as possible. It reminds me of how a friend brought up his problem with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in the form of Sidney Poitier’s John Prentice, as he was without flaw or vice and didn’t feel like a real person. That it made the whole conflict involving his soon-to-be in-laws less meaningful because they’re given no reason to dislike him other than he’s a black man. Like many in-laws they could use any reason to dismiss their daughter’s fiance, the fact he is black would enable them to hide their racial prejudices behind “reasonable concerns” whenever flaws became apparent. I disagreed with my friend then but I’m definitely in agreement now after this show. Luke Cage isn’t only well-spoken and well-read and always personable, but had a holy man for a father and was a cop prior to his false imprisonment (you can’t have really committed a crime and still be a good person, apparently, unless you’re Ant-Man). In flashbacks, he’s shown as completely unlike all the other stereotypical black criminals incarcerated with him and better for it. When ending up a fugitive on the run, given opportunities anyone else in the same situation would take, he refuses to do anything morally questionable in the slightest to make his life easier.

Such behavior, back in the 1950’s, would be given the underhanded compliment of “you’re a credit to your people, son.” Luke Cage feels less like a flesh-and-blood human being with both admirable and ignoble qualities than a ridiculously contrived paragon of virtue that no one in reality resembles and likely never will. Which is kind of weird, when considering how the other Defenders-related series do not have that same issue. Why is it that Matt Murdock can agonize over his bloodlust clashing with his Catholic morality and Jessica Jones can be a psychologically dysfunctional alcoholic due to mind-control trauma (equated with rape because of course it fucking is), but Luke Cage can’t have demons that tempt him or vulnerabilities that can compromise his principles on the same level? Maybe it’s because, on average, a white person having some personality or character flaw is tolerated and can make them seem more “complex” — but a black individual’s indiscretions are harshly scrutinized, despite being comparable to their white counterparts, to the point their behavior is heavily sanitized. That’s why the overrated and overused Tony Stark can be a vainglorious, self-involved, dishonest drunk who regularly makes an ass out of himself but still be “awesome” regardless. James Rhodes, on the other hand, is a bland tag-along who functions as a nagging hausfrau and damsel in distress at one point — due to doubting Stark whatsoever. Y’know, ’cause a man who gets shit-faced and urinates in his power-armor at a large party is someone who should be treated with nothing but credulity…

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I bet War Machine and Falcon never had to deal with this shit…

In fact, the whole show could be best described as “the credit to his people vs. the thug culture” in order to be almost sycophantic towards white police officers in the U.S. (“Blue Lives Matter!”) by rarely ever showing them in the wrong. There are but two openly racist white cops featured and only one of them is ever verbally acknowledged as such. The other? His comments are treated like verbal horseplay and, when revealed to be corrupt, ends up shown as a victim to a black criminal’s betrayal. There’s another scene where a black youth is brought in for questioning and beaten by an angry cop who is… also black. The most egregious instance is at the end of the season where Misty Knight is berated by a superior over a mistake she made and for not “trusting the system.” As wretched as it is that Misty’s superior is also a black woman, the fact such a statement is made while never acknowledging that same system disadvantages them as both black and female once was unforgivable.

We’re talking about a system where black individuals are incarcerated more often than their white counterparts for similar criminal activities, where (often white) cops use unwarranted lethal force on unarmed black individuals both young and old, and lets those same cops off the hook for such an abuse of power than sufficiently punished. Then there was that whole period where slavery was legal and encouraged (Thomas Jefferson sure loved it…also “freedom”!), then another hundred years of second-citizenhood via Jim Crow before the Civil Rights Movement. But, sure, just trust that system despite having failed that group time and time again. ’Cause it’ll work itself out eventually or something…right?

But then there’s this scene.

Where was this, for all that time? Why wasn’t this scene the entire attitude of the show? Method Man even references Trayvon Martin and connects it to the hoodies that Luke Cage wears throughout, becoming a symbol of solidarity among those in Harlem. It’s also the closest the show comes to being critical about the police and their tactics. Cops are mocked for harassing those in bullet-riddled hoodies (‘cause “they all look alike”) and ridiculed further by others displaying the attire proudly to them, a reminder they’re wasting time and effort chasing a framed man than the real culprit (it’s certainly happened before and even involved our current U.S. President — just look at the Central Park Five…).

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In case anyone forgot. Somehow.

The fact this was only one scene and not representative of the rest infuriated me, because it should be. This is a perfect example of how Marvel Studios employs diversity as a shield to cover up regressive attitudes, that they get their cake and eat it too without anyone noticing and making a fuss. They want to act like they’re “with it,” name-dropping prominent figures in African-American history and culture or having a character do a monologue about Biggie “Notorious B.I.G.” Smalls, but then turn around and demand we respect U.S. law enforcement the same way right-wing proponents of the Second Gulf War guilt-tripped others with “support the troops.”

Why does all of this bother me? Why do I care that much about any of this? Why not just ignore it all?

Ultimately, it’s the waste of talent and potential.

It is absurd how good the casting and technical aspects in some of the films and series are, to not only manage getting actors who are spot on in their roles but have an audio-visual flair that comes with the right editing, cinematography, lighting, etc. Yet it is usually done in service of narratives that are overblown, tensionless spectacles and are disingenuous enough to use in-house ads in the form of “references” or “Easter eggs.” They’ll entertain some good ideas that should be developed more but either toss them aside, forget about them entirely, or keep teasing at it like a carrot dangling at the end of a stick. They’ll pay lip service to more profound themes without actually exploring them in a substantial matter. They could be better, they certainly have the means, but they choose not to and that’s far worse than just being bad.

Speaking of which, for next time: I explain Marvel Studios formula, its overuse, and how it makes the films increasingly interchangeable and mediocre as a result.

[Originally posted on 11/25/17 @ Medium.com]