Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Second volumes of The Name of the Flower, Fire Investigator Nanase

Back in March I reviewed the first volumes of these two CMX series jointly, so I figured I’d do the same for their respective second installments. Overall, in reading the second volumes of The Name of the Flower and Fire Investigator Nanase, I found that my initial impressions of both series intensified; my love for the first deepened while my (then minimal) reservations about the second solidified into some pretty serious doubts.

First up, a glowing report of The Name of the Flower, created by Ken Saito. I just don’t think I can say enough good things about this title. It’s one of my two favorite series currently being published at the moment (the other one being Sand Chronicles). Yet The Name of the Flower has a very grounded, down-to-earth sensibility that the more melodramatic Sand Chronicles sometimes lacks. The Name of the Flower is detailed, subtle, melancholy, bittersweet, pensive, surprisingly humorous, and deeply romantic. One of the things I enjoy most about this series is that all of its characters are wonderfully deep. In fact, one of the highlights of the second volume for me was the introduction of several new and equally charming characters. The Name of the Flower might not appeal to anyone looking for, say, a real action packed title, but I personally love it to bits for all the reasons listed above.

In volume two, Chouko is already avsophomore in college, and begins to overcome some of her reclusive tendencies when she joins a student organization. She actually joins a club out of pitying consideration for a recruiter who rivals even herself in terms of shyness and timidity. Thus she’s introduced to the “Taisho Authors Association”, a small literary appreciation club consisting of a somewhat ragtag group of students who specialize in two things: literature and drinking parties. Chouko finds to her mild surprise that she actually gets along with these people, in particular with the guy who recruited her. Yousuke Karasawa is a painfully shy guy with some pretty serious literary aspirations. It’s great to see Chouko interacting and forming relationships with people her own age, instead of spending all her time with Kei and Akiyama only. In addition to it being healthy for her to socialize a bit, it also demonstrates her stability and the fact that her love for Kei isn’t merely the result of her being sequestered in his house all the time.

Meanwhile, Kei spends a good chunk of this volume holed up in his room in a fit of literary productivity. When he finally emerges, it is only to discover that he will have to deal with the whole Chouko situation sooner rather than later. Thus his dilemma: does he hold on to her while he has the chance, as per his more selfish, possessive desires, or does he push her away, into the arms of her new friends as he believes he ought? I get the feeling the Kei’s a guy of extremes, and that important matters have to be all or nothing with him. Whether that’s a strength or weakness I’m not entirely certain. Anyways, a lot happens in the final part of the volume, and a many things that have been building slowly over the course of the first two volumes sort of come to a head. I’m very excited for November to see what happens next.

Alas, if only I could say the same for my other CMX title, Fire Investigator Nanase. I certainly enjoyed the first volume well enough, and I had really high expectations for the series, but after finishing volume two I’m not sure I like the direction things are headed in. My chief complaint with the series is the proliferation of unabashed fanservice that doesn’t really appeal to me at all. There are times when I don’t mind moments of fanservice when it’s limited to just that: brief moments that don’t seriously detract from the story. One example of this would be in the manga adaptation of the Haruhi Suzumiya light novels, in which the fanservice-y moments don’t seem to take away or distract from the hilariously clever plotlines. In comparison, Fire Investigator Nanase features whole sequences and chapters of purely gratuitous material (chapter 16, entitled “Stalker”, is just one example). I don’t read a lot of seinen, so maybe I’m just expressing a reaction to the genre rather than this particular series, but whatever the case I didn’t like what I saw.

Another disappointment with Fire Investigator Nanase was the fact that I still haven’t really warmed up to the main characters. I know Nanase’s gutsy and selfless, and that’s all very admirable, but I’d sure as heck like to see her figure something out without Firebug’s help for a change. Speaking of whom, I also kind of wish the creators would humanize the villain a tiny bit to make him, if not downright sympathetic, at least more interesting. So far, Firebug’s just this completely crazy maniac whom we know nothing about, except that he’s an expert on fires. That being said, I do enjoy a lot of the side characters, such as Nanase’s little ward Shingo and her supervisor Chief Tachibana (who grew on me a lot in this volume). I also like whole mode of investigating fires and solving arson cases, but only when it’s not hindered by ridiculously nonsensical plot detours. Maybe I’m just being hard on this series because I had unrealistic (or at least irrationally high) expectations for it. I haven’t definitively decided to drop it, but I’m going to have to reevaluate it pretty seriously when volume three comes out in November.

Monday, June 15, 2009

How do I love thee, Provensen Book of Fairy Tales

(Tiny disclaimer: this is a subject which most likely won’t interest anyone other than myself, yet since it’s quite near and dear to my own heart, and since I write primarily for myself anyways, I’m going to give it the full attention I believe it deserves.)

Once upon a time, a little girl was given a gift by her stepmother. The stepmother was not evil, you see, but very gentle and kind, if only a little scatterbrained. The gift she gave to her little stepdaughter was an old storybook, very worn and with positively hideous illustrations, but nevertheless containing the most extraordinarily beautiful and magnificent tales. The book afforded the girl countless hours of delight, and she treasured the book among her most prized possessions. And so the years passed, and the little girl grew a little less little, and she visited the stories of the book a little less often, though she still cherished it. One fateful morning, her stepmother came to her with a very apologetic look on her face and regretfully informed her that she could no longer keep the beloved book. It had originally been given to the stepmother’s evil sister by their late father, and now the evil step-aunt demanded its return. The poor stepmother was too gentle and kind to object, and the little girl had no choice but to surrender the book forever, though it nearly broke her heart.

A few more years passed, as they inevitably do, and the little girl was now all grown up. So many other things filled her crowded head that she had all but forgotten about the lost book that she’d loved so long ago so well. Until one day when she was perusing an edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales from her father’s collection of old books, and some little thing made her think of what she hadn’t thought of in years. And then, oh how she longed to see that book again, with all the wistful nostalgia of a homesick traveler. But how could she find it? Communication with the evil step-aunt was so not an option, but she didn’t even remember the book’s name, only vague fragments of the stories it contained. Fortunately for her, she was equipped with some mad research skills, and after about an hour of intensive searching on the web she finally and triumphantly discovered the name of the book: The Provensen Book of Fairy Tales. But what’s this? Out of print and widely unavailable? The girl was not afraid. She boldly availed herself of her trusty library card and within a few short days the book was back in her hands. And then, how it all came rushing back to her as if no time at all had passed. And she lived happily ever after (I hope). The End.

I don’t care how old I get, I’ll always have plenty of room in my heart for good fairytales well told. Which is exactly what fills the Provensen Book of Fairy Tales, a delightful little out-of-print collection of fairytales both common and obscure recounted by a variety of authors. In fact, this book left such an impression on me in my childhood that even after it was long lost to me I retained enough affection and consideration for it that I was able and willing to track it down many years later, and that having finally found it I want to write about it here.

The Provensen Book of Fairy Tales contains what it refers to as “literary fairy tales” as opposed to “folk fairy tales”, explaining in the foreword that “The literary tale borrows shamelessly from the folk tale but gives it a new twist or dimension.” As such, these stories somehow manage to feel delightfully fresh and new, yet also old as the earth itself. Not to mention the fact that many of them are also expertly and ingeniously crafted works of literature. (Although I never did care much for the strange illustrations.) This collection contains several well-known works, such as Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale”, Oscar Wilde’s heartbreaking “The Happy Prince”, and a version of "Beauty and the Beast" by famous illustrator Arthur Rackham. Yet my personal favorites from among this collection (with the possible exception of “The Happy Prince”) are the more obscure stories taken from lesser-known anthologies. In particular:

“The Lost Half-Hour” by Henry Beston. In which a poor simpleton named Bobo volunteers to find the half-hour lost by the princess when she overslept one morning. His journey takes him around the world and eventually to the land of Father Time and his twelve sons. The hard-won lost half hour proves instrumental in rescuing his true love the kitchen maid upon his return. (Along the way, Bobo also finds a lost reputation, a lost temper, and a lost princess as well.)

“The Seven Simons” by Ruth Manning-Sanders. In which a ridiculously vain emperor sends seven brothers named Simon, who each have a special skill, to steal the only princess in the world beautiful and clever enough to be his bride. But as clever as the beautiful princess may be, is she any match for the seven Simons?

“The Prince and the Goose Girl” by Elinor Mordaunt. My all-time favorite, which is NOT to be confused with the Grimm tale of a similar name upon which the inexplicably popular Shannon Hale novel is based. In this story, a powerful prince rules his kingdom through fear and intimidation, and only a little goose girl (equally proud and stubborn, but infinitely more gentle) refuses to fear him. He falls in love with her, of course, but being proud and stubborn he goes about it all wrong. For herself, she insists she’ll never marry him unless he gets down on his knees and asks politely. Think that’s not too much to ask? You’ve clearly never met the prince.

These are only a few of the wonderful stories contained in this book. For anyone who has an appreciation for truly great fairy tales, I suggest you hunt down the Provensen collection as soon as feasibly possible; it will not disappoint. Now, I’ve just got to see to hooking my own copy because the library’ll probably be wanting theirs one of these days.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

'Capital Scandal' is kind of a mixed bag

Capital Scandal (경성스캔들), a.k.a. Scandal in Old Seoul, is an interesting series in that it somewhat defies the strictures of the typical kdrama genres by featuring subject matter rather unique to the drama scene (namely the Korean independence movement of the 20s and 30s.) Although this is a movement and historical period about which I know pretty much zilch, I enjoyed the way the drama mixed romantic comedy with the intrigue and danger of freedom fighting during the time of the Japanese occupation. Unfortunately the production values of ‘Scandal’ weren’t particularly high compared to many other period dramas, and the repetitiveness of certain unfunny side storylines did seriously irritate. However, I very much appreciated the (from my perspective) fresh and different story and subject matter, as well as the stellar acting of the main leads (well, three out of four of them anyways). Han Ji-Min (who played the sweet, conscientious Shin-Bi in Dae Jang Geum) stars as Na Yeo-Kyung, an amusingly austere yet earnest young woman who works in a bookshop and becomes involved with an underground group working to undermine Japanese authority in the capital. She’s young and pretty, but has a reputation for being harsh and uncompromising, and has earned the nickname Jo Ma-Ja (which stands for the “last woman of Joseon (old Korea)”. Just to give an example of her attitude, there’s one pretty funny scene after she’s gotten together with Kang Ji-Hwan’s character in which she tells him that even if they get married she won’t sleep with him until after the country’s been liberated. His response? “Geez, everything's about liberation with you!” Kang Ji-Hwan’s a big A-list movie and drama star, but I mostly know him from last year’s Hong Gil Dong. Here he plays Seon Woo-Wan, a rascally sort of rich boy loafer who nevertheless has a really good heart and a somewhat troubled past. He initially clashes with the bluntly disapproving Yeo-Kyung, but is soon drawn to her kindness and bravery, which he eventually comes to cherish and emulate. KJH did an excellent job of bringing real playfulness and charisma to this character, which might have been flat or boring in the hands of another actor. Plus, his Woo-Wan had really cute chemistry with Yeo-Kyung.

Han Go-Eun plays Cha Song-Joo, a prominent gisaeng (female entertainer) and friend of Woo-Wan who secretly leads the local faction of the freedom-fighting group that recruits Yeo-Kyung. Ostensibly the perfect model of a “modern woman” who panders to the authority of the Japanese, Song-Joo has harbored a deep-rooted hatred for the system ever since she was sold to the gisaeng house as a young girl. I really like Song-Joo; she’s the kind of really cool woman that every girl wants for her unni. Life dealt her a pretty sucky hand, but she turned into a really strong person for it. Not to mention her unflappable, cool demeanor and glamorous image.

Ryu Jin plays Lee Su-Hyun, a mysterious man connected to the pasts of both Song-Joo and Woo-Wan who suddenly reappears in both of their lives as a high-ranking official of the Japanese police force. They both feel betrayed and confused by the actions of the cold and inscrutable Su-Hyun, but there may be more to this man than meets the eye. I liked Ryu Jin a lot better in this role than in I Really Really Like You (he certainly has better hair here), but I still think he’s pretty stiff and unengaging as an actor. Fortunately, his character was pretty tight-lipped so it didn’t make that much of a difference.

Another thing about Capital Scandal was the distinctive lack of love-triangles as plot machinations. True, there were little jealousies here and there due to circumstances, but there was no genuine romantic competition to hinder the development of our two main couples. It’s not like I’ve got anything against love- triangles when they’re done really well (just look at how much I adored Delightful Girl Choon-Hyang). It’s just that this show had a lot of other things going on to balance out the romance.

Like I said, the production values of this drama weren’t the highest. The 1920s setting was really fun, but the costumes tended to be a little too costume-y, and the sets reminded me a lot of the fake streetscapes at Disney World. Another unfortunate element of the drama was the prevalence of not-so-funny slapstick gags. Maybe it’s just an issue of personal taste, but I gotta say that long before the end I was severely tempted to fast forward through any scene in which Sachiko and/or the Arashi employees even showed up. (I frequently succumbed to that temptation and don’t think my enjoyment of the series was the worse for it.) I enjoyed the drama most when it was able to find a nice middle ground, although it did have a tendency to swing to extremes. By that I mean I enjoyed the moments of lighter humor and understated melancholy a lot more than the over-the-top slapstick and melodrama, which were also present. All that being said, however, I did enjoy the overall look and feel of the show, perhaps simply because it was unlike other dramas I’ve seen and because it was a lot of fun. Capital Scandal was a very mixed bag for me, but I’m still glad I watched it all the way through.

Capital Scandal originally aired in 2007 on KBS2. The theme song is really catchy, makes me want to swing dance:
Get this widget Track details eSnips Social DNA


Last note: the supporting cast of this drama was kind of like a review of all the dramas I’ve ever seen. Kang Nam-Gil (Who Are You?, Bad Family, Goong, Return of Iljimae), Kim Hye Ok (I Really Really Like You, Flowers For My Life, Sons of Sol Pharmacy House), Ahn Suk-Hwan (Boys Before Flowers, Painter of the Wind, Hong Gil Dong, Delightful Girl Choon-Hyang), Phillip Choi (Soulmate), and Lee Kyung-Jin (Dal Ja’s Spring) all appear in Capital Scandal.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Time of Your Life (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 8, Volume 4)

And speaking of semi-cannon print continuations of film/tv classics, the fourth collected volume of the “eighth season” of Buffy the Vampire Slayer came out last month. Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of the comic book medium (by which I mean traditional U.S style comics as opposed to graphic novels, for example, or manga). I generally prefer their cartoon adaptations, as is the case with my beloved X-Men. That being said, I have been following the comic book continuation of the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which ended with its seventh season in 2003, primarily because I love that universe and am a total sucker for all things related to it. So when the fourth volume of the collected edition, entitled Time of Your Life and containing issues #16 – #20, came out a few weeks ago, I hustled my butt down to Barnes & Noble and plunked down sixteen bucks for my copy. While the comic series doesn’t necessarily retain all the charm and appeal of the show, it nevertheless provides lots of fun for fans and usually a good read as well.

The title “Time of Your Life” refers to issues #16 – #19, a time travel story arc that also crosses over with Fray, an eight-issue comic about the slayer of the future. In this arc, Buffy and Willow head to the New York group on some mystical tip Willow got through the vague and mysterious spiritual pipeline and end up – you guessed it – walking into a trap. Bottom line: Buffy gets transported 200 years into the future and finds herself in a sci-fi version of Manhattan coming face-to-face with Fray, a slayer whose English is even more garbled and incomprehensible than Buffy’s. Once she adjusts to the bizarre circumstances a bit, Buffy’s dismayed to see the rather grim conditions of the future, and to learn that the number of total slayers has somehow dwindled back down to one (in fact, Fray’s the first to be called in years.) Before she can piece together the whole, story, however, we find out just who’s been pulling the strings behind Buffy’s little jaunt through time. Well, the cover art kind of gave it away, but yes, it’s Dark Willow! (dun dun dun) But she’s not like the Dark Willow of season six, who was full of incontrollable rage. This is a Willow darkened not by sudden anger, but rather twisted and hardened by the inexorable passage of time and filled with cold, merciless calculation, and perhaps not a little sadness as well. Her motives for bringing Buffy to this time are not exactly clear, but it doesn’t take long for her to turn Fray and Buffy against one another.

Meanwhile, back in the present, Dawn and Xander are left to hold down the Scotland base. This proves rather difficult when Amy and Warren (these two never die, do they?) orchestrate a two-pronged supernatural/technical attack on behalf of their new boss, the ominous and mysterious Twilight (who is undoubtedly the big bad of Season Eight.) Xander and Dawnie and the rest of the troops pull through in the end, of course, but not before sustaining some casualties and having a hilarious encounter with the tree-folk of the forest surrounding the castle. Also in this arc, we get to see a lot more of Kennedy (she and Willow are evidently still a thing), and we learn that Riley Finn has apparently gone over to the dark side. Too bad Buffy still thinks he’s a reliable source.

After all the intense action of issues #16 – #19, I really loved how issue #20 provided a little break from the increasingly entangled developments of the Season Eight mythology. Entitled “After These Messages … We’ll Be Right Back”, this issue was much lighter in tone and really played up the nostalgia factor by hearkening back to the early days of the original series, showing us how much has changed since then, but also how much is still the same. In this issue, Buffy returns to the base totally exhausted from an evening of demon slaying and has a strange dream in which she finds herself back at Sunnydale High, as if the past eight years had never happened. Initially thrilled to be relieved of the pressures of leading a worldwide slayer army, she soon finds that high-school slaying isn’t all fun and games the way she remembers. I loved this issue. I loved seeing old characters like Cordelia and Joyce and Principal Snyder, not to mention the high-school versions of Buffy and Willow (let’s face it, Xander hasn’t really changed all that much, bless his heart). I loved how the art during the dream sequence shifted to a more cartoonish, Betty-and-Veronica type of stylization. I loved how it was funny like the original series was, but also drove home a really powerful message about what changes over time and what remains constant.
All in all, Time of Your Life was a pretty nifty installment of Season Eight. I never read the Fray series, but I was still able to follow and enjoy the crossover. The series may not be as funny or clever as the show was, but it’s still really engaging and enjoyable. Plus, with little gems like “After These Messages” and the tree-folk embedded here and there throughout the series, how could I not read it? Also, the artwork is gorgeous. I kind of like that the characters don’t look exactly like the actors from the show; the series has its own distinctive style. And if there’s one thing that comic books have over manga and graphic novels, it’s color. The colors in here are so prettyyyy. If nothing else, Season Eight sure is easy on the eyes.

Two words: Surgery. Sucks.

Oh, sure, the drugs are kind of trippy. Coming out of the anesthesia-induced stupor, you might be feeling pretty darn good. There’s not a hint of pain, just an extremely pleasant and drowsy contentment. Everything is so wonderful, and you just want to lie in this lovely hospital bed and let the nice nurses take care of you. What was I so worried about?, you think to yourself. This place is great. Hardy har har. Just wait a couple of hours. Wait ‘til the intense nausea kicks in and you feel like puking your guts out. Wait ‘til they sick the urinary catheter on you. Wait till you get home and you’re so constipated from all the pain killers that you’re thinking of checking yourself right back in to the hospital all over again.

Ok, so maybe I’m exaggerating a tiny bit, but still. I just had my first surgical procedure (and my first experience with general anesthesia) last week, and I’m posting this by way of excuse for not writing anything for so long. I had kind of thought that the recovery would give me plenty of time to work on this blog and write up some things that have been stewing in my brain recently, but alas, such was not the case. I just haven’t been feeling up to it yet, but hopefully soon I’ll be able to put in some time.

I also want to say that although I do like to complain and have been feeling pretty under it since the surgery, all things considered it’s been a pretty decent experience for me. Everyone at the hospital was really great I felt very well taken care of the entire time. Sure, there were some unfortunate side effects from all the drugs, but the benefits of the procedure far outweigh them. All in all, I’m a pretty happy patient.