Tuesday, July 31 2007

Shingu, Luck, and Plot

It's always fun to go back after a well-written book or anime series and note things that you missed on the first go through, especially things that are meaningless when first seen but only important in retrospection.  This goes double for a mystery or techno-thriller novel or a good conspiracy-plot anime such as Shingu.  Stephen den Beste has gone through and done a wonderful job of trying to piece together the backstory for the series.   There's no real way for us to be certain he's right;  it was a pleasant surprise to find a series with a story written with both no gaping logical holes in the plot, a satisfactory conclusion, and still a number of questions that it would be nice to have an answer to (and a series that doesn't presuppose or even call out for the existence of a sequel, to boot.)

I came to a different conclusion about what I believe was going on behind one of the mysteries of Shingu's plot, but that's my perogative as a viewer, and his explanation both fits the facts and satisfies the characterizations.  As a warning:  this post contains minor spoilers including brief synopsis of the major plot and characters, about the following series:  Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars, Ranma 1/2, Irresponsible Captain Tylor, Ah! My Goddess.  The More section below the fold has my plot analysis of Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars, including major spoilers of crucial plot elements.

I have been thinking about the role of luck in plot for both anime and role-playing games.  This is separate from probability in games, even fluke probability.  While I have had interesting thoughts on the role of probability in gaming, there's a big difference in luck as a role in plot and the role of probability in action.  To keep the discussion focused on luck in plot, we'll start with a look at anime, a non-interactive medium.

To start with, luck as a role in plot is specifically not a random factor.  The anime writers and director have to plan in advance what happens to his characters in order to drive the story.  Anything that happens has to be specifically written to happen, so there's no real chance involved from the perspective of the writer or viewer.  I am instead talking about luck from the character's perspective inside the imaginary world created by the writer.

My belief is that in anime, crucial plot elements should not be explained by a factor of random chance.  There should be a deliberate action by the main characters or by the series antagonists driving major plot points.  The main characters have to be responsible for what they do.  If the bad guy needs to be stopped, he needs to be defeated by a good guy or by himself.  There's no satisfaction to places where the bad guy is defeated by circumstances under which neither he nor the main characters have any control.  Likewise, if something seriously bad happens to the main character, it has to be caused either by enemy action or the heroes own hubris for it to have emotional effect.  If it's enemy action, it's time for the hero to affirm his dedication to overcoming the enemy.  If it's hubris, the hero needs to overcome his own shortcomings before he can truly move on.

There is an exception, and that is characters that are specifically defined by the plot as lucky or unlucky, even if this status is never vocalized.  As an anime example, Irresponsible Captain Justy Tylor is lucky;  in fact, he's lucky to the point where his luck can be reasonably counted on to get him out of a jam and get the crew of his ship, the Soyokaze, through problems if they are acting on his behalf.  At this point with the plot, improbable events that benefit Tylor or the Soyokaze can be justified in plot with relation to Tylor's luck.  The luck is Tylor's, so the sense is that Tylor defeated the problem, even if he didn't do it consciously. 

Likewise, Ranma Santome from Ranma 1/2 has a very specific case of bad luck due to his curse: when he gets splashed with cold water, he turns into a girl.  How often do random people get splashed with cold water on a daily basis?  Not often.  Yet it happens to Ranma all the time.  It's acceptable in plot for this to happen because of the curse's unstated component, namely that it's not a proper curse unless it seriously inconveniences the one cursed.

In a sense, the System Force that protects Belldandy and Keiichi in Ah! My Goddess is luck given an explanation as to why it's not a product of chance.  Keiichi wished that he could have a goddess like Belldandy at his side at all times, and the System Force is the computer-like universal system's way of keeping that wish by basically stopping anything that looks to interfere with that wish in the most direct route.  To mere mortals, however, it just looks that whenever someone tries to separate the two, something unlucky happens to that person.  To someone in the Ah! My Goddess universe that's not familiar with the real ways of the universe, it is luck or chance as there is no consistent explanation of what's going on, but Goddesses and readers are privy to the mechanism that makes these events products of deliberate action (even if the events themselves are semi-random).  (It brings to mind another, more recent, series involving a "god" with the ability to distort reality to her whims in a subconscious fashion.)

Which brings us to conspiracy anime such as Shingu.  One of the hallmarks of a good conspiracy plotline is a series of seemingly random events that all come together to form one coherent plot.  Ideally, anything attributable to luck should be able to be explained away as deliberate action by one of the conspiracies by the end of the story (or at least hint at another, greater conspiracy just beyond the reach of the story).  Shingu accomplishes this very well.  Although there are a number of questions left deliberately unanswered, including one big question, the sense is that nothing has happened purely by luck.

Applying these lessons to games, especially the more plot or story focused roleplaying games, is hard, because no one has complete control of the plot and you have a truly random element thrown in in the form of dice or other random number generators.  You have at least the GM, running the story as one faction with the party of players running the second faction.  In more complicated games, the GM is trying to script the actions of two or more independent factions such that each has a coherent motivation and plan, while the players are each a separately motivated faction.  Ironically enough, most of the rule-based roleplaying games put down on paper the difference between plot luck, which is a rule, and random chance, the rolls of the dice.  Most rule systems have a way to designate characters as lucky or unlucky, subject to luck in the imaginary world of the game which takes the forms of rules in the real world of the players.

When plotting a roleplaying game as GM, I tend to rely on luck only in the here and now of the characters.  Any actions outside the direct view of the players are scripted for the most rational actions of each faction I control.  The only random chance that can affect this script is direct action by the players.  On the other hand, the factions I control have to act as if there was luck involved in their actions.  It's a tough balance to work.

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Sunday, July 22 2007

Otakon 2007

I have just returned, alive, from Otakon 2007.  Otakon is probably the East Coast's largest anime convention, held every summer in Baltimore, Maryland.

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What does one do at an anime convention?  Oddly enough, the one thing I didn't do this year is actually watch any anime.  I was with a friend with more refined tastes, and there was nothing we could agree on watching which was more interesting than watching our fellow otaku.  We therefore spent a lot of time people-watching and taking photographs.  My friend is a much more skilled photographer, and his photos are up on his flickr page.  We did catch the anime music videos, of which there were no particularly outstanding examples this year.  We also spent some time in the dealer room, acquiring swag, and in the game room, watching people playing video games (and occasionally joining in ourselves.)

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I can often get a sense of the state of the otaku community by watching the cosplayers at the convention.  As always, Bleach, Fullmetal Alchemist and Naruto are heavily represented.  For a new series, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann (above) had a surprising following.  Fate/Stay Night has come in to its own with a sizable representation.  There were more members of SOS-Dan from  Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya than last year, but that club was overshadowed by the Ouran High School Host Club (below).

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Some series always have a presence, and are fairly consistent from year to year: Sailor Moon, Utena, Inu Yasha, Fruits Basket, Prince of Tennis, and HellsingDBZ representation was down, as was Evangelion, although I still saw a Gendo or two, a Rei, and at least one Asuka.  Gundam was down, although there were more of the old school Gundam characters.

As there is a cross-interest between anime and video games, especially Japanese video games, video games were well represented amongst the cosplayers.  The Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts series are heavily represented.  A lot of the fighting games have representatives as well, especially the Dead or Alive series, the Guilty Gear series, and the Soul Calibur series.  There were a lot of very heavily armed generic mercenary types, many of which are probably connected to the Metal Gear series.  Nippon Ichi's Disgaea (one of my favorite console games) had the usual couple of representatives.  There were a fair number of Mario characters, with Princess Peach being the most predominant.  Finally, none of the very plentiful Phoenix Wright characters ever objected to having their pictures taken (although most could be persuaded to object while having their picture taken (below).)

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For American characters and generics, Jedi were out, Pirates were in, though Ninja still outnumbered Pirates thanks to their representations in specific anime series.  American comic characters were out, with DC suffering more than Marvel from loss of representation.  There were a few Transformers present.

[Warning:  The next paragraph contains some disturbing imagery.  People with strong imaginations should skip it.  Don't say I didn't warn you.]

For the disturbing cosplayers, there were a few.  One pimp had two 'ladies' on a chain.  I didn't see Sailor Bubba or Man-Faye, but Man-noha was wrong, and the only thing more eye-gougingly awful than seeing a guy cosplaying Haruhi Suzumiya is seeing a guy cosplaying Haruhi Suzumiya in her bunny-girl outfit.  Then again, you didn't need a costume to be disturbing.  One guy had a pedobear t-shirt, and I'm told there was someone with a Nazi armband.  People, you're not doing your hobby any favors.  Grow up and stop trying to be offensive just to be offensive.
[Okay, rant and imagery over.]

Otakon is very heavily commercialized with regards to support from the American studios which release anime.  Each company generally has a panel and a substantial booth in the dealer room, and Bandai, Geneon, and ADV had premieres.  Still, Otakon had a fair number of fansubs on the schedule, including Code Geass, Sola, Nodame Cantible, and Lucky Star.  This extends to products other than gaming;  Mountain Dew had a promotion on Friday which was (apparently, as I only know about it third hand) offering free Dew or Dew merchandise to anyone who was willing to stand in line and play the Halo 3 demo.

The video game room is an interesting combination of Japan-only releases of games mixed with the latest in American console goodness.  The Wii was represented with a number of party games, although the older Gamecube was in use more and on the bigger TVs for Super Smash Brothers and Mario Kart Double Dash.  Boding ill for Sony, I didn't see anything that looked like a PS3 game, though there were a lot of PS2 games (with the consoles themselves locked away, it's hard to tell which console is which).  Microsoft had a small but very visible presence for the X-Box 360 with an impressive four on four Gears of War game, and there was a smaller contingent of gamers playing Halo 2.  In other gaming related news, it seemed that half the con had a Nintendo DS.

All in all, a fun convention.
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Wednesday, July 18 2007

To Otakon!

I will be attending Otakon in Baltimore, MD, this upcoming Friday and Saturday.  I hope to have pictures up Sunday.

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Saturday, June 30 2007

Anime Review: Shingu

Before I get started with my review, let me declare the first rule on anime:  The odds of any two people agreeing in their opinion on what anime series are good is almost zero.  If you want recommendations as to what's good to watch, I can give you my opinion, but take it with a grain of salt because we will more likely disagree than agree.  Even if we agree on most series, there are bound to be one or two series I love but you can't stand and vice versa.

I first heard about Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars from a posting on Chizumatic.  Stephen Den Beste's review was positively glowing.  Then, one by one, other anime bloggers picked up the series and all turned in highly positive reviews of a series I'd never heard of.  Intrigued by both the reviews and the description of it as a conspiracy-filled sci-fi comedy, I picked it up and promptly got hooked myself.

The series, while not destined to become a classic, is one of the most fun series I've watched in a long time.  I'm pleased to say that the reviews were correct.  The plot varies smoothly between light-hearted and dramatic, the characters are likable and both drive and are changed by the plot.  The animation quality is pretty good but not great, and the retro-style works very well with the series concept.  Although a full-length series, this is likely to go into my stable of rainy-day anime.

Note:  the following contains deliberately vague spoilers for series Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars.

Overall Rating:  B+
Story: B+  The story has some minor issues that can be overlooked.  I was pleasantly surprised that my plot sense was thrown off by some of the deliberate red herrings thrown in, but some of the events were cliche.
Main Characters: A  The main characters are all likable once you get to know them, and they develop as the story progresses, and none of them turn out to fit well into any of the annoying cliche stereotypes.
Supporting Cast:  A  The supporting cast is very well done, with developed personalities.  My biggest complaint is that a lot of the supporting cast doesn't get enough screen time.
Villain:  C  Given the amount of red herrings in the plot, getting to the final showdown takes a while with a couple of detours along the way, so its understandable that the showdown is a bit rushed, and occurs with little buildup.
Humor:  A  The series is enjoyably funny, and the humor by and large dervies from character interaction, rather than slapstick or sight gags (although there are occasional instances of both).
Action:  C  The series is a comedy, but it is a sci-fi comedy with a plot supposedly centered around fighting giant monsters from space, and the relatively quick and underwhelming action was a bit of a disappointment.  A couple of the action scenes are quite good, though brief.
Drama:  B- The series makes use of the conspiracy-filled plot to set up a fair amount of character drama between many of the characters.  Some of the relationships seem forced at first, but by the end of the series the character interaction works very well.
OP and ED:  D-  The opening sequence is flat, and the ending is so plain as to be outright dull.
Fun Factor:  A  Between the likable characters, the outright twists in the plot, and the humor, this was an outright fun series to watch.

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Saturday, May 05 2007

Weekend Anime Review: Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha Striker S

The always interesting Jeff Lawson is back with a bunch of quick reviews of current series.  I was struck by his quick take on the new installment of a series I've quite enjoyed, Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha Striker S (I'll refer to the overall series as 'Nanoha' from this point forward).  His take on the series, unfortunately, matches my current impressions almost perfectly:

As much a fan of this franchise as I am, I’m having a difficult time getting into the third installment. I don’t necessarily want to go so far as to say the magic from the first two seasons is gone, but it sure feels that way at times.

Warning: This post contains mild spoilers for the following anime:
Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha
Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha A's
Mild spoilers generally do not contain information about secrets in the plot of the anime, but may contain information about general overall plot threads and character development.



First, the general nature of the plot seems to have shifted from the original two series.  The original series was a retake on the general Magical Girl anime series, one that maintained its originality by doing a new take on the conventions of the series.  In general, a magical girl series should have one or more schoolgirls, who after an encounter with a mysterious talking cute and fuzzy animal, are given the power to save the world from the forces of darkness.  This power is embodied by a trinket, which turns into a magical item of power capable of destroying the darkness, and provides the hero with a more impressive outfit and other useful abilities.  In order to save the world, however, the magical girl must use their own inner goodness to defeat the enemy as well as the power they have been given.  The magical girl must also balance their responsibilities as magical girl with their normal school life and friends as these two facets of the hero's life will be forced into conflict by the plot, and it is this conflict as much as the struggle against darkness that provides the heart of the series. 

Nanoha follows this formula right down the line, only the forms taken are almost never what would be expected and are often thought out more than one would expect.  Nanoha A's generally follows the same script, right down to providing Fate with her own cute and fuzzy talking animal, although the big picture is starting to take form as more details of the way the setting is constructed emerges.  Nanoha StrikerS drops most of the genre concepts.  The characters are full-time members of a public, quasi-military organization, and are basically a hero team backed by massive amounts of support.  Their magic items have been essentially reduced to mere technological toys.

Additionally, the series has too many major characters.  This was unavoidable, given the exponential growth of major characters between the series.  The first series started with two protagonists, Nanoha supported by Yunno, and introduced a balanced pair of antagonists, Fate supported by Arf.  The second series, Nanoha A's, had two major protagonists, Nanoha and Fate, with Yunno and Arf in support.  They faced off against two major antagonists, Signum and Vita, who were supported by Schmal and Zafira.  When I first heard a third Nanoha series was in the works, I was afraid it would turn out to be Nanoha, Fate, Signum, Vita, Hayate, and support against a balanced team of antagonists.  Instead, all the characters in StrikerS seem to be loaded into the good guys from the start, so we have Nanoha and company from the first two series and four additional new characters at the start of the series, for 12 major characters in all.

Finally, we have the antagonists of the series.  Nanoha started with the cliche monster of the week enemy while the setting was established, but the meat of the story begins when Fate is introduced as the main antagonist.  We are presented with two magical girls with comparable powers facing off against each other.  We quickly find out that Fate has a developed if very quiet personality, her motivations are complex, and that while opposed to the heroes, she is presented in such a way that the audience feels for her.  In Nanoha A's, we are quickly introduced to a pair of magical girls, Signum and Vita, as the main antagonists for Nanoha and Fate.  Again, they have interesting personalities, their motivations are complex, and they are presented in a way that the audience feels some sympathy for them as well.  So far, the enemies in Nanoha StrikerS have been machines, with no personality, no motivations as such, and no need for any empathy from the audience.

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Saturday, April 28 2007

The Warning Moment in Anime

Something crystallized for me when I read Steven den Beste's post at 20070426.2300.  He discusses anime that turned out to be different than what he expected at the start of the series.

A lot of series come packaged in a way that sells them as something other than what they turn out to be. If you have the wrong idea about the series, you're likely to be disappointed. Maybe if you know what it actually is you'll be disappointed anyway, but if you know ahead of time at least you won't be surprised. And you have a better chance of choosing things that fit your tastes.

This is something I've noticed over the years as well.  I like comedy anime, but generally not straight comedy.  Straight comedy series generally turn into a series of running gags.  I need plot, and for plot you need tension or conflict.  It can be the neverending series of trials between a couple of romantically involved highschool students or an attempt to save the entire universe from a deranged madman.

On the other hand, I generally hate anime that start as comedies and go all dark and depressing by the end.  If I wanted that, I'd take some horror series to start with.  Too many anime lose all humor by the middle of the series, leaving the end as a depressing slog of angst and despair.

One dead giveaway I look for in the series is the "warning point".  This is the point in the series where the creators give you a hint as to how serious they are going to make the series later.  Generally, it consists of a brief episode of violence far more serious than anything seen before in the series, and generally of a tragic and shocking nature.

If the series so far has consisted of the heroes bashing evil monsters and all of a sudden one of the heroes gets seriously wounded, this should serve as a warning to the audience.  "This is serious combat.  The heroes are not immortal and are at risk.  If we need to, we will kill them."

If the heroes screw up, and innocents are hurt or killed, this is also a warning to the audience.  "The heroes are on an important quest.  If they fail, it will come at a cost."

In lighter shows, often athletic or other contest series which don't involve the threat of death or injury to the main characters, a similar emotional reaction can be had by having our prodigy hero, or their more-skilled teacher, defeated once or twice early on.  The hero may eventually triumph, but the audience is put on notice that there is someone out there with the skill that the outcome is not a foregone conclusion.

Often, the series will then go back to a fair number of lighter episodes before the level of seriousness reaches the same peak or goes beyond it.  Sometimes, the seriousness never materializes.  But the fact that you know, emotionally, that the authors are willing to go to that level adds tension to the series.  Intellectually, you may know its just a TV show.  You may even know how it ends (or at least that there's a sequel in the works).  But that emotional reaction is there.

I have found that If this warning point doesn't appear and the series gets progressively darker and more depressing then I'm always disappointed by what the series ends as.

I think the best non-spoiler example of this I can give is American, actually.  It's part of the central Spiderman backstory that with Peter's powers come great responsibility.  Early on in the movie, Peter doesn't use his power when he has an opportunity, and as a result, his uncle gets killed.  Peter and the audience are on notice that there is a real price to failure in the world of the series, and it is demonstrated with the senseless death of an innocent.

For more examples, often spoilers, click More below:
[Spoilers are for: Martian Successor Nadesico, Trigun, Angelic Layer, Mahou Shojo Lyrical Nanoha, and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya]

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Monday, April 23 2007

Anime, Pop Culture, and the Virginia Tech Killings

This post is an attempt to look at reaction to the killings at Virginia Tech through the lens of popular culture, specifically by examining how a isolated hobby such as anime relates to the overall American culture. There is not much that can be said about the tragedy itself that hasn't already been said, but hopefully we can learn something by studying the reaction to the killings without dishonoring those who were murdered.

Hi! My name is Civilis and I'm an Otaku.
Hi! My name is Civilis and I'm an Otaku. The consensus of the English usage of the word Otaku is to refer to a fan of anime, manga, or other Japanese popular culture. It is, at first glance, an odd hobby, and the reasons behind my personal interest in the subject are best left for another time. The reason such a hobby even exists is that it is a product of modern technology and the overall expansiveness of Western and specifically American culture.

In an earlier post, I looked at how people can be viewed as belonging to a number of subcultural groups, based on family background, education, occupation, political affiliation, and other interests. I proposed that these groupings overlapped to some degree, and we can examine where the overlap is greater or less than what would occur by chance and try to identify the roots of correlation. I finally expressed that I was more interested in groups based on hobbies or other interests rather than the more widely examined groups based on demographic factors.

The fact that there could be enough of an interest in a specific subcategory of foreign TV to drive a market is in itself pretty amazing. Commercially, it relies on the ability to be able to produce and distribute to those with the interest effectively, meaning that it has to be cheap enough to produce the DVD and it has to be distributed in areas with enough fans that it makes economic sense to invest in selling the product. The hobby now relies on the
internet to spread interest in the hobby and allow geographically diverse fans to communicate. In short, the hobby is a product of modern economics and communications. Without the ability to use modern communications to reach a widely distributed but thinly spread fanbase, or the economic ability to bring a complicated product over and adapt it across a language barrier, the hobby would not exist.

But any hobby, interest, or other grouping relies on reaching enough people to sustain it, no matter the technology level. Take a look at popular entertainment: theater, music, and (later) movies. Before the ability to record, these had to be produced locally, meaning you had to have sufficient population density to get the talent naturally or a patron with the money to bring the talent together, and you listened to what was available locally. Outside of a major urban area, choice was limited, and therefore the correlation between geographic location and specific entertainment styles was high. If you lived in this area, you listed to that variety of music or saw that sort of theater. The ability to record music or turn theater into movies allowed a wealthy patron (or group of investors) to distribute choice entertainment to a wider audience, so one had gained the ability to choose between what was available locally and what was popular enough to be distributed nationally, and the amount available on a national level expanded as the number of producers of recorded entertainment expanded. Radio and TV enabled the expansion of single source of entertainment, say a radio or TV station, to serve a wider area, which caused competition between overlapping stations (this has, alas, been lost to some degree because each station now seems to be part of a larger, multi-station chain).

To summarize, technological improvements have meant that producers of hobbies and interests can produce more effectively, which has enabled more choice for consumers, and has driven the explosion of diversified interests we see today.

How does this relate to the reaction to the shooting at Virginia Tech? There seems to be a rush to blame one or more cultural factors, and specifically cultural factors that are subcultural groups that tend to correlate with teens and college age adults and those which have an established correlation with antisocial activities: video games, violent movies, and rap music. I play games, including video games. I am constantly amazed as to the sheer inaccuracy of media reporting on this subject, and on any hobby I have knowledge of. I suspect it is because the sheer number of cultural groups is such that most members of the media have little experience with many hobbies and interests.

The killer played video games. Therefore video games must be bad. We see this sort of logic all the time. In an earlier post, I looked at why there may be a correlation between political leanings and interest in anime, and saw that while there may be a correlation, it is based on indirect factors. But talking heads, especially talking heads with an agenda, can't or won't take the time to see if the correlation is indirect. Perhaps anti-social kids are more prone to find video games an engaging source of entertainment and are more prone to having destructive psychological problems build without receiving intervention.

Is there a negative correlation between being heavily involved in politics and playing video games? Of course, between the age and the time factor, there are obvious reasons most people in politics don't have any first hand experience with video games to see how absolutely incoherent their knowledge of the subject is. Similar conclusions can be drawn from other hobbies blamed for violence.

At some fundamental level, American and Western culture is both strengthened and weakened by the overwhelming number of hobbies and interests anyone can choose to invest time in. Fundamentally, we must recognize that we have much less in common with our neighbors and colleagues than we once did, and that this freedom to pursue different courses of happiness is a fundamental good that nonetheless has a cost.

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