Sunday, July 21, 2013

Anime review: "Berserk"

"Berserk" is among the first anime I have ever watched (among first 10, of more than 200 that I watched until now) and it was one of my favorite ever. I even read the manga, at least the published volumes at the time. Curiously, the manga is still ongoing after more than 20 years! So when I saw that something new from the franchise has been coming out, I was excited. My excitement waxed when I saw it was a collection of three movies with the same material as the original anime series, but there was no chance in me missing that. So when the movies were finally dubbed, I jumped right at them...

These three movies in "Berserk" franchise depict the youth of the main protagonist, Guts. A parent-less child, he has grown up with a mercenary band and later become a freelancer wielding in impossibly big sword. During one his jobs, a siege, he single-handedly slays a famous mercenary. This attracts the attention of the Band of the Hawk and their charismatic leader, young Griffith. Initial reluctant, Guts is forced to join them, but later he distinguishes himself and become one of the leaders, strucking a great friendship with Griffith and love-hate relationship with Casca, another young, but female leader. The Band exploits the long-lasting war between Tudor and Midland, so much that King of Midland promotes them to nobility...

I realized that I almost described the whole plot of the movies... The reason for it is that these three movies depict only the "Golden Age arc", which is only the prequel of this story. The real action actually starts after, but this story is also very interesting. Especially when the more fantastic elements of it come forward: the Crimson Behelit, Zodd the Immoral, the God Hand... After mostly classical medieval fighting anime, this aspect of anime is very surprising and increases the tensions... Especially when the Eclipse comes!

"Berserk" belongs to dark fantasy and action genres, with lots of fighting, blood and violence. It is somewhere between shounen and seinen series. I really liked the setting, which changes much from realistic medieval to full fantasy, including a lot of themes. As setting, character change and grow (or descend) during the anime. It is no wonder this is one of most appreciated mange for lots of people.

But this is all applicable to the series itself; but what about these three movies?

The movies are pretty much true to the manga, but they skip some of the details. To those unfamiliar to prior anime or manga, this shouldn't mean much by itself. But on the other way, the original anime, "Kenpuu Denki Berserk", which was 25 episodes long, had much more room to show details and establish a more complex setting and provide the viewers with full "Berserk" experience.

Also, the "Golden Age" arc is not the beginning of "Berserk" manga. Mange starts with current Guts (I will avoid spoilers) and his fight against Apostles, and then he has a long flashback to his past - which is actually the "Golden Age" arc. Original anime follows this principle so it is more successful in hooking new fans. These movies concentrate solely on the "Golden Age" which, in my opinion, is poorer choice. Because, if they have any attention to continue the plot with new movies (and I read rumors that they do plan so), they will be forced to skip this part.

One of the most notable aspects of this anime is the very extensive use of CGI animation. While I don't like it myself, some people do - but I think that most will agree it was done not so good here. It just doesn't look natural. It has some advantages, like that architecture is very detailed and realistic, but moving people are just bad and too generic.

The anime stays true to violent nature of "Berserk", which means that there is a lot (really, a lot) of blood, nudity, sex, violence. When I saw the animation, I though they will "adapt" the show to wider audience; but they didn't and I appreciate that.

I don't remember the music from the original anime, but here is very good.

The final verdict? Even though I liked this new adaptation of "Berserk", I would not really recommend it. For those unfamiliar to the series, I would direct them to the original anime "Kenpuu Denki Berserk", which captures the feeling and experience of manga much better - this version is inferior in this respect. The movies are not bad, but I would really recommend the only to those who haven't watched or read "Berserk" for long time and just want a quick reminder. To everybody else, go watch the original.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Book review: "Blood and Bone" by Ian C. Esslemont

Even though I liked "Return of the Crimson Guard" and even "Stonewielder", after debacle with "Orb Sceptre Throne" my enthusiasm for work of Ian C. Esslemont has dropped down considerably. His new book in Malazan setting, "Blood and Bone" has been out for couple of months. I would usually buy it as soon as it was out, but this time I just wasn't into it. Especially after reading some tepid reviews on Amazon. But in the end, I consider myself a Malazan-fanboy so I just could not leave it unread for long.

As is usual for Malazan books, there are multiple plot-lines, all connected by the fact they are happening on Jacurucu, a continent only mentioned by Erikson and Esslemont until now. Thaumaturgs, a ruling mage-class of largest nation on Jacurucu is on the move: there is another invasion targeting the Jungle of Himatan, which covers whole east half of the continect and is ruled by Ardata, Queen of Witches and Mother of Monsters. Led by Commander Golan, the army will find itself attacked not by enemy soldiers, but something even scarier, the Jungle itself: heat, humidity, wild animals, inhabitants from nightmares, bugs and diseases... But before they even reach the Jungle, on their way they will travel through poor villages between their nation and Himatan. In one of such villages, young woman named Saeng, with unique connections to the dead of Jacurucu, will be saved by her brother Hanu, who was taken some years ago to become Thaumaturg strongest weapon, stone soldier of jakshaka. In the meantime, in south, members of several Adwami tribes, including the young prince Jatal, are gathered by the call of foreign warleader called Grey Ghost, who asks of them a temporary truce and offers a common goal: the greatest raid on Thaumaturg capital ever! And on Stratem, remnants of Crimson Guard have gotten a new contract, by Ardata herself: to get rid of Skinner and his Disavowed.

Somewhere I have read that this book is intended for Malazan fans and nobody else, and I would agree with this statement. Even though is much simpler that Erikson's books, "Blood and Bone" would be incomprehensible to non-fan. There is no real introduction to characters, setting and plots, and it is expected to be familiar with prior events to appreciate all nuances and details. So, if you haven't at least read Esslemonts previous books, don't even try reading this one.

I must say I was pretty surprised by this book, and pleasantly so. The pace is pretty slow, but the book is very interesting. Some would consider it dragged and too slow, but I kind of liked it such. Esslemont even gets philosophical a la Erikson on some occasions. Esslemont is not natural at being mysterious in writing as Erikson is, but here he tries and succeeds most of the times - even though he can get tiring sometimes.

What I really liked in this book were the characters. There are some old characters, but most of them are new. There are even some old hidden as new. In general, Esslemont is much better with his own characters than when he uses and recycles Erikson's. I liked Jatal, who is noble and honorable so much that you know that it will not end well. Pon-lor starts as side-character but in the end becomes one of most important and best. Commander Golan and his nemesis Thorn are simply a great duo. But all other are interesting, too. I can only compliment Esslemont in succeeding making all parties look good and nobody bad.

Even though the book takes place on Jacurucu, you will not found it too revealing about its secrets. I know I am boring and repetitive, but Erikson would be handling it better. Nevertheless, it is interesting as it is. I liked how we get a context of where this book fits in. The descriptions of the jungle and the dangers luring there are pretty good. I was surprised how gritty and even disgusting things became on several occasions, like with the worm-parasites!

All in all, "Blood and Bone" was a pleasant surprise. Again, the book is not on par with Erikson's, but it provides the Malazan fans with an interesting plot and a revelation of new part of setting. So I would recommend it to all fans of Esslemont - though pure fans of Erikson should be careful with it.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Anime review: "Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica"

"Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica", or "Madoka Magica" hereafter, is not a show I would usually be attracted to, at least considering the style of its animation and its cover-picture on AniDB. Therefore, I pretty much unintentionally avoided it two years ago when it came out. I also avoided it the year later when it got several awards for the pass year... But after watching other high-rated anime, "Madoka Magica" kept jumping out on first places and getting nice reviews, so I finally decided to give it a try.

As I said, "Madoka Magica" at first looks as a typical shoujo action anime with magical girls (mahou shoujo): cute flat-chested and silly/clumsy protagonist, cute uniforms, lots of pink, lace and winking.... Setting include middle-school girls who enter a contract with some kind of cute-cat-look-a-like demon who gives them magical powers and a free-wish while they in return have to fight evil "witches" (nightmares) who attack innocent men and women...

Well, while it certainly has elements of mahou shoujo anime and it looks like one, "Madoka Magica" hides a big surprise for its viewers: it is actually a very powerful seinen tragedy! While it is a bit angsty toward end, that is to be expected of such anime, and the complete reversal of expectations negates any negative experience...

As you noticed, I am trying to avoid spoilers as much as I can. But I just can't avoid talking about the main villain... First, you really don't expect her to be a villain, especially considering her looks. Secondly, he is really a psychological masterpiece! It is scary how good she is at being passive-aggressive and manipulative toward an innocent girl... I am fan of grittiness, but there are some lines you just don't cross...

As I said, it is really a tragedy - it becomes evident after all that Mami's happy talk. And definitely it is seinen: the more Homura tries to do what is right, the worse it gets.

Other remarking sides of this anime are the visual side and the music. The music is very good, including a song by Kalafina. The show has nice vibrant colors, which together with intense music and the action at the beginning, made me like this anime instantly. As I said, design of character is typically shoujo, but this you just have to accept. Things change when they enter the "witch domain", where it looks like some kind of patchwork and it is very interesting. There are 12 episodes totally.

All in all, "Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica" was a pretty good surprise, but a kind of that I would recommend mostly to those who like seinen, and potentially josei anime. I hope those will forgive me my little misdirection in review and be thankful for it later.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Book review: "King of Thorns" by Mark Lawrence

Since I was at vacation the Monday I finished "Prince of Thorns" by Mark Lawrence, Tuesday next day, I continued with reading its sequel "King of Thorns". I must say that it's been long since I have read with such enthusiasm, leaving everything else besides! I was able to finish it at Tuesday after noon.

After getting his revenge in "Prince of Thorns" and becoming a King of Renar Highlands (one of the smaller and poorer regions in the neighborhood), Jorg is still not peaceful because there is another his unfulfilled ambition: becoming the Emperor (of the World, just to mention it).Four years after and he is sitting in his (only) castle, waiting for his future bride (whom he never met) and slowly becoming surrounded by army ten times bigger than the one he has. And to his greater chagrin, this army is led by Prince Orrin of Arrow, favorite by people and nations (for being good and caring ruler), descendant of last Emperor (while Jorg's line descends only from his Steward), and most important, favorite of all magicians and soothsayer (the real power behind thrones). So, what does a person in Jorg's position does? He attacks, of course...

"King of Thorns" is a different book from its prequel. First, it's longer: around 500 pages, where PoT was some 300 pages. While PoT had two timelines (the main one, and one four years ago describing how Jorg becomes what he is), KoT has three. First, there is again the main one, which I described in last paragraph. Curiously, this line of events get only sporadic chapter, at least until the end, when it really hits. Again, there is one happening four years ago, describing what Jorg did after coming to Renar Highlands and what lead to his "quarrel" with Prince Orrin. I was very surprised with this part, because after PoT, I didn't expect to find a classical fantasy quest/journey, where Jorg travels around the country, meeting new and old people, and does some "training". And third, a minor plot-line is a collection of excerpts from private diary of Katherine, who Jorg met in last book and who become his object of... Well, we'll not call it love, so call it obsession. I like it when storytelling is nonlinear and there is lot of wandering during it. So, definitely a plus.

Another thing that differs this book from previous part is that it is much softer. While "Prince of Thorns" was full of raping, murder and torture, "King of Thorns" is much lighter. Jorg is still cynical, dark and "practical", but he doesn't even meaninglessly kill anybody in this book (well, there's maybe that part with the lion...). His band of Brothers is still here, even though much smaller, but they also grew accustomed to some other principles. One could say that this is a complete reversal, but Lawrence wrote it so well that is feels very natural. On the other hand, there are still lots of graphical descriptions and not-so-honorable acts (hello Miana) that we all like so much.

Even so, Jorg is much softer. Not only in his conduct (he in now just a political psychopath, instead of a literal one), but is his skill also. While in PoT there was no task impossible for him, here we see some of his limits. But don't worry, Jorg is a resourceful one. Now he plays for larger scales that just revenge: strength of his country and army, position in game of thrones, even seeking alliances. This book is full of his retrospectives and memories of childhood. Even a happier childhood, in some instances...

As I said, I liked the traveling sequence, especially when he comes in the south - it reminded me to some other, more classical fantasy books when our hero trains to become a hero. If you gave only this few chapters to someone who haven't read "Prince of Thorns", he could have thought this a regular fantasy book... I also liked the part when they met the Circus.

One of strong-points of "Prince of Thorns" was its setting. "King of Thorns" tops it by a good margin. You can see it by map, which is much larger. But you also get more information about its history and present. Magic "system" also gets extended, and some new enemies have their introduction. I have never met Jack Vance's "The Dying Earth" stories, even though I hear much about them. I read some reviews mentioning that post-apocalyptic part of the setting is strongly influenced by this works, so I will definitely read them in future.

While "Prince of Thorns" was a great book, "King of Thorns" is even more so. I can sincerely say that it was one of best books I have read lately, in range of R. Scott Bakker, Joe Abercrombie's earlier books, Patrick Rothfuss. If "Emperor of Thorns", which is due for publishing very soon, be a book good as this one, "The Broken Empire" series will be one of the best ever! Definitely a recommendation to fans of first part, but also for all those who like a darker fantasy.