385. Review Roundup: Death Game Edition

It has been a while since TMTF’s last Review Roundup. Why don’t we look at some stories about death games?

In these media, protagonists gamble their lives in dangerous games. Some of these are literal: formal competitions with rules. Some are figurative: risky ventures into crime. And one of these stories has nothing at all to do with death games. (I enjoy writing these reviews, but not enough to plan my media consumption around them!)

Let’s talk about The Hunger Games trilogy, Ant-ManThe Big LebowskiIs It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?, and Whisper of the Heart.

The Hunger Games trilogy

The Hunger Games trilogyFor the first time in years, I picked up a popular Young Adult novel to find out what all the fuss is about. (My last investigation of a literary sensation led me to read Twilight, a mistake from which I never fully recovered.) The Hunger Games is a pop culture phenomenon, and I meant to find out why.

I dunno, guys. I wasn’t all that impressed. Maybe I’m just a grumpy snob, but the Hunger Games trilogy neither dazzled nor entertained me. The books aren’t bad, but I wouldn’t call them classics.

The Hunger Games books tell the tale of Katniss Everdeen, a pragmatic teen trapped in an impoverished district of Panem. The government of this dystopian country rules its outer districts by fear and humiliation, selecting two children from each district every year and forcing them all to fight to the death. This gruesome event, the Hunger Games, is televised throughout Panem as an amusement for the wealthy; for the poor, it’s a reminder of their powerlessness. Katniss is selected for the Hunger Games, and the books follow her rise and fall from gladiator to celebrity to revolutionary to whiny PTSD victim.

The Hunger Games books are lauded for their smart setup and gripping story. I’ll be the first to admit there is truth to these praises. Panem is an interesting setting. The concept of the Hunger Games is fascinating, providing a way for a corrupt government to placate the rich and subjugate the poor. The story has its twists and turns, and the first book is actually pretty engaging.

However, the characters are mostly dull and unlikable. Katniss, who narrates the story, lacks much personality besides a coldly analytical attitude and occasional flickers of affection. As the books wear on, Katniss is traumatized by her horrific experiences, becoming angsty and angry—a change in her personality, sure, but not for the better. More promising characters, such as foppish Effie Trinket and drunken Haymitch Abernathy, end up disappointing.

When it comes to tone and style, I get the impression the Hunger Games books aren’t sure what they want to be. They have a sort of gritty realism concerning poverty and war. I appreciate that. However, this gloomy approach is at odds with the books’ ludicrous sci-fi touches and predictable Young Adult nonsense. (Yes, there’s a love triangle, and it’s annoying.)

In the end, the Hunger Games books have just enough harsh realism to be depressing and just enough teen kitsch not to be taken seriously. They fall in a literary no man’s land, refusing to embrace either realism or sensationalism, and embodying the worst traits of both. I find it hard to recommend these books.

Ant-Man

Ant-ManMoving on to something much more entertaining, Ant-Man is another big, dumb, spectacularly fun Marvel movie. Unlike the Hunger Games books, Ant-Man embraces its own goofiness in a way that’s a joy to see.

Ant-Man begins with Scott Lang feeling very small. This well-meaning ex-convict can’t keep a job or convince his ex-wife to let him spend time with their little girl. When Lang meets an old inventor named Hank Pym—he burgles Pym’s home, actually, but that’s not the point—Pym offers him “a shot at redemption,” meaning an opportunity to put on a high-tech suit, shrink to the size of an ant, and dive back into the life-or-death game of high-stakes burglary.

Look, if you’ve seen any recent Marvel movie, you know what to expect at this point. Ant-Man is full of quotable quips, flashy action scenes, and comic book lore, with a little sentimentality sprinkled here and there.

This time, however, there are two things to make the film stand out. First is an emphasis on father-daughter relationships. This motif isn’t developed as fully as a it could be, but it works. The second thing is that Ant-Man is basically a superhero heist movie, in the same way the first Captain America is a superhero war film and the second one is a superhero cold war thriller. Ant-Man isn’t about saving the world, but stealing stuff… to save the world, I guess.

It’s still a nice touch.

I really enjoyed Ant-Man. It nods at other movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe without depending on them, and I look forward to seeing Ant-Man in future films. Not bad for such a little guy.

The Big Lebowski

The Big LebowskiWith that, we move on from a small hero to a larger-than-life one in The Big Lebowski. Ironically, however, the film’s hero isn’t actually the Big Lebowski, but a slacker with the same name (I’ll call him the Lesser Lebowski) who loves bowling, booze, and tacking the word “man” to the end of nearly every sentence.

The Big Lebowski begins when thugs storm the home of Jeff Lebowski, a laid-back stoner known as “the Dude,”  and pee on his rug. It was a nice rug, man. It really tied the room together. The thugs threatened the Dude (and peed on his rug) under the impression he was “the Big Lebowski,” a millionaire with the same name. When the Dude takes his bowling buddies’ advice to seek compensation from the Big Lebowski for the rug, he becomes snared in a game of deception, violence, kidnapping, cursing, and postmodern art.

This movie is sort of a black comedy and sort of a noir crime film, but it’s mostly Jeff Bridges bowling, drinking, and wandering around Los Angeles. In the end, the film’s complex web of crime and deception unravels to reveal a whole lot of nothing, and I think that’s the point: there never was one.

This was quite an entertaining movie. It ain’t one for kids—it has bullets, boobs, and f-bombs beyond count—but for adults with a healthy sense of the absurd, The Big Lebowski is a treat.

Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?

Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a DungeonWell, is it?

The oddly-titled anime Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? is the tale of Bell, a nice young man who longs to become an adventurer—to impress the ladies, of course. He lives in a medieval fantasy town whose existence revolves around the eponymous dungeon: a labyrinth teeming with monsters. Adventurers join familias—guilds sponsored by gods or goddesses—and venture into the dungeon in a dangerous game for treasure and glory. In quest to become a dungeon-conquering hero, Bell accepts the sponsorship of a down-on-her-luck goddess named Hestia. This unlikely pair must work together for Bell to have any chance of becoming a master adventurer and impressing the ladies… well, one in particular.

I won’t lie, guys. This anime is incredibly dumb. Remember what I said about Ant-Man embracing its goofiness? This show does the same, but with roughly ten thousand times as much enthusiasm.

I mean, the anime’s opening theme has a momentary scene of Bell and Hestia brushing their teeth. Look at this. Look at it.

Toothbrush dance (GIF)

This is basically the entire show: dumb as all heck, but endearing in its silliness, with some gratuitous cleavage for good measure.

The world of Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? functions exactly like a video game (an MMORPG, to be precise) without actually being a video game. Its adventurers gain experience and level up—heck, they even have statistics (appearing as magical tattoos on their backs) reflecting their competency in various areas. Monsters respawn on a set timetable, and powerful creatures explicitly called bosses guard certain floors of the dungeon. The setting is instantly comprehensible to gamers, but at the cost of making absolutely no sense. Why do adventurers level up? What revives the monsters that respawn? What the heck is going on?!

(It is very faintly hinted that the gods and goddesses of ancient times created this video game-like world for their own enjoyment, but no real explanation is ever given.)

This is a show in which half the female characters have crushes on the hero, like Twilight in reverse, and most female adventurers wear stupid chain mail bikinis. I can’t defend or recommend this anime. It’s really, really dumb.

All the same, I kinda enjoyed it. Bell, who has a massive inferiority complex, is kind and friendly: a welcome change of pace from angsty or arrogant anime heroes. Hestia works odd jobs to support him, despite being, y’know, a goddess. The show seldom takes itself too seriously; the rare occasions it does are some of its weaker moments. For the most part, its good-natured goofiness made it fun to watch, if not intellectually rewarding.

Whisper of the Heart

Whisper of the HeartAt last we arrive at a film that not even I can pretend fits the vague “death game” theme of this Review Roundup: Whisper of the Heart. Because of this movie, John Denver’s all-American classic “Take Me Home, Country Roads” will forever remind me of urban Japan.

Shizuku is a bookish Japanese teen, sharing a cramped apartment with her family. She notices one day that all of her library books were previously checked out by someone named Seiji, and wonders who he might be. Shizuku later ends up at an antique shop. Its owner encourages her to pursue her passion for writing stories, and also introduces her to his grandson: the mysterious Seiji. As Shizuku’s love of writing grows, so does another kind of love.

Studio Ghibli is magnificent. Whisper of the Heart was one of the few Studio Ghibli films I had never seen, and I’m glad I finally watched it.

I’ll be honest: Whisper of the Heart is no masterpiece. Nah, it’s merely a touching, charming, beautifully-animated coming-of-age story with a scene that nearly brought tears to my cynical eyes. By lofty Studio Ghibli standards, this is merely a decent film. By any other standards, Whisper of the Heart is wonderful.

I enjoyed the film probably more than most people because I identify with Shizuku’s desire to write stories. I was Shizuku once, in a manner of speaking: young, naïve, hopeful, insecure, eager to share my stories, and scared no one would want to read them—or worse, that they wouldn’t be worth reading.

Whisper of the Heart has its fair share of sentimentality: far more, in fact, than nearly any other Studio Ghibli film. The movie lacks the effortless grace and emotional punch of the studio’s finest works… but there is one scene, in which several musicians strike up their instruments for a joyful, impromptu performance of “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” that brought me closer to crying than any film in recent memory (except Inside Out, of course).

It may not be as popular as Studio Ghibli’s other movies, but Whisper of the Heart is absolutely worth watching, especially if you’re an aspiring writer, a Studio Ghibli fan, or a fan of romance.

What books, films, shows, or video games have you enjoyed lately? Let us know in the comments!

Pokémon Is Really Dark

I’m not really a Pokémon guy, but this song will echo forever in the farthest corners of my memory. I suspect most millennials have this song embedded in their collective subconscious, in the same way most people in Generation X know all the words to the theme from Gilligan’s Island. It ain’t easy to escape pop culture.

Pokémon is a media franchise with a weird acute accent that no one actually pronounces. It’s all about kids setting out on adventures, befriending cute critters known as Pokémon, and overcoming obstacles in their journeys to become the best they can be.

I’m far from the first person to point this out, but Pokémon is actually rather grim.

Of course, Pokémon wants to be a fun adventure. However, when you begin to think about it, the series can be easily deconstructed into something far more sinister.

The original story of Pokémon starts with a single mother turning her ten-year-old boy out of her home. This child is given a dangerous monster, a Pokémon, as a slave pet. He immediately confines his new friend in a tiny ball, releasing it only to pit it against other Pokémon in violent battles. In some of these, the child forces his Pokémon to attack unsuspecting local wildlife; in others, he picks fights with other kids, beats their Pokémon senseless, and takes their money.

Our savage bully young hero wanders the world alone, despite being a vulnerable child whom any adult could easily harm. This foolhardy ten-year-old braves illness, injury, stormy weather, extreme cold, dark caves, biker gangs, and hordes of Pokémon, which he either beats into submission or captures, converts to data, and stores on a dusty computer somewhere. He also tries to bring down an entire syndicate of dangerous criminals.

This all sounds pretty bad, right? It gets worse. The hero of Pokémon isn’t a lone psychopath, endangering himself in his relentless quest to assault and capture innocent creatures. He is doing exactly what his society expects him to do. The world of Pokémon revolves around the endangerment of children and exploitation of animals.

Yes, I’m taking Pokémon way too seriously, and deconstructing it in ways its creators (probably) never intended. I actually kinda like Pokémon, though it’s far from my favorite thing in the world. (That would be coffee.) Nah, I just find it interesting how quickly such a cheerful story turns grim when viewed from a certain point of view.

369. Review Roundup: Fairy Tale Edition

Once upon a time, in the faraway land of Indiana, Adam the blogger enjoyed a number of whimsical stories and contemporary fairy tales. Here are his impressions of three animated films, a video game, and an anime: Inside OutBraveBrother Bear, Ni No Kuni, and Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun.

These are the stories of a plucky princess, an Inuit tribesman, a brave little boy, a Japanese manga artist, and the personifications of a girl’s emotions. Do they live happily ever after?

Let’s find out.

Inside Out

Inside Out

Inside Out brought me closer to weeping openly in a movie theater than any other film has done. (Fortunately, I have a heart of stone, sparing myself and my younger brother the embarrassment of annoying our fellow theatergoers.) This is a brilliant movie, and I have literally nothing bad to say about it.

Pixar’s Inside Out pictures the human mind as a control room operated by five engineers, each representing an emotion: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. In the mind of Riley, a girl from Minnesota, her emotions struggle to keep her happy as she moves with her parents to California. When an accident sends Joy and Sadness to the farthest reaches of Riley’s mind, these unlikely partners must make it back to the control center before Riley breaks down.

This film boasts the usual Pixar polish, with top-notch animation, writing, and performances. Beyond that, Inside Out is the first Pixar movie in years to feature a truly original concept. (Of the past four Pixar films, two were sequels, one was a prequel, and one had the style of a traditional fairy tale—more on that last one in just a bit.) The movie’s concept of the mind is creative, clever, and—importantly—consistent. The way the mind works in Inside Out isn’t hard to understand, and the film does a fine job of sticking to it.

As I hinted above, this is a film with emotional punch. Pixar has a gift for depicting emotion with heartfelt sincerity and simplicity: Carl’s irritable despondency in Up, the toys’ sense of loss in Toy Story 3, Mike’s resignation to his limitations in Monsters UniversityInside Out is quite literally a film about emotions, so you can bet it hits the viewer—at any rate, this viewer—with feels.

This is pretty much how I felt at the end of the film.

This is pretty much how I felt at the end of the film.

Inside Out is a fantastic film. Somewhere deep inside my mind, my sense of Joy is fiddling with whatever knobs and buttons affect my actions, willing me to recommend this film. Watch it. Your own sense of Joy will thank you.

Brave

Brave

Here’s another Pixar classic, this time telling the age-old story of a princess who falls in love with a prince and—what’s that? She doesn’t fall in love with a prince? Well, that’s different.

Brave is an original fairy tale. Set in Scotland, it tells the tale of a princess named Merida, who decides she doesn’t want to let her parents marry her off to any of the local chieftains’ sons. Merida tries to change her fate… and accidentally transforms her mother into a bear. Mother and daughter must shelve their pride, settle their differences, and somehow make things right.

The film’s independent, self-reliant heroine is a refreshing change of pace from the mild princesses of other fairy-tale movies, and I appreciate the way the Merida and her mother learn to understand, respect, and trust each other. Merida’s family is a colorful bunch. Even the chieftains and their sons, who could easily have been throwaway characters, have some personality.

As a Pixar movie, Brave doesn’t feel particularly, well, brave. It’s a fairy tale. Even with its feminist undertones and emphasis on family relationships, it treads a lot of familiar ground. It’s a fine film nevertheless, and I appreciate it as a deeper alternative to the princess-flavored romances Disney loves so much.

By the way, does the Scottish setting of Brave give anyone else flashbacks to How to Train Your Dragon? No? I guess it’s just me, then.

Brother Bear

Brother Bear

Here’s another animated movie about people turning into bears. Why do people keep turning into bears? I just can’t bear it. (I’m so, so sorry.)

Brother Bear is a Disney animated film from the early two thousands: that nebulous stretch of Disney history whose movies nobody remembers. In the film, an Inuit tribesman named Kenai seeks revenge on a bear that killed a loved one, and is turned into a bear for his trouble. He must go on a quest, and learn the power of love, and—y’know, forget it. If you’ve ever seen a Disney film, you know where this is going.

This is not a bad movie. The Canadian wilderness is a great setting, and Inuit culture is largely unexplored in pop fiction. The acting, animation, and story were all perfectly adequate. I just couldn’t help feeling that this film didn’t really need to be made. Brother Bear is an uninspired blend of other Disney movies. Its plot borrows heavily from The Emperor’s New Groove: a man turned into an animal finds a buddy and goes on a trip to regain his (literal and figurative) humanity. The film’s music channels the soundtrack of Tarzan, down to a song from Phil Collins. It’s all been done before.

Brother Bear does have its moments. A couple of moose with heavy Canadian accents wander in and out of the movie, providing comic relief and stealing every scene in which they appear. The movie lacks a traditional villain, which is a refreshing change from Disney’s usual black-and-white morality.

In the end, however, Brother Bear is nothing special. I recommend The Emperor’s New Groove instead: pretty much the same story, but much funnier.

Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

Ni No Kuni cover

Flipping heck, this game is amazing. I’ve already discussed the excellence of Ni No Kuni, so I’ll try not to ramble!

Ni No Kuni is a beautiful fairy tale. (It also happens to be a JRPG for the PlayStation 3.) It tells the story of Oliver, a little boy who sets out on a quest to save his mum. Accompanied by Drippy, the “Lord High Lord of the Fairies,” Oliver must mend broken hearts, defeat an evil jinn, and rescue a parallel world.

That world is one of the most charming and beautiful places I’ve seen in a video game. The look of Ni No Kuni was based on the work of the legendary Studio Ghibli, which handled the game’s animated cutscenes. This a lovely game. Apart from the cutscenes, which are nothing less than I expected of the Oscar-winning animation studio, the game itself is gorgeous.

I mean, look at it. Just look at it.

This is a gameplay screenshot, not an animated cutscene. This is what the game looks like. Ain't it pretty?

This is a gameplay screenshot. This is what the game looks like, more or less. Ain’t it pretty?

Ni No Kuni is visually appealing, but its excellence doesn’t stop there. The music, composed by renowned film composer Joe Hisaishi and performed by a live orchestra, is fantastic. Most importantly, the game is flipping fun to play.

The gameplay blends the fighting and adventuring of Final Fantasy games and the creature-catching of Pokémon. Oliver and his companions command familiars, adorable monsters that handle most of the fighting. Like Pokémon, familiars can be caught, trained, and metamorphosed into stronger creatures. Outside of battle, exploration is fun and sidequests abound.

Ni No Kuni even includes the full text of an original book, The Wizard’s Companion, which contains maps, spells, descriptions of familiars, old-fashioned illustrations, runes to decipher, and fairy tales. Yes, this fairy tale contains fairy tales of its own, and they’re delightful. In fact, The Wizard’s Companion is so good that I wish I owned a hard copy. As Oliver travels, he gathers the book’s scattered pages, unlocking more reading material.

Alas, Ni No Kuni is not quite perfect. It’s hard to read The Wizard’s Companion on a television screen, and flipping through its pages is a pain.

By far the biggest flaw of Ni No Kuni is its ending. Without spoiling anything, I must admit that it feels tacked on. The game reaches a satisfying conclusion, with Oliver reaching his goal and finishing his character arc… and then the game goes on for another four to six hours, limping doggedly to an anticlimax. Although the game’s final chapter answers some lingering questions, a little rewriting would have tied up those loose ends sooner, giving the game a stronger finish.

Despite its weak ending, this game is one of the finest I’ve ever played. RPGs aren’t for everyone, but for anyone with the patience, Ni No Kuni is a gem.

Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun

Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun

I can’t decide whether Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun is a heartwarming parody or a self-aware romantic comedy. Either way, it’s brilliant.

In Japan, there is a genre of manga (comics) called shojo. This genre is aimed at teenage girls, generally focusing on romance and emotional characters. Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun is the story of a high school student named Sakura. When she tries to confess romantic feelings for Nozaki, one of her classmates, he mistakes her for a fan of his work. You see, Nozaki—an analytical, unromantic wet blanket—is secretly the writer and artist behind a popular shojo manga series, Let’s Fall in Love. When Nozaki invites Sakura to be his assistant, she agrees, hoping to get closer to him.

This twelve-episode series is a hilarious deconstruction of romantic comedies. The eponymous Nozaki-kun is intrigued by romance, but only from an academic point of view. For example, he loves St. Valentine’s Day, but only because observing romantic couples gives him ideas for his manga series. The thought of actually being romantic never crosses his mind. This makes for some delightful moments when Sakura is convinced he is finally falling in love with her… only to realize he’s testing out ideas for his manga.

For example, Nozaki realizes it’s romantic for a man and woman to share a bicycle, but he doesn’t understand why. He tests the scenario repeatedly with Sakura, eventually acquiring a tandem bike and riding down city streets with Sakura reluctantly in tow. Once he figures out the most romantic method for sharing a bike, he reasons, he can use it in his story for optimal effect.

Romantic, I guess

This is romantic, right? Right?!

As Sakura becomes acquainted with Nozaki and his other assistants, she realizes how much of his manga is based on people she knows. For example, the heroine of Let’s Fall in Love is based on Mikoshiba, a flirtatious male friend of Nozaki’s who is secretly very insecure.

Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun deconstructs rom-com clichés, yet the series is never bitter or mean-spirited. I was also pleasantly surprised by the show’s family-friendly tone. Japanese anime is notorious for its inappropriate content. As I began this anime about high school romance, I resigned myself to the saucy innuendos and panty shots that plague other series. Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun rises above cheap lewdness, keeping things at a PG level. I found the show’s innocence added to its charm, which is already considerable.

Like many anime, this one offers fascinating glimpses into Japanese culture. I was particularly interested by the creative process of writing and drawing manga, which is gradually shown in the series as Nozaki enlists more assistants.

I highly recommend Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun to anyone who likes anime or romantic comedies. I’m not a particular fan of either, yet I really enjoyed it.

What books, films, shows, or video games have you enjoyed lately? Let us know in the comments!

President Obama, Anime Fan

Obama waifuOh, the Internet. Its wonders never cease.

It has become a running joke on the Internet that Barack Obama, the President of the United States of America, is a hardcore otaku obsessed with manga and anime. (For the sensible readers who keep a safe distance from geek culture: an otaku is an obsessive geek, manga is a style of Japanese comics, and anime is a kind of Japanese animation.) The Internet, in its vast and incomprehensible wisdom, has given the US President a fierce love of all things geeky and Japanese. His obsession with anime has been duly documented in a long series of (digitally altered) photos and GIFs.

Oval Office

Politics is a touchy subject. I know people who admire President Obama; I know people who think he might be the Antichrist. When it comes to a subject as volatile as the US president, it’s nice to see geeky jokes for a change instead of arguments, accusations, and insults.

Although his love of anime is just an Internet joke, President Obama did thank Japan (on behalf of America’s young people) for manga and anime. swear I am not making this up.

365. Collectible Card Games

A few days ago, as I chatted with a dear friend from Ecuador, our conversation turned to his brave but ill-fated attempts to teach me to play a collectible card game. Years ago in Quito, my friend and I sat down with colorful packs of Magic: The Gathering cards. He wanted to teach me to play; I wanted to learn to play. It seemed simple enough.

However, there were two things neither of us considered. That first is that I am easily distracted. The second is that I have a deplorable memory: especially in the case of rules and systems. As my friend, whom I’ll call Socrates, explained the rules of the game, I flipped through his cards, looking at the pretty pictures and reading incomprehensible bits and pieces of game instructions.

Magic The Gathering cards

The rules for most collectible card games are only slightly less comprehensible than Finnegans Wake. (I’m sorry; I can’t help making lit jokes occasionally.) The pictures are nice, though!

When Socrates and I tried playing a round of Magic: The Gathering, I asked him an average of thirty-seven questions per turn. We gave up in the end, opting for Mario Kart or Super Smash Bros. or some other game that wasn’t so far beyond my feeble intellect.

For years, I could hardly sit down at a table without having to brush away collectible cards. My friends in middle and high school collected cards from all kinds of games: Magic: The Gathering, which featured fantasy elements in the vein of Dungeons & DragonsPokémon, starring Nintendo’s cutesy Pocket Monsters; World of Warcraft, which had leaped from computers to tabletops; and Yu-Gi-Oh!, which featured the most egregious anime hair I have ever seen.

Yu-Gi-Oh! hair

Yu-Gi-Oh my gosh that hair is horrible.

I never got into collectible card games, except for a brief fascination with Pokémon cards as a kid. I went through what I can only call a Pokémon phase in fifth grade, in which I collected dozens and dozens of cards. I never learned the rules of the game, but that didn’t stop me from playing it with friends. Fortunately, my friends were as clueless as I, and our card games turned into anarchic free-for-alls with rules made up as we needed them. (It was sort of like Calvinball.)

I’m not sure what happened to all of my Pokémon cards. They probably slipped away to whatever inscrutable corner of the world swallowed up Amelia Earhart.

Pokemon cards

To this day, I have not forgotten the value of a holographic Charizard.

Since I finished high school, collectible cards seem to have vanished from my life, though news occasionally reaches me. I hear there’s a new My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic collectible card game making the rounds, and Magic: The Gathering seems to be doing well. World of Warcraft cards have been replaced by an online card game. The anime hair in Yu-Gi-Oh! is probably just as bad as it was eight years ago, but I’m too disinterested to find out.

I enjoy looking at them, but I don’t plan to buy collectible cards any time soon. My money must go to necessities like rent, gas, coffee, and food. Besides, my life is complicated enough without the unintelligible rules and instructions for card games! If I tried to learn all the rules to a new game, I would probably lose whatever sanity I have left, and end up eating grass like old Nebuchadnezzar. No card is worth that!

Well… a Charizard might be; I suppose it depends on whether it’s holographic.

335. About Storytelling: Christians Are Evil

Those Christians, I tell you! They’re all so evil. All of them! If you don’t believe me, just switch on the television or go to the movies. Hollywood proves that Christians are evil, because Christians are often depicted as villains, and the media is always right.

Right?

Seriously, though—why are Christians so often portrayed as horrible people in the media? Why are books, movies, TV shows, and video games full of perverted priests, prejudiced pastors, and sinister ministers?

Consider Warden Norton from The Shawshank Redemption, a film based on a story by Stephen King. (I haven’t read any of his books, but I’ve heard Stephen King uses Bible-thumping Christians as a lot of his villains.) Warden Norton is an awful person. He mistreats prisoners in his care, denies them justice, accepts kickbacks, murders people, and generally makes himself unpleasant. All the while, he quotes the Bible and assumes God is on his side.

Evil warden

God loves you, but Warden Norton will probably shoot you in the face.

Even when Christians in fiction aren’t evil, they’re often well-meaning but ignorant simpletons. Take Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I really enjoyed the series, but one episode irritated me. It was the episode featuring a Christian, and she was a bland, weepy, superstitious ditz.

Why are Christians portrayed so badly in the media? There are actually quite a few reasons.

It can be ironic or scary when a supposedly “good” person is evil.

There’s an artistic irony when a righteous person is actually wicked. It’s also pretty freaking scary. Who isn’t disturbed when a good person turns out to be a bad one?

Religious people have power and influence, which makes them great villains.

Priest and pastors have influence over groups of people. What happens when religious leaders are evil? They command the loyalty of their followers—even when that loyalty is innocent or well-intentioned. Religious leaders have power and authority, which can be easily turned to wicked ends.

Religious people sometimes do horrible things.

I hate to say it, but there’s a little truth in the portrayal of priests as pedophiles and preachers as charlatans. Christians, and people who call themselves Christians, have done some awful things. The media reflects that.

No secular media group wants to be accused of proselytizing.

Media groups exist to make money. Unless they produce religious media, these companies don’t want to be accused of pandering to Christians or spreading religious propaganda. Creating a genuinely Christian character puts media groups at risk of seeming to push a religious agenda. It’s safer to fall back upon familiar stereotypes like the evil or ignorant Christian.

Some religious traditions are spooky.

Have you ever stepped into an old-fashioned cathedral? You should try it. Little noises are echoed and magnified. Candles light the vast, empty gloom. Stained glass windows depict sad, soulless saints. Somber Christs hang in perpetual agony on crosses and crucifixes. Some Christian customs and traditions are frankly a bit creepy. They really build an atmosphere for villainy.

Some people just hate religion.

I’m looking at you, Philip Pullman.

As much as I understand these reasons for creating lousy Christian characters, I’m tired of the stereotypes. Am I the only one who thinks most depictions of Christians in the media are offensive? If other groups were so badly stereotyped, there would be outrage. Why is it socially acceptable to portray Christians as universally evil or ignorant?

It’s a problem, and I have two suggestions for resolving it.

First, do your research and create Christian characters that actually represent Christianity.

I’ve already touched upon this, but I’ll say it anyway: religious stereotypes are not only offensive, but usually incorrect. Joss Whedon, God bless him, understands this. Whedon is an atheist, yet he created a character named Shepherd Book who is genuinely Christlike.

Shepherd Book demonstrates a good understanding of Christian doctrines, and an equally good sense of humor. He is devout, patient, kind, and generous. To put it simply, Shepherd Book is represented by the media as a great character and a good Christian. It can be done.

The good Shepherd

Learn from the good Shepherd.

I’m not asking anyone in the media to create religious propaganda. I’m asking everyone in the media to create Christian characters that aren’t shameless hypocrites, greedy shysters, arrogant bigots, filthy perverts, sociopathic lunatics, or well-intentioned idiots. Is that really so much to ask?

Second, it’s perfectly fine to create characters that are evil Christians—just don’t be lazy about it.

I occasionally recommend an anime called Trigun. Set on an arid planet in the distant future, Trigun is basically the Old West in space. My favorite things about the show are its two main characters, Vash the Stampede and Nicholas D. Wolfwood, and their strained friendship.

Vash is an expert marksman, unbridled optimist, and wandering hero. He lives by a philosophy of “love and peace,” refusing to kill anyone. “Ain’t it better if we all live?” he asks.

Vash and his philosophy are tested by Wolfwood, an itinerant preacher who carries a literal cross wherever he goes. (When a bystander remarks that the cross is heavy, Wolfwood quips, “That, my friend, is because it’s so full of mercy.”) Despite his merciful profession, Wolfwood’s philosophy is a harsh one. There’s an Old Testament justice in his actions. He won’t hesitate to execute a bad man.

The bad shepherd

You do not want to cross this man. (Pun intended. I’m so, so sorry.)

The thing about Wolfwood is that he himself is a bad man. He drinks, smokes, sleeps around, and kills quite a number of people. (Wolfwood’s cross is actually a machine gun with compartments for handguns, which is either blasphemous or awesome.) Even his theology is flawed. However, in spite of his faults, Wolfwood is a complex character. He sees violence as a necessity, and regards the world’s evils (and his own) with determined resignation.

To put it simply, Nicholas D. Wolfwood is a good bad Christian. He manages to be a Christian and a bad person without ever becoming an insulting stereotype. It doesn’t take offensive clichés to portray Christians as bad people. It can be done.

Christians are generally depicted very badly in the media. That needs to change. Christians—even the bad ones—can be treated fairly, and they deserve to be.

The Ability to Pull Stuff from Nowhere

Art by iangoudelock on deviantART.

Art by iangoudelock on deviantART.

I’m sure you’ve seen it. As you watch a movie or play a video game, a character pulls out something from nowhere. Bugs Bunny and Wakko Warner reach behind their backs and bring out anvils or sledgehammers. Solid Snake and Link produce an endless assortment of gear and weapons from thin air. As Link demonstrates in the clever picture above, actually carrying around all that stuff is a physical impossibility.

The ability to pull stuff from nowhere is sometimes called the back pocket, a wry suggestion that the things characters pull from behind their backs were in their pants pockets the whole time. (This concept is particularly amusing in the case of characters that don’t wear pants.) In anime, the concept is called hammerspace. A comedic trope in Japanese animation is for characters to express anger by hitting something (or someone) with a large hammer produced from nowhere, making hammerspace the hypothetical place where all those hammers are kept.

The back pocket concept is usually played for comic effect in animation. Pinkie Pie, an exuberant character from a surprisingly awesome show about ponies, produces a wide assortment of items (including freaking cannons) from nowhere. Other characters know better than to question Pinkie’s defiance of physics.

In fact, when back pockets are used in any show or film, no one ever seems surprised.

In video games, back pockets are utilitarian rather than comedic in nature. The fact of the matter is that Link from the Legend of Zelda games needs his gear—all of it. Limiting his inventory would be a hindrance to the player, who would have to backtrack every time she needed something Link didn’t happen to be carrying at the moment. Constantly retrieving items, or plodding slowly under their weight, would be horribly annoying.

Thus Link carts around enormous shields and heavy explosives and iron-shod boots without any trouble. (Humorously enough, the iron boots only weigh down Link when he’s actually wearing them.) Solid Snake somehow sneaks through enemy territory burdened with cardboard boxes, sensor equipment and an entire arsenal of weapons (including massive rocket launchers). Every Final Fantasy character carries up to ninety-nine of every kind of weapon, armor and potion.

Where is all that stuff kept? Where does it come from?

Some questions, dear reader, are simply beyond answering.

The Legendary Hayao Miyazaki

Art by Orioto on deviantART.

Art by Orioto on deviantART.

Hayao Miyazaki. If you’ve never heard of him, you’re most likely wondering who he is and why he’s important. If you’ve seen any of his films, however, you’re probably one of two things: a fan of his work, or else a person allergic to joy, creativity and childlike wonder.

Miyazaki is a Japanese filmmaker and one of the most influential animators of all time. There are a lot of adjectives I could apply to Miyazaki’s movies—breathtaking and awe-inspiring come to mind—but the best word for them is beautiful. Hayao Miyazaki makes beautiful films.

Miyazaki’s work is notable for its thematic complexity as well as its stunning animation. The conflicts in his stories are seldom black-and-white clashes of good and evil, but subtler disputes among flawed characters. Environmentalism, feminism and Japanese folklore are woven throughout Miyazaki’s movies—along with airplanes and airships, for some reason.

Miyazaki and his colleagues founded Studio Ghibli, the animation company behind movies such as My Neighbor TotoroKiki’s Delivery Service, Academy Award-winning Spirited Away and my all-time favorite film Castle in the Sky. (Studio Ghibli’s mascot is the adorable Totoro.) Miyazaki’s latest movie, The Wind Rises, was just released in the West and I want to see it so much.

This is supposedly Miyazaki’s final feature before his retirement, but I hope he continues working. He has “retired” at least two or three times since the release of Princess Mononoke, his first “last film,” in the late nineties. Whether or not he keeps making movies, his creativity and vision will continue to influence filmmakers all over the world.

Consider John Lasseter, director of classics like Toy Story and chief creative officer at Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios. Lasseter declared of Miyazaki’s work, “It is unbelievable, it is hand-drawn animation at its finest. Unbelievable.” (May it also be known that Toy Story 3 included a plush Totoro as an homage to Miyazaki.) Thanks to Lasseter and the good folks at Disney, Studio Ghibli’s films have escaped the hack localization and lousy dubbing from which so many foreign films suffer. The American versions of Studio Ghibli’s films are superb.

If you like animated movies and/or have a soul, I recommend watching at least one of Studio Ghibli’s films. Castle in the Sky is an epic fantasy adventure; My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service are slow, gentle family films; Grave of the Fireflies, directed by Isao Takahata, will break your heart; Spirited Away is Japan’s lovely answer to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; and Porco Rosso stars a flying pig. (Hey, don’t laugh! The hero of Porco Rosso is a legendary fighter pilot, thank you very much.) Watch just one of these films. Everyone needs a little Studio Ghibli.

Better yet, watch all of these movies!

5. Anime Hair

In my middle school days, it seemed that everyone had spiked hair. Well, by everyone I mean many of the boys. I did know a girl with spiked hair—it was actually quite a good look—but the fashion was almost exclusive to the males of the species. I even tried spiking my hair once, a dreadful mistake that I’m still trying to block out of my memory.

It would be much more convenient to have naturally spiky hair. People have naturally wavy or curly hair. Why not naturally spiky hair? Sadly, spiky hair is not a gift God has given humankind. Perhaps spiky hair is a gift we lost when we sinned against God at the beginning of the world. Could Adam and Eve have had naturally spiky hair in the Garden of Eden?

I guess I’ll save that theological question for another time.

Spiky hair seems to be a requisite for anime, or Japanese animation. This prompts a number of questions. Do anime characters take time to style their hair, or is it naturally spiky? If it’s naturally spiky, what are the theological implications? Are characters with spiky hair holier than characters without spiky hair?

Another common tendency of anime hair is to be creatively colored. Anime characters have black, brown or blond hair like the rest of the human race. They also have blue, green or purple hair. Explanations are never given for these unusual colors. Viewers are left to assume that anime characters either dye their hair or possess highly irregular genes.

I read somewhere that the trend toward odd hair colors began with manga, or Japanese comics. These comics were printed without colored ink, restricting a character’s hair color to black, white or a shade of gray. The covers of the comics, however, were printed in color. In order to visually distinguish characters as much as possible, comic artists gave their characters vividly colored hair. This tendency toward unnatural colors passed from manga to anime, thereby accounting for the brilliant shades of pink and indigo that brighten the hair of certain characters.

The really striking thing is how natural spiky or vividly colored hair seems in Japanese anime. Viewers tend not to think twice about a character with spiky blue hair.

Of course, there are a lot of strange things in Japanese anime that viewers tend not to think twice about. Like the characters (usually females) with furry ears and whiskers who possess a vague resemblance to cats, and the innate ability of some characters to produce large hammers from thin air, and the inexplicable ubiquity of pandas.

Strong Bad was right. Japanese cartoons are weird, man.