Blankets Review

Blankets Review 

Story and Art by Craig Thompson

Published by Top Shelf Productions: July 23, 2003

Summary:

Blankets follows Craig through his most impressionable stages. We explore sibling rivalry in rural Wisconsin, the importance of faith, its destructive capabilities and the budding romance of adolescent love. Our protagonist must come to terms with his life, and the decisions he must make, even if he must persists alone.

Blankets was a classic case of “how come I didn’t read this sooner?” It sat idly on my bookshelf for a whole month before I picked it up, which now leads to feeling of intense frustration and self loathing. It is without a doubt the best graphic novel I’ve read.

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What I found most fascinating about this piece was its depiction of inner conflict between religion and reality. Following a religion devoutly requires a lot of commitment, but the real challenge comes from integrating with others who do not share the same beliefs. Throughout the piece, Craig finds himself caught between a life his religion and family want for him and the life his peers seem to be living. He has to constantly question his beliefs when exposed to conflicting behaviours, and must decide whether his religious beliefs are justified or would only result in missed opportunities. This causes intense panic attacks, depression and self loathing. While my experience being caught between cultures is limited, I completely empathise with Craig. While some may find these scenes unnecessarily frustrating, it’s important to understand that rejecting beliefs that are so heavily grounded in your life is an incredibly daunting task. If you begin to question small aspects of your belief system, slowly the foundations of your reality begin to crumble and you find yourself in an existential void. Thompson depicted this process perfectly in Blankets. It’s also important to remember that this is a piece about young-adulthood. To ignore the angst that is produced in this stage would lead to an overlooked aspect of an incredibly important life stage. While angst is a common concept in all mediums, the addition of religious overtones created a fresh perspective on the area, and truly emphasised how harmful objective beliefs can be in a subjective world.

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Another outstanding aspect of this piece was its depiction of teen relationships, and the intense passion that emanates from the romance. After meeting at bible camp, and falling in love, we find our characters in the “honeymoon stage”. Their relationship is completely removed from the external world, and nothing can somber their connection. Thomson emphasises this stage by contrasting it with the difficulties other characters are experiencing congruently. Raina’s parents are undergoing a divorce, her sister needs full time care due to a disability and her sister seems too immature to provide her child with the attention it needs. Craig’s parents seem just as damaged, and use guilt as a method to control him. These facts don’t impede on the relationship at all. In fact, Raina jokingly asks Craig to drop out of school and move in with her so they can take care of her sister and niece. However, as reality begins to seep into their relationship, they are forced to maintain it in the real world, and issues in their naive plans begin to show. The development of their relationship, and the compromise between intense passion and reality lead to fleeting moments of beauty within these incredibly self-involved and highly obsessive relationships. It also provides a relationship that is inherently difficult, emphasising that love is not always synonymous with simplicity. Compromise is necessary. This is not a story, however, that only focuses on romantic relationships. It also explores the connection between siblings, friends, and god.

 

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The art of Blankets is just breathtaking. It somehow stays incredibly simple while being rich in detail. The complex depictions of love, torment and dreaming were a pleasure to experience, and it would take hours to extract all the symbols. As a primary reader of manga, one thing that disinterested me about western comics was the art style. After reading this piece, I had to reconstruct my beliefs on art in general, providing me with a whole new genre to explore. 

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The pacing of Blankets was so perfect that I found myself completely immersed in the story. I felt like an omnipresent figure within this universe, observing the beautifully complex relationships between all of the inhabitants. While there was one overarching story, Thompson breaks up the plot by switching between his childhood and young adulthood. This not only adds greater depth to the characters, but allows the reader to understand the origin of his beliefs, and how they ultimately affected the decisions he made during the later acts. I would have liked more of an explanation about Craig’s beliefs in the last chapter of the piece, but I suppose they can be inferred from the various conflict throughout the piece. It made the piece an utterly addicting experience, and while I wasn’t reading Blankets all the time, from the moment I picked it up, it was all I thought about. And here I am, a week later, and a day hasn’t gone by where I haven’t thought about it.

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Blankets is not just a phenomenal graphic novel. It’s a phenomenal creation that explores a variety of themes which most people have experienced in some sense. Whether it’s questioning beliefs, developing passionate relationships or wading through life with utter uncertainty, this piece uses a beautiful art style and unique perspectives to depict life in a startlingly human way. Everything it set out to do it achieved. Ultimately, it was not created to tell a story of intense nobility or to challenge the boundaries of the medium. It was created to depict an important aspect of life, at an important stage in time. And it’s done perfectly. Everyone should have the pleasure of reading this piece. Everyone.

Art -10

Story – 9.5

Writing -10

Overall – 9.8/10

 

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Good Bye Review

Good Bye

Story and art by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

Published in English by Drawn and Quarterly (2008, 1 volume)

Created during 1971-72

Just to give you an idea on how important this piece is to me, if I had read Good Bye before I made my Top 10 manga list it would have been up there. Yoshihiro Tatsumi is, without a doubt, the greatest mangaka to have ever graced this earth (in my opinion). His ability to tell cohesive, yet extremely challenging stories makes his work a pleasure to read, ponder, re-read and then discuss with others. As soon as this piece arrived on my door step, I immediately read through all of it within an hour. When I put the book down, I was overcome with a feeling I had never felt before; I was more excited to re-read it than my initial read, because I realised I had experienced something truly special. Sure, some of his characters are overly-negative and underdeveloped, but the progressive themes and outstanding imagery Tatsumi utilises more than make up for it.

In order to do this piece justice, I’m going to break down each of the short stories, and discuss why they are, for the most part, outstanding. However, there was a slight decline in quality towards the end. The primary theme Tatsumi explores in this piece is the repression of Japanese society, particularly in a post-war setting.

  1. Hell

During a visit by Prime Minister Eisaku Satō to the 25th Hiroshima Peace Memorial, Koyanagi, a photographer, recalls an assignment he was sent on after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. This is not only the best story in this book, but the best short story I’ve read in any medium. It was full of powerful imagery, gruesome details, and a stark reminder of humanity’s evil. The plot twist within it was the most shocking revelation I’d ever experienced. If you decide not to read this manga, at least find this story and read it, you won’t regret it.

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2. Just a man

The protagonist is a salaryman who loathes his wife, a figure of disparagement and emasculation. He decides to cheat on her,  and blow his retirement package on gambling to spite her. A very morbid story about unfulfillment and regret, it’s surprisingly terrifying. The idea that our lives, ultimately, can be unsuccessful and devoid of happiness is a stark reminder about the unpredictability of existence.

3. Sky burial

The protagonist, believing he is being pursued by crows, secludes himself in his home, dropping out of college and breaking up with his girlfriend. While his paranoia increases, his ability to differentiate between reality and his delusions decreases. This disenfranchisement from outer society is Tatsumi’s first portrayal of a younger person. While reading through it, the protagonist’s indifferent stature cannot mask his inner angst about the direction of his life, and the feelings of loneliness that encircle him. An interesting read with parts I could identify with.

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4. Rash

A sixty-year old retired salaryman lives alone in a hut alongside a river. He develops a recurring rash which he discovers to be psychosomatic (caused by mental factors). His journey to cure his ailment, as well as his interactions with other passersbys makes up the core of the plot. It’s a bittersweet story of self-growth, determination and acknowledgement of flaws (after all, we are human). The symbolic ending hints to sexual repression, which is touched on in more extreme measures later in the piece.

5. Woman in the mirror

A salaryman comes back to his old town and recalls an incident involving an effeminate school mate who liked to cross dress. A challenging piece that explores both status and expectations from society, it focuses on the rigid beliefs around how men should act. Interestingly, Tatsumi draws the cross-dressed character as very beautiful, perhaps in an act of progressive social challenge. For the time it was written, I was very surprised at how psychologically advanced it was, providing a story frighteningly realistic, and portraying an experience I don’t doubt happened during a time of repression and conservatism in Japanese history.

6. Night falls again

A lonely factory worker spends his time watching strip teases in new town. This piece, while not spectacular, embodies Tatsumi’s favourite theme to explore; the sexual repression of post war Japanese society. It was enjoyable, but around this point of the collection, the stories become slightly repetitive, with no powerful imagery or story to differentiate them from each other.

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7. Life is so sad

A bar hostess waits for her husband to get out of jail, fending off advancing customers in order to remain faithful. However, he does not trust her, causing frustration and inner turmoil within her. This was the weakest piece in my opinion, with a relatively uninteresting plot. There may have been themes explored, but they were white-washed versions of previous stories.

8. Click click click

A man who has been successful at the stock market spends his time doing volunteer work. He also has a shoe fetish, and pays women to wear and emasculate him using them. Another piece that explores the hidden sexuality of Japanese society. While “night falls again” focuses more on the existence of sexual repression in Japanese society, this story attempts to depict the people it effects. By emphasising the good deeds of the protagonist, the reader is unsure as to whether his lude acts should alter our opinion of him, ultimately questioning whether it should question character at all.

9. Good bye

Mariko is a prostitute serving American soldiers at the end of world war 2. Her tragic cycle of falling in love with soldiers who eventually leave her culminates into a disgust for men, including her dead beat father. For a title piece, I was slightly disappointed. On my first read, that is. After reading it multiple times, I began to understand its significance. For one, it highlights the monopoly America had over Japan post WWII, with Japanese civilians serving the Americans. The repression felt by the Japanese builds up, and is usually let out through perverted acts. Mariko’s wish to be taken from her shack to America represents a resentment for her father and Japan, whose loss of the war has led to her dilapidated lifestyle. A highly interesting piece which could illicit hours of academic debate, with each theme unraveling decades worth of historical events.

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Yoshihiro Tatsumi retains his classic art throughout all his stories, harassing the classic “Gekiga” style. His style is relatively simple, relying on accurate portrayal of movement and fascinating stories to balance his pieces. While usually outstanding, it did suffer when used in a short story context, with certain protagonists looking very similar. It was obvious that the themes the story explored were more important than the characters themselves, but a more memorable cast would have nonetheless made piece more captivating.

It’s incredibly hard to do Good Bye justice in the form of a short review. Each short story, between 20-50 pages long, could have a 1000 word essay written on its story and themes alone. Aside from Tatsumi’s other piece “A drifting life”, this is the greatest one volume of manga I’ve ever read. If you want an incredibly immersive experience, where you are intrigued, challenged and horrified in a series of enjoyable stories (which should be everyone!), this is a must read. However, its dark and disparaging demeanour may put off the causal reader.

Art – 9

Story – 9

Writing – 9

Overall – 9/10

Image sources: https://www.mycomicshop.com/search?TID=23538537, http://www.heystorytellers.com/my-year-of-comics-good-bye-by-yoshihiro-tatsumi/, https://www.lambiek.net/artists/t/tatsumi_yoshihiro.htm, http://www.hoodedutilitarian.com/2011/02/reconsidering-tatsumi/

 

Tropic of the Sea Review

Tropic of the Sea (Kaikisen)

Story and Art by Satoshi Kon

Originally published by Kodansha (1 volume, 1990)

Synopsis:

This story is set in the town of Amide, a place where a sacred pact was said to have been made between a Shinto priest and a mermaid. This pact has been honoured by priests for generations, and the village has seen prosperous fishing seasons ever singe. However, this legend has attracted both media and property developers, and the acting priest has succumbed to their demands. Yosuke, youngest of the Yashiro family, has doubts about the existence of the mermaid, but will soon change his opinion as strange occurrences begin to unfold. 

Tropic of the Sea is one of the rare Satoshi Kon titles that finds itself overlooked. Sure, its story of “a seaside town fighting off modernisation in order to save the environment” feels like a cliche, but Kon makes it so enjoyable that I forget I’ve experienced certain plot points before. Not to say that it’s necessarily different, but the way that the same is presented still feels unique in its own special way.

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While they are separate mediums, I genuinely felt like I was experiencing a movie. It read like a classic mid 90’s animated movie; the reader is introduced to the protagonist and his lifestyle, including his own struggles (the “micro-issues”) that must be overcome in order to develop positively as a person. As the protagonist becomes familiar with side characters, they usually link him to an issue outside his life, one with much higher stakes (town, village, world, ect.). In solving the major problem, he also solves the micro issue (he becomes brace, selfless, ect), thus concluding the story on a high.

In regards to storytelling, Kon was not attempting to challenge his readers. There were no controversial themes explored, nor were there abstract storytelling techniques implemented. It is very much a linear story where what you see is what you get. Aside from, of course, “the manga about the monster actually proves humans are the real monsters” theme. While it does touch on the battle between industrialisation and tradition in modern Japan, it’s very biased. The small village represents tradition, with its literal tradition of keeping the mermaid’s egg safe leading to warm weather and safety all year round, while the evil modernisation intends to commercialise the town and strip it of its identity. It would be interesting to see a more fair representation of modernisation, though it may not have fit this manga’s narrative. Its unchallenging story isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sure, a lot of the manga doesn’t stick out to me because of this fact, but I still really enjoyed it in the moment.

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The art in this piece is spectacular. While no where close to Kon’s best work, his ability to use both minimalistic portrayals and detailed shots effectively proves he is one of the best artists the medium has seen. His technique also hints at experience in animation; while some scenes aren’t drawn in incredible detail, Kon is able to portray movement with frightening accuracy. In particular, his ability to draw characters floating or swimming in the water, using intricate positioning of joints and limbs was very impressive. His depiction of the mermaids was also awe inspiring. I never would have thought to draw them the way he did, but it shows why he’s the genius and I’m merely writing about him. When the protagonist finally interacts with one, and after 200 pages of buildup, I felt a series of emotions; awe, fear, tranquility and wonder.

Kon’s biggest set back in presenting a linear story is linear characters. It would have been more difficult to create complex characters presenting the narrative in the way he did, and it shows. Most people within this world aren’t incredibly fleshed out, with really their moral affiliation (good or bad) and maybe one other trait summing up their development. I was particularly disappointed with the protagonist, who looked so generic I can’t remember a single thing about him. It didn’t affect my reading, but in hindsight leaves me with a blank cast list in my mind.

Tropic-of-the-Sea_0005.jpg Continue reading “Tropic of the Sea Review”

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind Review

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Release date: 11 March 1984

Relation to Ghibli: Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Produced by Isao Takahata

Synopsis:

Far in the future, after an apocalyptic conflict, dubbed the “7 days of fire”, has devastated much of the world’s ecosystem. The few surviving humans, now divided into warring factions, live in scattered semi-hospitable environments within what has become a “toxic jungle.” Princess Nausicaä lives in the arid Valley of the Wind and can communicate with the massive insects that populate the dangerous jungle. Under the guidance of the veteran warrior, Lord Yupa, Nausicaä works to bring peace back to the ravaged planet, while other intend to destroy it.

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It’s hard to tell a compelling story. It’s also hard create an expansive universe. Miyazaki manages to do both superbly in Nausciaa of the Valley of the Wind. Technically, this movie was created before Studio Ghibli debuted, but it could still be one of their strongest films yet.

Having written the source material (manga series) for this film added extreme clarity and substance to the piece. The characters are incredibly fleshed out, and Miyazaki has made creating a plethora of deep, individual characters look easy. However, using a 7-volume manga as the backbone of this film did have issues. Like with most adaptations, turning a book or comic series into a movie means cutting out parts which are (usually) either pointless in regards to the film’s direction or extra development that is deemed unnecessary. Towards the second half of the film, there was a rapid introduction of characters, countries and factions, which complicated the world more than it “filled it out”. It would have been difficult to summarise everything he had created in his manga, but Miyazaki’s pacing made the film sometimes sporadic and confusing, even being hard to enjoy in some instances. Much like Lupin, I found myself in a situation where I couldn’t look away without missing an important piece of information, with little time to soak up what I’d just experienced. With that being said, pacing is the only issue I had with this film.

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As the film begins, we are immediately thrown into a new world full of faded scenery, polluted atmospheres and incredibly hostile inhabitants. The viewer is then introduced to the protagonist, Nausicaa, her interaction with the environment and some insight into this world’s geography. While it may sound like a lot, it never felt overwhelming. In fact, I loved the opening, and its title sequence. The addition of ancient art and mythic flashbacks added depth to the world without outright telling the viewer its history, leaving the audience curious as to how deep, and how far back this world goes. This intrigue is weaved throughout the entire film, as it only becomes more and more complex. Gazing into the beautiful, yet terrifying toxic jungle, I was always curious as to what other creatures inhabited these awe inspiring environments.

This is the first time I’ve written a review where I’ve used the term “faultless”. But there is no better way to describe Miyazaki’s art in this film. Starting with the characters, most costumes were simple yet effective; being used to emphasise class or their nation’s advancement advancement in technology. It became clear after looking at the villages that despite living in a time of technological advancement, they had been knocked back by the “seven days of fire”, an apocalyptic war that effectively destroyed civilisation. Nausicaa is simple in design too, but the use of the blue colour attaches a more regal atmosphere around the young princess. What makes Nausicaa’s art probably the greatest is the depth that each environment holds. The viewer is never just looking at a still forest, or barren desert. The animation makes it very clear that they are complex ecosystems, rich with organisms. In that way, the audience adds extra detail to the art with their mind, envisioning what remains hidden, meaning the animators didn’t have to overcomplicate designs.

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There are many themes present in this film that can now be considered Ghibli staples:

The relationship between humans and their environment. Miyazaki is the biggest proponent that the two aren’t separate entities, rather inseparable parts of the universe. This connection should be respected, and we should coexist in harmony. Personally, I believe this theme is best explored in this film. The director’s feelings towards environmentalism are embodied in most of his characters. While Nausicaa technically holds the role of princess, the protagonist considers herself a pacifist-warrior, more concerned with uniting the world as opposed to a single kingdom. It’s classic tale of how, while it seems like the inhuman creatures are the monsters, mankind is the real toxic waste. As if it were an homage to his childhood, Miyazaki loves implementing both the good and evil of adulthood, as if to say “sometimes grown ups just don’t get it”. Yet, there really aren’t and heroes all villains; just conflicting viewpoints. This is another theme Ghibli enjoys utilising; having a protagonist unite conflicting views through an act of courage in order to shed light on a more serious issue, usually being linked to the environment.

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This film also debuts Ghibli’s most popular character archetype; a young, intelligent female protagonist who exercises kindness in even the most dire of circumstances. That isn’t to say that Nausicaa is perfect. The viewer witnesses her struggle to balance both her responsibilities as the princes in the Valley of the wind as well as her connection to the toxic jungle. She must battle, and even kill opposing kingdoms which causes intense inner conflict within her. It’s not her actions that the audience judge her for; it’s her attempts to uphold her morals even in the most dire of circumstances. Instead of ditching her morals when things get tough, she clings onto them tighter, which wins her the love of not only her kingdom, but the viewers.

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When reading the story on pen and paper, it sounds almost horror-ish. While the themes seem common enough (both in the ghibli catalogue and anime in general), exploring environmental issues, the evils of humanity and the morality of the universe, it’s still surprisingly dark. I was shocked, when scanning my shelf, to see that this film had a lower movie rating (G) than Princess Mononoke (M). Yet, Miyazaaki’s ability to inject his protagonists with optimism leaves the audience with a sense of hope and confidence, even in the most grim situations. This unadulterated innocence cannot be found in any of the adult characters; it lies solely within child characters, like a special trait that only the younger viewers can empathise with. It almost seems like the director is talking directly to the children, knowing that they would be the only ones to get it.

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The music in Nausicaa is incredibly atmospheric. Joe Hisaishi does a fantastic job of not only creating a compelling scoresheet, but producing music that is distinctive to this film. Each song is both beautiful and tragic simultaneously. You feel a great sense of wonder when flying over the toxic jungle, but also a sliver of hopelessness. The song “Requiem”, which features a child singing is a personal favourite of mine. It’s incredibly haunting, and it stays with you even once the film has ended. It added a layer of importance to the flashback scenes it meshed with, and did an excellent job at building up tension.

Nausicaa of the valley of the wind is an excellent piece of animation, and it’s no wonder that it would later spawn Studio Ghibli. It’s impressive use of visuals, music and story create a compelling story, though nothing morally complex. I would have liked to see a slower pacing, though it would have been difficult to explore all facets this piece did. A must watch for any fan of animation, as its historical significance is un-refutable.

Art – 10

Story – 9

Writing – 8

Overall – 9/10

Image sources:

https://www.moviepilot.de/movies/nausicaae-prinzessin-aus-dem-tal-der-winde/images/54617, http://www.blu-ray.com/movies/Nausicaa-of-the-Valley-of-the-Wind-Blu-ray/10049/, https://www.mfah.org/calendar/nausicaa-valley-wind, http://www.neoverso.com/1984/03/spoilers-nausicaa-in-valley-of-wind.html?m=0, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wRZ5JalHjhs, http://www.ifccenter.com/films/nausicaa-of-the-valley-of-the-wind/, https://www.fathomevents.com/events/studio-ghibli-fest-nausicaa-of-the-valley-of-the-wind?video_id=XGSt0xCdXEI

Portus Review

Portus

Story and Art by Jun Abe

Originally Published by Shogakukan (2006, 1 volume)

Synopsis:

Portus follows the 17-year-old high school student Asami Kawakami, who’s friend, Chiharu, has, effectively, disappeared. She no longer answers her phone calls, or even comes to school. She has become obsessed with Portus, an old video game she found under mysterious circumstances. There is an urban legend that a secret level resides within the game. In it, a boy will appears and ask if you want to go to the other side. If you say yes, you will die. When Chiharu commits suicide, slicing her own throat Asami and the arts club teacher, Keigo Sawa, set out to find out the truth behind the legend and the destruction it’s caused.

Portus was the first horror manga I ever read, and going in, I had already made assumptions about the entire genre. I believed that manga would be the least effective medium for the horror genre; without the accompaniment of sound or uncontrolled pacing, the reader would not have the feeling of dread that comes with experiencing frightening situations you have no control over. While not the best horror manga out there, Portus was good enough to dispel those beliefs I had, proving that the manga art style suits horror, and that a well paced piece can result in many sleepless nights.

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Portus uses a common theme in its attempt to establish the “monster” of the piece; the utilisation of multi-media. “The Ring” is a well known example of this technique, with its ghoulish character crawling out of the TV when a certain video is played. The same idea is used in Portus, though the short film is replaced with a video game. While some may find this idea tacky, it was what originally interested me in this piece. Due to a video game’s unrestricted possibilities, with an infinite amount fictitious universes to choose from, the reader has no idea what creatures may reside within it, and therefore enter, our world. I felt a build up of tension within myself, and much like the characters, slowly felt a break down of reality. I was unable to separate what was real, what had come from the game, and what their normal life had felt like. The fact that these supernatural characters came from within a video game also made a bit more logical sense, and also played with most of the reader’s fears (as it wouldn’t be surprising that most own some form of video game console).

The art in Portus is what immediately changed my perception on horror manga. The horrifically  detailed images left me shocked on my first read. The vivid imagery in this manga is as intriguing as it is graphic, accomplishing more terrifying scenes than a digitised movie monster ever could. You have been warned; there are some incredibly unsettling and gory moments in this piece, depicting suicide, lacerations, stabbings and sexual assault. It became apparent at times that Abe opted to fill plot points with gore instead of content, a pretty harmful technique that’s utilised primarily by below average horror stories. While Abe should be commended for his outstanding artistry, sometimes he does rest on his laurels.

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Unfortunately, there’s a reason that this manga looks so good on pen and paper; all tropes of the horror genre are weaved into this one-shot throughout the course of its story. Possessed children, haunted burial grounds, creepy rural towns, crazy old men, the cliches go on and on. The author clearly has an affinity for groundbreaking horror creations, however he didn’t use these ideas to create new and challenging pieces; he just recycles them in a clumsy highlight reel. The disappointing ending embodies the direction of this piece. The inclusion of an out of date, pop-psychology monologue as a solution to a mystery that resulted in the death of many people seems more ridiculous than profound.

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For the most part, Portus was a highlight reel of all horror cliches that have surfaced over the last 30 years. It’s a love letter from Abe to all those pieces that inspired him to create Portus, however, he responded to his inspirations by recycling their effective parts, ruining his own manga in the process, as the reader could have predicted the plot line of the story 10 years ago. It’s a shame, if he had created an original piece that challenged the horror genre, it would have been as fondly remembered as its predecessors.

Art – 8

Story- 6

Writing – 6

Overall – 6.5/10

Image sources:

http://ramenparados.com/manga/portus/, https://aminoapps.com/c/anime/page/blog/mang-manhwa/Gwtn_uLr8aMoP30LeNBljKe5dBzV6N, https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/296041375485306401/

The Importance of the 7th Generation in the Pokemon Series

The most recent Pokemon games, Ultra sun/moon have been out for a while now, and as far as remakes go they are pretty standard (in a good way). They seek to add extra content and story to their predecessors, with many graphical and technical updates. However, as I progressed further through the game, and thought back to my experiences with Sun/Moon, I’ve realised that the seventh generation of Pokemon has added more than a new layer of paint, attempting to fix one imbalance present in all other instalments of the 21 year old series.

It’s no secret that the Pokemon games have changed very little over the last decade. The core mechanics have remained almost identical, each generation usually offering little more than a graphical update to the last. This repetitious cycle has deterred many fans from playing more recent instalments, fearing their money is going towards the same game they’ve played numerous times before. However, there have been some standout features added over the years that have left fans craving more; 2009’s Heart Gold and Soul Silver allowed the first Pokemon in a player’s party to follow them in the external world. The sixth generation saw the introduction of Pokemon amie, a feature that allows the player to interact with their Pokemon outside of battle, grooming them and feeding their favourite monsters with treats. But what made these features so great? And what additions did the newest titles bring that were so important? – Because they emphasised and important relationship rarely developed in Pokemon games (ironically), the bond between trainer and Pokemon outside of battle.

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The most important addition to the 7th generation is a more balanced relationship between the Pokemon, players and their environment. Each generation primarily focuses on the protagonist, as they battle other trainers and attempt to defeat gym leaders, rivals and evil organisations in order to prove that they are the best trainer in the region. In most storylines, the only important Pokemon are the “legendaries”, who are dormant until the last hour of the game. Further, As Pokemon are rarely seen outside of battle, they don’t seem to interact with their environment either. After playing ultra sun/moon and then going back to play black/white, the differences in Pokemon interaction, and therefore world building, is quite staggering.

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In Sun, Moon and their sequels, more emphasis is placed on the Pokemon, and the roles they have within their environment. The player sees multiple cutscenes of various Pokemon running around the world, inhabiting various niches of the world, making the environments feel rich with diversity. Some environments have Pokemon sprites added within them, reinforcing the fact that I was co-existing with other organisms outside my own species (even if it was just background art that I can’t interact with). The addition of totem Pokemon as boss battles emphasised an intricate relationship between these creatures and their environment, where the strongest of the bunch become leaders of the pack. It’s now important to understand the different Pokemon on each route, because interacting and defeating them is necessary in order to progress throughout the game. I genuinely believed I was exploring a world full of diverse, wondrous creatures that I could run into at anytime. 

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Further, smaller game mechanics that have been developed in previous generations have been perfected in order to mimic an interactive environment. Pokemon that run at you in the grass and burrow towards you in caves can provide interesting and sometimes (if you’re unprepared) startling experiences. Flying Pokemon can attack you from the skies, while others are perch strategically in the trees. Even though they don’t necessarily add any significance to the plot, their implicit presence really made me believe I was sharing this world with the Pokemon. In previous games, these encounters were still marked, but the sprites were less refined. You can also swim, ride and fly on specific Pokemon, and while there is only one choice for each, it makes the scenarios less jarring than using a blue blob as your companions (as used in previous instalments). While an improvement in graphics does have some part to play in these engrossing experiences, the focus on Pokemon is apparent, and changes the dynamic, and in some instances, the goals a trainer will have while playing the game.

The addition of Pokemon calling for help is also an interesting mechanic. By adding more complex behaviours in the mix, GameFreak has allowed its creatures to develop even more unique traits, (more timid Pokemon are more likely to call for help) adding realism to what were once just colourful sprites.

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After adding advanced Pokemon behaviours and fresh concepts in this generation of Pokemon games, what should Nintendo do in order to make the next game in the series less repetitive? For one, they need to change certain structural templates they use when designing their games. In the seventh generation, the concept of trials instead of gym battles felt more fluid and made the game feel fresh and unique. Those types of innovative ideas need to be utilised, as opposed to adding an extra powerful move to the mix and using that as a selling point for a new game.

As I’ve previously stated, an engrossing Pokemon game relies on its most appealing concept; Pokemon. If the player has limited interactions with Pokemon sharing their environment, particularly outside of battle, the game becomes a human world that Pokemon sometimes appear in, as opposed to an engrossing Pokemon world. Ultimately, the player needs to see the Pokemon they acquire as friends where bonds can be strengthened along their journey, as opposed to tools that are conveniently placed in the world to help the player achieve their goals.

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Image sources:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/games/2016/11/28/pokemon-sun-and-moon-review, https://aminoapps.com/c/pokeverse-amino/page/blog/pikachu-valley

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JY2wbUCm1Z4

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Funny/PokemonSunAndMoon

https://www.serebii.net/news/2016/24-November-2016.shtml

http://www.nintendolife.com/news/2017/10/game_freak_says_its_younger_devs_have_created_pokemon_ultra_sun_and_ultra_moon

Welcome to the NHK Review

Welcome to the NHK

Story by Tatsuhiko Takimoto and art by Kenji Ooiwa

Published in English by Viz (8 volumes, 2007)

Summary:

This manga follows the drug riddled journey of Sato Tatsuhiro, a deluded hikikomori (an extreme recluse) who believes the NHK (a Japanese broadcasting network) uses its platform to brainwash him into living his toxic lifestyle. After meeting Sato one day outside his apartment, the young high school student Misaki, attempts to rid him of his disturbing lifestyle, and keep him from rotting away in his room,

Welcome to the NHK is a melting pot for the isolated. It follows the “worst” people in society (drug addicts, shut-ins, those depressed and unfaithful), as they wade through series of depressing events, discover the dangers of contemporary Japanese society and uncover a international conspiracy, all wrapped in one big delusion. As we delve into the psychological stability of our characters, it becomes apparent that their isolation from society leads to the most skewed, yet insightful conclusions about the external world.

What makes this manga standout is its exceptional story, which has no doubt inspired other angst-filled manga such as Goodnight PunPun and the Flowers of Evil. While it explores a plethora a depressing themes, such as suicide, mental health issues, adultery and so on, it has the perfect amount of humour to balance it out. A mistake that many writers of dark fiction do is removing humour from their pieces, as they believe it hinders the ability to create morbid scenes or make insightful comments about the world. However, this manga does a great job of bouncing between depressing circumstances, hilarious moments and deep thoughts. It never feels preachy or patronising. I’m not being told that society is bad or I should live a certain way. As an omnipresent being, I only watch as the characters adopt lifestyles which allow them to handle the world as best as they can.

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The one thing this manga needs to be commended on is its almost perfect protagonist. Not to say that the protagonist is perfect (that would be boring), rather, he was created perfectly. Sato is weak, but he is not frustratingly hopeless. He develops at a steady pace, but has his own setbacks after traumatic circumstances. The reader empathises with him as he tries to free himself from his hikikomori lifestyle and re-enter society. It was really interesting watching him perceive his external society, rejecting, accepting and losing himself amongst a flurry of delusional thoughts. He feels so unbelievably human, with not one but multiple struggles, desires and dreams that he constantly juggles. It was such a pleasure being invited into his mind, trying to understand how this intriguing character functions.

Misaki, the most important side character, borders on this complexity, but not to the same extent. However, there were time when her actions were more annoying than enjoyable. The idea behind her character was ironic; while she attempts to help Sato deal with his troubles, she is the character most psychologically burdened. Even when you find out about her struggles, unfortunately, some of the actions the author uses for this character seem more erratic than profound, and lessen the value of her significance. She has emotional outbursts at the strangest of times, some of which are only included to shock the reader.

The other characters have a good amount of substance to them, but not as much as the protagonist. While they are great characters (especially considering how many fleshed out characters we are given in this piece), and in any other manga would be praised, due to the depth of the protagonist I had higher expectations of them. Nonetheless, I enjoyed travelling through the lower rungs of society, getting to know some of the most angsty and misled characters ever created in the medium. However, what made their depression palatable was that they all showed hope. Unlike other manga set in a world devoid of all happiness, the characters in this piece still clung to some form of optimism, making their actions seem even more powerful. A lot of characters in NHK have their unhappy moments, but they eventually snap out of it and carry on.

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Their fears made them so unbelievably human, and their development was quite moving to watch. What furthered the reader’s empathy for the characters was their ability to relate to certain struggles. While not to the same extent, every person has in some way experienced societal pressure. We are forced to judge whether our beliefs, aspirations and behaviours match those set out by our society. Sometimes, the characters who reject this lifestyle feel like heroes, living a life devoid of judgments, making the reader realise the restrictions that have been put on them. It was also interesting watching characters battle against their link from society, and seeing how deep its beliefs run within us.

The art in the manga is good, but nothing to write home about. It did a great job at encapsulating the “chibi comedy” panels, and complimented some of the character’s delusional thinking. I would have liked to see some more vivd imagery to really encapsulate the paranoia Sato feels about the NHK. In fact, after watching the anime, the NHK it’s diabolical plot are very rarely mentioned in the manga. I would have liked to see a bit more about this overarching conspiracy, as it’s importance seems to waver throughout the piece. The idea that a broadcasting company as massive as the NHK would make people become shut-ins through various media was a very interesting idea, and it was never really explored. Though its main purpose was to emphasise how skewed the protagonist’s view was, blaming his lifestyle on something so ridiculous, watching him attempt to take down the company would have been both hilarious and profound simultaneously.

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While the characters themselves are great, I was a bit confused about their relationships with one another. It seems that everyone is connected to Sato, but then they all just sit around alone when they’re not with him. If the characters were given stronger connection with each other, especially the ones who have been through traumatic events together (e.g. suicide packs), it would have been a more holistic experience for the reader, and created an expanded universe. I suppose considering it was a depicting various recluses, it makes a bit of sense. The ending of the manga was slightly disappointing. It felt like the creators weren’t sure how they wanted to end the series, and considering the outrageously dark content they been creating up until that point, it seemed quite lacklustre. Readers had been feeling that decline for a while, but the last five chapters really felt directionless. Though a dip in quality is apparent, it’s not the worst ending, even though I have forgotten it since.

Welcome the NHK is an exceptional piece that encapsulates the mindset of those who have fallen from the graces of society, and battle to remove its influence from their lifestyle (or vice-versa). It holds some of the most refined character development for the slice of life genre, though a disappointing ending hinders it from being perfect. I recommend this manga for anyone who wants to life and cry simultaneously, collecting intriguing delusions from those struggling on the lower rungs of society. It truly encapsulates the overwhelming feeling that comes with adhering to society’s expectations.

Art – 7

Story – 9

Writing – 8

Overall – 8.5/10

Image sources: https://myanimelist.net/manga/463/NHK_ni_Youkoso/pics, https://twitter.com/misakicrazyfan/status/480490869725097984, https://www.pinterest.com.au/marikaastori10/welcome-to-nhk/, http://www.basugasubakuhatsu.com/blog/2007/04/21/welcome-to-the-nhk-vol-2-manga-review/