Monday, August 22, 2016

Manga (Retro)review: Maoyuu Maou Yuusha

(WARNING: This review/analysis contains spoilers.  You have been warned)


Maoyuu Maou Yuusha: 'Kono Ware no Mono to Nare, Yuusha yo' 'Kotowaru!'
Writer: Touno Mamare
Artist: Ishida Akira
Status: Ongoing

A random trip through the Interwebs has turned up yet another fascinating little series: Maoyuu Maou Yuusha, an economic treatise disguised as a fantasy manga, but so much better than that sounds.  I knew nothing about it before a few days ago, so I’m pretty late to a party that’s apparently been going on for a little over six years.  But this smart, witty, and optimistic manga really stuck with me, and deserves, I think, a worthy review - even as it also displays a few of the pitfalls that come in making “philosophical” fiction.  (Footnote: Maoyuu Maou Yuusha is a pretty expansive franchise, encompassing a light novel series, an anime, and several manga titles all with different artists.  I choose the adaptation running in Comp Ace Magazine, drawn by Ishida Akira and distinguished by the ridiculously long subtitle above, as it’s one of the more popular and accessible versions).

Plot Synopsis
In a medieval fantasy world embroiled in a decades-long conflict between demons and humans, a lone Hero of extraordinary power battles through the demon defenses to face, he assumes, his destiny: a climactic showdown with the evil Demon King, impaling the foul beast on the end of his blade and finally bringing this war to a close.  However, this standard fantasy script gets flipped when the Demon “King” turns out not only to be a large-bosomed cutie with hardly a malevolent bone in her body, but also a highly intelligent economist who calmly and firmly lays out all the political, social, and economic reasons why killing her won’t end the war -  and may actually lead to all sorts of nasty repercussions.  Our Hero finds his entire scaffolding of heroic fantasy tropes stripped away by her data and relentless logic, until she finally makes him an offer: to become “hers” (and she, “his” in exchange) and help her implement a series of innovations to ensure lasting change and peace for both humans and demons - beyond the temporary and destructive benefits of endless war.  Although Hero initially turns her down (funny note: the daunting subtle roughly translates to “Become mine, Hero!” “I refuse!” in homage to this exchange) he’s considerably more open-minded than your run-of-the-mill fantasy sword-swinger, and finds himself swayed by her facts and his own sense of righteousness.  With their “contract” now sealed, the pair return to the human world where, aided by Demon King’s - ahem, Queen’s - servant Head Maid and Hero’s former companion Female Knight (notice a naming trend?) they set about a plan to effectively save the world from its own worst impulses.

The story drew me in right from the start; I am a major fan of deconstructive fiction done well, and this series manages to tear down a whole slew of not only bog-standard fantasy tropes, but a few shounen manga conventions as well.  Our two protagonists are cut from very different molds than what’s typical in the genre, and in their own ways overturn many expectations.  Demon Queen is, quite frankly, brilliant, and though physically frail with a sweet and childish side, proves to be formidable in the arts of negotiation and verbal jujitsu.  Hero, too, is much more than he appears; though arguably the strongest being in existence, he recognizes his own impotence before an enemy he can't hack or slash, and is quick to support his consort in all her goals, even going so far as to proclaim her the real hero of the story.  More characters get added - each, however inconsequential at first, eventually becoming important additions to the narrative, often getting their own moments in the spotlight and driving home the central message that it's the small changes, enacted in the minds of others through trust and learning, that have the biggest impact in the long run.  But the real wallop of the story comes from the amount of intellectual firepower they packed into it, easily apparent in the early arcs as the Queen's plans are just getting underway.  Diligent anime fans often compare Maoyuu to another well-known light novel series - Spice and Wolf, which shares the same basic premise of supernatural girl hooking up with human guy to lend her wisdom in socioeconomic matters.  But instead of focusing on microeconomics and the interaction between its two leads like that series, Maoyuu tackles the wider world of macroeconomics, and how they influence and are influenced by political forces.  The author really knows his stuff, and through his avatar Demon Queen explains (sometimes in painstaking detail) how certain real-world innovations, like new crops or new tools for education, can cause dramatic changes.  In a way, this whole manga can be thought of as a massive thought experiment: what would happen if you suddenly introduced potatoes, corn, the printing press, and notions of individual free will and intrinsic rights - all things we take for granted in the modern world - into a feudal society where toil, famine, ignorance and violence are everyday realities.

Still, the story at times smacks a bit of historical teleology or even triumphalism, warping the manga's biggest strength into its greatest weakness.  Also, like most works aiming to inform and enlighten, Maoyuu often falls into the standard dilemma of too much telling and not enough showing.  This was particularly painful during the first few arcs, where the prose borders on the didactic, and the reader’s bogged down with entire chapters of dry economic explanations - so dry, in fact, that despite my own personal love of economics and numbers, I sometimes skipped a few pages, certain I was missing nothing of real substance to the story.  This gets better as it progresses, though there remain certain points when Touno is basically preaching to us.  Still, the strong character development and undeniably smart ideas running behind this series more than make up for the occasional dips into pretentiousness.   
Rating: 9/10

It’s probably unfair to critique the art as if it pertained to the series as a whole, since there are so many different versions, but just speaking of Ishida’s penmanship, I found the overall effect somewhat lacking.  The art wasn’t bad, not by any stretch; however, it looked pretty sloppy in how it was put together.  This is hardly noticeable in the beginning, when the cast is still small and the “action” centered on the bureaucratic gymnastics of merchant guilds and church factions.  But as more characters of significance appear, Ishida's generic style makes it harder to tell some of them apart - not helped at all by his thought bubbles being all over the place on some pages.  The action scenes were also lackluster, though that gets an easy pass; Maoyuu tends to focus on strategic maneuvering in combat rather than dazzling feats of individual fancy, so you don't feel like you're missing out on much.   Moreover, Ishida is great at displaying the two sides of this story - the serious economic drama on the one hand, and the light-hearted romantic comedy on the other - and really brings out the humor and warmth in what could easily have been just another gloomy bundle of pretense.
Rating: 7/10

There's a lot more to this universe than can be covered in my review.  While you can argue that the “innovations” introduced in the manga mirror the real world too closely - and hence, feel derivative or even lazy - it doesn't change the brilliance of the execution, nor the originality of the premise itself.  If you’re looking for a fine piece of literature that will make you think and give you a good laugh at the same time, you can do a lot worse than this.
Total: 16/20 = B

Thursday, August 11, 2016

"Suicide Squad" is an uncoordinated mess, but it does have its bright spots

Even the movie poster looks spliced together

Movie: Suicide Squad
Directed by: David Ayer
Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto

Hopelessly muddled and long on exposition, DC’s latest brick in their rushed attempt to build a cinematic universe from scratch falls short of most expectations, although surprisingly competent performances from Margot Robbie and Will Smith throw out a lifeline as the poor writing and wasted potential of its characters tempt you into reaching for a noose.

In depth:
So DC Comics has recently marshaled up the gumption to set out a game plan for an expanded cinematic universe - despite sporting a roster largely unknown to the big screen compared to its rival, and despite having its forays into that territory mostly slammed at the box office (with maybe one notable exception).  But despite the setbacks, a lot of us held on to the hope that Suicide Squad would be different - that it would redeem DC in the nihilistic fires of El Diablo - offering, perhaps, a few shades of Deadpool along the way.  And, I suppose, for many movie fans, it does.  But to the rest of us, Ayer’s grimy, ugly stain of a superhero film is no Deadpool.  While the cast is undeniably talented and the film offers up occasional peaks of humor and cool action, it’s still a choppy mess, a muddled fustercluck that's but a fraction of the movie it could have been, wasting its A-list actors on a thinly-written hack piece that apparently left its soul on the cutting room floor.

Suicide Squad picks up where Batman vs. Superman ended: the death of Earth’s strongest hero not only left a void in the world’s spandex quota, but also opened up a serious question on how and when to control these “metahumans,” who seem immune to pesky little things like the laws of physics, or city-wide body counts.  Enter Amanda Waller, DC’s resident sociopath in the name of national security, answering the call with the poorly thought-out solution of using expendable baddies to police the world’s supers.  Played by the talented Viola Davis, she spares us of the chore of sitting through anything interesting by giving an expository info dump for the first  20 minutes of the movie on every bad egg comprising her proposed team: Deadshot (Smith), the ace sharpshooting hitman with a soft spot for his daughter; the Joker’s deranged girl-toy, Harley Quinn (Robbie); disfigured man-eating mutant Killer Croc (Adewale Aki Akinnuoye-Agbaje); Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), a bank robbing bogan with...a boomerang; and last but not least, El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a pyrokinetic hombre who dedicates half of his lines to reminding us that he is, in fact, Latino.  The remaining non-criminals of Waller’s task force include Joel Kinnaman as Spec Ops field marshal Rick Flagg, his sword-wielding bodyguard Kitana (Karen Fukuhara), and Cara Delevingne as Dr. June Moone, an archeologist possessed by an angry evil spirit who can be summoned at will.  And here is where the trouble begins, for although Waller chose “The Enchantress” to be part of her unit as well, the spook’s harboring some serious beef with the human race for imprisoning her soul in a clay doll.  She breaks loose, and sets about on her obligatory world domination/destruction plan.  Now it’s up to Waller’s band of murderous misfits and their straight-laced handlers to save the day.

Let me say right off the bat that if there is one thing I despise in any movie, no matter the genre, it's  long-winded exposition - and Suicide Squad struck that nerve like hammer.  I'm not talking about exposition integrated into the story somehow, either through a flashback, or maybe an in-movie play.  No, I mean the "Let's have a seat and I'll explain everything about the plot" kind of exposition. That type is the Devil itself, violating the sacred Show Don’t Tell rule of fiction, and is just flat-out boring to go through.  Twenty minutes is a long time to sit there just listening to someone prattle off details of a person’s life - time better spent on something else, like moving the plot forward.  Deadshot’s dossier is a perfect example of how the movie screws this up; we’re not only given a brief (and admittedly humorous) look at him doing what he does best, but we're also force fed his relationship with his daughter as we're walked through the details of his capture - complete with extended Batman cameo, so we can all bask in his awesomeness.  Most of that could have been implied, just to give us something to explore as the film progresses, but instead it's practically spelled out in FLASHING NEON LETTERS, leaving me, at least, with little reason to tune in when the action eases up and we’re forced to deal with these characters as actual human beings.

This mistake gets repeated with nearly each character and throughout the film, and delves into other no-nos of storycrafting that really should have been avoided.  Every time a new character is introduced, they come with a backstory-flashback combo designed to spill everything about them before they even get a chance to do anything.  As a method of character development, this falls somewhere between amateurish and GTFO, and I kid you not, it annoyed me to such a degree that I was actually tempted to walk out of the theater.  But more than a cinema sin, this highlights just how choppy Suicide Squad is as a final product.  The movie has a massively edited look, like it’s gone through more facelifts than an aging supermodel, and I can’t fight the feeling that a lot had to be sliced away just to make it all work.  While the action flowed pretty well, the scenes in general were held together by duct tape, with sudden breaks that felt jarring and discombobulating.  That’s not enough in and of itself to make a terrible movie experience, but it certainly doesn’t help, and it sure as hell doesn’t lend any confidence that the filmmakers knew what they were doing from the start.

But the biggest heartache comes from what they did, or failed to do, with its cast.  Read that list again, and tell me it doesn’t sound like a virtual dream team of who’s who on the Hollywood A-list - and Jai Courtney.  But the movie does almost nothing with them, with two notable exceptions.  Will Smith was surprisingly adequate as Deadshot - “surprising” in the sense that, despite his obvious acting chops, he has a major Achilles heel when it comes to antiheroes, with a bad habit of reverting to his nice-guy self on screen.  This time, though, he...well, he pretty much does the same thing, but unlike Hancock or Focus, it doesn’t derail the character or feel out of place.  Smith’s gotten much better over time with how much he lets his basic humanity leak into his characters, and this time, it definitely pays off.  But though Deadshot’s the designated glue character in this rickety boat, the real captain of this ship is the pale-skinned terror in hotpants, Harley Quinn.  I had my initial doubts that Robbie could pull this off; playing Quinn requires a certain manic energy that I felt the Aussie actress lacked.  But despite the gratuitous fanservice and her complete inability to pick ONE accent and stick to it, Robbie gives a brief but powerful panoramic of the clown girl’s complex psyche, working within the sad limits of the film’s painfully restrictive writing to bring out at least a little of what makes Harley tick.  It wasn’t as definitive as Ryan Reynolds and his masterstroke in Deadpool, but it’s enough to lift this otherwise broken buoy of a movie a little bit above the tide.

But the above two cast standouts really underline how underdeveloped the rest of their mates are - and unlike most movies, it has little to do with the acting chops on display.  Smith and Robbie stand out in their own minor ways despite Suicide Squad’s writing, not because of it.  The rest of the crew were barely given a moment’s chance.  Despite his much vaulted publicity in the trailers, Jared Leto’s Joker debut was little more than a combined 15-minute cameo of minor importance.  The rest of the Squad fared little better; Akinnuoye-Agbaje was straight-jacketed by layers of make-up and a guttural growl that made his few lines unintelligible.  Hernandez gave me Konnan flashbacks from WCW, and I half-expected him to shout “Arriba la raza!” at any minute. It’s sad that while he’s aiming for the whole “redeemed gangster” schtick, he ends up in an even bigger stereotype tar pit than if he’d just played a straight-up thug.  Almost without question, if any of the actors came off as tired, boring, or just plain offensive, it's because the series of disjointed scenes trying to pass itself off as a movie rarely gave them the opportunity to be anything else.

Which isn’t to say that it’s all doom and gloom.  There are a few nice action scenes scattered throughout the film, even if they culminated in an astoundingly lame final fight that seriously tried it with a forced Power of Friendship angle (among sociopathic super-criminals, mind you) and abused THE HELL out of the slowmo cam.  There were more than a few moments of humor that worked -  thanks to Robbie's stellar Quinn and Smith's natural charm - and were sorely needed in a budding cinematic universe that so far takes itself waaay too seriously.  But on the whole, Suicide Squad is a temple to mediocrity - one by design instead of accident.  The filmmakers threw this movie together haphazardly, forcing relationships and holding it in place with the flimsiest of excuse plots.  It might have been better to allow the crew to develop over another movie or two, filling in their roles and coming together in a more gradual way.  But rushing to the finish is apparently DC’s current mindset, and while Suicide Squad is a lot more fun than anything else they’ve put out this year, it still fell far short of both its hype and our expectations.

Grade: C-

Monday, August 1, 2016

August Releases

August Releases

Ah, August -  by Hollywood tradition, it's the weakest movie month of the summer, if not the entire year.  But there are a few late bloomers this time around, holding our attention even as the box office drought looms ahead.  Suicide Squad and the controversial Disney/Pixar spoof Sausage Party lead the hype train, though there are more family friendly options around, like Pete's Dragon and the mysterious Kubo and the Two Strings

Television is as much a waste as always before the fall premieres, though Netflix's The Get Down looks like a pleasant little love letter to the ground zero of hip-hop in 1970s New York, so have a look come August 12th if you're interested.

The gaming world, in contrast, has a slew of cool debuts this month, though the hot topic this August is unquestionably No Man's Sky - the much-hyped (and much delayed) procedural generation adventure game promising mega hours of gameplay investment.





See you at the movies!