Monday, March 28, 2016

This New Voltron Thing...

Everyone has that childhood show, where even though it hasn't stood up to the tests of time, it's still full of fond memories.

For me, that's Voltron. It aired at 3:30 in the afternoon, so I could watch it if I got home from school in time. It even aired in the mornings at 7am, and my mother would tape it on VHS if I was diligent about my piano practice (though I was disappointed to find out the morning Voltron was the vehicle team rather than the lion one).

At Wondercon this year, a lot of information on the latest incarnation of Voltron was coming out, and having been a long time fan, it's hard being upbeat about any new Voltron media. It's had a terrible track record updating itself.

Voltron: The Third Dimension made a good effort to reach out to fans in those early days of the internet, but good intentions and even the presence of half the original cast and one of the original writers couldn't fix a clunky script or the fact that computer animation was just not ready at the budget they were willing to work with, resulting in characters who were wooden in both personality and movement. (I specify the budget because by the time it came out Square had already released the ballroom dance scene for Final Fantasy VIII and it was light years ahead of what The Third Dimension was doing, so the tech definitely existed.)

Voltron Force was better. I could tell the writers really loved the original, and they likewise communicated with long time fans, but the addition of the three teenage sidekicks, one of whom was a bona fide Voltron fanboy, resulted in a show that was perhaps trying too hard to bring a new fanbase up to speed on the original. While I loved seeing Sven come back for an episode, listening to Daniel info-dump everything (and more) that a new viewer needed to know was tiring even for me. It was a precarious balancing act that never quite found its footing.

Dreamworks' new Voltron: Legendary Defender is going to be my third ride on the "Let's bring Voltron back" merry-go-round (not counting comic books), and I have to wonder, is it even possible to bring back that feeling from when I was a kid again?

Certainly enough people are trying.

One of the problems is that the original material hasn't aged well. Outside of major story arcs (beginning, end, and maybe two or three multi-parters in the middle), it's a very by the numbers show. Zarkon or one of his followers hatches a plan, a robeast shows up, Voltron is formed, and then the robeast dies on the blade of the Blazing Sword. All in under 25 minutes.

I am a bit hopeful for the Netflix/Dreamworks version for a couple reasons though:

1) Unlike the other series which have tried to be sequels to the original, the Dreamworks version is going to be a reboot. This allows new fans to get in without the burden of getting up to speed on the original. After watching the previous two series try to accommodate existing canon, I think this is the best option.

2) The producers and the animation studio previously worked on Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra, which played very well to both older and younger audiences. They might be able to better bridge the gap to engage older viewers without alienating kids.

The one decision that stands out at me though is what they did with Sven.

In the original Japanese GoLion, Sven is killed off early in the series, but in the American dub, he's shipped off to another planet to heal and returns later in the series as a scavenger who eventually falls in love with Princess Romelle and helps lead the ground forces in the attack on Zarkon's castle (the returnee is actually his younger brother in the Japanese version).

For someone who is absent most of the series, Sven is a rather popular character. For both The Third Dimension and Voltron Force the common question that came up while the shows were airing is "What happened to Sven?"

Since he's no longer one of the five pilots it's understandable that sequel shows did not have an easy way to accommodate him as a recurring character without also bringing Romelle into the picture (since Sven went to live with her on her planet rather than return to the Voltron Force in the second season). Voltron Force managed a guest appearance with him and without Romelle, but then awkwardly gave him a son, which brought up the question of who the mother was. (One of the scriptwriters later confirmed it was Romelle, but that they didn't have room to introduce her as well.)

Rebooting everything changes this, and I am cautiously hopeful that they do intend to do more with Sven.

It would have been hideously easy to have cropped Sven out of the reboot. Or to kill/incapacitate him again. But oddly enough, they renamed him, which seems an odd measure to take for a dead man walking.

He's Shiro in the reboot, after his original name Takashi Shirogane (Shirogane being the last name), and news sites are reporting that the story will focus on "Keith, Lance, Hunk, Pidge, and Shiro" which makes him sound like he's part of the main cast. His voice actor is in the same promo shot as the VAs for the other four pilots and Allura's is not, even though she is the Blue Lion pilot for most of the original series.

It's encouraging that the production staff seem to have consciously rolled him back to Japanese to avoid having a bunch of white dudes. I have no problem with this, no matter my childhood fondness for the American dub. Of all the original pilots, Sven always came across as more Asian than the others. If you watch Sven's duel against Haggar in the original episode 6, his concentration sequence is very much out of a martial arts movie.

Less encouraging is that reboot makes him the team leader. On the one hand, yay, there is an Asian dude as the team leader, but on the other, everyone knows Keith is the leader of the Voltron Force, so it likely means bad things in store for Shiro to make that hand-off happen. This is not the first time Sven's been placed in charge of the team (Brandon Thomas's Voltron Year One comic also makes Sven the team leader), but that was a prequel. People are going to expect to see Keith in the driver's seat and I'm not sure how long he'll be second fiddle.

My hope is that due to the name change and extra attention paid because of it, Shiro will not be killed/sent off to heal where he disappears the majority of the series. Perhaps he could be incapacitated long enough that Keith has to take command and they eventually leave that as the status quo, but this is an opportunity to do more with a beloved character.

I realize that keeping him on the team would also make it an all dude Voltron Force, which is not ideal either, but he doesn't necessarily have to be a pilot. Just keep him around. Give him other things to do. He's a capable guy. And if there's a season 2, let him meet Romelle again. It'll be fun.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Zero Time Dilemma First Trailer Out

I rarely play games close to release due to having a large backlog, but if there's one game I'm likely to play right away this year, it's Zero Time Dilemma, the third and final game of the Zero Escape series.

The new trailer came out last week and despite being perhaps just a bit overdramatic, it sets up the stakes for what we expect to see in a Zero Escape game, though not why those events are happening (which have turned out to be different in every game).

The Zero Escape series features an unusual combination of visual novel and an escape room gameplay. Most of the story is told through narration and dialogue where the player has no control aside from making critical decisions. (In Zero Time Dilemma all dialogue is supposed to be voiced now, for less reading.) Then the player assumes control of the protagonist for the escape room segments where they have to explore a room and solve puzzles in order to find a way out. Anyone who's played a live version of an escape room game knows how these work.

As usual, Zero Time Dilemma features a case of nine characters trapped in a sadistic game where they have to make life and death decisions, many of which have consequences on the branching story.

New this time around though is that some of the consequences will be random. The example given at the latest presentation has the player deciding whether or not to shoot a gun secured at the temple of a trapped character. If they do not, a second character will definitely die. If they do, the first character has a 50-50 chance of getting shot in the head based on the number of loaded bullets. So the player could get lucky and have two survivors, get unlucky and have one, or choose not to involve luck at all and definitely lose one. The player is given ten seconds to decide.

Also new this time around is that the nine characters lose their memories after 90 minutes (the story being broken up into several segments) so that things can happen that the player has no clue about or how much time has passed. For instance, the nine characters are broken up into groups of three, and the player could wake up with only two characters with no idea how they lost one.

I'm pretty sure Zero Time Dilemma will follow a non-linear form of storytelling like Virtue's Last Reward where everything only comes together once the player has enough information regardless of what order they got it in. (And that would lean heavily on what Sigma and Phi bring to the table after the events of the last game.) Though it hasn't been specified that the game would play out this way, I think it would be a head trip if the story fragments are actually experienced out of order, but the player is unable to distinguish that right away due to lack of information.

Either way, it'll definitely be interesting!

Monday, March 14, 2016

Schwarzesmarken: The Anime Set in 1980s East Germany

One thing I like about watching anime is that they sometimes pick unusual time periods and countries in which to set stories, and rather than getting an American-centric view of the setting, we have it filtered through Japanese eyes.

Schwarzesmarken is one of the series I've been watching this winter, and it's set in 1983, East Germany, during an alien invasion.

I'm not sure why this particular setting was chosen, but it's certainly a unique one. Even though Germany as a whole is normally considered part of western Europe, at this point in time the DDR (the Deutsche Demokratische Republik) is part of the communist Eastern Bloc.

In Schwarzesmarken the aliens known as BETA have landed somewhere in eastern Europe/western Central Asia and are making their march west. Poland seems to have already been destroyed, leaving East Germany as the shield that protects the rest of Europe from invasion. The BETA aren't the usual spaceship faring variety and if anything seem fairly unintelligent. Fighting them is like fighting giant bloodthirsty locusts. What they lack in intelligence they make up in numbers.

The story focuses on the exploits of the 666th TSF Squadron, nicknamed Schwarzesmarken, or Black Marks (though the German is left untranslated, as it was for the original Japanese audience). This being anime, their units of choice are mecha, and they're the best TSF unit in East Germany, often taking the most dangerous assignments.

But what makes this different from other series, is that the 666th is just the best in East Germany.

The writing doesn't always make the best use of the time period, and there are moments where the behavior of the series' characters feels very anime and/or Japanese rather than German, but the one thing it does well is present multiple dangers from multiple sides, and just how hard it is for the 666th to get their job done.

The first time this is presented well is when they participate in a joint mission with the UN to retake land in Poland. Unfortunately the scriptwriter/storyboard artist completely botched which part of the map was ocean and which part was land, resulting in a landing on the southern beaches of Poland. They did land in a real location, and you can see the map in the show matches the real world, except the ocean and land colors are inverted, and the invasion tactics dialogue is scripted to match the inversion.

Geographical errors aside, the joint missions shows what the capitalist west is able to put out in sheer firepower versus the communist east. West Germany and their American allies have much less practical experience fighting the BETA, but they're able to make up for a lot of it with long range ballistics that don't require their soldiers to get up close and personal with their mecha. The scrappy members of the 666th are so used to fighting on limited resources that their western Allies don't realize that they frequently get into melee range in combat and it nearly kills the 666th.

The series isn't just the members of Schwarzesmarken dealing with crappier tech and limited ammo, or that they're constantly under alien attack in a way the western countries aren't. By setting the series in communist East Germany, the squadron also has to deal with political struggles between the National People's Army and the Ministry for State Security (better known as the Stasi), and it's clear from multiple characters that no one wants to mess with the Stasi. Historically, they were among the most effective secret police to exist.

The soldiers of Schwarzesmarken live in the kind of country where one member of their unit is specifically a political officer who makes sure everyone else tows the party line. Even the middle of combat, the question is not what is best to win the battle, but what is best for the party.

Regardless of an alien invasion going on, the most dangerous enemies are human, and a lot of the 666th's difficulties can be chalked up to trying to deal with a system that doesn't always work or have their best interests in mind. But if they want to save their country, this is what they have to deal with no matter how they individually feel about it.

We don't really see how or where the timeline diverged from our world, since relations between East and West Germany seem particular frosty for 1983 (this was a period when they were getting closer in our world, with reunification being seven years away), but the series gets points for making choosing an unusual country for an underdog fight.

Schwarzesmarken is still streaming so I'm not sure what kind of ending it will end up having, but I'm guessing for something along the lines of a Pyrrhic victory. Since it's a prequel to the Muv-Luv series, I'm pretty sure the aliens are here to stay, so at best the 666th might stop them for a short while. But, given their capabilities I'm not sure they'll get even that. I do like rooting for them, for being undermanned, outgunned, and fighting for a country that alternately finds them useful or an inconvenient depending on who's currently in charge.

It's just that they're human, and there's only so much a small group of humans can do.

Monday, March 7, 2016

If You're Asian, the US Isn't the Place to be a Star

There's a part of me that's always been a little out of touch with American pop culture. For instance, I've never been a movie person. It's a good year if I see more than one in the theater, and usually when people ask me what the last movie I saw was, it takes me a moment or two to figure out what it probably was.

I say probably, because sometimes I'm honestly not sure. Though at the moment, I can say the last movie was Star Wars: The Force Awakens. If you ask me six months from now, the answer might be the same.

This past week there was a lot of #OscarsSoWhite going around on Twitter, along with Chris Rock's tasteless joke about Asians. A lot has already been written about that, but it touched a nerve in me as an American-born Asian. Part of it has to do with movies, but really, it's about any Asian who wants to perform in the public. One doesn't have to be a movie lover to see that Asians are invisible in the cultural zeitgeist, and it's a thought that started with me discovering a number of Asian pop stars who were born and/or grew up in the United States but make their livings abroad.

Because I am an anime fan, it was not surprising that I would end up with a taste for j-pop, but what is unusual, is that my favorite j-pop artist was not born in Japan. nano (stylized in lowercase) was born in New York and I suspect speaks better English than Japanese. For example, this interview with nano is clearly intended for a Japanese audience because of the subtitles, but nano is answering in English.

nano's music has been featured in a number of TV shows, video games, and of course collected in multiple studio albums.

You also might notice that I've been avoiding gender pronouns (which makes talking about nano a real pain), but near as I can tell this is intentional. Japanese is a non-gendered language and nano does not present as one or the other. Unfortunately, most of nano's music is currently blocked from American viewers on YouTube due to a snafu that occurred when YouTube Red landed (a lot of Japanese music got region blocked then), and I had trouble linking my favorite video from NicoNico, but this gives an idea of nano's voice and music aesthetic.

nano's face is never shown in full, though usually it's obscured by a hood (this is the first video without the hoodie). Gender is left ambiguous. And one might notice that nano's music is not bubbly j-pop either, but something a little harder. Could nano have had a multi-album career in the US?

Probably not.

Hikaru Utada is another American-born Japanese who tried her luck in Japan, and became huge in her ancestral country with multiple #1 hits. She then came back and tried the English language market, but even though she's released three albums here, she hasn't been able to make the same kind of in-roads.

This phenomenon isn't limited to Japanese either. I was surprised to discover that half of the Korean boy band Shinhwa had spent part of their formative years in America, and at least one was a citizen (though he eventually gave up his citizenship).

When Asians are in music at all in the US, they are generally part of a band, or they're biracial where they can pass as non-Asian (Norah Jones comes to mind).

Asian men in particular, don't get the opportunity to enjoy the kind of performance that Shinhwa does. Take a look at one of their videos, and even if they weren't an all Korean group, could you imagine seeing just one Asian guy getting to perform like that in an American music video as one of the main stars?

Asian men don't get to be sexy in American pop culture. I'm not surprised the Shinhwa members that went to middle school and high school in the US decided to move back to Korea, because what they are there is much better than what they could be here.

There was a round table interview with several minorities about diversity in TV and movies in the New York Times a couple weeks ago, and in it, the words that stuck out at me the most were from Ken Jeong.

He was quoting an acting professor of his who said, "You’re a good actor, which is why I’m telling you, stay the hell out of L.A. There’s not much of a future for you. Go to Asia."

For some Asian Americans, that's an option, because they have foreign born parents, speak the language, and/or have relatives who might be able to assist with getting them settled after they cross the ocean. But it's not an option for everyone.

For those like me, who are so far removed from our ancestral homes, all we've got is what's available in the US. These industries are rough enough even without being Asian.

I'm glad that TV is getting better about including us, but movies have a long way to go, and so does music.