Film #81: Azur & Asmar: The Princes’ Quest (2006)

opwno_18468122aka: Azur et Asmar
director: Michel Ocelot
language: French and Arabic
length: 95 minutes
watched on: 21 April 2013

I think I picked this one up because it had a quote on the cover that said it was “like Studio Ghibli” or whatever. Maybe… I can see how it has passing similarity, but I thought it was disappointingly un-Ghiblilike.

I actually almost turned it off because the animation quality was so terrible (and yeah, I kinda get that it’s an independent French studio and hats off to them for getting this far in the first place… well, maybe). It’s 3D animation, but the colours are very saturated and the lighting harsh, meaning that most people appear flat. This sometimes gives the impression that it’s actually 2D. In any case, you can hardly see the (white) characters’ faces at all because they’re so saturated. The characters also don’t move naturally, and this effect is very jarring. But in terms of visual design, I would probably praise the backgrounds, which are often bright and colourful, if stylised – several scenes are clearly only in the movie because they wanted to show off the background.

But even then, the rest of the film leaves a lot to be desired. The story is about a French boy from medieval times, Azur, who lives in a castle and has an Arabian nanny. He’s best friends with the nanny’s son, Asmar, and they grow up like brothers, but he’s eventually banned from seeing him, and the nanny disgraced, after a series of accidents. But he remains in his conviction, and sets sail to Arabia once he comes of age in order to find the nanny and discover a fairytale princess along the way.

OK, that’s fine enough. There’s enough there that should be enticing – brotherly-verging-on-gay love, mother-son relationships, adventure to find the princess, but it didn’t manage to pull it together into something that worked. The story is almost insultingly simple in some places and plot developments are pulled out of the writers’ arses as they see fit. Halfway through the film Azur meets the nanny again and it turns out she’s the richest woman in Jeddah – but we had nothing to foreshadow this or make it in any way believable (if she’s so rich, why was she his poor-as-dirt nanny at the start of the movie?). At the end of the film, we’re faced with an unsolvable conundrum (who should the princess marry of the two boys?), and then literally five whole minutes later, the princess conveniently remembers that she has a best friend who can marry the other one, so we spent quite a long time wondering over essentially nothing. And several times he just happens to walk into the next plot point a minute after it’s mentioned. He gets off the boat and pretty much straightaway meets the only other Frenchman in Arabia, then he walks straight into an important shrine which contains something he’ll need to find the princess – and he’s the only person who’s ever worked out how to actually get the item and does so within a minute.

I mentioned the setpieces looking very nice, but I don’t think I mentioned that I never felt like it was a real place. I was never transported by the images to Arabia. I remember the film as mostly one disjointed image after another, especially when the colours change abruptly. I feel as if this could be rectified by having the images actually linking together a bit more, so that we have more of a sense where things fit in the world. But basically he seems to cover a lot of land in a very short space of time, in general, and this was annoying.

The characters were quite good – they could be interesting or funny at times. Not the main character, who’s bland and righteous, but the film has a colourful supporting cast, including the racist Frenchman who complains about being stuck in this foreign country, the nanny, and the princess of the city, who is actually a child who yearns for adventure. She was easily the best part of the film. I think it’s a shame there weren’t even more colourful characters, because this just wasn’t enough.

Oh and one more thing – the film did the most annoying thing with the dialogue, and its languages: most of the film was in French (you can also watch it in English or with subtitles), but half the characters speak in unsubtitled Arabic. It’s never a barrier to understanding, because you always know what’s happening and they only ever use incidental language, but for heaven’s sake, you might as well subtitle it at least (especially given that all the main characters understand both). This just cemented the film in my mind as pretentious as well as all the other complaints.

It’s just not Ghibli at all. Moving on.

Film #80: Life of Pi (2012)

Life_of_Pi_20_2543879kdirector: Ang Lee
language: English with Tamil, French, Japanese
length: 127 minutes
watched on: 6 March 2013

I saw this the same day that I finished the last book – I even cycled all the way to Shinjuku to go to the cinema! I wasn’t sure before going in whether it’d be something that’d appeal to me, so I was pleasantly surprised by it.

The story is effectively told, with the conceit that it’s being told by the adult version of the main character Pi, now living in Canada. Despite having many fantastic side-elements and generally being unbelievable/incredible, it’s filmed and narrated well, and the shortcomings don’t matter.

I’ve seen Life of Pi on bookshelves a lot and always wondered why he was called Pi and whether this had anything to do with the famous irrational number, so to have that answered in the opening sequence of the movie was pleasing. Similarly, for a frighteningly simple plot (boy ends up alone on a lifeboat with a tiger after a shipwreck), it’s not often been described simply to me in the past before the film came out. Perhaps the book has many extra parts that were cut from the film?

Anyway, this is one of those films where most of the acting comes from one lone character, the teenaged Pi – most breaks in the action were back to Montreal where adult Pi was telling the story to a Canadian hipster (maybe the author of the book, in theory?). They were a little jarring, to tell the truth. The boy actor was pretty good in general, but his delivery could be a little wooden sometimes.

The direction of the film was probably the best part – I especially liked a dream sequence that went into the ocean, with beautiful colours and all kinds of sealife. I think that might be the best sequence to sum up the movie in many ways.

Perhaps I could have done without so much focus on religion, although that focus is very central to the story. I guess that’s just not my thing. The film does manage to undermine itself in that respect towards the end, though. The ending was quite effective but a bit rushed.

These problems aren’t any reason not to see the film, however. I’d recommend watching it when it comes out on DVD, if you haven’t already.

Book #28: Death Comes as the End (1945)

AC033_DeathComesEndFauthor: Agatha Christie
length: 191 pages
language: English
finished reading on: 6 March 2013

I picked this book up in Jinbocho, a neighbourhood of Tokyo famous for second-hand books. It’s an Agatha Christie murder mystery set in Ancient Egypt – that’s the way it’s marketed and it essentially lives up to that. Having a passing interest in Ancient Egypt, I decided to read it.

It was fine, as a story. A note at the beginning mentions that the story could have taken place anywhere, but took place in Egypt because it was loosely based on some ancient letters. The story follows an arc typical of Christie’s other work – a series of murders happen in a family, several people are suspected for the duration, and the whole story unravels in the final few pages.

It’s told from the perspective of Renisenb, one of the daughters of Imhotep, a rich merchant. One of her brothers is called Sobek. I guess the unrealistic thing about this is that I doubt that ordinary folk would be named after pharaohs and gods, but perhaps it was normal then. Other than that, it’s quite well-researched.

Renisenb is not a very strong character, however, and she doesn’t provide a strong hook like Christie’s other characters like Poirot. She spends a good deal of the book worrying whether she should remarry. I found this dull and old-fashioned, although the book mentions that Renisenb is in a relatively free position as a widow, and contains a few feminist notes, which I did find interesting.

The descriptions of the settings are quite dry and dull, too. It seems to me that even if it’s a story that could “happen anywhere”, we should still get some more detail about where it is happening.

The ending, however, was unexpected enough (even if it was very much following a formula) that I was able to forgive these flaws overall. But I think I still prefer Poirot to one-off characters like these.

Book #27: The City & the City (2009)

the-city-and-the-cityby: China Miéville
language: English
length: 373 pages
finished on: 16 February

This was the third book of China Miéville’s that I read in quick succession. Like the previous one, Embassytown, I finished this one in a little over a week. And I quite liked it, but not as much as the previous ones, as for me Embassytown was something of a high point.

This story is set in a fictional Balkan city that is split into two countries, or one metropolis split into two city-states – however, not in the traditional Berlin-like way that we’d expect of real-life cities, but randomly. A lot of effort is made in the narrative to introduce the concepts quite slowly, with readers perhaps more confused at the start, in a way that I’m getting used to with Miéville, so I don’t want to spoil it too much, but basically, the place has areas which are one city, areas which are another, and areas which are both (it’s called “crosshatching” in the story, along with quite a lot of other made-up jargon to describe their unique situation), but in those areas, one has to be very careful not to interact or even look at buildings or people from the other city. Doing so automatically calls in the secret police known as Breach, who take you away. (You can perhaps guess what happens to the main character already)

The cities are respectively the equally unpronounceable and “exotic” looking Besźel and Ul Qoma. The first resembles Slavic languages and the second resembles Turkish or Arabic, although a brief discussion about language at the start says that the respective national languages are basically dialects of one another, although it’s a situation in which you’d never want to actually say that to speakers of either one, because they have very strong national identities despite sharing the same space.

The story is about a police inspector called Borlú (this name calls to mind Spanish, to be honest), who finds out about a murder that’s been committed in Besźel city, but he has to travel back and forth to Ul Qoma to solve the mystery. The mystery itself is one of the strongest elements of the book, because a lot of elements are introduced early on to try and lead the reader and the characters astray, and it takes a long time for something coherent to really come out of the mess of plot points. Secrets are hinted at, a hidden third city is posited by many people, and different characters come into the limelight as the prime suspect at the drop of a hat.

Unfortunately, I didn’t really get the main conceit of the story: that two cities occupying the same space could ignore each other so thoroughly, and also why they’d even want to do that in the first place. The answer’s not really given (at least explicitly enough) at the end of the book, leaving us to figure out our own answer. I also didn’t really find a lot of it that interesting compared to the last book.

That said, I was still interested enough, and on a roll from the previous book too, that I finished the book in due course, in the same amount of time. Time to move on to the next one, I said to myself, although it’d be a couple more weeks before I found the means to acquire the next Miéville novel, and so in the meantime I busied myself with an Agatha Christie novel. Up next.

Book #26: Embassytown (2011)

1003348-coverby: China Miéville
language: English and snippets of an invented language
length: 405 pages
finished reading on: 5 February

I basically devoured this book after finishing the last one, in only about a week and a half. Compared with Perdido Street Station, it was much shorter and for me, much more interesting, because it deals directly with linguistics. It can basically be summed up as a thought experiment about what would happen if the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was true. Sort of.

It’s a sci-fi novel set in the far future, and humans discover a very strange species of alien whose language baffles everyone. It throws together a bunch of what ifs, because the language is implied to be fundamentally different from human language – the aliens have two mouths, for instance, so their language (referred to as “Language” by the characters) has two concurrent streams of sound. They can’t tell lies, and for them this Language is not a symbol, like it is for humans, and thus their language and their thought are completely intertwined. Perhaps the weirdest bit of all, though, is that through some unspoken mechanism, they only understand and respond to real speech, never to synthesized speech. And furthermore, the intent behind the speech has to be the same, as if they can detect brainwaves or something. So to communicate with them, humans have to make these kind of identical twins or clones who are implied to be effectively the same person, who synthesize their brains regularly and can speak in unison with the aliens. They’re called ambassadors in the story, and are frequently referred to first as singular, then as plural, which was confusing at first. Their names are written in Camelcaps, like CalVin or MagDa – each half of the full name is the name of one half of the ambassador, and in the Language they’d be spoken together. Excerpts of the Language are shown like fractions, one half over the other. The author then plays around with these constraints.

The humans all live in an enclosed city called Embassytown, in the middle of the alien city on their home planet. The main character is from the city but leaves during early adulthood to explore the rest of the universe and become a space captain. It’s mentioned early on that over time she marries and divorces three men and one woman, which made me happy because it’s very rare that LGBT issues are even mentioned in sci fi novels at all. Later she mentions that homosexuality is frowned upon in her small town, which I also found realistic. Anyway she comes back with her last husband, a linguist obsessed by the alien Language, to reconnect with her hometown and let him study the language. He quickly becomes even more obsessed and starts a cult, perhaps a natural extension of someone discovering a language that appears to hold truth and not be symbolic.

The main story unfolds when the colonial power in charge of the embassy sends out a “new ambassador”, who turn out two be two unrelated men using some kind of implant to communicate. But their connection is not perfect, and the imperfection is like a drug for the aliens, and this causes a lot of trouble in the city. I don’t really want to give too much away, that’s already a spoiler in itself really.

The backstory is just as interesting, and something that I wish Miéville had expanded on more. Space in this universe turns out to be traversible by hyperspace, which is called immersion. Hyperspace turns out to be just like sailing an ocean, with currents, obstacles, monsters and seasickness, which is so strong that the only people that can traverse it consciously are the immersers, essentially space captains like the main character. I liked the German words that Miéville threw in at this point, as immersion is also a pun on the German word immer (always), and this word is used for the hyperspace world, while the normal world is called manchmal (sometimes), and the monsters are called hai (sharks). The colonial power is implied to be German, as the main planet is called Bremen, although the lingua franca of the universe is called Anglo-Ubiq, which I assume is derived from English (but Ubiq did throw me off, as if Ubykh was involved somehow). Time in his world becomes important, as the main character uses her planet’s years to describe herself, but ends up saying she got married when she was seven years old. Then she corrects herself to using something more universal, which turns out to be kilohours, because people come from a variety of different planets and saying “years” will always be ambiguous. At this point I had to get a calculator out – apparently 10 kilohours is in the same ballpark as 1 year, so saying you’re 300 kilohours means you’re about thirty.

I really liked the way, and incidentally, this applies to Perdido Street Station as well, that Miéville just plunges straight into descriptions of all this stuff without really explaining it, letting us work it out for ourselves. This does have a downside, because I still don’t have a clear idea in my head of exactly what the aliens are supposed to look like (I think insectile, and that’s really it). Their anatomy is described a few times, but hazily. I think this is great, because too much sci fi relies on the “info dump”, and this story manages to keep a faster pace by not using it.

The structure of the book was one of its weaker points, I thought. It took me actually quite a long time to figure out that some chapters were taking place in a different period to others (I think they were labelled something like “before” and “after”, but not so directly; the language was more cryptic than that…). I actually only realised this when the main character declared (as the story is written in first person) that she’d finished telling the backstory and that she’d now continue with purely the later story of the ambassadors. This should perhaps have been more obvious, because events in one story didn’t correlate with events in the other, but I think it should have been even more clearly signposted than it was. Actually, I can’t really fault Miéville on this stylistic choice, to be honest, because it allows dramatic tension to build up in both stories simultaneously and provides short cliffhangers between chapters, and has the climaxes of both stories occuring close together near the end, rather than having one climax followed by the start of a new story with its own build-up and climax. It was just a bit annoying for me. My go-to example for why the opposite doesn’t work is The Lord of the Rings – in the books, the Aragorn and Frodo sections are separate halves of the book, and the Frodo sections are more boring, so the second half of The Two Towers was a real drag. In the films, the sections are interwoven like they are in this book.

I really liked the book overall. Stylistic choices aside, it was gripping from the start, and very strongly appeals to my interests. As I say, it would even work well if it was an essay on what would happen if the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was right. I only wish it had been fleshed out even more than it already was. China Miéville really knows how to tell a story! Onto the next one!

Book #25: Perdido Street Station (2000)

perdido street stationauthor: China Miéville
language: English
length: 867 pages, some virtual
finished on: 25 January 2013

Let’s just start off by saying this is a huge book. I honestly had some logistical problems reading it because it was big. Originally I couldn’t bring it to Japan with me because it was heavy and wouldn’t fit into my luggage. In about November, after I finished the previous book, I realised that I still wanted to read it and I downloaded an ebook copy. I subsisted on that (reading mostly on the train on the way to work) for a while, but when I got back home for Christmas I started reading the hard copy, mainly because it was typeset better. Yeah, that’s the kind of shit I care about sometimes. Well, in the end I brought it back on the plane with me and it’s now sitting on my shelf. It still took almost three months to finish in the end because it was long and I’m a slow reader.

Enough with the length. Despite that, it was a great book from start to finish. China Miéville doesn’t shy away from complex language, and I actually managed to stumble over a few words in the opening pages (eg, chitin) – as soon as I saw that I was spurred on, because I knew it’d be much more challenging than anything else I’ve read recently. That was later confirmed.

The book’s set in a fantasy world called Bas-Lag, in the city of New Crobuzon, which is based very obviously on London. The setting is pseudo-Victorian, and calls to mind the Steampunk genre easily. The title refers to the main station and hub of the city, and trains frequently feature as a background element. A few misspellings on some words set it apart from the real world, such as “elyctric” or “chymical” (such that sometimes it becomes difficult to work out what’s a made-up word and what’s just an uncommon word, which is a lazy criticism that I’ve seen being levelled at Miéville). Magic exists, but the word is never used in lieu of the more cryptic “thaumaturgy”. Many races exist in his world, but he explicitly and deliberately avoids using “classical” fantasy races that would be used by the likes of Tolkien. In this book we’re introduced (among others) to humans, khepri (human women with insect heads), vodyanoi (frog people), garuda (bird people), cactacae (cactus people, perhaps the most original of all), and Remade, who are magically-altered people, generally done as some kind of severe punishment – they are the lowest possible tier of society. Names randomly vary between familiar English names and gobbledigook names that don’t match any real-world template, which I found strange.

The basic story thread is that the main character, Isaac, who is a scientist working in cutting-edge research but not really respected by his peers, is given a task, but in doing so, sets loose a group of literally nightmarish moth-shaped monsters on the city. With his motley crew of friends and allies he has to search and try to kill them. As far as the monsters go, at one point it seems like it would be totally impossible for them to be defeated, because their power over humans and almost all the other races seems complete, but a solution eventually develops out of nowhere – I think to the story’s immense credit, this doesn’t come across at all like deus ex machina, because all the elements are laid out quite early on, and it takes a long time before it comes together into a coherent whole.

Another place in which the story excels is in showing background detail and characters. Even settings that won’t be seen again are often fleshed out fully. The names of places in the city are almost universally descriptive of decay and dirt (for instance, the two rivers are called Tar and Canker… not very nice!), and nothing seems at all pleasant in the city. This does get a bit much sometimes, and we occasionally get glimpses into a part of the world that for the story’s sake was strictly unnecessary – a few times I had to stop and wonder why I was reading about certain things.

The story does dip into horror elements on quite a few occasions – particularly describing the monsters – which I wasn’t particularly keen on, to be honest. On the topic of genre in general, descriptions of the book often use the phrase “weird fiction”, which is annoyingly undescriptive, but it does fit well enough. It fits well into the fantasy genre, although not high fantasy like Tolkien. It fits the steampunk genre, which ties in with a statement by Miéville that he wants to write at least one book in “every genre”, as I found out later when I read more books that were completely different in tone and setting.

In the end it left me wanting more, despite the horror elements and the sheer length, and by the last few chapters I was on a roll. While this one took me a couple of months, the next two books of his were finished pretty swiftly – Miéville’s writing style is quite addictive. There are two more books in the Bas-Lag world, and I’ve read the next but not the final one, now. Just gotta keep going, perhaps!

Music: Saint Etienne

20130130-202822-500431where: Billboard Live, Tokyo Midtown
when: 23 January 2013
length: about 90-100 minutes, fifteen songs or so.

Again, I’m late with posting, so this happened three and a half months ago. But I’m very glad it did. For some reason, although I’ve been very interested in this band for a number of years, this is the first time I’ve actually seen them live (the same is true of Sigur Rós, who I’m seeing for the first time next week). I kinda jumped at the chance when I found out they’d be coming to Tokyo this year.

To be honest, it was basically all I could have hoped for. If anything I wish they’d played more songs. I was, however, in a cheap seat with a crappy view, and went alone (I actually knew one other person there, but he was sitting somewhere completely different). Sarah Cracknell was fabulous. The others kind of faded into the background.

I think the most interesting thing was seeing how eager some people were to dance. One woman in a kimono was up as soon as the music started, and one guy on the balcony was the only guy cheering at the start. Even more interesting were the people who at first didn’t seem so keen – one guy in the front row who was literally the closest person to Sarah was looking up at her for most of the concert as if she’d interrupted his meal, although later he showed interest and started boogying with everyone else. And just generally it’s funny seeing businessmen in suits starting to let their hair down.

Anyway, Saint Etienne’s a very old band now and not one that’s very popular anymore, and one thing that did disappoint me was how popular their very first single still is – it’s OK, but it’s a cover with a different singer. And just as a general point about concerts, I really don’t understand the encore convention. Why does a band go offstage to applause only to come back on a minute later to play the final two songs? Who are they really kidding with that?

I think I was just most happy that I got them to sign my CD and T-shirt afterwards. Yesss.

Game #20: Elephant Quest (2011)

elephant-quest-1author: jmtb02 of Armor Games
time it took to complete: about an hour or two
when: 10 January 2013

Just thought I would include this for completeness. I played it a couple of days after I moved into my new accommodation, still getting used to things. It’s a relatively new “elephant” game on the Armor Games website. But not as good as the previous elephant games like Achievement Unlocked or the like. It’s a platformer combined with RPG elements like collecting objects and talking to NPCs, and it has a world to explore. Now to be honest, I wasn’t that impressed with it. It didn’t really grab my attentiont or make me think this was something I really needed to play, in the first place, and nor did it really challenge me in any way. Nor was it particularly memorable. Altogether, pretty dull.

Film #79: Ratatouille (2007)

ratatouilledirector: Brad Bird
language: English and some French
length: 111 minutes
watched on: 7 January 2013

The last of four films that I watched on the long journey back from the UK. I think I watched some truly terrible comedy afterwards just in the final hour or so, but I can’t even remember the name, just that it had Mark Heap and the kid from the Inbetweeners in it. Anyway, I was on a streak of Pixar and realised that this was the perfect opportunity to catch up on one of the few by them that I haven’t seen – apart from this, I think I’ve missed out on Cars, which I’ve heard isn’t very good by their standards. There’s probably at least one more. I don’t know.

Ratatouille is alright, not that great, especially compared to some of the other classics. It basically lived up to my expectations; one area in which it didn’t was that I was expecting a full-on talking rat, whereas here we see an intelligent rat but not one that can talk – he communicates with the boy by pulling his hair.

The concept of a rat pulling a boy’s hair to use him like a puppet is inherently comedic, but beyond that I didn’t think the movie does anything special with it. There’s a lot of slapstick humour, and a caricaturish villain in the head chef of the kitchen where the boy works. Nothing special.

Oh, one thing I remember was that it was a bit of a mess regarding accents: it’s set in Paris, but the main characters have American accents, while some other characters have put-on French accents. Annoying at best. And there was a tepid romance between the boy and a woman working in his restaurant, which was predictable and boring (actually, much of the plot was).

So I’d say it’s not bad but I’d rather watch most other Pixar movies over this one.

Film #78: Finding Nemo (2003)

woj-finding-nemo_-1080p-4directed by: Andrew Stanton & Lee Unkrich
language: English
length: 100 minutes
watched on: 7 January 2013 (for at least the sixth time though!)

I can’t remember what my site policy was about films I’ve seen before. But let’s see… I like this film, enough to have watched it, as I say, at least six times. It was one of the movies I selected on the plane when I was trying to get to sleep, but I ended up too interested in what’s happening to actually drop off.

It’s very good. But just to focus perhaps on some negatives, I do find Dory a bit annoying sometimes (this has become a talking point recently, I think), and Ellen Degeneres can be a bit whiny playing her. I kept coming up with negatives in terms of the credibility or realness of the way the fish move and things like that (eg, don’t sharks have to keep moving forwards?), and I had to remind myself a couple of times that I’m watching a film about talking fish. The details don’t really matter that much.

Anyway, I did hear more recently that there’s going to be a sequel called Finding Dory. I have to say, that sounds a bit dire. I guess I don’t really see what they can do without rehashing the existing story, and I think I sort of expect it to be a parade of characters we’ve already met in the first movie, which just won’t be interesting. So they’re going to have to come up with new and inventive characters if they’re going to impress me. But will I at least see it, whenever it comes out? Certainly.