Closing Creative Criticism

It’s time to admit this journey is over. The last couple of years my writing has been sparse, mostly due to lots of personal issues. But as my situation has improved in recent months, I realized that while before I had the desire but not the motivation, now I have neither the desire nor the motivation to continue the site.

I initially wrote this long, rambling piece but I can boil it all down to a short bullet list:

  • I don’t watch many movies anymore, barely any TV, and don’t feel like writing about most of it.
  • I want to spend more time with friends and family.
  • Writing criticism online when most people have boxed themselves in echo chambers feels pointless.
  • Getting your content read involves promoting it on toxic and exploitative social media platforms.
  • I want to spend less time on the Internet in general.
  • I’ve got other writing projects I want to do.

To that last point, I’ll share something soon about how you can follow future writings. I’m thinking an email newsletter at the moment. The site will stay up for a while as I have paid for hosting at least through May of 2022. I still want to write a book on Abbas Kiarostami. I also want to finish a novel for once in my life even if it’s terrible. I’m not done writing, I’ve done it too long to want to give it up now, but I’ve done the website game so long now that I’m ready for a change.

Animation TV

Berserk (1997) Would Be Great if it Wasn’t Sexist

Berserk (1997) covers the beloved Golden Age arc from the original manga of the same name and condenses it down to 25 animated episodes. At the risk of ticking off diehard Berserk fans, I’m taking a stance here and saying I much prefer the anime to the manga. There are great things about the manga, mostly the fantastic black and white art by Kentaro Miura (RIP), but the manga indulges in tangents and volume long fights that bog down the core story. The anime does a much better job of hitting the same dramatic beats without indulging in fights than can take over 100 pages to resolve.

Before diverging, let’s start with the commonality: both cover the story of Guts (Nobutoshi Canna), a mercenary for hire in a fictional medieval era land. Guts crosses paths with Griffith (Toshiyuki Morikawa), the leader of Band of the Hawks, a striking man of vision with great charisma. Guts joins the Hawks, butting heads with female commander Casca (Yûko Miyamura), one of the leaders of the group who believes Griffith’s affection for Guts puts both Griffith and the Band of Hawks at risk.

Both stories work because of the strong personalities and a world that eases you into the fantasy elements. By the end of this story, the nature of who is being fought and what the stakes are is on a whole different plane of understanding and existence than the opening episodes. The deeper you go into Berserk the more you realize that this world is working on so many levels beyond the perspective of any one character. 

It’s also compelling because Guts is, to a large extent, fascinating in spite of what initially appear to be stereotypical traits of male bravado. He’s prone to outburst of anger, he’s often needlessly cruel towards people close to him, he has a complete disregard for his own safety and time and again breaks rank and custom on a whim. And yet there’s a fierce loyalty to him, like a mad dog who only is loyal to one man, that makes Guts fascinating to watch. But he doesn’t stay in that place. By the time the arc ends, Guts has evolved.

Griffith is equally compelling, although for entirely different reasons given that he’s the soft-spoken, emotionless, and calculated of the two. He leads with an air of control, sometimes of seeming indifference, but always with a pinpoint sense of purpose and control. He’s that guy who doesn’t even have to try to be cool but is also so single-mindedly driven to one thing that he honestly does not care about the many distractions that would waylay a less focused person. His dream and vision provides direction and purpose to people who otherwise feel lost in a world that makes little sense.

Rounding out the leads is Casca and this is the character that gets into the nasty parts of Berserk. There’s no beating around the bush here: Berserk is a manga and anime written by a man and made for men. While Miura did an admirable job at making Casca a compelling character in her own right, probably the most complex of the three leads as she is constantly at odds with her love of Griffth, disdain for Guts, sense of professionalism towards being a commander, and general anger at being slighted as both a soldier and a woman, she’s ultimately reduced to being a woman first and foremost in all the places where it matters. 

One key plot point that drives a multi-episode arc of the show is the fact she is too weak to fight because she gets her period. And the final treatment of her character in the last episode is just downright heinous, although I will say that I think the manga is worse on both of these fronts, especially because the anime severely tones down the length it spends on depicting women getting raped. 

Whether or not you feel like you can stomach that will probably be a good gauge as to whether or not Berserk is something for you. I’m conflicted because there’s a lot to love here but I just for the life of me wish that Miura had found a way to not pull a classic woman in the refrigerator move for a character I had come to like as much as Casca. It might legitimately be the only thing holding me back from calling Berserk great.

This is not to say that there aren’t other flaws. While I generally like the style and palette of the animation, some might find the colorized version of this sacreligious given Miura’s strong black and white work. The show occasionally tries to mimic the style with these freeze frames it uses to intensify moments of action but they come across as tonally jarring.

Also, like a lot of anime, when it comes to certain sequences of scale or scope the frames are either panned stills or generic shots that find lazy ways to animate as little as possible. I understand that animation is an expensive process and that especially in the 90s cranking out tons of shows like this meant that you had to employ time-saving techniques, but there are more and more moments as the show goes on where it feels like the quality of the animation takes a hit.

That being said, they do pull out all the stops for the final two episodes which honestly make for a fantastic set of some of the most deliciously hellish and bizarre stuff committed to celluloid. It was bonkers when Miura drew it and I think this rendition might even be more effective. It’s an iconic conclusion to this arc and one that pretty solidified Berserk as a story people will be talking about for years to come.

And as much as I hate to circle back to it, I think the tough question becomes, is Berserk something I can recommend to people in spite of how it horrifically exploits its female lead character by the end of the story? I wish I had an easy answer for this. I think the anime version is much more palatable than the manga for a number of reasons, one of which is that Miura seems to spend way too much time drawing in detail far more than what he needs to show to convey the point. 

It’s complicated because I don’t think at any point the show is trying to condone the behavior and I understand that to a large extent the moment is more about Griffith and Guts than it is about Casca, which is exactly the problem. Casca goes from a character of great agency to essentially a plot device to further the story of men and there are so many shows out there where I don’t have to dedicate multiple paragraphs working out whether or not I can recommend a show because of that. 

With that in mind I think I will leave it at this. I’d recommend this show if you are interested in either the history of anime or Berserk as a cultural artifact. If you want to watch a compelling fantasy epic, I think you need to seek stories that do better by women. I honestly haven’t watched a lot of fantasy anime so I’m not sure what those are but there are plenty of female led fantasy books out there that I think are much more worthy of your time and also much better than Berserk (The Mistborn trilogy is an easy pick that comes to mind). 

It’s frustrating because I understand why people love Berserk. I want to be one of those people. I can see Berserk’s influences on Dark Souls which I love, but the regressive treatment of women is something that drags down and undercuts the story by the finale. There are better, more edifying worlds than don’t marginalize women in order to craft compelling stories and those are the ones I’m going to recommend people watch instead.

© James Blake Ewing 2021

Animation Film

Ghost in the Shell Gets Exposition Right

Ghost in the Shell is a film that excels in so many areas it’s almost unfair. A cyberpunk story that is more compelling and thoughtful than many of it’s more sprawling and heavy counterparts, a piece of animation that still holds up as one of the finest works to come out of Japan, and a beast of an action film that moves along at an elegant clip clocking in at under 90 minutes. The film does what it needs to do, does it all superbly, and ends before overstaying its welcome.

And for a film with such control and restraint, it begins at 11: Major Motoko Kusanagi (Atsuko Tanka) stands atop a building, strips, jumps off, and turns invisible midair. It only gets weirder from there. What follows is a plot to discover an international hacker who has made their way to Tokyo. Soon larger government forces are involved, hinting at a global conspiracy to hide the existence of this hacker.

Most people’s point of reference for this film will be The Matrix, a popular sci-fi flick that cribs liberally from Ghost in the Shell. Scenes and shots are often directly transplanted into The Matrix and certain ideas and themes are reworked. But the Wachowskis misidentify why the philosophical underpinnings work in Ghost in the Shell.

The ideas of Ghost in the Shell drive the drama of the Major grappling with her own sense of self and identity while The Matrix falls into the safe tropes of the hero’s journey arc and uses the philosophical exposition more as thematic set dressing for a big-budget kung-fu film with lots of gunfights in between and a sprinkling of cyberpunk.

I compare the two films because the reason why Ghost in the Shell is so much shorter is because exposition comes as we get to know the characters. Deep musings happen over a couple of cyborgs drinking beer, not a flashy demonstration of visual effects and world-building. These moments are as much about who the characters are and what they want as they are about grappling with the larger themes of personhood and transhumanist ideas. Ghost in the Shell understands cyberpunk because cyberpunk is about making the fantasy of blending human and machine mundane. 

That’s why Major spends so much of the film naked. It initially feels gratuitous, but the film never leers at her body or even presents her as a sexual being. There’s no romance, no lust, not even a suggestion that the Major has a sense of being a human woman anymore. To the Major, her body is simply a tool that now functions as a crime-stopping device. It may have the aesthetic beauty of the female form, but beneath the skin it’s cold steel, simply a casing for something perhaps more machine than man. The skin is simply a casing for what lies beneath.

What is alluring is the intricate animation. This is a film that stands among the most well-regarded anime films, spoken in the same breath as films such as Akira and Spirited Away. It still stands up as a top notch piece of animation and shows how at the height of hand-drawn animation a level of fidelity and detail could be achieved and expressed that few animated films have achieved since. The attention to both the detail of the machinery and the movements of bodies shows a dedication to a sense of realism while also understanding when to break the bounds for stylized effect.

Probably the best demonstration of this scene is the iconic fight in the water, a great demonstration of both the augmented abilities of cyborgs as well as the animator’s ability to create a sense of fluid motion and movement while one character is invisible. It’s a fantastic sequence that stands as one of the finest moments of animation in any film.

And as fantastic as all these elements are, they’re secondary to how Ghost in the Shell plays as a transcendent piece of sci-fi storytelling. A good sci-fi story uses technology to expose ideas about the human condition but Ghost in the Shell also ponders the nature of what personhood will look like in a world where we have the potential to become disembodied. At what point do we lose ourselves as we begin to inhabit something that no longer feels human.

It’s a compelling question, one that wonders at the real possibilities of transhumanism and disembodiment in a technological age where everything in the human body is replaceable. It speaks to the idea of a human soul but also wonders about the importance of the body and what might be lost along the way. Like the best works of art, the film’s not presumptuous to give us quick and easy answers, only to ask us to ponder difficult questions.

© James Blake Ewing 2021

Board Games

Kingdomino: The Domino Game You Need to Play

Dominoes is a ubiquitous game with simple, easy rules to grasp but also the flexibility to allow for a lot of different kinds of games akin to a deck of playing cards. As a kid I also loved the feel of a good domino and would sometimes open the box and play with them by arranging them in various shapes or organizing them in different patterns. It was pure play with no rules governing my time with the dominoes but there was something compelling about putting them together.

Kingdomino is a tile laying game that reminds me of those times of play, albeit this time with rules governing the activity. You’re tasked with building a five by five kingdom with domino shapes with different types of lands on each end of the domino. It turns my childhood puttering into a little puzzle that continues to be satisfying after numerous plays. There are two simple twists that make the game more complex than it should be given the simplicity of the rules.

Each player selects a domino from a descending row of dominoes. The back of each domino is a number and four dominoes are arranged lowest to highest, flipped over and then players will one by one select one of the unchosen dominoes. The kicker is that after the first round turn order is determined by the pick of the last round’s domino, the lower the number picked, the earlier you go in the round. 

This makes decisions deliciously tricky. What might be the optimal domino for your kingdom this round might put you last in the turn order next round. Other times there will be two equally good options and you’ll end up picking the one that lets you go earlier in the next round only to realize three turns later that choice blocked you out of legally placing an even better tile. And to top it all off, since you can see everyone else’s kingdom, you can also swoop underneath players and take a tile that would give them a big advantage, making this light little tile game also a vicious take that game in certain situations where you don’t have a great option for a round but can rob someone else from a big point turn.

I haven’t talked about points up to this point because it’s deceptively simple but is the underbelly of the game that makes all the moment to moment choices so compelling. You score a region of similar tiles by taking the number of connected squares and multiply it by the number or crowns in that territory. It’s simple multiplication but the distribution of the region tiles and crowns for each region is unique meaning that you might go for the low crowns high territory play and try to make one massive score region or you could go for the very small territory with lots of crowns that can give you just as many point in a few well placed squares. 

And going middle of the road can often result in getting a few decent scoring regions. There’s a balancing act here and you often pivot strategies depending on what other people are going for and whether or not you are getting first pick on a key round. Hold out for that one tile you need only to have it snatched up beneath you can ruin a kingdom. The safe bet is to go for the more plentiful territories but it’ll be harder to get the crowns for those as almost every player will have some of the most common territories in their kingdom.

A couple of optional rules adds depth for the more experienced players. Making a perfect 5×5 kingdom gives you bonus points as does having your starting castle square in the middle of your kingdom. It’s a great way to reward the players who go for planning, ballance, and aesthetics over optimal point play although I don’t recommend it for any game with a new player as it gives more experienced players a strong advantage to blow ahead with the bonus points score as it’s easier to achieve this when you know the distribution of tiles.

I find this game delightfully satisfying to play, one that reminds me of why I enjoyed goofing around with dominoes as a kid. There’s something satisfying with the colors and patterns that makes this game instantly click. It’s a quick, light game that you’ll likely want to play several times in a row and for good reason. It’s a satisfying puzzle that gives you a sense of accomplishment even if you don’t win.

I would put this firmly in the family and casual weight category of games. It’s an easy game to teach, especially since most people are familiar with the basics of matching dominoes. If your idea of a good game is something that takes up a whole afternoon, first, I’m impressed you’re still reading this review after so many signposts being put out there that this game is not for you. Second, this is not going to give you enough decisions and strategy to keep you engaged. That’s fine. However, if you like something you could have a light conversation over or maybe slip in after dinner, play on a double date or family night, this is your game. It’s small, it’s simple, you should probably try it. If you don’t enjoy it I can guarantee you know someone who will.

© James Blake Ewing 2021

Animation TV

The Simpsons 1.8-1.13

1.08 The Telltale Head

Bart tries to impress the local troublemakers by stealing the statue head of Springfield founder Jebediah Springfield. Told as a flashback as Bart and Homer are surrounded in the town square by an angry mob, Bart implores the mob to listen to his reason behind stealing the head. It all begins with a Sunday morning at church.