Eric Carra, who maintained Wonderduck’s Pond, died earlier this month.
I first came across Carra, a.k.a. Wonderduck, nearly twenty years, ago when he was one of the regulars at Steven Den Beste’s place. I soon discovered that he had a lively and well-written weblog of his own, which immediately became one of my daily stops.
He wrote largely of Formula One racing and military history, with an emphasis on the Battle of Midway. There were also rubber ducks, baseball, music, his job and events in his life. And there was anime. The Duck and I had very different tastes, and partly for that reason he was always valuable reading. When we both liked something — Yuru Camp, Roy Clark, etc. — the chances are that it really was good.
There are about eighteen years of vigorous, entertaining writing at the Pond. Pick a random month and browse; you’ll probably find something worth reading. My favorite posts are the series of episode reviews for the utterly ridiculous Rio Rainbow Gate in early months of 2011, starting January 5 and continuing through April 15. The show’s brazen combination of illogic and fanservice provided a splendid opportunity for the Duck to employ his gifts for snark and sarcasm. If Rio is mentioned in future histories of animation, it will be for providing Wonderduck a suitable target, just as Colley Cibber is remembered because of Alexander Pope’s satires.
In memory of Eric Carra, I’ll watch a few episodes of Azumanga Daioh tonight.
And now for last year’s wastes of time.
Mostly I watched old favorites such as Shingu and Galaxy Angel. There were a few noteworthy recent shows I watched all the way through, but only a few. I’ve mentioned Miss Kuroitsu from the Monster Development Department and Super Cub before. There was also Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! Ordinarily I have no interest in anime about making anime, particularly if it involves high school girls, but this one was by Masaaki Yuasa, who makes anime unlike other anime. So I gave it a try.
Midori Asakusa watched Miyazaki’s Future Boy Conan at an early age and has wanted to make anime ever since. She fills sketchbooks with concept art for the shows she wants to make. She’s short, shy and awkward. Tsubame Mizusaki is fascinated by movement and fills her sketchbooks with animation and figure studies. She’s pretty and extroverted, and is incidentally a popular fashion model. When Asakusa and Mizusaki meet and discover their complementary obsessions, they immediately imagine anime together. For implausible reasons they can’t join the anime club already existing at their high school, so they form their own. By themselves they would probably accomplish little together — Asakusa constantly flies off on tangents rather than fully develop her scenarios, and Mizusaki is apt to spend hours perfecting a single arm movement. Fortunately, Asakusa’s mercenary comrade Sayaka Kanamori is the third member of their club. Kanamori is tall and thin and scowls at everyone. She has no artistic talent. However, she’s practical, crafty, understands money and business, and is adept at dealing with bureaucracies such as high school administrations and overly powerful student councils. As producer to Asakusa’s director and Mizusaki’s animator, she keeps the creatives focused on their projects and effectively combats the external forces that interfere with their work.
Yuasa has stated that animation should be fun. Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! may not be a pretty show, but it is a lively one. It could hold your interest even with the sound and subtitles off, but then you would miss Kanamori’s sarcasm. There are a bunch of screencaps below the fold.
Worth a mention, though not actually animation1: Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou is finally being legally published in English. Until now, translations of this cosiest of catastrophes could only be found through irregular channels. The first twenty-four chapters of the story of the waning of humanity and the rise of likable robots are available now; the next batch should be out in May.2
While I have absolutely no interest in contemporary Western animation, I do like many old cartoons. I recently rewatched a lot of the old Warner Brothers’ Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes. The best of them are as fresh as ever and are among the masterworks of the 20th century. Chuck Jones, Mel Blanc and Carl Stalling3 are legendary, but there are a couple of other names in the credits that deserve attention as well: writer Michael Maltese, and Milt Franklyn, Stalling’s assistant and successor. (It was Franklyn who condensed Wagner’s oeuvre to six minutes for “What’s Opera, Doc?“)
I also sampled a collection of Tex Avery’s MGM cartoons. “Red Hot Riding Hood” is a classic, and some of the others are pretty good, notably those featuring Droopy. However, too many of them are little more than series of gags strung together, and none of Avery’s MGM characters are as engaging as Bugs and Daffy. Some are downright annoying, such as Screwball Squirrel. Great animation is not enough to redeem pedestrian scripts.
Rocky and His Friends and The Bullwinkle Show were favorites of mine when I was much shorter than I am today. I recently found a complete collection of the shows and have been meandering through it. The moose and squirrel episodes are as good and silly as I remember, as is “Dudley Do-Right.” The “Fractured Fairy Tales” are less consistent but occasionally inspired; “Peobody’s Improbable History” is hit-and-miss, with misses predominating; and, “Aesop and Son” is always lame. The good outweighs the bad and demonstrates that good scripts can compensate for cheap animation.
There is one serious problem with the collection: the music is wrong. Fred Comstock, who wrote the familiar theme music, copyrighted the tunes independently of Jay Ward Productions. When the complete set was compiled, the producers didn’t have the rights to the tunes and had to substitute different melodies. The new music isn’t bad, but it doesn’t have the mock-heroic spirit of the originals.
Fortunately, the music from “Dudley Do-Right” is still there. I particularly like the old-timey piano music featured in the episodes. It was probably composed and performed by Fred Steiner, who wrote music for many television shows and is remembered particularly for the theme to Perry Mason.
Movies and television
I recently watched OddTaxi in the Woods, the movie based on the noir-with-funny-animals series. It turned out to be essentially a clip show with little new material, likely confusing to newcomers and frustrating for those familiar with the show. The movie does tie off the loose end left conspicuously dangling at the end of the show, but it takes two hours to get there. If you’ve seen the series and want to know what happens, jump to the last eight minutes, and keep your finger on the pause button during the end credits. If you haven’t seen OddTaxi and are curious about this idiosyncratic story, skip the movie and watch the series.
What sort of music do you associate with motorcycles? Something fast and furious, like Steppenwolf or The Rodeo Carburettor? Something with fiery guitar, like Joe Satriani or Jan Cyrka?
How about Debussy? The first music heard in the extended Honda commercial Super Cub is his thundering first “Arabesque.” Later in the first episode, when the protagonist goes on her first night ride, she putts along to the pounding beat of “Clair de lune.” Over the course of the twelve episodes there is more Debussy, plus additional piano music by composers from Beethoven to Schumann.1
Against my better judgement, I’ve taken out a membership at Crunchyroll again. While most current shows look like isekai drivel, there are some recent offerings that might be worth my time. Atomic Fungus liked Super Cub, so I started with that.
High school student Koguma states at the beginning of the first episode that “I have no parents. No money, either. Nor do I have any hobbies, anyone I can call a friend, or any goals for the future.” One day, after struggling up a long slope on her bicycle once too often, she stops by a motorcycle shop, where she purchases a Honda Super Cub for a suspiciously low price. One of her classmates turns out to be a Cub enthusiast, and suddenly the emotionally withdrawn Koguma has a friend. Over the course of the series Koguma learns how to ride and maintain her bike, finds a summer job, solves various problems associated with riding a motorcycle, and gradually becomes a more competent and sociable individual.
The series it most resembles is laid-back Yurucamp, with girls doing outdoorsy things, and featuring an introverted central character. There are significant differences, though. Yurucamp‘s Rin is a fundamentally healthy person who enjoys solitude, while Koguma’s isolation at the beginning of Super Cub is nearly pathological. The art and character designs in Yurucamp are more cartoony and the characters themselves more boisterous than their counterparts in Super Cub. And there is no Debussy in Yurucamp. Still, if you enjoyed watching Rin and the Outdoor Activities Club, Super Cub is worth checking out.
I can’t give the show an unreserved recommendation. In the tenth episode, after a snowfall Koguma and her fellow Cub enthusiast frolic on their motorbikes on a snowy field, taking lots of spills. Perhaps it’s not as dangerous as it looks, but it seems like an excellent way to break arms and collar bones. Immediately after that, another girl falls into a stream in freezing weather and calls Koguma for help. Rather than summon emergency services, Koguma carries the barely-conscious girl to her apartment on her motorbike and revives her there. The girl survives and her family is grateful to Koguma, but Koguma’s heroics nearly killed the poor girl.2 If you watch Super Cub, I suggest you stop at the middle of the tenth episode and skip to the twelfth.
A long, long time ago I came across a humorous/satirical website called The Lemon. It’s long gone now; as far as I can tell all that remains is the panel reproduced here. It was the work of Shamus Young, one of the crew who hung around Steven Den Beste’s place. He was perceptive and insightful on gaming, anime and whatever else caught his attention. Over the years he focused increasingly on gaming, but even so he was still worth reading. He wrote well, and his detailed analyses and critiques of games were interesting even to non-gamers like me.
And he was funny. The Lemon may be gone, but DM of the Rings, the one good result of the Peter Jackson catastrophe, is there to read on his website, as is Chainmail Bikini. It is not necessary to have played D&D to enjoy them.
Shamus’s autobiography worth reading, too. His account of his ordeals in grade school is sufficient reason utterly reform or just flat eliminate the education establishment. It starts here.
Shamus Young died Wednesday. Please keep him and his family in your prayers.
While I have little interest in most anime-related products, there are a couple of categories that I have found worth looking for. I’ve occasionally mentioned my annual searches for Japanese calendars. I also have a small collection of anime playing cards, which are much cheaper than figurines and more useful.
Unsurprisingly, the cards from Studio Ghibli are the best, both for the art and for the substance of the cards. Each card has a different picture, all printed at high resolution, and the cards are durable and easy to shuffle and deal. I have decks for Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, and I’ll add others when circumstances permit. Right-click the images and open in a new window to see at full resolution.
For quite a long time, the four years from April 2012 to April 2016 were missing from the archives of Pixy Misa’s mee.nu weblog ecosystem. A few days ago Pixy ran a script to restore the absent pages. At last one can once more read everything that the Brickmuppet, Wonderduck and similar eccentrics posted back then.
I am particularly pleased to be able to read all of Steven Den Beste’s Chizumatic again. Finally I can review his observations on Mouretsu Pirates, Girls und Panzer and Gate, as well as the frequently extensive discussions in the comments. There are also occasional trenchant remarks on the political clownshow mixed in with the anime cheesecake. The restored pages start here and run through here.
Crunchyroll has changed its policy on watching shows for free. Hitherto, those without accounts could see episodes of current shows after a week’s embargo, albeit with six minutes of dumb, loud commercials inserted at awkward moments. Since there are too few good new shows to justify spending $95.88 plus tax for a year’s membership — in all of 2021, I found only two worth watching all the way through — that was acceptable. However, Crunchyroll recently changed its policy. From the spring season on, people without paid memberships can watch only the first three episodes of
any new show some new shows. The hell with it.
Since I no longer download fansubs1, this means I won’t keep up with what’s current. Yeah, there are plenty of older series on Crunchyroll and elsewhere I can still view (with commercials), but while the online collections may be more extensive than mine, they’re mostly junk. My own library is better. I will keep an eye out for further work by Masaaki Yuasa, Hiroyuki Imaishi and Kazuki Nakashima, Kenji Nakamura and a few others, and purchase hard copies when they are available for reasonable prices2, but at this point I’m pretty much done with Japanese animation.
My streaming history does end on a fairly high note. Miss Kuroitsu from the Monster Development Department is the funniest show since at least Endro. There are screencaps below the fold to suggest why I found this study of tokusatsu and corporate cultures from the point of view of the bad guys so entertaining, despite its limited animation budget.
(I can’t quite give the show an unreserved recommendation. One of the characters is a wolf boy who is stuck in a girl’s body because of executive meddling. The writers spend too much time finding ways to make him blush.)
I also watched the rest of Life with an Ordinary Guy Who Reincarnated as a Total Fantasy Knockout. It never quite fell through the thin ice it skated on, and some of it was clever, but despite better animation, it was not in the same class as Kuroitsu. It’s a tolerable waste of time, and that’s it.
I’m down to two shows, which is still twice as many as I was following at this time last year. The best remains Miss Kuroitsu from the Monster Development Department. However, despite its squicky premise, Life with an Ordinary Guy… hasn’t made me throw up yet. It helps to know your isekai clichés.
I watched a few first episodes….
The voice-over in one episode preview in Galaxy Angel AA from twenty years ago has nothing to do with the episode it is presumably describing, yet it seems strangely prescient.
Exaggerated and unfair, but true.
I finished OddTaxi. Noir with (mostly) cute animals works pretty well when the writing is strong. It likely is the best show of the year, though I can’t say for sure because I haven’t watched more than a few episodes of anything else. Considered as anime, it’s something out of the ordinary and worth sampling if you have an interest in animated storytelling. Considered as noir, I’m not so sure. My knowledge of the genre doesn’t extend far beyond “Watching the Detectives,” and I suspect that connoisseurs might find the ending unsatisfyingly upbeat. Iniksbane has mixed feelings. Nick Creamer discusses the first episode in detail here.
The oldest item in Richard’s box of Japanese magazines is a copy of MyAnime. Here are some scans illustrating the state of anime thirty-six years ago. These are large scans; right-click and open in a new window to see them at full resolution.