Last call

I’m not a fan of year in review type things in general. Maybe it’s because I’m always looking back. Maybe that’s because I’m perpetually behind. Who knows. But, I think 2008 is worth a blurb, so here goes.

2008 was a memorable year, unfortunately it was mostly of the want-to-forget-but-can’t kind. I kind of saw it coming, but it’s one of those things where you can’t start drinking fast enough, because it only seems to get nastier.

I know, this has absolutely nothing related to what this site ought to be about. Hopefully this is a crisis that is totally irrelevant to you. That’s all I want to say about 2008 in particular.

On to brighter things.

Some take the holidays to change their site banner, or theme, or otherwise retool. I suppose that you could say that I do those things, but they tend to be more drastic in nature. 2008 will be no different.

The layout is austere, but don’t read too much into that.

For my feed subscribers, the feed that brought you to this post is going to transition to a shortened feed containing blurbs that I embed in the images on the front page (mouse hover titles) and use for archives. They don’t appear anywhere else, but they’re kind of lame, so it’s up to you whether you want to keep subscribing to it.

In its place, I’ve created a new full feed.

That’s all. Best wishes for 2009, and I’ll see you on the other side.

Classical music in motion

Everyone has a reason for getting into a series, even if it can’t be articulated. For me, with respect to Nodame Cantabile, it was association. The conversation, if translated from the firings of neurons, probably went like this:

  • “Dude, it’s a series about music. You’re a band nerd, this is right up your alley.”
  • “I dunno man, you know that a band is not an orchestra.”
  • “Oh hey, there’s a pianist involved. You (used to) know a thing (just one) about playing the piano. Give it a shot.”
  • “… fine.”

Unvoiced (ha ha) was the expectation that music could be well integrated into the story, in much the same way that SCIENCE(!) was decently integrated into at least the first half of Moyashimon.

Despite being a very good series, this integration is one aspect that is lacking. Certainly there is no shortage of hysteria concerning the performance of music, but the kind of impact it has on the story is purely psychological which…is to be expected. As for the music itself, the story takes a temporary backseat when it appears. People play it, some grown adults get all sparkly, some even have their lives forever altered, the music stops, and the story resumes.

I just realized today that I was half-expecting moving pictures to make classical music cool. I forgot to account for the fact that somewhere along the line, there’s supposed to be a continuing plot.

This realization came about as I was reliving childhood memories, namely The Cat Concerto and Rabbit Rhapsody. Amid the hilarity, there is a lot of mechanical complexity being animated. Fingers press keys, keys move hammers, hammers strike strings and occasionally a mouse. It looks just as hard it sounds, but to young children that means cool and awesome.

Even though it was before my time, I’d also include Disney’s LOL asbestos in with the above two, having (probably) been the first instance of an animated performance of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.

Seeing all this, I wonder what kind of case is to be made for rendering instrumental performance in CG.

Back on track, I guess you could say that in something like Nodame and La Corda d’Oro, the music is purely incidental, the kind that gets played during breaks in the story, which is ironic given that few (any?) of the pieces showcased are incidental at all.

In the absence of performance antics, the best kind of integration would be a journey through “Music Space,” another world where the progression of a piece is interpreted as a vision. I guess that’s entering Fantasia 1940/2000 territory and thus wholly uneconomical, but know that what we have now is merely a sideshow and an excuse to fill running time.

Cursory research:

The Cat Concerto and Rhapsody Rabbit have been mired in controversy, the charge being plagiarism. Reading this plausible explanation, I agree that RR is better played, but my own vote goes to TCC because I like the dramatic opening, the wicked single octave close, and the fact that there are less brazen interruptions.

Etc:

I wanted to dig up a video of the Minute Waltz Mouse. The performance in Hyde and Hare never clicked with me, but I was absolutely enthralled by the shy mouse with glasses who got a shot at Carnegie Hall (I think). And when I finally began to play the Minute Waltz myself, I couldn’t stop thinking, “This is too awesome.” Never got close to Carnegie Hall myself, but the waltz was a blast.

Ninja edit: It’s Pizzicato Pussycat, and includes a snippet of Liebesträume, and the Minute Waltz is jazzed up, which makes it even better. How jazz entered in because the sheet music was upside down, though, is an open question.

An excuse to bring up Dennou Coil

Relevant documentation indeed. Although, ANN must have made a translation error. If Dennou Coil was based on a novel, that would be both surprising and awesome. I mean, if this were true, this would have been common knowledge.

If you believe Wikipedia, then that novel series began one month before the anime first aired. And if you believe Wikipedia again, then the concept was a decade in the making. It’s possible that the first volume of the novel was also a decade in the making, and only the author and production staff knew of its existence, but… I’m just beating a dead horse at this point aren’t I.

Apsalus project goes COTS

08th MS Team, Episode 10: Apsalus activation sequence

Was taking a stroll down 08th lane and spotted the above. The first time I watched 08th MS Team was some years ago so if I did notice it at the time, I must have forgot about it.

The process for choosing these terms must have been a riot. Rather than try to project into the future, someone took an inventory of systems and components around the office, stopping to check Windows Control Panel on one of them.

If there’s one thing to take away from this, it is to exploit diversity by using more than one operating system, as well as a couple processor vendors and architectures.

Twelve years after the first OVA installment, what might some of these terms be instead? I have some guesses for the first column.

  • Motherboard of your choice
  • AMD Phenom
  • NetBSD / x86 (but in theory runs on anything)
  • VIA Nano
  • DDC-2AB (still relevant display data channel)
  • HDMI (needed a newer display interface)
  • DirectX 10 SDK
  • I have no idea what Enhanced 46D4 might be
  • SATA 3Gb/s (6Gb/s is in the pipeline)
  • Wideband CDMA for UMTS (GMSK is the modulation for GSM)
  • GPIB / IEEE-488 (still in use)
  • Cell Broadband Engine (the future of SIMD on RISC)

As for the second column, I can only guess at what the entires are for two of them. The IA-32 architecture is quite alive and kicking, and you can’t really ever get rid of internationalization. The usability folk could never accept a UI that was understandable in only one language.

The worst-laid plans of Cyclops and men

MS Igloo 2, Episode 1: Don't grab me bro

MS Igloo 2 looks set to deliver tragedies in tidy boxes, continuing in the footsteps of its predecessor. As far as the first OVA went, the most noticeable improvement over the first MS Igloo is in the characters, who used to be cold, pasty, and moved in a stiff fashion not unlike…robots. The CG exceeds even that used in Vexille and the Appleseed‘s, so the march of progress continues.

Because MS Igloo loosely chronicled the collapse of Zeon, the new technologies rolled out took a desperate and absurd turn, which left a mixed impression on me. I don’t anticipate the same thing happening this time around, because we’re tracking the winners of the conflict.

What hasn’t changed, it seems, is the depiction of obsolescence of weapons and their users throughout the evolving One Year War. This made for great watching, as test pilots made their own peace with their outdated machines, facing the inevitable as best they could.

This first installment of MS Igloo 2 isn’t compelling from that standpoint. Where making a mistake is highly correlated with death, you could argue that a lot of the MS Igloo pilots did not make any mistakes until the very end. It’s hard to watch a string of screw-ups, so this was a plus.

MS Igloo 2, Episode 1: As a spectator, I too am horrified at the turn of events

Discounting the mistake we see in that night air patrol, official mistake number one was the decision to let an unhinged lieutenant lead a grab bag of veterans and recruits in rear-guard action, without armor, artillery, or close-air support. Mistake number two was waxing poetic to convince the lieutenant to do it.

Fortunately, Zeon is not without its share of slightly unhinged people, and this one pilot serves himself up for what should have been a textbook play. But for all the small head scratchers — no wireline communication, no centralized fire control, letting scratchy-voiced recruits do their own thing, lots of choke on battlefield — the one that blows them all away is a deus ex machina.

MS Igloo 2, Episode 1: How convenient

Literally.

So you mean to tell me that this Zaku has been camping underground this whole time, lets two comrades die, and then jumps out to ambush the Federation platoon, which by this time has only one member left standing. Maybe the pilot’s a glory hog? Maybe the three of them didn’t get along? Locker room tension?

No wonder Zeon lost the war. They let crazy metaphor-rambling infantry commanders beat the stuffing out of them.

Were this some other series, I’d be inclined to stamp the trainwreck seal of approval and call it a day. But for a franchise that, while admittedly small, seems to take great care in all aspects of production, it’s almost upsetting. The next two installments hopefully will be better in the writing department.

If there was one thing that might have salvaged overall opinion on the show, it would be the circle strafe in a jeep. Now usually it takes some practice to do in a 1v1 because you have to keep moving while firing. You’d think that with one person doing the moving, and one person doing the firing, it would have been a piece of cake. I forgot that at least one person has to act all macho, yell some insults, generally not pull the trigger, and then get the both of them ripped apart via shrapnel mines.

Misleading mix

Wikipedia gets it right and Sano(suke) elaborates: Eternally -Drama Mix- is more session/cut than mix. I concede that using “mix” or “remix” is tantamount to giving any track a new lease on life, but there’s got to be some room for creativity here. I mean, we got Final Distance out of Distance.

There’s some circumstantial evidence to support the claim that the vocals are from a different session, and not one taken recently. For one, her singing is not the same; the little quirks in her voice don’t line up between the two versions. On the other hand, it is close enough, i.e. the gap isn’t 7 years wide.

More circumstantially, I don’t think she’d want to step into the studio to record this again anyway. Final Distance, being the closest relative to Eternally, only ever got 2 live performances.

That’s too bad. I’ve always liked Eternally, being about as close to a high school dance ballad as you’re ever going to get out of Utada Hikaru. And just like Hero, I fell pretty hard for the sentimentality and faux-nostalgia (what could a 12 year old possibly be nostalgic for?). These days, the sentimentality’s still there, but not so much the nostalgia. Those memories are now subject to constant suppression.

Seems like reaction is generally favourable, on the strength of “better vocals.” There is a bit more in the way of embellishment, but better? Try louder. In this case, louder is kind of sort of better, if only because a boost at the mixer board beats me turning up the volume any day of the week.

But if this take was strictly better in terms of singing merit, you’d think that this would have been the one to make it into the gold master. Truth is, circa 2001, this alternate session was not better, although the differences are immaterial save for those additional decorative figures.

That’s the point, though. This slightly busier session fits well with the more prominent piano, guitar and string parts. It’s richer, yet at the same time it lacks the gravity of the original.

How could that be? Louder percussion, basically, because believe it or not, a strong backbeat generates more movement than a weak backbeat.

Vocals help, too. What one calls decoration — split voicing right in the first chorus, that ad-lib line in the first interlude — another perceives as distraction and excess. Are those things not there to fill space?

If nothing else, I wish that they kept the bass line strong. It feels as if the foundation has been knocked out of this re-cut.

So I get why they (whoever they are) did what they did. This re-cut is rosier and, lacking a solid tether, floats pretty well in air. Maybe that’s what innocent love is, after all.

More holes than a country full of Jags

Vexille: Getting eaten by a Jag so soon was not in the cards

Vexille could have been longer. Not the movie itself — which could have been shorter — but the story contained therein, which could have used an OVA to explain such things like the ability of a pariah nation to wield political influence on the world stage.

And the Jags.

A cross between the Borg and the sandworms of Dune, Jags have the dubious distinction of being at once horrifying and utterly misplaced. These spontaneously self-organizing tubes of metal are mindless tornadoes of destruction, leveling whole mountains for their metal content.

They are also perpetual machines with no apparent power source, and despite seemingly ripping apart the terrain by their constant burrowing and leaping, there is no sand for vehicles to get stuck in. Someone also forgot to consider the fact that humans have some metal (i.e. iron), which becomes relevant halfway to the end of the whole thing.

Vexille: Could use a spare fuel tank

Speaking of longer, someone should have spent a little longer thinking through some of the details in this movie: the need to deploy a transmitter on land as opposed to using a transmission buoy; vicious retaliation over said transmitter while the backup was not; no extra fuel tanks; Jags that conveniently outrun any vehicle when it really matters; tunnel operators that conveniently go deaf, again, when it really matters; a supposedly subservient android that turns out to be not so mindless.

The more one thinks about it, the more inconsistencies and arbitrary decisions that can be found in Vexille, which is a shame because there are some things worth thinking about. Vexille is in many ways a darker imagining of Appleseed, which may not be too surprising considering the director of the former was the producer of the latter circa 2004.

Trade bioroids for more conventional sounding androids, an open and free Olympus for an isolationist Japan, and the transition between the two is made. Splice in the paranoia of North Korea, replace “nuclear weapons” with “androids,” and you have the starting premise.

We are exposed to two worlds, one where humans are surrounded by machines and feel less than human as a result, and the other populated by human-machines trying to live out their last days as humans. The glimpse of the (deceptively) free world of the future is fleeting, but is more than compensated for by an extended stay in a shanty town that is certainly deceptive in its liveliness, for there runs an undercurrent of fatalism and quiet horror as the residents face one of two paths: to become but one cell of a ravenous Jag, or to become a slave to the last standing corporation on the face of Japan. Vexille’s portrayals of Jags and the final android metamorphosis are absolutely visceral, and drive home the fact that neither is pleasant.

What we are witness to is the final stages of extinction of a race. If all those glossed-over details had not marred this fact, it would have been very powerful.

Vexille: Human-machine shield

Along the way, there are moments of brilliance. None of the relationships are adequately fleshed out, but when the movie decides not to lecture us, it can produce short scenes like the above.

Vexille: Missile squad reporting

And then, there are moments of badass. The missile squad looks like something from out of Command and Conquer, which is kind of funny considering that Germany’s anti-gore laws forced Westwood to make all CnC 2 infantry units cyborgs that bled black blood…

Such scenes can be viewed two ways, as in “Dude he just cut off his own leg to avoid capture!” versus “Oh my God, he just cut off his own leg to avoid capture!” The carnage is beautiful to behold. Jags, for all their terrifying qualities, are amazingly detailed and flow like you might expect a couple kilotons of metal to flow, probably thanks to a supercomputing cluster working out the physics.

I think the next frontier is to get faces down, because I find myself giving a more goodwill to renditions of inorganic surfaces than to human ones.

There’s also Paul Oakenfold, if you happen to like Paul Oakenfold.

Vexille: Awaiting the inevitable

Vexille got a few grand things right, but so many little things wrong. It’s not something I will soon forget, but probably only because I watched it through human-tinted glasses.

[Meh-ta] My brain is not a pipe (but it’s okay if yours is)

Is your brain like this?

In a small triumph for the community, the vague term that is “mental bandwidth” has been appropriated for the cause, at least according to Google.  I suppose that this is nothing new, in that jargon and genres go hand in hand, but this is a success of dubious merit, the term having long been abused in the business and technical fields.

Because, you see, the original spirit of “bandwidth” was an inquiry into what happens when you shake something around, be it electrically, digitally, or mechanically. So in a literal sense, mental bandwidth could imply some insight as to what happens to your head if someone were to grab your shoulders and shake it at some fixed frequency while screaming, “Are you barking mad?”

Just because it’s possible to relate throughput to bandwidth does not mean that bandwidth is throughput, because that implies that any old system or construct has the sole purpose of passing information. Brains, particularly those belonging to panicked undergrad students staring down an exam, have been known to pass information at an obscene rate, but I recognize that they are most valuable when retaining and processing it.

On the real topic of watching a series or episode more than once, might I propose a more applicable term: Learning Curve. If you want to learn more about what you’ve seen, then you will climb it. Otherwise, garbage in, garbage out. Huge amount of bandwidth throughput in that case!

On a side note, buildings have bandwidth too. You can measure it by seeing how they react in an earthquake or strong winds. Try it out on yours today!

The immolated shed their light upon the world

You could say that this is the spoiler-filled part on FLAG, so reader discretion is advised.

Episode 1: Cel on CG

But that’s not the reason why it was split out: there are enough themes in FLAG such that even a cursory overview should receive its own entry. I claimed that FLAG can be a lot of things, and you can take issue over whether they’re there or not, but the one thing which you absolutely cannot argue about is that it is about one man’s quest for closure.

And yet, that is not at all apparent. But the clues are there, paraded around in plain view:

  • Narration in the past tense
  • Non-linear editing, and the frequent returns to the laptop
  • An overriding atmosphere of futility sprinkled with regret
  • The ED’s setting, from which the narrator speaks
  • The last shot in the ED

In a twist of storytelling, everything comes together in the final episode, and it’s driven home by an extension of the last point above.

Throughout the series, Keiichi wrestles with his responsibility in Saeko’s death, real or perceived, even as he tells us the meaning of being a photographer and cameraman. The two are not exactly related, but they’re close enough that it’s evident he dislikes having those close to him adopt the stance that he himself has taken.

With all the military operations taking place under the cover of night, FLAG is a predominantly dark experience, but that’s deceptive. Battles may be fought in the pitch black but the exploding missiles, grenades, and vehicles are anything but. To go into battle is to go into the light.

That’s not what we normally associate with the word “light,” though. Light is benevolent; it cuts a path through the shadows, gives us direction. But isn’t that the express purpose of tracers, as well?

Episode 5: Moth spray

It was the assertion of Lt. Ichiyanagi that moths know that they will be burned by the light, and so they must be idiots. Unspoken was the implication that he also felt that he was like a moth, but Keiichi has no problem in spelling out for us that his peers in foreign correspondence are very much the same animal: foolhardy men and women who gleefully run towards what could kill them.

But when the world is blanketed in darkness, there is no other option but to seize the light and spread it from bare and burnt hands, despite the knowledge that the light may deny you, or even consume you on contact. And so to grasp at the torch is to pray; a prayer to be allowed to hold it at all, and a prayer that it not destroy you in the process.

Saeko was inspired by prayer. It was the subject of the photo that she latched onto at Keiichi’s exhibition. It was what she was originally trying to capture when she accidentally took the Flag Photo. Without the Flag, the photo would likely have had value only to Saeko herself.

Soldiers fight because they believe that they can create a better outcome than could be had without fighting. Journalists are ready for the next story, for the next piece of truth, and with cameras ready they believe that it must come.

To Saeko, the act of prayer, in any form, was a belief in the future. Perhaps the future can only be a brighter place. That’s certainly something worth believing in.

Episode 12: Flag recovered

Being a former band geek, I am going to put in a small word for And the Multitude with One Voice Spoke, by James L. Hosay. In it, you can clearly hear the spirit of the March on Washington and I Have a Dream. I wouldn’t be honest if I said that it had no effect on the writing of this.

For want of a flag

Episode 1: UNF under attack

FLAG is gritty, at least in a very visual way: grain, and lots of it. Artificially added, I suspect.

There are a couple interesting things going for this series. With the exception of the first two episodes, FLAG was only available through web streaming. The other is the documentary style, with much of the series being depicted through a viewfinder, or through still shots.

I have mixed feelings about this, but for the most part it works. There are lapses where things that should have been recorded are being shown without the familiar camera interface overlay. But what eventually got to me were two things, both of which are shown below.

Episode 10: Moths to a flame

For whatever reason, the camera always has 56 minutes of operation left. Always. There are two dominant battery-powered cameras in the series, and with only one exception, they are always at full charge and 56 minutes left, respectively.

The TCR on the 56 minutes camera jumps around for no real reason. When the camera cuts to another shot in the scene, the TCR is known to go backwards.

These kinds of inconsistencies threaten to devalue the whole experience which, at its height, conveys a sense of claustrophobia as we are steered around by an unseen operator. It is this gatekeeper that determines what we can see and what we cannot, but in the case of HUD feeds during combat, we see what the soldier sees, and in those situations the field of view cannot be wide enough.

Episode 1: HAVWC

Combat in FLAG may not always be intense, but it is never lacking in tension. When the camera stares down an incoming RPG, all the composite armor in the world won’t eliminate the base instinct to duck. And it’s not as if HAVWC’s are impervious to everything: despite the claim that they can deal with any weapons platform thrown at it, it’s shown that they are remarkably open to attack, and defeat, by helicopters.

So there’s a sense of mortality with this special forces unit and their advanced robots, perhaps fitting an overall atmosphere of vulnerability and helplessness that pervades the series. There are enough images of destruction and impending death in the OP alone, to say nothing of the firepower that the belligerents bring to bear on each other, and the locals, over the course of 13 episodes.

Episode 12: Prayer flagpole

You can call the country in conflict whatever you want. The producers like Uddiyana. I prefer Tibet. The concept of a ruling religious authority, led by a re-incarnated figure, screams obvious. An abundance of colourful prayer flags and prayer wheels merely seals the deal. FLAG also comes with mountain ranges, nomads, and the yurts that they live in.

Like Tibet, Uddiyana is fodder for commentary. Commentary on military intervention, on military occupation, on the importance of symbolism and how people need symbols to get things done, including the business of killing each other. Meanwhile, others risk everything to discover and safeguard these distillates of intangibles.

FLAG can be many things; it is many things. The narration is about the closest thing to prose as you’re likely to find in anime. At this complicated intersection of ancient traditions and modern military, is a minefield of parallels and metaphors. Light, and the absence of light, comes up a lot.

[This passage snipped for organizational purposes. See the follow-up entry when it goes up, if so inlinced.]

The soundtrack is repetitive, but the orchestral OP, the very appropriate ED, and a certain warm clarinet piece, are ripe for cherry picking.

One comment about the voice acting: the lead character is voiced by an actress with overwhelming (exclusive?) live-action experience, and I think it shows. While sounding flat can be construed as naive, which was usually acceptable, it really hurt the combat scenes, wherein she came across as borderline oblivious. Any line expressing worry felt shockingly cold and disingenuous.

FLAG is more interesting than it is entertaining; an experiment that suffered from a couple glitches. Likewise it takes a good shot at realism, but such portrayals are less riveting and more informative. There’s a lot of downtime over the series’ span, where soldiers and journalists alike sit around and wait. Unable to act without information, unable to act without orders, unable to act because of orders, they all draw breath until the next exercise of power.