Bastion: The Kid is All Right and Flying High

Copyright © 2011 by Supergiant Games
Copyright © 2011 by Supergiant Games

Supergiant Games is a studio that keeps giving me new things to be excited about. I really enjoyed Transistor, and I’m looking forward to the upcoming title Pyre. In that spirit, I decided to give their first game, Bastion, a try and see how it compares.

In short? Pretty good, though I’m glad they’re trying different approaches now

The game begins with your character, a stern young fighter known only as “The Kid,” waking up and dealing with the aftermath of a terrible event known as the Calamity. While exploring the ruins of the city Caelondia, he comes across the Stranger, who provides the entire game’s narration. The Kid encounters new weapons, from hammers to arrows to war machetes, and new enemies, who spawn relentlessly. All this he faces in pursuit of his goal: to retrieve the missing cores of a world-managing hub called the Bastion, where they might be able to restore everything and sort out the ruins.

The Kid is your classic silent video game protagonist, but he has more of a backstory than most. As the adventure progresses, we get more glimpses through the Narrator of what the Kid’s life was like before the Calamity. We get an idea of his childhood, his career prospects, and even his love life. All of which gives him a strong motivation to figure out what went wrong and battle the monsters that the apocalypse keeps spawning.

For all my love of artistry and storytelling in video games, I have another side that Bastion appeals to: namely, my love for smashing things (in a game) with a stick. And there is plenty to smash, from pots containing jewels and arcane artifacts to the endless hordes of monsters and turrets that spawn with every new path you walk. At least the game devs were kind enough to give the player the mechanic of the titular Bastion, where you can come back to upgrade weapons, talk to NPCs, and just take a moment to catch your breath from the hellish battles everywhere else.

One thing that I find lacking in Bastion, however, is the emotional impact. I get a few glimpses of what the Kid once had before the Calamity, but it never quite hit me in the same way that Red and her boyfriend’s relationship did in Transistor. It’s true that both the Man in the Transistor and the Stranger share a voice actor (Logan Cunningham, who also played Horatio in Primordia). But that common voice doesn’t carry the same weight during the Kid’s adventures in Caelondia as it did for Red’s desperate battles across the city of Cloudbank. Of course, Transistor also had a much, much darker payoff than Bastion, so I could be biased on that count.

At the end of the day, while I think Bastion can be a lot of fun for many people, it’s not the fun that I’m looking for. I’ll admit I enjoy a little run-and-smash as much as the next gamer, but when that’s all I’m really doing, and when I literally can’t spend a second standing still, I find I’m less enjoying myself and more giving myself a constant panic attack. Supergiant Games is still creative and a great dev team, but I’m glad that they ended up producing a title like Transistor after this one.

Bastion is available for purchase through retailers like Steam, the PlayStation Store, and the Microsoft Store.


Bibliography: Bastion (video game). Developed by Supergiant Games. Designed by Amir Rao. Written by Greg Kasavin. Art by Jen Zee. Published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. Windows; Mac OS X; Linux; Xbox 360, Xbox One; iOS; PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita. Original release date: July 20, 2011.

Perfect Blue: No One’s Ready for Her Close-Up

Copyright © 1998 by Madhouse
Copyright © 1998 by Madhouse

I’d like to start off by thanking Tony Zhou, creator of the wonderful YouTube series “Every Frame a Painting,” for bringing the work of Satoshi Kon to my attention (and if you haven’t seen Tony’s videos yet, you’re missing out). I’d already seen one of Satoshi’s films, Tokyo Godfathers, but I’ve never heard much about his other projects. When I heard that one of them was a precursor to Darren Aronofsky’s seminal film Black Swan, I knew I had to check it out for myself.

Released in 1998, Perfect Blue is an anime psychological thriller that tells the story of Mima Kirigoe, a talented pop idol singer. After she makes the big decision to pursue her acting career, Mima begins to lose herself in her first big role. Beyond a point, she begins to have trouble telling apart fiction and reality. And further complicating matters is the ever-present threat of a stalker, which throws an entirely different kind of psychosis into the already turbulent mix of Mima’s life.

As a protagonist, Mima seems to share a lot in common with Nina Sayers, the lead actress and ballerina from Black Swan. They’re both seemingly innocent young girls caught up in the rush of their biggest performance yet, all while in the grip of an ongoing break with reality. But Mima is more like a typical horror-genre hero, always outrunning and fighting against her demon. She’s also more naive about the world, having to be told in 1998 how to use a Web browser.

The rest of the voice acting was stellar, too. As a Cowboy Bebop fan, I was delighted to listen to Wendee Lee play Mima’s manager Rumi and Steve Blum (here credited as “David Lucas”) as a number of side characters. But the acting isn’t the key selling point about this movie. It’s the animation and the editing, for which Satoshi Kon and the good people at Madhouse deserve all the credit. It’s how the story rises and falls around a series of cuts and transitions, creating an almost-dreamlike state that fits Mima Kirigoe’s world all too well.

I love this one technique where the director uses mirrored gestures to cut from one scene to the next. As in, Mima will be waving her hand a certain way while she’s shopping for groceries, and then we cut to her doing the exact same motion while performing onstage. It’s a small thing, but in visual storytelling, it’s brilliant. It gives the editor a cue for how to jump from one scene to the next. Like Mima, we’re losing our sense of which moment is “real” and which isn’t. We’re sharing in her torment through our own shared delusion: cinema.

Overall, the film is pretty amazing from a stylistic point of view. It works as both the story of a young women caught in the madness of stardom, and as a critique of the way we treat pop idols and promote fanservice (Me-Mania the stalker being a good example of the Madonna-whore complex and all that). I wouldn’t usually be into a film like this, but Satoshi Kon’s motifs are too good to pass up, and if you’re into what animated film can be, give this one a look.

The English dub of Perfect Blue was produced through Rex Entertainment, which is no longer active. DVDs, Blu-Ray, and other copies of the film can be purchased through retailers like AmazonYou can also see Tony Zhou’s video on Satoshi Kon for yourself.


Bibliography: Perfect Blue (film). Directed by Satoshi Kon. Produced by Hitomi Nakagaki, Yoshihisa Ishihara, Yutaka Togo, Masao Maruyama, and Hiroaki Inoue. Written by Sadayuki Murai. Based on the novel Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis by Yoshikazu Takeuchi. Perf. Junko Iwao, Rica Matsumoto, Shinpachi Tsuji, and Masaaki Okura. Madhouse (studio). Rex Entertainment (distributor). Original release date (Japan): February 28, 1998.

Flash Fiction: “Waiting for the Night Shift”

If you’ve ever listened to the podcast Within the Wires, by Night Vale Presents, then you might find some of today’s story a little familiar. But it’s my own twist on the genre.


Waiting for the Night Shift,

by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 1,642

Every night, about two hours after dinner, you get excited. You can’t move around because of the restraints, so you display your enthusiasm by humming jaunty melodies to yourself. All that waiting pays off when Rose, the night shift nurse, enters your room. She wears blue scrubs with a floral print, just like Eduardo the day nurse does. Just like all the other personnel you’ve seen, except for that one guard in body armor.

You never think to ask what he’s guarding. You’re too busy dealing with your routine.

Ever since that first morning you woke up in the Program, you don’t remember what life was like before. At least, you’re pretty sure that there was more to your life before this place, but you can’t tell. This charcoal gray fog swells up inside your head if you think about it too hard. But for as long as you can remember, you’ve always been here, always secured to your bed.

The nurses have you dressed in a t-shirt, a diaper, sweat pants, heavy socks, and a straitjacket. They feed you some kind of formula from a bottle and give you a few tablets that they claim is some kind of super-processed food. Your stomach gets full when they feed you like this, so you can’t really complain. When Eduardo begins his day shift, he always inspects your restraints. Then he runs some scanner over your body, which tickles wherever the light from the device hits your skin. At some point before lunch, he’ll loosen your restraints long enough to work your limbs in a few exercise poses, and then clean you off with a sponge. After lunch, you get put in a clean diaper and told to take a nap. When you wake up, you’re hungry again, and dinner is served. Eduardo will leave, and Rose will take over.

Rose is your one true source of delight in this place. She’s so sweet and gentle with you, in a way that Eduardo isn’t, though he tries to be friendly. But Rose is like your big sister. And it’s not like you remember if you even have any real siblings. Rose will test out your restraints at the start of her shift. Then she brushes your hair and dabs a bit of lavender oil over your face and neck. You can’t begin to describe how heavenly it smells. Your whole body melts into your bed when she does this, and her smile almost makes you want to cry.

Unlike Eduardo, Rose makes conversation with you. She sits in a chair by your bed and will talk to you about the Program, or about what her life outside these walls is like.

Some things she can’t talk about, and when you ask her, she gets this distant look in her eyes before shaking her head and putting a finger to her lips. You nod, as if you understand what that means, and you don’t press the issue.

***

You love Rose, as much as you think you’ve ever loved anyone. She reads to you from her books in a low, soothing voice. On a few special nights, she sets up an electronic tablet and streams videos for you to watch. A lot of them are silly cartoons and old sitcoms, but a few are quiet, romantic movies or dramatic TV shows. And Rose never minds it when you ask her to pause so you can discuss something you saw but didn’t quite understand. And her tone never changes from that soft, loving sister’s voice.

When it’s time to sleep, Rose changes you one last time and double-checks your restraints. Every night, as you close your eyes, Rose does the same little routine. She makes the Sign of the Cross on your head, chest, and shoulders. Then she bends over and kisses you on the cheek. You giggle and try to nuzzle her face when she does this, and she giggles, too.

Some nights, though, she says something to you. Rose will stand over you, her hands touching the sides of your face. And she’ll say something like, “One day, sweetie. One day, you’ll know why we did this.” And one time, she added, “I’m so sorry. They never gave you a choice.”

You think you know what she means by that. Whenever she or Eduardo bathe you, you can see the scars and burn marks along your naked torso. One cut runs across your left breast, and there’s this little emerald piercing in the nipple there. It’s a gem that flashes on and off, on and off, never stopping. You’ve asked Rose what that means, but all you got in reply was that little headshake and a reminder to be quiet.

Every so often, you’ll look over when the door to your room opens and see your attending nurse typing something into a small handheld device. They look so serious when they’re typing away, like they’re worried. But then they smile when they see you, and you forget to ask them about it.

You forget everything except the daily routine. When the lights in your room flash on every morning and fade out every night, you know exactly what to expect.

But at night, you have these strange dreams. Little fragments come and go. A bright light overhead, gleaming off silver needles and men’s faces covered by surgical masks. Flashes of sirens in the distance, smoke in your eyes, blood staining your hands and your face, and something soft and meaty in your teeth. You imagine that you were in pain all the time, and that you were told this was a good thing, and that what you did was for someone called “The Master.” But then you imagine that you did a bad thing, and the Master went away, and then you wound up in the Program, where you were safe and happy.

You think that maybe Rose knows this when she talks to you. You think that, someday, the routine will change and she’ll tell you the whole story. You’d like to hear it. You’d like to go with her someday, when it’s time to change shifts, and see what life is like outside the Program.

***

One day, however, something does change.

Eduardo doesn’t show up on time. You squirm around in your restraints, wishing that your undergarment could be changed soon, and that you could be fed already. Then, when you start thinking about calling out for him, you hear a thud in the hallway outside your room.

You go still and keep quiet.

A moment later, the door opens, and Rose is back. But she’s not wearing her scrubs anymore. Today, she’s wearing a cool black jacket and blue jeans, like she’s one of the heroes from your cartoons. She’s holding a long black rod in one hand and she has a brown bag slung over her shoulder. Rose doesn’t look happy either. She walks up to you and takes a deep breath.

“Come on, sweetie,” Rose whispers. She touches your face. “It’s time to go.”

“Go?” you ask. “Go where? And where’s Eduardo?”

“Never mind about him,” Rose adds, putting the black club away. “It’s time you knew.”

She checks your restraints like she always does. But this time, she doesn’t keep you bound to the bed. This time, she snaps them open. Pop-pop go the straps. Zip-zip goes the straitjacket. You can barely move, but that doesn’t matter. Rose manages to carry you in her arms like a baby. Your heart is racing, and you can hardly breathe, but that doesn’t matter. This is different. This is new and exciting.

This is wonderful.

Soon, Rose is running with you in her arms. You’re laughing as she vaults through open doors that are about to slide shut. You’re ecstatic when she kicks that mean-looking guard in the face and kicks him again in the jaw, knocking him out cold. Who knew she was ever this strong? Who knew life could be this much fun?

But then come more guards. More nurses in blue scrubs. And now there are other people you’ve never seen before. Men and women in long white coats, holding scanners and other devices out like weapons as they cautiously approach you and Rose.

“Patient Seven-Seven-Four-Two is off-limits,” one of the people in white says to Rose. “Put her down now, Cisneros!”

Rose sighs, and she turns to you with an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry to have to do this.” Then, as she kneels to the floor, she moves one arm through your shirt and touches the emerald piercing on your nipple.

Her fingers twist it, and then something happens.

You remember.

You remember everything.

You remember how to fight again. How it felt to be a Valkyrie charging through the air, with electricity crackling at your fingertips and fire burning in your veins. How your enemy’s blood tasted like copper and yet was so delicious whenever you bit into their flesh. How the screams and the terror in their eyes was all the joy you could ever want in life, because you’d been made perfect. The living instrument of the Master’s will.

With Rose Cisneros by your side, you decide that the Master deserves a little payback.

You start with the guards. You continue with the scientists. It’s only at Rose’s urging that you spare the nurses, who pathetically tried to claw and scramble their way to safety. It’s Rose who brings you down from the blood rage. Brings you back with that big sister’s voice and loving touch to your shoulder that you always enjoyed.

You will remember everything from now on. You will remember that you are loved, and that you will love her back. You will remember that you were hurt once before, and you will hurt them back before all this is over.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Princess Mononoke: A World Out of Balance and Time

Copyright © 1997 by Studio Ghibli
Copyright © 1997 by Studio Ghibli

It’s 2017 and I’m ready for a fresh start. This means it’s a perfect time to look backward.

In this case, I’m looking at a few Japanese animated classics. Right now, I’m looking at another Hayao Miyazaki film, and soon I’ll be following up on some Satoshi Kon works. But for now, I’ll take a look at Princess Mononoke, widely considered by many to be one of Miyazaki’s best titles ever.

In medieval Japan, a demon-possessed boar attacks an Emishi village. Only the young warrior prince Ashitaka can defeat it, but in doing so, his arm becomes cursed. The wise woman of his town sends him out to seek the Great Forest Spirit to the west for salvation. Along the way, Ashitaka meets the people of Irontown, who mine and forge iron under the watchful eye of Lady Eboshi, and who possess rudimentary firearms to defend themselves. This encounter leads Ashitaka to cross paths with San, a warrior princess of the forest, and the wolves who defend it from Lady Eboshi. Only with skill and compassion does he learn to navigate the two sides of the war, so that he can save himself from the curse—and save everyone from an equally terrible fate.

I still might be behind on my Miyazaki canon, but I have to admit that the young prince Ashitaka (voiced by Billy Crudup in the English dub) is probably one of my favorite protagonists from his movies. He’s a neat blend of courage under fire and humility, especially when it comes to dealing with the spirits of the natural world.

This also sets Ashitaka apart from the humans of Irontown, while giving him an odd kinship with San, the titular Princess raised by wolves and guardian of the forest. She’s quite striking, both in appearance and in personality. It’s easy to see her as savage like the people of Irontown do, but she has a soft side that only the forest gets to see (until she meets Ashitaka, that is).

The other characters are a distinct mixture, too. You have sympathetic villains like Lady Eboshi, whose vision of Progress is tempered with surprising camaraderie with her village. You have scoundrels like the monk Jiko-bo and the samurai of rival lords, who only care about serving their masters, no matter how many lives it costs them. And then you have proud beasts like the blind boar god Okkoto and the wolf goddess Moro, who seem wise, but will gladly direct their vicious nature toward any humans they encounter. All of this makes for a real spectrum of morality on display throughout the movie.

Princess Mononoke is certainly a lot gorier than I expected. You might be anticipating plenty of cute animation (Miyazaki has a reputation, after all), but then you get plenty of scenes where people are split open with swords or have their arms chopped off. But it works on both a historical and thematic level. Mononoke is set during a time of warring clans in Japan, and the story also explores our relationship with nature, shown to be both beautiful and heartless.

While I might still prefer Porco Rosso or Spirited Away, I really liked Mononoke. This story is doing work as both as a piece of historical fiction for Japanese audiences and as a save-the-planet nature tale. Even when it might come across as preachy, it manages to pull back enough and recognize the common humanity, the chain of life, between all creatures.

The English dub of Princess Mononoke is available through Disney Movies.


Bibliography: Princess Mononoke (English dub). Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Produced by Toshio Suzuki. Written by Hayao Miyazaki. Perf. Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Billy Bob Thornton, John DeMita, John DiMaggio, Gillian Anderson, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Keith David. Studio Ghibli; Tokuma Shoten; Nippon Television; Dentsu. Toho (Japanese distributor). Walt Disney Company (US distributor). Original release date: July 12, 1997.

Yuri!!! on Ice: Got Style, Got Grace, Got Ice in Your Face

Copyright © 2016 by Funimation
Copyright © 2016 by Funimation

I watch plenty of Western animation these days, from RWBY and Steven Universe to Rick and Morty and Bojack Horseman, but I’ll never lose my interest in anime. I’m always looking for new stories, new genre, to try out. Which is how I ended up watching a 12-episode show about men’s figure skating and a coach-student love affair.

Yuri!!! on Ice tells the story of Yuri Katsuki, a Japanese figure skater who lost at the latest round of the Grand Prix and went into semi-retirement. However, he soon catches the attention (and attraction) of figure skating legend Victor Nikiforov, whose moves Yuri copied flawlessly in a performance that was recorded and uploaded to the Web. Victor wants to become Yuri’s coach and help him win at the Grand Prix with a new program. This puts Yuri in the crosshairs of figure skaters from around the world in half a dozen competitions, including Victor’s other big admirer, the Russian skater Yuri Plisetsky.

Yuri and Victor are the heart and soul of this anime, no doubt about it. It’s a neat duo with a classic style: the anxious, desperate-to-win young hero paired with a confident, level-headed, and eccentric mentor. However, there’s more to them than meets the eye. Yuri proves to be more confident and playful than he originally let on, and Victor is not quite the untouchable skating champion that everyone thinks he is. It’s refreshing to see an onscreen romance where the two characters actually change roles every so often (and it’s nice to see an LGBT romance done well in a show, as Kori Michele explains in an article on Medium).

When I first heard about this anime, I knew far more about the main characters, Yuri and Victor, and their passionate onscreen chemistry. But after just the first episode, I was blown away with the artistry, the sheer beauty, of the animation for every figure skating sequence. And kudos to the show’s producers for getting real-life Swiss figure skater Stéphane Lambiel to play himself as a commentator.

Most people don’t know this, but I took 8 years of gymnastics training as a kid after school. I never competed professionally, but I know a lot about the work that goes into that kind of athletics, and I can recognize it in the skating routines that these characters pull off. It’s an absolute delight to watch this show for the sports angle alone.

I don’t know if this is true of other sports anime and manga stories, but one thing I liked in Yuri was the psychological angle it took. Every time we watched a different figure skater perform their routine at a competition, we got a glimpse into their inner monologue and what was at stake for them. It’s one thing to do this for the protagonist whom we’re cheering on. This show, however, actually went and did it for every major skater, from the rival Russian skater Yuri to side characters like Michele Crispino from Italy and “JJ” Leroy from Canada. That motif definitely fleshes out the world in which the show takes place.

Yuri!!! on Ice does something spectacular within a simple 12-episode run. It’s a good introduction to both the sports anime and yaoi genres, as well as a tight and well-toned story with almost no filler. It breathes passion, from its characters to its fluid skating animations to its music. Whether or not you enjoy all the stock anime gags, or even if you’re not a huge fan of Boys’ Love, there’s something for everyone to enjoy in this series.

The English dub of Yuri!!! on Ice is available through Funimation. New episodes can be found through Crunchyroll.


Bibliography: Yuri!!! on Ice. Directed by Sayo Yamamoto. Written by Mitsuro Kubo. MAPPA (studio). Funimation (North American distributor). TV Asahi; BS Asahi; STS; NCC; Sun TV; AT-X. Original broadcast: October 5, 2016December 21, 2016.