Altered Carbon and Looking Back at Cyberpunk’s Heyday

Copyright © 2018 by Netflix

It’s never been a secret that one of my favorite genres is cyberpunk. It’s the best of two worlds: film noir and science fiction. It’s holographic adverts overloading giant, rain-drenched skyscrapers, where private eyes go chasing androids and console cowboys get shanghaied into unraveling megacorporate conspiracies in virtual reality zones. And while I regret never getting into the original books by Richard K. Morgan, I was excited to learn that his first Takeshi Kovacs story, Altered Carbon, was being brought onto Netflix.

The year is 2384. Takeshi Kovacs, a former terrorist, is revived in a new body 250 years after his arrest. His new client, the ultra-rich Laurens Bancroft, has a job for him: solve the murder of Bancroft’s last body. Now stuck in far-future San Francisco, Kovacs has to contend with mercenaries, possessive AI hotel owners, femme fatales, and the relentless police lieutenant Kristin Ortega. Every new encounter is another opportunity for Kovacs to come to terms with the crimes he’s committed in the distant past, to put his elite skills as an Envoy to use, and to dig deeper into the labyrinthe world of “Meths” (as in, Methuselahs). As his onetime mentor Quell keeps reminding him, “Nothing is what it seems.

It’s interesting to have the main character, Takeshi Kovacs, played by both an Asian actor (Will Yun Lee) in flashbacks and a white actor (Joel Kinnaman) in the present. On the one hand, it’s a neat trick of showing off our multicultural future, even race is something to be changed with a simple “resleeve.” On the other hand, I kind of would’ve liked to have seen Lee stay in the lead role, but Kinnaman does the job well enough as our typical hardboiled detective with elite combat skills and a supernatural attention to detail.

Now, as a fan of all things cyberpunk, I love the visuals (and as someone who wants to make cyberpunk fiction, I’m jealous I didn’t get to do this first). Bay City is a beautiful mess of heavy rainfall, omnipresent holographic ads, flying cars, cybernetic neck and eye implants, and massive skyscrapers reaching into the clouds. It’s like we’re getting to see the Sprawl that Gibson envisioned back in ’84, since that’s basically the archetype that Richard K. Morgan and Laeta Kalogridis are using in this series. This is the sci-fi world I want to see: not just “What happens if we only changed one thing, like not dying?” but the world of “What if we changed everything in society, on every level? What would humanity even look like?”

I will admit, though, that the first 8 minutes from the first episode did leave me a little too lacking in context. Much as I love how works like Neuromancer and The Diamond Age throw their readers right into the deep end, I did feel a little impatient with the fast editing of images between one version of Kovacs (pre-death) and the other (waking up in a new body), with no real sense of what I was seeing or why I should even care about what’s happening. As fun as that can be in a book, I think TV is something audiences a little more leeway before getting tossed into a random world.

I’m also not a huge fan of the way exposition is sometimes dropped clunkily into the middle of conversations. Even if Kovacs is still adapting to the new world, the way charaters like Ortega suddenly have to rattle off banal facts about AI hotels and other commonplace lore is a bit jarring.

This felt most egregious in the first episode, where Kovacs and Ortega have a drink and a chat inside a strip club. Their rattled-off exposition is taking place right next to a mostly nude dancing girl on the stage. It’s a little hard not to want to make a “sexposition” joke straight out of the first season of Games of Thrones. As much as Netflix gets to play with sex and violence in a way that network TV can’t, I do think that sometimes there’s a little too much emphasis on sex for titillation’s sake, especially if it’s trying to keep the audience engaged for learning key plot points.

Even with some of the bumpy nature of the show’s pacing, I do enjoy it overall. It’s colorful and gritty, it has plenty of film noir throwbacks, and there’s a real sense of the search for identity and meaning in a world that seemingly cares about neither.

Altered Carbon is currently available for viewing on Netflix.

Bibliography: Altered Carbon (series). Created by Laeta Kalogridis. Based on the novel by Richard K. Morgan. Produced by John G. Lenic. Perf. Joel Kinnaman, James Purefoy, Martha Higareda, Chris Connor, Dichen Lachman, Ato Essandoh, Kristin Lehman, Trieu Tran, and Renee Elise Goldberry. Virago Productions; Mythology Entertainment; Phoenix Pictures; Skydance Television. Netflix (distributor). Original broadcast: February 2, 2018 – present.

Samurai Gourmet: A Little Taste of Japan and Life After Work

Copyright © 2017 by Netflix

Looking back at my career so far, I realize that I’ve been running this blog for… well, at least 7 years now. And when I started, I was originally determined to cover only media that fell in the science fiction and fantasy genres. But, as you can guess, a lot can change in 7 years. My tastes certainly did. And while my love for sci-fi and fantasy remains unabated, I’ve branched out a lot more. For every epic movie like Guardians of the Galaxy and every urban fantasy novel like American Gods, I do stop and enjoy quieter, more wholesome media. In this case, I fell for a Japanese Netflix Original series called Samurai Gourmet.

Based on a manga series by Masayuki Kusumi, our show is centered on the newly retired Takeshi Kasumi (played by Naoto Takenaka), who finds himself without much of a purpose in daily life. He does, however, love reading books about samurai and he sets out to find new types of food to enjoy. He’s essentially on a gourmet-style journey, pushing himself outside his comfort zone after 60 years of living. Meanwhile, as Kasumi faces his doubts in each new encounter, he’s not alone. He constantly daydreams about a masterless samurai (played by Tetsuji Tamayama) who acts as his alter ego, acting bold and eating well in opposition to Kasumi’s meek nature. It’s from following this inner samurai spirit that Kasumi learns to eat well and truly enjoy life.

I love the style of this show. Yes, the emphasis that the camera places on food being prepared in each episode is tantilizing. But that’s not the only great thing. It’s also in the shifts of architecture and costume design whenever Kasumi goes into one of his daydreams with the nameless samurai. The producers put a lot of thought into how they might transition from a 21st-century diner or pub and turn it into an Edo Period tavern, complete with turning each loudmouthed patron into a bumbling samurai that our hero has to contend with. Sometimes a little attention to detail like that can go a long way.

The more I watched this series, the more I realized something. This show feels like an inversion of the premise behind Sofia Coppola’s stellar film Lost In Translation. Only, instead of following an aging Bill Murray and a bored Scarlett Johansson, we’re caught up in the personal experience of Kasumi, a retired salaryman. I say it’s an inverted experience because Coppola’s film features two Americans searching for meaning in a foreign setting. In Samurai Gourmet, we’re following a man born and raised in his own country. Yet the search for meaning remains the same, with a particular focus on cuisine and asserting his identity after all these years. It’s also inverted since we’re not dealing with some of the Japanese stereotypes that were played for laughs in Lost in Translation. Instead, we get a story about life in Japan from a Japanese perspective.

I must admit that I love getting into stories like Samurai Gourmet and Midnight Diner: Tokyo StoriesIt’s a chance to wet my beak in a culture different from my own, and to enjoy quiet, meaningful stories instead of searching for the next big drama or the latest side-splitting comedy. I won’t deny that this show can be a little too simple or (dare I say) corny for some audiences, but then again, not everyone lives for the sheer dramatic turns and twists of a show like Game of Thrones either. Sometimes a little peace and quiet in a local diner is all we need.

Samurai Gourmet is available on Netflix. The original manga, Kodoku no Gourmet, is available for purchase through Amazon and other booksellers.

Bibliography: Samurai Gourmet (Netflix Original). Created by Masayuki Kusumi. Produced by Kaata Sakamoto. Perf. Naoto Takenaka, Tetsuji Tamayama, and Honami Suzuki. Netflix. Original release date (Japan): March 17, 2017.

First Look: Adapting Death Note as a Netflix Original

Copyright © 2017 by Netflix

Ever since I saw the original anime back in college, I’ve been a fan of Death Note and what it can inspire. It’s not just the story of a serial killer with a supernatural twist. It’s also the gripping tale of two brilliant minds–a serial killer and a reclusive detective–matching wits from beginning to end, each one fighting for their own ideal of “justice” in an otherwise gruesome world.

I just wish someone had told all of this to the creative team behind the live-action adaptation that came out this year.

Set in modern-day Seattle, this Netflix Original film follows high school students Light and Mia, who come across a notebook with the power to kill anyone whose name is written down. In the span of 3 minutes (in movie time), Light goes from an angsty teen to the Angel of Death, delivering cold justice to hundreds of criminals and terrorists around the world from the comfort of his bedroom. This, of course, attracts the attention of Ryuk, the death god who “dropped” the book into the human world, and L, the mysterious detective who wants to stop the murderous “Kira” at all costs.

This isn’t the Light Yagami some viewers might remember from the original manga and anime. Light Taylor (played by Nat Wolff) isn’t a sociopath masquerading as a normal person. He’s just a kid. A slightly stuck-up kid, but he doesn’t have his anime counterpart’s sense of vision or ruthless edge. For that, we get Mia Sutton (played by Margaret Qualley), who at first seems to be nothing more than his prerequisite love interest, but she later turns out to have all the ruthlessness that Light didn’t have from the start. But I guess it’s better than trying to adapt the obsessive stalker Misa Amane, right?

Honestly, what saves this movie for me (in small doses) are Ryuk and L. Willem Dafoe’s voice acting and the production’s CGI nail the creeping horror that is Ryuk, although here he’s less vocal about giving Light the notebook because he’s “bored.” He honestly spends more time explaining the rules and making not-so-subtle threats to Light’s existence. Meanwhile, Lakeith Stanfield is a stellar performance as L. Appearing about 30 minutes into the film, L is dynamic and eccentric in all the right ways. He becomes the new center of the story in a way that the Kira duo never quite pull off. It’s less “cat-and-mouse” and more “cat chasing a pair of mice who seem half-dead already.”

Speaking of half-dead, let’s talk about the performances. Everyone in this film, apart from Light’s father and L, are mostly delivering whispery dialogue and a lot of cliche lines. There’s no real menace to half the time spent on Light and Mia’s actions. I honestly would never have expected L to be the one who emotes the most in this story, but there we are.

The movie also seems to have a tonal problem. It can’t quite decide if it’s dramatic or melodramatic and verging on farcical. One minute, we’re watching Light sketch out a plan to block L’s latest move. The next, we’re seeing car chases set to a weirdly out-of-place Eighties pop ballad. And for some reason, the deaths committed by Kira in this story never feel chilling. Given all the gore and over-the-top bloodsplatter, it’s almost comical. Like Sam Peckinpah or Robert Rodriguez were guest directors.

I’ll admit that there were some few precious moments when I actually enjoyed the film’s visuals or its casting decisions (like getting Paul Nakauchi to play Watari, for instance). But half the time, I was expecting something deeper, something raw and cerebral. Instead, this is Death Note mixed with high school drama, with a little bit of teenage Bonnie and Clyde.

The live-action film Death Note is currently available on Netflix.

Bibliography: Death Note (Netflix Original film). Based on the manga by by Tsugumi Ohba (story)and Takeshi Obata. Directed by Adam Wingard. Produced by Masi Oka, Roy Lee, Dan Lin, and Jason Hoffs. Screenplay by Charles Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, and Jeremy Slater. Perf. Nat Wolff, Margaret Qualley, Lakeith Stanfield, Paul Nakauchi, Shea Whigham, and Willem Dafoe. Vertigo Entertainment, Witten Pictures, Lin Pictures, Viz Productions. Netflix (US distributor). Original release date: August 25, 2017.

First Look: Voltron: Legendary Defender Season 3

Copyright © 2017 by DreamWorks Animation

While everyone’s getting hyped for Netflix Originals like The Defenders, I’m a little more interested in what kind of animation we can see (paired with good storytelling, of course). For that, if it’s not some new anime or another season of Bojack Horseman, then it’s getting a look at the newest season of Voltron: Legendary Defender.

As a caveat, some slight spoilers will follow in this review.

With Zarkon out of comission, his son and heir Prince Lotor takes over the Galra Empire, consolidating power with deadly aim. He and his team of elite soldiers move on the worlds liberated by the Paladins, reclaiming them and setting traps aplenty. Meanwhile, the Paladins seek a new leader in Shiro’s absence, putting Keith in command and letting Allura fill in where needed. But as the battle against Lotor’s rise goes on, new twists and turns are added to the mix, hinting at something far larger about the nature of the universe and about the power behind Voltron itself.

One way that I would describe this new season is the emphasis on politics. I don’t mean politics in the way you might see it on a show like House of Cards or Game of Thrones, where everyone’s making deals or betraying each other for power. On Voltron, the politics of the war against the Galra is pretty black-and-white. But there’s intrigue and debate within the ranks on both sides. We see how Lotor and his grand vision for the empire pits him against the druid Haggar and the senior figures in the military. Meanwhile, with Shiro missing in action, Keith has to take over, putting him at odds with Lance as de facto second-in-command and with Allura, who is trying to do more as a fighter than as a diplomat.

Within 7 episodes, at least, we get to see a glimpse of what’s to come and a little more insight into the major players. Midway through, we get a glimpse of alternate realities and histories, and how Allura’s people, the Alteans, might have fared under different circumstances. And the finale goes for a big climax not in the present, but in the past, as Coran reveals what happened with King Alfor, his former friend Zarkon, and the source of the ancient feud with the Galra.

Shiro’s fate, meanwhile, gets revealed in a heartwrenching way this season. We see more of the struggle he faces to escape the Galra, not only physically, but in overcoming his emotional scars, too. As a slight detour, there was a section where we see him braving the wilderness of a remote planet, trying to sort out what’s happened and how to find his team. It’s a sequence that reminds me a lot of my one favorite episodes of the Justice League animated series from 2003, “Hereafter,” where we watch Superman, presumed dead and powerless, survive in the wild of the distant future as a mere mortal with the skills he already has. It’s become something of a favorite subgenre of mine: the De-Powered and Friendless Hero Braving the Wild Story (on that note, I’d also recommend “Ludo in the Wild” from Season 2 of Star Vs. The Forces of Evil).

If I have only one complaint about this season, it’s that instead of 12 or 13 episodes, we only get a 7-episode run. Granted, the finale ends on a spectacular cliffhanger, and maybe there was some behind-the-scenes issue that led to this production schedule, it feels like a bit of a rush if we still have to wait for the wrap-up to this new story arc. I’d have preferred to wait a little longer if it meant getting a longer and more action-packed season to enjoy. As it is, Voltron is still Voltron, and this show has an energy that’ll always leave me coming back for more.

The third season of Voltron: Legendary Defender is available to watch on Netflix.

Bibliography: Voltron: Legendary Defender (Season 3). Based on Beast King GoLion by Toei Animation and Voltron: Defender of the Universe by World Events Productions. Produced by Joaquim Dos Santos, Lauren Montgomery, Yoo Jae Myung, Ted Koplar, Bob Koplar, Choi Goun, Kim Young Hyun, Kim Seul Ki, and Lee Soo Kyung. DreamWorks Animation; World Events Productions; Studio Mir. Netflix (distributor). Original release date: June 10, 2016 – present.

First Look: Voltron: Legendary Defender Season 2

Copyright © 2017 by DreamWorks Animation
Copyright © 2017 by DreamWorks Animation

The world can be a wonderful, wild, and scary place to live. Fortunately, a show like Voltron knows that. You can’t help but admire the energy and action that the show’s creators poured into every frame, from the vicious Galra to the desperate deeds of Princess Allura and her Paladins. Much like the theme of self-sacrifice that permeated Rogue One, the second season of Voltron: Legendary Defender promises to push events forward as the universe grows darker.

After their last battle with Zarkon and the forces of the Galra Empire, the Paladins are split up when their escape wormhole launches their Lions into different galaxies. While they fight to reunite, recover, and prepare for another assault, new developments occur. Keith and Shiro learn about the Blade of Marmora and its fight against Zarkon, and the team scatters again to collect all the pieces they need to arrange a final showdown with the Galra leader.

The opening of this season was a good chance for the audience to reconnect with each of the characters as they deal with being split up. We get to see how Pidge deals with her isolation, how Keith and Shiro work together, how Lance and Hunk manage with a mermaid civilization, and how Coran and Allura work their way out of a recurring time loop. But then, once we’ve figured these elements out, the show goes in new directions. We learn about Galra resistance fighters. We learn something unexpected about Keith’s past. We get more insight into Zarkon and what history he had with the Alteans, as teased at the end of Season 1. Everything we’ve come to expect from the show before gets twisted in new but consistent directions this season.

Of course, it took me until the halfway point of the show to realize that, when you get down to it, there’s very little difference between the first and second seasons. They’re basically the same plot: Gather the Heroes, Lose Vital Crystals for the Castle Ship, Gather New Crystals, Confront Team Secrets, and Prep for the Final Battle with Zarkon.

Still, it’s not a bad way to tell the story. Remember that this is the same team who brought us The Legend of Korra, and that was a show where Avatar Korra was always fighting a spiritual crisis and taking on an enemy who would usually threaten Republic City in the season finale. Just like their previous work, Joaquim Dos Santos and his team can still meet the same basic plot points and keep things fresh with new character arcs.

One recurring gag that I did notice more was the writers’ love of creating all those nonsensical words for the Altean vocabulary. Honestly, half of Coran’s dialogue is just him shouting random terms and analogies that (to his culture) make perfect sense, but leave the Earth-born heroes and audience totally lost. I still like the idea because it shows how alien the Alteans truly are, but there were times when I’m just sitting there going, “Really? Why does that need its own bizarre word?”

And as you can probably tell from my choice of an image, Pidge is still my absolute favorite character in the entire show. This season only made me enjoy her storyline more. Every technical issue made her shine (she even name-drops Alan Turing in Episode 4), and much like Keith, she had her own past demons to figure out in this current run of the series. Of course, no gets a more dramatic turn than either Keith or Shiro this season, but Pidge had a nice arc to balance them out.

Once again, Voltron makes a good comeback thanks to Netflix. The animation is still great, the writing is impressive, and the producers never miss a chance to add a little humor to an otherwise epic space opera tale.

The second season of Voltron: Legendary Defender is available to watch on Netflix.

Bibliography: Voltron: Legendary Defender (Season 2). Based on Beast King GoLion by Toei Animation and Voltron: Defender of the Universe by World Events Productions. Produced by Joaquim Dos Santos, Lauren Montgomery, Yoo Jae Myung, Ted Koplar, Bob Koplar, Choi Goun, Kim Young Hyun, Kim Seul Ki, and Lee Soo Kyung. DreamWorks Animation; World Events Productions; Studio Mir. Netflix (distributor). Original release date: June 10, 2016 – present.