A Restful(?) Week

As I mentioned in Monday’s post, I have quite a few projects lined up for this year. Also, by “luck” of the draw, I had to drive to work at Kitt Peak National Observatory on Christmas Day and stay through New Years morning. So, I decided to take this first week of the new year as a low-pressure week to unwind from the stress of the holidays before jumping into new projects.

One of my Christmas presents this year was a model of the spaceship Bentenmaru from the anime Bodacious Space Pirates (Click on the title to see my discussion of the series). My wife included a copy of the movie based on the series, Abyss of Hyperspace. The movie was pretty good. It’s essentially an extended episode of the series and doesn’t add much to the bigger story arcs. Still, it was great to see Pirate Captain Marika Kato, the crew of the Bentenmaru, and the Hakuoh Academy Yacht Club back in action.

bentenmaru-box

The model itself was an import from Japan made by Hasegawa Hobby Kits. I’ve had fun building other anime space ship models from Japan. Most of those were Bandai kits. As with the Bandai kits I’ve built, the actual assembly of the model was smooth and the model includes lots of detail. Unlike the Bandai kits I’ve assembled, this one came with a generous sheet of decals. This is where my week of fun and pleasant diversion morphed into challenging learning experience.

Now as someone who has enjoyed building models since I was in elementary school, I’m no stranger to water-slide decals. So, I didn’t think I needed instructions for applying them—useful since the instructions that came with the kit were in Japanese. However, as I began to apply the decals, I discovered that they were both a bit thicker than the American decals I’ve used and seemed to have less glue. The result was that I found them a challenge to stay in place and several started to peel up again as they dried, instead of remaining stuck to the model!

I ended up going out to the internet to find methods for rescuing the decals. I found one site that recommended sticking them down with a little watered-down white glue. This worked for a few of the smaller decals. I was able to rescue a few of the decals by applying a tiny drop of superglue underneath with a toothpick and pressing the decal back down. The biggest decal was on the base—the series logo. That one went down easily and seemed to stick well, but as it dried, its edges seemed to lift up. My attempt to rescue it led to the worst disaster of all. One forum I read suggested sealing the edges with clear nail polish. I’m sorry to say, clear nail polish melted these decals. Fortunately, I’d only tried on a small area and only did a little damage that I was able to touch up with some paint.

Eventually, I found my way to a forum for Gundam models, another Japanese hobby company focusing on mecha. Their video for decal application suggested that I was applying the decals correctly, but that I should also use a clear liquid called decal set after applying them. I’ve been aware of decal set, but I have never found it all that necessary on the American models I made. I picked up a small bottle and tried it on the last couple of decals on the Bentenmaru and they did indeed seem to stick down better than the ones applied without decal set. In the end, I’m pretty happy with the results, though I’m a little concerned that the model won’t age well if decals peel up and fall off.

bentenmaru

If anyone reading this has built Hasegawa models with decals, I’d be interested in any tips you have. If the model doesn’t hold up to time, I may attempt it again. If so, I want to go in with as much knowledge as possible!

Because of the decals, the model took a lot longer than I expected and wasn’t really as restful as I hoped. Even so, it did clear my mind and gave me a change of pace for a few days before leaping into new projects. As writers, we’re often told we have to write every day and apply every waking hour we’re not writing to marketing our books. I think it’s important for writers to step back from that and realize that they’re self-employed business people. Everyone burns out if they don’t take a break once in a while. If you’re a writer, remember to be a good boss to yourself and give yourself some time to play—whether it’s some time relaxing on a beach, indulging in a hobby, or even taking a class. It’ll pay dividends in your efficiency, and who knows? You might have an experience which could be used in a future story.

High Octane Racing

When I was a kid, cartoons about racing were a thing. Two cartoons of note were Speed Racer and Wacky Races. The former was the American translation of the anime Mach GoGoGo! which told the story of Go Mifune who entered races around the world in his car loaded up with gadgets, such as powerful pogo sticks that would propel the car over obstacles, rotary saws to just cut through obstacles, and special traction belts to allow the car to climb steep roads. Wacky Races was an American cartoon inspired by the 1965 film, The Great Race. It imagined a group of colorful characters racing around the world in equally colorful cars, often containing gadgets a bit like Go Mifune’s Mach 5. One of the racers, evil Dick Dastardly and his dog Muttley would routinely try to thwart the other racers who included the beautiful Penelope Pitstop and inventor Pat Pending.

This past summer, I discovered that DC comics started a comics line that featured ramped-up versions of classic Hanna-Barbara cartoons. I wrote about Wacky Raceland, based on Wacky Races and Scooby Apocalypse based on Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? redline-poster In Wacky Raceland, the racers drive their AI-enhanced cars through a post-apocalyptic wasteland under the watchful eye of a disembodied announcer who has promised some kind of reward. We still have Dick Dastardly and Penelope Pitstop. In this new version, Muttley is semi-intelligent because of his own AI enhancements. Professor Pat Pending seems to have a set of secrets connected to the apocalypse. I’ve been following and enjoying the comic and I gather it ends with issue six in about a week. When my daughter read the first issue, she said the story reminded her of a racing anime—no, not Mach GoGoGo!—but a newer one called Redline.

I finally had the chance to watch Redline this past week. It was actually a lot of fun. It’s about racers competing on different tracks around the galaxy. The hero is Sweet JP who races a vintage yellow Mustang with an enhanced engine that gets a burst of speed by dropping nitro pellets into the fuel tank. His rival and love interest is Sonashee, known as “Cherry Boy Hunter”. She has an amphibious car armed with missiles. The movie opens with a race known as the “Yellowline.” Sweet JP’s mechanic is in deep with the mob and just as it looks like Sweet JP is going to win the race, the mechanic sets off a bomb in Sweet JP’s car, causing him to crash. Sonashee zooms past him and wins.

The next race is the titular Redline which is scheduled to be held on a heavily militarized planet where the racers are not welcome. Because some of the racers who qualified don’t want to risk their necks, Sweet JP is offered a spot in the race. The anime features some neat cars, some interesting and rugged settings, and great aliens. More than once, I was reminded of the pod-racing scenes in Star Wars but the art and voice acting in the anime conveyed more thrills.

One thing that made the movie Redline interesting is that in this modern era of CGI animation, it’s all hand-drawn. The movie is really beautiful to watch. The art style reminded me more of the European comic art you might find in a magazine like Heavy Metal than most anime. To be honest, the story itself wasn’t much to talk about. It’s a simple love story tied to the story of a race. Sweet JP and Sonashee are attracted to each other but are rivals. Sweet JP’s friends are connected to the mob adding complications. It’s the kind of stuff you may have seen in lots of other stories about races and competitions.

Despite the familiarity, there are some interesting science fictional elements added late in the story. The militarized planet has some creepy bioweapons up its sleeve plus the holographic imagery of their control center is well realized. Many of the aliens in the movie are also interesting and use the freedom of animation to take us beyond humans in suits.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the Wacky Raceland comic resolves, but I’m especially grateful that the comic gave me an excuse to go back to the racing cartoons of my youth and discover the movie Redline.

Bodacious Space Pirates

Let’s just get this out of the way. When I first saw the title “Bodacious Space Pirates” and the Blu-ray cover on a website, I thought this might be the kind of anime that creepy old guys watch with the shades drawn and the lights down low. Fortunately, being a fan of space pirates, I took time to learn a little more and discovered several positive reviews of the series by women. It turns out this is actually a fun space opera about a high school girl in the future, living on a planet orbiting Tau Ceti who has inherited the captaincy of a pirate ship, the Bentenmaru, from her long lost father.

bodacious-space-pirates In this world, space pirates are a holdover from a war in the distant past. They’ve mostly been forgotten by the time our protagonist, Marika Kato, is in high school, but they still exist, largely to perform courier runs or entertain posh passenger liners with mock pirate raids. Two members of her father’s pirate crew have come to watch over her at school and begin her training as the new captain. In her life as a high school student, Marika is a member of the school yacht club, who have an old solar sailing ship they can use to travel around the Tau Ceti system. As a member of yacht club, Marika begins learning many of the skills she needs to be a ship captain.

The pirate ship Bentenmaru operates under a letter of marque that will expire if the ship doesn’t go on any missions for a period of time. Because of that, Marika’s crew guide her by the hand on her first few missions. On one of the early missions, a princess stows away and asks Marika for help tracking down an ancient ghost ship.

My only real criticism of the show is that its meticulous plotting leads to a few episodes where little happens besides Marika learning new skills. However, this also solves one of the biggest criticisms I have of the 2009 Star Trek by J.J. Abrams, which is how in the world are we expected to believe talented but inexperienced Jim Kirk is given command of the Federation’s best ship right out of the academy? In this case, we have a reason for Marika being given a command despite her inexperience and we follow her as she gains experience, knowledge and confidence.

As a science fiction fan, I’m often on the lookout for good shows to share with my daughters. Of course, one of the downsides of classic science fiction, Star Trek included, is that it’s very male-heavy in the presentation. My daughters have never seen that as implying that exploration and adventure are things only for boys, but still, it’s nice to see a space opera where most of the cast are women and girls. In fact, what this show reminds me of very much are the “Boy Scout” novels of Robert A. Heinlein, except instead of boy’s adventure, this is girl’s adventure. And there are a few cool boys along for the ride include the helmsman, mechanic, and security chief of the Bentenmaru. So boys need not feel left out of the fun! Despite the mini-skirted school uniforms, there’s nary a fanservice shot in this anime, making it appropriate for pretty much all ages.

So, I’ve been watching the series with my 14-year-old daughter who loves it. When I asked her what she thought of the title, she told me it sounded like a fun, space pirate adventure with girls and just the kind of thing she wanted to watch. So much for my first impression of the title. It seems to be just right for the series’ target audience after all. The series is free to watch on Crunchyroll and you can buy downloads of the English dub on iTunes.

Nostalgia

Back in January, when I wrote about Cowboy Bebop, I mentioned that I’ve been a fan of anime since watching Gigantor in the early 1970s. Johnny Sokko Out of curiosity, I looked up some information about the series and its creator Mitsuteru Yokoyama. It turns out that Yokoyama basically invented stories about giant mecha, which have practically become their own genre within anime. Yokoyama also created another series which I remember fondly from my childhood, which was known in the United States as Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot.

This latter series was actually live action and told the story of a boy named Johnny Sokko who commanded a nine-story tall robot, decked out like an Egyptian Pharaoh, but commanding an arsenal of amazing weapons. Johnny’s remote control was a special wrist watch, tailor-made for playground imitation, and he helped secret agents battle an evil organization known as the Gargoyle Gang. I remember this series as one of the coolest things I ever saw as a kid. I always felt a little sorry for Johnny Sokko because he had to wear a tie, but I’d wear a tie, too, if I had a giant robot to command. In my research, I discovered that episodes of Johnny Sokko are available through some streaming services and I downloaded one. I expected it to be cheezy fun and I wasn’t disappointed, but I had to work to see the cool I did as a kid.

In the 1990s, Japan’s anime creators went through a phase of remaking the classic series that inspired them. Yasuhiro Imagawa planned to remake Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot as an anime, but only got the rights to use the giant robot and Daisaku Kusama—the kid known to us in the United States as Johnny Sokko. That’s a little like getting the rights to remake Star Trek but only getting to use the Starship Enterprise and Captain Kirk. There’s no Spock, no Uhura, no Klingons, no Federation. Yeah, you could make something that looked like Star Trek, but it wouldn’t have all the magic fans remember. Imagawa, though, had a flash of inspiration. He found he could get the rights to use characters from all of Mitsuteru Yokoyama’s other manga series.

The upshot was Giant Robo: The Day the Earth Stood Still. Giant_Robo_-_The_Animation Set in a post-apocalyptic steampunk-inspired world, it tells how the evil organization called Big Fire tries to gain control of the world’s energy resources. Standing in their way are the Experts of Justice, a group of superheroes from Yokoyama’s manga teamed up with Daisaku Kusama and Giant Robo. It features amazing music performed by the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and choir and it took six years to produce the seven episodes of the series. I hunted down a copy both to see what the result was like and I was also intrigued by the fact that the director shared a surname with the antagonist of my novel The Brazen Shark. As it turns out, my almost 50-year-old self sees it as being almost as cool and my 8-year-old self found the original. This is a remake done right!

In this age of easy self-publishing, it’s actually fairly easy for an author to revise and release new editions of their work if they hold all the publishing rights. Given how well Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot was re-imagined into Giant Robo: The Day the Earth Stood Still, I completely understand how an author can look back at their work, see improvements, make them and release new editions. However, I do advise some caution in this. For a great example of why, look no further than George Lucas and his re-issues of Star Wars. Although Lucas has made his special effects look nicer than he could in the 1970s, he’s also angered a lot of fans by tinkering with a movie they loved and adding elements they didn’t find necessary. Over twenty years passed before a remake of Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot was attempted and even then, it was under the helm of a new, albeit reverent, creator.

I look back at my earliest novels such as The Pirates of Sufiro and Children of the Old Stars and see plenty of things I’d change if I wrote those novels today. Despite that, I know there are readers who find plenty to love in those novels and I’d want to be careful to enhance and make better, while not taking away those elements readers find charming.

So, are there any examples of remakes or re-imagined movies, television series, or books that you thought were especially well done? What made the remake work for you?

Cowboy Bebop

A couple of weeks ago, I was browsing through the video section of a local store when I came across a recent release of the TV series Cowboy Bebop. Although I’ve been an anime fan since I first saw Gigantor in the early 1970s, I managed to miss Cowboy Bebop’s debut on the Cartoon Network circa 2001. Cowboy Bebop Disc That was right after my wife and I decided that we weren’t getting enough out of cable to keep paying an exorbitant bill every month. I’d seen two or three episodes over the years at science fiction conventions and knew that I wanted to actually watch the series, so I picked it up.

If you’re like me and late to discovering Cowboy Bebop, it’s the story of two bounty hunters: a former cop named Jet Black and a former mob enforcer named Spike Spiegel, who travel through the solar system in a space ship called the Bebop looking for criminals to nab. As the series progresses, they’re joined by Faye Valentine, a bounty hunter with a mysterious past; Ein, a Welsh Corgi with a brain implant; and Radical Edward, a teenage girl who has mad computer skills. Unlike a lot of current anime, Cowboy Bebop has less of an overarching story and is more a series of self-contained episodes.

In this world Cowboys are Bounty Hunters, but space cowboy imagery runs through the series. Spike, Faye, and Jet all have their personal fighters, which are a little like their mechanical horses. There’s a sense of the solar system colonies on Mars and Jupiter’s moons requiring a kind of wild west frontier spirit to tame. Much of the look and feel of the show is reminiscent of Joss Whedon’s Firefly and if Whedon didn’t take some inspiration from Cowboy Bebop, then the similarities are a pretty big coincidence.

One of the great elements of Cowboy Bebop is a truly remarkable jazz soundtrack by Yoko Kanno and the Seatbelts. At points, the music slips away from the jazz and adopts a little lonely guitar to enhance the wild west feel.

Another thing that strikes me as especially well done is the characterization of Radical Edward. As the father of a bright teenage girl, she hits many of the right notes. Edward can be persuaded to be useful, but most of the time is more interested in sleeping, eating, or doing her own thing, which sometimes horrifies or confuses the adults around her.

The Pirates of Sufiro

My only real issue with the series is that it’s set in 2071, and though I would love to have many well populated colonies out in the solar system by then, I’m hard pressed to believe it will happen. Despite that, I love the look of the series and have long been attracted to the idea of stories about the rugged individuals who will go out and forge new lives among the stars, such as my novel The Pirates of Sufiro. In my story, space pirates are stranded on a distant world and must make a life there in a story that took some inspiration from my great grandparents who homesteaded in New Mexico and Texas. The link in the title will take you to the free PDF edition distributed by my publisher, which is my preferred edition.

Finally, I’ll wrap up today’s post with a brief update. At this point, we’ve decided that Tales of the Talisman will remain closed through 2016. However, Hadrosaur Productions will be reading for an anthology this year tentatively on the theme of Space Cowboys. Like the space cowboys of Cowboy Bebop and The Pirates of Sufiro, these are not necessarily literal cowboys, but people who embody the frontier spirit. Some may be quick with their blaster. Some may have to use their wits to survive in a harsh environment. Some may just be the people who are happy to be alone riding the range of space when no one else wants to. I hope to have guidelines posted at the Tales of the Talisman website by April, with the reading period this summer. Till next week…see you space cowboy.

Star Wars and Battle of the Planets

By now I suspect you’ve heard a new Star Wars movie has come out. My work shift at Kitt Peak National Observatory didn’t let me see it for a few days. However, I just rectified that and enjoyed being swept into a pulp adventure in a galaxy far, far away. Another thing I have been watching in the last couple of weeks has been the contemporary anime series Gatchaman Crowds. As someone who was a kid in the 1970s, there is something of a connection between the Star Wars and Gatchaman universes.

Back in 1977, when Star Wars came out, there was no on-demand video, nor was there a DVD release of a movie three to six months after it was in the theater. If you were lucky, you might see the movie on commercial television a few months to a year after release and if you didn’t catch it when it aired, it was too late. Because of the popularity of Star Wars, television stations sought just about anything that looked remotely like Star Wars to bring in advertising dollars.

G-Force_-_group_shot2

As such, in 1978, Sandy Frank Entertainment bought the rights to the anime Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, which is a superhero show more akin Marvel’s X-Men or Avengers titles than Star Wars. It featured a team of teen superheroes in bird-themed costumes who fought an evil organization called Galactor. Through clever dubbing, careful editing, and judicious use of new animation, Sandy Frank recast Gatchaman into Battle of the Planets, a show about five heroes who fought aliens from the Planet Spectra. Sometimes the battles happened on Earth and other times, the battles happened on worlds that looked suspiciously like Earth. The lead villain, who looked sort of like a cross between Darth Vader and Batman was called Zoltar. The new animation featured a robot called 7-Zark-7 who looked suspiciously like R2-D2. The whole mishmash was a terrific escape for someone who was just starting the awkward journey into adolescence.

Fast forward thirty-seven years to 2015, I decided to pick up a copy of the original Science Ninja Team Gatchaman and I’ve been slowly working my way through the series and loving it in its original format. I’ve discovered that the team never left Earth and I now know Zoltar as Berg Katze, a stooge for an alien creature called X, who is trying to take over the Earth. It’s still tremendous, goofy fun, though it’s also much more coherent than the Battle of the Planets edit. It’s also much more violent.

Because of my renewed interest in Gatchaman, I became aware of a new Gatchaman series called Gatchaman Crowds. I decided to give it a try as well and I’m glad I did, though the two series are actually quite different. If Science Ninja Team Gatchaman is like the Justice Society of America, Gatchaman Crowds would be the Justice League. They’re both superhero teams and the new incarnation has many similarities to the old. The bird-themed costumes have become mecha, often with wings. They still say “Bird, Go” when they want to transform. Also, the G-Team of Gatchaman Crowds still fights a villain called Berg Katze, though the new incarnation now reminds me more of the Joker than Batman.

Whereas the original Gatchaman team faced a new plot by Berg Katze each week, the new Gatchaman team has a more sophisticated story-arc structure. The first season basically asks what happens when ordinary people are given the power to be heroes through the internet and do heroes really need secret identities. The second season, called Insight, addresses the complexities of democracy and how being united in heart and mind may be something of a dangerous dream.

Gatchaman-Crowds

Star Wars: The Force Awakens was fun and definitely hearkened back to the Buck Rogers serials that inspired the original trilogy. In that vein, I gather more Star Wars movies are expected to follow. I don’t know whether or not there will be a third season of Gatchaman Crowds, however, the Gatchaman team seems to be gaining an almost iconic status, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see more adventures from some Gatchaman team in the future. I look forward to the stellar wars and planetary battles each series will bring.



Images in this article are low-resolution screenshots from Science Ninja Team Gatchaman and Gatchaman Crowds Insight respectively and are believed to be fair use since they are presented for identification of and critical commentary on the shows.

Gun Frontier

First off, Happy Halloween! I’m in Tucson, Arizona at the TusCon Science Fiction convention this weekend. There are lots of great panels and good people. If you’re in town and free, I hope you’ll drop by. There are details at the link above.

Gun Frontier

This month, I’ve been watching Leiji Matsumoto’s anime series Gun Frontier. It may not seem your usual Halloween fare, but it’s been an interesting way to wind down after days of working on my steampunk novel, The Brazen Shark, which is now back with the editor. I’ll have to admit, the first time I watched an episode of Gun Frontier, I wasn’t impressed. I came across the series in an article about Matsumoto’s famous Space Pirate Captain Harlock. Matsumoto is famous for recycling his characters into different situations to create new shows. In this case, he told a story about Harlock and his best friend, Tochiro, in the old west. This sounded like it would be right up my alley. What I got was a show, that to be honest, was rather crude with offensive humor and nonsensical situations.

So, why did I go back? I realized that Matsumoto was actually doing something in Gun Frontier very similar to what I’m doing in The Brazen Shark. In my novel, I imagine my characters from the western United States visiting Meiji-era Japan. In Gun Frontier, Tochiro is a samurai who has come to the western United States looking for settlers from Japan along with his long lost sister. I had the chance to see what it was like to view the Wild West of my ancestors through the lens of a Japanese writer and artist.

What I found after I watched several episodes was a rather interesting example of an acid western. The term “acid western” was coined fairly recently by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum to describe the Johnny Depp western Dead Man. Acid westerns are said to have a hallucinogenic quality with aspects derived from 1960s counterculture, which often includes a more contemporary score. In the traditional western, the west is often viewed as an optimistic place. In the acid western, the west is often seen as an almost nightmarish place. Other examples of acid westerns include Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo and Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

Gun Frontier shows us a bizarre west. In one town, everyone can do what they want, no matter the consequences. This includes one gentleman perched on a toilet in the middle of the street. In another episode, the town has imposed a limit on the height of the people who can enter. Each of our primary characters has a superpower of sorts. This Harlock is a former sea captain, good with his guns. Tochiro can’t see worth a darn, but he’s an amazing swordsman. They travel with a woman named Sinonora, who uses her sex appeal like a weapon and wastes little time getting out of her clothes in many episodes. The score is Japanese pop, similar to many other anime series of the early 2000s.

I gather the Gun Frontier manga was actually the first time the characters of Harlock and Tochiro appeared in print. It was published in 1972, six years before we would meet Harlock as a space pirate, but only two years after the release of El Topo and a year before the release of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. It was prime time for the acid western.

What kept the series together and kept me watching was the ongoing quest and the hope that Tochiro would be reunited with his sister. Also, the Harlock and Tochiro of this series are still fundamentally the same characters as their space pirate counterparts and there are some nice scenes where they imagine themselves traveling the stars. Because I enjoyed the characters, I found Gun Frontier more enjoyable than its contemporary acid westerns. I also found it fascinating to see Matsumoto’s portrayal of the west, which looked more like Sergio Leone’s than John Ford’s.

Gun Frontier is crude, nonsensical, sometimes homophobic, but interesting. It’s clearly not a western for everyone but fans of acid westerns and Matsumoto will likely be transported back in time, if not to the old west, at least to the west as it was envisioned in the 1970s.