Lovely Angels

I’m a fan of stories featuring strong women. While I recognize that physical strength or proficiency with weapons is not the only way to be a strong person, my love of action stories does mean I enjoy a story with women who fall into this category. While in Bisbee, Arizona’s wonderful Meridian Books and Comics a few weeks ago, my wife’s eyes happened to fall on the book, The Great Adventure of the Dirty Pair.

I immediately recognized the title and the women on the cover from an anime series of the mid-1980s. What I didn’t realize is that the anime series was inspired by a series of novels by Haruka Takachiho. The book my wife found was an English translation of the first two novels published in 2007 by Dark Horse Books. For those not familiar with the books or the anime series, the “Dirty Pair” are Kei and Yuri, two young interplanetary agents in the distant future who investigate crimes for the World Welfare Works Association or WWWA. They’re essentially female James Bond types who travel in their own space ship with their pet Mugi, which is essentially an intelligent, alien cat. Their code name is “the lovely angels” but because they’re famous for leaving death and destruction in their wake, they’ve come to be known as “the dirty pair.”

Unlike many anime series, each episode of Dirty Pair is a self-contained adventure. Kei and Yuri often find one mystery that leads to a bigger mystery or find that a tactical situation has gone out of control and they must go in guns blazing while wearing their battle bikinis. At least the novels explain that their outfits do include a transparent polymer that protects them while giving them the appearance of lots of exposed skin.

What I love about the series and the books is that Kei and Yuri are strong, well defined characters. Kei is more hot-tempered and impulsive while Yuri is more thoughtful. It’s fun to see their camaraderie and how the situations regularly blow up for them to cause damage worthy of a contemporary superhero film. What I find a little annoying is that at times it feels like Kei and Yuri are Betty and Veronica from Archie comics each competing for the next cute boy, even in the midst of worlds blowing up around them.

One key difference between the novels and the anime series is that in the novels, Kei and Yuri have clairvoyant powers. If they concentrate and then hold hands, they can get a precognitive clue to the mystery they’re trying to solve. The only time I know this appears in the anime is in the movie, Affair on Nolandia. Of some note, this movie seems to be one of the least popular Dirty Pair stories, but it does feel like it takes most of its beats from the books.

The first Dirty Pair novels were serialized in 1979 in the Japanese magazine SF Magajin. This means Kei and Yuri started kicking butt the same year as Ripley in the American Alien franchise.

The Dirty Pair novels are fun if you’re a fan of the anime and curious about the story’s history. The anime is fun if you like diverting science fiction stories with plenty of gun battles and explosions. Just don’t go in expecting a lot of depth. You can find strong women who will tell more thoughtful stories in other places.

If you want to explore some of the strong women characters in my stories, you might enjoy meeting Fatemeh Karimi and Larissa Crimson in my Clockwork Legion Series. You might also enjoy meeting Suki Mori, Fire Ellis, and Kirsten Smart in my Space Pirates Legacy Series or Marcella DuBois, Jane Heckman, and Mercy Rodriguez from my Scarlet Order Vampire Series.

Valerian and Laureline

While learning more about the movie The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec directed by Luc Besson and the comic of the same name by Jacques Tardi, I stumbled across another French comic which was recently adapted by Besson. The comic is Valérian and Laureline written by Pierre Christin and illustrated by Jean-Claude Mézières. The movie, called Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, completely slipped under my radar. Because I love a good space opera, I immediately set out to see the movie and read some issues of the comic.

The comic started its run in November 1967. To put it in context, the original Star Trek was still on the air in the United States and Patrick Troughton was playing the title character of Doctor Who in England. It’s pure pulp action Sci Fi, reminding me most of Buck Rogers with a touch of Flash Gordon thrown in for good measure. The artwork, particularly in the first two installments, looks like it’s inspired by Mad Magazine and there is a definite satirical edge to the stories. The characters of Valérian and Laureline also remind me a little of Jamie and Zoe, the Doctor’s traveling companions at the time, but with some of their personality traits mixed up. Laureline, like Jamie McCrimmon, is from the past and doesn’t always want to follow the rules. Valérian, like Zoe, thinks highly of himself, and seems to need rescuing from time to time. I’m not convinced these similarities are deliberate. I suspect there’s an element of the zeitgeist of the period in these passing resemblances.

Fans of Valérian and Laureline are also fast to point out many similarities between the French comic and Star Wars which would come out a decade later. I gather George Lucas has acknowledged the French comic’s influence on the look of his world.

Jumping ahead to the movie, I thought Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets was a gem. It captured the spirit of the comic very well and I thought presented a dandy and cohesive story with some cool science fictional ideas that made valid commentary on what can happen when indigenous peoples find themselves caught between two civilizations at war. Valerian and Laureline themselves are introduced during a special ops mission at a market that exists in a different dimension from our own. I loved the way that concept was portrayed on screen.

I enjoyed the performances of Dane DeHaan as Valerian and Cara Delevingne as Laureline. They’re not your usual Hollywood romantic couple. In fact, they seemed just a little uncomfortable with this whole romance thing, but it worked for me because that’s the way romance often works in real life. It’s figuring out how you each work, and not having the writer put phrases in your mouth that the other party has to be a moron to misunderstand and pout about until they make up. The film also features a truly outstanding performance by Rihanna as an alien called Bubble. I also loved the cameos by Ethan Hawke and Rutger Hauer.

As a bonus, I’ve discovered that about ten years ago, Valerian and Laureline was turned into a French-Japanese co-produced anime. From what I’ve seen so far, the anime’s story diverges from the comic’s, but it still looks fun. I definitely need to watch a few more episodes.

Of course, I’m a sucker for a good space opera. If you want to see my serialized space opera story, please drop by my Patreon site. You can read the first story of my Firebrandt’s Legacy for free. If you pledge just one dollar, you can read nine more stories right now. If you remain a patron, you’ll get each new story as its released. Stop by and check out Firebrandt’s Legacy at: https://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers

Road Trip to Tokyo

This is my third stop on the Airship Ambassador’s Steampunk Hands Around the World road trip exploring different places in the world of steampunk. One of the things I’ve enjoyed doing when writing my Clockwork Legion books is visiting places around the world and imagining them with a steampunk twist. Because of that, I’m visiting some of the places that appear in the novels and share my connection to them. Today’s stop is a place I’m sorry to say I haven’t actually visited, but dearly want to. Tokyo features prominently in book three of my Clockwork Legion series, The Brazen Shark.

Because my imagination and the requirements of plot and character development don’t always feel constrained by my travel budget, I’m grateful that there are resources which allow me to travel not only across the ocean but back in time. Here’s a public domain photograph of Yokohama in the 1880s that I shared in a blog post back at the end of 2014:

What I like about this photo is how much the scene looks like many U.S. cities of the same period. There are wooden buildings, a gas lamp, and dirt streets. Of course, there are elements of this photo that seem very unique to Japan, such as the rickshaws and the banners hanging over the doors. I love how people are just going about their business, like the two guys on the right just chatting about some long forgotten subject. Some people are striding with purpose. Others are just hanging out.

Here’s another photo I like. This photo shows Kyobashi. According to Wikipedia, the photographer died in 1898 and this is supposed to be a nineteenth century street scene.

One of the themes in The Brazen Shark is an exploration of the way in which Emperor Meiji’s “Restoration” was a transition from old feudal Japan to a new, modern vision of Japan. I introduce scientists and inventors who want to bring this about, but I also showed that they’re working in a city where this is all new and exciting. One new element I introduce are automata, used as servants to escort visitors around the city. I also introduce Japanese airships.

In these photos, I see people walking and taking rickshaws through the streets. I see horse-drawn streetcars. I see someone carrying baskets. I see horses and masonry buildings. As long as I keep in mind what would and wouldn’t be in this scene in the time period of my novel, the photos serve as a tool to help me describe nineteenth century Tokyo. One possible anachronism in the second photo is the guy in the straw hat in the lower left. That suit just says 1901 to me more than 1880!

I didn’t just use old photos to visit Meiji era Japan, I also used books written at the time. Books, of course, are one of the most tried and true means of traveling to new places and new times! One of the most important books I used was Gleanings in Buddha Fields by Lafcadio Hearn. Hearn was a reporter born in Ireland who immigrated to the United States. He lived for many years in New Orleans before moving to Japan and raising a family. His writings provided a wonderful insight into daily life of people in Meiji Era Japan. Hearn also provided something of a literary bridge and a fictionalized version of the author appears in Owl Riders during his New Orleans days as the chronicler of Ramon and Fatemeh’s adventures up to the events of Owl Riders.

I’ll wrap up this road trip to Tokyo with one other observation. I often seem to encounter the notion that no one has made a truly great steampunk film. I don’t feel that’s true. I’d argue that Japanese filmmakers have done a great job. For example, Hiyao Miyazaki has made several great steampunk films including Howl’s Moving Castle, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Princess Mononoke. Also, Katsuhiro Otomo, creator of the cyberpunk masterpiece Akira, made the strong steampunk film Steamboy. Anime played a part in my research for The Brazen Shark as well. In this case, I turned to the anime of Rurouni Kenshin. I gather the anime worked hard to get the historical background of Meiji Era Tokyo right. I didn’t necessarily use the show as a primary resource, but as a way of better visualizing the look and feel of the time and place.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this steampunk road trip stop. If you would like to explore The Brazen Shark and all the places visited in the novel, you visit http://www.davidleesummers.com/brazen_shark.html to get more information and find all the places the novel is available.

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?