Reading & Reviewing: The Handmaid’s Tale

Oh, hi.

You may have noticed that the title of this isn’t about my writing journey. And, sadly, it turns out that taking a writing course doesn’t leave that much time for it. As of now I’ve not got any deals offered to me, but will get on it as soon as I have more time.

Given the time constraints, why did I think that now would be a good time to write a blog post? My friends, I have absolutely no idea why I do what I do, and I think the sooner you remember that, the better. (OK, so technically, there was some planning to the timing of this but I’ll get onto that at the end…)

We’re back with another book review, and here I’ll be reviewing The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, the book I read before the one I’m currently slogging through. Why am I slogging through it? Again, timing. It is in itself an enjoyable read, but y’know…

But what about the one I’m reviewing today? Is it any good? Well, yes. It is. But that conclusion took a while to come to even as I was reading.

The book, or at least its concept, doesn’t need that much introduction. It sort of established itself to me as one the ‘Big Three’ of dystopian fiction that really defined the genre in its modern form, along with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World – high praise indeed, given how much these books I hadn’t read cemented themselves as defining points in the genre. As of the time of writing this, I still haven’t read the other two, which has probably earned me a little booing from the non-existent crowd of onlookers.

For those not familiar with it, or at least want a more definitive overview, the book’s premise is essentially this:

Set at an undisclosed point in the near future, the United States government has been overthrown in a coup by ‘The Sons of Jacob’, a group of totalitarian Christian fundamentalists, who manage to keep a low profile to begin with, allowing them to slowly chip away at human rights until we enter the world we see at the beginning of the novel. In the newly formed Republic of Gilead, sex is ruthlessly controlled, particularly for women, who are assigned very particular roles in life, denoted by colour-coded dresses. The Handmaids are the caste given the most focus, and is the group our protagonist belongs to, coded by now iconic red dresses. Fertility is apparently a huge problem in this future, and the official policy of The Sons of Jacob is that male infertility does not exist – all fertility problems are the fault of barren wives. To get over this, the Sons have allowed the caste of Handmaids to engage in ritualistic sex with married men (though always with the wives present) in order to produce children that will legally belong to married couple and not the Handmaid – they provide Biblical justification for this as well, with the cases of Abraham and his wife’s handmaid Hagar (Genesis 16:2) and Jacob and both of his wives’ handmaids (Genesis 30:3, 9). I say handmaids, but to be honest, slave is a more accurate term. As is the case with the Handmaids in this story. Our protagonist goes by the name of Offred, although that is not her real name, as her Handmaid status means she’s only designated a name based on the man she’s assigned to (Offred=Of Fred, you see?) We get to see the world of Gilead through her eyes and her thoughts of the world that came before it.

Perhaps one of the most extraordinary things about this book is the nature of our protagonist, who’s birth name is never revealed. She manages to be both incredibly dull, boring, and irritating, and intriguing, engaging and worth reflection at the same time. I say this with the recognition that she is meant to be – and the book’s epilogue backs up this interpretation – something of an unreliable narrator. Not that she’s lying about the situation she’s in, but rather her perspective is limited, self-centred, and to be honest, feels kind of suppressed. The situation she’s in certainly does elicit sympathy, but not much else. You increasingly get the feeling there’s many more characters in this piece you’d much rather hear about – take Moira, Offred’s best friend, who’s story is mostly told in flashbacks. She’s openly gay and was active in feminism before Gilead asserted itself, and that in itself is enough to engage a great deal of interest, and an opportunity for a window into the lives of queer people, feminists (and indeed queer feminists) in countries that suppress women and the LGBT community wholesale, theocracies being no slouch on that front. But instead, we spend most of our time with this rather unassertive straight woman. It’s enough to frustrate you, but then you realise it may well be the point. I mean, this is a frustrating situation, and not everyone has the means, capability or motivation to resist when the need arises, so it’s possible that you were meant to feel that hopelessness too – it’s not as if the hopeless tone isn’t felt throughout the book. In case Gilead thinks you have too much hope, they suppress that too by displaying the hanged corpses of political/religious dissidents, or just those they deem too sinful, in public, changing them daily so you don’t get too used to it.

The fact is, there a lot of characters in this book who’s stories we don’t hear, and that’s because Offred never heard them herself. Once again, the book is driving home the limits of one life and the frustrations that can result when you’re in, to put it mildly, a bit of a pinch.

And the way this was executed actually led to me to repeatedly question how well it was executed. Several times, I changed my mind on how much we’re supposed to like Offred, or how much of an ideal figure she was meant to represent. My final answer is that – she’s not meant to be an ideal at all. She’s meant to represent helplessness and be the victim of her circumstances. What makes me so sure about this? Well, the most obvious answer is that she simply never does anything.

I’ve seen ineffective protagonists before, and sometimes they’ll end up doing a lot of passive things in the time you spend with them (which, given they are the protagonist, is not surprising), but they’ll never make any active contributions to the plot. They’ll almost always have things done for them rather than take initiative themselves. Offred is this in spades. One of the biggest frustrations she offered to me was how many times her thoughts wandered to her bloody ex-husband. Hey, what gives? I thought this was supposed to be a definitive piece of feminist fiction, and all she’s doing is thinking in adoartion about the men who have dictated her life? (Not an entirely inaccurate description the more you read about their past together.) As for having things done for her, it has to be said that it’s not just the men of the story who do that, although they definitely do. Indeed, another one of the biggest frustrations this story had to me was, trying not to give too much away, was when another female character offered a very significant olive branch to Offred and she REFUSED, partially because of the sex she was at that moment having and the weird emotions that resulted from it. I made me want to holler at Offred and tell her how ridiculous she was being, but then again, she’s only human, and sometimes humans will go with their gut instinct in situations, something she readily admits herself. Worth noting is how the women who step beyond their boundaries for Offred (or around her, at least) never get away with it, being condemned either by Offred’s narrative, or by the ruthless powers in control of Gilead. The men who do the same, on the other hand? Nothing. They get away with it more or less perfectly. Again, deliberate? I can’t help but feel so. The story’s epilogue takes place at the end of the 22nd century, where a male historian is giving his opinion of Offred’s life as described in the book, and spends a great deal time speculating on the motivations of the men involved rather than trying to empathize with her.

This book’s frustrations may well be the best thing about it. The fact that I can read a work of feminist fiction and feel that the protagonist is entirely unhelpful, and above all, fails to consistently empathize with many of the women around her (not all the time, but enough) is really telling, and perhaps showcases a condemnation of totalitarian moralizing and thought control far better than descriptions of hanging corpses can, horrific as that is. This book I think was always meant to be a cautionary tale, but one that runs deeper just than the outset of a misogynist dictatorship, right into the veins of our unreliable narrator. This is a metafictional approach I have to salute in how well it was executed. Is it one I’ll keep going back to? It’s unclear – it’s certainly not a feel-good read, but definitely one which will probably light up the mind upon a reread, and, for those into books that challenge your thoughts in different ways with each turn of the page, it’s definitely one I’d recommend.

How accurately have I interpreted it? It’s really difficult to be sure. I want to bear in mind that my maleness may give me something of a blind spot when it comes to determining the aspects of feminist themes throughout, and I have to admit there were a few areas where I feel that my own personal tastes got in the way. For example – we have a heterosexual woman as our protagonist, which will inevitably make me pull faces at various points at the narrative trying and failing to make men attractive. (Spoilers: They’re not.) Not a failing of the book, just an issue of personal taste. And then there’s the whole smoking thing…yeah…I know this was published in 1985, when smoking was a more mainstream thing, but seriously, these characters treat cigarettes like fucking gold dust, using them as almost impervious bribes and reliefs. I utterly detest the smell of cigarette smoke, and am way too traumatized by graphic anti-smoking PIFs I saw as a child to take it up now. Obviously, I’m aware that nicotine addiction is no small thing to overcome, but it would appear as though I’d be difficult to bribe in Gilead.

OK, this brings me the reason for the timing of this post – something of a Real Talk time. The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985, but I fear its political talking points are very relevant at the moment.

Those who have been following the news know that Alabama has recently passed immensely restrictive anti-abortion laws. The bill in question seeks to prohibit abortion in nearly all cases, including rape and incest, and only makes an exception, as far as I can tell, for when both the survival of the mother and foetus are in question. This bill was inevitably passed by a group of cisgender men, people who’d never have to consider the consequences of this themselves. Ominously, the supporters are even anticipating the bill to be blocked in court (running counter to Roe v. Wade, 1973), but they are wanting to have it pushed to the Supreme Court so a big stink is made about it, and the possibility the newly and highly conservative judges overturning this landmark civil rights case. This possibility sets a worrying precedent that’s already present in the Supreme Court, given Brett Kavanaugh’s dangerous, authoritarian views on presidential power. No wonder Trump fought his corner.

OK, obviously I have my own opinions on the right to an abortion, but for those of you who do consider themselves pro-life, bear in mind that no law, even of this caliber, is going to prevent abortions from happening. All it will do is stop safe abortions from happening, and the kind of backstreet abortions I’m talking about used to be done all the time before people sat up and realized how ridiculously unsafe it was. That’s what we risk returning to if these kind of bills become commonplace – it already happens in countries were abortion is illegal. A 2006 report by the World Health Organization determined that at least 22,800 deaths can be attributed to unsafe abortions annually. Anyone who calls themselves pro-life should definitely take that into account. Also, if you think abortion is akin to murder, does that mean you should investigate every miscarriage that ever took place? Be aware of what you’re agreeing to…

I can’t do a great deal about this where I am, and I know I don’t have a particularly big readership. I don’t even know if any of them reside in the States, but those of you who are reading this, please spread the word, let everyone know that action needs to be taken. Voting in candidates who aren’t awful would be a good start. And for those who are anti-abortion – please consider your position carefully, what it means, and why you hold it. Take the time to learn a little bit more, don’t just react instinctively to the emotive language sold to you – or indeed, Trump’s ridiculous and bare-faced lies on the whole procedure.

Until next time (whenever that might be) everyone stay safe, and remember to fight for your rights.

 

 

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Reading & Reviewing: We Are Okay

It’s been a little while since I’ve done one of these – I know I was meant to produce a lengthy series of reviews for books I had been reading en masse for the past however long, but then things happened, including my own writing taking me over. That’s still going on, and I hope to keep you updated on whether I’m nearing the stage of getting my work out there, or, on the other end of the spectrum, am nearing the stage of denouncing it from the rooftops.

Either way, I feel it’s worth writing a particular review for my most recent read. Firstly, because of just how exceptional it is, and secondly, because I was recommending it on Twitter, and after corresponding with the author herself, feel I owe her to actually do this thing properly. So…hi, Nina, if you’re reading…hope you like this review. The pressure’s on a little bit more than with previous reviews, what with the author watching, but hey, it’s still my blog – and it’s not as if I’ve got much negative to comment on.

So – We Are Okay by Nina LaCour. Not my first exposure to her work. I had previously read You Know Me Well, a collaborative novel between her and David Levithan, and Hold Still, her debut novel. Both I enjoyed, but my appreciation for her writing and recognition of it’s consistent good points reached their zenith in this particular work, and has probably now earned its place as one of my favourite books outright, although given how long my reading list still is, who knows how many favourites I’ll end up having…

So, what’s the story? Well, to be honest, it’s kind of difficult to summarize, and I felt that the blurb, when I first read it, didn’t reveal too much either. The story is narrated by Marin, a young woman who has recently started attending college (or uni, as we Brits might facetiously say) in New York, about as far away from her home in California as you can get. And this is quite deliberate – she feels the need to distance herself from what went on in the days leading up to her departure, to the point that she’s not contacted anyone from her old life for ages. Eventually, her best friend Mabel (who has recently been a bit more than a friend to her), comes to visit, admittedly upon invitation, to spend a few days with her during the Christmas holidays, whilst Mabel is otherwise completely alone at the college dormitories, and upon arriving, is, as you’ll imagine, quite curious to know what exactly happened, which slowly gets revealed to the reader via backstory.

One of the most immediately noticeable strengths about this book (and in fact, a consistent factor in all of LaCour’s books) is how well realized the characters are. I have rambled at length about how much I love characters before, and tend to get annoyed when they seem more like stereotypes, archetypes or tools rather than actual human beings. The author manages to avoid this trap however – even though a good chunk of the consists of just Marin and Mabel interacting with each other, every second of it speaks volumes about them, feels so organic, genuinely makes me think that these are two existing people with a convoluted and not fully worked out relationship to each other. One scene that really makes this stand out is near the beginning, where the two of them are having a conversation in an elevator (or, lift, as we boring Brits say), where the topic of discussion is naturally drawn to Marin’s disappearing act. Both characters manage to convey several emotions at once during this discussion – Marin manages to be both defensive of her decision, whilst simultaneously being guilty and trying to avoid upsetting Mabel even more. Mable, which for her part is even more impressive by not being a POV character, manages to display a subtle anger and hurt and Marin’s decision and radio silence, whilst also feeling joyous at their reunion, and I’m possibly detecting a bit of guilt there too, due to recent events in her life which makes the brewing romance she and Marin had previously now not possible. All of this just a few pages – that is some top quality character-crafting there. This kind of attention to detail can also be seen in LaCour’s minor characters. This is probably shown more in her other books, with a lot more characters to work with, but even here, it can detected. You don’t just know the names of background characters, you know their dog’s name too, their family life, their hobbies. No character is neglected, whether you like them or not, and in this book, I’m sure I do.

The degree by which the major characters’ focus is developed is immensely impressive too –  the reminiscing done by Marin and Mabel is just delightful, for lack of a better word. You simply don’t need to be told how close they are, because it’s evident, not just in Mabel flying 3,000 odd miles to reunite with Marin, but simply by how their conversations flowed in spite of the awkwardness that grew between them. Dissections of literary techniques, existential musings, all of these come naturally to the two of them, and it’s just perfect. These are definitely conversations I can see myself wanting to read frequently.

The connection gets even more personal for me, when I reflect on that I decided, halfway through reading, that Marin probably has Generalized Anxiety Disorder, having recognised a lot of her habits and thought processes in myself, particularly in how her concerns and worries tend to develop and worsen until death is considered a likely outcome, and also how later the worries become darker, and more closely related to her doubting the commitment the people important to her actually have, particularly her grandfather. Oh yeah, probably should have mentioned him…well, keep an eye on him, because he’s pivotal. Perhaps what hit closest to home though was how Marin manages to keep her anxieties under control by having the familiar and mundane recited or presented to her – when her roommate Hannah was there, it was the discussion of her biology course that gave her some comfort. With Mabel, it’s talking about her life, no doubt playing into the nostalgia factor, something that I know I find comforting. Rewatching episodes of TV shows or films that I’ve watched plenty of times before is a key way I relieve my anxiety, to the point that’s it become part of the process.

If I’m allowed to interpret, I’d argue that the main themes of this book are loneliness and the fear of simply not belonging, which becomes more apparent in Marin the more you read on, and seems quite cemented as its central theme by the end. And again, it’s something I know all too well, everything from avoiding the unknown and emotionally painful, to undue guilty, to unrequited love, and something that can be eased with just some of the simplest actions from people you care about which you nevertheless realize was quite an undertaking on their part, done simply for you. Many of us will feel lonely, anxious about our place in the world, and sometimes betrayed very often, and recovery is not always straightforward. But if you have a Mabel in your life, definitely hold onto them.

Do I have any criticisms? Honestly, very little stood out to me as worth criticizing. Even though a good half of the book is told in flashback, explaining how Marin got to where she did, a narrative technique I can easily get tired of, it’s perfectly easy to follow and serves the story well. It helps, I guess, that neither story, either the flashback one, or the one of Marin and Mabel in New York, is boring. In a less talented author’s hands, they could easily have been.

If I were to pick one thing, I’d say the ending seems a little off compared to the rest of the book. Endings are difficult, I know, and for spoiler-related reasons, I don’t want to say too much about it, but I’ll summarize in saying certain things about it seem a little abrupt, and somewhat different in tone to everything else, and perhaps I’m just saying that because I would have been happy for the book to be many times longer, but who knows.

Point is, this is a brilliant book – I’d highly recommend it to anyone, and it has encouraged me to read LaCour’s other books that I haven’t yet. Nina, I’m quite jealous of your talents, but you do deserve this praise.

Reading & Reviewing: Looking for Alaska

I’ve always found one of the most prominent challenges when it comes to finding entertainment for a young man like myself who’s so in touch with his feminine side that it’s practically the only one there, is that romance doesn’t seem to often be marketed with a male demographic in mind. When it comes to interactions with the opposite sex from the male perspective, sex seems to be the most heavy theme, with emotions coming second, and I think this is a shame. People often underestimate how emotional and sentimental guys can be too, and this goes without mentioning the under-representation of same-sex romances.

As it was, I had to contend myself with your standard female-oriented romances, which I find has less of an effect when I can’t find the object of affection remotely attractive. Perhaps this was why I didn’t take to Levi when I read Fangirl. Or maybe he was just a poorly-written archetype. Perhaps both. The point is, you can probably imagine my intrigue when I happened to stumble across John Green’s debut novel on TV Tropes when looking him up. Avoiding as many spoilers as I could, the summary sounded like something I’d be waiting for for a long time – a YA romantic storyline from the perspective of a guy pursuing a girl…? I suppose it’s a sign of not much else going on that I became pretty hyped before I even got my hands on this book.

Of course it turned out that this was an oversimplification. I knew there would be more to this book, but this was the primary motivator, because I felt that I could connect with the protagonist far more than I was used to. Ironically, the main motivator and storyline wasn’t even there, at least not in it’s expected format, but that isn’t to say I didn’t end up impressed by it or that there wasn’t anything I found both relevant and relatable. A good, important chunk of the plot is kind of crossing into spoiler territory given an event that takes place about halfway through. People who’ve read the book will know what I’m talking about. Otherwise, I’ll try and explain the impact this had without actually giving it away, but I can’t be sure I won’t be too obvious, so proceed at your own risk.

The story concerns a young man named Miles (I say young man, he’s 16, and sometimes I still feel that age) who has the habit of memorizing famous figures’ last words. Inspired by the last words of Francois Rabelais, he decides to attend a boarding school called Culver Creek to seek his own Great Perhaps – essentially opening up himself to potential life experiences. He’s given the nickname Pudge (because he’s really skinny, get it?) by his roommate who goes by the name of The Colonel, and he meets a whole host of interesting characters including the eponymous Alaska. Alaska is a stunning, erratic and extroverted girl whom Pudge falls for pretty much instantly. The many activities the students get up to at Culver Creek include a potentially dangerous prank war, occasionally skipping class, a lot of smoking, and much of this is spearheaded by Alaska, who drinks hard, plays hard and certainly gives reason for Pudge to consider her the key to his Great Perhaps. Does this description of her seem uncomfortably familiar? Well, it should, because this time it’s deliberate.

John Green has gone on record to say that virtually all of his books attempt to deconstruct the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype to some degree, including a gender-flipped example in The Fault in Our Stars. He’s the first to admit he’s not always successful, and in fact one of the reasons he wrote Paper Towns is because he didn’t feel he did a good enough job in this one of taking the archetype down. Given that this is his debut novel, I think it’s quite interesting to see the beginning of his own take on it. Because one of the things I think Green does best is capture the joys, crossroads and particularly in this case, the sheer naivety of youth.

Pudge himself is not the strongest protagonist I’ve seen, but I feel that part of that may well be just how much of an avatar for the reader I find him. He’s not physically adept or overly confident, and he rightly feels awkward due to the socially awkward habits he has. Now, I never used to memorize people’s last words, but believe me I memorized some other weird things. And just like Pudge, the geeky side I had which led some people to believing I was wise beyond my years didn’t stop me from being a slave to my emotions and naively hold people in the highest regard, and this is exactly what Pudge does to Alaska. And this is where the deconstruction comes into play. Pudge begins to view her almost as this angel sent from heaven who’s only role is to guide him to his Great Perhaps, and whilst Alaska is a perfectly friendly and playful individual, being a real person, she of course has her own agenda too, her own history and priorities that don’t seem to register with Pudge straight away. This is so similar to the kind of crushes I’ve had in my past that it’s almost laughable. I too have idealized those who have seemed to have the perfect combination of personality and physical traits, practically creating my own Manic Pixie Dream Girls as I did so. I don’t know whether my inability to see things from their perspectives contributed to how this didn’t always end well for me, but I can see how it would be a factor.

Because despite her being a drinking, smoking, loud-mouthed party girl who decides to steal porn just because and waltz around the campus and play matchmaker and tell a teacher they’re full of shit to their face, Alaska shows plenty of signs that she’s not quite as clear-cut as this. And for the most part, Pudge and the others pretty much ignore these things.

For one thing, she has a boyfriend. Obviously false romantic leads are a huge trope in this kind of genre, but I feel it shows already that there are different priorities to be had here. She’s also quite open about the sex she has, which for female supporting characters, particularly stock ones, is usually considered taboo by people who have this weird idea that women should be prudes or something. In fact, this book was quite often challenged due to the level of sexual references, swearing and drinking that came from it’s teenage characters. This is quite funny to me, because firstly, apparently these moral guardians don’t know anything about teenagers, and secondly, the book I read after this one made Looking for Alaska seem about as profane and sexually explicit as the Mr Men.

But more than this, Alaska’s moods swing quite dramatically. Sometimes she’s her usual MPDG self, other times she’s crying her eyes out over something far beyond Pudge’s control. These are further advanced by rather morbid comments she makes or references to certain things about herself that I won’t go into too much detail about here, which again, is mostly just brushed off by the main cast. They have no reason to concern themselves with the mental well-being of her too much, they seem to decide, because she’s the life and soul of the party. As it happens, Takumi, a friend of Pudge, Alaska and the Colonel’s, is revealed at the end to have a similar kind of crush to the one Pudge nurtures throughout this story, so it’s understandable that he’d have a similar reaction. Now I’m sure those who haven’t read the book among you have probably worked out by now that this neglect is going to come back to bite them later. And…yeah…

Perhaps more curious than that though is that (slight spoiler incoming) Pudge and Alaska don’t actually get together. They closest they get is constant flirting and a make-out session when they were drunk. And, given that Alaska is still with her boyfriend at this point, this raises a few questions…but more on that later. The point is, this again showcases another reality of teen life. If you got together with the very first person you were attracted to and are still happy with them now then…you’re one of a very rare minority and I’m trying my best not to resent you.

Alaska does in fact hook Pudge up with a girl named Lara and there’s a scene where they try oral sex…and haven’t got a clue what to do, which Alaska finds absolutely hilarious, of course. I don’t know, it’s little touches like that which I really appreciate.

I guess I should talk about the other characters too. The Colonel, Pudge’s roommate is good, because it again showcases an understanding of inter-personal relationships. Him and Pudge naturally become very close friends. There’s not really much to elaborate on there, it just feels very real. He’s given a background and a family, and perhaps most importantly serves as something of a voice of reason later on, given that he shares a close, entirely platonic relationship with Alaska and is therefore is the character that sees her as most like a human being. He even has a go at Pudge later for not treating her like a human being. It’s played a little obviously, but I’d argue it’s cause is just.

There are plenty of other more minor characters in the students and staff and Culver Creek, and they’re all pretty distinctive so I don’t really have any complaints there.

Were there issues? Well, yes…perhaps.

See, after finishing this, I found myself thinking that this felt a bit like half a story. But then again, I’m not sure whether or not that was the point. By the end, a great deal doesn’t feel resolved. Whatever Pudge and Alaska had going on certainly wasn’t, and nor was a great deal of Alaska’s character arc. But these all had very good reasons, and like I say, it’s arguable that was all very deliberate. Real life, again, isn’t all about resolution or answers, or even getting to know people you don’t know all that well, because it’s complicated and uncertain and sometimes you’ve just got to work it out as best you can. Maybe what threw me off-guard the most is how a little essay by Pudge at the end tries to resolve certain themes that the novel had, and honestly, sometimes it does feel a little half-arsed. Looking back, I do get what it was going for, talking about people being greater than the sum of their parts, but I dunno, maybe it just didn’t fit the tone as well as it could have done, because it doesn’t resolve as much as maybe you’d want it to. It’s not a very long essay, and I don’t he said as much as he could have. Again, the line between intentional and not is a little blurry. Perhaps it could have benefited from one more rewrite? It’s all a little unclear, because if Green’s intention was to tell half a story based on the limited perspective our inward-focused protagonist had, or if it was to tell a complete story, I’m not sure he did either one perfectly.

All the same, the ideas behind it is all still there, and they are good ideas. But perhaps we should look at this as Green finding his writing style, in terms of structure, character and theme. Given what he has written since, I think he has certainly honed his style, or at least exploited it’s many uses. As debut novels go, it certainly could have been a lot worse. I personally enjoyed it, and may well reread it at some point if I’ve got nothing better to do. At some points it feels like half a story, but given all that he could have written, maybe we could look at that and everything he planned on writing afterwards as another Great Perhaps…?

GOD, I’m so witty. Look at me lazily trying to make a connection to the topic. Yeah, I’ll shut up now…feel free to like and comment and I’ll post…something at some point. Yes, it’s vague, but that’s how my schedule operates…

Reading & Reviewing: Fangirl

So, I haven’t posted one of these in ages, largely out of what could be a sheer sense of apathy, but also because I’ve been trying to sort poorly defined things…

But whatever, if I get some of my old audience (that may have existed?) looking at this again, on top of maybe some new people who’s interest may have been peaked by the new subject matter, that’ll be something. So, this is a start of (hopefully) a series of opinion pieces pertaining to books I’ve read recently.

As a young, feeble, insufferable know-it-all, I used to devour books. Harry Potter is a prominent example – I’ve lost count of all the times I’ve reread (or re-listened to, thanks to my old friend Stephen Fry, who doesn’t know me at all) that particular series. However, as I entered my adolescence, for some reason, I found that my ability to devour books was waning, maybe because people expected me to read more adult books, or, God forbid, more masculine books. Whatever the reason, I found my interest in books wasn’t what it once was, which, for an aspiring writer, is not a great sign. But since I’ve tried to take a more serious approach to getting on with, what I hope are decent literature ideas, it’s probably best I see what other authors have to offer. In no particular pattern, I decided on some books to read, and here I shall be reviewing the first of these, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell.

I acknowledge first and foremost that as a heterosexual male I’m not the intended primary audience for this book, and also that, being it a little while since I’ve finished this book (hooray for procrastination), my memory on some of the scenes might be a little fuzzy…
That said, the subject matter of this book is what endeared me to it in the first place, so I can’t be that far removed from the audience. Given what I did end up enjoying in this book, I don’t think my issues with it should just be dismissed outright. What did I enjoy? What did I find issue with? I suppose I’d better let you know.

First, a brief summary. The protagonist of this book is a girl named Cath, approaching 18, and starting college (or university, as we say in the UK) with her twin sister Wren. Despite the fact that the two of them have been inseparable since their childhood, they acknowledge the inherent differences between, notably that Cath is more withdrawn, and Wren has the slightly more outgoing, sociable resolve. These differences deepen as they arrive at college, and are separated for the first time, Wren opting for separate rooms to allow herself to develop more, and Cath withdraws even more, mostly sticking to herself and writing the fanfiction that she and Wren had done during their teen years.

Oh yeah, should probably mention that…
Both of them are huge fans of a fictional series called Simon Snow, which, whilst sounding like a rather generic fantasy series, is presented as being a phenomenon that’s an obvious expy of the Harry Potter franchise, quite amusingly so. At the moment at which the story starts, the eighth and final installment of Simon Snow is in the making, and Cath is getting on with her lengthy fanfiction which a lot of her readership consider to be the true eighth installment, or at least should be what the eighth installment should be like, and includes a common selling-point of having the main character (Simon, duh) engaging in a romantic story arc with Baz, the character who’s portrayed within the context of the canon series as a bitter rival. Clearly, Gemma T. Leslie (the author of Simon Snow) hasn’t done her research when it comes to the way fan communities treat rivalries, particularly male ones. Whether it be Harry and Draco, Naruto and Sasuke, or Light and L, there’s going to be love-making in the fanfiction…

The point is, Cath’s so content to retreat into that particular world, that the effect it has on her interactions within her college life is obvious – she takes an instant dislike to Wren’s roommate and the two of them begin to drift apart, and she struggles with general socialization and her classes. She is willing to give up on the higher education several times throughout the book, but the people who stick by her, notably her father, her cynical roommate and her cynical roommate’s slightly overly-saccharine ex (watch out for him, more on him later) soon help her to get on with it…I’ll try not to go into too much detail of the plot here, but I will say that there’s not much to spoil. Pretty much what you expect will happen happens.

So, the strengths of this book lie in how well it’s able to capture the image of a dedicated fan. As a fan, and an author of fanfiction, as it happens, a good chunk of Cath’s internal monologuing about her fan community resonates heavily with me. Several times I found myself going ‘oh yeah, that’s totally like that…’ and was furthermore amused by how the author managed to avoid dreaded copyright issues by the age-old but lovely trick of making terribly similar things to known brands to cover her tracks. For example, instead of Fanfiction.net, we have FanFixx.net, and instead of Wikipedia, we have Encyclowiki. The book opens with an Encyclowiki article on Simon Snow. For some reason, the whole de-fictionalization process she attempted to go through I found really enjoyable. I can’t help it – it’s a way of seeing the world in which the story’s set seem a lot more real. Complete with extracts from the books and Cath’s own fanfiction!

Ah, yes…let’s talk about those, shall we?
As much as I appreciated the attempt to flesh out fictional worlds within fictional worlds, they did start become a bit tedious as time wore on, partially because they really did serve no purpose to the continuation of the plot, but also because…well, Gemma T. Leslie’s writing isn’t very good. Whether that was intentional on the actual author’s part or not isn’t entirely clear, but in between chapters there are extracts, sometimes from Simon Snow books, and I always found myself rolling my eyes at the terrible narm spoused from the character’s mouths and the way they’re described with their bishounen hair and all the rest of it…again, it may have been intentional, but I’m not sure what purpose it served. I also had a few minor nitpicks with Rowell’s writing style, often because she randomly describes a character’s appearance in the middle of conversation. If you don’t mind that kind of thing, that’s fine, but I happened to find it quite jarring.

What about the characters? Ever my favourite thing of nearly any story, this book had to carry itself with mostly character design and development and…eh, it does OK. Cath and Wren’s relationship is the highlight of it. You do begin to get a sense of the history they’ve shared as it moves on and the ache that Cath feels during the times in which they’re not speaking to much. Wren herself is a breath of fresh air compared to a lot of books (or indeed WattPad stories) I’ve seen in this kind of environment, because she’s never shamed for extroversion and her rather hedonistic attitude, and her character is further deepened by the understanding that she is nearly as geeky as Cath still, and, as revealed later on in the book, is still loyally reading her fanfiction, to which Cath is moved.

Cath is OK as a character too – not the strongest protagonist I’ve ever seen, but perfectly serviceable. Her character arc is pretty clear, but it works fine – learning to embrace things out of her comfort zone and acknowledging that there’s no shame in changing herself somewhat, if it’s for a benefit. There’s this pretty poignant scene early on where Cath hands in an assignment of creative writing. Sticking to what she knows, she writes a short story about Simon and Baz, and her teacher/lecturer/whatever, who goes by the fantastic name of Professor Piper fails her for it, pointing out that what she did was essentially tantamount to plagiarism. This shakes Cath quite a bit, and confesses that she’s not all that good at coming up with original stories, but Piper, bless her, believes in her and continues to encourage her. What Cath eventually turns in is a nice conclusion, which I’m not going to give away, but essentially it does reflect a truth that any writer will find – better writing comes with experience.

Cath’s roommate Reagan is an interesting beast, but I have to say, I really like her, or at least, I like the role she plays. From the beginning she is cynical, fairly loud and unapologetic in her dealings and about as different from the introverted Cath as you can imagine. And yet…well, you can probably see where this is going. They do get on. I’m not going to go into details about it, it’s a nice touch, just read it for yourself.

And then there are the guys. *Sigh*

OK, my biggest issue with this book, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the romance. The guy Cath ends up being involved with is called Levi, and once upon a time, he was with Reagan. The fact that he spends a lot of time with Reagan is a pretty nice set-up, because they play a role almost like parental substitutes to Cath in the beginnings of the book, Levi’s cheeriness being a foil to Reagan’s cynicism, and that really works. And this is where the problem comes in – with such a dynamic, I always found Cath and Levi’s interactions to be sibling-like, with Levi acting as an older brother to her. And so, the later romantic interactions they had were…revolting.

OK, that’s an exaggeration, but I remember reading them and pulling faces the entire way through, although part of that could be also to do with the awkward way they way written. In some cases, that was probably intentional, but not in all. Maybe my own cynicism is showing, but the subjective incest aside, Levi’s character commits a much graver sin.

Let me try and set it out for you – this is a guy who spends most of his time in an unbridled, extroverted cheeriness. He gets on with anyone, but for reasons that aren’t properly explained, he has an instant (yes, that is confirmed by him later) romantic attraction to Cath the second he claps his eyes on her, and would like nothing better that to have her read him the fanfiction she wrote all day. Without much of his own backstory or life fleshed out, his role in this story is to get Cath out of her shell, boost her confidence and allow her to do new things. Is this description beginning to sound uncomfortably familiar?

Through what I have observed, Levi is essentially a textbook version (albeit a gender-flipped example) of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

A point could be made in that he is given something of a backstory and character traits beyond how Cath defines his role – he is revealed to, because possibly dyslexia, attention deficit disorder or maybe something else, struggle with reading and therefore come close to failing some assignments, but really that serves the purpose as to have him invite Cath to read things to him. He also had an apparently rocky history with Reagan, given that they broke up because she couldn’t stay monogamous. But he doesn’t seem particularly upset about that, and it just gives all the more reason for him and Cath to be together, Cath’s introversion being very important to the focus she gives on him. Although props to the story for not slut-shaming Reagan for her insatiability. Although infidelity is another matter…actually, the narrative weirdly breezes over the whole thing. Hm.

It feels a shame to have to bring this up, because Levi is a merciful break for all the love interests that have to be total dicks in order to be love interests. He’s a genuinely nice person, and not someone I’d mind meeting. It’s just a shame how obviously flat he is. The reason this matters is because Rowell spent so much time crafting a real world seperate from the fictional one that Cath enjoys staying in, and part of coming-of-age is acknowledging the flaws and and issues that the real world has. And neither Cath or Wren are idealised heroines, mercifully. The differences in personality they have are accepted as just differences, and things that they can work through. The transition Cath makes from a shielded fictional world to a flawed, but ultimately more rewarding real one would be so much more poignant if there was a more difficult, more realistically portrayed romance. And I’m not saying that Cath and Levi’s relationship is entirely without minor dramas or disagreements, but these are resolved remarkably fast, or else based on complete misunderstandings, because Levi REALLY needs Cath for…I have no clue. Cath’s development makes her a much more interesting character than she is without her cardboard cut-out.

Perhaps realising this, the story does actually intend to fake us out in terms of romance, but unfortunately not well enough. It’s never in any doubt who Cath’s going to end up with (particularly as Levi’s on the cover with her), but it’s not as though I didn’t vainly hope…

First there’s Cath’s actual boyfriend at the beginning of the story. He’s called Abel, for which he has my greatest sympathies, and apparently is…well, we know very little about him actually, other than that he may be more introverted and awkward than Cath herself, and he breaks up with her pretty fast. The sheer boringness of how he’s displayed do unfortunately create an all too obvious and appealing contrast to someone like Levi.

Oh, and then there’s Nick…
Nick seems a strange choice for my preferred love interest, because, if you cast your minds back to That Life, he carries a great deal of the traits that annoy me. He’s muscular (something that Levi isn’t, interestingly), something that Cath notes, apparently attractive enough to gain the attention of other girls, and possesses a rather smooth flirtacious banter that I distinctly lack. So, yeah – he has every reason to bring back my own personal insecurities, but the role he plays in this story is actually fairly interesting.

A fellow of Cath’s Fiction Writing class, he pairs up with her in various assignments so they can assist each other in their own writing drawbacks, although Cath does end up helping him a lot more, because he has the tendency to create one-note protagonists that Cath notes are very similar to him. There’s a bit of conflict near the end where he attempts to pass of an assignment that she helped him edit simply with his own name, which everyone finds a pretty douchey thing to do. And…yeah, it is, but the fact that his politeness to Cath never wavers makes me think that he might not even realise what the problem is. Narcissistic and self-obsessed? Or just ignorant? Maybe both? At any rate, this is the set-up for a much more interesting and controversial romance.

But wait! I hear you cry. Didn’t you just say you hated it when love interests were total wankers? Why yes, I do, but there are many ways you can make someone’s flaws be genuine issues without them being completely horrible. And Nick didn’t seem to be completely horrible, just a bit misguided and clearly in need of decent emotional intelligence. Wouldn’t it have been so much more interesting if both Cath and Nick worked through their own personal flaws together whilst helping each other with their writing? Nick helping Cath with original characters, and Cath helping Nick with decent characters? That would be a romance I could get behind. I might even forgive Nick for being more attractive than me. Personally, I think it was a tragically missed opportunity. TEAM NICK!

So, overall, what do I think of this book? It’s pretty good. Definitely better than you might expect, but at the same time suffers from some rather glaring problems and…is probably too long. Still, I’d recommend it to anyone even remotely interested in some of the themes I’ve laid out here, and even for those who are annoyed by the same things that annoy me, you may interpret it differently. Who knows?

I’ll post again soon, likely reviewing the book I read after this, or an another anime series. Until then, feel free to comment and share with your friends…y’know, all that good stuff…

 

Reviewing When Marnie Was There

I’ve been meaning to post this for quite a while, actually, but I’ve never been in the right frame of mind for it. Now? Yeah, it’ll do. Doesn’t mean I’ll be able to get to the end of this without some emotional response though…

So, a while back, I posted a list of my favourite animated movies, and whilst for the most part that list does still hold up, I have to say, if I had seen this movie back then, it would have definitely been on there. Not quite sure where, but definitely near the top. Studio Ghibli has long been associated with quality animated movies, and even with the very real possibility that this is their final gift, what a gift to leave on!

Based actually on an English novel by Joan G. Robinson, this film tells the story of a young girl named Anna, who’s artistic, highly introverted, suffers from asthma and lives with a foster family who worry about connecting with her, and her connecting with other people. Truth be told, Anna suffers from a degree of self-loathing. But when a doctor suggests to her foster mother that she get away from the bustle of a city life, she agrees, and sends Anna to live with her sister and brother-in-law in a seaside town near Sapporo for the summer. Although initially about as disconnected as before, including upsetting some of the locals, Anna discovers an apparently abandoned mansion across a marsh, but occasionally sees lights on there too. One night, she discovers a girl her age living there, a girl named Marnie, who’s full of unbridled openness and friendliness towards Anna, and the two of them pick up a very dependable and close friendship, which is very open to interpretation in the way they act, particularly at how Marnie jovially declares Anna to be her ‘precious secret.’ It eventually becomes clear however, that Marnie is incredibly elusive. Occasionally, Anna will find the mansion completely derelict, despite being very full of life when Marnie’s there. It’s obvious that there’s more to Marnie than meets the eye, but given the insight Anna’s had to Marnie’s life in that mansion, one rather isolated and full of neglect, leads to her resolving to help Marnie however she can, no matter who she is, where she came from, or even if she’s even real…

Perhaps what makes this movie stand out to me more than the other Ghibli ones I’ve seen is how this has much more of a story to it than something like Kiki or Spirited Away, which may have something to do with it being a novel first. Kiki is just a slice of life movie, and whilst Spirited Away had a goal accomplished at the end of it, it’s still mostly focused on Chihiro’s interactions in a strange environment. Both these things work fantastically for the movies, but as someone very interested in narrative, this just caught my attention more. I felt like there wasn’t a single thing I could miss about it. Marnie’s introduction gave me all kinds of questions, and continued to intrigue me as the movie played out. Having to know an ending is a true sign of an engaging film. The characters are also fantastic, both the supporting and the main – perhaps Anna’s just all the more relatable to me, particularly how she talks about an ‘invisible magic circle’ in the world, representing social interactions, and how she is on the outside. The emotions Anna runs through throughout the flick is actually reminiscent to what I often go through. See, I told you it would be emotional for me to go through this…but anyway…

The way these two characters work off each other is incredible. There’s a scene where they have a long conversation about their feelings which doesn’t feel heavy-handed or forced or in any way boring…I mean, I love characters talking about their feelings, but this does it all the better with scene transitions relating to what they’re saying, and as it’s Studio Ghibli, you know the backgrounds are just going to be gorgeous-looking. This film is, and it knows it. Just the shots of the marsh, the town, the water, they’re all so beautifully drawn, and despite being hand-drawn, just look and feel so real. It translates well into the pacing of the movie too, as even though the story is plot-driven, they sometimes just allow you to experience the atmosphere of the place, and it really works. The eponymous Marnie isn’t actually introduced until about half an hour in, allowing for you to feel as Anna does, just the way this little town works. There’s a scene with Anna walking home at sunset, and she passes a cyclist as she turns a corner. Why was this detail included? I don’t know, remove it and the story would still be complete, but it’s just such a nice detail. I can’t explain it. It’s just wonderful.

For all my gushing about this movie, you might wonder if it has any flaws. Well, yes, I’d say it did – but it’s difficult to talk about them without going into spoiler territory. I will do my best though.

By the end of the film, you are given an answer as to Marnie’s identity. It certainly fits, although on reflection, the explanation does raise a few questions which might distract a keen viewer, particularly about the nature of Anna and Marnie’s relationship as shown, and the possibilities of Anna’s role in all of this. Again, difficult to word without giving anything a way, but I imagine it could give some audiences a less than resolved feeling by the end. It did in my case when I first watched, but upon re-watching it recently, most of that vanished, because in all honesty, the vagueness presented to you didn’t change the strength of the relationship that we had seen develop throughout the story, nor the strength of Anna’s character development. It does end on a distinctly positive note, so it’s not as if these characters we’ve grown to care about are robbed of a happy ending. It’s just perhaps not as robust to analyst as some others might be. Sure, it raises a few questions, but it solves the major ones and does wonders for your emotions as you do so. Ultimately, these flaws are minor and don’t dent it by much of a margin.

I highly recommend this movie to anyone, even more so for fans of anime and/or hand-drawn animation. It’s emotional, it’s engaging, it’s beautiful to look at, it’s beautiful to listen to, I’ve gone on about it long enough, so go and see it if you haven’t already.

 

That Life Commentary – Chapter One

So, since my last post, a lot has happened. Most of it bad.

I’m sure you’re all now familiar with the drastic mistake the UK made on the 23rd June to leave the EU (not me though, I made sure I voted remain) and everything since then has pretty much descended into chaos. Not only is the pound dropping, the world’s single largest economy is getting annoyed with us, Scotland are threatening to leave to a brighter future, the Labour party is imploding and now we have to choose which Conservative wingnut will lead us next. It’s worrying that I’m considering Theresa May, infamous for her rather imperialistic approach to refugees, the best option at the moment, considering the other options for Tory leadership are Michael I-hate-teachers Gove, a firm Brexit supporter despite everything that’s happening, Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary that believes in homeopathy and seems to be dedicated to slowly torturing our NHS to death, and Stephen Crabb, a NARTH-wannabe who claims he can cure homosexuality.

Yeah, not looking too promising.

On top of that, my own future at university is looking pretty uncertain. Everyone has told me not to worry, but I’m having nagging doubts, which is why I’m making sure different options are covered. It’s going to delay the writing of my novel too. -_-

So, I’ve decided to do a little something that might improve my mood somewhat. Take a look at a frankly terrible old story of mine.
Casting my mind back all the way to my days of Year 9, I frankly didn’t have much to complain about. OK, so I complained a lot, but at least, y’know. EU.
Anyway, in Year 9, I was very much an enthusiastic writer, and had even bonded the previous year over writing with someone whom I now consider my closest friend. Let’s call him Jack Fenton, because that’s his name. You can also follow his blog here, but that’s probably surplus to the viewer’s he got, so make sure you let everyone know that I sent you, alright…?
The kind of writing we bonded over was a little series of mine called Fred Toast, which was this zany comedy series were everyone had food as a surname. There were many wacky hi-jinks in the series, and some of the humour even actually stands up to scrutiny today. I had a lot of fun writing that, and Jack also started to write some stuff of his own, and it was around that time when our attentions turned to more serious works. As you can imagine, at the wise age of 13 (he might even have been 12 at the time), we didn’t quite get people or what made for a decent story, but unfortunately we thought we did. What was more, this was our attempt to prove the world that we actually understood and could interact with ordinary, decent people. Suffice to say, it did end up coming across as wish fulfilment a lot of the time – Jack started writing an interesting story that he named ‘This Life’ (a working title I’m sure) dedicated around the school life of a girl called Katie, and her friends, which included the two of us. Fascinated by this concept, I, with his permission, wrote a similar kind of story, but one that deviated quite considerably with what was going in Jack’s. For starters, I actually finished mine. For another thing, I think we can both agree (he can argue me on this point, I don’t mind) I was a little more focused on steering the plot, although given our pretty poor writing abilities at the time, this wasn’t saying much. Because Jack’s story was called ‘This Life,’ I, unable to think of a title (something that still haunts me to this day) jokingly christened mine, ‘That Life.’ And…the name stuck.

But looking back on this does actually give me hope – it’s so profoundly and hilariously bad that it does astound me that I was able to improve as much as I have. People keep on telling me about my talents for certain areas of my writing, something I certainly didn’t have at this age, and many more are encouraging me to keep writing. Furthermore, this story does exemplify the enormity of the loneliness I experienced at this age, incapable as I was to interact with people and make friends, which is why, in the story, me and Jack are characters who DO have friends. This is no longer such a problem, and it does make me pleased that there are many friendships and relationships I have today that far outstrip what is portrayed in this story.

So, what is the story of That Life? Well, it’s a little unfocused, due to my attempt to include a whole tonne of subplots, but on the face of it, it’s a primarily school-set teen romantic drama. Not exactly what most 13-year-old boys write about, but back then I was well on my way to embracing my inner girl. For the next few posts, if I can manage it, we will be exploring, chapter by chapter, the absolutely biblical failure that is this story. Starting with Chapter One: The States.

“Hey!” came a voice up the corridor.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that is LITERALLY the first line. Oh, we’re off to a good start.

I’m the one being addressed in this by my friend Ian (already this is unrealistic). What does he want with me?

“Can I borrow some of your history notes? I’ve got an assessment on Monday.”
Toby sighed.
“Why does everyone ask me for history notes?” he asked. Ian shrugged.
“Can I borrow them?”
Toby took the notes he had written down in his last history lesson and gave them to Ian.

I should point out that this positively riveting story-line we’ve opened with is never brought up again, like quite a few things mentioned actually. And whilst we’re on the subject, shall we point out the few glaring problems in this particular scenario?

  1. Why is he telling me that he personally has got an assessment on Monday? Why don’t we both have it? Perhaps we’re in different History groups, but it’s unlikely we’d be doing different assessments, and if so…
  2. Why does he assume my history notes are going to help if we’re not even doing the same history work…? Even Ian doesn’t seem to know why people always want my history notes.
  3. Why can’t he use his own bloody history notes? If the lazy bastard does have an assessment on Monday, he shouldn’t be relying on me to get his work done for him, especially if we’re not doing the same history.
  4. Won’t I be needing my history notes from the last lesson in the next lesson?
  5. How exactly am I carrying my history notes? If this character with my name is anything like the real me, they’ll probably be in some massive messy pile somewhere in my bag, so giving him the notes would not be that damn simple. All the narration says is that I ‘took’ them. From where? The inside of my undergarments? From thin air? Did I summon them with a Summoning Charm or a Summoning Jutsu?
  6. WHY DOES EVERYONE WANT MY BLOODY HISTORY NOTES?? Maybe I really do keep them in my undergarments and everyone just wants that smell…

Actually, I think I can answer number 6. Back in year 9, my best subject was history, and it was a matter of pride, I think, considering I had little else going for me. This was just me on an ego trip.

So, Ian thanks me, but then gets distracted by the random appearance of another character by the name of Ruth. This early in, and I’ve already introduced a female character? Things must have been looking up. Ruth isn’t given any proper introduction, but I’m glad for the lack of tired exposition, and I leave the two of them to chat.

Toby went over to his locker. Caleb was there too as his locker was right next to Toby’s.

Well, thanks for that handy floor-plan, I would have been lost and disorientated in this completely featureless school if it wasn’t for the information that Caleb and I’s lockers were next to each other.

And here’s the introduction of Caleb…oh Lordy Lord.

An interesting thing that I find about That Life is that, while it’s clearly a self-insert story (name and everything!) I don’t big myself up that much. It’s all in omniscient third-person, and I’m not even the protagonist. There’s no real protagonist to this story as it happens, it jumps around a lot between the characters, but you’d think I’d give myself something distinctive, other than being good at history, which as I’ve already pointed out is never brought up again. I could be the dark and brooding character, who was very street-smart and resourceful and all the girls adored. But no – I gave that distinction to Caleb. Quite why I created this character to be hero-worshipped and why I loved him so much, I really don’t know. I’ll tell you something, I don’t like him any more…

We discuss the possibility of Ian and Ruth being an item, or at least interested in each other, to which Caleb tells me that Ian’s actually moving to California in a few weeks’ time, and that we’ll find out before then about Ian and Ruth’s feelings for each other, as either will be reluctant to leave, presumably. Well, I’m glad we’re playing this sadistic game with our friends’ love lives as supposed to making them confront their feelings…which also brings up the question as to why Ian hasn’t bothered telling the rest of us, or even why his history assessment on Monday should matter…but I don’t have time to digest the news, as it’s time for yet more character introductions! Yes, because Jack’s in this story too.

“Watch out,” he muttered. “Something wicked this way comes!” He was right. Just a few moments later, Aiden Gorse swaggered up the corridor, flanked by his crony, Russell, his younger brother in Year 10.

Just in case we were left in any doubt about who this story’s villain was. Using words such as ‘swaggered’ and ‘crony’. Although having just one crony seems a little pathetic don’t you think? Even more embarrassing when that crony’s your little brother. Draco Malfoy managed to gain two heavy-weights before he even arrived at school! One of them later did turn into a psychotic nutjob, but that’s besides the point.

Caleb, showing his incredible ability to be the more ‘edgy’ and ‘dark’ of our friends here (was I hiding some inner desires when I conceived him?) decides to piss Aiden off by calling him the ‘resident physco of Year 11’ because apparently my spelling was a little off then too, which is really rather embarrassing. But not nearly as embarrassing as calling him something so ridiculous. Aiden somehow takes offence, in the most stereotypical manner possible.

“What did you say to me runt?” he demanded, pushing Caleb up against the lockers.
“Just stated a fact,” Caleb replied, causally (or casually as you can when you’re being held up against lockers by someone two years above you) and added the worst insult he could think of.

This insult is left ambiguous, but knowing Caleb’s eloquent and armour-piercing artillery of pejoratives, it’s probably something like, ‘you git.’ Oh, and did you take note of how suave and cool Caleb is? He was so unfazed by being held against the lockers. WHAT A REBEL!

I hate this character so much.

Anyway, Aiden and Caleb get into a fight (LOOK HOW GUTSY CALEB IS) and next comes probably the most realistic scene in this chapter…

“Time we intervened methinks,” Jack whispered to Toby. He nodded and they both walked forward. But Russell wasn’t going to be left out of this. He slammed his fist into Toby’s stomach and kneed Jack in the groin.

This would be exactly what happened if Jack and I ever attempted to intervene in a fight. I’m glad I decided to utilise our uselessness. The next scene is even funnier:

“WHAT’S THIS?!” roared a voice. Mr Mothman was marching up the corridor. He stood with his hands on his hips and surveyed the scene: Aiden was standing with his fist raised, preparing to smack Caleb in the jaw. Caleb’s leg was raised to take a wild kick at Aiden, but he was sporting a bloody nose. Russell was standing guiltily near Toby and Jack, who were both doubled up in pain.

I don’t know what part of this is funnier: the fact that there’s a teacher called Mr Mothman, the fact that he’s looking at our scrap with HIS HANDS ON HIS HIPS. Is he going to give us a sassy rebuke?
“Oh, NO you DIDN’T!”
Or it might be the fact that Caleb is frozen with his leg raised to kick Aiden. Is he just standing there one leg? How soon until he topples over, perhaps into his locker to remind him that his locker is definitely right next to mine (seriously, did I have a crush on this character I created…?). Or maybe it’s just another reminder that Jack and I are COMPLETELY USELESS. And actually, why is Russell looking so guilty? “Oh, sorry, I didn’t realise you guys were made of paper, and you can’t handle even the slightest touch or else you’ll die.”

So, Mr Mothman takes us all to his office where he lets Jack and I go as all we did is get beaten up, but gives Aiden, Russell and Caleb an hour’s detention after school. At this, Caleb panics, asking if he can do it another time, but Mr Mothman refuses. To be completely fair, this was at least an early show of mildly competent writing, in that I don’t immediately Caleb’s reasons for his panicking. But trust me, come the next chapter, you’ll wish it stayed that way…

The story then cuts to Ian and Ruth walking to their next lesson, at which point Ian decides to drop the bombshell of him moving to California on her. Neither of them seem to have a clue how to react to this…just take my word for it, it’s as weird as hell, but was actually my attempt to build up romantic tension. We’ll continue with that thrilling story-line later on…

Caleb later meets up with Jack and I, very angry with being given a detention, and our reactions imply we know exactly what’s upsetting him about this. He blames Aiden for getting him into this (but really Caleb, you shouldn’t have been so suave and edgy) at which point we get yet another couple of character introductions.

“Aiden giving you grief?” came a voice behind them. They turned round to see Sean Adams, who was in Aiden’s form. 
“I wish I could dissect his spleen,” Sean muttered angrily.

Oh yes, that burning desire we all have to do to people we don’t like…? In all fairness, this does sound like something I would say. Maybe Sean just had dissection on his mind, having just had a very revealing biology lesson.

“And I saw this little Year 7 kid smoking that same stuff he does,” said Naomi, Sean’s younger sister in Year 9 who Sean was immensely protective of.

Well, that was clumsy character exposition. That being said, I obviously wanted to make sure that the audience knew the relationship between these characters – it’s just an informed trait now, but it definitely becomes more important later, as do both of these characters. How so? Well, let’s see…

Ian joins us and informs us that he told Ruth about him leaving and doesn’t know how to take her reaction because he’s a total idiot. Jack then protests that nobody told him, and then we get this…

“Did I tell you Toby?” he [Ian] asked. Toby didn’t reply. 
“Toby?” 
“Hmm…?” Toby replied who was looking in the direction Naomi had just walked in. He turned back to his friends. 
“Oh sorry. Yeah, Caleb told me.”

Oh, and so it starts! My brewing creepy obsession with Naomi Adams, and a major plot point in the story that steers my character arc. If you can call it that – how will this develop? How will Ian and Ruth’s romance develop? What will happen when Caleb has his detention? Will Rose and Rosie ever reply to my tweets? Well, that’s the end of the chapter, so we’ll have to wait until the next post to get some of those answers. My commentary of the next chapter should come tomorrow, barring any unforeseen circumstances.

I have to admit, this was a lot of fun. It’s quite enjoyable pointing out why rubbish is rubbish and being safe in the knowledge that I am not as rubbish as this anymore. I hope you enjoyed it, leave a comment with your thoughts and I hope to see you next time…?

 

Anime Analysis – Puella Magi Madoka Magica

At some point, I will return to blogging about other things, if any fresh ideas come in (hint hint, suggest things to me!), but before then I thought around now, with the sweet soundtrack playing in my ears, was the right time to do another Anime Analysis.

For years, I have said Naruto was my favourite anime series, because it was one of the first I watched, because I had immersed myself in it’s fandom and continued to watch it episode after episode. I still love the series, but it’s crown of being my absolute favourite anime series has finally be usurped by this gem – Puella Magi Madoka Magica. Why? Because virtually everything about it is done PERFECTLY. The main characters are perfect, the villain is perfect, the pacing is perfect, the emotional impact is perfect, the music is perfect, even some of the visuals are so trippy and beautifully artistic, it’s just insane how brilliantly good they’ve been designed.
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A lot of people have come out to praise this series, but I don’t many who would say this is their all-time favourite. Well, here’s one now – I don’t doubt that the series isn’t without it’s flaws, but I will address that later, along with everything else. I will try to keep this as spoiler-free as possible for those who haven’t seen the series, but for those who have, we can discuss the finer points privately. For now, I’ll just sum up, as spoiler-free as I can, what the series is about.

It stars a cheerful, highly friendly middle-school girl named Madoka Kaname, who lives an ordinary, happy life with her parents, little brother and school-friends. One day, Madoka’s class gets a new transfer student, a mysterious, soft-spoken dark-haired girl named Homura Akemi, who Madoka vaguely recognises from a dream she once had. Homura gives Madoka a dire sounding message concerning the life Madoka leads and how she should hold onto it, but is otherwise a mystery to both Madoka and her friends. Soon after, Madoka and her best friend Sayaka Miki find themselves inside an incredibly trippy Burton-esque environment, only to be saved from it by an older girl in their school named Mami Tomoe and a weird, small, white furry creature called Kyubey. They seem to be very chirper and friendly, but Homura seems to have a strange antipathy towards them. Kyubey reveals he wants Madoka and Sayaka to become what Mami and Homura are – magical girls! Although through these girls perspectives, we soon learn that being a magical girl is not quite all the glammer it first seems…

I have to admit I never saw a magical girl series before this one, although I was familiar with titles such as Sailor Moon, Tokyo Mew Mew and Cardcaptor Sakura, and had seen clips and pictures from them. The obvious girly and overly cutesy nature of the design was, and still is immediately apparent, and this is the kind of impression Madoka Magica is also supposed to give. I won’t give away too much, but what the plot does with the magical girl genre is so beautiful and terrible that it just needs to be watched to truly experience. I should point out that the type of magical girls in this story are the magical girl warrior types, rather than idol singers – and the enemies fought in the story are the previously mentioned Burton-esque type Eldritch Abominations, known as witches, which are absolute pools of creative and wacky design every time they appear.

And the way the story unfolds is amazing too – it starts of quite light and cheerful before going in a different direction, but none of how it happens feels unnatural in the slightest. I mentioned earlier how perfectly paced this story is, and I think part of that is to do that this was originally an anime – many other anime series were originally manga, or light novels or video games etc, but this was made to be an anime of 12 episodes and so the breaks in the story for each episode, complete with cliffhangers are done extremely naturally and well, leaving you in just the right spot to ensure you come back for more. One of the main reasons I have to tread carefully in this review is that the plot keeps giving and has several of what are known as Wham Episodes. This essentially means that there are several episodes in the series that change your entire perspective and mean that nothing after them is ever the same. Prime examples of the Wham Episodes are episode 3, episode 6 and episode 8, although opinion may depend on whether or not there are more. Another advantage to the fact that this was originally an anime is something I already mentioned. Not only is the animation on the characters fantastically done, with beautiful shots of the city they live in, but the designs of the witches are so horrific, and yet so unbelievable to look at, that the way they’re drawn and animated will stay with you forever.

And in this series, they are far from the only things.

The character design and development is yet another brilliant thing about this series – no character is wasted, every single one introduced plays a key and memorable part in the series, and I find it impossible to dislike any of them.
One of the key themes in this series (trust me, you will find plenty more) is the idea of what you want, how much you are willing to get it, and whether getting it is even the right thing. Kyubey makes girls become magical girl warriors in exchange for a wish – his ability to grant wishes appears to be fairly expansive, and so each of the characters have a particular thing they wanted that they got in exchange for gaining magical powers. How well these wishes served them are key parts to the storyline and character arcs, and you can draw your own conclusions about them in fun and thought-provoking ways. To give you an example, I’ll discuss the one who has this theme most clearly set out to them in their character arc – Sayaka Miki.

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(Oh, she looks so happy here, doesn’t she? Yes, this is the kind of series we’re dealing with…)

I’ve already stated I virtually love every character in this show, but my favourite is undoubtedly Sayaka. Madoka’s closest friend, she is in many ways quite different to Madoka – whereas Madoka is meek, gentle, overly generous and very polite, Sayaka is headstrong, unbelievably stubborn, and whilst she has a strong sense of justice, she also has a warped view of the gap between what is right and wrong. She looks down upon magical girls such as Homura and a later introduction called Kyoko Sakura who are, in her eyes, too pragmatic. She refuses to associate with them, until Kyoko points out that she used to think much the same way Sayaka did, and that her wish, which was for another person, carried the same weaknesses that Sayaka’s did – she couldn’t rely on other people to be grateful for what she did, and nor could she let go of that, ultimately, what she wants may have come first, after all. Sayaka, who used her wish to heal a irreversibly injured childhood friend, dismisses this at first, claiming that she would never regret her actions, until she comes to realise that she’s not entirely above being selfish herself when unforseen consequences of her wish come to light – I won’t give away any more, but let’s just say, it’s beautifully and heart-wrenchingly done. I was moved to tears upon re-watching it recently, and I doubt that trend will vanish as I continue to do so.

The series does, in a way, have a villain, and I won’t give away their identity, although it will become more obvious as you watch on, as you grow increasingly disgusted with them. The way you’re meant to hate them, is, again, done absolutely expertly, and yet at the same time, you do understand their motivations, and the way they are written is done in a believable and almost a kind of defend-able way, although this is not something you’ll be prepared to do as you’ll be breaking your heart over what’s happening to all the other characters, including a belated backstory in episode 10 which will cause everything to make a beautiful and tragic sense.

The music? I really don’t know what to say. The entire soundtrack is filled with absolutely fantastic pieces of music, both personal themes, opening and closing themes and a lot more. Showing you all of them would hardly take less time than you just watching the entire series and experiencing them for yourself, so I’ll just share one gem – Decretum, Sayaka’s theme.

It’s very hard for me to think of anything wrong with this series, but I’ll suppose I’ll try and be as impartial as I can. Quite a few people dislike Madoka’s character, and on the one hand, I do see where they’re coming from. Madoka is a fairly typical protagonist, a cheerful, happy-go-lucky girl who’s also a little ditzy and occasionally naively pure-hearted. But I still like her, and more importantly, she is the perfect kind of character to have as the point-of-view character for this series, because it’s such a transformation to see her go from as cheerful as she is to absolutely horrified and broken by the trauma. Yes, I’m a bastard.

Another point I think is, although much of the applied magic and lore that goes on in this series is explained (Kyubey is our main exposition character) there are definitely some areas that are left a little vague. It’s quite understandable if you’re left after finishing the series with more than a few questions about why exactly everything went on: ‘Hang on, why etc, how come etc.’ But for me, this never caused too big a problem, as hey, you only have 12 episodes, and in those 12 episodes, the focus is where it should be, on the characters and storyline, not the few details. In fact, I’m still surprised they managed to accomplish as much exposition as they did without taking focus away. Applying thought to they way things could work, you’re bound to come up with a few potentially workable solutions, which is always fun. Another point is the ending – I will admit it’s not the strongest, because it leaves you, again, probably with a few questions, but the Rebellions movie (which I mentioned in my favourite animated movies list), which is a follow-up to the series, does clear up a few of the points you may be left with. The movie has a controversial ending too, but I personally like it, and I’m willing to explain my reasons to someone who has seen both the series and the movie.

Another point raised at one point was the fact that the opening theme of the series, whilst good, doesn’t match the increasingly dark tone of the show, unlike the ending theme, that changes accordingly. This much is true, but it’s really scraping the barrel of things to nitpick, and why? Because everything in this series works fantastically, and I will continue to hold by it and jealously defend it.

In conclusion, this series is wonderfully, spell-bindingly, unrelentingly, uncomparatively, tear-jerkingly and beautifully amazing, reminding us amidst the tragedy that hope can still be founds in times of despair. I highly doubt it’ll shift it’s position from the top of my list any time soon. If you haven’t seen it yet, THEN DO. IT’S ONLY 12 EPISODES, IT’S MORE THAN WORTH YOUR TIME, DAMN IT!!! If you have seen it, go and watch it again, because every time I do, it just keeps getting better.

Just one more thing to add to it’s list of merits – although it isn’t technically a yuri series ( a series about girl-girl romance), it might as well be, the undertones are so strong. And as the main picture of my blog might tell you, I am a die-hard shipper of Sayaka Miki and Kyoko Sakura.

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And if this doesn’t persuade you it’s a series worth watching, then nothing will!

Seriously, I can’t recommend it enough. I wish I could somehow do it justice, and the only way I can imagine doing so is to watch it all over again. Send this to your friends, like and comment and give me an idea of what to post next. I don’t know when I’ll post something again, but hopefully I’ll see you soon!

All images belong to their respective owners. 

 

Anime Analysis – Haganai

Whoa!

It’s like a reunion party.

Yeah, OK, so it’s been quite a while since my last blog post. I’ve been busy. Lol, brilliant joke that, I should be busy with all my work, but you tend to care less about things that matter when you get the feeling you don’t matter…

Sorry, this kind of thing settles in during the holidays, when I discover all of my friends actually have lives and they’re busy doing all this cool stuff whilst I’m just willing away the time and trying to stop my cat coming into my room, which is more difficult than it sounds, because she’s very stubborn.

Anyway, I was going to write a little piece about shipping in the fandom communities, but my mind’s not nearly together enough to write something like that at the moment. So, instead, I thought I’d do another anime review, this time of a little show that I like to call Haganai. Why do I like to call it Haganai? Because it’s less of a mouthful than Boku wa Tomodachi ga Sukunai, which is it’s full name. Trust me, I’m not the only one.

Haganai is a harem anime based off of a light novel. Now, I can imagine that’s already ringing faint alarm bells. For those not in the know, a harem series is basically a set-up with a main male character who’s surrounded, either romantically or in any other way, by a whole load of attractive girls. They will all want him at various stages. There’s also reverse harem, which has the genders flipped. Now, obviously this kind of set-up is there for one purpose only – fanservice and wish fulfilment. OK, that’s two purposes, but if  you really care that much, come over to my house and we’ll have cake.

A lot of people in the anime community see harem series as largely glorified porn without anything resembling a decent storyline, and who can blame them? I certainly thought this way when I started discovering various harem series and was bitterly disappointed about how uncaring the writer seemed to be. But I get the feeling that my experience in harem anime was ruined beforehand by Haganai – after seeing that particular harem anime, nothing I saw since then measured up to it.

Haganai may be a harem anime, but honestly, I really love it, it’s one of my favourites. That is a personal preference though, to be very straightforward, I can see why some people may be put off. It is still, as I keep on reiterating, a harem anime, and an ecchi one at that. Whilst there is a lot to recommend in terms of story and character, you will find that the common harem tropes, including the less desirable ones, keep on creeping back in.
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Oh Lord, we’ll get to that in a minute…

No, let’s start with the story as it is.

A new transfer student to St. Chronica’s high school, Kodaka Hasegawa, hasn’t made a single friend in the month he’s been there. Why? Well, the blond hair he inherited from his late English mother makes him look, in the eyes of all the other students, a delinquent. And a miscommunication on his first day has cemented the image of him as a thug. One day, he finds a classmate of his, Yozora Mikazuki, chatting animatedly and cheerfully to an apparently empty room, which surprises him, as she is normally very sullen-looking. Yozora seems shocked to see him enter the room and is quick to defend her actions – she claims she was talking to Tomo, her best friend ever – who’s made of air.

As the two discuss the role of friendships, Kodaka quickly learns that Yozora has no friends either, but something they discuss gives Yozora an idea – soon enough, she announces to him that she’s founded a club known as the Neighbour’s Club, the purpose of which is to allow people to make friends and practice social events with said friends. Eventually the club begins to fill with a whole range of misfits, including Sena, a ridiculously hot, popular rich girl who’s fed up of being ogled and wants real friends for a change, Yukimura, a very feminine-looking boy (or so he says…) who looks up to Kodaka as the epitome of masculinity, Rika, a sex-obsessed reclusive teen genius who speaks in the third person, Kobato, Kodaka’s 13-year-old sister obsessed with vampires (whom Sena has a really creepy thing for…) and Maria, the club advisor, a religious sister of the school who Yozora finds very easy to manipulate considering she’s only 10 years old. Although a lot of episodes are just focused on the activities of the club, a story arc concerning the relationship between Kodaka and the main girls is made obvious early on, although I don’t wish to spoil it here.

One of the things that I think really appeals to me about this series is the concept – as someone who’s own social skills are hardly advanced and has often lamented about the role and significance of friends in my life, this spoke to me in a way that I’m sure any other harem series I started with wouldn’t. In this way, I feel like an equal to the members of the club, because no matter how they differ, their crippling lack of social skills puts them on a level of something I can relate to, and I think in fact most people can – although not everyone has such crippling social problems, I’m sure most people have felt insecure about who they can rely on. And not only can you identify with the characters on this level, but they feel very much like they’re on an equal level with each other too. Nowhere in the series did I feel that one character was being bigged up too much or too little, and I think that may have been deliberate on the author’s part to make the characters seem this equal and therefore, however subtly, strengthen their bond. Even Kodaka never felt like too much of a Creator’s Pet – although he very often played the straight man in whatever comedic punchline the story felt like dishing up, sometimes he was also the butt of the joke, and he also had his moments of being slightly unhinged…

And, significantly, I think I will bring up the humour – even if the plot or characters rub you the wrong way, this is one of the best comedy shows I have ever seen. The best part is, most of it literally comes from the members of the club just sitting around talking. The topic of conversation is normally relevant to whatever they plan on doing that day, but it often goes off on various tangents, whether it be Yozora and Sena’s inability to stand one another (which often leads to Sena overreacting to something Yozora said and flees the room crying), or Rika just being…Rika…
There is a reason she’s my favourite character in the show…
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Another key strength is the characters, which I’ll got into more detail about now. Kodaka might just be one of the best leads I’ve seen in anime series ever – and this makes a really nice contrasts to a lot of harem leads who are just as dull as driftwood. He isn’t some pervert who the world craps on from a great height, nor is he a pinball protagonist. He’s intelligent, fairly sane and values friendship and loyalty – perhaps even more significantly, he’s flawed in spite of his good nature. Apart from the fact that he’s incapable of telling a joke properly, he also suffers from the crippling need to maintain the status quo. His value of the present compared to the past or future that Yozora and Sena value respectively (more of that will become clear as the plot develops) puts him at odds with his life forcing him to make important choices. Although he acts oblivious, he is fully aware that the girls, particularly Yozora and Sena, are making moves on him, and he knows he’s going to have to confront it one day, but his inability and unwillingness makes for good drama – his refusal to face up to the changing motions of his life drags the conflict on, and allows for more drama, perhaps more than you’d expect from such a show.

This is also where Rika comes in – I’ve already established she’s my favourite character, but my preference stems from far more than just her wonderful desire to make love to every boy/girl/robot/jellyfish/train she sees (I’m sure there are more such things, these are just examples invoked in the show). She cottons on, quite early, to Kodaka skirting around the elephant in the room, and this comes into brilliant fruition in the second series. She seems at first willing to let it go, but she becomes more confrontational with Kodaka about it when his refusals begin to tear the club apart, as it’s something she can’t bear to lose, as the club has offered her the greatest experiences of her life.

OK – so what issues are there with this series?

Well…mainly the fanservice. On the one hand, being a heterosexual male, I’m certainly not going to say no to plenty of shots of cleavage, prominent female rear ends and girls in cute outfits. But there is a line to be drawn, I feel, for the sake of the plot, and well, there are occasions where they go too far – it may be a case of crossing the line twice, in that they go so overboard it suddenly becomes funny, but on other occasions it just serves no purpose.  Take the above picture as an example – it’s from the beach episode (standard for this genre) where the Neighbour’s Club stay at Sena’s family’s private beach as they’re not great with massive crowds and they’re putting on sunblock. Yozora takes the opportunity to humiliate Sena by applying some via her foot onto Sena’s back and pressing down hard on her centre of gravity to prevent her from getting up. The sunblock makes a very obvious and poignant noise, and it’s resemblance to a certain discharge is obvious enough – the main problem is, the scene goes on for a few minutes…and at the end of it you’re just really uncomfortable. More weirdly, Yozora is saying all sorts of things you’d expect to hear a dominatrix say. Now, she does have a fly-swat that she hits members of the club with to keep them in line, but this scene has nothing to do with it and is really out of nowhere.

And…OK…it’s got to be said. Lolicon.
Both Kobato and Maria play this role – they both see Kodaka as a big brother, which I think is fair enough. But they also get nude shots. Kobato is 13, and Maria is 10…and even though the scenes are in non-sexual contexts and are only brief, they are VERY uncomfortable to watch. I would completely understand if you couldn’t see past that, although it may provide you some comfort to know that, as Kobato and Maria are animated, there aren’t any real under-age girls being exploited or exposed. But admittedly, the idea is still very off-putting.

Oh, and then there’s the ending. The last episode of the second series (the current final episode) isn’t bad in an of itself, but the very end is ridiculous. I’m not going to say why, all I’m going to say is…brace yourself…

But overall, Haganai has some wonderful characters, hilarious comedy, very good writing for the genre and overall, despite the hiccups, it’s a personal fave. If you’re in the mood for something new, I’d say go and check it out. I hope you liked this review and I hope you’ll let me know what you thought.

All images belong to their respective owners.

Anime Analysis – Sound! Euphonium

Well hello there, and Happy International Women’s Day! If you’re reading this on the day it was posted…or you know, annually since then.

My day’s been pretty standard as it is, and I’ve felt, as someone who strongly identifies as a feminist, and who believes society’s gender roles are a restrictive, throttling obstruction, I feel I should make some small contribution to this day. Obviously there’s no obligation, but it feels right to do so. Soooooo, this post, whilst serving another purpose (made obvious by the title) does kind of connect to the theme of today in a convoluted way that makes sense in my head at least. Please note that I may be doing more anime reviews, or indeed film reviews at a later stage, and if this is well-received, feel free to comment on what you want to me analysing.

A bit of background – Sound! Euphonium, also known as Hibike! Euphonium (the exclamation marks are present at that point for some reason) was originally a Japanese novel, which was then adapted into a manga, and more recently into a 13-episode anime series produced by Kyoto Animation, which I started fairly recently and finished only a few days ago. I have to say, I was wonderfully impressed by it. I had seen other music anime before – Love Live! School Idol Project is one that springs to mind immediately, and I had also seen a bit of K-On! before getting bored and stopping…sorry, K-On! fans…

The genre itself is one that I think, in many ways, you either like or you don’t. I happen to love musicals (except maybe Grease), and even jukebox musicals, the genre which makes use of existing songs for it’s musical numbers, can have a charm to them if used in the right context, in something like Fox’s musical dramedy Glee. But more on that another time. In the case of music anime, they tend to be focused around certain genre of music – K-On! was about light music, whereas Love Live was very explicitly and obviously about idols. This one concerns classical music and concert music, which is something I haven’t immersed myself in before, but I do enjoy the genre of music, so I was willing to give it a go. But what really grasped me is the story itself.

Our protagonist is a bright young spark, a first-year high school student called Kumiko Oumae. She has a history of playing brass instruments, specifically the euphonium, but questions her dedication and ability to be swayed by the opinions of others. She joins her school’s orchestral music club along with two friends she makes – one, a chirper beginner at music with a slightly tomboyish style named Hazuki Katou, and a soft-spoken contrabass player named Sapphire Kawashima, though understandably she prefers to be called ‘Midori.’ However, a few problems are afoot with the club – firstly, Kumiko is reunited with Reina Kousaka, a girl she knew from her old school who was reduced to tears when their concert band was unsuccessful in a competition and was highly indignant at Kumiko’s dismissal. Kumiko is uncertain how to act around her, and is seemingly reminded of her own issues with her personality when encountered with her. Reina herself seems to act aloof and indifferent, and focuses on her trumpet expertise. The other issue concerns the new instructor to the group – a professional who seems very serene and smilingly polite, is revealed to be very blunt and unapologetic about his criticisms and the groups rustiness. Most of the story concerns the band ascending to improve themselves, partially in indignation, and also for many of the members to resolve any personal issues they may have throughout the process.

One thing that really stands out to me about the quality of this show is the characters. Let’s start with Kumiko herself. Knowing what I did about music anime and female characters in school-related anime in general, I was expecting Kumiko to be cast from the same mould – the high-pitched, cheerful, naive everygirl who has a ditzy personality and the strong intent to never offend, who gets bad grades on top of that. All anime fans know the type of character – people like Yui Hirasawa, Honoka Kosaka, Nagisa Aoi, Madoka Kaname, all very much the same archetype. This isn’t to say they’re necessarily bad or unlikeable characters. Madoka, I think, has a character type that works very well for the series she’s in, but I’m indifferent to Yui and whilst I don’t really dislike Honoka or Nagisa, they’re far from the most interesting characters in their respective series (Love Live and Strawberry Panic). The problem is, as I’ve said, you’ve seen this character so many times you just find them boring. In this sense Kumiko was a pleasant surprise. I think I first noticed her distinction when she first arrived at her new school and saw the concert band giving a performance outside the school to welcome new arrivals. They gave a fairly standard display of their talents, and Kumiko’s first reaction was to say to herself: ‘Wow…they suck.’

Perhaps is because she’s based off a character from a novel, but Kumiko’s character strikes me as a lot more three-dimensional than a lot of other protagonists. Whilst she’s not entirely well-spoken and is swayed by others, she nevertheless knows her own mind and is far from polite when she needs to express it, and whilst she’s quick to judge the quality of some people and how the perform, her own insecurities come bubbling up to the surface in a very realistic way. She doesn’t just say, ‘oh, I’m no good’ and apologises a lot, she’s quite angry and adamant about it and seems to convince herself that there’s not much point in getting other people to help her – that this is a mountain she should climb herself. Self-determination and the goal to be the best sets her apart from the aforementioned female protagonist archetype, who don’t tend to have much of a goal at all. For this reason, she’s very entranced by Reina, who’s another interesting character.

Kumiko’s and Reina’s relationship is definitely one of the main selling points of this anime too…and when I say relationship, well…
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I didn’t edit this, this is an actual screenshot from the series, subtitles and all.

It’s interesting, because in the original book, Kumiko has a romantic subplot with a childhood friend of hers, a guy named Shuichi, who’s also part of the music club and plays the trombone. It seems obvious to me the that the overseers of the anime and possibly the manga too had a very different ship in mind. And…yeah, I ship it too. Shuichi’s role is reduced to supporting and it bigs up the romantic subtext between Kumiko and Reina, so much so that Sound! Euphonium is firmly in the ranks of those anime which aren’t technically yuri (female-female love), but much like Puella Magi Madoka Magica and Love Live, the subtext is so strong that it might as well be.

The thing is, their relationship does really work. Kumiko has big ideas, but nevertheless feels tied to people’s perceptions, and whilst she wishes to break free from that, still feels guilty if she thinks she’s upset someone. Reina is single-minded in her ideas of self-improvement, and whilst talented, she seems to know that she’s an elitist. She admits that she likes Kumiko because she has a ‘horrible personality’ but was concerned about being awarded the solo trumpet part at their upcoming competition, as she’ll be depriving a much loved popular third-year student of that opportunity, and that she’ll be ‘a villain.’ Kumiko’s response? ‘Then I’ll be a villain with you! Also Reina, I think I really want to finger y-‘

Are they bad for each other? Well, maybe not – Kumiko constantly tells Reina that she wants to be ‘special’ like her, and is an obvious point of accomplishment for her. Perhaps in more ways than one…
What’s more, Reina becomes a lot less frosty with everyone as the series progresses, largely because she has Kumiko as a morality pet, someone who’ll shut up and listen for a few minutes and who is willing to do what other people want of her, even if she’s not shy to give her opinions. Whilst I’ll be the first to admit I wished they kissed at some point, perhaps a very strong platonic bond is far better for terms of a decent, developed, female character. See me trying to make a loose connection here…?
Kumiko rejects most of Shuichi’s advances in the series, displaying, first and foremost, that she has interests outside of getting a guy, which is sadly a flaw of many female leads in anime (and everything else really) in the past. We’re looking at you, Sakura Haruno. It’s not just Kumiko and Reina who are different in this regard – the majority of the members of the music club are girls, and most character development seen from their perspectives are unrelated to the few boys in their group. Hell, Shuichi is the only guy that ever really does anything. And this, to me, reflects an evolving world.  Debatable? Well, feel free to say what you think, but I love Kumiko and Reina’s ambition, and I love everyone else’s habit of not being tied down by what restricted their gender in the past, both in fiction and reality. There’s even a scene in which Kumiko’s close friend Hazuki, whom I briefly mentioned, invites Shuichi, whom she has a crush on, to one of those staple Japanese festivals that seem to crop up in a lot of anime series. (Kumiko, of course, was up the hill with Reina.) She confesses her feelings to him at this festival, to which he awkwardly replies he doesn’t feel that way. Her reaction? She sucks it up and says, stubbornly, that with that out of the way, she’s going to try and get him and Kumiko together, as it’s obvious he’s into her. No moping, no anger vented towards Kumiko, this girl reacted a hell of a lot better than I would have done.

Most of the other characters are reasonably standard, but they’re all likeable enough. There’s no character I dislike, and some really stand out as being very memorable and some of my favourites. I’ve already talked about Kumiko and Reina, but there’s also Taki, the music instructor I mentioned. What’s interesting about him is his blunt delivery – he wastes no time on telling anyone who’s struggling or not keeping up that they should practice or else they won’t be good enough for their competition. He’s kind of ruthless in this regard, and yet at the same time, he’s polite, soft-spoken, unabashedly democratic and fair, and, nearer the end, expresses a great pride at how far everyone’s come. And he is a main driving force as well – naturally, many band members feel resentment towards him, and resentment that drives them to improve themselves.

Another character that really stands out and might be my favourite is Asuka – she’s the vice-president of the music club, and, much like Taki, you never entirely know what she’s thinking. At first, she’s quite loud, energetic, and very eager to induct girls into her section of the band, in a way that once again brings to yuri undertones bubbling to the surface. It really doesn’t help that she keeps on talking about fingering. In regards to holding brass instruments, of course…

But as time goes on, it’s revealed that she’s a little more complex than that. A lot of people constantly ask why she doesn’t opt for president of the group, as she has the kind of charisma. She replies that such a position doesn’t interest her, and it seems to me that her reasoning may simply be she’s very good and noticing people’s strengths and insecurities, and prods them in the right direction ever so subtly. She just enjoys it that way. Whilst she is a cornerstone of the band, she’s definitely not someone to cross.
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What else can I say about the series? The art is gorgeous and very real-looking, the musical moments are wonderful. I still listen to the opening theme constantly. I also love the tone of the story. Things like Love Live were very much about comradery, and whilst there’s definitely elements of that, there’s much more of a steer towards the message of perseverance and personal accomplishment, something that you feel in both the characters you’ve got to know, and the atmosphere created. When they’re performing in front of an audience, I feel the ringing nervous silence proceeding the performance in the same vain, thrown back to my recent performance in a showcase, and my not as recent performance in a musical – I feel this as the characters do, it captures it very well.

I can’t think of much wrong with this series, other than occasionally it does move a little slowly. I found some story points in some episodes being milked for a little too long, but this is nullified in the later episodes, and the fact that I rushed to finish is telling that it certainly isn’t boring. Ultimately, I would recommend this to anyone, particularly if you like music anime. In my opinion, it’s 13-episodes-worth of your time worth giving up.

So, thanks for reading this, give me your opinions in comments either here, or if you’re coming here from a link on other social media I have, that’s also fine to comment on there. And as a special treat, before I finish off here, here’s more of Kumiko and Reina:
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All images belong to their respective owners.