Don't you just hate spoilers? I do, too. That's why I always try to include warnings. However, I sometimes ramble a bit too much here or there and maybe a few (or many) key plot points slip without me giving proper notice. So I'd like to include a blanket spoiler warning for the weary internet travelers of the world: Here There Be Spoilers. You've been warned.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Queen's Blade: Beautiful Warriors (Kuīnzu Bureido Utsukushiki Tōshi-tachi)

Quick warning: Queen's Blade contains material that is for mature audiences only. You've been warned. Progress at your own peril....

So there I found myself looking at my blu-ray of the six part OVA series Queen's Blade: Beautiful Warriors, thinking there's just no way that it was really that extreme. My last review of an entry in the Queen's Blade series was on the first day of this year and here this review is arriving on the final day of 2014. A lot of anime has been seen since the last time I had stepped into that world. Surely, my memory had failed me a bit. Surely, I told myself, that Queen's Blade wasn't as over-the-top as I remembered. 

My memory was not wrong at all. After five minutes of the most extreme fan service I've seen all year outside of hentai I just sort of paused and took a moment to smile. I had missed my time with the likes of Leina, Echidna, Tomoe, Airi, and all the rest. Sure, I didn't mind the revisit to the overabundance of booby scenes, but it was nice to see some characters with names I could remember. 

I watch so much anime that it really is hard to remember all of the names. Most of the time I can't. Yet I can remember a lot from this anime and this OVA only enhanced my memories of it. Yet Leina and Echidna have become a bit of a mainstay in my mental anime character catalog with the likes of Luffy and Goku. I don't understand how my brain works, either. 

Torn articles of clothing revealing nipples (because all battles have that), viscous white substances covering certain female characters (battles have that, too), and camel toe (again, perfect in a battle scene), are all the characteristics that signify Queen's Blade and at no point were the characteristics skimped on. 

There's actually a beach scene with bikinis and everything in this OVA, but I thought that was silly. Even for this show. That's always the fan service episode for most anime, but for Queen's Blade a beach setting seems almost like restraint. I mean, what are the chances of running into some sort of rapey tentacle monster on a beach? 

Damn it, I forgot all about Nyx's staff, didn't I? Well, forget I said anything. 

Dear God, what incredible fan service. It's just a thing of beauty after a while. Boobies, boobies, boobies, boobies... There is no end to it and while it probably signifies some sort of deficiency in my brain I found myself enjoying the series for the silliness that it was. 

The OVA was probably even more pointless than the previous two entries in the series, although there were definite connections that still made it seem like a fitting sequel. So I'd say it's worth splurging, so to speak, money on for the blu-ray. 

Animated boobies have never looked so good in HD before. 

Each of the six episodes were about a half hour in length and each one spent time with a different set of characters for the most part. Echidna and Elina were the focus of the first episode while the second episode featured Nowa, Alleyne, and Nyx with her rapey tentacle staff. The next two episodes featured Airi and Melona of acid-nipple fame. After that we are treated to a silly Nanael journey that again featured Airi and Melona before we end with a Tomoe and Aldra sendoff. 

That's about as plotiness as I'll get since I doubt anyone can really write too much about the plot of this short OVA without talking out of their ass. This isn't a life-changing experience or anything and it certainly won't make a best-of list, but if you like the show then this is definitely a must-see. 

Just watch out for sticky stuff. And don't ask why I have this on blu-ray. 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Wind Rises (Kaze Tachinu)

Horikoshi Jiro is not a name that is common knowledge to the modern Westerner. I would certainly have no idea who he was without this movie. Oddly enough, a person could watch this movie and still have no idea who Mr. Horikoshi really was and what his life was like. 

Allow me to explain. 

This 2013 film was billed as Miyazaki's swan song and it is indeed a great film to go out on, but it is not the historical part of it that will be remembered so much. Much of the history in this film with regards to Mr. Horikoshi's personal life is a fabrication. 

This film, to be more accurate, is an amalgamation of different sources. Tatsuo Hori's novel Kaze Tachinu about life in a tuberculosis sanitarium, the aforementioned true life of Horikoshi, and even a bit of Thomas Mann's 1927 German novel Der Zauberberg are thrown into the mix. So while this film probably contains about as much historical importance as Braveheart it is nonetheless a better constructed film with regards to its overall theme and is a much more peaceful and unselfish film despite the backdrop of war. 

Miyazaki has proven that he isn't afraid to break free from the template and exercise his own visual quirkiness and he does it here time and again despite this film being a historical drama. Horikoshi is a dreamer in this movie and his dreams are incredibly vivid and they could stand alone as their own short films. Of course, this sometimes causes a bit of a disconnect between the scenes of reality that are often more bleak and silted. That's probably an intended effect, but it could serve as a bit of a drawback, too. The entire film is beautiful, though. So I can't imagine it being too much of a drawback. 

Purists of historical fact probably wouldn't appreciate this film very much. Although the bits about how Horikoshi helped make Japan take flight in WWII (much as he didn't like his planes being used for war) are truthful enough just the simple fact that Horikoshi's wife never had tuberculosis can be a deterrent. 

Here the condition of his eventual wife causes an excellent and breathtaking ending, but when you consider that such a thing never happened in real life it kinda defuses the effect a little bit. Whereas Horikoshi's own real life battle with pleurisy is not given a mention in the film. 

However, Miyazaki's vision takes flight seemingly of its own accord and it doesn't really matter what is fact and fiction by the time it is over. Knowing the facts certainly couldn't hurt you on the education front, but I don't think it would greatly diminish the enjoyment of this film unless you really are one of those previously mentioned purists of historical fact. 

This film was controversial from the get-go because of it depicting an engineer of Japanese WWII planes as a good guy, but in real life Horikoshi Jiro disproved of their usage in such a way and the same is true of his counterpart in this movie. At least that much Miyazaki kept true. 

Mr. Horikoshi was an artist and he didn't have much say-so how his art would be used. The same can be said of all artists to a degree, I believe. 

I think that fans of Martin Scorsese's The Aviator and/or Grave of the Fireflies would enjoy this film. It's definitely an anti-war film, but it isn't one of those that gets too overly involved in the politics of difficult times. This film is about human struggle and ingenuity and how dreams can sometimes cause bad nightmares. 

I have no idea how the man whose life this movie is largely based on would feel about this movie, but I'm sure he'd approve of the message. As much as I can be sure of such things, I suppose. 

Excellent movie. If Miyazaki never makes another film no one can say his last one was a flop or unmemorable. 

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Irregular at Magic High School (Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei)

Well, it looks like another year is coming to a close soon. I certainly hope everyone is doing alright this time of year. Christmas time can be a stressful and dark time for so many people so I do hope everyone tries to be a bit more thoughtful. Personally, I could have cared less about celebrating Christmas this year. My heart and my wallet just weren't in it this year, but I gave the old college try anyway. I'm just too nice, I guess. 

One guy who probably wouldn't have such problems would be Shiba Tatsuya, the largely unfeeling protagonist from the fantastic Summer 2014 anime The Irregular at Magic High School. Things like guilt, anger, rage, and even depression don't seem to have an impact of Tatsuya. That could be because his feelings were removed in order for him to gain the powers of magic. However, even after such a transformation he still doesn't gain the respect he deserves and is discriminated not only by his own family, but by his school as well. Ouch. Good thing he doesn't have feelings, I guess. Of course, many of his fellow students don't know his personal history, but they probably wouldn't care anyway. 

In this anime the year is 2095 and magic is the name of the game. Rightly or wrongly, magicians are trained to be weapons of war and when they go to school they are separated into two courses. Course one is the more talented of the two and they are unofficially referred to as "Blooms." Course two is unofficially called the "Weeds" and that isn't really a good thing. It's kind of an insult. I mean, would you like being called a Weed?

Tatsuya seems uniquely able to deal with these difficult situations, though. Not only doesn't he not feel, but he also is quick to shut up his naysayers. He proves that Weeds can be stronger than Blooms. Much stronger. 

Tatsuya isn't just a magician with a few inadequacies that are incredibly overanalyzed by the critics because he's also a genius, a strategist, and a military warrior known as Mahesvara. I'm getting ahead of myself, though. 

The only remaining thing that Tatsuya can feel is a devotion to his sister, Miyuki. This often causes some rather humorous interactions with Miyuki's and Tatsuya's classmates. Being a bro-con or a sis-con are things that only otakus like myself can understand or find funny, but anytime a brother and sister seem to be overly close in anime the sister is the bro-con and the brother is the sis-con. I'm not sure if this is humor for the Western world, but it's been a pretty popular topic in anime lately. And the humorous bits that are caused by the scenario are actually quite funny. When Miyuki herself begins to wonder if she's falling for her brother or Tatsuya wonders about his sister's affection it only gets better. This is anime is surprisingly funny for one where I was expecting more action than anything.

These 26 episodes are divided into three relatively separate albeit chronological arcs. The first one mostly deals with the discrimination that Course 2 students face from Course 1 students. Tatsuya's abilities, even though he tries hard to hide them and mostly succeeds, only serve as a lightning rod of controversy among the students. 

The second arc showcases Tatsuya's abilities as a strategist as he helps the representatives of the First Magic High School take on the other schools in the Nine School Magic Competition.  

The final arc sees warfare break out and Tatsuya and his fellow students display the lessons they have learned. Trust me, Tatsuya will blow you away. Quite literally. The one thing you really don't want to do is mess with his sister. That's the one emotion he has left and if you push your luck he will destroy your country, your anime collection, and your kitten. Maybe not in that order, but everything you know and love will disappear. 

I'm surprised I liked this anime. Although this one has been in my queue ever since April I just got around to it a few days ago and finished it in just as many. I believe it is on Netflix for the moment. I could think of a worse anime to watch. Rather than go out and get completely 'faced for the New Year you could just stay at home and give this a try. Your stomach will probably thank you for it, too. 

The 26 episodes are adapted from the first seven light novels by Sato Tsutomu, but there are seven more light novels left to be adapted as of this writing so I certainly hope that there is another anime to follow up this one. The finale certainly begged for one. Season two or we riot. Who is with me? 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Infernal Affairs (Mou gaan dou)

Andy Lau and Tony Leung go head to head in this cat and mouse thriller that rocked Hong Kong in 2002. Andy Lau is Lau Kin Ming, a senior inspector in title but in actuality he is mole for triad leader Hon Sum. Tony Leung is Chan Wing Yan, a man who has been living undercover as a gangster for ten years now and has gotten close to Hon Sum. The two moles begin to suspect their rival organizations of having a mole, but they don't know who the other is. Using their resources they try to track down each other without blowing their cover.

Yes, folks, it's taken me almost a decade, but I finally got around to watching the source material for The Departed. Man, what an excellent film. I really didn't expect to like this one so much because I figured The Departed would blow it away, but Infernal Affairs more than held its own and in some ways it was a much better film than its remake.

When The Departed came out in 2006 it became an instant classic. I fell in love with it immediately, too. I thought surely that it was one of the most original films I had ever seen and the classic twists at the end were something only could have come from the mind of Martin Scorsese. Scorsese envisioned a masterpiece and created one. However, I shortly learned after seeing the film that it was actually a remake of the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs. Of course, William Monahan wrote the screenplay without even watching Infernal Affairs so the two are similar while also being remarkably different. Still, so many of those shocking twists were not original to The Departed

I don't want this review to become a full-on comparison between the two, but I suppose comparisons have been going on for years now and my two cents won't matter much. The Departed didn't do Infernal Affairs any outright injustices, but it's just that one is far more Americanized and concludes on a "bad guy gets his" sort of thing that doesn't happen in the other.

This movie begins with an abstract credits scene and quotes about circles of Hell and whatnot. So there's definitely a different vibe. There also is not a lot of humor. A lot of the dialog present in the remake isn't there in the original. Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin's witty banter had its origins elsewhere. This movie downplays a lot of the violence and there's no excessive bloodshed, too. There also isn't anywhere near the amount of swearing. This is, by all accounts, a fairly clean movie with the exception of a bit cocaine usage.

Andy Lau and Tony Leung are impressive leads, though. Those of us in the West are largely unfamiliar with them unless we have hobbies that are a bit unusual, but Tony Leung is considered to be Asia's answer to Clark Gable and Andy Lau is probably more like a modern day Frank Sinatra.

The two are talented and it is easy to see. Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio had huge shoes to fill when they stepped into the remake and this movie makes me respect their performances even more. Lau and Leung were just so good in their own right that it must have been tough for fans of this movie to have hope back when The Departed and its cast was first announced. Remember when no one respected DiCaprio? Had I been a fan of this movie back before ever watching The Departed then he would have been the last guy I'd want to be involved, too.

At about 100 minutes, Infernal Affairs is also much shorter. A short montage at the beginning of the film introduces the situations and beginnings of the two main characters and then we enter the main bit of the story. The subplot about Matt Damon and DiCaprio loving the same woman isn't present in this movie and that's kind of a relief. This movie moves much faster and doesn't indulge too much in extraneous story devices like that.

Infernal Affairs is succinct and to the point while The Departed has a bit more flourish to it. Neither is bad, but they are certainly as different and they are similar. It's tough to say which one is better.

Passing on Infernal Affairs would be a big no-no, though. I don't care how many times you have seen The Departed. This movie is an excellent one. Watch it. This is where it all began.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Cowboy Bebop (Kaubōi Bibappu)

"I think it's time to blow this scene. Get everybody and their stuff together. OK, 3, 2, 1, let's jam."

Ah, the Seatbelts and their timeless song Tank! When I was younger I thought that it was an odd way to introduce an anime. Jazz? Loud rambunctious jazz instead of some nice and inviting J-pop or J-rock? Certainly a departure from the rest of a field even for 1998. However, despite being a bit of a musical oddity, the series gained a universal appeal because of its willingness to borrow from international pop culture. The likes of Alien, spaghetti westerns, Star Wars, and film noir are all tossed into this 26 episode anime.

The names are in English on purpose and each episode has a bit of a different flavor. So there's something for everyone, I think. The first episode is called Asteroid Blues and it begins the series in a fairly somber fashion. Spike and Jet, being the bounty hunters that they are, travel the universe in search of a way to add some beef to their frequent meals of "peppers and beefless beef." Despite being a fairly dynamic duo with Jet being the brains and Spike being the daredevil, neither of them can seem to get things to go right. 

In the first episode their bounty is a guy by the name of Asimov Solensan and he sells (and religiously takes) a drug called Red Eye. Asimov is also travelling with the rather attractive femme fatale Katerina Solensan. She appears to be pregnant, but her belly is actually full of Red Eye vials. The two of them want to escape to Mars, but the police and the Bebop crew are on their tales. The Bebop crew naturally want to catch them first so they can get money from Asimov's bounty. 

Now I will spoil the first episode's ending and tell you what happens and if you don't want to know you don't have to. Just skip down a bit or stop reading until you've seen it. I won't mind. However, I believe most people that like anime have seen this series so I will commence with the spoilers now and come what may. 

Asimov and Katerina are trying to escape Spike in their spaceship, but they run into a barricade of police ships. Rather than be shot down or taken in, Katerina takes matters into her own hands and shoots her lost-to-addiction husband in the head before the police completely destroy their ship. Spike, unable to do anything else, watches as two people die pointlessly from the safety of his own ship. Not only do they die but Asimov's death obviously means no money for Spike and Jet. And, although you've got to believe Spike felt bad for Katerina and maybe even Asimov to a degree, you aren't sure just how bad he feels about that compared to losing the bounty. 

That bit of grayness and uncertainty is what makes Cowboy Bebop so damn good, though. Spike is the closest this series has to a good guy, but he's not the go-getter goody-goody like Luffy or Goku or any of the heroes from countless action anime. He screws up a lot and does a lot of reckless things without having any super powers to help him, but he somehow makes it through his ordeals. Not unscathed, though. 

Jet, on the other hand, is the sane man of the group. As a former member of the ISSP, the corrupt and illegitimate police force in the universe of Cowboy Bebop, Jet is a scarred man much like Spike and that seems to be why the two of them get along well enough. Of course, they know next to nothing about each other at the start. Spike doesn't know how Jet lost his arm and Jet doesn't know how Spike lost his eye. I don't think either of them knows at first that their previous jobs would have had Jet chasing after Spike. If that was explained I missed it despite having seen this series multiples times. 

In the second episode the super intelligent dog Ein gets introduced as a member of the Bebop and the damsel in debt Faye Valentine gets added to the crew officially in episode four, too. Although Faye gets introduced into the series in episode three. 

Faye is a lot of fun and she's also freakin' hot.

A lot of the more upbeat episodes involve the hacker Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivrusky IV who gets introduced in episode nine. For brevity's sake everyone just calls her Edward or Radical Ed. She is the final member to join the Bebop crew and from then on the crew is set. 

All of the characters of the Bebop get their own special episodes or, in Spike's case, an arc that detail their lives before the Bebop. These episodes are especially fulfilling, but the ones about Spike take the cake. Spike's backstory begins with episode five Ballad of Fallen Angels and that's where we meet the series antagonist Vicious. You won't see him a lot because this series is largely episodic and episode six continues on like nothing major had happened in episode five, but he has a profound impact later on in the series with his few appearances. Vicious is definitely one of my favorite anime villains. 

Aside from the excellent bringing to life of even minor characters, the dialog in this series is incredibly sharp and the exchanges between characters is witty. Most lines are easily quotable and the English dub is very close to the Japanese meanings so nothing becomes too lost in translation. I watched the sub on blu-ray and at no point did I really hit my head and say, "The dub wasn't even close on that!" So a lot of the catchy lines come from the source material and that is a plus. 

One of those lines is in the first episode. "Yeah, keep those eyes open." Just a great line in a great situation. Vicious is nothing but good lines, too. 

The music is classic. The series is worth watching alone for the music. Especially if you have an appreciation for jazz. All of the tunes are originals and were made solely for this anime so each piece fits perfectly with each scene. A lot of thought was put into the anime as a whole and it deserves it reputation as one of the best anime out there. Even the ending messages just before the credits like "See you Space Cowboy" or Easy Come, Easy Go" are nice touches that make this anime feel more special than others that just want to blow you away with endless scenes of action. Each episode has meaning even if it seems like some of them have no obvious connection to the others. The message, in this case, is sometimes more important than any specific continuity. Although, as previously stated, continuity does play a big part as the series goes on. 

Cowboy Bebop is kind of like the On the Waterfront of anime. It's kind of become a stereotype to call Cowboy Bebop a classic because anyone into the genre at all hears it being called that all the time.

It's the truth, though. They don't make them like this anymore. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Files of Young Kindaichi Returns (Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo Returns)

I hope this holiday season is finding everyone well and in the spirit. Things have been fairly quiet on the blog front here, but that's not to say that I haven't been steadily occupying my time with good anime or reading. Mostly, I've been trying to catch up on my One Piece, but I'm also halfway through The Count of Monte Cristo and I'm greatly enjoying it. It is a read that takes quite a bit of time, but it is time worth putting into the novel. I'll review the novel on my other blog, but if you haven't read the novel then I highly recommend it. Specifically, the Robin Buss translation from Penguin. 

Now that I've had my say on that I'd like to get the ball rolling with some 2014 anime. The Files of Young Kindaichi Returns is a sequel to an older anime, but this one is updated with things like cell phones and tablets and is much shorter at only 25 episodes. The original series spanned 148 episodes and ended its run in 2000. Slight difference. I have never seen the original anime, but I do know the original anime is frequently mentioned alongside the popular and long-running anime Case Closed because they are both whodunits and there just aren't a lot of those. Case Closed and its astonishing 700+ episodes is probably the clear favorite, but don't count out Kindaichi. Both shows will get your whodunit fix cured. 

Kindaichi Returns is comprised of a series of short arcs that can mostly be viewed independently of the other. The first series was the same way, I believe. You don't even need to watch the first series to enjoy this one although you'll miss out on the familiarity with the likes of some of the characters and some of the recurring villains. Since the short arcs are more about the mysteries than characterization and an overall story development none of the core four or five characters will be given a lot of depth. Basically, you're expected to know who all of the main characters are and some of the villains like the Puppeteer from Hell and the Gentleman Thief. If you don't then hopefully you'll catch on quickly. I managed pretty well going into this series blind. 

The arcs are good, though. 

Murder at 10,000 Meters reminded me of The High and the Mighty and those Airport movies. It might be easy to poke fun at, but I think those types of stories can be fun, too. When the captain of their plane is found dead in the cockpit it's up to Kindaichi and Police Superintendent Akechi Kengo to figure out how he could have died and whether or not those terrorist threats made earlier in the day have anything to do with it. Of course, this arc is only two episodes and doesn't compare to the four-part Alchemy Murder Case or the five-part The Prison Prep School Murder Case

The arcs are designed to get the audience involved in the mysteries and you are prompted to try and figure out the answers before Kindaichi. Locked room mysteries and airtight alibis are prevalent in this series and even in the shorter arcs the answers were more often than not pretty good. Although the longer arcs were better if only because they could add more twists and red herrings to make things more interesting. Some of the mysteries are really ingenious, too. It was easier to figure out who might have done it then how they did it. 

The bad guys in this series, for the most part, weren't actually bad guys in terms of just being cold and ruthless. The bad guys were fairly sympathetic and it was tough to hate them despite their heinous crimes. Which could be really heinous. The Kenmochi Isuma, Murderer arc was certainly a tough watch, at times making me think of Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door. Stories about child abuse just really piss me off, but I found myself at odds with myself when policeman Kenmochi was suspected of killing a group of torturers after they got out of prison with a slap on the wrist from a crime that took place three years earlier and ended in the death of a seventeen year old girl. That was definitely something I wasn't expecting from this show. I wanted him to be the killer of those assholes, but then I didn't because that would mean becoming a vigilante. 
Nothing in this anime was gruesome exactly, but the writing was very good at implying grue and gore when needed. Mostly, this anime is meant in good fun, but it does remind you that people (albeit fictional people) are being killed for your enjoyment time and again like as in The Game Mansion Murder Case arc that serves as the finale to this series. It reminded me of Saw for a second although this was much more tame. 

All in all, I definitely enjoyed this whodunit and I'd like to explore the previous series when I get a chance. I would recommend this anime to anyone that likes a good mystery. 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Howl's Moving Castle (Hauru no Ugoku Shiro)

I consider myself a bit of an anime veteran. I've seen lots of titles. Lots. Most of them you'll find a review for on this blog. I haven't seen them all, though. I'm pretty sure that's impossible. In some cases I have a lot of catching up to do because I've missed some serious great works. One of them I've been missing until tonight is Howl's Moving Castle. Yes, I've had the blu-ray forever, but I put off watching it because I was busy watching other anime titles at the time and it's tough to sneak a movie in every now and then because I have a habit of binge-watching. And I actually have to do other things like eat, use the bathroom, and work. If not for that I'd have watched this movie months ago. 

Well, tonight I finally got around to it. I'm glad I did. Every Miyazaki film I've seen to this point always makes my head explode. The same can be said of Studio Ghibli as a whole, but Miyazaki is definitely the juggernaut of Ghibli.  It's tough to get it right in one movie, but Miyazaki has done it time and again. It's still tough for me to believe that he has retired from directing. 

Every movie he touches is a visual wow factor. There are things in every Miyazaki film that I never would have thought could be done in a film, but it seems that there are more of those moments in Howl's Moving Castle than usual. A door that leads to four different places, a castle that walks and changes shape according to the whims of its master, and a lead character that changes age almost every five minutes. Those are just a few neat things that make this movie stand out. 

Howl's Moving Castle could be called his greatest achievement. This film came to life in 2004 and it is based off of the 1986 children's novel Howl's Moving Castle by the late British author Diana Wynne Jones. 

While I've read that the two creations are vastly different I think it would be tough to hate Miyazaki's vision. Unless you are Roger Ebert, I guess. Ebert considered this to be one of Miyazaki's weakest efforts, but I can't fathom that. If Ebert considered this to be one of his weakest then I can't think of that as being anything other than an amazing compliment to the rest of his work. 

Now what was I going to say? Oh, yeah. Let's start with some plot. There's a lot to this film even though it has a runtime of two hours. I believe Miyazaki's films should be seen multiple times to be really appreciated so I'm sure I missed something upon my first viewing, but I will do my best to give a coherent plot description. 

I have no idea where this story is supposed to take place, but I'll call it Miyazaki Land since I have nothing else to go on. Miyazaki Land has a bit of a European flavor to it, too. Just gorgeous scenery with plenty of Miyazaki's trademark supernatural and goofy characters to populate it. 

The main character is Sophie and she gets transformed from an 18 year old hat-maker into a 90 year old cleaning woman after an unfortunate run-in with the Witch of the Waste. 

Unable to cope with this dramatic change in her life she runs away from home and seeks out a new life. As fate would have she runs into the mysterious wizard Howl again and finds a home in his bizarre moving castle. Howl seems to be involved with a war that seems to have no purpose and no end and his use of magic takes a toll on him, but his motivations for the things he does appears to be as unknown as the reasons for the war. 

Aided by the likes of the mute scarecrow Turnip Head and the wise-talking fire Calcifer, Sophie not only tries to handle Howl's castle duties but also tries to find the key to reclaiming her youth. Without getting killed by enemy fire or Howl's foul moods, I should add. 

The English dub consists of the likes of Christian Bale, Lauren Bacall, and Jean Simmons, but I'll admit I didn't watch it. The talent attached has me curious, but I chose the original Japanese version for my first viewing. 

Baisho Chieko did an excellent job as the voice of Sophie. The English dub required two different actresses for the young and old voices, but Chieko handled both and did so with gusto. I just read that she was 63 at the time of this movie and I'm beyond surprised. I thought for sure she would have been a younger woman. Damn good job.

The music by Joe Hisaishi is good as always. No surprise there. 

The only gripes I might have about this film is that maybe there's a bit too much going on and Howl himself doesn't quite receive as much character development as I think he should have. 

All in all, this is another whole-hearted recommendation. I just wish I had the region-free import because those blu-rays are no joke. 


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

My Favorite Guitarists

I've never made a post about my favorite guitarists before. Mostly because there are so many I love. Not necessarily just to listen to, but to learn from as well. I honestly believe that I'll never stop learning until I am dead and there are always so many people out there that are way better at I am than playing guitar. Of course, technique isn't everything but it isn't nothing either. The most skilled players on the planet can make a difficult riff sound simple or a simple riff sound difficult. The most skilled players on the planet can incorporate the thoughts and ideas from others to create a completely new idea. The most skilled players on the planet can play death metal one minute and Bob Dylan the next without missing a beat. 

But they don't just play the notes. Anyone can play notes. It's how they play it that matters. The same notes have always been on the guitar since it was made as a six string instrument. Millions of people have played them. The notes have always been there. The effects don't really matter, either. 

It's the subtle things like the actual touch and attack of the human hands that creates the music. The personality of the person creates the personality of the sound and the music. And a lot of people just don't have the magic or personality to make music or play it in a compelling fashion. Learning scales and certain techniques are important, but it doesn't mean anything if you don't know how to apply them to your own playing. 

My thing about learning guitar (or anything in life) is that there are no boundaries except for the ones you put on yourself. Each time you break a boundary then go and break another one. 

However, I am not one of the most skilled players on the planet. I've been playing since I was in the fifth grade and I still haven't come even close to the greatness of Hendrix or Vai. I wasn't born with a natural talent for the craft. I wasn't a prodigy like a lot of YouTube sensation kids are these days. Everything I learned has come with a lot of time and patience and there's a lot I can still learn from those YouTube kids as well. 

That's another one of my little things about guitar (and life). Know your betters and learn from them. If you don't you are a fool. And it doesn't just apply to learning from the guitar. If you ever hear a neat piano riff or a saxophone, why not try to learn it for the guitar? Everything is up for grabs when it comes to getting better. Change it up, mix and mash and don't get complacent. 

I freely admit I'm one of the few who probably shouldn't dish out advice about learning guitar, but that's my say so on that. Take it for what you will. 

Anyway, this is my list of my favorite guitarists. These are the guys I listen to and learn from. These are the guys who are forever enshrined on the posters on my walls. Yes, there are plenty of others out there I have listened to and learned from, but I don't have a bunch of writers and editors at my disposal to make a Guitar World-sized ranking of all 200 or so of them. I'll stick with ten. 

10. Joe Satriani - I've limited my list of strictly shred guys to three. Mostly because that genre really isn't my thing. I'd rather listen to instrumental jazz with piano and sax solos then instrumental shred guitar, but there are a few guys that can make it interesting to me. A lot of the complex stuff is a little beyond the grasp of my fingers at the moment, but my ears do enjoy some Joe Satriani. I enjoy his first album quite a bit.

09. Paul Gilbert - I'm not a big Racer X fan. I don't like Mr. Big, either. In fact, I will hate Mr. Big forever because of To Be With You. I love Paul Gilbert's solo work, though. He also seems like such a cool guy and not the douche that a lot of the "I can play more technical than you" types seem to be.

08. James Hetfield - Hetfield opened my eyes to what you can do by downpicking on rhythm guitar. Downpicking is tough to do at extremely fast tempos and it requires a ton of skill to do right or else the riff will sound like crap. A lot of players alternate pick faster tempos because it's easier although alternate picking isn't the easiest to initially learn, but I'm a student of the "downpicking is heavier" school. Metallica's records from their thrash days made me want to play fast and downpick the first time I heard them.

07. Frank Zappa - If Hetfield made me want to play fast then Zappa made me want to play weird. His arrangements have been something I approach frequently and come away with something new and different each time. While his playing wasn't always the most essential part of much of his music it is undoubtedly what gives a lot of his tunes so much bite. Zappa's playing sounds like none of his contemporaries. Not that I even think he had contemporaries for his style of music.

06. Stevie Ray Vaughan - Vaughan was my introduction to guys like Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and Howlin' Wolf. My first blues rock guitarist discovery was probably Clapton, but I hadn't explored much of his post-Cream music aside from the classic rock radio stuff when I discovered Vaughan's music as a kid. Aside from still being popular on guitarist polls Vaughan doesn't have a lot in common with Clapton, but if it wasn't for them a lot of the blues would be lost on young guitarists. Probably me, too. I think Vaughan is the better of the two and it's a shame that he only released a handful of albums before dying.

05. Steve Vai - Vai  is much like his mentor Zappa in that he is a wacky genius. He's also insanely talented because he was taught by Joe Satriani. Add in a stint with David Lee Roth and you'll know that obviously something is off in his head. Ever heard his song Fuck Yourself? Or Bad Horsie? Whatever it is the guy channels it into playing guitar like a god.

04. Wes Montgomery - I was a late bloomer to jazz on guitar. I can't play it worth a damn, but I appreciate it now. Wes Montgomery is my go to guy for jazz. I'm not going to try and sound pretentious and say I know a shit-ton about jazz because I don't. Maybe you know guys who are much better. However, from my limited listening experience I believe that Montgomery is just a better guitarist than most other guys slinging an axe around these days.

03. Tony Iommi - The power riff at the end of War Pigs gave me chills the first time I heard it. So epic, but oh so simple. That was the first moment that Sabbath really impacted me. I remember I was listening to my dad's recorded tapes from way back in the seventies in the old Oldsmobile. It was different then Ozzy's solo work with Rhoads and company, but it just went to show me how much talent Ozzy managed to surround himself with during his career. He went from one of the greatest guitarists of all time to another without missing a beat. I think Iommi's best moment as a lead guitarist is the performance on the first Black Sabbath album and their cover of Warning. It's just ten minutes of air guitar for me because I can't follow it without... you know, actually practicing and stuff.

02. Randy Rhoads - Rhoads and his solo in Crazy Train made me want to pick up the guitar. His other songs make me want to keep playing it. Only a handful of tunes, but that's enough. Revelation (Mother Earth) and Diary of a Madman are definite high points of guitar achievements in my eyes and ears. I frequently ask myself, "How the fuck did he think of that riff?" He was playing with Ozzy, though. It was probably a contact high or something.

01. Dimebag Darrell - I suppose this list is turning into a graveyard with all of the dead guys on it, but I am not in too much of a disagreement with myself by putting Dime at the number one spot. I've learned a lot from Dimebag's tunes. Mostly how to play badass riffs while also playing insane leads. I think he is that great crossover guitarist that helps bridge the gap from the likes of Yngwie Malmsteen to Tony Iommi to Jeff Loomis. And he wasn't an asshole, either. Dime was so likeable that it made me want to like all of his music, too. I do. Whether he was complimenting David Allan Coe or Phil Anselmo, Dimebag could shine with any vocalist in almost any style. He even made Pat Lachman tolerable as a vocalist thanks to his awesome riffs.