July 20th, 2016
Zootopia‘s differentiated animal society is a rich allegory that reflects issues of race, gender, and disability. Every element is anchored around these theme and it injects a sense of dynamism, variety, and depth that I don’t think I’ve seen in any animated movies before.
- Typecasting is natural in Zootopia‘s world because the animals are different species, yet the film is a commentary on issues of race, gender, and disability among humans, one species. This is an incredibly rich dynamic which the movie explores deeply through both its story and the details of its world. At the same time, it’s also a potential minefield for those writing about the movie.
- Is racism equivalent to speciesism? Is speciesism okay because there are strong biological differences between animals? Is segregation in employment okay if some animals are inherently better at doing some tasks than other animals? Is there more discrimination in the human world than the animal world? Is the difference between predators and prey in a animal world a comment on the eugenics movement? One of the reasons why Zootopia asks such challenging and interesting questions is because the animal world and the human world are not easily comparable.
- One of the reasons why it’s not easy to compare Zootopia and the human world is because Zootopia is equally as happy to satisfy traditional roles in the human world as it is to subvert them. The police force is full of masculine types (predators), while administrative roles are given to feminine types (prey), yet it is suggested that Officer Clawhauser, an overweight tiger (predator) who mans the front desk, is gay. Clawhauser’s role in helping the protagonists capture the villain is also far more significant than the more masculine characters. Finnick, Mr. Big, and Yax also have subversive character traits.
- Jude’s comments at the press conference and Nick’s reaction serve to demonstrate the power of language and how the taken-for-granted mindset can often undermine our own values. This scene was the highlight of the movie. Everything afterwards was simply going through the motions. Given the tone of the movie, I would have preferred a more unconventional third act over the stock “heroes defeat unexpected evil villain” trope.
- I loved the subtle examples of differentiated design, such as the smoothie stalls with the mini elevators that ship drinks up to the giraffes. Zootopia, as a world where diversity has been consistent through its history, offers us a potential glimpse at what a future society which caters to individual difference would look like.
- The range of animal types offer a great deal of visual and thematic dynamism to the movie, especially the differences in the size of the animals. The donut scene in the mouse village is an excellent example of contrasting worlds within the same city.
- I love the narrative cohesion and symbolism created through the “It’s called a hustle” line, which represents the power relations between the main characters. Nick tricks a naïve Jude, Jude outsmarts Nick, and the pair then work together to catch the villain.
- I don’t think we saw any monkeys in the film.
February 24th, 2013
I normally don’t write about music. It scares me a bit because I don’t know much about music theory and lack the cultural capital and general know-how that comes with being a hardcore music buff. Still, given that I find myself more and more invested in what I listen to, but have been struggling to find writing that clearly explains it to me, I’d like to give it a try myself. I only have two, maybe three, posts worth of ideas, so this’ll only be a short excursion. I’d like to start with an album that I’ve been listening to for about 3 weeks, Maxinquaye by Tricky (1995). You can hear the whole album here or just listen to several select songs below:
Maxinquaye has an elusive quality which is created through harmonic dissonance, contrasting styles, and a subversive approach to singing and songwriting. Examples include:
- The blend of different genres, including hip-hop, rock, soul, and electronica.
- Tricky’s role as a backing singer for more than half of the record, despite it being “his” album.
- Tricky’s assortment of singing styles (sing-speak, rapping, whispering, and various inhaling, exhaling, moans, and groans).
- The way a singer of one sex sings lyrics written from the viewpoint of the other (eg. Black Steel). This gives the music an ambiguous sexual identity.
- The vocal relationship between Tricky and Martina Topley-Bird.
In regards to the former most point, sometimes:
- Tricky speaks the lyrics before Martina sings them (Strugglin’), which sounds like Tricky is the voice in the back of Martina’s head, feeding her the message.
- Tricky speaks as Martina sings, producing an out-of-time backing vocal (Aftermath, Abbaon Fat Tracks).
- Tricky whispers and his vocals are, seemingly, cut up and looped, creating a bedrock of background conversation (Feed Me).
- Tricky is absent altogether (Overcome).
- Tricky moans and exhales (Ponderosa).
- Tricky sings the verses, while Martina sings the chorus (Suffocated Love).
The changing relationship between the two singers, through Tricky, conjures up a variety of associations. Do they know what the other is going to say? Are they conversing or just talking over each other? How are power roles expressed through the vocals?
Ponderosa combines several of these points together. In this song, Tricky is the backing vocalist. He backs the last few words of each line, sometimes sitting out, other times taking the lead. At the start of the song, he whispers. After the first verse, the song pauses while he exhales and moans, before the chorus kicks in. Near the end of the song, he repeats key words that come later in the track as he waits for Martina to catch up. The result is a dynamic layer of vocals that weaves in and out of the main thread, lifting the peaks (“different levels of the devil’s company”) and prompting the listener to mentally rewind and fast forward the lyrical content of the song.
Similar to Ponderosa’s vocals, Black Steel’s second half sees the singing become detached from the music and weave in and out of the time of the instrumentals, before eventually finding its focus.
May 9th, 2010
What I’ve come to appreciate through watching Ninja Scroll: The Series is the expertise of Yoshiaki Kawajiri and Yutaka Minowa, the director and artist of the original Ninja Scroll (1993). Yoshiaki Kawajiri has directed some of my favourite anime productions including the Vampire Hunter D remake Bloodlust, the TV series for X and the neo-noir sex thriller Wicked City. Yutaka Minowa also worked on Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust and Wicked City, as well as the X movie adaption and the Hellsing-esque Devil May Cry animated series. Despite taking on different roles, the duo share an accommodating sense of style where Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s dark, mistrusting worlds lends themselves to Yutaka Minowa’s diagonally-drawn, pointy-chinned character designs.
Ninja Scroll and Wicked City, two of my favourite titles that Kawajiri and Minowa worked on together, are such interesting movies because their characters sought out their own motives questionable to their roles as heros and villains. Dakuan and Jubei, for instance, may be fighting on the same side, but only because Dakuan poisoned Jubei and baited him with an antidote to lure him into following orders. These characters disobey their hero and antagonist roles to protect their own interests and undermine the viewer, creating sinister worlds filled with only the guilty.
I rant about Kawajiri and Minowa to set the contrast for Ninja Scroll: The Series which, for all intents and purposes, dumbs the movie’s serious tone down to something akin to a Saturday morning cartoon.
Ninja Scroll: The Series is set in an unrelated, alternative dimension to the movie. Jubei and Dakuan reprise their roles, but meet as strangers with no prior history. Included in the cast are two new protagonists, Shigure and Tsubute who set the kid-friendly tone. Shigure is a young “ninja girl” looking for meaning and strength in her life—a representation of a child entering adulthood. She’s quite a good character compared to the other performances and bears more than a passing resemblance to Momiji from Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword. Tsubute, on the other hand, is an anime archetype: the young rascal with a tendency to flair up. He naturally provides the comic relief and is voiced by Scott Menville who often plays these sorts of roles.
The premise of the story is very simple. The lone traveler, Jubei, on an elder’s dying wish, is given the mystical dragon stone and told to deliver it to the light maiden Shigure. He soon finds Shigure in an isolated mountainous village and hands her the stone. The stone is seemingly a pendant of misfortune as Shigure’s village is attacked shortly after Jubei hands her the stone. The attackers, from various ninja clans, are in pursuit of the stone, so she flees the village, soon running back into Jubei, accompanied by Dakuan who seems to take pleasure in pestering Jubei. Later Tsubute joins the party and the stone is split in two. The foursome hold on to one half, but lose the other to the Hiruko Clan. The rest of the story follows the merry band’s pursuit to find the other half of the stone while protecting their own from various ninja clans.
Since different clans are doggedly after the dragon stone (for reasons unclear), the majority of the 13 episodes focus on the group defending the stone from various mutant ninja beasts. As such, each episode has largely the same self-contained structure of introducing a new handful of new ninja mutants and concluding with their defeat at the hands of Jubei. It’s a little formulaic, but a reliable template nonetheless.
As you’ve likely gathered from my explanation, there’s little backstory to flesh out why everyone is after this supposedly mystical stone. Each episode just pulls a new slew of derivative, mish-mash villain archetypes who are unflinching in their rage against Jubei. It’s all just pretty mindless really. Because each episode introduces a fresh bevy of goons before quickly removing them from existence, they become disposable fodder in the thirteen episode rotation.
Although the protagonists tend to have some form of dimension to them, the villains are generically churned out, diluting the sinister essence ingrained in the original cast of villains. The introduction scenes for Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s vibrant cast of villains would always give you goosebumps because of their selfish motives and interesting character designs. Here, they’re just random freaks with no texture or detail, spurting “I’m going to kill you, bastard!” lines. It all plays out similarly to a Saturday morning cartoon, creating a disconnect between the adult nature of the content and cartoon presentation.
Several of the villains are unclothed or are designed in sexually suggestive ways, and the majority end up spliced in half, decapitated or stabbed by Jubei’s blade (as much as he prefers pacifism). Throw in a couple of sex scenes, innuendo, tame eroticism and references to S&M culture and it quickly grows into something uncomfortable and uncanny. By appearance, Ninja Scroll: The Series looks like a kids show, yet it contains all of this adult content. Despite being set in feudal Japan, all the characters speak in an unrestrained modern vernacular too.
Through all the slicing and dicing, the relations between the group of protagonists strengthens and the characters do evolve a little which add a layer or two to a fairly vanilla cast. The ninja girl matures into her adult role, the prankster kid learns to be responsible, Dakuan softens up and even though Jubei’s story ends where it began (with him looking for a place to sleep), he gains a little optimism through the whole affair.
There’s a few strange quirks which are difficult to avoid mentioning. The number of key frames in the battle sequences tends to pick up in the final few episodes, leaving the earlier episodes feeling rough and the level of quality throughout uneven. Dakuan’s cells are basic and ugly to look at in comparison to Shigure who seems to glow with an added radiance. In fact, Dakuan’s role overall is strangely played down. He’s completely overshadowed by the younger protagonists and is more of a pest than anything. Even Jubei is kind of overshadowed too. He doesn’t say much and only becomes interesting when he’s slicing heads.
Taking it for the screwed up kids cartoon it is, Ninja Scroll: The Series isn’t so bad. I partly enjoyed this shallower tale, even though I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s worth adding that there’s a substantial amount of extras on the DVDs (interviews, sketches, time lapse drawings for the cover art for each DVD) and usually 4 or 5 episodes per disc, so you won’t feel entirely ripped off. Still, this series doesn’t deserve mention against the work of art that is Yoshiaki Kawajiri and Yutaka Minowa’s original Ninja Scroll. If you haven’t seen that movie, then go rent it out now, otherwise just avoid this mess.