4 of Hearts: A short (spoiler filled) discussion of Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann.

Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann (henceforth TTGL) is a 2007 anime created by the studio Gainax, most well known for the earlier anime Neon Genesis Evangelion. Having written this piece I realise that most of it kind of assumes you have already seen Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, hence why this is a discussion not a review. Honestly I could just link to or paraphrase the Wikipedia article on the series to describe the plot but I’ve already put the 4 of Hearts up there and I don’t wanna spend that much more effort on this piece.

One of the things I have always enjoyed is stories willing to just take their premises and run with it, and TTGL is definitely in that category. It is a series that is willing to just keep accelerating, relying on the vague notion of “spiral power” to just bypass the audience’s suspension of disbelief. It is a anime that relies heavily on spectacle and bombast, and that has enough moments in which that works wonderfully that I could fairly easily just list them here as “THE TOP 5 MOST OVER THE TOP MOMENTS IN GURREN LAGANN”, but I don’t think that would be fair. These are not the only good moments of the series, and, since we’re being fair in the sense that means honest and complete, there are plenty of things in the series that just don’t work.

That being said, the bombastic scenes are an important part of the series and it wouldn’t be fair to not mention them here. Kamina stealing a mecha by just climbing into the cockpit and kicking out the pilot, the capture of the giant battleship mecha Dai-Gurren, the defeat of Guama, the siege of Teppelin and the subsequent duel with Lordgenome that is the finale of the first act. Then in the second arc we have Yoko’s defeat of two mecha while on foot, the spontaneous creation of a wormhole to punch a guy out of shooting himself, the formation of Arc Gurren Lagann, Super Galaxy Gurren Lagann and the titular Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, the latter leading into a finale that involves mechas so large they use galaxies as throwing stars against each other. That is quite a lot of iconic moments for a series only 27 episodes long. The animation and the soundtrack carry these well; special shout-outs to the tracks “Pierce the Heavens with Your XXXX” (No I don’t know why it is called that, considering that the XXXX in question is a drill) and “Libera Me From Hell”, a song that takes the most over the top elements of opera and rap and slams them together.

The series also has excellent main villains in the form of Lordgenome and the Anti-spiral. Both have very understandable motives and are powerful enough to enable the ridiculous, fantastic spectacles I mention above.

The final bit of the series that work for me is the emotional core of Simon and Kamina. Kamina in particular is used wonderfully in the short time he remains in the story, and is a surprisingly deep character. While he is most recognised for his massively over the top personality and impulsive actions, my favourite moment for him is the quiet moment he has with Yoko where he explains that he views himself as essentially a cheerleader and source of courage for the far more reliable Simon. Simon’s character arc after his death is essentially Simon coming to realise this for himself, and moving on from his need for Kamina to motivate him, culminating in a very understated moment in one of the final episodes where Kamina’s ghost notes that Simon has finally grown taller than him.

That’s quite a lot of good stuff to write about. If I felt like it I could probably go off on a thousand word tangent discussing how the universe in TTGL, via the mechanic of Spiral Power, responds to depression and feelings of hopelessness verses determination on a level that is literally built into the world, and linking that to the earlier series Evangelion and my own mental health problems.

(Actually, I would like to do that, but I feel that setting the ground work of how I feel about Gurren Lagann is kind of needed for it, but not something I’d want to actually write in that piece.)

The problem is however, despite all of these excellent moments to the series…there’s just so much not particularly good stuff around them that my feelings on the show altogether are kind of neutral, if not negative. TTGL has a very large cast, and it really isn’t sure how to use them, best summed up during the lull that dominates the first part of the second act, when a large portion of the male supporting cast sacrifice themselves en mass in a pointless and not particularly engaging scene.

The female cast members get off even worse; out of the seven female characters, one is a mechanic who at least gets to help out by fixing and over-charging the mechas (a role that could have been used to match with Simon’s arc about how you need both motivation and reliability, but isn’t), three are first defined as being “Kittan’s sisters” and do almost nothing in the second act other than being love interests and one is a member of a pair of twin pilots who end up piloting the titular Gurren Lagann in the epilogue despite doing basically nothing in the series proper. The last two are Nia, who is introduced literally as a throwaway character (she was thrown away by her father Lordgenome), then gets possessed by the anti-spiral, becomes a damsel in distress, and then dies. It is only the last one Yoko who really gets anything to do, and even then the majority of the time she’s being used for fanservice.

It’s much harder to put the failings of TTGL into words than it is to put down the ways it succeeds. It’s just a mess of wasted characters, long boring moments, and tedious moments of perversion. It isn’t that there’s nothing good about it, but rather that they are like choice cuts of meat floating in gruel. If you can rescue them they are great, but I wouldn’t advise eating the whole dish.

On a final note, I think this is part of what made it so popular. TTGL came out right at the same time that video hosting, particular youtube, became popular online. It is a series almost tailor made for youtube; lots of great moments you can cut out of the series itself and just upload on their own. And honestly, I think that might be the best way to watch it. Find some clips of the best moments and enjoy them, divorced of the rather tedious context they are surrounded with.

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7 of Hearts: Let’s Go Pikachu and the dichotomies of Pokemon.

The Pokemon franchise has been a long running and consistent companion for me from when it was first released in the UK back in 1998. The first choice of which starter to take (I choose Squirtle), opening my first booster pack of trading cards to reveal a shiny Zapdos, finally leaving Mount Moon after getting lost there long enough to have a Blastoise, first seeing the second generation games when a neighbour down the street had a Japanese copy of Pokemon Gold, first discovering online battle simulators in the fourth generation…honestly, that sentence was originally just going to be three points long but I just kept finding things to add to it.

Pokemon, for those unaware (however many there are left; one of the things I found funniest about the recent trailer for the live action Detective Pikachu movie was how it assumed everyone watching knew the world already), is an RPG game franchise set in a world populated by the titular Pocket Monsters, or Pokemon. It is a mainstay of Nintendo consoles, and is one of the company’s signature games along with the likes of Mario and Zelda, but it isn’t actually developed by Nintendo, being spilt between the companies Game Freak and The Pokemon Company. The player takes the role of a Pokemon trainer, journeying through the various regions of the world, catching Pokemon in devices known as Pokeballs and battling other trainers. The ultimate goal of each game is two-fold; to defeat the Pokemon League, the best trainers in that region (each game being set in a different location in the world), and to complete the Pokedex (an encyclopedia of Pokemon) by catching every Pokemon in the area; hence the tagline “Gotta Catch ‘Em All!”. Usually along the way you must battle a team of criminals, with motives ranging from Pokemon trafficking to awakening Legendary monsters to boil the sea, flood the land and/or rip apart space and time, or in the case of the wonderfully pathetic Team Skull, not get beaten up by random children.

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7 of Hearts: Motive – Cosy Murders and their appeal.

This is part one of the theme month for January 2019, focusing on the works of Agatha Christie. For other posts in this series, click here.

If we are going to begin examining the works of Dame Agatha Christie, I feel it makes sense to structure this as one would the summation of a murder mystery. Motive, means, opportunity, and finally the crime itself. The four discussions in this month will follow this pattern, and I shall explain how in turn, but for now let us turn to the first of the four; motive.

In 1945, Edmund Wilson wrote an essay in the New Yorker called “Who Cares Who Murdered Roger Ackroyd?”, arguing that the very genre of the detective story itself to be a waste of time, and to not be literature.

My desire here is not to suggest he is inherently wrong. It is equal parts interesting and frustrating that evaluating any kind of fiction will require a degree of subjectivity, an idiosyncratic response to the piece. We don’t gain anything by denying these responses, saying that such a response is inherently wrong, but nor do we gain anything by pretending we may not disagree with such a response. We will focus on this more at the end of the month.

For now, I don’t want to actually respond to Wilson directly, partially because it has been a while since I’ve read the essay and I haven’t been able to find a copy of it while writing this piece. Rather I want to try and set down why I do enjoy the kind of cosy murders that Christie specialises in, and why, in that rather large genre, I like Agatha Christie so much in particular.

Cosy murders, specifically English cosy murders, tend to be set in places that are otherwise treated as being asperational. The two natural habitats of it are in high society – the first class carriage of the Orient Express, English country mansions, and archaeological digs financed by eccentric millionaires – and the English country village – quaint, quiet villages filled with “very nice people”. The show Midsomer Murders basically specialises in the latter, being set in a fictional county of the UK filled with lovely village fetes and hilariously over the top murder methods, and it is the natural haunt of Christie’s other most famous detective Ms Marple. These are locations that are usually treated as being inherently English, and therefore better. This is the idea of Middle England, a political term used to describe and often romanticise a very particular conservative image of Britain, one that lacks the poor, racial and sexual minorities, and the other countries that make up the UK (note the switch between England and Britain I used there).

And the plot of a cosy murder usually involves ripping this to shreds.

It isn’t just that one of the very nice, very proper people who live in Middle England is murdered by someone else from that community (a community that often initially assumes that it must be an outsider who did it, as they are all very nice people). Rather, the need for red herrings and to have suspicion thrown on everyone requires the entire structure to be rotten. It isn’t just that there’s a murderer in the village, but there’s at least six affairs, two cases of blackmail, and the vicar is smuggling drugs. This is kind of the appeal to the classic Poirot ending, where all the suspects are called into a room while the detective systematically rips apart the facade. Everything is revealed to everyone.

This is a nice trick that gives people two different ways to enjoy the story. If you dislike the idea of Middle England, then you can enjoy it being ripped apart, while if you are an inhabitant of Middle England, you get to see a story set in an environment you know well. I kind of hit both; I grew up in an area separate from Middle England enough for me to resent the way it was treated as an ideal to reach, but also an area with plenty of very nice people with lots of secrets, to the extent that there is actually a book heavily based on the road I grew up in that is basically about this (although the secrets are not murder. Usually)*. There’s a third way, but I’ll get into that at the end of the month.

Moving on from the sociopolitical part, while Wilson may not like the whodunnit aspect of the story, that is definitely part of the appeal. A good cosy detective book should give you the ability to follow along and try and solve the murder yourself. They are puzzle books as well as a narrative, like a crosswords book with characters. It even gives you a variety of puzzles. The difference between motive, means and opportunity is really important to these books, because each is a different kind of puzzle to solve. Want a human based psychological puzzle? Then find the motive. Want a technical puzzle? Work out how the murderer managed to kill someone in a locked room. Want a logistical puzzle? The murderer was supposed to be on the other side of the village, work out how they got to the victim and back in time for the tea and scones to be served.

On the flip side, you don’t need to have to solve the puzzle to enjoy the story. I often have cosy detective shows on as background noise while working because they tend not to be so distracting I can’t focus (unlike a more action packed police procedure), but it doesn’t matter that I miss parts because, well Poirot explains it all at the end. We have again this double appeal; if you want to pay attention and focus on the story, you get the enjoyment of solving a puzzle, while if you simply want to sit back and enjoy it, you get to enjoy the detective solving the case themselves. It even usually manages to surprise your with the answer but don’t make you feel stupid because, well, no one else got it either. The stakes of the story are high; we are trying to catch a murderer, but not too high. The fate of the world rarely hinges on this case.

Following on from this, there is also the fact that most of the detectives are just really fun. Poirot is a fussy, egg shaped dandy who’s intellect is matched only by his ego, while Ms Marple switches between acting as a doddery old dear and a honed mind who seems to take joy in matching wits with murderers. Part of this emerges from the fact that the stories are usually basically stand alone. You can’t spend time reintroducing a deep and nuanced character everytime you do a short story where they foil a jewel theft. Far easier to have one big character you can bring in quickly, and then seed bits of depth in around the main stories.

This also means that you can basically read the books in any order. Some references to earlier stories may be seeded in, but you don’t need to have read the previous book or seen earlier episodes to understand the characters and concepts for this story. This was really good for me when I was getting into the stories, since I wasn’t able to reliably obtain the books or see the episodes in the publication order.

That last point kind of borders onto a final point about Wilson’s essay. Christie’s work are not high literature. Her prose is fairly simple and straightforward, the characters are big and easy to understand, and the books are not really linked together as a series outside the premise and characters. The flip side of this is that her work is still incredibly accessible to new readers. Christie is still one of the best selling writers in the world. The simple writing leans itself well to translation into other language. They are excellent books for younger readers moving into adult writing, but the plots are complicated enough to be worth examining in greater detail. It’s a fun trick of the genre. A constant theme, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, in this essay is the idea that the stories can have seemingly mutually exclusive appeals to different readers. They both appeal to people who dislike Middle England and the residents of Middle England, they both provide a puzzle for those who want to solve it and allow those who just want a show they can enjoy with their brains in neutral to sit back and get carried along. I think that, in many ways, it is precisely this wide appeal that makes them worth examining, if not as literature, but definitely as culture.

9 of Hearts: ABCDEFGH – a sort of review of The ABC Murders (BBC, 2018)

A is for ADAPTATIONS
Looking at an adaptation of a work you are familiar with into a new medium is always a bit difficult, particularly if it is a work you are very fond of. First of all, of course, there are some changes that are required simply because of the new medium; in the case of books being made into visual media, this is often the loss of the narration, whether it is from a character or a general omniscient voice. Beyond that, all manner of changes can be made. Thus, when looking at the adaptation, I find myself torn between evaluating the new work on its own merits, and evaluating it as an adaptation of what I am familiar with.

I try to do both, using three simple questions.
1.) Why adapt this work? What is being gained from the adaptation?
2.) What changes have been made, and what do I think they add or subtract from the work
3.) When examined as a standalone piece, what do I think of the adaptation?

With the first question, we are going to need some background context. I am rather afraid I am going to need to spoil the ending to discuss this, so I advise anyone unfamiliar with the story who doesn’t want to be spoiled to turn away here, and come back once you’re read it. If you either know the story or don’t care, click the more button below and let us continue.

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5 of Hearts: The True Gender of Santa

Santa Claus does not exist.

I kind of want to get that out there first of all. Just so we are entirely clear. Santa Claus doesn’t exist, and that is quite possibly the most powerful thing about Santa.

I’ll get to that in a moment. First, a brief recap of recent nonsense.

Earlier this month, December 2018, a marketing company, GraphicSpring, sent out a survey asking how to best modernise Santa. One of the questions was “If you could ‘rebrand’ Santa for modern society, what gender would he be?”, with the three answers being Male, Female or Gender Neutral. Of the respondents, 10.6% said female, 17.2% said gender neutral, and 72.2% said male. Anyway, this has worked up some people, with a wave of pieces from various places decrying the idea of a gender neutral Santa.

Let’s be entirely clear here: this is not a measured opinion poll. This is a marketing company creating buzz, and using the fact that a lot of people have knee jerk reactions both to Santa himself, as a beloved holiday figure, and to anything they regard as “shoving transness down their throats”. A cynical viewer might even argue that it is a clear attempt by GS to use transphobia as a cynical way to get marketing clicks, knowing that the brunt of the anger will be directed at the trans and non-binary communities, not at themselves.

Anyway, this is clear attempt by GS to use transphobia as a cynical way to get marketing clicks, knowing that the brunt of the anger will be directed at the trans and non-binary communities, not at themselves. All the trans and non-binary groups* I’ve been involved with have generally been mostly confused by this entire thing, since no one has really asked for Santa to be made gender neutral. Maybe as a joke, but seriously, that’s not really something you need to worry about. It isn’t actually a thing.

But there is another side to this, and for that I want to return to what I mentioned above. Santa isn’t real, and that is one of Santa’s greatest strengths.

Santa Claus is in many ways a symbol as much as he is a character, and I think the best thing he symbolises is generosity, and anonymous generosity at that. There’s a couple of ways to read him. Santa as a judge of behaviour, who know when you’ve been bad or good, and the bad get coal** is another popular reading for instance, but my personal view of Santa is less as a character, and a role that people step into. Signing a gift from Santa removes the giver from the equation. We know Santa doesn’t exist, but still, it is his name on the presents. Santa gives without the hope of receiving anything back, except maybe a glass of milk and a few biscuits. Santa is a mask for us to wear so we can in turn, focus on giving and kindness, and I think that is Santa’s greatest strength. Santa does not exist, and we can all be Santa.

So, if you ask me what Santa’s gender is, then my question in turn is, what is your gender? Because that is Santa’s. And Santa is also agendered, using they/them as their pronouns, because I am also Santa. And Santa uses he and she and they and all the neo-pronouns you like, because Santa is all of us. Just stepping into the red suit, and quietly placing down a present, before disappearing unseen, back up the chimney into the world that doesn’t exist, just North of the North Pole.

* I am agendered, and I generally use they/them as my pronouns. I will almost certainly be exploring this more, but this is the first post where this has come up.

** Which in itself is another interesting point; is it a warning, or, given that the tradition dates back to when coal fireplaces were used to warm the house, a way of saying “you may be bad, but you still don’t deserve to be cold”? Although in some traditions it is coal from the fireplace, so that is a whole other thing. I tried to look this up for this piece, and for a story I’m working on, but no one’s really sure where the tradition of coal comes from, other than it is pretty widespread and not really done anymore.

3 of Hearts: An excerpt from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

“The chimes were ringing the three quarters past eleven at that moment.
“Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,” said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit’s robe, “but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw?”
“It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,” was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. “Look here.”
From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.
“Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.
They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.
Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.
“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.
“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!”
“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.
“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”
The bell struck twelve.
Scrooge looked about him for the Ghost, and saw it not. As the last stroke ceased to vibrate, he remembered the prediction of old Jacob Marley, and lifting up his eyes, beheld a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, towards him. “

2 of Hearts: Drafting the 2018 Recommendation List

As the year of 2018 draws to a close, I propose we all take a moment to step back and think about what we loved in this last year, and which we would like to share. Games, movies, books, stories, blogs; everything is fair game.

My personal list this year is still being decided, but I think so far I have to include Sunless Skies by Failbetter games, which I have had fantastic fun streaming for people, and Spiderman: Enter the Spiderverse, a fantastically animated movie that really has fun with its characters and their dynamic movements, while also having a genuinely good coming of age narrative and is that rare superhero movie that understands we already know Spiderman’s backstory.

I’ve only just started coming up with this list, and to be honest the year has kind of flown by in a blur, but feel free to post your suggestions in the comments, or, if you’ve done something you want to show off this year, feel free to post that as well. Self-promotion is always welcome here (as long as it doesn’t become spam!)