Tools of the Imagination — Michiko and Hatchin

Mitchiko and Hatchin
Produced by Shinichiro Watanabe and Manglobe Studios, released 2008, available on Hulu

Thelma and Louise meet Lupin the Third


When anime is mentioned, most people think of giant robots, adorable animals with special powers, hyper-dramatic martial artists with phenomenal powers.  In short, they think of sci-fi/fantasy.  And when you think of the lead of an anime show, one tends to think of the neurotic, young but well-meaning male either destined by fate or just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  And when you think about anime’s settings, it’s either a future version of Japan, or modern-day Japan, befitting the Japanese origins and heart of anime.

Michiko and Hatchin is different on all counts.

A show so realistic as to be gritty and often ugly, the show revolves around two women – the criminal & recent escapee Michiko and her daughter Hatchin – as they navigate an undefined (but very Brazil-like) Latin American country.

The show is hard to watch.  Not because of any flaws, but because of its tremendous perfection in execution.  The show pulls no punches, especially when dealing with poverty and crime, both of which are rampant throughout.  The nominal heroine of the story, Hatchin, is living with an abusive foster-family in a real-world Cinderella-like story.  Michiko, upon breaking out of prison, comes and liberates Hatchin before embarking on a nigh-Quixotic quest to find Hatchin’s father and Michiko’s missing love.

But the series is far from romantic.  Michiko’s delusions about her missing boyfriend, Hiroshi, are a common theme through each episode, becoming increasingly obvious towards the end.  The search for the deadbeat dad becomes increasingly dangerous and the danger-oblivious Michiko often dives right in with little regard for those around her, even Hatchin.

It’s an ugly world found in this story, one rife with corruption, brutality, poverty, and death.  And yet, somehow, hope is everywhere.  Each episode deals with the enduring optimism that blossoms even in those harsh circumstances.  And through it all, there’s the story of a mother and daughter growing together, even as they face mounting hardships.

Story – 4 out of 5
The story is simple.  After Michiko breaks out of prison, she’s endeavoring to reunite her family.  Pretty much every episode revolves around this one goal.  But as the situation gets more complex – especially with the involvement of multiple crime syndicates – things perpetually go from bad to worse, which Michiko and Hatchin just trying to stick together and keep their heads down as they try to survive.

If there’s one shining aspect about the story, it’s that NOTHING gets glorified.  Criminals are, by and large, extremely petty and filthy things.  Sexuality is often taken to its most base forms, passing well out of anything appealing and into the realm of just being gross.  Everything is laid bare in this series, but without being overtly caustic.  It’s just the way of the world that this story takes place in.

Art – 4 out of 5
The art is deceptively good.  It isn’t hyper-stylized, but it also never devolves into exaggeration like you might see in other anime series.  Characters are always in proportion, buildings always look realistic and believable, and even the simplest objects like guns and cars appear just as they would in the real world.

Animation – 4 out of 5
Much like the art, the animation is better than it first appears.  At an initial glance, the animation seems perfectly serviceable but nothing outstanding.  But as the show goes on, it becomes clear that there’s an understated perfection at work.  Movement is very fluid and also very realistic, with none of the blockiness seen in some anime seeking to cut corners.

Characters – 4 out of 5
Like the world, the characters are all well-developed, very realistic, and really ugly.  Hatchin alone is probably the single decent human being out of an otherwise sin-filled cast.  Every character is corrupt in at least one fashion (if not an array of vices) and every character is guilty of multiple horrific acts, even Michiko.  But the trick is that none of them are ‘bad’ in isolation.  While nobody is exonerated of their ills through their story, their motivations become clear and how a person could turn into whatever monster they have become is rendered very believable, if not familiar.

Acting – 3 out of 5
Having watched the Japanese voice acting cast, I can’t speak for the English team.  I do think there may be something to be said for watching the show with Spanish-speaking actors as the show is set in South America (with signs and announcements matching the location).  While the acting was not exactly outstanding, it was definitely more than adequate.

Overall – 4 out of 5
A four doesn’t quite exemplify how important this series is and deserving of being watched it is.  Anime revolving around female protagonists are kind of rare, especially women like this.  This is not a big-eyed schoolgirl drama.  This is an crime story, set in a very realistic world.  The blemishes of reality are on full display and then some.
Many people will watch this show and not ‘enjoy’ it.
Some people will watch this show and not ‘like’ it.
Everyone will agree it’s ‘good’, and a rare gem deserving of attention.
If you want to see some female protagonists challenge our notions of women-characters and heroines, then this is a show to watch.  If you want to see a show that stretches the limits of what anime can do, then this is a show to watch.

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Promise of the Future

I watched someone’s life get saved this weekend, all thanks to the Internet and social networking.

An alert went up Friday night about a missing person.  It was someone I didn’t know and don’t believe I’ve ever met, but someone whom many of my friends considered to be a close friend.  My Facebook feed was littered with notices of ‘have you seen this person’ and ‘this person was last spotted…’.  Friends from many different spheres of my life posted alerts, looking for the person in question.

I threw up a copy-and-pasted alert, hoping to extend the reach of the alert.  All I did know is that this person – whom many I consider to be friends were very worried about – had made a worrisome Facebook post and then just up and disappeared, with no further contact.

This morning, I awoke to find that contact had been made and the individual was safe.  A healing process began, both for a community and for the individual whom, regardless of what they were going through personally, must have taken away some comfort to know how loved they were and are.

It was amazing to see.  In the past, when most people have talked about Facebook, it’s been to complain about the newest interface or to suggest that social networking was replacing real-world networking.  Many people level a great number of complaints against the digital age – one where social media is king – and for good reason.  But this time, someone discovered how much they mattered to many people.  And I get the impression that a life was saved.  Maybe that’s an exaggeration, or maybe the life that was saved wasn’t the person who went missing but the person who witnessed the public cry for support and realized that maybe they matter to that many people too.

Whatever the details, I took away from the events of this weekend something remarkable and inspiring, and very hopeful, about the digital age we live in.

Tools of the Imagination — Heavy Arms Gundam

Heavy Arms Gundam
Gundam Wing Toyline, by Bandai, released 2001

Because Nothing Says ‘You’re Screwed’ Like A Giant Robot With Big @$$ Guns

In the early 2000s, anime was making its big push.  Asian Chic was coming into style and the Japanese elements of cartoons, once anathema as far as the entertainment industry was concerned, was now looking for anything and everything they could find that had any Asian elements to it.  It was during this time that Gundam Wing aired on Cartoon Network and, for a brief time, would become the king of that particular hill.  Bandai, the international toy manufacturer, model producer, and all-around makers of mirth, decided this would be the perfect time to unleash upon the world some of the best mecha toys ever produced.
Gundam Wing follows the story of five pilots who fly giant robots (called Gundams) in a war between the Earth and the colonies earth has established.  If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s pretty much the recurring plot of each Gundam series.  Gundam Wing takes place in an alternate timeline from the main Gundam series and, as a result, takes some cinematic liberties with the mecha.

Heavy Arms is, like the other Gundams in the series, colorful in both design and in use.  Its pilot, Trowa Barton, is reserved and dedicated, something that doesn’t quite match with a giant robot that has a huge gun for an arm and is bristling with missiles.  Still, Trowa was a fan-favorite and Heavy Arms has been a memorable stand-out from the series ever since.
Appearance – 5 out of 5
The term ‘attention to detail’ immediately comes to mind with this toy (and with all the toys in the line).  The amount of work that went into this figure is quite honestly unheard of.  There are textures and details that just seem beyond reasonable (such as under the arms and on the bottom of the feet).  The paintjob is beautiful with absolutely not flaws or blemishes.  The only figures that can compare with these would be actual models and even then, they couldn’t do much better.  About the only way to have a more detailed figure would be to build the actual Gundam!

Construction – 4 out of 5
Heavy Arms has some beautiful construction, but also some problems.  The plastic used is clearly a very heavy grade and high-quality.  Unfortunately, the joints aren’t really up to the task of supporting the limbs, leaving them feeling week by comparison.  Limbs tend to not stay in place if you pose the figure and its all too easy for an arm or a leg to pop-off during play.

Bandai, however, being the masters of their craft, have prepared for this by design the toy to snap apart.  If the arm comes off or the leg pops out, it’s really easy to just snap it right back into place.  This isn’t as preferable as the limbs not to break to begin with, but if fixing them is a snap, it becomes almost a minor complaint.

Movement – 3 out of 5
Unfortunately Heavy Arms illustrates some of the impracticality of mecha.  One is the lack of balance.  The toy has some tendency to fall over if the arms are both extended.  The other problem is the lack of mobility.  While the leg joints are perfectly mobile and capable of great range of motion, the hip armor prohibits such movements, making elaborate stances and even kicking not really possible.

Extras – 3 out of 5
The figure comes with detachable hands, a single-barrel gun, a double barrel gun that doubles as the shield and, of course, a light saber the infamous the beam saber.  There isn’t much else, but this arsenal is pretty substantial.  As is frequently my complaint, there’s nowhere to store the unused parts (if the single-barrel gun is on the arm, there’s nowhere to put the second gun or the beam saber or the detached hand).

Packaging – 1 out of 5
The packaging is pretty much the standard generic fare.  The back shows the figures available in the series with no explanation as to the plot or the characters or anything.  The front has no distinguishing traits above the name of the Gundam written on a paper nameplate inside with the figure.

Overall – 4 out of 5
This entire series is composed of some of the best mecha figures ever produced and that’s saying something.  While sometimes the maneuverability is a bit lacking and the functional nature of the toys can be a little off thanks to the weak joints and heavy plastic, these things are none the less an absolute joy to play with.  They are a tactile dream and beautifully evoke the series that inspired them.

Playsets

The Castle of Lions from the Voltron toyline.
The Castle of Greyskull AND Snake Mountain from the He-Man toyline.
The USS Flag from the GI Joe toyline.

In the 1980s, most every toyline offered playsets; specially-made diorama with which the primary figures of the line could be placed and interact.  The playsets were almost always locations taken from the cartoons or animated series connected to the toyline.  In fact, one of the few toylines that didn’t have a playset was the Trasnformers (though, it could be argued, Optimus Prime WAS a playset, but still).

The queen of the playset, however, was (and remains) Barbie.  Mattel’s Barbie line has always thrived on playsets, some of which are marvels of toy engineering.  In the 1980s, some of Barbie’s playsets were truly breathtaking.  Her mansion was a staggering three-story dream, bigger than some of the girls who played with it, while her townhouse, was an impressive sight with a working elevator.  Including the furniture, the decorations and stylizations, and this playset was destined to become the cornerstone of any child’s imagination.

In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, playsets became big selling points.  Two of the unsung heroes of 1990s toys – Polly Pocket and Mighty Max – were essentially nothing but playsets.  On top of that, Matchbox and Hot Wheels expanded their race track lines to become increasingly more engaging, involving more than just mere roads and gimmick tracks, but including fully-inclusive settings.

Sometime during the mid-1990s, toy lines took a pronounced turn away from playsets and I have never been able to discover just precisely when and why that turn occurred.  It’s likely that the cost-to-profit ratio for making playsets was just too small, or that the number of playsets sold was too low to justify the shelf space, or both.  But whatever the case, playsets have all but disappeared from toy shelves.

Not entirely, thankfully.  The Avengers’ SHIELD Helicarrier playset was the most highly sought-after toy of 2012’s Comic-Con.  Play Skool toys still deal heavily in playsets, and Barbie’s domain of playset-intensive aisles remains secure.  But by and large, action figures playsets are extinct (unless you count the wrestling ring for wrestling toys…which nobody does).  And it’s a shame too.  My Castle of Lions is one of the pride and joys of my collection.  And while there have been a few exceedingly expensive fan-made Teletron-1 playsets made for the Transformers toys, no official playset has seen the light of day.

But we can hope.

Tools of the Imagination — Green Lantern Jet

DC Superheroes Green Lantern Jet
by Mattel, released 2009

Because Every Superhero Needs A Jet…Even The Ones That Can Fly

The Mattel DC Superheroes toy line is geared at children under the age of 7.  They’re simple toys with only a handful of features and overly-stylized, simplified characteristics.  Yet, these toys are still well-made and worth paying attention to.  After all, for many children, these toys are their introduction not only to action figures and the more serious toys (assuming that isn’t a huge oxymoron) they’ll be playing with later on, but also the characters and iconography of modern mythology; namely comic book superheroes.
The Green Lantern is part of an intergalactic police force known as the Green Lantern Corps.  As such, there have been several Green Lanterns (including Guy Gardner who was big in the 1990s and John Stewart from the Justice League animated series).  However, Hal Jordan is the one most people usually think of when you say ‘Green Lantern’.  Like many DC superheroes, he’s incredibly brave, resourceful, intelligent, physically near-perfect, etc.  Apparently DC Comics didn’t discover faults until sometime around the 1970s or 1980s.  But an obvious pro-Marvel bias aside, the Green Lantern evolved into a very unique and interesting character.

The Green Lantern Ring gives Hal Jordan the ability to manifest a wide variety of powers and abilities, as well as the ability to make tangible objects out of thin air.  Sometimes, there’s some overlap (such as why would a man who can fly at super-sonic speeds need to manifest a jet?), but for a seven-year-old, that simply doesn’t matter.  Green Lantern is Batman’s friend and ally and he comes equipped with a cool jet that shoots rockets.  Because of course he does.
Appearance – 3 out of 5
Scoring the appearance of toys like this is difficult because since it’s a kids’ toy, realism deliberately takes a backseat.  Many even basic features are left out in favor of having very simplified characteristics of both objects and characters.  This means that the figures are very simple and very basic in their appearance.  But it again needs to be noted that this is intentional.

Green Lantern is lacking some details (since this is clearly Hal Jordan, where are the white stripes on his otherwise brown hair?) but is gifted with others (his mask and ring aren’t just painted on, they’re individually constructed).  The ring itself even has the Green Lantern symbol built into it.  On such a small figure, that’s some serious attention to detail!  The jet, on the other hand, is made up almost entirely of see-through green plastic that is cheap sunglasses’ level of transparent.  For those of you who grew up with Legos, you remember the transparent pieces were usually the coolest and this jet will help to reinforce that truth.

Construction – 4 out of 5
The converse side of things is that while kids’ toys are usually very simple in their appearance, they’re very rugged in their design and construction.  The Green Lantern action figure and his jet are no different.  A very sturdy plastic is used in both of these and nothing short of an intentional and willful desire to destroy them would visit anything but passing wear-and-tear on these toys.

Movement – 3 out of 5
Again, like appearance, these toys are intentionally designed to lack any meaningful ambulatory abilities.  Still, there are some notes to point out.  The shoulder joints of the Green Lantern figure are ball-joints, allowing for a full range of arm motions, and not merely the liner joints like the hips.  It is unfortunate that the legs are a single unit (meaning that lifting the left leg means the right leg follows).  The neck joint allows rotation but nothing else.

The jet has only two moving parts (not including the firing mechanism for the missile launcher): the canopy and the trigger on the back of the jet that does…nothing.  Well, it does something.  There are two little plastic turbines in the back of the jet that move.  For some reason.  It’s not entirely clear what they’re supposed to be, except maybe to give the appearance of flight.  You can see the mechanisms that turn the turbines, which a Seven-year-old might find fascinating.  But this novelty serves no purpose to play.

Extras – 2 out of 5
The jet comes with three missiles, all of which attach (one loads into the firing mechanism and the other two attach to either wing).  Unfortunately, that’s about it.  The Green Lantern figure has hands that can hold accessories from other toys in the DC Superheroes line, but he doesn’t come with any himself.  Again, this is probably a conscious decision to avoid choking hazards and similar concerns.

Packaging – 1 out of 5
The packaging is about as generic as they come.  It’s an open-air package with the figure behind plastic and the vehicle strapped down to the cardboard box.  The back has the generic picture all toys in the line carry, giving a pretty small composite shot of all the toys in the line, and it offers no explanation to whom the Green Lantern is, why he has a jet, or why he and Batman are friends.

 

Overall – 2 out of 5
This is a hard toy to score because it’s quite obvious that the target audience for it is of a very young age.  It ranked a two but a strong case could be made for a three.  Details and accessories are eschewed for a remarkable – but not unheard of – durability, while an overall generic aesthetic is sought.  Still, this is a fun toy to play with and for the younger audiences, it will likely stand out.  And again, for those parents looking to introduce their young children to comic book heroes, these kinds of toys will do a fantastic job.  Plus, the jet’s see-through green plastic.  And that’s just cool.