Sunday, October 19, 2014

Shiki Review (Anime Review)

Do you ever get done watching a show, sit back, and just think to yourself: "Ah, this is why I enjoy this medium." Well, I do--on rare and wonderful occasions--and Shiki just so happens to be one of the series that made me do this. Shiki is an adaptation of a manga, which is in turn an adaptation of a novel. It is a show about vampires moving into a small, isolated town in Japan and all of the 'wonderful' effects of their presence. I am going to start this review off talking about the overall qualities of the show--music, animation, design, etc--and I will then move into spoiler heavy details about the plot and characters. I don't want to ruin the plot for anyone that hasn't watched it, so I encourage you to not read the plot discussion if you have not yet seen Shiki.

Animation / Visuals:

Shiki is a rather new series--its original run was back in '10--so the animation quality is, as you may expect, quite high. It was produced by studio Daume, whom I am not at all familiar with, but they seem to do very high quality work. I watched this series on Blu-ray--as I do for all series that have a release in that format--and I was immediately impressed with the sharpness of the picture and the vibrancy of the colors. If you are someone that enjoys crisp, vibrant, 'new' looking anime, then the visual fidelity will immediately delight you. I can also say that the animation quality was very consistent. I have seen several series where the quality can have large fluctuations from scene to scene. That is really not the case with Shiki; it is consistent and of very high quality throughout.

A sharp and vibrant picture is always a good thing, but the character designs need to be worth seeing in all that beautiful glory. Thankfully, Shiki has a great visual style for all of the characters. They all have a rather 'lanky' look to them, and there are many completely quirky and unique characters to grow fond of. Shiki also pulls no punches when it comes to odd anime hair. You will see many a crazy hair style and colors ranging from purple, pink, green, and so on. I really quite liked that many of the characters looked so radically different from each other, as it helped give them personality, and it also made them easier to remember.


On the audio side of things, Shiki still comes out strong. The show has two different openings and two different endings--changing half way through. I was not overly fond of either ending, but it's very common for me to skip those, anyway. The openings, on the other hand, were very striking. I became particularly enamored with the first opening. The show doesn't actually start out with the opening--which I quite like. Instead, you get a small clip to start the episode off, and it will then freeze frame--often after something dramatic has happened or been said--and the opening will start with the last scene still frozen in the background. The first opening is not only catchy, but it just 'fits' the show very well. I especially like the vocal performance in it. I am a person that listens to metal and classical and usually critiques music based on technicality, so for anime I have to really force myself to stop that and look more at how catchy it is, and how well it fits the mood of the show. With these criteria in mind, Shiki's first opening is great. The second opening is by no means bad, but it was a marked downgrade from the first, so I could have done without it. As far as the music goes, it was rather forgettable. I literally cannot remember a single piece from any episode, and I only watched it less than a week ago. That said, though, I do remember it fitting the mood of what was going on, and it certainly didn't detract from any situations. With this in mind, I would call it serviceable, yet forgettable.

The other main aspect of the audio is of course the voice acting. Now, I need to be up front with my preferences: I prefer dubs. I speak English, and I would prefer to listen to a show in a language that I understand. I am also not someone who will talk about how much 'better' the Japanese voice acting is--even for a bad dub--because I don't speak Japanese, so I am really in no position to make that judgment. That said, dubs have improved so much over the past decade that they are now a very viable option for anyone, and this one is no different. Funimation did the dubbing, so expect to play the 'where have I heard them before game'. While this can be somewhat distracting, the quality of the performances definitely over-rides any weirdness caused by the remembered vestiges of the actors' previous roles. I really only have complaints with two characters. For one, Megumi is incredibly annoying. To be fair, though, her voice is very much in line with her archetype, so I can't really expect her to sound any differently. I also wasn't hugely fond of the performance that Natsuno's VA gave. It was by no means bad, but some of the delivery just felt slightly awkward or 'off'. This is very subjective, though, and much of his performance was very good; I just wanted to mention it.



Alright, it is now time to dive into the plot and characters. This is where the spoilers are going to start. I repeat: spoilers are now fair game, please turn back if you've yet to complete this series. Well then, you've been properly warned, so off we go! Shiki is a vampire anime. A strange family moves into a big castle/mansion up on a hill in a very rural community. This is a community full of farmers and everyone knows each other and is in the middle of their business. Just after these new--and very eccentric people--move in, people start dying. It starts very slowly, and it then progresses to a ridiculous amount of deaths. Most scenes in Shiki start with a date, so you can see how the situation is progressing over time. That is the general over-view of the story.

The first half or so of the series has a very mysterious feel to it. You are trying to figure out what is going on right along with the characters. The causes of death for the rising body count are mostly similar--being largely based around anemia, due to lack of blood--and the town doctor and his staff are convinced that it is some kind of epidemic. This thinking persists until about 75% through the show, when the towns folk finally open their eyes to what has been really going on. During this first half of the show, they do a good job of building suspense and not fully letting you in on what is going on. It is therefore very exciting when you start fully seeing the Shiki--or vampires--and start learning about what they really are and how they're doing what they're doing.

Now, as I said, the death count steadily increases as the situation progresses. This results in the majority of the named characters that you get to know being killed by Shiki by the end of the series. This is just something that you have to deal with if you're going to watch Shiki; it is not a happy or fun series, and it pulls no punches. This is immediately apparent, as in just the first two episodes Megumi, who you initially think is going to be the main character, dies. As things progress, you quickly learn that absolutely no one is safe. This leads to a very high amount of tension as no character really has the 'plot armor' that we have come to expect main cast members to have.

The immediate worry, then, is that all of the interesting characters will go away too soon, right? Well, that's not a problem. You see, when you are killed by a Shiki, you have a chance of coming back to life as one of them. This means that when they kill off a named character, they will just be able to bring them back as Shiki and keep them in the story in this new capacity. This is a huge perk to the kind of story that they are telling. It gives them the ability to kill any character that they wish, but still have them in the story.

After about the halfway mark, Shiki makes a marked shift from trying to figure out the mystery of what is going on to just learning more about the situation and watching it progress. The death count increases, more characters die, and you see that everything is falling apart in this little town. It is at this point that the levity becomes very scarce, and the tone begins to darken. This is when the morose and somber atmosphere starts setting in more and more because the damage that is being done simply cannot be undone. The entire town starts feeling like a lost cause. interestingly, this is equally true for before and after the villagers start fighting back. Why is that you might ask? Well, I think it's time to start talking about character development!


The character development in Shiki is where it really shines. The general story is really interesting, but let's be honest: it has been done before. In fact, the overall story--and even some of the vampire 'rules', like not entering a building unless invited--is almost completely aped from Salems Lot. This isn't such a bad thing, necessarily, but it does mean that this series would not be as good as it is without something else going for it. Shiki shows a descent into our baser animal instinct and into insanity in many ways. For example, The doctor grows progressively more and more unstable as the 'disease' spreads--and even worse once he realizes what is going on and has no way to stop it or convince people. We get to see the characters grow more and more desperate to survive and protect those that they love.

There are only a few 'human' characters that get very deep development on their own. The two that are the most important to the plot are definitely the doctor and his friend, the town monk. Watching how they both change so much--and start down very contradictory paths due to the situation with the Shiki--is incredibly engaging. Although they both 'survive' through the ending, there is absolutely no happy resolution for either of them, and this is pretty much standard for Shiki.

Aside from the monk and the doctor it is largely the Shiki that end up being the stars of the show. When they rise up from the grave, they are still the same person. But they are now that person with new abilities, a deathly aversion to sunlight, and the physical need to drink human blood to survive. You get to watch them struggle with the reality of their new existence. You also get to watch these people--who were mostly good people before--become accustomed and desensitized to killing their former friends, family and neighbors. Now, sure, there is always a chance that anyone they kill may rise back up and join them, but that is an enormous gamble. It's not as simple as them merely becoming complacent murderers, though. Shiki really hammers it home that they are still people, and they are simply trying to survive. This becomes incredibly relevant at the end of the series when what's left of the town starts hunting down the enormous amount of Shiki that now reside there. You begin to genuinely feel sorry for them as they are brutally executed. What makes it worse, is that this is done by their former family and friends.

Right about the time you start feeling sorry for 'most' of the Shiki, is about the time that you start wondering who are actually the monsters. Shiki is very deliberate in showing just how far over the edge the remaining villagers have gone. Most of them have no problem at all brutally killing the Shiki. They even start killing each other when they get bit during the fighting as a 'precaution'--even though the doctor explains that this is not necessary. They run around covered in blood like absolute lunatics. There are several very deliberate scenes to show how complacent the humans have become with killing, too. One in particular is of the women folk covered in blood and taking a break from stacking and moving the mutilated Shiki corpses. They sit down, drink some tea, and start chatting and laughing like nothing is happening at all. The message here is really that regardless of 'what' you are, the right situation can turn anyone into a complacent killer. Another way of looking at it is to say that when the chips are down and the situation is dire, the id is ultimately the core of who we are, not the super ego.



There are many more characters and situations that deserve mention, but this review is certainly long enough as it is, so I think it's time to wrap it up. Let me just sum it up very simply for you: Shiki is absolutely fantastic. It is an engaging and deep story that you will walk away from thinking about the deeper implications of what you have just viewed. It is a show that can be analyzed on a character by character basis and is perfect fodder for discussion. It is, however, also a very sad and mature series. The series progresses by bad things happening to one side or the other--Shiki or humans--and is full of death. There are also several scenes that are intentionally set up to be incredibly sad. And they don't feel cheap or forced, so the effect is fully realized--you will experience many feels. You will not walk away from this in a happy mood. Some of the best stories aren't afraid to leave the viewer feeling less than happy, though, and I think the complete disregard for pandering to the stereotypical 'happy' tropes in narratives that we are all so familiar with gives these kinds of stories an enormous amount of integrity and merit. Shiki has thoroughly reminded me why it is that I enjoy anime in the first place and just how deep of a story this medium can tell. I whole-heartedly recommend it.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Comfortable Guilt

Do you, my reader, ever feel any degree of guilt for living a comfortable lifestyle? Anyone that knows anything about me knows that I am a video game collector--especially steelbooks. I spend quite a fair bit of money on maintaining my large collection. There are, after all, an almost alarmingly huge amount of steelbooks being released for many games these days. It's nothing for me to drop at least $30 per steelbook; that's not even including the cost of the game, and heaven forbid if there is a collector's edition, as well. This spending clearly goes well above and beyond a need for entertainment. I find myself quite preoccupied with, but also quite pleased with the collection I have managed to amass. This is all well and good, but it also brings me to the point of this entry: guilt.

I was driving to school a couple of days ago, and it was really quite rainy outside. There are four or five different homeless people that I pass nearly every day on the way to school. They stand at the exits from the freeway, and they hope for pity from the morning commuters stuck waiting at red lights--who are probably too busy wallowing in pity for themselves to spare any for the vagabonds. I frequently talk to a couple of them; they're actually quite nice, just messed up. I saw them differently this day, though, then I had previously. I was sitting in my nice, warm car. I had my heated seats on, my music was going, I was all bundled up in my warm cloths, and they were standing out there in the rain, begging for money to eat. This is, of course, the standard situation when comparing homeless people to the drivers around them, but I really looked at it differently that morning.

I had spent a good portion of the drive bidding on some ebay items. I was extremely pleased to add them to my collection, but they served absolutely no functional purpose at all. I was spending money simply so I could have something else on my shelf and another line in my spreadsheets--yes, I'm one of those people. Meanwhile, in the world right outside my car window, there was this poor old woman standing there in the rain. She smiles and waves to everyone that goes by, and she hopes she'll get enough money to properly eat and warm up at some point that day. I couldn't help but feel bad once I lined this comparison up.
I am not a bleeding heart, so do not take me for one. She is not entitled to my money, and there is nothing wrong with hard work and success. This realization did not make me want to go sell my collection and sponsor a homeless person. The situation really just made me feel embarrassed at my obsession with material things. I could be in her shoes, after all. I was sitting there, in my warm car, that morning pleased with all the money I had just wasted on 'cool things'. She was standing outside, freezing her old bones off, hoping to eat and warm up. It just made me think.

I have worked with numerous charities over the years, and I have even coached Special Olympics twice; I would say I am a fairly charitable person. I don't think this was a wakeup call to my more charitable side; it's already awake and doing just fine, thank you. It was merely eye opening. In fact, I don't even have a point in mind with this. With my previous blogs, I have set out to illustrate a point. This one is more just contained rambling, however.

Do any of you ever feel any degree of guilt for you comfortable lifestyle? If so, what did you with it? 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The paradox of modern game design (Spotlight: Crysis 3)

I am currently playing through Crysis 3 on the Xbox 360. This is a brand new game that was just released yesterday (2/19). This game was developed by Crytek and published by EA. This is not a small, niche game. This is a AAA shooter from a very talented developer and a [I]giant[/I] publisher. As we all know, AAA games have a very large budget--I was unable to find the exact number, but it seems Crytek usually have a budget of between 10-30 million--and usually have a large number of people working on them. They're a 'big deal', and they're made as such. Herein lies the paradox, though. Even with all this money and manpower thrown at them, AAA games are still often extremely vapid, or they are riddled with annoying bugs and problems. This blog will be speaking to the latter.

This game is buggy, dudes; that's all there is to it. Right from the very first level there are very annoying sound issues. The sound cuts out frequently. This seems to be worse in cut scenes, but it is certainly present during gameplay, as well. Nothing can take you out of an experience more than having the experience break down around you. I am reminded every 30 seconds or so that I am playing a buggy video game. The frame rate on this level is also inconsistent. The rain in the outside segments is clearly too much for the game to handle on consoles. It would be much better if they reduced the visual fidelity a little bit to make it run smoother. Consoles aren't PCs after all, and there is no way for a person to change the graphics settings.

It is also my understanding from those that I have talked to--I haven't played it enough to form an opinion on this for myself yet--that the multiplayer is also full of issues. The previous Crysis game, Crysis 2, had some of the most severe latency problems that I have ever seen in a console FPS. It sounds like this game continues that legacy. As I said, though, I cannot fully endorse this view yet; I will need to play it more to make a proper judgment on the multiplayer.

My mind is boggled that these issues made it past testers. I can understand that the frame rate drops were excused. That is a fairly common problem--especially with those types of effects. And it's honestly not too egregious to just overlook. The only reason I found that to be so annoying, is that the sound was already grating on my nerves, and my patience was completely spent.

I do not know the actual decisions, timelines, or contracts that led to this game being released in such a state, so take what I am about to say with a grain of salt; it is merely an educated assumption. I believe that EA rushed this game. I don't see how anybody that has poured all their time and energy in to making this game could want to release it in such a state. It looks bad for the developer and the publisher. The majority of people just don't care about these things, though.

The bulk of their audience will go buy the game at full new price from Gamestop or Walmart. They will barely notice the issues, and trade it in when they're done. Many video game consumers have barely any knowledge of what goes on behind the scenes. Many, in fact, barely even know what company makes what--much less what specific team makes it, not just the publisher. These companies get away with things like this because we, the consumers, don't hold them to a higher standard. They can still be rewarded for their laziness.

It's really a shame that the industry has turned into the 'big business' game that it has. I am hopeful about the changes that have happened over the past year, though. I'm not naive enough to say that Kickstarter can change everything, but I think it at least has a chance to make a ripple. Kickstarter allows for a completely different interaction between creator and consumer. It also presents an opportunity for the vision and quality of the game to come before the financial tight ropes that these big publishers tend to project onto the companies they publish for. I'm excited that there is a growing alternative to the EAs and Activisions of the gaming world. Hopefully someday it can grow enough for the bigger companies to take notice and make some changes. Oh wait, Call of Duty and Madden still come out every year. Never mind, the big companies won't be changing. :3

Games influence on our perception of reality

Do games have an influence on how we perceive reality? Can they change the way we observe and react to a situation? This is something that I have thought about from time to time for quite a while. It was just last week, though, when I finally noticed a prime example that has been right in front of me for quite some time.

I was taking my nice, and somewhat leisurely, walk from the far parking lot of my university up the hill towards the science building. I was walking up in that oft-abhorred ten minute break between classes. As I was making my way towards my destination, I was surrounded by professors hustling and bustling off towards their classes--some were moving from one to another, others had just arrived and were merely starting their day. It was at this point when I noticed that I had seen everything that was going on around me before. This was not a sudden bout with severe deja vu, but rather a realization. I watched these people run this same routine every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I, likewise, watch another group of professors go through their routines every Tuesday and Thursday.

I thought it was quite funny how these people do the same thing week after week. They wear the same jacket; they wear the same hat--certain ones always carry a briefcase, too. They also all have their own quirky ways of walking and interacting with those that pass by. The Physical Science professor is always smiling and shouting out greetings to those that he passes as he skips his way towards his class. The Religion History professor has his nervous waddle down the hill as he tries to find the awkward balance of eye contact to ground staring that he is comfortable with. Their personalities really shine through in something as simple as walking to their class.

I'm sure that by this point you're all wondering: "What the hell does any of this have to do with video games?" Well, I'm to that point now, and congratulations for sticking it out this long. This whole scene--once I became aware that it was happening--immediately reminded me of countless hours spent playing The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask. For those that don't know--and shame on you, by the way--this Zelda game runs on a constant clock throughout its repeating three day period. The NPCs in the main town actually have daily routines that they will carry out whether you are there to see it or not. They will leave the house at the same time, head to the same destination, and walk in the same goofy--yet personality revealing--way every day.

The reason this event stuck out to me so much had nothing to do with it being special--in fact, it was anything but; it was really just a slice of life. It was made special to me, though, by my association with a video game that I have spent countless hours on and hold in very high regard. It also really cemented--in my mind, at least--that video games can and do change our perception of reality. When you spend a lot of time thoughtfully interacting with something, it only makes sense that it can have a long lasting effect on who you are. It may not have an enormous effect, but it does sink in somewhere. This can certainly be true for other forms of media as well, but due to the large time investment and interactive nature of video games, I think their effect is more potent. I look forward to the next time I am meandering through a boring and uneventful day, only to find myself perceiving my reality in a way that wouldn't be possible without video games.