Monday, February 27, 2017

Uchu Sentai Kyuranger Episodes 2-3

Every once in a while a person needs a reminder as to why they love or hate different things. I had one of those moments over the weekend when I visited a mead hall during a Nordic themed festival. It was loud, overpriced, packed with people, just generally lackluster though it served as an excellent reminder of why I do my drinking at home. That may not be the most glamorous or socially accepted form of intoxication but it's how I like it. The connection I'm drawing to viewing Kyuranger is that while it is far from my preferred show, I still love the Super Sentai franchise. Even in it's weakest entries, it provides a unique entertainment cocktail I wouldn't miss for the world. As you recall, the premiere episode was a pretty major flop though I'm pleased to report some marked improvements over the past two weekends. It's not a good show, not yet, but it's my duty to point out progress.

The big improvement thus far is the introduction of characters with a bit of personality. In episode two it was the double dose of Balance and Naga, our gold and silver rangers respectively. Let's talk Balance first. He's a robot or as he prefers to be known a “mechanical lifeform.” He's a blowhard and a tad obnoxious though what sets him apart is that he's very self-serving. Instead of justice or lofty ideals, Balance is on a quest for jewels and wealth.
Also on his own selfish quest is Naga, a young man who hails from a planet that cast off emotions as a means to end conflict. Yes, they're essentially Vulcans but Naga is a little different than the rest of his kind. The guy's on a quest to experience emotions. Often times he tries to react to situations only to pick the wrong emotional response.

Episode two also made the stride of offering small bits of character development for other team members. We learned that Raptor, the pilot and eventual pink ranger has something of a temper. We also witness multiple examples of Sparda being protective of Hammy. Not in a romantic sense, more like an older sibling.

Episode three introduces yet another ranger while providing some backstory for Champ, the robotic bull. The new guy is the Orange ranger, Stinger. What sets him apart from the others is that he seems to be a killer. Granted this is presented in such a way that the writers could back out and claim he never did it, but generally he seems to be a shitty guy. The story is that Stinger apparently killed Champ's creator, Professor Anton. Beyond that, the dick attacks our crew and currently works alongside Jark Matter.

On the subject of Jark Matter, we've gotten a few more details as to their operation. First up, the group utilizes a food pyramid style chain of command which is where all the villains of the week will stem from. For once we don't have to learn the ins and outs of monster creation or rapid growth methods. All the baddies already exist and many of them have large robots or space ships to back them up.
On the evil plans front, Jark Matter has a lust for a material called planetium, which is the life blood of planets. The baddies harvest it to the point that planets become unstable and blow up. Yeah, seems pretty evil to me.

With just these two episodes, this series has made great strides in pushing the storyline and developing its' cast. In particular I'm very happy to see the introduction of rangers wit their own goals separate from simply fighting evil. This is all the more when interesting you consider some of them are morally lacking individuals.
Even with all those improvements, there's still plenty to dislike here. Lucky continues to be very annoying and some of the other heroes are still thin as paper. I haven't even spoken about Garu, mainly because he's as interesting as paper towels. The show also hasn't found its tone quite yet. While the rivalry between Champ and Stinger should have been intense, it was mostly limp.

What's odd is that Kyuranger isn't our only outlet for Super Sentai this year. It was just announced that for the first time ever, there will be an official Korean Spin-off. Turns out Kyoryuger was crazy popular in Korea where it aired under the Power Rangers moniker (cause why not make this franchise more confusing?) and now there will be a twelve part spin-off. Rest assured if this is made available with subtitles I will give it some write-ups.

Is that it? Am I caught up? I'll admit last weeks illness took me out of it for a bit and only now am I recovering most of my common sense. Currently I'm that period where it's great to feel good again but I'm trying to make up for a week of mostly lost time. You know what that means, it's time for me to go. Stay cool kiddies.  

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Star Wars Book Club: Battlefront: Twilight Company

Many of life's finer details are discovered slowly but surely by pattern recognition. For instance if you find yourself stricken with diarrhea every time you eat pecans, then it's probably a good idea to stop eating pecans. Once in a while though it leads to downright foolish ideas, like that lucky wallet that protects from bear attacks. In my case it's the apparent discovery that I'm allergic to dentists. Two separate weeks this year I've visited the dentist, twice I've gotten sick right after. Specious reasoning? Probably. Horribly annoying? You bet. The reason I'm telling you this is that since I'm writing this book review under the influence of a low-grade fever, don't be surprised to find a paragraph detailing the exploits of grumpy green goblins.

Ever since the launch of the new Star Wars continuity there's been something of less mystical, more militaristic approach to the universe with a little less space wizardry and more gorilla warfare. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Alexander Freed's debut novel Battlefront: Twilight Company. Within these pages are the missions of the 501st infantry, a band of low-ranking grunts who take on the crappiest assignments from rebel command. There's no force worship to be found here, just basic soldiers doing their best to survive and make a difference.
I'd heard a lot of good things about this one with different reviews both professional and amateur declaring it possibly the best new EU novel thus far. Normally I'm not one to believe the hype but by this point I've got a strange fascination with finding the book that will finally dethrone Lost Stars. Quick spoiler; it hasn't happened yet.

Our main character for this installment is a man named Namir. He was raised on a particularly brutal world where clans constantly fought each other for control which means he's been a soldier since childhood. We're treated to bits and piece of his past throughout the book which helps support the narrative that he's not really in the rebellion because he believes in the cause so much as fighting is all he knows and he's not the biggest fan of the empire. Honestly, he's a bit of a pill though by the end of the novel he has a more stable outlook on life. Supporting him are a number of odd characters within twilight company, but we'll talk about them a little further on.

During the opening chapters, the company captures an Imperial governor who soon defects to their side. This is Evori Chalis, a former underling of Count Vidian (god, I miss that cartoonish wacko) who understands the Empire's logistics like no one else, enabling her to pinpoint weak spots for the rebellion to strike at. Evori serves as the second primary character though we rarely get insights into her thought process. I assume that's because she's supposed to be unpredictable and potentially traitorous though it's odd to read so much about a subject without knowing their intent.

Loaded with information from the dear governor, the troops travel around, destroying various points of interests and on occasion tying in with film events. The biggest tie into the larger SW universe comes when Namir helps to escort Evori to Hoth to meet with rebel high command, which of course lands them in the opening battle from Empire Strikes Back. From that point on, the team has to regroup and make due without guidance from their scattered leadership. That's when the narrative buckles down and focuses on a mad campaign into the heart of Imperial space.

As for the actual writing, it's decent, if unremarkable. I must say it occasionally veers off into being unnecessarily wordy. I won't lie to you in that I'd catch myself reading along only to realize I'd zoned out and scanned the previous two or three paragraphs. I don't really blame the writing style so much as the mysterious nature of some characters and their actions which can make the whole affair seem a bit detached. That's hardly a deal breaker though as most of the novel is very engage with a slightly better pace than most of it's brethren.
Now for the problems, most of which lie with the supporting cast. There's simply too many of them running around without enough room to properly develop them. Consider this spoiler territory, but on multiple occasions, a fairly procurement character receives development off page which makes for odd shifts in personalities. Worse than that is when they die off page as well. Sure not everybody needs the slow-motion hero death but it feels cheap when the story casually tosses out that somebody you've read about since chapter two died when nobody was looking. Accurate to warfare, sure, just not compelling storytelling.
Perhaps those characters would have been given more justice if not for additional plot threads that go nowhere. There are multiple chapters told from the perspective of a female Stormtrooper. Admittedly it's a good idea to illustrate the other side of the war, but her prescience breaks up the flow as she's far away from the core group for the majority of the novel. When her plot thread finally overlaps with the rest it's neither surprising nor satisfactory. Likewise her conclusion isn't even comfortably predictable, it simply peters out with no real resolution.
And then there's the villain, Prelate Verge is basically still a kid, albeit one who was raised as the exemplification of the Imperial ideal. Once again there's a chance for a truly unique outlook on these events coming from someone who's been drinking Imperial Kool-aid since birth. In practice however he's mostly a pompous blowhard who fails to inspire much in the way of fear. There's just nothing all that interesting about the kid. He's not a brilliant tactician, comically overconfident, or even a bloodthirsty maniac, he's nothing. This is a case where a horde of faceless enemies may have been the better choice.

If anything these flaws are what separates Twilight Company from the rest of the pack. Many of the books we've covered suffer from having far too little initial content and stretching it beyond reason. Here the opposite is true. There were enough characters and perspectives available to take the narrative in surprising directions, or even turn this into a sub series. Instead it acts like that kid who doesn't realize it's better to play with one toy for five minutes than five toys for once minute each.

I don't want it to seem like I hate this book. In actuality it is a better than average entry in the franchise so far. More than anything it's like being disappointed in someone for not reaching their potential. Here was a big, mature war tale, with the advantage of staring original creations who can largely do whatever they want, but nothing much comes from it. I'm honestly having a tough time placing it in the leaderboards. It's pretty good, but there's just enough flaws to hold it back from true glory. I guess it can just slid into the top five though given the quality of the book I'm currently reading, it wont hold that position for long.

1. Lost Stars by Claudia Gray
2. New Dawn by John Jackson Miller
3. Ashoka by E. K. Johnston
4. Tarkin by James Luceno
5. Battlefont Twilight Company by Alexander Freed
6. Moving Target by Cecil Castelluci and Jason Fry
7. Before the Awakening by Greg Rucka
8. Smuggler's Run by Greg Rucka
9. Heir to the Jedi by Kevin Hearne
10. Aftermath by Chuck Wendig
11. The Weapon of a Jedi by Jason Fry

Boy did this article ever take a while. Seriously, there was something like nine hours of sleep, 4 large cups of tea, and possibly an aerobics video all during the course of writing this review. I must get back to recuperating. Plans are to bring you all another post before the week is out. I mean I should be healthy by then so long as I can avoid dentists.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Uchu Sentai Kyuranger Episode 1

It's always odd to see how much can change overnight. Just a few days ago I was still trudging through snow, in desperate need of a haircut, and prepping for a visit to a new dentist, while contemplating the end of Zyuohger. Now it's sunny and warm, my head is probably a good 2 pounds lighter, I've got a series of appointments to repair my teeth, and I'm trying to get used to Kyuranger. Things sure can change fast but some of that change can be troubling. The new dentist is a huge improvement, the new Sentai however, I'm not so sure.

Let's lay out the basics first. Uchu Sentai Kyuranger is a big shift from the nature loving, moderately sized force that was Zyuohger. This year we're looking at a intergalactic group that will eventually balloon into the double digits battling an evil space empire. Thankfully the show's only introduced a handful of heroes and villains thus far so the audience isn't completely overwhelmed.

I want to address the positives of this premiere first. Namely the production quality. It's a rare treat to witness a tokusatsu show with this level of production value. We're talking costumes, sets, CG, lighting, action, and even photography that's a cut above the usual sentai. It's like watching someone just throw money at the screen, assured they'll make it all back plus some with toy and collectible sales down the road.

Unfortunately, the show so far is just lights and sounds with nothing much to back it up. The story is pretty standard. The evil organization, Jark Matter (yes like jerk and dark matter combined) rules over the galaxy. A rebel group forms to fight them based entirely around a legend of heroes imbued with constellation powers who will save the day. In all fairness, it is early and a twist could happen somewhere down the road, but for now, plot is not what you'd call unique.
Perhaps the characters have something more interesting to offer the audience. Honestly most of them are pretty flat too. Let's take Sparda, he's the yellow ranger and a cook so he makes lots of allegories and jokes relating to cooking. Champ is a giant bull robot who's all about being strong. Naturally he does strong guy stuff like work out and prattle on about justice. Raptor is a machine who's good with see where this is going.
The worst offense of all is our new red ranger, Lucky. I'll give you one guess what he's all about. It's just constant loud statements about luck and it's tiresome from scene one. How he plays into the story is almost worse. He's out for a joyride in space, gets drawn into a fight, and decides he wants to be a Kyuranger. Guy has never even heard of Jark Matter even though they're the unquestioned evil overlords of the galaxy. Sure Lucky may have been oblivious to all the injustice in the universe for his entire life but you'd better believe he's serious about putting an end to it. Ugh, this guy.
Not all is lost however as there is some hint of actual personality with a few characters, mainly Hammy. She's our green ranger and a space ninja which granted is everything nine year old me wanted in a wife but that's not what makes her unique. Instead of being a disciplined warrior as her ninja background would suggest, she comes off as something of a goofy slacker. In short: MVP=Hammy. Affront to good taste=Lucky.

This is all coming across as rather negative isn't it? I'm sorry kiddies, I wish there was something better to be said about this premiere episode but really it's just shiny and dumb. Years of toku fandom have taught me that a series isn't set in stone from the start. Change is a constant after all. Let's stick with this one for a little while, folks. If we're lucky (there's that word again) we'll find ourselves watching a much better show in a few weeks.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Doubutsu Sentai Zyuohger Episodes 45-48

Every year we fans of Japanese superheroes bare witness to the ending of one series and the beginning of another. It's a constant, not unlike the changing of seasons. Likewise, Zyuohger has been something of a constant, kinda like old faithful, never really going out of bounds or becoming too exciting, but never one to let it's audience down. I felt rather safe in the assumption the series would wrap up in much the same fashion, but then something happened. Something that's honestly a refreshingly nice surprise. In the eleventh hour, when all the show needed to do was blow up it's prime baddie, the writers actually took the time to tie some themes together and make a point. A legitimate, relevant, and well presented point. It's the sort of last minute play that may well earn the show a higher standing than it would have had under normal circumstances, but let's not get too far ahead of ourselves, we have to trace our path to this moment first.

Episodes 45 and 46 were primarily focused on the battle against Azald who is revealed to be the nearly indestructible monster that Cetis the Whale fought centuries ago. In a wise choice, this was mainly a fight for the four zyumen of the team. Sure, Misao healed out, but largely it was a more personal fight for these beings to complete a task their ancestor had started.
Where was Yamato during all of this? He was dealing with some major family issues. First we finally got to the heart of why he hates his dad so much. The guy was always very distant, leaving Yamato and his mother alone, and the last straw was when dad failed to reach the hospital before his wife passed, which Yamato took as proof his father never cared about them. When finally taking the time to confront his father, he learns that the reasons daddy was late to the hospital was the he was helping a wounded Bard the bird man who'd been shot by hunters. Discovering that his father missed saying goodbye to his mother for a good reason and that Bard has been his protector all these years in order to repay a life debt throws our hero into something of a rage dump.

The following episode played things rather safely. Yamato makes amends with his father, Master Genis kick starts his final plan to destroy Earth by injecting his genes into it, which finally explained why his ship looks like a bow and arrow (cause it is), and the team has to fight Naria, who after all this time didn't prove to be much of a threat. Mostly it was all set up for the final showdown, which is where things get good.

Throughout the whole series there had yet to be any revelations as to who Master Genis is or what his greater plan may entail. During the long final battle, the truth finally comes out that Genis is simply a mass of Moebas, those generic goons the team battles on a weekly basis. In a series which touted the strength that comes from different individuals being connected he was living proof, though that's not the way he looked at it. Instead, Genis is ashamed and insecure, feeling his true existence to be a weakness. That insecurity serves as the driving force for him to travel the stars, eliminating other beings in an attempt to prove his superiority. So deep is his self loathings that when Naria comes to his defense, he kills her for daring to show him compassion.

This revelation brings up another discovery, when Misao realizes he was chose by Genis to become a ranger because the villain recognized the same self-hatred within the young man, and hoped that understanding would make for a more successful partnership. His teammates remind him that he's better than that as since he understands emotions along with the importance of friendship and connection. Soon enough, the planet itself restores/boosts their powers, including Misao's ill-gotten ones. Finally, the guy feels truly accepted, not just by his friends but by the very planet itself.

I won't bore you with the details of the battle, suffice to say it involved plenty of explosions, and one last power-up for Yamato. Honestly it was fairly basic for a last battle, thankfully the show wasn't done with the twists just yet.

Having saved the world, the team decided it was time to reopen the portal that connects to zyuland so the four could return and attempt to convince their leaders to begin a peaceful coexistence with the human realm. The group shares in a hug, a moment that only further cemented Leo and Misao as the key characters from this show, and that's when something interesting happened. Instead of the portal reopening, zyuland was placed back on Earth as it had been eons ago. The friends were reunited with their families and given the chance to spend every day around each other with the responsibility of protecting and guiding this new world where humans and zyumans must try to get along.

While the series had a few lacking elements during it's run, Bard's small tenure as an extra hero for instance, this ending should secure it a pretty solid spot in Sentai history. Frankly, when the show began I never expected such a relevant point to be made from the adventure. It's a fine message though. Don't let some insecure turd on a thrown ruin everything in a vein attempt to prove their superiority. Actual strength comes from caring and a communal spirit. Well, superpowers and spandex help too.

So that's the show, kiddies. Don't fret too much though, Zyuohger will return in video specials and films to come, not to mention a few that have already been released. Unlike Ninninger, I'll actually be pretty eager to review these flicks as well.

Next week kicks off the next Sentai Series, Kyuranger. My current aim is to give this one a new kind of review format and see how things work out. Today though, let's just enjoy how well Zyuohger turned out. As a series, it proved that there was always another chance at making something special. That'll do, show, that'll do.