[Review] Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead

An Australian Zombie movie classic in the making? Check out our review...

[Anime] Assassination Classroom

Dan gives his quick thoughts on the surprisingly funny new anime series, ASSASSINATION CLASSROOM.

[Opinion] The Uncertain Future of Studio Ghibli

What is the fate of Studio Ghibli? Dan chimes in his thoughts


Dan Gives His Take on Joon Ho-Bong's Snowpiercer

[Early Review] When Marnie Was There

Dan returns from Japan and chimes in his thoughts on Ghibli's latest film

Saturday, 7 December 2019

[Review] Shenmue III

If you had told me twelve years ago that I would finally be playing Shenmue III in 2019, I would have looked at you sadly and said “stop yanking my chain already.” But alas, here we are in 2019 and not only have I played it, but I have also completed it. Days removed from witnessing the final cut scene of Shenmue III and here I sit processing the journey I just took. After 45 hours with the game, I confess that I’m left with far more questions than answers but the one thing that holds true in my heart is this, even after 18 years of waiting, Shenmue III still holds the same charm and ambition that made me fall in love with the first two games way back when.

After 18 years dormant, Shenmue returns to prominence thanks to the help of Kickstarter and $6 million dollars raised by an eager fanbase who wouldn’t let it die. Despite the long 18 years of waiting, the story literally picks up mere moments after the end of Shenmue II. 

We rejoin our unlikely heroes Ryo and Shenhua as they (finally) depart the cave and head straight into Bailu village. Here we are immediately informed by the local villagers that a group of thugs known only as the Red Snakes have been ransacking the village in desperate search of the Phoenix Mirror. We also discover that the same group of thugs have kidnapped Shenhua’s father -- Mr. Yuan -- in their desperate search. What follows is a fairly simple yet compelling search and rescue mission that spans across the rustic yet utterly charming Bailu Village and the sprawling Port Side town of Niaowu.

Along the way, Ryo once again seeks out the help of various martial arts masters including the likes of a charming drunkard known as Mr. Sun. A man whose only concern in life is that of a hot meal and a bottle of plum wine to go with it. For any Virtua Fighter fans out there, one can’t help but look at him and instantly be reminded of Shun Di, which is only fitting considering the Virtua Fighter RPG roots of Shenmue.

Unfortunately though, most of these side characters fall on the underdeveloped side. Some of them are a little too one dimensional while others show great promise but are left unexplored. While none of these new faces hold the same gravitas as Xiuying from Shenmue II, they are none-the-less charming in their own right and fit right into the Shenmue universe with ease.

The story of Shenmue III is a surprisingly simple one that doesn’t really do too much to explain some of the burning questions that fans have speculated on for 18 years. Come the end of the story, it does set up a potentially epic Shenmue IV, but still, I was rather surprised by just how little the story actually develops certain details regarding pre-existing questions.

Though the real heart and soul of the game lies with Ryo and Shenhua. During our stay in Bailu, we are privy to a host of optional nightly conversations shared between the two. These optional conversations reflect the same type of conversations shared in the long walk from Guilin to Bailu that ended Shenmue II, where the player can choose to respond to Shenhua’s line of questioning with a multiple array of responses. Allowing the player to shape Ryo in their own vision.

For the most part, we’re used to seeing Ryo as a rather stoic hero whose one goal has been to take vengeance in the name of his father. Yet if you choose to engage in these conversations then you will get to see a whole other side of Ryo as he brings up topics such as his childhood, his strict upbringing under his father's watchful eye, his friends in Yokosuka, the many cultural similarities and differences between Yokosuka and Bailu Village, his deceased mother and so on. If you keep engaging in these nightly conversations, you will eventually even get to play a very charming and amusing game with Shenhua that is well worth it.

Most of these conversations are of the simple mindless getting to know you types of chit chat with only a few story related clues sprinkled within, but I was very much taken by them. I was completely captivated and left eagerly awaiting my opportunity to engage with Shenhua on a nightly basis. How many games allow you to simply sit back, relax and chat mindlessly for hours on end with another NPC about mostly trivial things like cultural differences? It’s yet another example of what makes Shenmue so completely and utterly unique in the first place.

Shenmue III plays exactly the same as the previous games. The player will engage in long stretches of detective work hunting down clues usually by talking to the various residents of either Bailu or Niaowu. When you’re not wearing your detective hat, you will occasionally come across an action beat that will either be a standard QTE event or a free form fight.

Being that Shenmue III was developed using Unreal Engine 4, gone is the Virtua Fighter engine that once powered the first two games and in its place is a brand new fighting engine developed from the ground up. This fighting engine is slightly different but somewhat familiar.

As opposed to the simple punch, kick, throw and evade setup that the original games implemented, Shenmue III now ties jabs, uppercuts, knee strikes and kicks to the four face buttons with block on the left trigger. Moves are now pulled off by inputting dial-a-combos on the face buttons. Players also have access to a hot-key on the right trigger which they can use to assign a certain move to allow for quicker input.

Familiar fan favourites such as Tom’s Roundhouse Kick and Delin’s Brutal Uppercut have all returned alongside some impressive new move scrolls that can be obtained from the various stores found across Bailu and Niaowu. Other changes include locking the camera behind Ryo and allowing for full 360 movement on the analog stick. You can also side step with a flick of the analog stick.

Unfortunately throws and counters have been sacrificed due to budget constraints so familiar favourites such as Swallow Flip and Machine Gun Fist are sorely missed. Without the Virtua Fighter engine powering it, the animations are rather limited to say the least. It all relies on rather simple ragdoll physics for impact and canned animations for movesets. Since there are no throws to break guard, YSNET have wisely implemented a guard meter in place to prevent spamming the guard button.

The miniscule tutorial at the beginning of the game doesn’t really explain any of this and instead encourages the player to simply “mash the face buttons” in hope of something good happening, which I feel was a bit of a mistake on the developers behalf considering the AI actively blocks and punishes button mashing more often than not. The game’s combat is at its very best when you approach it with a bit of tact and mindfulness instead of just aimlessly mashing and spamming big moves.

Virtua Fighter purists will no doubt be disappointed with the changes, but the new system is not without its charms either. It’s something of a mix between Yakuza, Virtua Fighter and Jade Empire. It’s surprisingly challenging and rewards looking for openings and chances to punish, especially on harder difficulties. Despite its shortcomings, the foundations for something greater are here and hopefully they get another opportunity to refine it even further.
Alongside the new fighting system is a strong emphasis on daily training. Keeping in line with the WUDE principle of GON (train every day without neglect), the game encourages you to train on a daily basis in order to raise stats for the newly implemented RPG-like leveling system. The interesting thing about this is the way in which the game deals out XP. In most games, you typically battle and earn XP by winning said battle.

Shenmue III, on the other hand, completely subverts this philosophy and instead puts a strong emphasis on training. You only gain XP by training. Training in the game equates to a handful of mini games and sparring matches. Mini games such as horse stance where you mash a button to keep Ryo from falling over while practicing the physically punishing horse stance in order to raise endurance stats. Or sparring against the various martial artists you meet in your travels in order to level up individual moves and attack stats. It’s a fascinating subversion of game mechanics that keeps in line with the narrative philosophy of the WUDE.

When you’re not playing detective or fighting, you’ll no doubt be out in the open world earning or spending money. Shenmue III is certainly not lacking in things to do. For a smaller budgeted game, it is genuinely impressive just how densely packed with detail its world is.

Familiar fan favourites such as the Pachinko inspired Lucky Hit make their return. They are also accompanied by some new mini games such as the cute and surprisingly addictive turtle racing. If gambling isn’t your thing, then you can simply make money by collecting and selling the many herbs growing throughout the habitat of both Bailu and Niaowu. If that isn’t your thing, then why not spend a lazy afternoon by a water hole fishing for a couple of hours? Or why not go and help the local shopkeep chop some wood to pass the time? There’s no shortage of things to do in the open world in order to earn money to spend at your own leisurely recreation - whether it be to complete your capsule toy collection, buy new moves or what not.

The biggest overall change is the way in which the game handles its economy. Everything is centred on integration. For instance, if you collect an entire set of capsule toys this time around you are free to walk to a pawn store and exchange that collection for either cash or a new move scroll..It is openly encouraging you to interact with every last inch of its world in every way. The words “take your time” have never been more applicable than they are in reference to Shenmue III. You will only get as much out of this world as you put into it.

Much like the previous games, arcades also make their return. Unfortunately, Space Harrier, Outrun and Hang On are absent presumably due to licencing issues, but in their place is an abundance of new arcade machines made specifically for Shenmue III. Some mechanical in nature -- such as a simple driving game that is a clear nod to the 1969 electro mechanical arcade game Grand Prix -- to a full fledged parody of Virtua Fighter that is surprisingly addictive and fun to play.

The locales of Bailu and Niaowu are surprisingly gorgeous given the limited budget. Bailu embodies a simple communal charm of residents who will gladly scratch one another's backs to make life work. Life here is simple as the village folk go about their day-to-day lives. Kids play in the sun-meadows under the traditional hyper saturated AM2 blue skies or casually sit on the dock of a riverbed with their feet dipped in the water chatting away with friends while the adults chip into help one another out by either farming or attending to livestock. Bailu is brimming with attention to detail. For instance, at one point I found myself wasting at least half a in-game day just reading the various Ema messages at a local shrine. It’s all very tranquil and lived in.
There are moments throughout where I was in awe at the ambience on display. A simple downpour of rain is actually a rather beautiful sight to behold in Bailu. Especially when it is accompanied by a hazy orange glow in the air. It really goes a long way to convey a sense of humidity. Then there was the simple joy of just casually watching the falling blossoms of the Shenmue tree float gently in the wind while departing Shenhua’s house each morning. It all adds to a rather nostalgic and almost melancholic feeling that Bailu has going in spades. Niaowu is the polar opposite of Bailu. A sprawling port side town that at first glance gives vibes of Wan Chai but on closer inspection plays host to some rather beautiful traditional Chinese Temples. It’s a real looker at times.

Unfortunately the rough edges rear their literal ugly heads in some truly unique NPC designs. There’s a bit of an inconsistency in character design. Some look rather realistic and almost pass for lifelike. Meanwhile others border on caricature. I can’t say it bothered me too much, but it is noticeable and it does stand out in contrast to the beautiful environments at hand.

The defining statement I would use for Shenmue III as a whole is that in many ways it is punching way above its weight. As strong as the opening half is, the later half of the game doesn’t quite maintain the same charm or momentum. At least until the very end which has been rather divisive among fans to say the least. I personally fall more on the side of kind of loving it as a whole though, even with its many notable shortcomings.

And yet, despite all of that, I am still pleasantly surprised by just how much Yu Suzuki and his team have managed to pull off with limited funds. Through and through, this is very much the full-on Shenmue experience I’ve been dreaming off for all those years. The wild ambition still remains. Sure, I have my shortcomings with the game. It’s story gets bogged down with too much filler and not enough killer. In some ways though, I believe our true long held expectations for Shenmue III could probably never have been fully met. Although I am genuinely pleased as to just how much it has lingered on my mind since completing it.

How many games can you honestly say have the guts to simply let you talk to another character as if they’re a real person with real hopes, real dreams and real ambitions? How many games have the guts to be as ambitious as to present the mundane and sometimes boring in-between slices of life that accompany the action beats? How many games out there have the strength of their own conviction to present an epic saga that is still in no-way close to being done even under the threat of financial failure?

As much as Shenmue 1 and 2 were, Shenmue III continues to be a journey with grand ambitions at its core. This chapter is a solid continuation in a martial arts epic unlike any other seen in gaming today. But the real strength of Shenmue has always been in its world building and even if the story of III wavers at times, the world building remains as consistently strong as it ever was. Every locale has a reason to be and a story waiting to tell in the detail alone.

This series has always been about retracing the footsteps of your fathers past and piecing the puzzle together bit by bit from the many unreliable sources that come your way. While it’s overall narrative may still be nowhere near completion and even though this chapter never quite manages to reach the heights of Shenmue II, it still has a lot going for it. It’s less focused on action and more focused on looking inwards. Even with the lack of budget, those grand ambitions still remain and its heart is most definitely in the right place.

Even if you don’t like Shenmue or find that Shenmue III simply isn’t for you, I think it warrants applause none-the-less. It’s a passion project through and through. Playing Shenmue III is literally a dream come true for this long term fan and all I can say in closing is “Bring on Shenmue IV!” Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another 18 years to catch up again with Ryo and his friends.

-- Daniel M

Saturday, 9 December 2017

[Feature] Game of the Year 2017...and some other goodies

2017! What a year for gaming! What a year indeed! This year has been nothing short of incredible for games. So when faced with the task of narrowing down ten games for this list came about, I can honestly tell you I was not looking forward to it in the slightest. There are so many games that I played from this year that didn’t even make the list despite the fact that they’re all great games. We’re talking the likes of South Park: The Fractured But Whole; Gravity Rush 2; Uncharted: The Lost Legacy; Zelda The Breath of the Wild; The Evil Within 2; Nier: Automata; Sonic Mania; Nioh and so on.

All great games, but even they didn't make the cut. It’s been that type of year folks. It’s been a really good year for gaming! So narrowing this list down to just ten was damn near impossible this year. But somehow, someway, I did just that. So without further ado. Here are my ten favourite games from 2017.

(And as an added bonus, be sure to check out the post script for a couple of extra goodies.)

10.) Crash Bandicoot: Nsane Trilogy

Crash Bandicoot was my childhood! And now it’s been remade from the ground up for the PS4. Oh boy was it glorious! Call it nostalgia if you must, but I had a blast revisiting these relics from my past. But more than that, I was genuinely surprised by how well they held up. Especially the first two games which are blisteringly hard games, but damn rewarding to master. Welcome back, Crash. You’ve been sorely missed.
9.) Fire Pro Wrestling World

Spike Chunsoft has finally returned to save us from the mediocrity that has plagued us for far too long with the WWE 2K franchise (or in other terms; “the Madden of Wrestling games.”) It’s been far too long since we’ve seen a Japanese wrestling game and I for one miss Japanese wrestling games. I say bring on more Japanese wrestling games (especially now with the current explosion of New Japan)

Oh wrestling fans, let us all rejoice the glorious return of a classic. The WWE 2K games may have the flair of next gen graphics, official licenses, and a marketing budget. They’ve got all the superstar names, the plethora of match types, and the sales figures. And yet they still feel strangely cold as games.

Fire Pro, on the other hand, is a lot like the ECW of wrestling games. It has none of the budget, but in typical Paul Heyman fashion, it “hides the negatives and accentuates the positives” with a brilliant and simple timing based grappling engine, fantastic 2D sprite art, endless customization possibilities, a rabidly dedicated fan community, and — most importantly — an understanding about the nature of pro wrestling, and just what makes it (and its fans) tick. Forget WWE 2K18, the real wrestling game of 2017 is right here!
8.) Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

Wolfenstein II is the closest you’re getting to an Inglorious Basterds video game. If that doesn’t sell you then I don’t know what else will. Starring a multicultural group of irreverent, colorful characters on a globetrotting quest to ruin Hitler’s day, week and life in a fantastic revenge fantasy setting. Brutal, absurd, clever, insightful and touching, The New Colossus is a rollicking adventure that has reset the bar for what first person shooters can, and should, be.

7.) Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds

Here I sit on a deserted island prone on my stomach in the abandoned remains of an airplane. My heart is racing. All I have equipped is a pistol. I’m wearing nothing but a tank top and a pair of cargo pants. In the distance I hear the sounds of gunfire. In two minutes the danger zone will close inwards forcing me to move position just to stay alive. One wrong move equals death. No respawns. No second chances. Welcome to the world of Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds. A massive multiplayer survival game in the vein of Kinji Fukasaku’s epic Battle Royale. In some sessions, I’ve lasted no more than 5 minutes. In other sessions, I’ve made it to the last ten remaining. PUBG is one of the most intense games of multiplayer death match that I’ve ever played. More importantly, it’s the Battle Royale game that I’ve always wanted but didn’t think was possible. Now it exists and I couldn’t be happier for it.
6.) Horizon: Zero Dawn

Best known for their work on the Killzone franchise, Guerilla games finally stepped out of the first person shooter genre to deliver something rather special. Even though it's not without its issues, Horizon is an excellent title and a must have for all PS4 owners. It offers a refreshing open world environment, a compelling and mysterious story, a fantastic main character, and innovative gameplay. Not only is it one of the best action RPGs I've played this generation, it's also one of the best games I've played in a while. Horizon is a truly special experience, and it's one that even non-RPG lovers need to have.
5.) Resident Evil VII

At long last, Resident Evil has finally returned to its survival horror roots! I’ll be honest, I hated the more action focused Resident Evil 6. I felt the series was in deep decline and needed to do something to get it back on track.

Thankfully, Capcom seemed to agree and delivered a game that took Resident Evil straight back to it roots. Adopting a first person view to further heighten that claustrophobic feel, the game removes itself from the convoluted story line of previous entries and takes a little bit more of a Silent Hill 2 approach casting you in the role of a man searching for his lost lover. He is led to a rundown mansion in the woods via a cryptic message sent to him by his missing lover. This mansion is inhabited by the Baker family. A family of deranged hicks that could easily give the Sawyer family a good run for their money. What follows is one night of unspeakable horror.

Welcome back Resident Evil, it’s good to have you back in the Survival Horror genre.
4.) Yakuza 0

The latest entry in the long running Yakuza franchise is perhaps it’s greatest entry of all. Yakuza 0 takes us back to Japan’s bubble economy in the Eighties and re-introduces us to the legendary Dragon of Dojima, the one and only Kiryu Kazuma. Much to his chagrin, Kiryu finds himself in the center of another warfare as the many families in the Yakuza hierarchy do battle over a valuable and vacant plot of land in the heart of Kamurocho.

The core mechanics of the franchise remain largely unchanged. This is still a Beat ‘Em Up with RPG elements thrown in for good measure. But what the Yakuza team have managed to achieve in this game is a well thought out cohesion of mechanics. The vast majority of the substories are well written and entertaining to seek out. The act of exploring every last inch of Kamurocho has never been more rewarding.

This is a game that I gladly put 120 hours into and by the time I had cleared every side quest and built my businesses into a mini empire I still found myself wanting more. It also helps that the main story is perhaps the best this franchise has seen since Yakuza 2. It’s a very well written and engaging tale that will grab you by your collar and keep you invested the entire way through.

If you’ve never played a Yakuza game then Yakuza 0 is the perfect place to start.
3.) Cuphead

Largely inspired by cartoons of the 1930’s, the game tells the tale of Cuphead and his pal Mugman who unwittingly find themselves at the mercy of the Devil. The Devil issues them a deal; hunt down 19 foes in exchange for their freedom. A simple deal...yeah, right and pigs might fly while at it. What follows is a “kick you in the nuts” hard as nails NES type run and gun platformer featuring some of the most exciting (and frustrating) boss fights you are likely to see in a game this year.

The art style is unlike any other I’ve ever seen in a game before. Every frame of animation has been painstakingly (and lovingly) drawn by hand. It’s a true love note to 1930’s animation and is just a pure pleasure on the eyes. For as difficult as the game can get, it is at least fair in its difficulty. Learn from your mistakes and endure through to the end. Also, keep an ear out for that soundtrack. Oh boy is that soundtrack catchy!

2.) Super Mario Odyssey
(clears throat) BUY THIS GAME! That is all.

Okay fine, I guess I should write more than that. Super Mario Odyssey is a celebration of all things Mario. It’s a pure joy to play from beginning to end. The controls are so damn fluid (as is always the case for 3D Mario games.)   Exploring each world looking for moons is a complete and utter joy. The introduction of the sentient hat “Cappy” and being able to possess just about anything living and breathing in each world never grows old. It’s the greatest new mechanic to be introduced in a Mario game in a LONG time. Oh and I dare you to listen to the theme song “One Up Girl” and NOT have it stuck in your head for days on end.

Look, just buy this bloody game already! It’s Mario. I really don’t need to sell it to you. It sells itself to you. And I really don’t want to spoil much more. Go in as blind as you can. Just go out and buy it already and thank me later!
1.) Persona 5

Oh Persona 5. You took my heart! You indeed took my heart and refused to give it back! Set in modern day Tokyo, Persona 5 tells the story of a nameless-silent protagonist wrongly accused of a crime he didn’t commit. He is then forced to move to Tokyo on probation where he eventually befriends a group of kids from his new school. Each of whom are just as big a misfit as he is. Together, this group of ragtag misfits are granted the power to enter another reality where they moonlight as a band of thieves. Their mission is simple. To steal the hearts of the corrupt individuals that have wronged them and bring about a change of conscience in the real world.

That premise may sound a little out there, but in typical Persona fashion, it works without question. The Persona series has always done a fantastic job of blending reality and the supernatural world. Persona 5 is no exception. It’s a game that isn’t afraid to deal with some pretty heavy social issues such as suicide, abandonment, bullying, sexual abuse and it even manages to comment on current day political issues under the Abe administration.

The art style of the game is nothing short of seductive. This game oozes coolness with its slick menu design and it’s “anime brought to life” feel. The Acid Jazz stylings of the soundtrack has been playing on a permanent loop in my brain all year. The turn based combat is fast and responsive with enough depth to keep you well challenged for the 100+ hours it will take to see the campaign through. And the characters are some of the most endearing oddballs that I’ve had the pleasure spending time with this year.

Truth be told, I haven’t been this taken by an RPG since Final Fantasy VIII back when I was a kid. Well, okay...maybe Persona 4. But the point remains. Persona 5 is a fantastic game and is well deserving of its number one spot in this list.

Favorite Film of the Year: “Mother!”

To be honest, I can count the number of films I saw from 2017 on two hands. I really haven’t been going out and seeing much lately (which explains why this blog of mine has become quite abandoned.) But I did see Darren Aronofsky’s “Mother!” and by default, I would say it's probably the most interesting film I saw all year. But even then, I still don’t know if it’s “genius” or Aronofsky simply throwing everything at the wall in hope of something sticking. But I can’t deny that it’s a hell of a ride and the one film that really stuck with me the most from 2017 (of the few I saw.) Go in blind. Don’t read a damn thing about this movie. Just go in blind and experience the madness.

Most Disappointing Film of the Year: “The Snowman”

What the hell happened Tomas Alfredson!? Oh boy, where do we begin with this one? Tomas Alredson, the director of perhaps my favourite film of all time Let the Right One In, is a director that has shown himself to be capable of great things. Which makes the utter mess that is The Snowman even more disappointing. It’s a mess! A true and utter mess in every way.

The whole time I was sitting in the cinema thinking "something had to have gone completely wrong here. I know the pedigree of this director, I know what he can do...something desperately went wrong here." I think Mark Kermode probably put it best; "the film got away from them." There's no other way to put it. It's a film that went completely off the rails somewhere along the line and they were just desperately trying to salvage it.
A real mess. Just a real complete mess. But still, much like a train wreck, I couldn't take my eyes away from it :) So I'll give it that much.
Favorite Book of the Year: “The Colorless Tsukuru and his Years of Pilgrimage”

Technically not a book from 2017, but one that I did read in 2017 and one that really got to me. I was just recently introduced to the works of Murakami and of the few I've read, this might be my favorite. The story of an emotionally wounded 30 something man named Tsukuru who is forced to confront his past and find out why his friends abandoned him many years before. What follows is a melancholic tale of a man searching for inner harmony by being forced to confront the sordid past in search for answers. It truly is a wonderful read and I can’t recommend it enough.

Favorite Album of the Year: Mastodon - Emperor of Sand

I honestly can’t write about music. I don’t really have the know how to write about music so I will not subject to you my attempt to sound knowledgeable, but I will say this. I know what I like, and I really liked this album!

New Years Resolution: To further my own pursuit of gaining self confidence and finding happiness. So far it’s been working….

Happy trails and see you the next time I choose to write something on this blog of mine. Whenever that should be...

Sunday, 14 August 2016

[Thoughts] A Bizarre Large Serving of Nikuko-chan...or How I Gained New Found Respect for Translators

As some of you may or may not know, I’ve been studying Japanese for the best part of two and a half years now. Within that two years I have learned a staggering amount of new vocab and grammar. Sometimes it hurts my head just thinking about it, other times it leaves me feeling accomplished that I can actually remember most of what I’ve learned. Every Saturday for the last two and a half years, I’ve made the hour long trip from my home in the suburbs into the sprawling maze of unorganized streets that is Sydney and have studied under the tutelage of my sensei, Fumiko. During our most recent lesson, I was told a Japanese joke by one of my fellow students and the joke goes as such:


Why do people from Hawaii never have to visit the Dentist?

Didn’t find it funny? Don’t worry, I don’t blame you nor do I feel offended that you didn’t find it funny. For those interested as to why the punchline is “Hawaii”, I’ll give you a quick break down of the sentence

歯 (ha) means “tooth”
は (wa) is the subject marker
いい (ii) means “good”

Put the whole thing together and say it in Shinkansen speeds of Japanese and you get something that sounds close to “Hawaii.” So if you couldn’t tell, it’s a play on words and that’s what make its funny. However, when translated directly to English the punchline loses its punch. Therefore, say a translator were to read this joke in a Manga and then interpret it into English, what would they do? Probably re-write the joke all together since it’s kind of a dud joke in English, or find something that approximates it. Kind of interesting, isn’t it?

But why am I talking about a somewhat corny Japanese joke, you ask? Where is this all going? For the past year, I’ve undertaken a project of sorts. I decided to test my knowledge of the language and do something that can only be described as somewhat insane. I decided to read and translate a Japanese written manga and what do you know? I actually finished reading it!

The manga in question is titled Kaiki Oomori!! Nikuko-chan, which roughly translates to A Bizarre Large Serving!! Nikuko-chan. Written and drawn by a friend of mine, Miyako Cojima, the book is a collection of five short stories centered around a plump naive but kindhearted pre-teen girl named Nikuko.

The first two stories play as moral tales in which our plump heroine Nikuko is bullied by two girls whom are hiding demons in their closets. The third story starts off in the same mold as the first two stories, but takes a surprising left turn and reveals itself as a rather touching love story. The fourth story is a Norman Bates/Psycho type tale of a mother’s overbearing methods of nurture towards her daughter. While the final story is an amusing little caper detailing Nikuko’s first love.
The book largely deals with the theme of obsession. Be it the obsession of attaining an ideal body image, the obsession of gaining fame, the obsession of fitting in with one's fellow peers, or even just Nikuko’s strange obsession to eat anything and everything in-sight. The book plays as a wonderful mix of absurd comedy, drama, social commentary and horror all mixed into one delicious serving of Niku (meaty) goodness.

Nikuko’s demeanor is that of a sweet and kindhearted girl who just happens to have a huge appetite. As a child, she was bullied without mercy and grew up never having a single friend. In a never ending spree of violence and hate, her goal remains the same. She’s simply looking for someone to call a friend. But unfortunately for her, she is ridiculed and subjected to some pretty cruel and unusual torment.

But no matter how low her tormentors stoop, she endures on with her relentless upbeat take on life. There is one line of dialog from the book that best sums up Nikuko and it goes as so: “It’s pointless to hate someone, even if I desperately want a friend.” She’ll never stoop down to their level in return. Granted, the tormentors in question do get their comeuppance in the most unusual (and hilarious) of ways, but Nikuko remains the sweetheart of a girl who just so desperately wants a friend. That’s not to say Nikuko gets off lightly. In fact, writer Miyako makes it a point to slyly criticize Nikuko’s unhealthy lifestyle choices just as much as she criticizes the actions of Nikuko’s thoughtless peers. Particularly in the fourth story where Nikuko’s supposed dieting method is to eat a four course banquet to herself. It goes without saying that such a lifestyle is far from great as well.

There is a running gag throughout the book. Every time Nikuko is introduced to a new group of people they instantly mistake her name by using the wrong kanji. Which has become something of a nightmare to translate for reasons mentioned above. It should be an easy joke, right? A common mixup of understanding. Well, not quite so when you’re trying to keep the original names in-tact.

Which I guess leads me back to the intro of this blog post. This little translation project has been one of the hardest projects that I’ve ever had both the joy and misery of working on. Oh don’t get wrong, when I say misery, I mean misery in a good way (if there is even such a thing.) I guess pain and joy go hand in hand.

I have written well over 30 pages of basic translations, which now I have to go back to and double read, double check my translations, re-write certain segments, make sure I actually did get some of the trickier sentences down pat, make sure I didn’t misinterpret jokes or puns as literal translations, do a final pass on the script and then, finally, doctor in those translations to the original panels in Photoshop and actually make the thing into a book as a gift for myself and my friend.

But in the end, I can say without hesitation that it’s been entirely worth it. I’ve had a blast doing this little project and I had a blast reading this book. It’s a wonderful little slice of absurd horror, comedy and drama. The artwork is clearly influenced by the likes of the great Kazuo Umezu of The Drifting Classroom fame, but with it’s own feminine sensibility. I was endeared by Nikuko and was very impressed with the broad range of topics discussed in each story. It’s a smart, well written, well drawn and thoughtful little book that deserves more attention.  

So what have I learned from this little project of mine? I’ve learned to respect translators a hell of a lot more. It’s quite the undertaking and you really only begin to appreciate exactly what goes into it once you do it for yourself. I guess in my younger years I was always a bit naive and thought it was just a matter of switching out Japanese words with English words, but that simply isn’t the case. It’s a difficult job that requires a lot of thought, a lot of patience and a fair bit of rewriting. So here’s to you translators, you have my utmost respect for the hard work you do in helping to bring foreign text to our door steps (salute; or is that kanpai in this case?)

I can’t say my current translations are perfect. After hearing that joke in class, I grew a little fearful that maybe I did translate some things a little too literal for their own good. I feel somewhat confident with the first draft that I have so far...but as we all know, first drafts don’t mean much. Maybe it will take even greater shape with the second draft? I hope that one day more people have the ability to read this manga and enjoy it as I did. Who knows if anything will come of this translation project of mine. Maybe it will get seen by a wider audience, or maybe it will remain on my shelf (and Miyako’s) as a simple kind gesture. Who knows in this crazy world of ours?

Anyways, that was something different, until next time we meet.
-Daniel M.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

[Review] The Handmaiden (2016)

After making his English-language debut with the critically divisive Southern gothic thriller Stoker, South Korean auteur Park Chan-Wook returns to his native language to bring us a slice of erotica with his new film, The Handmaiden.

Taking its cues from the novel Fingersmith by Welsh writer Sarah Waters, with the setting changed from the Victorian era to 1930's Korea under Japanese rule, The Handmaiden tells the intricately woven story of a Korean con man (Ha Jung-woo) who seeks to take advantage of the beautiful and wealthy Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim min-hee).

The con man enlists the help of a lowly pickpocket by the name of Nam Sock-hee (Kim Tae-ri) to pose as a maid to the heiress. Sock-hee's task is simple enough; to gain the trust of the fair lady and help convince her to fall for the con man so he can inherit said fortune. However, complications arise as the Handmaiden finds herself falling for the fair lady. Thus begins a complicated tale of who's screwing who, both literally and figuratively speaking.

Director Park wisely splits this lurid tale into three separate chapters, each of which exemplifies a different perspective. The first chapter told from the perspective of Sock-hee as she infiltrates the lavish manor and gains the fair maiden's trust.  Initially, she is all about the task at hand, but as time progresses, she begins to feel a palpable sexual tension between herself and the fair lady. As such, a new found sense of guilt and jealousy arise as the handmaiden grows both resentful and remorseful towards the conman's end game.

Through the eyes of Sock-hee, we initially perceive Lady Hideko to be a naive child trapped in a woman's body. However, the second chapter switches perspectives to Hideko, where Director Park fills in the blanks of her traumatic upbringing under the tutelage of her perverted uncle. Having been exposed from a young age to her uncle's love of BDSM, she is frequently made to regale the written works of Marquis de Sade to seedy-looking men of wealth in the manor's library.

Meanwhile, the third chapter brings it all home through the perspective of the conman, which is ripe with revelations and plot turns best left unspoiled.

At its core, The Handmaiden is a rather simple tale of deceit, love, and vengeance. But perhaps most importantly, it is a tale of sexual liberation. Since I'm not the first to mention this, yes, the film does feature scenes of explicit lesbianism. And yes, Park definitely pulls no punches when it comes to showing. However, he doesn't just show just for the sake of showing, or for mere titillation.

Rather, the budding sexual tension shared between both women is the central key to their shared plight. At its core, The Handmaiden is a tale of two women who came from less than pleasant upbringings who long for a sense of freedom. Kim Tae-Ri and Kim Min-hee both give incredible performances and do very well to sell a palpable amount of friction.

The Handmaiden features all of Park Chan-Wook's usual flourishes. It is visually stunning in every inch of its design. From the sense of foreboding decadence that haunts every inch of the manor to the impeccable framing choices employed by cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon.

Although it's not without flaws. Unusually so, Director Park annoyingly feels the need to over-explain every last plot detail by spinning the plot wheel one too many times. However, there's no denying the denouement's cleverness, nor can one deny the overwhelming sense of satisfaction gained. In the end, The Handmaiden is both a well-crafted character study and a captivating erotic thriller that leaves its mark.

(out of five)