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Spores, Molds, and Fungus

Pop Culture Miscellania

Animation Appreciation: Gargoyles

Image from D. Taina's Gargoyles Imagery Resource

Gargoyles, now, Gargoyles is interesting because, firstly, it doesn't create that particular emotional resonance that a lot of these works will have. Its plot, themes, and ideals don't "speak" to me on that individual level, but simply are the things that any decent person or series would believe in. However, Gargoyles is just so damn good that it ceases to matter.

In Gargoyles, everything just comes together to form a beautiful picture. Not flawless, of course, but close enough that it can inspire poetic waxing if I'm in the right mood. The characters, the stories, the voice acting, the music, the animation, the design, the world-building…it's just gorgeous.

Okay, so, in the past, humans knew of, and had dealings with, a species of winged humanoids called gargoyles, who, along with gargoyle beasts, turn to stone during the day. The last survivors of a decimated Scottish clan were frozen in stone by a spell that would last until their home castle "Rose above the clouds". "Fortunately" for them, a rich man named David Xanatos did exactly that, took apart and rebuilt the thing atop his building in the New York of 1994, and the gargoyles awaken to the modern day and a new storyline.

Gargoyles blends science fiction, fantasy, mythology, and history, with a strong vein of Shakespeare running throughout. Unlike many cartoons, these unrelated genre elements blend seamlessly, and make the series feel like it's strong enough to tackle a wide variety of motifs.

The cast of heroes begin as a set of clichés that anyone who watches American action cartoons would feel familiar with: The Leader, the Old Guy, the Young Guy, the Fat Guy, the Little Guy, the Pet, and even the obligatory human female. However, each member of the Manhattan Clan grows and changes in this new world, becoming well-rounded characters.

Goliath and Elisa's relationship is particularly noteworthy. While there's little to say with the Beast and Beauty trope anymore (and it's never as progressive as people think it is), Gargoyles makes that relationship work. It takes a realistic but uncommonly-depicted amount of time to for their bond to develop, and Goliath and Elisa must confront what they could never give each other. Their differences, in short, are given weight, which makes for more effective storytelling than the strangely effortless fantasy-xenophilia we see elsewhere.

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Animation Appreciation: Whisper of the Heart (Mimi wo Sumaseba; If You Listen Closely)

Like many anime geeks, I worship at the Church of Ghibli; according to me, the studio's reputation is entirely deserved. Hayao Miyazaki and others have made many great family films, written with natural human emotion despite their strange settings, and the themes provided with a light touch.

However, there are few Ghibli movies that "speak" to me on a personal level, that have something beyond their basic goodness to absorb me in a personal sense. Those that do, they do with grace. One of them will be addressed later on, but another, which eclipses it, is the 1995 film Whisper of the Heart.

Based on a manga by Aoi Hiiragi, Whisper tells the story of Shizuku Tsukishima, a dreamy, bookish junior high girl. Shizuku loves nothing more than to read stories, and whenever she takes a book out from the library, that same name is always on the card before hers: "Seiji Amasawa".

While she doesn't actively search for the owner of this name, she wonders who it will be, and does end up running into Seiji, in a story about an antique shop, first love, and finding one's gift as an artist, as well as cats, a doll, and John Denver's "Country Roads". The plot is building to nothing larger, but nothing smaller, than a series of events in one girl's young life. But these events are rendered with such honesty and beauty that they are captivating.

The sense of reality is also brought out by the art and animation, which create a realistic, detailed picture of modern Japan, from the Tsukishimas' cluttered apartment to the treasures in the "Earth Shop" to the library and the convenience store. Shizuku's fantasy sequences also boast distinct painted backgrounds by Japanese artist Naohisa Inoue, based on his paintings of the imaginary land "Iblard". His work can also be seen in the short film "Iblard Time", which are stills of his painting with some animated add-ons.

Even though I was much older than Shizuku the first time I saw this movie, I had an instant connection to it. The way that Whisper of the Heart depicts the fear and frustration of a budding artist is timeless, and there are scenes that feel so true to life they're tearjerkers. The fact that Shizuku and I share a lot of interests also helps to make the film resonant.

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Kiddie Cronenberg and Raging Hubris: A Comparison Between 4Kids and Fred Wolf Baxter Stockman

I'm calling it now: 4Kids Baxter Stockman is Fred Wolf Baxter Stockman done right.

Of course, "done right" usually suggests a lack of the original's flaws, or a preference on the part of the person making the statement. In this case, neither of those things is true.

Instead, 4Kids Baxter Stockman has the same flaws as his counterpart, but he's better-written and these faults aren't as exaggerated. And I do like both characters equally, since they appeal to me in a lot of the same ways, but also have differences beyond the physical…yet I know what makes a good character, and 4Kids Baxter is that. He's handled in a way that suggests more craft and care on the part of the writers.

I realize the comparison might seem surprising. After all, one Baxter is racelifted and the other isn't (which is also part of "done right"). 4Kids Baxter Stockman doesn't turn into a fly, but instead loses more and more of his body and then becomes a brain/eyeball/spine travelling through various robotic forms.

Characterization-wise, you could also say 4Kids Baxter is defined by his arrogance, while Fred Wolf Baxter is defined by his cowardly nature, at least as a human. (I'm primarily thinking of Fred Wolf Baxter as a human character, 'cause the personality he has in that form is the one that makes this comparison work). But again, they have more in common beyond that difference.

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Animation Appreciation: Daria

It's cliche for a geek girl to say she's a fan of Daria, but the show also has an appeal that transcends age and time in life. I was in high school at about the same time Daria was, but the series is a great character study, and also a mockery of evergreen human faults. Both of these things ensure that it remains forever fresh to me.

Daria was originally a character on Beavis and Butt-head, a fact I didn't find out until years later because Daria began her series by moving to a different town, and the tone and art style of both shows were very different. Daria herself is smart and sardonic, but also apathetic, poking fun at the human foibles around her, in the name of nothing more than doing it—but at times, a sincerity of belief does appear. Her best friend is artist Jane Lane, and Daria is similarly not "popular".

Telling stories from the point of view of the outcast is a well-worn trope, as it allows for characters to comment on the faults of society in ways more frank than the upper echelons could.
But outcast characters in this role have so rarely been young girls.

Daria serves the standard dramatic purpose of the outcast, but by being a girl, and being a main character, she gives something to the female audience that we rarely get: assurance that sometimes it's okay to say when the emperor has no clothes.

At the same time, Daria is not a perfect character, and her foils are not strawmen. In fact, Daria is a great character exactly because she does have flaws, she makes mistakes. If she were merely wish-fulfillment, she wouldn't be as engaging.

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Animation Appreciation: Super Dimension Fortress Macross

In January of 2008, Space: The Imagination Station (the Canadian equivalent to the ex-Sci-Fi Channel), started airing Robotech at a breakneck pace of two episodes every weekday afternoon. This didn't last long, but kicked off a long and happy interest in the first component of this anime mash-up: the 1982 giant robot series Super Dimension Fortress Macross.

Make no mistake, while there is a something which drives my interest in all things Macross, the entire show is worth watching and worth praising, and I am entertained by all of its facets.

In the year 1999, an alien war fortress crashed to Earth. Ten years later, the remains of the fortress have been rebuilt into the Macross. On the day of the launch, the fortress is attacked by aliens called the Zentradi. Hikaru Ichijo, a young stunt pilot, finds himself accidentally recruited into the army and decides to stay there, while he gets involved in a love triangle between Misa Hayase, his older military superior, and Lynn Minmay, a young up-and-coming pop star.

Meanwhile, it seems that the war with the Zentradi won't be won by guns alone. The Zentradi develop a fascination with human culture and the male soldiers start defecting, beginning a chain reaction that leads to a military alliance and the Zentradi striking back against their superiors.

Very few works can hit that sweet spot of appealing to multiple audiences while staying true to a single story and motif. SDF Macross appeals to fans of war and mechs, to fans of romance and character drama, and those in between. Both of these sides feed off each other, work together, and make the story stronger.

But if you tried to define the tone of SDFM, it would be easy. SDF Macross is, despite its images of war, violence, and death, ultimately an idealistic series. It's one where love and music and accidentally appealing to mutual humanity are what win the day.

The series is also capable of slapstick comedy and pessimism, which only enhances the idealistic parts. When a series is capable of moving outside its "comfort zone", that informs us that it is capable of looking at the world from many viewpoints, and becomes richer for it.

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Animation Appreciation: The Collective Animated Shorts of the National Film Board of Canada

I am cheating again. But I have to cheat: there is none out of my favourite shorts that I would pick above the others, and the entire library deserves kudos.

It always breaks my heart when animation fans, upon finding a Canadian-produced cartoon they don't like, declare all Canadian animation to be garbage and that our country should stay far away from doing it. We're just as capable as any other land mass of making great cartoons, and this oughta prove it.

In addition to the films and documentaries it's known for, The National Film Board of Canada has been producing and distributing animated shorts since 1941, in a multitude of forms, styles, and purposes.

They range from moralistic children's animation to sleek art pieces, from original stories to local folktales, and are brought to life cel, computer, and various solid materials. Television series showed these shorts to the public, while others have been broadcasted singly on public television, or released in themed video collections. Many can be found online, though not always legally.

Here are my personal favourites and their directors:

Two Sisters by Caroline Leaf
The Owl Who Married a Goose by Caroline Leaf
How Wings Are Attached to the Backs of Angels by Craig Welch
Bead Game by Ishu Patel
Paradise by Ishu Patel
Getting Started by Richard Condie
The Big Snit by Richard Condie
Why Me? by Derek Lamb and Janet Perlman
Strings by Wendy Tilby
When the Day Breaks by Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby
La Merle by Norm McLaren
Blankety Blank by Norm McLaren
Walking by Ryan Larkin
Street Musique by Ryan Larkin
Sleeping Betty by Claude Cloutier
The Log Driver's Waltz by John Weldon
The Sand Castle by Co Hoedman
Hunger by Peter Foldes
Mr. Frog Went A-Courtin' by Evelyn Lambert

It's impossible to choose one of these as my most favourite, because they all offer different things, and are done by different directors. Still, I'm thankful that my country's given me these options, and these fantastic shorts. I've probably even forgotten a few of my favourites, but there was the big list.

Some Words against Griffith Apologism

Griffith wasn't manipulated by the God Hand. If he was, the entire story, all the hate and all that Guts has fought for, would be meaningless. It wouldn't be a personal conflict anymore, but yet another story about a hero being besieged by faceless villains. That Griffith made that choice, and personally destroyed Guts and Casca, is what makes the story meaningful.

And the evidence is strong that becoming Femto wasn't the result of manipulating Griffith, but of showing exactly who he was all along.

Regarding Griffith's personal character, well, it's clear he was a bad seed even beforehand. While it might be argued that his attacks on the royalty were simple retribution, Griffith is very, very good at these things.

Someone who leaves others to burn to death or arranges for the kidnapping of a child to be used as a bargaining tool, regardless of circumstances, can't be seen as a fine, upstanding individual. There was something dark in Griffith, or destiny would not have chosen him to become a member of the God Hand.

But let's look at the Eclipse itself. At that time, Griffith was a ruin of a man, mutilated in body, mind, and spirit. About to commit suicide. The Hand offered him a way out.

Some claim Griffith was not in his right mind when he made the bargain, and therefore the results can't be held against him. But, while Griffith was worn down to almost nothing, the Hand appealed to what we had seen of Griffith before, and they did not manipulate Griffith: they reminded him.

And they reminded Griffith of things that were completely true. First, that he had ambitions, dreams that now would be impossible to fulfill for a crippled man in a medieval society. All he could do is sit in a chair and be fed by Casca, a scenario which, no matter how bucolic it was, represented Griffith's worst nightmare.

They told Griffith he would only achieve his dreams through strife and bloodshed, and they still were not lying. The Sacrifice would be just another example of the way that kingdoms were founded on mountains of corpses, which is a fact of Midland.

Griffith was never lied to at any point, but simply shown the actual choice before him: make the Sacrifice, or lose his dream. He chose the dream. He said "yes" to the wholesale slaughter of his men, but it was consistent with the Griffith we saw, what Griffith would have wanted.

On some level Griffith must have valued his men, or the Sacrifice would have been meaningless, and yet Griffith still made that choice. We have seen before that he has the capacity for evil, and that ambition is what drives him above all else. Even his own body is a tool for achieving those ends.

Further proof is that as Femto, Griffith singled out Guts and Casca for special tortures. Femto would not have done this if he did not possess Griffith's hates and wants—if he wasn't Griffith. The two beings are the same, and what Femto does is only an expression of the evil that Griffith already had inside him. Griffith was only told the truth, and reacted as one expected him to.

Animation Appreciation: The Simpsons

The Simpsons is something that has been so integrated into American and Canadian culture that any discussion of it will be redundant. Everyone knows what this show is, everyone knows how long it's been around, and how it is so quotable. But my interest in The Simpsons has undergone a personal revival, and it makes the series easy for me to talk about, even if I'm not bringing in anything new.

While the better days of the series are behind it, the best seasons of The Simpsons are still what define the series in my head. I grew up with The Simpsons like everyone in North America did, but I've only grown to have a strong respect for it as an adult. This means that watching the series again was a whole new experience.

The Simpsons is a series that functions on multiple levels, and despite the belief that it celebrates lowbrow comedy, each of the best episodes are packed with allusions and references, deliver jokes by the ton, and contain both earnest human feeling and point-blank satire. Usually nothing gets too callous or too sappy, and the best episodes get better as you age, able to see more and more of the show's different levels of humour.

The Simpsons is also a great example of the way that you can take stereotypes and build something amazing out of them. The Simpson family are a deliberate throwback to the sitcoms of yesterday, and can certainly be distilled into a set of quick, stereotypical descriptions. The type of character each Simpson is, based on their age, gender, and occupation, does nothing to surprise the viewer. But the way the series tells its stories makes up for that. Much has been written about the way that (pre-jerkass) Homer is a far richer character than you might think, but that case can be made for all of them, including Maggie.

My personal favourite Simpsons are Lisa and Homer, again in their better days. Lisa I like because I can relate to being the smart outcast, but the fact that she's allowed to be wrong, and allowed to be childish, is what really sells her. Homer, well, we all dislike the fat idiot dad, but at least Homer is caring (but stupid), he's actually called out, and we can respect his passions as long as we forget these things are treated as strictly male indulgences.

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