What We Can Learn From ‘Henkei Shojo’

NOTE: This post contains material that is not safe to view at work. Specifically, numerous panty and bra shorts from a Japanese miniseries featuring girls who are clearly underage because GOSH DANGIT JAPAN WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU.

A popular urban legend says that famed Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki once said that anime was a mistake. Considering how the most popular stereotype of anime depicts of being crammed full with underage girls whose panties and bras are frequently visible, that quote might be on to something. If nothing else, it gives the impression that Japan is full of sexual deviants who are desperate to find any excuse to feature schoolgirls in morally questionable outfits, and that’s before all the tentacles show up.

This short miniseries does nothing to dispel that stereotype:

Well, that’s… something. Let’s break it down and see what writers can learn from girls who turn into vehicles.

What the video does well:

*It does an excellent job with random humor

The best thing about this miniseries is that it masterfully uses a random joke so well: the idea of girls turning into cars, fighter jets, and ships for the flimsiest of reasons, complete with over-the top transformation scenes, leaving a non-transforming onlooker to stare on in stunned silence. While humor relying on sudden, over-the-top elements at random times doesn’t always work, it can provide some great laughs, especially if it’s so ridiculous it has no chance of being taken seriously.

*It does a great job portraying laughably ineffective powers

My favorite video in the series features one girl transforming into a battleship to save another girl on a sinking life raft, complete with the music, the elaborate changing sequence, and falling into the ocean… only to reveal that the battleship is only two feet long, making it all-but-useless when it comes to actually rescuing girls stuck on sinking life rafts in the middle of the ocean, ensuring that she’ll die a miserable, watery death.

This use of a giant buildup with a pitifully weak payoff is one of my favorite comedic acts, because when we think something is going to be awesome, intentionally subverting it for comedic effect can almost always get a belly laugh, like superpowers that turn someone into popcorn.

What doesn’t work as well:

*It sexualizes underage girls, complete with numerous shots of their underworld.

Excuse me for a moment.

*Goes off and drinks bleach*

Okay… let’s do this.

If the girls in the videos above wore normal clothes, like jeans or long-sleeved shirts, and we didn’t see their undergarments when they changed, it would be a lot less creepy. It wouldn’t leave me feeling like this guy. Unless you’re willing to risk being labeled a closeted pedophile, don’t have any underage characters do anything that could even be remotely considered sexual. Tight clothes, bra shots, panty shots, ridiculously tiny skirts that no one would or should wear in real life – including all these things in your work is only asking for trouble and possible visits from your friendly neighborhood police officers.

The Bottom Line:

NEVER, EVER FEATURE UNDERAGE CHARACTERS IN ANYTHING REMOTELY SEXUAL ARG.

Favorite Moments: ‘Famous Movie Lines, Animated’

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The videos:

Why they’re great:

I was originally going to post a discussion today about my favorite background characters, but a friend introduced me to these brilliant shorts by Youtube animator Nick Murray Willis, and I just had to show them to the world for two reasons:

1. They take famous movie lines and reinterpret them in new and hilarious ways.

2. To help such a talented animator get more exposure.

Also, if you happen to see this, Mr. Willis, please do a video with nothing but Gandalf sketches. Thank you.

Favorite Moments: To Infinity and Beyond!

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The video:

Why it’s great:

Buzz Lightyear’s catchprhase is one of those sayings that so catchy and memorable, but falls apart when you apply logic to it. Robot Chicken takes that logic to show what would happen if Buzz really tried to go beyond infinity, proving that applying reality to inspirational or motivational catchphrases can result in some really funny moments.

I know Kung-Fu: A look at the duels in the Matrix Saga – Part 4

We continue our examination of the duels of ‘The Matrix’ saga this week with a look at the animated anthology film, ‘The Animatrix,’ which, like ‘Enter the Matrix,’ presents several side stories that help flesh out to the film’s universe. Unlike other entries in the series, it’s light on duels, having just two of them, but one of them is one of the series’ best.

Thadeus and Jue spar

Emotional Context: A ship’s captain and his lover spar for fun and relaxation (and possibly sex)

Analysis: If you’re looking for an attention-grabbing way to start off a story, it’s hard to go with a swordfight where both participants are blindfolded, phenomenally skilled with swords, and whose preferred method of foreplay is slicing each other’s clothes off… only to have their fun interrupted by homicidal robot squid.

Storywise, this duel helps to establish Jue and Thadeus’ skills in the Matrix; specifically, their agility and coordination, which will come in handy when Jue pulls off some extremely harrowing jumps that would leave anyone else with shattered legs. But what’s more important – and subtle – is that it establishes their emotional bond. Both are so comfortable with each other that they’re willing to swing swords at each other for fun, and that familiarity and affection adds to the stakes as the two fight to ensure Zion will know of the oncoming attack by the machines: Thadeus works to keep their attackers at bay long enough for Jue to complete her drop. Both know what’s at stake, and trust in each other to complete their missions. They do, but at the cost of their lives.

Duo attempts to convince Cis to re-enter the Matrix

Emotional Context: A man attempts to convince his friend to re-enter the Matrix

Analysis: Of all the duels in the Matrix trilogy, few have the fight itself be so integral to the story. In this instance, ‘Program’ is all about such a duel, balancing swordplay with emotional sparring as one character attempts to persuade a friend to join him in abandoning Zion and re-entering the Matrix, with the emotions and destruction increasing in pitch until the climax. There are no wasted shots here; everything is tight, focused, and constantly moves the story forward, without any action for the sake of action, eventually culminating in the revelation that the whole thing was a training exercise.

What I like about this duel is how it manages a perfect balance between action and the conflict between the two characters, a conflict that makes us, the viewer, ask if we would want to go back to an fake world or live in a harsh, hard one: While Cis is told she passed the test, I couldn’t help but be struck by the saying, ‘What’s real doesn’t matter; what matters is how we live our lives.’ It made us wonder if there is a correct answer to the test. People aligned with Zion would say that reality is more important, while those in the Matrix would say otherwise. When duels make their viewers ponder their own philosophical views long after the movie is over, it proves that some of the best fights are about a clash of ideas, and not bloodshed.

However, while this is an excellent duel, I personally think that Duo is perhaps attacking a bit too hard here; if you’re trying to convince someone to abandon their life and join you, trying to chop them in half is not a good way to do it. However, this can be interpreted as Duo’s increasing anger at Cis’ refusal to join him, so your millage may vary. Still, it’s worth remembering that a character generally won’t convince another to join her/him/it by trying to kill them. Better to play around with them instead of trying to hack off body parts.

Tune in next week where we’ll take a look at the final film in the Matrix series, ‘The Matrix Revolutions.’

Favorite Moments: The Lion King (low budget)

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The video:

 

Why it’s great:

If you were a little kid during the 90’s, you were probably traumatized by seeing Mufasa fall to his death in ‘The Lion King’. I should know; I was one of those kids who was heartbroken at seeing him become wilderbeast roadkill, and another unfortunate victim in Disney’s never-ending quest to kill all parents.

So, naturally, someone had to take the scene and remake it in 3D, but with incredibly silly animation that looks like it was saved from an animation student’s recycle bin, making another great example of how taking a dramatic scene and interpreting it with silly, amateur production values can make for comedy gold.

What we can learn from ‘Let’s Go’

Armageddon. Ragnarok. The end of all things. Almost every culture and mythology has its version of the moment when everything ends and the human race is wiped out.

But what if someone survived?

A few days ago, I came across the above music video, which tells the story of a Chinese astronaut who devotes his life to making it to the Moon, only for it to be all for nothing. Though only a little over three minutes long, it’s a gripping story, so let’s take a look and see what it does well.

You audience admires determined, focused characters

Though he gets no lines, or even a name, the astronaut in the video gets our attention thanks to his strength of will: Thanks to a very efficient montage, we see him devoting everything to accomplishing his dream of getting on the Moon, sacrificing joy, happiness, or even love. Yet, we still root for him to succeed: How many of us wish we could devote every waking moment of our lives to accomplishing our dreams? Sadly, many of us can’t, which makes us envious and (begrudgingly) admiring of those who can. The same goes for fictional characters. Perhaps your character wants to become president, or go into outer space, or win a spelling bee. Seeing them striving to accomplish a dream makes for compelling drama as they learn whether their dream is really worth everything they’re sacrificing.

It’s important to note that determined, focused characters don’t need to be heroes. Consider the T-800 and the T-1000 in the first two Terminator films, Sauron from ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ and the Thing from the 1982 Universal film of the same name: All three have solid, achievable goals (kill John Conner, take over the world, and take over the world by assimilating everyone on it), and stop at nothing to achieve those goals. Both antagonists and protagonists benefit from laser-like focus, and when their strength of wills clash, it can make for some of the most compelling drama ever put to page or screen. Need proof? Consider Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in ‘Return of the Jedi’: The former wants to redeem his fallen father, and the latter wants to convert him to the dark side. Neither will budge, and their duel of wits becomes what is arguably the most dramatic sequence of any Star Wars film:

Consider exploring what would happen to the lone survivor of a world-ending event

What would you do if the world was destroyed, and you were the only survivor? What would you do? How would you live? Would you even try to, or let yourself succumb to despair and throw yourself out the airlock? In the case of the music video, the astronaut realizes that what really mattes to him most is achieving his second chance of experiencing love, and he stops at nothing to make it happen.

While destroying the world shouldn’t be done lightly in any medium, doing so has the advantage of forcing a character to confront reality without all the masks that they put up to protect themselves from other people and society at large. Do they go nuts and indulge their every whim? Succumb to despair and meaninglessness? Or do they defy the odds and refuse to give in, searching for others who might have survived, or chronicling everything for whatever sapient life form comes after them? There are countless possible answers, and wanting to see what happens to isolated, vulnerable characters will keep an audience engaged in our stories.

Consider having your character escape/navigate/survive the fallout from a world-ending event

When something big – like a building, a city, or a planet – is destroyed, it creates a lot of debris and wreckage. In some situations, it gives us an opportunity for a unique action scene of characters having to escape said debris. ‘Let’s Go’ has the astronaut fighting to reach the space station before it gets out of reach, but to do so, he has to go through a debris field consisting of wreckage from Earth, making it extremely difficult for him to reach his goal, and with the promise of certain death if he fails.

When writing our own stories, having to navigate the ruins of a wrecked mega-structure can lead to some exciting action scenes that we don’t get to write very often. If the opportunity arises, embrace them and milk them for all they’re worth. One of my favorite examples comes from 2016’s ‘Independence Day: Resurgence,’ in which David Levinson and friends have to dodge falling debris sucked up from all over the Earth that subsequently rains down on London.

Consider having your character/s decide to accept death and pass the time as best they can

In disaster movies, it’s very common for the survivors and main characters to either find a way to stop the disaster, or start rebuilding afterwords, hopeful and upbeat that one day, things can return to normal.

But what if they couldn’t? What if they had no chance at all of rebuilding, or surviving, and death is inevitable?

One type of story we don’t see too much of these days is the disaster story where there’s no way for the characters to survive in the long run. It’s easy to understand why: Audiences want a happy ending, or a hopeful one. A story where everyone is going to die, won’t leave them feeling good after leaving the theater, closing the book, or turning off the game console. But if we choose this path, writers have a unique opportunity to explore what characters might do if they only have a little time left to live. Will they weep? Try to make peace with their god? Resolve any lingering conflicts with their loved ones? Or will they accept it and try to have fun before the end? Both astronauts choose the last option in ‘Let’s Go,’ deciding to play video games together as they drift off into the void.

Choosing the path of inevitable death need not be dark. It can be sad, but it also gives characters one more chance to enjoy themselves, or to choose how they will spend what little time they have left. And if they go out having fun, or healing long-simmering hurts, that can be just as uplifting as a happy ending.

The Takeaway

Our audience will always admire a protagonist or antagonist who has a goal and obsessively pursues it, even at a cost of personal happiness. They’ll be even more interested if that individual is the only survivor of a world-ending event, and applies that determination to surviving or continuing on, no matter how bad things get. But if they are doomed, those characters can become their most interesting selves when they have to decide how to spend what little time they have left.

What we can learn from ‘The Northern Incident’

 

Is there such a thing as a perfect horror story? A few months ago, I took a look at one of the best written examples, and today I want a look at one of the best animated examples: A 2011 animation titled, ‘The Northern Incident’ that freaked me out the first time I saw it, and has remained with me ever since as one of the scariest horror shorts I’ve ever seen… up until the last minute. But before we get to that minute, let’s take a look at what this short does so well.

In a horror story, the more remote and more isolated your setting, the better

In the grand tradition of horror stories being set in remote, hard-to-reach locations, ‘The Northern Incident’ takes place at a cabin in the remote, snow-covered forest far from civilization. In a nice twist, though, the cabin’s just close enough that the man has access to a television and a phone so he can call for help… but when the phone line is cut, he might as well be on a different planet. He has a way back to civilization, but no way to get there without freezing to death. There’s nothing worse, after all, than being in sight of safety, but being unable to get to it.

Consider making your audience hear your monster more than they see it

It might be a cliche, but keeping the monster/threat in a horror story out of sight is one of the best things writers can do. Without knowing what the threat looks like, audiences are forced to use their imagination to create the threat, coming up with horrors more terrifying than anything any writer or concept artist could create. Before they’re fully revealed, all we know about the monsters in ‘The Northern Incident’ is that they’re roughly human-sized, intelligent, and can move with astonishing speed.

While ‘The Northern Incident’ follows this trope perfectly, it masterfully uses another aspect to enhance it: Using sound to show where the creatures are. We hear them knocking at the cabin’s door, walls, ceiling, and even driving a car. It’s one thing to see a terrifying monster, but it’s even more terrifying to know that it’s close by, but only being able to hear it.

Consider making your monster smart and sadistic

While the unseen and the unknown is terrifying, it becomes even more frightening when your audience realizes that the monster isn’t some mindless beast, but something that’s smart. The creatures in ‘The Northern Incident’ are smart enough to know how to hotwire and drive a car, as well as knowing how to disable a phone, but there’s a more subtle horror that’s not easily noticeable at first: The creatures toy with the man. They want to make him afraid, and are holding back on killing him (or whatever they plan to do) to try and drive him mad. They’re sadists, and there are few things as frightening as having your characters deal with something that’s human, smart, and loves inflicting misery on others.

Be very careful revealing that your monster is a joke character

Years ago, my father made an observation that’s stuck with me ever since: ‘The closer you get to perfection, the more obvious a flaw becomes.’ ‘The Northern Incident,’ regrettably, becomes a perfect example of this saying. The first 90% of the story is a masterpiece of pacing, animation, sound design, and horror. Then, in the final minute, we finally see what has been stalking the man and his dog… Furries.

The first time I saw ‘The Northern Incident’, I was shocked at the ending, and not in a good way. All the horror, the tension, and the scares were forgotten as I realized that all of it had been the setup for a joke, retroactively ruining everything that had come before.

For years, I’ve thought about why I find the ending to ‘The Northern Incident’ to be such a disappointment; other films effectively blend horror and comedy, so why does this one fail? I think it’s because the tone isn’t consistent with what comes before. By the end of the short, we – the audience – have been conditioned to expect a serious horror story, and the revelation that the man was attacked by furries retroactively makes us realize that everything that came before was a lie to throw us off guard. Had there been more comedic elements earlier, or hints about the creature’s true identity, the ending would have been easier to accept. As it is, it’s proof that while out-of-nowhere endings are memorable, they should at least fit with the tone of what came before.

The Takeaway

When doing a horror story, set it in a location far away from help (or have it so that characters can see help, but can’t get to it) and consider keeping the intelligent and sadistic monster hidden, with the audience hearing it instead of seeing it. When it comes time to do the ending, it’s okay to try something different, but keep the tone of it consistent with what came before.