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Author: Elwin Cotman

Record of Lodoss War and Subtle Subversions

Record of Lodoss War and Subtle Subversions

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SPOILERS!

If you like high fantasy, do yourself a favor and watch Record of Lodoss War, the original 13-episode OVA from the early ‘90s. For a while it was the most notable fantasy anime, though the years have seen its acclaim diminish. Thankfully, the years have also provided a more varied amount of fantasy within the anime medium. Back in the day, the first three episodes were on constant rotation on SciFi Channel’s “Saturday Anime.”

I first watched it when I was a boy and it left a large impression. Character designs were by the great Nobuteru Yuuki, who did the legendary Vision of Escaflowne and the legendarily awful Angel Cop. Out of all anime designers, he gets the idea of weight. The characters’ armor looks heavy to wear, even painful. Their clothing is wrinkled and creased. Books are coated in dust, staffs are gnarled, elves have rabbit-sized ears, and oh LORD the dragons!

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My Inspiration: Black Canaan

My Inspiration: Black Canaan

Black Canaan-small

He was clad in ragged trousers, but on his head was a band of beaten gold set with a huge red jewel, and on his feet were barbaric sandals. His features reflected titanic vitality no less than his huge body. But he was all Negro — flaring nostrils, thick lips, ebony skin. I knew I looked upon Saul Stark, the conjer man.
— “Black Canaan,” by Robert E. Howard

A poor man, a black man, but still a king. A king with a realm he carved out himself.

In my first story collection, The Jack Daniels Sessions EP, there is a novella about a young boy who sees dead people. Very original, I know. The gist is that he has shamanist powers that have lain dormant in his genes. At one point, he is told a story about a plantation shaman who empowered the slaves with his magic, enabling them to sabotage the farm. There is also a legend about runaways joining up with Indians in the swamp, my own riff on the Black Seminoles. The boy’s exposure to his African roots is an uncomfortable one for him, sometimes physically so, as it is a part of his lineage he had no awareness of.

The episodes of slave revolt are based on history. It was also history I had to seek out myself. The teaching of black history in schools is such an insidious con job, it angers me to write about it. Fifty years ago, there were downtrodden blacks, then good white people passed laws and they could sit at a lunch counter. One hundred and forty-six years ago, there were slaves, then good white people passed a law and they were free. (Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot that slavery ended 500 years ago, or 600, or whatever it is now.)

The most we learned about slavery in elementary school was the cakewalk, and that as a form of cornpone entertainment, not the satire on whites that it was. American history classes largely leave out the stories of blacks’ role in their own liberation. They also leave out any information on Africa, continuing the stereotype of the continent as a savage place, not the fertile land of kingdoms it was prior to colonization.

Ironically, one of my earliest introductions to black liberation was a story by someone decried as a racist, Robert E. Howard’s “Black Canaan.”

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Afrofuturism and Empowerment

Afrofuturism and Empowerment

DETCON1This weekend, I have the pleasure of attending the DETCON1 in Detroit, the North American Science Fiction Convention. I have never been to a NASFIC, but it rose on my list of cons after seeing how sincere the organizers were in having a diverse body of panels and panelists. Not just from a standpoint of age and background, but the mediums that are represented too. I will be doing four panels, two of them on Afrofuturism.

Pretty cool. Still, I feel trepidation. When you go on a vacation (and that’s what con-going is), the real world does not stop. And in the real world, the host city Detroit is in dire straits. With property so cheap, gentrification is at an extreme level. Corporations are buying up whole blocks. Citizens who can’t pay their water bills are getting the utility shut off.

It is nice that the city can attract events like NASFIC or the recent Allied Media Conference. But I hope that we aren’t so busy celebrating spec-fic to at least acknowledge that we’re in a city where the poorest people don’t have water.

I don’t know why anybody reads The Hunger Games. You want dystopia, just read Reuters.

But that’s the irony of dystopia. Writers make novels about the types of issues that marginalized communities face every day, and pass it off as something that could only happen in the future.

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Windaria: The Eternal Conflict Between Beauty and Violence

Windaria: The Eternal Conflict Between Beauty and Violence

WARNING! MANY SPOILERS!

“Now I have nothing to regret, because I fulfilled my promise.”

windaria

When it came to the distribution of anime in the U.S., the 1980s were basically the Wild West. A company could do whatever they wanted to try and market to western audiences. Nowadays, nobody would be blasphemous enough to license an anime and dub it with an entirely new storyline; the Internet would rip you a new one. But that is exactly what happened to Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind, which was edited into such a travesty that it would be a decade before Miyazaki trusted his films with an American company. Just For Kids Home Video never met an anime that they couldn’t mess with until it was nigh-incomprehensible.

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Leiji Matsumoto, Bushido, Manhood, and Womanhood, Part 4

Leiji Matsumoto, Bushido, Manhood, and Womanhood, Part 4

Phantom F. Harlock

I wander the edge of the stars
People call me
Captain Harlock! Captain Harlock!
Hoist the skull and crossbones flag
In a sea without tomorrow

Leiji Matsumoto does not write war stories. The pain, chaos, senseless destruction, and especially the death are of no interest to him. He has stated that he is interested in life. As such, his characters live. The only one who dies is Tetsuro and even that becomes part of his mythology. The guy dies in every story! Then he is reincarnated, greater than before. The rest of the characters are untouchable, eternally young, more Greek gods than anime characters. You’re not even going to get a secondary character death like they do in the Star Wars novels every few years. You know going into a Matsumoto story that the heroes will survive everything, even in spite of themselves.

Captain Harlock’s crew are not soldiers. At least, not as we traditionally think of them. The first mate Yattaran will work on his model kits in the middle of a battle. The rest of the crew spends their time napping and playing games. There are cantankerous cooks. Cute kittens. Weepy vultures. Harlock’s unstoppable army of freedom fighters is populated by straight up cartoon characters. Yet they are, without a doubt, heroes. It is interesting that, toward the end of the Harlock series, several red shirts die in battle. Their deaths are skimmed over; this is a universe where they don’t dwell on grief.

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Leiji Matsumoto, Bushido, Manhood, and Womanhood, Part 3

Leiji Matsumoto, Bushido, Manhood, and Womanhood, Part 3

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The Japanese have accomplished miraculous economic growth and have an abundance of material things, but as a result there is pollution and high prices, and we’re far from leading happy lives. We are all just helpless cogs in the machine of the industrial world, especially when it comes to the material aspects of our lives. Will we find a way out of this predicament? History will allow us to determine this.
—Leiji Matsumoto

[Read Part 1 of Leiji Matsumoto, Bushido, Manhood, and Womanhood here, and Part II here.]

Thirty-some years later, still relevant words. I would love to hear Matsumoto’s thoughts on our current mechanization: our attachment to technology, our GMO foods, the surveillance culture that is growing daily. In the seventies, he was writing about fantastical apocalypses. Smack dab in the middle of our man-made apocalypse, the world needs space pirates more than ever.

For this series, I’ve been doing a bit of a Matsumoto re-watch. Nothing serious, just an episode here and there. I’ve been watching Galaxy Express 999. Make no mistake, this is Matsumoto’s Sistine Chapel. All of his themes are wrapped up in this fairy tale, but one is central: human potential over the dehumanization of industry, as represented by the Machine Empire. It is also the story he most wanted to tell, dreaming up fairy stories while the market demanded war tales.

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Leiji Matsumoto, Bushido, Manhood, and Womanhood, Part 2

Leiji Matsumoto, Bushido, Manhood, and Womanhood, Part 2

Queen Millennia DVD-small

Floating down from the sky, lovely angel queen it’s you,
Shaken from the long sleep, lovely angel queen it’s you,
Touching others like a child, loving others for a while
Come and take my hand, my heart,
In time we will be together

[Read Part 1 of Leiji Matsumoto, Bushido, Manhood, and Womanhood here.]

SPOILERS!

Recently, I watched the 1982 film adaptation of Queen Millennia. It was alright, not on the level of Galaxy Express 999 or Arcadia of my Youth. For those of you who don’t know, it is about a race of aliens on the planet La Metal, who, every thousand years, send a queen to secretly rule the Earth. In the far future year of 1999, the aliens are finally going to take our planet, but the current queen, Yayoi, has gone native. Conflict ensues. The movie’s plot is rushed and there are way too many scenes of apocalyptic destruction, to the point it gets boring. On the other hand, it has great sci fi visuals, and the scene where the boy Hajime climbs a skyscraper to rescue Yayoi during an asteroid bombardment is one of the most harrowing things I’ve seen in an anime. The film also has a wonderful soundtrack by Kitaro. There aren’t many things I miss about the 1980s. I distinctly remember being a little kid and wondering why everything was so awful. But I miss the days when bands used to do soundtracks. Tangerine Dream would routinely knock out sixty-minute synth-rock jam sessions that were better than the movies they scored (I’m looking at you, Legend). Toto brought their own brand of spice to Dune. And who can forget Flash Gordon and Highlander, fueled by the power of QUEEN.

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Leiji Matsumoto, Bushido, Manhood, and Womanhood, Part 1

Leiji Matsumoto, Bushido, Manhood, and Womanhood, Part 1

Queen_Emeraldas

SPOILER WARNING!

In my last column, I talked about the epic and fairy tale influences that appear in Leiji Matsumoto’s space opera. The design of his female characters is a notable fairy tale element; the “Matsumoto woman” is arguably the most distinct character design in anime, rivaled only by the “Miyazaki Girl” and the “Akira Toriyama Guy with Pointy Hair and Big Muscles.” Matsumoto’s women are tall, graceful, elfin, long-haired, and pretty much look exactly the same. This uniformity of design makes them seem not only a separate gender, but a separate species from the males. They seem magical, and, in Leijiverse stories, many of them are so. They are often royalty — Queen Millenia, Queen Promethium, Queen Emeraldas, Princess Starsha. They have great and unexplained powers. Their beauty enthralls the men around them. They can either be guides, companions, or witch-like enemies. Again, there is an element of the fairy tale to this. In fairy stories, women are inherently magical. Ordinary qualities such as beauty, goodness, and high birth take on supernatural properties (being able to feel a pea through a pile of mattresses is just for starters). Characters like Queen Emeraldas and Maetel become goddess figures, representing the glory and terror of following one’s dreams.

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Futuristic Myth: The Space Opera of Leiji Matsumoto

Futuristic Myth: The Space Opera of Leiji Matsumoto

The Jolly Roger flying proudly in outer space. A World War II battleship fitted with futuristic technology, on a mission to save Earth from annihilation. A 19th century locomotive that travels the cosmos. These are all iconic visions from Leiji Matsumoto. The legendary mangaka has created heroes such as Captain Harlock, Queen Emeraldas, the Queen of a Thousand Years, and the crew of Space Battleship Yamato (released in the U.S. as Star Blazers). His trademark style of square-jawed men, sylph-like women, and anachronistic technology is instantly recognizable. So are his themes of honor, idealism, and following your dreams.

arcadia

 

I first became familiar with Matsumoto back in high school, through Anime Week on the Scifi Channel. This was a network event in which they showed an anime every night. Most of the movies were perfectly serviceable, with things blowing up and fanservice, but nothing to write home about. Galaxy Express 999 was different.

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The Beautiful Nightmare of The Time Masters

The Beautiful Nightmare of The Time Masters

time-mastersOther writers more eloquent than I have said better things about Moebius and his contribution to genre fiction. I can only attest to what he means to me.

Very few artists have had such an effect on me as Moebius. He’s right up there with the Hildebrandts, Frazetta, Elmore, Amano, and Rackham. When I think of fantasy, his work is what I envision. Completely unreal worlds where everything, from the costumes to the flora to the fauna to the sky itself, is alien to the world we know.

His artistic dreamscapes harkened back to comics pioneers like Windsor McCay, but he took it a step further. Arzach is whimsical, but its also beautiful, and evocative. In those comics, which typically had no dialogue, he lets the images do the talking.

I can’t look at his pictures without having my imagination go wild. The image at left by itself could inspire a thousand stories without a shred of context.

I’ve always been more into fantasy than science fiction, but I love some science fantasy/planetary adventure. That’s why I have a soft spot for Robotech and old NES games like Bionic Commando, Captain Harlock, Dreadstar, etc. It’s this idea of a magical, mythological future. Give me high adventure, alien creatures, space ships with lots of glowing buttons, and people flying on dinosaurs and I’m good to go.

My interest in space opera ultimately led me to Heavy Metal, the magazine for which Moebius was founder, inspiration, and superstar. Whenever there was an Arzach story in those old 1980s issues, they emblazoned his name across the cover.

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