In space, no one can hear you scream at your Xbox: A critical review of “Aliens: Colonial Marines” (2013)

This day, Feb. 29, is a day that only comes around once every four years. So why wouldn’t we want to waste it by talking about a video game that many considered the worst game of its decade, namely “Aliens: Colonial Marines”?

When I recently saw “Colonial Marines” colonizing a bargain bin, I thought it was finally priced right for me to check it out. The idea that it was terrible was pretty drilled into my head. But was that fair? After all, the game spent a seemingly never ending amount of time in production, and it claimed to be the inheritor of James Cameron’s 1986 sci fi thriller classic. With that to live up to, it’s only natural that it would initially disappoint. Now, years after its release, would the game’s true merits be easier to see?

No. Of course not. It was then, and is today, a terrible game.

“Colonial Marines” begins with a bunch of the titular space meatheads investigating the abandoned transport ship from “Aliens.” When it turns out to have an unexpectedly healthy xenomorph population, they switch to investigating the abandoned colony of Hadley’s Hope, which goes equally well. Dwindling in number but never in snappy quips, the marines have to battle xenomorphs of all sorts and Weyland-Yutani mercenaries as they try to escape the colony with their limbs intact.

There are not a lot of things to like about “Colonial Marines,” so we’ll get them out of the way first. The music is good and the environments are good and Lance Henriksen is great. Composer Kevin Riepl took a lot of direction from the original “Aliens” soundtrack, and some of the in-game areas were designed by the late Syd Mead, who designed some of the environments in the 1986 film.

That Lance Henriksen is great needs no elaboration. He’s Lance Henriksen.

Although this adds authenticity and quality to the game, it begs the question: If the best parts of “Colonial Marines” are ripped right out of “Aliens,” why shouldn’t one just watch the movie instead? The game doesn’t help itself out by splattering around liberal amounts of xenomorph fan service. Many of the collectibles are straight out of the movie. They’re also placed in a haphazard and inorganic way, and exist solely to tie themselves back to the movie. Look, there’s Newt’s doll! In some random location! Remember that?

In fact, most of the collectibles seem utterly inorganic. The dog tags are just there to be collected for no particular reason. The audio logs make a little more sense, since they are somewhat related to the environments where they’re found, but they never feel necessary. At least a couple – usually those featuring a gruff engineer named Joshua Morris – add some depth and levity a largely dry game.

The unoriginality doesn’t stop there. The dialogue and characters dig deep into the barrel of testosterone-soaked cliches without quality or irony. I actually laughed out loud at a commander whose advise to a chestburster infected marine was to “keep her chin up.” The story is pretty boilerplate for the franchise. Marines show up to kill xenomorphs. Weyland-Yutani thugs show up to kill marines. Someone’s kidnapped a xenomorph queen, because that always works out, and of course she’s the final boss.

Actually, there is a little bit of originality there because another game might make a fight with a xenomorph queen a tense game of cat and mouse or a desperate shootout. But not “Colonial Marines.” It prefers to make it an anticlimactic lever puzzle.

As for the rest of the gameplay, I hope you like shooting things, shooting things with the same samey guns, shooting blobby black things that jump out of the bad lighting. Your enemies are typically xenomorph drones, which are easy enough to deal with. The game practically forces ammunition into your hands, and the aliens don’t take much damage and often glitch out when they try to attack you. I guess that adds some tension because it’s usually a surprise when they do manage to kill you.

When you aren’t fighting aliens, you’re fighting Weyland-Yutani mercenaries, and they are notably more durable and skilled at fighting than the xenomorphs – because why shouldn’t punch clock goons be more effective than the most perfectly designed organic killing machine in the galaxy?

A few defenders of the game point a level where you are largely unarmed and running from an oversized alien called the Raven. It’s one spot where the clunky sci fi action briefly becomes more like survival horror, and it is one of the few times I actually felt nervous playing. But is it a truly tense and atmospheric moment? Or is it just a walking simulator with bad lighting? Or, worst of all, is it as buggy as the other parts of the game once you realize you can just goof your way through by utilizing the AI’s glitchy behavior? Unfortunately, it ended up being a little of all three.

When the game wasn’t ripping off the Alien franchise, it’s ripping off the original “Halo,” which itself was very Alien inspired. “Colonial Marines” has many of the same concepts: the same crashing ship for a first level, the same starting rifle, the same basic HUD, the same everything bathed in the same blue glow. “Halo” was a good game, of course, but it was also from more than 10 years earlier. “Colonial Marines” isn’t much of a graphical improvement, and “Halo” was a much wittier and more organic experience.

Anyway, all of this is why I can wholeheartedly recommend you play “Aliens: Colonial Marines.” Assuming you can find it on sale.

Yes, I know, I just spent multiple paragraphs trashing it. But if you’re the kind of person who loves laughing at cheesy sci fi/horror, then this might be the game for you. Everything about “Colonial Marines” feels like a terrible game trying and failing comically to be a great game. It’s a given that the glitchy gameplay, the brainless heroes and slobbering villains all try and fail spectacularly. But the better things, the bombastic score and dark atmosphere, also back up the campy experience. When the background is surprisingly decent, it makes the crappy foreground look all the crappier. Even the efforts at fan service just point you toward a superior product and remind you that this was supposed to be one too.

In fact, the only thing that gives me any pause in recommending this as a cult classic of cringe is the ending, which is so flat and sudden as to spoil much of the ridiculous over-the-top everything of the rest of the game. “Aliens: Colonial Marines” was aiming for awesome. Most of the time, it was awesomely stupid. But at the very end, it’s just kind of stupid.

“Boogiepop Phantom” (2000) Vol. 8: A critical analysis of “She’s So Unusual”

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the anime “Boogiepop Phantom,” a trippy sci fi-horror mashup that examines memory, aging, the uncanny and other themes. Every week, this blog will analyze one episode of the series at a time, using the episode’s title as an entry point for analysis. This week, we’re analyzing the eighth episode: “She’s So Unusual.”

Along with this episode, “She’s So Unusual” is also the name of singer Cyndi Laupner’s debut album–the one with “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” and “Time After Time.” The singer is often described as “eccentric,” so perhaps it’s fitting the title winds up on a show like “Boogiepop Phantom,” which the word eccentric only begins to describe.

“Unusual” is a not-something, defined by what is not rather than by what is. In order to understand “unusual,” we have to understand “usual.” It can mean common, ordinary or everyday, as well as accordant with usage, custom or habit. Accordingly,
“unusual” can mean uncommon or out-of-the-ordinary, even weird or strange–words that easily describe “Boogiepop Phantom,” just as “weird” easily described another show this blog has covered in the past.

And what is uncommon or not customary in the world of Boogiepop? What is common? During this episode, several times the screen will reveal a quote by the in-universe psychology writer Seiichi Kirima, Nagi Kirima’s father. Once the quote reads: “Time does not exist. Only the illusion of memories exists.”

Time and memory feel usual, common and customary. Time is the forever churning forward tide in which we swim, the unstoppable flow of things happening. Memory is the way we engage with time, remembering where we’ve been and recognizing what is around us. The show in general, with its characters’ complex relationships with past and present, does little to suggest otherwise. But this quote indicates that these commonplace things are false–nonexistent or illusory, like phantoms. So in a place where the customary, common and usual is false, what is unusual? Truth.

This episode appears to be focused on Nagi Kirima, seemingly the “She” of “She’s So Unusual.” The first thing she does is she leaves the frame, saying: “See ya.” It’s an exit not an entrance, which is certainly an unusual way to begin something.

A side effect of the unusual is that it’s often memorable. Something that is out-of-the-ordinary, uncommon, sticks out against the familiar background and remains in the memory, like an unusual friend or episode.

Truth is exactly the kind of thing a magazine writer is supposed to seek out, and Ichiro Kishida, a writer working on a story about Nagi’s father, is the other notable character in this episode. Nagi and Ichiro go on a kind of “date,” in part because Ichiro is investigating the Seiichi family and in part because Ichiro reminds Nagi of someone, an unusual character from her past.

On the date, Ichiro raises, either directly or indirectly, some of the unusual points about Nagi: She is an outsider. She is a loner. She is one of the few people in the series attempting to fight, rather than exploit or be exploited by, the supernatural terrors around her. “I must be sick,” Nagi says to him, as if that explains her behavior. If she is sick, she’s at least lucid, which if healthier than most characters on the show.

Ichiro also introduces the “theory of brain holography,” a subject Ichiro claims Nagi’s father wrote about. The theory states that reality is a hologram, a three-dimensional image produced by light, that the brain is observing. “Sounds like something my father was into,” Nagi quips.

Ichiro continues that perhaps the flash of light that started the series swept up the memories of that moment, which took root as the phantoms we have been encountering ever since.

This blog has already toyed with the idea that the city is like a human memory–a storage system for cataloging and recalling the past–with characters analogous to individual memories and missing people analogous to lost memories. Now, we are presented with the idea that the city itself is a hologram, courtesy of Nagi, but that’s not quite right. The city itself is not the hologram. The city, through its citizens, has been observing the hologram and struggling to make sense of it. The city is the brain that observes the hologram of reality.

Most interesting of all, a hologram is a beam is a beam of light that creates a false image. This is another example of a place in “Boogiepop Phantom” where light does not illuminate–that is, show the truth. Instead, light obscures truth. Falsehoods, clearly seen in the light, are commonplace. Truth, obscured in darkness, is unusual.

“Some say this world is nothing but an enormous hologram,” Ichiro says. “There is no past or present. However, when the human brain matches the correct frequency, it gives rise to the present.”

“The past may still exist,” Nagi replies. Like memory-as-storage, the past is always with us, waiting to simply be brought up by the correct frequency–the correct recollection (as we will learn in this episode, some of the characters who have gone missing are still present, albeit hidden deep beneath the city). In typical “Boogiepop Phantom” style, this conversation is presented from a low angle, with blistering sunlight obscuring the image.

“Existence does not rely on matter because everything is phantom,” another quote from Seiichi Kirima states. Our recollections rely on the phantoms of memory, that which is intangible yet inescapable and helps make us who we are.

For the climax of the episode, we head underground to what Nagi calls the Geo City Project. “A plan they created for an underground city when the economy was good,” she says. This city beneath the city is the unconscious mind of the city’s brain, the hidden depths of its psychic self.

This is where we see Nagi Kirima, the murderous Manticore and the Boogiepop Phantom all engage in a supernatural standoff. There’s a bit of body horror, between the Manticore’s fingers growing unnaturally long and the missing people wired to the walls. Taken with the oppressive darkness, it recalls Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” but the darkness serves another purpose as well.

It is underground that we finally learn the thing we have been calling Boogiepop is actually a copy–a phantom based on the memory of the original Boogiepop. It was created the same night the beam of light burst out of the city, and like the other phantoms that came out of that night, it is fading away like a fuzzy memory.

This moment of truth comes in almost total darkness–only the characters can be seen during the climax, and barely at that–furthering the theme that light does not necessarily equal illumination. The truth is out there, but it’s hard to see, making it one of the most unusual commodities in reality.

For many of the characters in the series, the phantoms of memory, as intangible as they might be, can still cause pain. It’s worth noting that the character of Mayumi Kisaragi, the amnesiac woman who lives at the hospital, appears in this episode as well. She is one of the few characters in the series who does not appear to be in pain. She has no past, so she can live “purely,” as Seiichi Kirima might say, although whether that kind of purity is worthwhile is debatable. Her lack of phantoms seems to frustrate her. She struggles to replace them with a notebook to act as an external memory. After all, it is the phantoms of the past that drive us into the future. “How can you say you are not a phantom?” Seiichi asks in the episode’s final quote.

Not the recommended dose of potassium: A critical review of “The Banana Splits Movie” (2019)

In December 2019, the New York Times ran an article about how female directors–like Melina Matsoukas, Greta Gerwig and Lulu Wang–were getting short changed at the Academy Awards (or “largely left out” of the 2020 Oscars “best director conversation,” in more media savvy speak). You know who wasn’t mentioned at all? Danishka Esterhazy, who directed “The Banana Splits Movie” for the Syfy Channel.

You can be forgiven if this film passed you by, but it did happen. Besides, the more pressing question is why the Academy took no notice. Obviously. Is this more evidence of the sci fi ghetto, of horror not being taken seriously by the arts crowd? Or was the movie rightfully ignored as an attempted cash in on the “Five Nights at Freddy’s” franchise?

Young Harley Williams is spending his birthday at a taping of “The Banana Splits,” his favorite TV show about oversized animals that have goofy adventures and definitely don’t kill people. He gets separated from his family trying to meet the cast after the show, not realizing that the Splits–actually intricate animatronics–have been updated with faulty software that gives them a violent streak. Following what was supposed to be their last show, the Splits start killing crew members and kidnapping the audience. Harley has to evade the machines’ malicious machinations and find his family before the show’s Wheel of Endings comes up on “rock out” one more time.

In a few words, “The Banana Splits Movie” is better than it should be but not as good as it could be, and a lot of that is due to Esterhazy’s direction. While I’ve never seen any of her previous films, I will say that under her control “The Banana Splits Movie” looks like a student film, and I mean that as a guileless compliment.

Student films can look more interesting than their professional counterparts because students are usually still in love with making movies, with delighting in figuring out how things can look and how to make them look that way. Esterhazy looks like she loves making movies, and there appears to be a lot of care, and just plain fun, that went into making “The Banana Splits Movie” atmospheric and visually interesting.

The sets are better than average and well photographed, from the novel camera angles framing the dimly lit basements and hissing pop art pipes to the characters’ shadows that creatively fill the screen (the cinematography was by Trevor Calverley and the production design was by Bobby Cardoso, both with thriller credits and both working on an upcoming TV series with Esterhazy).

That’s the better than it should be. The not as good as it could be comes down to the story. On the surface, it’s a pretty straightforward plot of child endangerment and awful people making bad decisions before being hacked up by robots. So why does it seem like there’s some larger statement the film is trying to make about the folly of the worlds we create in media?

The fact the Splits are kidnapping children and forcing them to watch their live show on repeat feels like a sly comment about the film itself, a movie that trots out old characters, far past their purposefulness, the result of media that exists solely to put itself on display. Except, the movie never really develops that beyond handcuffs and a boiler room.

Unless that is the point, that that action has no point, like an absurdist drama.

Unless I’m just making way too big a deal about something called “The Banana Splits Movie.”

To be fair, the film never really develops any of its points, let alone its grander ones. It takes a while for the characters to start getting killed, but once they do, they get knocked down like bowling pins, often at an uncomfortably jarring pace. No one sticks around long enough to expound on or represent any theme, so it’s hard to tell if the film is saying anything at all, whether it’s about corporate greed or the shallowness of social media or the power of friendship or an absurdist media tautology.

Well, at least the rest of the movie is more of a mixed bag and easier to figure out. The performances never rise above just OK. The murders are sometimes quite fun–the ball pit is my favorite–but the CGI is not the best. There’s some dark comedy scattered around, but the film is never funnier than its premise of “retro children’s television show turned into a direct-to-DVD horror film.”

There are plenty of unanswered questions, more than you’ll probably notice, and I guess the ending is set up like there could be a sequel, but something tells me that’s not going to happen soon. Maybe that’s for the best. The visual direction of “The Banana Splits Movie” might surprise you, but it will need a little more time, and a definite decision on its thematic direction, before it’s going to wow anyone as a total package.

“Boogiepop Phantom” (2000) Vol. 7: A critical analysis of “Until Ure In My Arms Again”

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the anime “Boogiepop Phantom,” a trippy sci fi-horror mashup that examines memory, aging, the uncanny and other themes. Every week, this blog will analyze one episode of the series at a time, using the episode’s title as an entry point for analysis. This week, we’re analyzing the seventh episode: “Until Ure In My Arms Again.”

The title of this episode comes from a Prince song, and this is not the first time the series has done this. Prince is also referenced in the name of the “half-finished amusement park” Paisley Park. The references align the episode with original series author Kouhei Kadono’s understanding of pop. His philosophy of pop and pop culture can be read on the Hana Ga Saita Yo blog’s thorough plot analysis of this series in the form of a seemingly comic and self-depreciating interview with Kadono.

For our purposes, we will focus on what the title means in the abstract rather than what inspired it, and “Until Ure In My Arms Again” suggests both time–through the use of the word “until,” which indicates anticipation–and ownership–lover establishing gentle ownership over lover through embrace. Both are familiar topics for this series.

Ownership might seem like an odd subject for an episode that’s big on body horror as we watch a high school boy tear living things apart with his mind. But destruction is a kind of ownership. Up until the end of the 20th century, Black’s Law Dictionary, perhaps the most used law dictionary in the English speaking world, defined an owner in part as: “He who has dominion of a thing, real or personal, corporeal or incorporeal, which he has a right to enjoy and do with as he pleases, even to spoil or destroy it, as far as the law permits.”

More recent edition have shortened the definition and removed the destructive element, but it is hard to disagree with the idea that one aspect of true ownership over something is the right to destroy it with impunity.

When we are introduced to Sayoko and Mamoru Oikawa, sister and brother respectively, Mamoru tears apart the hands of a bully. We see the skin split and the bones snap before the bullies are chased away. Then, Mamoru turns to his sister and kicks her. Then he vomits. What a nice guy.

He repeatedly abuses his sister, both physically and emotionally, to establish a kind of dominance over her. His ability to take things drastically apart seemingly came “one month ago” when the column of light burst over the city, and his first expression of his power was to “take apart” a cup of coffee or tea by impossibly separating the coffee from the mixed in milk. A close up of the coffee cup as he knelt over it shows the brown liquid splitting into black and white. This indicates his worldview: black-and-white, but not exactly good and evil.

Mamoru sees the world in terms of useful and useless, and there’s a lot of useless. “Don’t you think there are too many useless things in the world?” Mamoru asks his sister after “taking apart” a kitten. “I have to take it apart and put it all back together again.”

“My brother thinks that this world is made up form all kinds of random parts,” Sayoko explains this responsibility to herself. “He’s trying to remove all the useless parts.” It’s a responsibility that does not take the world into complex consideration. Mamoru’s view of the world is simple, black-and-white. His view of what is useful and what is useless is limited, and his power easily turns into abuse.

When Mamoru and Sayoko walk home from school one day, Mamoru kicks her down as she starts a conversation. Nagi Kirima stops him from continuing his assault, thinking he’s simply picking on a middle school student. “She’s my sister,” he offers in defense.

“So, it’s OK to punch her because she’s your sister?” Nagi asks. It’s OK as far as Mamoru is concerned. It’s HIS sister. He’ll do what he wants to her.

Interestingly, Nagi Kirima appears from out of nowhere. The siblings are framed in a long shot walking home on an empty highway. No one is around, and yet Nagi is suddenly there, interpurting what appeared to be a world apart from brother and sister.

Sayoko still tries to have control over her brother, but temporally rather than physically. His assault on the highway was prompted by her attempt to bring up the past—dominance by controlling the conversation.

“It’s around this time,” she had said, “I always remember about the past.” The past is their shared past, when they were younger and their ownership of each other was more mutual and respectful, more in line with the sentiment of the title.

Sayoko asks herself when her brother changed, and the phrase “Five years ago” flashes across the screen, assuring us she does not mean when did he gain his terrible power. She’s talking about when they were younger, emotionally dependent on each other in the face of a distant father and physically lost for a while in the woods surrounding the park he designed. These flashbacks are bright and sensitively animated, adding a warmth that is missing from the dark and isolated “present.”

“This brother is not my real brother,” she tells herself of her sibling’s current behavior.
“But I know he’s coming back.”

Interestingly, her brother does kind of come back, but he has to be broken first. What he’s broken of is his illusion of ownership. In a twist, it was never Mamoru who had the power to destroy. It was Sayoko who had the power to grant his desires. Their ownership was always mutual. He was reliant on her for his ability, and she was reliant on him for direction. “I wanted to be his power,” Sayoko says. She got her wish too.

Mamoru should have paid more attention to his past and his present. The flashbacks recall a school play, where Mamoru took the role of the Pied Piper. In that story, a power struggle–the city father refuse to pay the piper for his services–leads to tragedy–the children are taken away. In “Boogiepop,” the children are reunited, but they have to be broken first.

When the source of his power over her is revealed, Mamoru sits exhausted. His sister joins him. The balance of power they had worked out is shattered and put back to where it was when they were lost five years ago, and they sit in largely the same positions as they did then.

“We’re lost again,” Mamoru says.

“Welcome back brother,” Sayoko replies.

Salvageable when wet: A critical review of “The Sinking City” (2019)

It must have been hard to hold onto your sanity as an East Coast private detective between the wars. At least, that’s what the gaming industry suggests. In 2018, we played as a detective with terrible psychological problems encountering frightening Lovecraftian gods in “Call of Cthulhu: The Official Video Game.” Last year, we played as a detective with frightening psychological problems encountering terrible Lovecraftian gods in “The Sinking City.” I can’t wait for this year’s installment.

All snark aside, 2019’s “The Sinking City” is a decent dive into the definitely established genre of Lovecraftian detective. You play as Charles Reed, a detective who travels to the island of Oakmont off the coast of Massachusetts. You hope information obtained on the island, infamous for being half submerged in water following a flood, can help you understand or end the nightmares that have plagued you since the Great War. However, the island is being slowly picked apart by different factions, and you’ll have to assist cult leaders, mob bosses and half-mad researchers as you claw your way closer to the source of your nightmares.

“The Sinking City” is nothing more or less than what it claims to be. It is not an action game, as the combat is loose and buggy. However, despite the “run don’t gun” mentality, it’s not really a horror game either. The monster design is fine, solid if not inventive, and there are a few jump scares, but the game as a whole isn’t particularly scary. It’s never threatening, for one, since re-spawns are forgiving and resource collection becomes easier as the game marches on.

Also, the atmosphere is more Halloween spooky than psychologically repressive. Part of the problem is no one seems to care what’s going on. Fish men move in down the street. A cult takes over the basement of an abandoned church. Students from the local university are disappearing. None of these are half-whispered mysteries. They’re items in the community newspaper. It’s hard for players to be frightened by what’s going on when none of the characters are all that concerned.

However, “Sinking City” does fine as detective fiction. Gameplay involves logic and research rather than weird adventure game style puzzles, and it’s nice that the game gives you the intellectual space to gather clues and draw your own conclusions with a limited amount of hand holding. It’s a tidy little system, which is good because that’s what most of the action is. Main quests and side quests come in two varieties: look for clues and make conclusions or navigate small mazes and shoot at things. The former is interesting, albeit slow paced. The latter is acceptable, albeit frustrated by awkward controls and samey environments (seriously, Oakmont is full of tract housing).

So who would want to play this game? Mythos fans. There are tons of cleverly placed references to the works of Lovecraft scattered around the game. There’s Innsmouth and Cthulhu, but there’s also Herbert West and Arthur Jermyn. When was the last time you saw an Arthur Jermyn reference in media? When was the last time you saw an Arthur Jermyn anything?

There are also things that are not genuine Lovecraft but are genuinely Lovecraftian. An unnamed witch cult on a killing spree, a resurrected witch on a killing spree, even the flood that is slowly claiming the city and possibly ties it to ancient prophecies, all feel very Lovecraft without definitely coming from a particular story. Sometimes it looks a little more Twin Peaks than Arkham, but, whatever. That’s not something I’m going to complain about.

“Sinking City” also has an interesting take on Lovecraftian nihilism. A lot of cosmic horror suggests that the waking world is not what you think it is, and it stops at “you have no real power in the universe.” This game suggests that the waking world is immoral and reality might not deserve to exist, a theme that’s carried faithfully through the game’s thoughtful final sequence and multiple endings. Those endings admittedly feel rushed, but they stay true to the downbeat vision, and as a whole the game is a lot smarter in its presentation than some other, more blatantly anti-natalist, horror I’ve read.

I just wish the dialogue was as good as the plot. It is notably inconsistent. There are multiple dialogue choices, so some of acting ends up uneven since the developers don’t know what order you’ll take things. In one exchange, Reed follows up a gruesome description of a woman’s dead dog with a chipper sign off.

The occasionally off dialogue wouldn’t bother me so much except it highlights that Reed is a kind of a crap detective. Clues that certain people are obviously evil sail right over his head. Some of them are presented as mythos in-jokes, which is fine, but Reed has a habit of trying to bully mob bosses when all I want him to do is maintain a stoic exterior.

In perhaps the most blatant example, Reed starts insulting several armed members of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. I thought it wouldn’t be the smartest idea for Reed to begin mouthing off to angry white supremacists with guns, but I had no option to deescalate the tense conversation. It always ended in a gun fight.

I get that the developers wanted to make a statement about how bad the KKK is, but I thought the KKK made that statement themselves when they slaughtered a warehouse full of Innsmouthers. And wasn’t the point of the game we have to make ugly and complicated choices, and humanity might not deserve to exist? It seems like a strange place to be making an ethical judgment call. Oh well. Pick your battles, I suppose.

And therein lies the problem of the game. Its pros come with caveats and its cons come with excuses. It’s never a deal breaker, but it’s noticeable when it limits the game. In “The Sinking City,” the water is fine–it’s just shallower than perhaps it could have been.

“Boogiepop Phantom” (2000) Vol. 6: A critical analysis of “Mother’s Day”

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the anime “Boogiepop Phantom,” a trippy sci fi-horror mashup that examines memory, aging, the uncanny and other themes. Every week, this blog will analyze one episode of the series at a time, using the episode’s title as an entry point for analysis. This week, we’re analyzing the sixth episode: “Mother’s Day.”

A title like “Mother’s Day” makes it seem like we’re supposed to pay attention to mothers in this episode, and certainly there is no shortage of mother figures for student Shizue Wakasa: her own mother, Sachiko Wakasa, medical authority and dispenser of (not necessarily benevolent) advice Dr. Kisugi, and expectant mother Mayumi Kirsaragi. It is also possible to appreciate the episode purely as a meditation on the troubled turns a relationship between a mother and daughter can take.

But there is often more going on under the surface in this show. This episode opens with a quote, attributed to the in-universe psychology writer Seiichi Kirima, that flashes briefly on screen: “The past will often attack the present with the pain of your memories.” As well as neatly describing much of “Boogiepop Phantom’s” philosophy, it points to a way to how to interpret “Mother’s Day.”

As well as meaning a female parent, mother can mean source or origin, as in “mother of invention” or “mother lode.” Our memories serve as a kind of mother to us, as they are the source of much of identity–we are who we remember ourselves to be, and our memories of past experiences shape current actions and expectations of the future. With this in mind, a clash between a mother and daughter can be seen as a metaphor for the very thing the quote referred to, the pain that results from the past and present conflicting.

This episode is also appears to be one of the straightest horror episodes of the series, both for its presentation–bizarre imagery of course, like the spinning things in Dr. Kisugi’s office, but also the use of an eerie echo to flavor all the narration, the gurgling bass in the soundtrack–as well as subject matter–an opening in a morgue, murder victims and ghosts. It is ghosts that matter the most to a discussion about memory.

Ghosts abound in this episode. For Shizue, the ghost is the repressed memory of trauma and abuse that haunts her subconsciously. For Sachiko, the ghost is the ghost of her daughter, frightening less for its supernatural presence and more for its association with guilt and her own failure to be close to someone she loved.

These are the ghosts that reach out from our pasts and attack our present, and we are not always aware of their presence. We can bury them, like Shizue, who did not realize she wouldn’t wear white because of its association with her mother’s betrayal until she examined herself. Or we can fail to recognize what is happening around us until later, like Sachiko, who did not know the extent of her daughter’s pain until she read her old diary.

It brings up an interesting philosophical question. If memory is tied to identity, but memory can be faulty and poorly informed, then how much of our identity is conscious? Instead of asking how much we are nurture or nature, perhaps we should ask how much of who we are is made up of ghosts we’ve known or ignored.

If we take the episode to be a meditation on mothers and children, then “Love thy Mother,” the quote that appears before the credits, is a simple commandment. If mother symbolizes source, memory and identity, then it’s a request to be respectful of what has made us who we are.

“Boogiepop Phantom” (2000) Vol. 5: A critical analysis of “Interlude”

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the anime “Boogiepop Phantom,” a trippy sci fi-horror mashup that examines memory, aging, the uncanny and other themes. Every week, this blog will analyze one episode of the series at a time, using the episode’s title as an entry point for analysis. This week, we’re analyzing the fifth episode: “Interlude.”

When one thinks of an interlude, one typically thinks of a pause in a play or a movie or a piece of music. It’s something that stops the action to allow the audience to take a break or catch its breath. But the thing that “Boogiepop” wants us to remember is that an interlude interrupts–it can just as easily divide, disrupt and put an audience off kilter.

The fifth episode seems like it’s too early for an interlude in a 12-episode series, but it does function like a kind of microcosm of the entire series, which often feels like it’s built out of overlapping stories that constantly interrupt each other. In this episode, various stories are woven together, their themes and concepts echoing to give a clearer picture of the incomplete whole. Familiar faces like Touka Miyashita and Nagi Kirima, as well as characters like Poom Poom who will be expanded in the future, all make an appearance. All these stories surround a story in the background where Officer Morita teasingly tells his fellow officer about the mysterious Towa Organization. It’s one of the show’s most brilliantly constructed narratives, and certainly one of the best ways to handle something as frequently tedious as exposition.

It’s also arguably the most claustrophobic episode. Morita is first pictured standing gigantic in the center of a police substation, positioned so that he bisects the tiny office. Exterior shots of the station emphasize its small size by burying it in darkness. Both shots are repeated multiple times throughout the episode, grounding the narrative to this spot and giving the other plots something to encircle.

It’s also structurally claustrophobic, with the various plotlines crowding each other and vying for attention. The result is a constant interruption that throws the repeated rhythm off-kilter, making what should be familiar seem unfamiliar, a mood Freud called uncanny.

As soon as an interlude is understood as an interruption, interludes abound in the episode. A ticking clock acts as an interlude on an otherwise lazy evening. A rumor that circulates online acts as an interlude into the flow of the truth. Touka appears mostly as her normal high school self in this episode, although at one point she appears to enter a trance and dispense cryptic wisdom. Is this the Boogiepop personality? And which personality is the interlude into her true identity?

The biggest type of interruption mentioned in the episode–perhaps in the entire series–is the notion of change over time. Change is how the present interrupts the past. It can disrupt both the physical environment and the psychic environment of an identity one has spent a lifetime crafting.

Touka talks to a friend on the train, where they stand among seated travelers, interrupting the uniformity of the scene. “It’s slowly changing, isn’t it?” she notes, looking out the window. “The look of the city.”

Touka is returning from a trip to the hospital where she was once treated for a mysterious psychological break; her parents tell her she was possessed by a fox spirit, furthering themes of change and identity. She went to try to get in touch with her former self, not her possessed self but her past.

“Before I start preparing for the exams, I wanted to take a look at my past,” Touka says. The exams are college entrance exams, and for a high school student, they are a symbol of the future–embarrassing, distant, threatening. The change to get there is frightening, because it involves releasing a part of one’s identity, but its potential for growth can only be achieved by that change.

Certainly Touka’s identity is in flux, since she’s the occasional medium of Boogiepop. She ought to know who she is, but it’s understandable if she seems unfamiliar to herself–if she seems uncanny. Her return to her past is perhaps an attempt to reconnect to her old identity, to make the unfamiliar familiar again and give herself grounding as she looks toward the future.

While Touka finds herself caught between the past and the future–as well as caught between two identities–Mayumi Kisaragi is on the opposite end of the spectrum. She is a 35-year-old woman being treated for amnesia at the same hospital where Touka was treated for possession. She has no short term memory and can’t remember anything since the events of five years ago. Her world is without change, to some degree. Since there is no extensive library of the past, there is no comparison to the present to see what’s different, and no expectations about the future, leaving her in a paradoxical state of pleasant stagnation.

Opposed to change is the Towa Organization, blatantly so. It’s in this episode that it’s given a definition by Officer Morita.”The purpose of this organization is to prevent change int this world,” he says. “The organization doesn’t like change.”

The Organization’s creature is the artificial human that has taken over the identity of Morita, who amuses himself by explaining his true purpose to his fellow officer before using his superhuman abilities to erase the other man’s recent memory, allowing him to do it over and over again. This both erases his ability to comprehend change and sets off the repeating pattern that grounds this episode.

“Morita, haven’t we had this conversation before?” Yamamoto, the other officer, repeatedly asks in confusion. Morita’s ultimate answer is unnerving, giving the exposition a genuine punchline before repeating the cycle, interrupting the audience’s expectations and giving the characters on screen no sense of growth, understanding or change.

Not the Love boat: February 2020 news

February is the month when most thoughts turn to love, but, as horror fans, it’s when our thoughts can turn to Lovecraft. That’s why this blog will be reviewing two somewhat H. P. Lovecraft inspired video games this month: the pulpy, noirish horror that is last year’s “The Sinking City” and the pulpy Giger-esque mess that was “Aliens: Colonial Marines.” Which one will come out on top, the universally kind-of-accepted former or the universally loathed latter? And which will result in the more entertaining review? You’ll have to come back to find out.

Speaking of last year, there might be another review snuck in before this blog determines the best media of 2019 next month. We’ll be expanding our vision from just movies to movies, books and games, so stay tuned, Tonstant Weader.

Finally, we slipped up a little on the Boogieproject, but we’re back on track this weekend. We have one Boogieposting today and another tomorrow. That’ll compete neatly with the Superbowl, no doubt.

“Boogiepop Phantom” (2000) Vol 4: A critical review of “MY FAIR LADY”

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the anime “Boogiepop Phantom,” a trippy sci fi-horror mashup that examines memory, aging and the uncanny. Every week, this blog will analyze one episode of the series at a time, using the episode’s title as an entry point for analysis. This week, we’re analyzing the fourth episode: “MY FAIR LADY.”

To what degree is memory a form of slavery? In our memories, we have a habit of framing things not as they objectively were but as we subjectively see fit. We keep our history in a cage, entrapping characters but forgetting their motivations, all the better to ignore complexity and cast ourselves as simply savior or victim, whatever we see fit when we look back.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be that dramatic. Studies indicate we remember our roles in projects as bigger than they actually were. When asked about past events, word choice and desire for a particular outcome can impact what we recall. We make our memories dance for us whether we mean to or not.

This is one way to approach interpretation of the fourth episode of “Boogiepop Phantom.” The natural first approach is an interpretation of the episode’s name as a kind of allegory. This is not the first time an episode’s name has been a pop culture reference–the previous episode was named after a Prince song–but it is the first time the name has appeared to reflect the plot so closely.

This episode is named after “My Fair Lady,” a musical based on a George Bernard Shaw play, itself inspired by and named for the Greek myth of Pygmalion. All those stories center around a man creating a woman (in the Greek myth it is a sculptor who creates a statue so beautiful he falls in love with it, and the gods make it human; in the play and musical, it is a linguist remaking a woman from the streets into a member of high society).

These stories range from romances, simple and cosmic, to biting social commentary. But “Booiepop” milks the concept for its horror factor, ending up having more in common with Alfred Hitchcock’s tragically creepy “Vertigo” than any of the Pygmalion tales.

Like that movie, this episode seems obsessed with the dark side of improvement, specifically unhealthy comparison. There are obvious attempts by reclusive Yoji Suganuma to “improve” Rie, a co-worker who is the object of his affection. He changes her clothes and hair, all under the guise of helping her, and he convinces himself she appreciates every improvement.

Yoji is not without his own “improvers.” He’s considered “too gloomy” by his classmates, who distinguish themselves by how easily they pass or fail tests. “I’m not asking for Ivy League,” Yoji’s father, who has a history of telling him he’s stupid, yells at him. “At least get into state!” Most tellingly, when Yoji ignores him, his father switches to a kind of bargaining. “You could just do this for OUR sake,” he adds (emphasis mine).

This attitude makes Yoji an easy target for a bespectacled classmate tasked with selling an aromatherapy drug called Type S, which is peddled to people who are unsatisfied with themselves–a common enough reason to take drugs, which are intended to improve performance, enhance mood or expand consciousness. “This can help you change,” she tells him. He accepts it.

If taken literally, the title of the episode is ironic. Rie is not a “LADY.” She isn’t even in high school. She’s a junior high school student who knows she will get in trouble if she’s caught working an adult job. Also, there is nothing “FAIR” about Yoji’s treatment or her or his understanding of her. He invents her character without any consideration of who is truly is.

The key word is “MY.” Yoji sees Rie, and he decides he has ownership over her. He creates motivations for her as readily as he creates them for a digital girlfriend in a computer game he plays. Yoji’s interpretation of reality is skewed, and he’s not the only one.

There are hints that what we are seeing is not quite right. Yoji walks through the city, and we see live action crowds instead of animated ones, as if we’ve broken from established reality. Yoji thinks to himself or imagines, and the voices we hear are buzzy or tinny. It’s a useful tool for indicating the words are his thoughts, but it also reminds us that his thoughts are distinct from objective reality. Yoji’s memories, his interpretations of the past, present and future, are his own, uniquely stained by his perspective, and we see it too.

Even the way the title is presented–“MY FAIR LADY,” all caps–suggests it’s not the same “My Fair Lady” everyone else sees. It belongs to Yoji, or else it’s his attempt to make the title his own.

It might make us wonder how much of the show, with its constant fuzzy edges and muted colors, is happening in something like an objective reality and how much of it is happening more exclusively to the characters onscreen, whether they want it to or not.

Memory is an interpretation of the past. Prediction, whether its a premonition or an expectation, is an effort at interpreting the future. Both are cast from our perspective. Both are attempts to tame or capture our experiences. The real question is to what extent we enslave the past, present and future, and to what extent we are enslaved to our own perspectives.