Museum of the Slightly Curious

Young Justice, Episode 2.16: “Complications”

I am looking at Season Two of the Young Justice animated series, examining its origins in comic book lore and how the show develops its complex mixture of characters and plots. Spoilers for everything up to these episodes.

With the Season Two ending in sight, enough is going on that we get another A/B plot episode.

The episode is framed by the consequences of what happened last time. Blue Beetle is covering up his betrayal by playing the innocent, claiming Mongol escaped, taking the other heroes with him. There’s even evidence to backup up his story that Mongol used an emergency Boom Tube. Nobody seems to make to much of a deal about the use of Boom Tubes so I can only guess the Earth heroes think of it as just another teleport technology — and are ignorant of the connotations that Darkseid and Apokolips are somehow in the background.

Beetle “blames” himself for what happen. The full-activated Scarab seems to have a lot of insight into both Jaime and Dick’s personalities, doing a perfect job imitating the insecure young hero and anticipating how the protective Nightwing would react.

Even with all that going, the main plot is what’s going on aboard Black Manta’s sub. I’m not even going to try and untangle all the factions involved here, how many different groups are sneaking around, who all is pretending to be someone else, pretending to be someone pretending to be yet someone else, or the multi-layered family/friend/rival/enemy relationships are at play. It’s Shakespearean in the complexity of secrets, disguises, and sudden reveals. It’s a lot of fun, my only narrative criticism being how much everything neatly returns to the status quo that existed before this whole story arc began. At least Miss Martian finally knows the truth of Aqualad and Artemis’s undercover mission (though Cheshire and Sportsmaster know as well now…).

The focus then returns to Nightwing on the captured WarWorld. Like his mentor Batman, Dick is a detective. His investigation of the Mongol fight turns up evidence that all is not as Blue Beetle described it. Even worse Jaime, himself is now appearing on TV as the Reach’s advocate and pet superhero, a role he’d never would have been comfortable with before.

Young Justice, Episode 2.15: “War”

I am looking at Season Two of the Young Justice animated series, examining its origins in comic book lore and how the show develops its complex mixture of characters and plots. Spoilers for everything up to these episodes.

This episode rapidly builds up to a whirlwind of action. It is the nature of this season that each chapter isn’t just “an episode” but an progression of the story where things happen and the situation in an irrevocable way.

We start check in on Rimbor, where the Justice League is on trial. Things are not going well, especially since the locals don’t understand why some convenient bribes haven’t ending it already. The choice of the planet Rimbor (traditionally a “wretched hive of scum and villainy” in the DC Universe) seemed quite the well-calculated choice as a trap for the League, since anything like a fair trial is unlikely here.

But even this far across the galaxy, there is news that the Reach is occupying Earth. There is then uncharacteristic datadump of exposition. Young Justice usually presents a minimal amount of backstory for all its many characters and situations. The show either lets information accumulate over time, or just assumes viewers know the comic book lore already. Maybe the producers thought with so many plot elements and bizarre characters active across multiple planets, there just wasn’t enough time to be subtle. 

Characters explain the details of the treaty that restrains the Reach, and about the newly introduced threat of  Mongol and his WarWorld.  Mongol was created by Len Wein and Jim Starlin in 1980, as a space-based enemy strong enough for a punch-out against Superman.  Starlin also created Thanos for Marvel Comics, and his distinctive style explains Mongol’s physical resemblance to him. He was a minor character in DC until his famous appearance in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s 1985 “For the Man who has Everything,” one of the most critically regarded Superman stories of that era. Still, Mongol is a largely a blank slate alien space Hitler who is easily re-interpreted by comic and animation writers as needed. 

Here in Young Justice, after learning what is going on Earth (with some goading by Vandal Savage, who is also lurking around at the League’s trial) Mongol decides to put Earth out of its misery from Reach domination. He brings WarWorld into the Solar System and triggers an all out defend the Earth battle. Even the Reach joins in, revealing that they had a secret spaceship armada. The League and the Team show off their power, teamwork, and tactical skill. Letting heavy hitters such as Dr. Fate, Captain Marvel and Captain Atom hold off the main attack while the covert Team puts into action multiple simultaneous plans to take out WarWorld from within. That sort of well-thought out, logical approach to a goal is  something you rarely see in the genre. Of course it all falls apart due to Blue Beetle now being a double agent for the Reach. Additionally Nighthawk continues to send Arsenal on missions for some reason…

After Blue Beetle betrays the Team we are left with a mystery of what actually happens to them. We can assume they were all Boom Tubed into Reach imprisonment. It’s all a win-win-win for the Reach, since Mongol is defeated, they’ve captured bunch of heroes, and they’ve gained the control of WarWorld. And Earth thinks all the better of them for helping hold off the attack. Mongol repeatedly said the Earth would be better off destroyed by him than in the control of the Reach. And given how often the Reach refers to earthlings as “meat” their ultimate goal seems pretty ominous. 

Backstory: Thoughts on Pokémon Thoughts

When I get back to writing posts here regularly, I’m planning on “rebooting” my series on the newest Pokémon game. I started out writing about it as I was playing — and without knowing much about how its story mode would develop.

I was unprepared for just how different, in subtle but very significant ways, Sword & Shield would be from every other Pokémon game from the past 20+ years. It has surprising approaches and storytelling goals that give the player a fresh narrative experience. The game has learned a lot from all its previous generations and evolved into a new form, just as pokémon themselves do.

I want to focus those differences to highlight why I found the game so different. As before I’ll try to concentrate on the narrative, not the mechanics of the game, though the interaction between those two aspects of playing Pokémon are part of new experience.

Slowpoke

Meanwhile though, much of my time continues going to other projects, particularly a couple computer graphics classes I’ll be teaching this semester. When things settled down I’ll be back to posting about Pokémon and my other usual topics.

Ultra Q: Final Thoughts

blu-ray box

I had some general knowledge of Ultra Q before I started watching the actual episodes. I knew about its historical significance in the Japanese science fiction and monster genres, the way it was a transition between the Godzilla movies of the 60’s and the Ultraman TV shows (though still not that well known in the West, Ultraman remains a thriving superhero franchise, with new series being produced to this day).

My biggest surprise when I began watching was how much the show swung being the poles of science fiction, humor, and horror. Some episodes were light children’s entertainment, while others I do not think were appropriate for children at all. The best episodes for me were ones that developed from the central theme of “Unbalance,” the original concept for the show, before giant monsters became such a feature. The modern world has come unbalanced both as an external realm and an internal experience. From this are monsters born. To me it seems a very East Asian concept. In the West, we tend to expect specific answers, clear cause-and-effect. Aliens are invading. The government is hiding a conspiracy. A gate to Hell has opened up in a small town. But in Ultra Q’s “Zone of Unbalance,” an invasion of space aliens is not the cause of things going wrong, but a symptom. That’s a strong premise for an anthology show of weird stories. There have been two follow up/remakes to the series: Ultra Q: Dark Fantasy in 2004 and Neo Ultra Q in 2013. If I ever get the chance to see them I’ll be curious where they take the “Unbalance “theme.

Neo Ultra Q

Ultra Q is most known for its monsters. Tsuburaya Productions was founded by Eiji Tsuburaya, the man who created the special effects for the Godzilla franchise, and the series is a showcase for their style. Ultra Q episodes included both Tsuburaya monsters than had been built for other films (including a recycled Godzilla costume) as well as new monsters who went on to becomes “stars” themselves and appear in laters shows (such as Pigmon, the Kemur Man, or Kanegon). The monsters, either people in monster costumes or puppets, can (literally) overshadow the intricate miniature landscapes, buildings, or entire cities. These models are amazing creations and it can be sad to see them be crushed, incinerated, or blown to bits at the climax of episode, for all that they were created for just that purpose. The painstaking detail and the fiery pyrotechnics remind me of what was being done two continents away in Great Britain by Gerry Anderson, with with “Supermarionation” puppet shows such as Thunderbirds, which was being produced at roughly the same time. I wonder about what connections and influences there might be between these special effects pioneers.

Thunderbirds explosion

As I have mentioned in my Quick Thoughts about the series, Ultra Q had a very high budget for a Japanese TV series of its time, though in our computer graphics saturated era we think of monster suits and miniatures as low budget. I imagine a lot of the money went into those miniature buildings and props (and into blowing them up). There is also some interesting and effective optical composite work, for instance miniature vehicles and sets appearing in the background of live actors. Sometimes it isn’t used so well, such as where a character vanishes from a scene but parts of their body leave a “hole” in the shot from where the matting didn’t quite work. The more artist and stylized use of opticals are always a treat. A lightning bolt splits a shot in two. A missing person becomes an empty silhouette, which gets filled with clambering reporters asking questions. Credits for an episode might spin across the screen, roll past, or appear in the reflection of a sports car’s hubcaps. Likewise the theme music might be a played as a jangling surfer’s guitar or a bouncy children’s march. The show’s sense of freedom to experiment and try new ideas keeps each episode a surprise.

Within the constraints of half-hour format the show frequency manged to tell quite a complete story. There are a few scripts that leave you scratching your head, but more often a premise, a mystery, a monster, and a resolution unfold. The plots of many giant monster films, from both side of the Pacific, can be a little thin — filler between cities being demolished or titanic creatures in wrestling matches. Condensed down to this format and scale those kinds of outlandish tales can be satisfying mini-epics.

Our heroes

From the perspective of what 21st Century television has become, where Ultra Q seems the most dated is in characters. There is a small cast of continuing characters, particularly the trio of Yuriko, Jun, and Ippei. The series is from an era when there was no continuity between episodes. Aside from the two stories that are direct follow ups to earlier episodes, the various tales of Ultra Q are intended to be viewable in any order. With so many modern shows essentially being serials, we can forget that was once the norm. TV was meant to be broadcast once, maybe have a rerun, and then go into syndication where local stations had no constraints about what episodes were shown or in what order. There was no point in having character arcs or narrative growth. Yet even with that limitation, characters of Ultra Q are little more that quick sketches. We hardly learn anything about their lives outside their work or adventures. Rare details, such as that Jun is an aspiring science fiction writer, have almost no relevance. They and their relationships are always in a “now” and they don’t even seem affected by the bizarre experience they endure. It is almost shocking when the last episode “Let Me Out!” Suggests Jun and Yuriko are dating. Again I wonder how the relationships for the apparent parallel characters in Neo Ultra Q compare. For all the monsters, weird events, and conspiracies of The X-Files, probably the most memorable and lasting parts of that series were the personalities and interactions between Fox and Mulder. Our trio of heroes are sometimes background characters to the main action, even just cameos in some episodes. It’s the scientist who gives his life to stop the monster his jealousy created, the lonely child who befriends a 4-dimensional time-travelling prehistoric bird, or the magician whose conflict between protecting his daughter and having a successful stage show unleashes a demon — these are the characters we really remember, even if they appear for only a single outing.

Tsuburaya and friends

Of course Ultra Q never claims to be a character based drama. Even the thematic warnings about Unbalance are only heard in some of the episodes. The series is an exercise in imagination. What crazy ideas can we come up with this week? An alien invasion? A mole exposed to super nutritious honey? A folktale come to life as a schoolboy’s adventure? Climate change? A salaryman’s soul crushing angst? It’s all there. Somebody came up with a cool optical printing trick? Use it! Look at what we did with this leftover monster suit! Great, use it! That is the impression I get of what developing this show must have been like. Much of the background information on the show is still not that widely available in English. The Eiji Tsuburaya biography “Master of Monsters” by August Ragone is high on my reading list. The website Vantage Point Interviews does have an interesting interview with Yashuhiko Saijo, who played Ippei.

As mentioned, Ultra Q set the stage for the monster-fighting giant superhero Ultraman, which has developed over the decades into an expansive universe of TV shows, comics, movies, and endless merchandise. I have seen a little Ultraman, since the first series did, unlike Ultra Q, get an English version distributed to the United States. I’m excited to see the original episodes, and follow the franchise’s developed, especially now that I’ve experienced its origins.

I plan on doing more commentary on Ultraman, but we’ll see if I have enough to say to do a series of posts, or if I’ll just reflect on each season as a whole.

Quick Thought: Ultra Q, Episodes 24-28

Finishing up my series of comments and observations on this classic 1960’s Japanese tokusatsu, or “special effects” series. Assume some Spoilers for each episode.

I’ll follow this up with an overview of my thoughts on the series as a whole.

The Idol of Goga

Ultra Q steps into the waters of yet another genre: this time with a secret agent story involving international art thefts, kidnapping, and lots of James Bond gadgets and plot twists. It’s a particularly violent and scary episode too, with several onscreen deaths, both from guns and from snail monster flesh melting eye beams. At first our usual trio of investigators seem in over their heads once they get caught up in it all, but even Ippei demonstrates he can be an action hero when necessary.

Speaking of “necessary,” the giant monster in this episode might not strictly have been needed, but it did increase the tension, with an escalating threat in addition to the main plot’s chases, fights, and gunplay. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how many of the kaiju in the series have been puppets, giving it some nonhumanoid variety, rather than every threat being a man in a monster suit.

Devil Child

The Devil Child

Episodes have been getting kind of grim lately. Alien invaders or giant monsters are one thing, murderous ghost children are something else. There’s not only the child in danger aspect, but there’s almost a cruelty in the glimpses into the lives of victims just before their untimely ends. Characters make a couple puzzling references to “the ghost girl and the doll,” which I’m guessing is a well-known legend or folklore ghost story. What’s happening in the episode may be a modern, sci-fi update of that story. Ultra Q is sometimes compared with The X-Files, but this is really the first story that could easily be made to work for either show.

Ultra Q’s occasional narrative framing uses a phrase commonly translated as “Your eyes will leave your body,” but in these subtitles is “You will experience a separation of mind and body.” That is literally what this episode is about, so maybe it is based on an older script from before the show became so monster focused. It also emphasizes that these events are occurring due to the Unbalance that fills the modern world. Unbalance that can make even an innocent child into a devil.

Blazing Victory

Some episodes of Ultra Q have a monster inserted in them for less than justified reasons. This one might get described that way — but I don’t think it should. Joe’s pet lizard is a reflection of the Unbalance that comes to haunt him. He at first he is using “Peter” to reinforce his own confidence, by claiming the animal is predicting the outcomes of his fights. When doubts begin to haunt him and he runs away, hiding as a stage show clown, Peter’s own form becomes unstable. The crisis of Joe’s internal conflict is what brings about the crisis of Peter escaping and becoming a rampaging kaiju. The connections between the Unbalancing of mind, body, and nature is the central theme of the show.

If I was a producer of this episode what I’d be wondering is not why the script needs a giant monster, but do we really need to spend all that money to build this intricate miniature dock and marina, just to incinerate it in a huge fire just because it’ll look cool?

Manga cover

The Disappearance of Flight 206

The above manga cover makes this episode look quite a bit more exciting that it actually is… An airliner disappears into a time-space vortex and gets attacked by a giant walrus. Not much else to say about this one, try as I might. I kind of think somebody in the Tsuburaya special effects department developed some impressive looking vortex techniques with a cloud tank and they needed some excuse to use them. Plus there was this walrus suit lying around left over from another movie. Maybe this series’ lavish budget was running low?

Trapped onboard

Open Up!

The final episode comes with no giant monster in sight, though with lots of unnerving optical effects. It’s haunting note to end on — that the only escape from the pressures and anxieties of the Unbalanced, modern world is into fantasy and imagination — and perhaps madness (reminiscent of Terry Gillian’s Brazil, nearly 20 years later).

This story is the only one to suggest that Jun and Yuriko have a romantic relationship. In the past Ippei clearly has a crush on Yuri-chan, but otherwise the gang has just been good friends and adventuring companions. And I felt bad that the couple were so mean to Ippei, ditching him with his arms full of groceries. I rather hoped the episode would end with him playing some trick on them to get his revenge. Maybe there was an intent to show the consequences of thoughtlessly running away from responsibilities?

Pokemon Play Report 04: Grass, Water, Fire

I am writing about my playthrough of the newest Pokémon game, Pokémon Sword & Shield, concentrating on it as a story experience, rather than on its mechanics as a video game.

First some Pokémon 101, in case you are unfamiliar with the game series:

Here’s the basic story structure of almost every Pokémon game. You are a young pokémon trainer — someone who travels the world capturing and training pokémon and using them in competitive battles (something pokémon seem to like doing). There is a circuit of eight Pokémon Gyms, dojos for pokémon battles, managed by a Gym Leader who specializes in a particular type of pokémon. You face each of these leaders in battle to win a special badge. Collect all eight badges and you qualify for the final Pokémon League competition, where you have the chance to win your place as the Pokémon Champion. Over the course of this journey you have a Rival, who might be an antagonist or might be a childhood friend, but who is on a similar journey to the Championship. There is also a trouble causing “Team” of some sort who are committing crimes or mischief. They tend to be minions of a master villain involved in some nefarious scheme you get caught up in. Those three plot threads tangle and cross over each other at various points before a resolution that sets the stage for the Championship.

Now back to where I am in the newest game.

At this point in Pokémon Sword & Shield, I am on my way to first of the gyms in this region’s Pokémon Challenge. The trip to the Grass Gym Leader Milo (whom I briefly met while he was herding wooloos early in the game) is a route across the countryside were I can look for wild pokémon and encounter the occasional fellow trainer. It’s all about improving your skill and training your pokémon to get stronger and stronger — and collecting many new pokémon, if your goal is to assemble a complete menagerie. As I run through the colorful, artfully designed 3D countryside, it is amazing to consider how far the visuals of the game have come from the black & white 2D graphics of the original Pokémon Red & Blue on the Nintendo Gameboy.

This region of Galar is dotted with standing stones such as those at Stonehenge and other megalithic sites in Britain. Outside the town of Turffield, there is also an enormous petroglyph on a hillside depicting a giant pokémon. The regions of Pokémon games have always been based on real locations, but Sun & Moon’s Hawaii-like Aloha, and now the British Galar really succeed in creating the sense of being in a distinct area. The assistant Pokémon Professor, Sonia, who continues a parallel journey to mine, is studying the petroglyph as part of her research, and connects it to the Darkest Day legends. These ominous tales are of pokémon in their giant dynamax form rampaging across the countryside. It seems like dynamax is going to be an important story element, and not just a new gameplay feature, the way similar power-ups in earlier games, such as mega evolutions and z-moves were.

Milo

Milo’s Grass Gym is waiting for whenever I am ready to take the challenge. Hop is ahead of me in the journey, having already won his badge. He’s fulfilling his role as my rival, spurring me on to advance my part of the story. With so much to do in this game, so many pokémon already around to catch, it can be easy to get distracted. The match with Milo is held, as is the norm in Galar, in a huge stadium. Also normal by this time in the game, I have a team of six fairly strong pokémon, while Milo, as the first gym leader you face, only comes at you with two. Those two are not slouches though, and Milo does invoke dynamax, causing one of his pokémon to grow to Godzilla size and attack with a pyrotechnic display of visual effects. Still he wasn’t too hard to beat and I win my first badge. Milo congratulates me and points me to the next gym. Pokémon has always done a good job of demonstrating good sportsmanship and fair play.

Nessa

The next stage of our journey takes us to port town of Hulburry, where the Water Pokémon Gym Leader Nessa is based. Once again I meet her outside the gym, doing non-pokémon activities. I also have a quick lunch meeting with Chairman Rose — who seems pretty dependent on his personal assistant Oleana to keep him on schedule. Something is up with these two, I’m pretty sure. She might be the true power behind the throne so to speak, with the shorts and ball cap wearing Rose as puppet. Defeating the water gym is no big deal. Besides having a full compliment of six pokémon, I have the advantage of knowing she’s going to use water-type pokémon, so I can assemble my team with that in mind.

Kabu

Fire Leader Kabu is next, though his gym is the one where opening ceremonies at Motostoke were held. But Kabu is not ready for a challenge yet. He’s off training in the mines and I basically have to go find him to let him know I’m ready. Mines and tunnel complexes are another typical environment in Pokémon games, places where you meet very different types of pokémon than you do in grassy fields or forests. The ever arrogant Bede is also in these tunnels, and I get to defeat him again, though as usual he barely even acknowledges his loss. The dignified elder gym leader Kabu is Bede’s opposite, welcoming my challenge and looking forward to honorable battle.

Marnie

I can’t immediately go to the stadium, but must spend another night at the nearby hotel. What the story is doing is making me face fellow trainer Marnie, whom I had only met briefly before. She waits at the hotel for a battle. It’s one of the more challenging ones too, particularly if you haven’t rested up your pokémon and because as an unfamiliar opponent, you don’t know what pokémon she’s going to send against you.

The Gym battle with Kabu is next day. Once again Hop is ahead of me and has already beaten the challenge. Kabu’s attitude of respectful sportsmanship continues when, rather than waiting for me on a throne or proudly striding in from the opposite side of the stadium, he quietly joins me at the entrance and we walk in together. The battle goes smoothly enough if you are prepared for a Fire Master. This battle does teach more about the important tactics of when to dynamax your pokémon for the optimal use of that limited special power.

Next stage of the challenge is the castle fortress city of Hammerlock. Hop and I head out that way only to run into Bede once more. Hop wants a crack at this jerk and so stays to fight him while I go on another jaunt through the countryside.

Hop defeated

When I next run into Hop something very unusual and upsetting has happened. Hop has lost to Bede! Not only has he lost the pokémon battle, Bede has insulted him and accused Hop of being a disgrace to his champion brother Leon. Hop is clearly shaken by this, and keeps his face turned away from both me as a character and me as a player looking at the game screen. Pokémon games do have serious character moments from time to time, but this quite a somber tone shift for what this game has presented so far.