Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Kung-Fu Klassix: The Kid With the Golden Arm

The Kid With the Golden Arm
Directed by Cheng Cheh
China, 1979

So, there's this honorable society that's tasked with escorting a shipment of gold to a region that has been hit by a famine, but there's also an evil gang that wants to steal the gold. That's enough of a plot for a kung fu movie, right? I guess so, because that's what happens in this classic film. It's pretty much non-stop action, with the good guys, led by Yang, who has one of those big swords that has rings attached to the blade (guys in old kung fu movies are pretty much defined by their weapons), trying to fend off the bad guys, let by the eponymous fellow, whose arms are apparently so strong, they can fend off anybody's blade:

The good guys also have two guys called Long Axe and Short Axe (which is something of a misnomer, since he carries two axes), who keep score of how many bad guys each of them has killed, Li Chin-Ming and Leng Feng, a pair of star-crossed lovers who regularly bicker about Li's sense of honor even when his life is in danger, and Hai Tao, a wild card who kind of wanders into the battle on his own as a drunken goofball (but not really a drunken-style fighter) who can kick everyone's ass.

On the bad guy's side, there's Silver Spear, Brass Head (who wears a helmet that makes his headbutts pretty deadly), and Iron Robe (who wears, yes, metal clothes as armor, but also carries a razor-sharp fan), as well as a group of guys called the Seven Deadly Hooks, although they get dispatched pretty quickly by the Axe brothers.

The plot seems pretty straightforward, with each side having a clear goal, but there are a surprising number of subplots that pop up related to things like Li Chin-Ming and Hai Tao's rivalry (when the former is poisoned with a "Sand Hand" attack, the latter sticks him in a furnace to burn the poison out of him) or what's really going on with Yang, who seems like a pretty crappy swordsman for a well-respected leader of upstanding individuals. The bad guys make various attacks and lay traps that take out a bunch of  the unnamed members of the team as the good guys try to complete their journey, and various members of both sides meet gory ends (a specialty of director Chang Cheh, who reunites the cast of Five Deadly Venoms here for quite satisfying results). It's a bunch of inevitable fights, but they're mostly pretty awesome, starting out kind of rote, with movements that aren't all that impressive, but the challenge and effort ramping up with each subsequent battle, leading up to a final showdown between Hai Tao and Golden Arms, with twists sure to reveal themselves as betrayers and double-crossers make themselves known.

Much of the action ends up being pretty great, with an early weapon-based battle between Hai Tao and Iron Robe being the point that the action really kicks into high gear:

After that, things get extra awesome, with a battle between the Axes and Silver Spear being nothing shot of epic and the final duel(s) involving Golden Arms, Li Chin-Ming, Hai Tao, and others all acting as gripping, Shakespearean drama full of moments like this:

For a movie that's little more than one fight scene after another, this one is pretty cool, full of great action and drama that makes sense among all the punching and stabbing. If you're looking for some cool old-school kung fu involving a bunch of different styles, some wacky weapons, and some amazingly choreographed battles, you can't go wrong here.

Monday, September 14, 2015

One Piece: Still awesome, 75 volumes later

One Piece, Volume 75
By Eiichiro Oda
Published by Viz Manga

If you were expecting this latest installment of this long-running series to be some sort of special anniversary volume with a big climactic moment or anything, well, be prepared to be disappointed, since it's just the next in the series. But you can also expect to be excited, since it's the latest volume of One Piece, which is rarely less than awesome. And while there appears to be plenty of time to go before this current storyline wraps up (it has lasted nine volumes so far, with at least two or three to go, I expect), things are definitely heating up here, with some big plot developments taking place, several exciting battles being set up, and an endgame in sight.

Should I try to explain the plot? Sure, why not? So, the Straw Hats are on Dressrosa, which is ruled by the dastardly Don Quixote Doflamingo, who has enslaved much of its population in a particularly cruel manner, using the power of one of his underlings to turn them into toys, after which they are forgotten by all their loved ones. The previous volume ended with a last-second defeat of the person who was controlling all these toys by Usopp, resulting in the sudden transformation of a ton of toys into angry pirates and gladiators, who are now all ready to rise up in a revolution against Doflamingo. First among these is Kyros, who was once the greatest of Dressrosa's gladiators before the king's daughter tamed his heart. He had been turned into a toy soldier, but now he's back to almost full strength (he only has one leg, but that doesn't seem to slow him down at all), and he immediately storms Doflamingo's stronghold and chops his head off. But it turns out that this Doflamingo was just a puppet composed out of the "strings" that the real villain controls with his powers, and he responds by initiating his fail-safe plan: the Birdcage, in which he surround the entire island with a giant cage of razor-sharp strings, trapping everyone inside. He then starts controlling random people with his puppeteer powers, forcing them to start attacking everyone around them. He announces that people can either try to survive long enough to kill him, or they can kill all of the Straw Hat crew and their allies, at which point he'll drop the birdcage. Oh, and he's put a huge bounty on their heads, and since the country seems to mostly be populated by ruffians, you can guess what choice they make.

And that's the setup for the rest of this story arc, with Luffy and the various good guys on his side, including rival pirate Trafalgar Law, samurai Foxfire Kin'emon, Dressrosa's former King Riku, his granddaughter, the gladiator Rebecca, and even Luffy's long-lost pal Sabo (who we last saw in volume 60 and we learn is now a high-ranking member of Luffy's father Dragon's revolutionary army), all teaming up to fight their way to Doflamingo, facing opposition from bounty-seekers and the Navy (who have decided to try to maintain the status quo), and some support/rivalry from the various pirates and gladiators who have been freed from their toy-based slavery. There are sure to be plenty of twists and turns, but it looks to be non-stop action from here until Luffy presumably defeats Doflamingo in a huge battle.

But even though this volume is mostly setup, it's still pretty action-packed, with some awesome stuff happening, such as an attack by Pica, by one of Doflamingo's minions who can control rock, in which he takes the form of a huge, animated portion of the landscape:

When he tries to punch Luffy and pals, it's as if they're being attacked by an entire village:

There are also some of the series trademark moments of emotion, as when Princess Viola explains to her father why she believes in Luffy and his crew:

And there's plenty of the series great humor, of course, with my favorite moment involving Usopp, the most cowardly member of the Straw Hats, being hailed as a savior after defeating the person who had enslaved everyone, and the words he is barely able to utter being misinterpreted as a call to follow him:

There's plenty of other stuff to enjoy here, and the next volumes promise much more, including another element of the series that I always like in a flashback to Law's childhood, where we'll learn why he hates Doflamingo so much. Stories in this manga can take a long time to build, but when they get moving, little else can match them for energy, inventiveness, emotion, and general awesomeness. I expect the next few volumes to be exciting and moving; I just wish I didn't have to wait another six months or more to read them...

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Assassination Classroom: Schools are strange in Japan

Assassination Classroom, Volume 1
By Yusei Matsui

Well, this is certainly an odd manga, but one that's also pretty enjoyable. It sort of takes the form of an inspirational teacher-student story, but one with a skewed morality and a strange combination of hopefulness and menace. It's like a more sincere, less reference-laden Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei mixed with occasional action and tentacle imagery.

I suppose I should explain the premise: there's this alien who has destroyed most of the moon, and he plans to do the same to the earth in a year's time, but during that interval, he wants to be the teacher for the remedial class at a Japanese junior high school. Since he appears to be unkillable by the world's military forces, it's up to his students to assassinate him before the deadline is up, but in the meantime, he'll do his best to be a good teacher and connect with and inspire them. Yes, that's really weird, but it's a chance for lots of strange humor, as the kids try to enact gun- and knife-related violence (which is perfectly safe, since they use rubber knives and guns that shoot BBs which are deadly to him but harmless to humans) against a smiling creature that is continually taunting them and egging them on.

The cover of the volume (and future volumes) reflects the appearance of the teacher character (who is given the name Koro-Sensei, a play on a Japanese term meaning "hard to kill"): a grinning smiley face atop a mass of tentacles, usually clothed in a goofy mortarboard-cap-and-gown outfit. He's a bit of an enigma (we do get a vague hint at an origin that will probably be explored later), with no real motive for wanting to destroy the planet or inspire a bunch of schoolchildren, but as this first volume progresses, we actually get to know him a bit, seeing how he reacts to the kids as they attempt to kill him. While he easily escapes every assassination attempt (we're repeatedly told that he can move at mach 20, which gives him the chance to do things like style someone's hair while they're trying to stab him), they do occasionally manage to surprise and fluster him, revealing a personality that conflicts with the happy-go-lucky exterior he usually presents, one that's kind of petty and childish.

Most interestingly, and in what is probably the best source of the comic's humor, he seems to be trying to make a real connection with his students. When a kid tries to kill him by throwing an exploding baseball at him, he offers pointers on how to be a better pitcher. When a girl who is a whiz at chemistry but little else tries to poison him (by politely asking him to drink the poisons she made), he teaches her about the value of writing skills and the importance of communication. And most amusingly, he makes a genuine connection with a troubled student who is excited to get the opportunity to kill a teacher, showing him that there are authority figures who care about him (and also want to blow up the planet).

But in addition to all these positive effects he has on people's lives, Kuro-Sensei also manages to occasionally shed his happy exterior and become genuinely menacing. An early assassination attempt in which the ostensible main character of the book, a boy who has an incredibly improbable hairdo (even for a manga character), is bullied into trying to kill him via suicide bombing, makes Kuro-Sensei angry, at which point he exploits a loophole in his promise not to hurt his students, telling them that he has no compunctions against killing their families, friends, and anyone else he feels like if they displease him. He also gives a glimpse of what might be his true face, which is pretty horrifying:

It's a canny choice on mangaka Yusei Matsui's part: there's plenty of silliness here, ranging from slapstick comedy and wordplay to wacky behavior and the cognitive dissonance of a teacher encouraging his students to murder him, but underlying it all is a sense of danger and a looming threat that will eventually have to be addressed. Manga series like this can often drift conceptually from where they start out, so I'm curious to see what happens in future volumes. Will we just get more stories about school-related inspiration and wacky attempted murders, or will plots develop in other directions? I'm definitely interested in finding out.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The exquisite punk expressiveness of Liz Suburbia

Over the past several years that I've attended the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo (CAKE), I've made a point to stop by Kevin Czapiewski's table and pick up some comics by Liz Suburbia. He has plenty of other stuff that he distributes through Czap Books (including his new graphic novel Futchi Perf, which I'm eager to check out), but ever since he turned me on to Liz Suburbia, I can't get enough of her work, and since her comics take the form of small, photocopied minicomics, they usually only cost about one or two dollars a pop, which is a great value. Really, she should be much more widely recognized (which may be currently happening with the release of her new book Sacred Heart from Fantagraphics); she has a great eye for expressive characters, and one of the strongest cartooning styles out there.

But just what is it about her books that grabs me? It think it's that, among the many cheaply-printed minicomics I've read, hers may well be the best at quickly establishing interesting characters and situations in a way that immediately draws me in and gets me invested in whatever is happening to them, and the beautiful cartooning that does so much with simple black and white linework doesn't hurt either.

Some examples: in The Crusher, we get a simple, nearly wordless depiction of a boxing match and its aftermath, but the way Suburbia depicts it with alternating savagery and tenderness is beautiful. Turbo Mutt is a comic about sex in which all the intercourse is imagined (either through a bit of phone sex or just a fantasy about some strangers), but the way the acts are depicted as a jumble of body parts and orgasmic expressions splashed across the page communicates the universal appeal of sex and the strange way humans are affected by it. Eat or Be Meatball is a sort of sci-fi story in which some young people convicted of "an unspeakable crime" are sentenced to relive their lives, hoping to reconnect with each other at some point, which leads to a terrible sense of constant deja vu. It's a goofy/weird/cool idea, but one that also resonates with the human experience of isolation and the joy of finding someone to connect with.

Cyanide Milkshake is Suburbia's ongoing anthology series, and if the two issues I have (#4 and #6) are anything to go by, this is where she throws all her ideas at the wall, whether they be short comics about her dogs, fake ads for silly products, short autobiographical strips or illustrations, parts of a serial story about a couple surviving in a post-apocalyptic society, long, hand-lettered rants about punk philosophy, or whatever else she feels like doing. It's thrilling to see her work in this fashion, with funny observances, personal memories or observances, silly jokes, and fascinating stories all bumping up against each other and forming a beautiful, coherent whole.

I can't get enough of this stuff; just check out how well she conveys energy in something like this bit of feminist punk rock:

Or this bit of Jaime Hernandez-influenced musical enthusiasm:

Or this example of her sense of humor:

Her comics aren't all punk and attitude; there's plenty of room for quieter moments or jokes about human nature, but as cartoony as her figures are, they're true to life and expressive as hell. I think she's a talent that's incredibly underexposed, and I hope that her new book draws more attention to her incredible work. I, for one, can't wait to read more, wherever I can find it.