Review: Final Fantasy VII: On The Way To A Smile

(This review was originally posted to The Fandom Post.)

I spent 100 hours leveling up to beat Sephiroth for this?

Creative Staff:
Story: Kazushige Nojima

Final Fantasy VII was the first JRPG I ever played, and only the second game I ever completed; to say that it holds a special place in my heart would be an understatement. I think there is actually entire chamber of my heart that is roped off and says “Reserved for Final Fantasy VII (and also VIII, sometimes).”

Sadly, I haven’t enjoyed any of the attempts that developer Square Enix has made to revisit that universe. I found Advent Children, the movie sequel, more irritating than anything else, and none of the prequel games that SE released seemed appealing. Maybe I just hold FFVII to too high a standard, but to me, the original game was like lightning in a bottle; a rare artistic achievement where the entire production came together to be more than the sum of its parts both as a video game and as a larger fantasy narrative.

So that leaves me in a weird place with On the Way to A Smile, basically a prequel to a movie that I didn’t like, but based in a world that I unquestionably love. This story collection bridges the gap between the end of the game and the beginning of Advent Children, a period of about four years. I tried to put aside my general dislike of all FFVII expansion material and approach this book with fresh eyes, but I’m not sure I succeeded. It seemed intent on reminding me of all the things I have never liked about attempts to continue the FFVII story beyond the final boss fight.

For one thing, this book is pretty dark; everyone is so despondent that you almost wonder if it wouldn’t have been kinder to let Sephiroth destroy the world and put everyone out of their misery. Now, it was always a dark world, and it’s not like I expected things to suddenly become happy and light-hearted after Sephiroth was defeated. I mean, it’s nice to think about Cloud and Tifa being married with 2.3 kids and a dog, Red XIII finding a girlfriend and having the best animal romance since The Lion King, or Cid starting the Gaia version of NASA, but I knew it would never be that easy for these characters. Still, this book goes too far in the other direction by making everybody utterly miserable. What makes it unforgivable to me is that this book requires the characters to forget the things they learned in the original game in order to be unhappy.

Remember how Barret’s character arc in the game had him realizing that while he’ll never be the father he thinks Marlene deserves because of his past, he’s nevertheless the father she has, and he needs to be there for her? Well, this book has him dump Marlene on Tifa early on so he can “settle his past,” which he should already know is a fool’s errand. When he ends up doing something useful, it’s more because he stumbles into it than anything else. Cloud and Tifa, who achieved a state of great intimacy by the end of the game- to the point where they even shared a consciousness at one point- treat each other like awkward strangers, and struggle to communicate. Yuffie goes on a useless quest that she knows has no chance of success, but does it anyway because she thinks her pluck will give people hope, or something. Wasn’t Yuffie the one who wanted results, not just idle talk? Cid is doing fine, so naturally, Cid isn’t in the book that much.

It’s certainly not all bad. It clarifies a lot of things about Advent Children that were always a bit hazy, and some of the individual stories are interesting. I particularly liked Red XIII’s story, because even though it was depressing as all hell, at least he seemed properly in character. But man, talk about going out of your way to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory. Most of the characters don’t even seem conscious of the fact that they saved the entire planet, because that might give them something to feel good about. Yuffie at least acknowledges it, then is promptly told that no one wants to hear about it and she should shut up.

And yet, for all my complaints, there’s something here. We’re dealing with a society that both regrets nearly destroying nature, yet fears the raw destructive power of nature; a worldwide slump brought about by extreme corporate mismanagement; an epidemic with no cure, without enough medicine or health providers to go around; A rapid increase in technology, while at the same time, a desperate need for a new energy source that doesn’t seem forthcoming. Even though this book doesn’t do right by the cast of the game, I would be lying if I said it didn’t feel relevant. It’s almost too relevant, if such a thing is even possible; I mean, I just ostensibly read a Final Fantasy book, and here I am thinking about health care and diminishing fossil fuel supplies instead of Chocobo Racing. Is that okay?

In fairness, most fans of FFVII are probably less picky and will find more to like here. If you liked Advent Children (and a lot of fans did), you’ll probably like this. And it’s always nice to see interaction between beloved characters that didn’t get much one-on-one time in the original game, like Yuffie and Red XIII. With all this sequel material though, I’m always left wondering if SE perhaps doesn’t understand the story of the original game they made, or if maybe I’m the one who doesn’t understand. It’s not a good feeling, either way.

In Summary:
A short story collection that succeeds as a supplement to the Advent Children film, but may leave series fans wondering if Final Fantasy VII was always this macabre and joyless.

Review: An Invitation from a Crab

(This review was originally posted on The Fandom Post.)

Never turn down an invitation from a sassy crustacean, especially if you haven’t decided what’s for dinner yet.

Creative Staff:
Story and art: panpanya
Translator: Ko Ransom
Production: Nicole Dochych

Denpa, the new publisher on the block, specializes in publishing manga that are a little off the beaten path; either hard to categorize, or simply overlooked. This is a good thing, but I think we need to be careful not to let the company’s niche color our perception of their books too heavily. After all, if we assume that every book that comes out of Denpa is going to be some strange, art-house affair, we’re probably doing a disservice to much of what they publish; just because a book has been overlooked for English-language publication thus far doesn’t mean it’s necessarily strange.

All that said, make no mistake: An Invitation from a Crab is strange. A series of vignettes featuring the barest suggestion of a manga-style school girl traversing warped, sometimes muddy backgrounds, all the while experiencing bizarre encounters with fish and crustaceans, interspersed with essays from the author on topics like “what is that light produced by the inside of your eyeballs?” Yeah, that’s unusual, to say the least.

What’s compelling about Crab is the way it presents its own brand of surrealism. Concepts like a dolphin-powered calculator seem like they would be right at home in The Hitchhikers’ Guide to The Galaxy, but the mood is much more Günter Grass than Douglas Adams. Even the stories that deal with more mundane subject matter always give the sense that something sinister is afoot. Our sketchily rendered protagonist may be able to eat a crab hotpot for dinner, but she may not really be at the top of the food chain. The world here is one of endless consumption, where humans and animals alike are put through a symbolic meat grinder, and any attempt to reconnect with the natural world is doomed to end in failure. It sounds like I’m saying this manga is anti-capitalist, and that may very well be true, but I think that may be an oversimplification. Something else is going on here; I’m not exactly sure what, but I’m going to keep thinking about it until I figure it out. Hopefully.

Something else I need to figure out is how I feel about this book’s art. Some of the backgrounds are great, with an almost sculptural quality, like the environments have been chiseled out of the paper somehow. Other times, the art becomes more minimalist and blurry, and I’m not sure it works. Ironically, the detailed, clear backgrounds do a better job of communicating the surreal mood of the story than the more smudgy, suggestive panels. The art is always at least adequate to tell the story, but if were always as good as panpanya is clearly capable of, I think we’d have something incredible here.

Whether or not the art is up to the level of the writing (and I’m sure others would disagree with me there), this is an unusual, thought-provoking title that discerning adult readers should seek out. The book may be rated Teen, but I think it’s mature (in the best sense of the word), and likely to be of particular interest to people who have already been reading manga for many years. If any 14-year-olds want to read it, hey: knock yourself out. Don’t let me stop you! But I think part of the experience of An Invitation from a Crab is comparing it to the other manga you’ve read, and the deeper your personal catalogue is, the more you’ll get out of it.

In Summary:
A surreal collection of stories and short essays with a serious bite to them, despite the fact that they may seem nonsensical at first.

Grade: A

Age Rating: Teen (13+)
Released By: Denpa, LLC.
Release Date: December 19, 2018
MSRP: US $12.95 CAN $14.95

Review: Reborn as a Vending Machine, I Now Wander the Dungeon Vol. 3

(This review originally posted on The Fandom Post.)

A sentient snack vending machine continues to do a better job romancing the ladies than you might think.

Creative Staff:
Story: Hirokuma
Art: Ituwa Kato

This volume focuses less on the mechanics of Boxxo’s existence as a vending machine, and more on developing the supporting cast. On the face of it, this is good; how many times do we need to find out that Boxxo added a new kind of corn soup to his products? Do we really need to know how many points Boxxo has accumulated at any given moment? Probably not.

However, I think this series is meant for a particular type of reader, and we’re the kind who enjoy this kind of minutia. I’m the kind of person who actually enjoys organizing (and re-organizing) long lists of items in RPGs, and that’s part of the reason why the extremely detail-heavy nature of the first two books appealed to me. Several times during this volume I found myself asking “How many points did Boxxo just spend to do that?”, something I’ve never had to wonder with this series before. One of the things that made the series initially compelling is the fact that Boxxo’s point total is effectively his life; if he runs out of points, he stops operating, essentially death for a vending machine. I think you need to really care about how many points Boxxo has left in order to be fully invested in the story, and that’s something that doesn’t work as well when the narrative starts glossing over the numbers.

Regardless of whether other readers get hung up on the lack of detail (maybe it’s just me being obsessive compulsive?), this volume does benefit from the greatest strength of this series: the fact that, as a vending machine, Boxxo’s solutions to problems are never what you would expect from a more typical hero. His use of different vending machine functions is a little less creative here than earlier, but it’s still interesting to see him utilize the benefits of practically every single kind of vending machine created by humanity. This time around, he even starts functioning as a jukebox, which seems like a bit of a stretch to me– that’s a different kind of machine, right?– but I’ll allow it.

This volume does continue the narrative of Boxxo’s party’s struggle against the mysterious dungeon bosses, but most of it is spent on downtime with the ladies in Boxxo’s life: particularly Lammis, the mighty but surprisingly timid adventurer who carries Boxxo on her back, and Shui, an archer with a bottomless pit for a stomach and a heart of gold. The focus on Shui was somewhat surprising (in fact, I barely remembered that she existed before this volume), but not unwelcome, and an eating contest is certainly tailored toward the strengths of this series. I’m hoping we’ll eventually get more background on Director Bear, the trustworthy public servant who happens to be a grizzly bear, but I guess I’ll have to wait for another volume for that. There are some fanservice scenes (which illustrator Ituwa Kato appears to have some fun with), but they’re pretty mild altogether.

My one big complaint about this volume (and this series in general) is the fact that the main character feels the need to remind the reader that he’s a vending machine waaaaaay too often. Dude, the premise of your series is unique, it’s not like any of us are going to forget anytime soon, you know?

In Summary:
A more character-driven installment that tones down on the “gamey-ness” of previous volumes, which can be either a good thing or a bad thing depending on how much you liked the focus on vending machine stats earlier on. It still reads like a breath of fresh air compared to more formulaic series. Also, don’t read this book when you’re hungry: just don’t. You’ll probably end up demolishing an all-you-can-eat buffet, but if you planned on doing that anyway? Full speed ahead.

Be Careful With This Anime “MeToo” Moment

I feel compelled to talk about what’s going on with voice actor accusations in anime fandom at the moment, because at the rate we’re going, somebody’s life is going to be ruined. Some actor will be falsely accused of sexual assault, or maybe even rape, be blacklisted from the industry, and eventually kill themselves. Then we will all look at each other, blinking, confused, and wonder “how did this happen?” If I have a even a chance of preventing that from happening by speaking out now, I need to take advantage of it.

Before I go on, yes sexual assault happens at cons, it’s a real problem, and this should have been addressed way before now; I’m not disputing any of that. However, what I see happening now is that people feel guilty that they were asleep at the wheel on this issue for so long, and now they’re pouncing on any opportunity to remedy that, judgement is getting clouded, and potentially innocent people are getting caught up in it. What I’m advocating for here is not to ignore evidence of sexual assault (we all did that for too long), but only to treat every case as separate, so innocent people don’t get tarred with other people’s actions. This may seem like such a common sense warning that it doesn’t even need to be said, but many people are already starting to make this mistake.

Please do not assume because there’s a lot of evidence that Person A is guilty, that Persons B, C and D must also be guilty. Even if there are a million pieces of evidence that Person A has been harassing people at cons, all of that evidence pertains to that individual; it proves nothing about Person B. I already see another problem developing with Affirmative Consent, where people who see AC as the unquestionable standard are going to classify people as rapists, which people who do not accept AC as a concept will dispute. But then you’ve already started tarring someone’s reputation with something as monstrous as rape, where we should tread very carefully. There are a lot of dicey areas here.

I feel pretty sure this is going to fall on deaf ears– ableist, I know, but I can’t think of a better metaphor at the moment. (For the record, I am hearing-impaired myself, so I am part of the group one could accuse me of denigrating here.) People are wrapped up in “believe the victims, believe the survivors,” they want blood, and they don’t particularly care if one or two innocents are hurt because of it. Please keep in mind that you can support victims in general without unquestionably believing every single thing that someone says about someone else. Please keep in mind that it’s not hypocritical to say “There seems to be a lot of evidence that Person A is guilty of committing sexual assault, but much less evidence that Person B is. I’m convinced in one case, but not the other.”

Please keep in mind that while this situation mirrors what’s going on in Hollywood, this is not Hollywood. If someone accuses George Clooney or Brad Pitt of sexual assault, they have millions of dollars and armies of lawyers to fight it. Some anime VAs may seem famous within our little fiefdom here, but they do not have the same resources that Hollywood actors and actresses have. I think people sometimes feel pretty free to accuse famous people of bad things on the basis that these people are very powerful and can defend themselves (or at least comfort themselves by diving in their Scrooge McDuck-esque tanks of money if nothing else), but that does not apply here. If a working VA gets blacklisted from the industry over something they didn’t do, they don’t get to comfort themselves in their sprawling LA mansion; they are going to have a problem making rent, buying groceries. Claims of sexual harassment and sexual assault should be taken seriously, but let’s at least exercise some care before we put someone in that situation, okay?