Kubo and the Two Strings

kubo1 Movie, BD, 101 mins, 2.35:1, 2016, by LAIKA
I saw this got some very good reviews so I invested in a BD copy.
The story is set in a fantasy Japan. A woman is washed up on a beach by a storm. With her is a baby which appears to have lost one eye. Ten years or so later the two are not doing great. They live in a cave and the mother is mostly catatonic while the boy does story-telling at a local village. He uses some powerful magic from his three-string shamisen to turn sheets of paper into origami figures to act out his stories.
His mother warns him never to stay out after dark otherwise bad things will happen. Of course, on the day of the O-bon festival he does stay out and his aunts, scary black figures, fly out of the gloom and attack him. His mother uses the last of her magic to let him escape, and so Kubo embarks on a quest for a magical sword and armour, accompanied by a monkey and a beetle.

I loved this. The Japanese village setting is carefully researched. The animation is done in stop-motion, with CGI processing, and what you see on screen is often beautiful. The story moves through a large number of settings, with magic, and fight scenes, before reaching a conclusion. Recommended.
The animators, LAIKA, are the same people who did Coraline and other successful animations.

Database fixed.

The anime and manga databases are working again. Links were still pointing to the old database after an upgrade, and after a while the service provider removed the old one.
I have as a result re-enabled comments, so you can waste your life sending me comment spam. 🙁

When Marnie Was There

Marnie and Anna at mansion
When Marnie Was There (Omoide no Mani) (2014)
An animated release from Studio Ghibli, adapted from the novel by Joan G Robinson and directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi. The original book was set in England, but the movie is set in Japan.
Anna Sasaki has a difficult relationship with the aunt who is acting as her foster parent, and is sent to stay with other relatives at the seaside. Here Anna fails to bond with the local schoolchildren but meets the mysterious blonde Marnie who lives in a mansion across the tidal marsh. It seems that Anna is the only person who can see Marnie and the mansion is long deserted.
Regardless, the relationship between the two girls develops, but surprises are in store.
This is definitely one of Studio Ghibli’s better efforts, and is a good-looking film that repays multiple viewings. It is less action-packed than some, and in feel it probably most resembles the later adaptations of non-Japanese books, e.g. “Arrietty”. Anna is a more troubled child than any of the other Ghibli heroines, and the movie has an emotional impact. The plot contains some unexpected twists.
I suggest that you get the BD version if you have a player. Recommended.

Winter Anime 2016

Rakugo performer Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is a Noitamina adaptation of a josei drama manga. In the 60s a former petty thief nicknamed Yotaro gets out of prison and becomes the apprentice of a famed rakugo performer named Yakumo. Yotaro joins Yakumo’s household, which also includes Konatsu, the orphaned daughter of a former rakugo colleague of Yakumo, Hatsutaro. Rokogo is a traditional one-man storytelling art form in Japan in which the lone performer re-tells traditional comic stories with very limited props while performing multiple roles in the story.
After the first episode, the story is a flashback to of a younger Yakumo, nicknamed Kikohiro, and his friend/rival Sukeroku, nicknamed Hatsutaro. Initially the outgoing Hatsutaro is a more successful storyteller than the repressed Kikohiro.

Kono Subarashii Sekai ni Shukufuku o is essentially a parody of teens-in-an-RPG-world type stories. Teen gamer Kazuma rarely leaves the house unless he absolutely has to, but one day he does leave in order to buy a new game. On his way home Kazuma sees a girl classmate who is about to be run over and pushes her out of the way, dying himself instead. In fact the girl was in little danger from the tractor.
After his death, Kazuma arrives in a transitional world where a minor goddess Aqua tells him his options. One is to go to a RPG-type world, taking one thing with him. So he chooses her.
Following episodes have Kazama trying to start a quest in the RPG world, and collecting some female comrades, all equally dysfunctional. This show is very funny.

Mahou Shoujo Nante Mouiidesukara
An average schoolgirl is accosted by a ball with wings lurking among the rubbish bags, and the creature tells her that she is a magical girl. She gets transformed and discovers to her embarrassment that her costume is a two-piece swimsuit. The comedy revolves around the creature trying to combat her lack of enthusiasm and train her.
This is pretty funny, and if you don’t agree the pain only lasts for 4 minutes. It feels a little pervy to be watching a pubescent girl in a bikini, though.

Tabimachi Lateshow
Comix Wave Films is producing four episodes with the theme of “goodbyes and journeys,” entitled “Recipe,” “Transistor Smartphone,” “Summer Festival,” and “Clover”, as part of the Ultra Super Anime Time programming block broadcast in Japan.
So says the Crunchyroll trailer.
I watched the first two, and found that while the animation is basic, the scripts are less bland than the usual fare.
In the first of two unrelated episodes, a trainee chef labours to match his mentor’s recipe for what appears to be spaghetti with tomato sauce. (Perhaps a satire on cooking anime shows)
In the second, an episode about a friendly schoolgirl trying to befriend a loner leaves one wondering which of them is the more dysfunctional.
It could be worth checking out this series to see what you make of it.

Bubuki-Buranki characters
Bubuki Buranki We start out in what appears to be an idyllic forested setting with ancient ruins covered by plant growth. Two six year old twins frolic through the forest and get into mischief, such as climbing up an ancient “Neo Ranga”-style mecha-golem giant. Seems that the golems are giant robots being curated by the twins’ mother. Things start to go wrong when the more assertive twin, the girl, climbs on a robot and activates it. Several robots activate and fall to the Earth far below, and the twins and father are sent there while the mother tries to sort things out. Fast forward to ten years later with the boy on a dystopic Earth where super-powered adults and teens battle each other using giant mechas and magic.
The show looks good, being done in 3DCG, but the story is full of rather familiar elements.

Autumn Anime 2015

lupin2015 Lupin III (2015) is one of the more entertaining shows of the new season. This show is set in Italy, and was released in Italy this August. It looks much the same as the movies and the dialogue is the usual banter between the familiar Lupin characters.
Lupin is trying to lift the treasure of a small principality and goes through a marriage with an Italian princess, much to the disgust of Lupin’s long-term associate Fujiko.
The wife turns out to be a match for Lupin in a manner other than the intended, and some far-fetched hijinks ensue. Seems she is set to be a new significant character.
Looks like this will be fun.

Young Black Jack: An anime prequel to Osamu Tezuka’s classic manga series about a maverick doctor with a disfigured face. It starts with ‘Jack’ still at medical school but developing amazing surgical skills. In the first episode he re-attaches the arm of a young boy severed in a train accident. In the second he is kidnapped and blackmailed to perform a heart transplant. This is gripping stuff and worth a look.

Beautiful Bones – Sakurako’s Investigation: A teenage boy has an odd relationship with an older woman who is obsessed with collecting bones. Every time they go on a bone hunt, they come across human remains and Sakurako makes forensic deductions. The first episide was very watchable.

Owarimonogatari: Another story in Akiyuki Shimbou’s “Monogatari” series. This looks like one of the more duff sections, as both the new major characters are dislikable and it’s also very static and talky. The first episode on Crunchyroll was a double length, and the whole story is about school student Koyomi Araragi’s awkward past relationship with another student.

Utawarerumono – The False Faces Fantasy series. In the first episode the slacker hero, wandering in a wilderness, is attacked by a giant bug and saved by a young woman who takes him to a village where he is forced to work. Not great, but quite diverting.

Concrete Revolutio: Choujin Gensou, a “Watchmen”-influenced original superhero series, has turned into a dark and complicated “wheels within wheels” tale that is essentially an “anti-superhero” story. It is a wonderfully bleak, bitter, paranoid and smart parallel world story where superheroes and super monsters take the place of nuclear weapons.
Different episodes appear to take place in different eras from the 1930’s to the 1970’s. Essentially, a secret group of superheroes tries to protect the intrests of superheroes and recruit them. In society at large, superheroes are feared and distrusted, and public mention or discussion of them is banned.

Summer Anime 2015

charlotte Charlotte was the only new anime I followed through the whole run. The story takes part in an alternate reality where a small number of children manifest supernatural powers on reaching puberty. The protagonist, Yuu Otosaka, develops the power to temporarily possess others, and uses it to cheat at exams. He is exposed by Nao Tomori, a girl who can make herself invisible to a specific person. Nao forces him to transfer for his own protection to Hoshinoumi Academy, and join the student council, of which she is president. The purpose of the council is to contact and retrieve teenagers with powers before they are exposed and experimented on by organisations intent on exploiting their powers.
Yuu, initially dislikable, becomes a sympathetic character as he and the cute Nao contact various teenagers with weird powers. Then there is a head-banging plot twist halfway through the series …
Not a great anime, but an enjoyable watch.

Also checked out:
Akagami no Shirayukihime (Red-haired Snow White): A shoujo romantic drama in which a girl is pursued by a prince she doesn’t like. Silly. Dropped after 1 episode.
Rokka no Yuusha Six heroes are chosen to defeat a demon king. Dropped after three episodes.
Ushio and Tora (2015) remake of old anime. Not bad, but I didn’t want to watch it all again.
Monster Musume no Iru Nichijou A switch-off. Dire.
Okusama ga Seitokaichō (My wife is student council president). The main character loses the school council president election to a girl who gives out free condoms and advocates free love. She then moves into his house. I think you can guess where this piece of soft porn is going. 🙁
Aoharu x Kikanjuu Another survival-game anime, but with a girl disguised as a boy. Dropped after one episode.
Gate: Fantasy characters rampage into Tokyo through an inter-dimensional ‘gate’ but are soon shot down. Then the Japanese government launches an inter-dimensional invasion and counter -attack. Potentially interesting idea but the characters didn’t grab me. Dropped.
Shimoneta to Iu Gainen ga Sonzai Shinai Taikutsu na Sekai: Very rude and funny comedy about a Japan where all reference to impropriety is banned. The hero enrolls in the leading elite school of morals, but is soon blackmailed into joining an association opposing public morals and ends up taking part in obscene acts of terrorism against the student council president, a beautiful girl whom he happens to have be in love with. The first episode was a hoot, and clearly directed against the current tightening up of comics and anime censorship in Japan, but I had a feeling the joke would turn stale long before the end of the series..

Spring Anime 2015

Kumiko with euphonium Hibiki Euphonium (Sound! Euphonium) is another anime featuring the fascinating world of Japanese school clubs. Kumiko Oumae was put off playing music because of an embarrassing incident in junior high school, but when she moves to senior high school she is drawn into the school brass band, which is improving under the guidance of an enthusiastic new tutor who encourages them to enter for competitions. Kumiko is persuaded to take up the euphonium again.
The story involves the characters of various girls and sundry minor crises, some involving the beautiful and moody trumpet player Reina Kousaka.
Not an outstanding anime but a pleasant watch.

Yahari Ore no Seishun Love Comedy wa Machigatteiru:
New season of a show I watched a while back. I enjoyed it then and found the second season watchable. Much of the season is about student councils and is making fun of organisation-speak.

Baby Steps:
A second series. The hero is now at tennis camp in America. The first episode wasn’t that exciting, but it seems a new cute girl is in the picture. Dropped after two or three episodes.

Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches:
The familiar theme of gender-swapping teenagers appears again. Yamada-kun is a near-delinquent while the girl is a honor student. They fall down a stair and accidentally their lips meet which (as it does) triggers a body swap. Some saucy scenes as they check out their unfamiliar body parts. Then it turns out that the swapping works with other characters too.
It wasn’t badly done, and quite fun, but I dropped after two or three episodes.

The Fruit of Grisaia (special):
A 50-min special of a show I have not seen before. Turned out to be the backstory of a special forces marksman, and a rather grim childhood. Altogether heavy stuff, not really my cup of tea.

Astronomy revisited.

In the past few months I have become interested again in dabbling with amateur astronomy, prompted by some interesting planetary conjunctions. The observing conditions behind my house are far from ideal, with urban glare and haze making it hard to see stars much fainter than 2nd magnitude, even when it’s not cloudy.
For the past few years I have had a “Skylux” 70-700 refracting telescope that I bought at Lidl. The supermarket chain offer these scopes seasonally, and they are a great bargain. The current offering, branded ‘Bresser’ costs around £50-£60, for which you get a complete kit including an equatorial stand. If you want a starter scope, get one of these as soon as you see it instore. The mounting is similar to an “EQ2” which costs around £100 on its own. You can’t even buy one upmarket telescope eyepiece for £50, let alone a complete kit. The performance is not too bad, despite the give-away price.
Last month I saw the planet Mercury at its conjunction with Venus, initially with the telescopes, then with the naked eye (a rare sight.)

Ross Telescope
Ross Telescope
Earlier this year I bought an antique brass telescope on Ebay, essentially as a collectible. It’s 3″ in diameter and around 5 feet long (6 feet fully extended). The previous owner had an equatorial stand and war surplus tripod for it which I was unable to obtain as they were sold separately. Having had a proper look over the scope I realised it was too good to hang on the wall. Despite its age it is in great condition and is capable of accepting modern astronomical eyepieces.
I decided it needed a serious mount and tripod to make it fit for occasional use. It was a bit of a shock to discover just how much a ‘serious’ mounting for a long & heavy scope was going to cost. An equatorial mount man enough for the job would have been over £200, and that’s without any electric drives. I settled for an AZ-4 mount to make it fit for terrestrial and occasional astronomical use. This was the more expensive version of the AZ-4 with stainless steel legs and weighs 18.5 lbs. I still had to buy an overpriced dovetail plate and make up a mounting saddle for a tapered tube.
Having assembled all this kit, I was able to confirm that the old scope contained some serious optics and I got great views of Mars, Venus, Jupiter and the Moon using a decent Plossl eyepiece. It’t the same aperture (70mm) as the Lidl scope but has a noticeably superior performance.
On the other hand, the Lidl scope is one third the weight, a lot shorter, and does not require such a heavy and expensive stand.
Which goes to show that the brass refractor, once a mainstay of well-heeled amateur astronomy, has become obsolete. Since I last took an interest in such matters, the scene has totally changed, with various manufacturers offering a bewildering array of high-tech scope designs at affordable prices. You can pore over compact, portable, GOTO, refractor, reflector, Maksutov, large aperture, whatever suits your interest and wallet. Nowadays compact Maksutov scopes are quite affordable, as are computerised ‘GOTO’ mountings.
I suspect that a lot of the stuff bought is seriously under-used, judging by the number of ‘Astro Scope, used twice’ ads appearing on Ebay.

Winter anime 2015

I checked out most of the new Winter 2015 anime shows, but found the majority of them uninspiring.
I am continuing to follow the charming Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso (Your Lie in April).
Kosei’s mother kept pushing him hard to become a concert pianist, but he can’t play piano ever since he failed in a competition at age eleven when his mother died. One day, he meets a girl, Kaori, playing music with some kids in a park. She is a brilliant if eccentric violinist and invites him to her concert. Soon, the bewitching Kaori is badgering him to take up piano again, and he is also being hassled by the Girl Next Door, to the same end. The GND is in love with Kosei, though she doesn’t realise it yet.
This is good fun – the girls are outrageously pushy – and the music is good. The show tends to alternate ‘drama’ and ‘music’ episodes.

Kamisama hajimimashite
Kamisama hajimimashite
For Winter 2015 we have second seasons of Kamisama Hajimemashita, and Durarara!!.
Kamisama Hajimemashita, about a schoolgirl who becomes a shrine goddess and her foxy familiar, continues to be charming.
Durarara!! continues to be inventive, but the plot is confused and there are too many characters.

Telescope reminiscences

I got interested again in looking at the night sky recently. The sky here is not very black at night (lots of urban glare and haze) but the brighter stars and planets can be seen when it’s not cloudy.
When I was a teenager I built my own telescope from scratch – in fact two of them. My first scope was a cheap table-top 4″ Newtonian reflector with a cardboard tube. It wasn’t very good, so I re-figured the mirror and built a nice square wooden tube for it, with a spiral thread focuser salvaged from a dead TV set. I can’t remember what mounting it had.
After that I built an 8″ Newtonian reflector from scratch. I ground, polished and figured the mirror, built a tube (from wood, IIRC), and built a massive equatorial mounting with a fork made of 3″ steel pipe and filled with cement, supported by a brick pier. The whole thing was covered by a run-off wooden shed that ran on rails.
I don’t think that many people build their own telescopes any more. The ready-made ones are much cheaper in real terms. These days, one would consider an 8″ reflector to be more of a portable item. When I left home, I had my parents sell the telescope. (They probably couldn’t get rid of the eyesore in the back garden quick enough).

I was also involved with making a 6″ Newtonian reflector at my grammar school. So far as I remember it had an openwork tube made of wood. It did get used a few times (I remember stopping a teacher from looking through the eyepiece when we used it to project an image of the Sun.) There was a notion of giving it a permanent home on top of the concrete bike sheds, but that did not come to anything. (These days, a 6″ Newtonian reflector and mount would be portable).