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  1. Interior House Painters

    Interior house painters fill a very different need than exterior house painters. An interior painter will be changing how your home feels as well as how it looks. While an exterior home painter can certainly be someone with experience painting home interiors, there are some things you'll want to keep an eye on when considering which professional you want to hire.


    First, you want to find an Interior House Painter West Chester PA that can help you narrow down what colors you'd like to paint your walls if your struggling to decide for yourself. While ultimately the choice is up to you, having a knowledgeable professional present to point out that neutral colors are best if you're planning to sell or that dark colors make a room seem smaller is always helpful. Plus, a professional who is used to painting interiors can help you figure out which finish works best with your lifestyle. There are different types of finish: flat, eggshell, satin, semi-gloss and more. Some are better for different types of walls, others are better if you have a high traffic home with lots of little children. Different finishes last longer and others hold up to cleaning. An experienced interior painter should be able to help you figure out which one is right for you.


    Secondly, depending on when your house was built, you will want your professional to be an expert on how to handle lead paint. Homes built before 1978 were painted using lead paint and it is very possible that the original layers still have lead in them. This lead can seep through even layers of paint on the walls so you'll want a person who has been trained on how to remove it to handle stripping and painting your home. Lead paint disposal and any prep work that you except your interior painter to do should be discussed beforehand and included on a detailed estimate complete with pricing. You want to know if they are going to clean your walls. Will they handle drop cloths? Do you have to move your furniture away from the walls? Many interior house painters also charge extra for vaulted ceilings, having to paint baseboards and detailed molding like crown molding and anything else that will take them extra time and effort. You want all of this clearly laid out in an estimate that you can take to compare against someone else. Once you have an estimate, discuss with the painter what you can do before they get there to eliminate some of those costs. Often times the home owner can handle washing the walls and pulling furniture into the center of the room and doing these yourself will help save money.


    Once you have all of these things written down and decided on, spend some time getting other offers from other professionals. Ask them for references that you can contact so you can understand how their work holds up. You should always have three estimates from trusted, well-known and respected painting professionals to choose from. Make sure you ask them about the guarantee they place on their work as well so you know that if you're unhappy with the results you have a way to work with them until you're happy.

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  2. Painting Walls - Paint Roller Tips & Tricks

    The paint roller is our best friend when it comes to painting walls. Able to apply paint quickly and uniformly, we owe a lot of gratitude to the friend the paint roller. Available in a multitude of sizes and in a variety of different materials generally if something needs to be painted there is a roller that will do the job. This article will discuss some basic guidelines that I don't learn about very often.


    First a brief explanation of the terminology. 'Paint cage' this is the tool that you put the actual roller sleeve on. The tube bit that applies the paint is called a 'sleeve' or 'roller sleeve' etc . Sometimes I've used 'roller' or 'paint roller' to describe the cage and the sleeve together.

    Loading your roller properly can be an important step, the amount of paint you'll want on your roller is dependent upon the surface that you are painting and what sort of roller sleeve you have got but generally the motion may be the same. You want to roll the roller down the pan until the just the roller sleeve touches the paint, let it get saturated for a moment before lifting your paint roller up, moving it towards the top of the pan and rolling it back into the paint. Doing this a few times will load up the paint tray as well and super saturate your roller, you generally want your paint roller to be on the verge of over-saturation as this allows a consistent thickness of paint as well as full paint coverage on the wall. It is additionally vital to try not to smother the entire roller in paint, you only want it on the sleeve so try to keep it there.

    Once you've got some paint on the roller and on the tray loading your roller, it's exceptionally easy and doesn't demand a lot of time in the pan. A quick dab of paint on the roller from the pan, lift it back to the top, roll it down twice and you're usually ready to keep on painting.

    When applying the paint to the wall the very best method is to use long motions going from the top of the wall to the underside of the wall in areas 2 to 4 feet wide depending on how tall your wall is and your roller sleeves paint holding capacity. This spreads the paint consistently and provides the best finish.

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  3. Mirai Fukuin had me grinning like an idiot and crying into my beer

    Assuming there are any plans to revisit the Kara no Kyoukai story, I’m still not holding my breath for anything that takes things further than Mirai Fukuin. Kinoko Nasu procrastinates in a way that would make Kevin Shields blush: Mahoyo overshot its projected release date several times, and there isn’t even an ETA on that much-rumoured Tsukihime remake as far as I know.


    Hold on to your ice cream pots, kids. It’s one hell of ride

    Although it’s the ‘last word’ as far as this particular cast of characters is concerned, much of the movie explores side-stories that were either alluded to in the earlier films or didn’t get mentioned at all. It’s the final third that’s really Ufotable’s parting gift, but the whole thing is fanservice in its purest form. Does that fact bother me? Hell no.

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  4. Thoughts on Avatar: the Last Airbender

    Anime fans tend to take ‘animation isn’t just for kids’ for granted, what with the likes of Dennou Coil or pretty much anything made by Studio Ghibli proving that ‘cartoons’ at the cinema or on TV can entertain adults as well as the intended younger demographic. The boundaries that define what constitutes a target audience can become retrospectively blurred in the eyes of the audience however; usually by good storytelling and memorable characters, so all you’re left with in the end is the question of whether you enjoyed it or not.


    Because the range of its influences is so unusual for a mainstream TV show, Avatar: the Last Airbender is a little hard for me to pin down. After a while I stopped trying to decide whether it was a US kids’ show, an anime-inspired cult phenomenon, a combination of both or none of the above, because I was simply having too much fun being immersed in its world to care.

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  5. Japan trip 2014: Nagoya

    When on holiday abroad it’s easy to be drawn to capital cities: the lights, the vibrancy, the higher probability that foreign language-speaking tourists will be better catered for…especially when the city in question is the high-tech cultural hub of Tokyo. Although it’s nigh-on impossible for the place to ever make me feel bored, I was conscious of the fact that, when you’re trying to get a feel for a country’s culture in a broader sense, you can’t judge a whole nation on your experiences of its capital city (e.g., London is NOT representative of the UK either!).

    Partly worn down through sensory overload by the bustle, expense and relative familiarity of Tokyo – this was my third visit in five years – and partly motivated to see something a bit different, the consensus of the group I was travelling with was that we wanted to see more of Japan than its most sprawling and iconic metropolis.

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  6. Nagi no Asukara: of time and tide

    We all have our particular quirks and biases, whether it’s due to personal preference or associations with something else. As far as teen drama goes, I tend to avoid it: the experience is partly down to cringing at the angst and ill-informed decisions – which itself is 50% annoyance and 50% refusal to admit that we were all like that at their age – and partly due to simple lack of interest. I mean, the degree to which I can relate to a story is limited when the cast of characters are half my age with different experiences and views on the world!

    Nagi no Asukara is, in my limited experience of such stories, definitely above average though. It takes a while to really come into its own, so I initially had to contend with that nagging doubt that it would drown in a sea of its own angst. Even then I couldn’t fault the presentation and immediately decided that if I didn’t end up enjoying it, I would still recommend it to others on the grounds that it was very good at what it did.

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  7. Mushishi, as science fiction for chilled-out people

    Mushishi has been, more than anything else I think, the reason why I started blogging. Over the years my admiration for it was reignited by a sadly short-lived UK DVD release, gif sets on Tumblr, a one-off OAV and finally a second season proper. It has been heartening to see that it wasn’t forgotten by the fans, either: I expected few people to remember it, and even fewer to jump on the bandwagon at the second season.

    The thing is, Mushishi isn’t the sort of TV show that draws attention to itself: it’s just *there*, doing its thing and letting people drift towards it and fall in love with its storytelling at their own pace and on their own terms. The iyashikei genre has sadly all but disappeared, so the fashion for chilled-out ‘healing’ anime isn’t what it was in the mid 2000s when I started getting into the anime fandom. But anyway. Mushishi is back. Hold onto that thought and cherish it.

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  8. The ‘Akuma no Uta’ that is Madoka Magica: Rebellion

    *Note: I skipped the first two films due to personal laziness on the grounds of having seen the series twice, so I may have missed some important details. As of now I plan to watch all three of them.*

    From a safe distance, out of the range of spoiler fallout, the fan reaction to the third Madoka movie was interesting to say the least. It certainly left me with mixed feelings over various aspects, but I think each viewer’s opinions about certain characters will influence their impression of the movie overall.

    One thing that I think we can all agree on is that it looks and sounds fantastic. After following what Akiyuki Shinbo’s been up to over the years, it was interesting to see what he would do with a movie budget behind him: his TV work has a “making the most of limited time and cash” feel to it, but I’ve never seen a cinematic Shinbo project before.

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  9. A tourist’s eye view of Sendai

    When I decided to take on the task of writing about every significant place I visited in Japan last May, I felt the most important article of all would be the one about the one short day and night spent in Sendai. At the time of writing, news headlines are again warning of an earthquake and tsunami with maps placing Sendai and Fukushima worryingly close to the epicentre. Even now, the international image of Sendai is that of a dot on a map near an earthquake zone at best, or a tsunami-ravaged city at worst.

    When in reality it looks like this

    Although enormous amounts of damage were done to coastal areas of the Touhoku region in 2011 and it was off-limits to visitors for a time, things have changed and if I were to fail to point this out I’d be doing this wonderful city and its million or so inhabitants a disservice.

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  10. Japan 2014: Hiroshima and Miyajima

    When trying to decide what to write about for my next blog post, I sort-of forced myself into talking about my experience of visiting the Hiroshima region. Today marks the annual anniversary of the atomic bombing of the city, but my feelings on that are difficult to sum up. Hiroshima is, for many people, a name from the news headlines; long before Sendai crept into the our consciousness as a name that continues to spark the nuclear debate, this otherwise ordinary industrial city has the unfortunate status of being the world’s first battlefield of a nuclear war.

    I don’t want to go  into the politics and morality of what happened in August 1945; the complex ethical and historical arguments could spawn a whole series of posts on their own, and ought to be written by people better-informed than I am. What struck me more than anything when walking through the clean, friendly and sunny Hiroshima of 2014, which includes the iconic memorials such as the Eternal Flame and the A-Bomb Dome, was how it’s pretty much a normal Japanese city. That’s it.

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  11. Terror in Resonance: the language of terror

    I’ve started the task of learning the kanji, which at the time of writing stands at around 480…which isn’t as impressive as it sounds, given how many I have left to learn in total. My fascination with this writing system also encourages me to look up the meanings of stuff like people’s names and the titles of songs, movies and TV shows; not to mention nuances or double-meanings that are lost in translation when converted from kanji too (anyone who’s looked into authors like Nisioisin and Kinoko Nasu will understand this!). It’s quite fun and educational.

    The title for Zankyou no Terror for instance uses the kanji characters 残 and 響, the の particle and ‘terror’ written in katakana, which is popularly translated into English as ‘Terror in Resonance’. I’m far from being a kanji expert at this point and I won’t pretend to be able to explain the nuts-and-bolts grammar of the particles yet either, but the ‘resonance’ of the title, which can also be read to mean ‘echo’ or ‘reverberation’ is interesting. And no, I’ve not reached the stage of learning these two particular characters! I had to look them up on Denshi Jisho first, which is by the way an excellent kanji resource.

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  12. Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and the Murakami dilemma

    If I were to write a ‘proper’ objective review of Murakami’s latest, it would probably begin and end with “this is just another Haruki Murakami novel.” Considering his strengths as a writer, this isn’t ‘just’ anything, but so many tropes and themes are being revisited here I don’t think it’s an unfair way of summing it up.

    For your reference, this is the city of Nagoya, one of the settings of the story. Pretty, huh?

    Murakami’s popularity isn’t wholly unjustified: although he has yet to win that Nobel Prize for literature, fans still queue outside bookshops as soon as each new work is published. Although I’d join them in saying I enjoyed Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage, it hasn’t changed my mind over my opinion that he’s a writer who’s talented without being Nobel Prize-worthy. What’s worrying is that I’m not enjoying it in the same way that I used to.

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  13. MONO: Rays of Darkness and The Last Dawn

    Just when you start to wonder what one of your favourite bands is up to, their next offerings turn up like buses: long awaited, and arriving two at once.

    It’s a real challenge for music artists who work the treadmill of recording and touring to keep their output fresh and varied, especially when their line-up remains unchanged throughout their career. MONO have apparently been grappling with that issue, and although they’ve broadened their horizons by contributing to a TV mini-series and collaborating with a couple of indie filmmakers since their last studio effort, the move to release not one but two albums at the same time is I think quite a turning-point.

    It begs the question of which one follows which. Personally, I prefer to play the thematically darker Rays of Darkness before The Last Dawn because it gives a sensation of going through a dark place towards a more hopeful one, but doing the opposite is an equally valid way to approach it, and I believe the band themselves don’t mind if the songs are experienced either way.

    My own approach then takes me first to Recoil, Ignite, a storming track that takes their typical slow build-up to a crushing crescendo. Although this is familiar territory, I daresay it’s their best interpretation of that type of song apart from Yearning (which is saying something coming from me, that being my favourite track of my favourite album of theirs). There’s a short video to accompany it too, which was directed by Studio 4°C animator Kōji Morimoto. He’s been involved in a lot of productions that I’ve enjoyed over the years and whose style I really respect; the only downside is the video itself is just sixteen seconds long!

    Surrender is a bit of an odd one: a trumpet part offers some welcome variety on an album that was deliberately arranged to not feature their now-trademark orchestral parts. It’s not particularly loud, dark or dramatic; it’s something of a segue between the tracks that precede and follow it, but little more than that.

    The Hand that Holds the Truth is another departure for the band, although this isn’t apparent until the finale when the brooding, intertwining guitars and percussion burst into life as Tetsu Fukagawa lends his furious vocal part to send it on its way. Is it my favourite track of these two albums? No. Will the presence of lyrics – and hardcore screamo ones at that – sit well with some of MONO’s long-term fans? Probably not. Am I glad they recorded it this way? Perhaps surprisingly, yes.

    The important thing is, it’s something new and unexpected, and bringing in a comrade of the J-indie scene for the ride hints at some interesting cross-pollination. Whether this will get MONO fans listening to Envy and vice-versa I don’t know, but I hope it does. Along with the bizarre noise section that makes up the closing track The Last Rays, the end result is a soundscape that’s only partially familiar alongside their earlier material.

    While Rays of Darkness owes more to the band’s noise rock roots, The Last Dawn is probably closer in style to their more recent output but again, the orchestral aspect is reined in to just a string quartet. The Land Between Tides/Glory starts off sombre but starts the rise towards the light; Kanata, their first single and one that formed part of the soundtrack to the aforementioned TV show Kanata no Ko nevertheless fits in well here with its restful atmospherics and gentle lines of tinkling piano.

    Cyclone highlights the relative restraint of this record, with its title conjuring images of violent forces of nature but in actuality it keeps those violent undercurrents under wraps and bubbling under the surface.

    Elysian Castles provides something of a role reversal in which the piano takes the lead and then the guitars and drums follow. This is where the ‘cinematic’ vibe comes in again, reminding us that this is a band who now sit just as comfortably in the category of soundtrack scores as on the rock club circuit.

    Another highlight is Where We Begin, which was used along with a couple of older tracks as BGM for the video diary of mountaineer Nobukazu Kuriki, and no wonder. If I’d overcome great personal adversity as he had, I’d want something that sounds like this to mark the moment of accomplishment as I blinked back the Manly Tears. Congrats to Mr Kuriki by the way.

    Volume-wise it’s not really possible to top that, so the conclusion to the record is a gentle come-down that shows MONO at their most gentle and serene. They’re now experienced enough to be masters of dynamics: dig in and create a big, cinematic and sometimes frightening wall of sound when the mood takes them, or calm down and lay on some gentler melodies when appropriate.

    After the lush expansive epics found on Hymn to the Immortal Wind and For My Parents it begged the question of how much ‘bigger’ the songs could get, and where to take things from there. I was worried that they’d reached a plateau or dead end: glib comparisons like “Joe Hisaishi in a hurricane” or “the sound of your heart being broken and then mended again” are only half the story: music’s power is lessened when it becomes stale and predictable.

    Here, MONO have solved the dilemma by releasing two contrasting works simultaneously, allowing them to look ahead and try out new ideas in a way that will be easy to recreate live, while still paying homage to their influences…which is no mean feat in itself, being a variety of classics and experimentalists from Morricone and Beethoven to Loren Connors and William Basinski.

    Between the two, The Last Dawn probably stands alone more strongly due to its more melodic nature making it more accessible. Even so, I’m still glad that they revisited the grittier chaos of their early work and threw in some surprises during Rays of Darkness to shake things up and heighten the contrast between the soul-crushing lows and life-affirming highs. Individually, these two records are interesting and beautiful in turns, but taken together they promise a tantalising new chapter.

    Both albums are available from Temporary Residence (USA and Canada), Pelagic Records (Europe) and Magniph (Japan)

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  14. Kanae Minato: Confessions

    Comparisons between an adaptation of a written work and the original are always interesting, even if the piece of film or TV is inferior to the story that it’s based on. In rare instances the adaptation proves to be even more enjoyable than the book that inspired it (the only one that springs immediately to mind however is Satoshi Kon’s mind-bending animated film of Yasutaka Tsutsui’s novel Paprika) but it can still encourage you to view the source material in a slightly new light. It feels a bit awkward to me when I experience the adaptation first though, because there’s that nagging feeling that my appreciation of the original is being clouded somehow.

    For instance: I picked up (and reviewed, if you’re interested) Tetsuya Nakashima’s schoolroom psycho-thriller Confessions long before the English translation of Kanae Minato’s novel. If you have seen the film and are familiar with the story right up to its shocking denouement, I still recommend the book: inevitably, there are certain plot points that were edited out to fit the flow of the movie, but the shift in emphasis means that the novel is still a refreshing and rewarding experience. You certainly won’t get *quite* the same feeling as you would from the film even if, say, you read it with a Boris album playing in the background or something.

    The film really is bloody brilliant, from the soundtrack to the cinematography and the performances from its largely young cast. Nakashima and his writers deserve credit for a polished and striking piece of cinema, but the screenplay owes a lot to the quality of Minato’s storytelling as well. Certain details were left on the cutting room floor and the film is no worse for that, but these parts that never made the journey from print to screen still deserve attention.

    I think of a translator’s job as being that of co-author, because his or her interpretation will colour the experience of the translated work. I lack the comprehension skills to read the original text so cannot tell if this was evident in Minato’s writing, but I can say that Stephen Snyder’s prose is clear, flows well and effectively conveys the simplistic reasoning of the younger characters and the chilling directness of their homeroom teacher-turned-vigilante.

    Each chapter is told in first-person, which makes for a more intimate and revealing experience of the characters’ thoughts and motives. A third-person narrative would of course have been more ‘objective’ but getting a grasp of their respective points of view separately and piecing it all together is all part of the fun, and makes it feel more ‘personal’ than the film.

    The movie focuses on the aftermath of the death of Yuko Moriguchi’s four-year-old daughter Manami, mainly concerning itself with the resulting campaign of revenge and its effect on the two students who the distraught mother believes are responsible. This works wonderfully as a murder-mystery thriller, but the novel’s approach of presenting each principle character’s story separately takes a broader view and gives the reader a clearer idea of how this chain of events affected many other people. Even the title feels more appropriate because, rather than being two possible killers and one other person hell-bent on revenge, seemingly everyone who is touched by these events has something that they feel they have to ‘confess’ to.

    One idea that spoke very clearly to me was the nature of good and evil in the context of human morality. Some fictional villains just ‘are’: they’re bad people and little or no explanation is given beyond that. In this case, even murderers are given background and you find yourself swerving from disgust to sympathy as you gradually discover why they did what they did. It backs up the notion that in society there aren’t necessarily bad people per se; rather, there are people who make tragically bad decisions.

    This train of thought is what heightens the realism of Confessions despite occasional moments that require suspension of disbelief, and in some ways is what makes it all the more frightening. The thing is, these people who kill and harm others are not inherently bad, so it’s theoretically possible that it could happen to anyone. A combination of personal failings – the selfishness, pride, wilful ignorance or cowardice that we all experience at some time or another in our lives with relatively minor consequences – simple misunderstandings and unfortunate coincidences is what has such serious repercussions, and punishes the innocent and guilty alike.

    It becomes clear that Moriguchi is being driven on a potentially damaging moral crusade due to her grief: the intricacies and manipulations involved in her plans are obsessive, and of course it’s morally questionable as to whether she has the right to take the law into her own hands in the first place. Neither of the two ‘killers’ is wholly responsible for the innocent child’s death, but at the same time they themselves are victims of circumstance before they make those fateful decisions. Perhaps the most damning indictment of their, and Moriguchi’s, guilt is the fact that for all the loss and punishment the three of them go through, many innocent lives are also ruined or ended in the process.

    There are fascinating bits of social commentary that make for great book club or pub discussions, such as the issues surrounding the age of criminal responsibility among the young, the role of the justice system in terms of choosing between punishment and rehabilitation and the influence of family life on incidence of crime. They are quite universal I think, and easily overcome cultural barriers even when the culturally-specific situations may not.

    I understand that Confessions was a runaway success at home and The Snow White Murder Case, another of Minato’s novels, has also been given the cinematic treatment and even a limited theatrical run abroad, so I look forward to seeing that. I certainly hope that this finds an appreciative audience in the English-speaking world because a gripping and meticulously-crafted piece of this calibre certainly deserves it.

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  15. Doing the Danse Macabre to Death Parade

    Back when I saw Death Billiards for the first time, I thought it was a fantastic little oddity that had a lot of mileage in its premise and storytelling. Even so, the cynic in me was resigned to the fact that it didn’t have enough guns and tits to have broad popularity outside of the Anime Mirai project and be a serious contender for a full TV series; despite it ticking all the boxes for being one of those things that has me personally grinning like a loon for twenty-five minutes and wanting to write about it afterwards. I’ve come to realise my tastes are a little weird sometimes.

    A wonderful place where you’ll never miss last orders

    In this case however, the TV Gods were merciful and this quirky little thing was given a fighting chance and its role shifted to being that of a pilot for its TV incarnation, Death Parade. I never did get around to writing about Death Billiards, but after two episodes of its spin-off my opinion on it hasn’t changed: it’s bloody brilliant. I just hope that enough people share my admiration for it.

    Although it’s very different stylistically, the premise reminds me rather a lot of Hirokazu Koreeda’s masterpiece After Life (originally titled ワンダフルライフ, or “Wonderful Life” but presumably changed to avoid confusion with that well-known Frank Capra movie) in which a halfway house between the realms of the living and the dead processes ‘newly-dead’ souls before they embark on the next stage of their journey.

    Without falling onto cultural stereotyping too much here, Death Parade’s and After Life’s setups are a combination of spirituality and bureaucratic procedure that feels very, well, Japanese. It’s interesting to watch the people who are tasked with dealing with the dead souls, as well as learning the stories of the deceased themselves. They’re imperfect systems that suffer from unusual incidents every now and then, so the very human admins are required to use their own judgement to intervene and keep the supernatural production line running.

    As in Koreeda’s film, Death Parade is also an in-depth examination of issues that face people at the end of their time on Earth when they look back and reflect on what they’ve achieved during their lives, and how their thoughts and actions affected those around them. In both cases, it’s not really morbid: it’s all about their lives overall, and the decisions they made. There’s a goldmine of philosophical arguments to be tapped into here, using the end of life to look at the time that precedes one’s demise more clearly.

    Death Parade’s first arc for example puts a young married couple side-by-side and through a game of darts in which a double top could be very painful indeed, with the deepest and darkest secrets of their relationship and respective psyches being brought shockingly to the surface. After Life does it a little differently, using each deceased soul’s happiest memory as a way of studying their whole lives, but the end result is similar and similarly fascinating.

    There’s also a little smattering of Nobuyuki Fukumoto’s psychological thriller style of storytelling that makes use of competitions and games to ramp up the tension and put the characters’ mindsets under the microscope while the judgement is taking place…and the said tension helps you forget that it’s a bit weird to be deciding the fate of someone’s life over something as trivial as pachinko or darts. “Zawa zawa” indeed.

    I still have a few questions about the mechanics of the deceased pairings and their judgements though. For instance: since each ‘match’ decides who gets reincarnated and who is consigned to the Void, it makes a lot of sense when one of them is more at fault than the other, especially when their lives – and deaths – are connected. What if couples of similarly good or bad morality, such as two criminals or two decent people,  come down in the lift together? Presumably, the slightly less douche-y criminal will be reincarnated, but a reasonably good person will end up in the Void if his or her competitor is a complete saint! It doesn’t seem very fair to me, although we’re not told who or what the supposed winner is reincarnated *into*…

    Fortunately, Death Parade is already taking the time to introduce the employees of the dead soul processing establishment so I’m confident that it will be explaining this too as the series progresses. It appears that this arc pre-dates the billiards match of the pilot, because the unnamed assistant is a new starter and is only just getting acquainted with her new job and the Ginko-esque Decim who runs the place.

    On a subjective personal level, the opening theme segment is tremendous fun and this nameless lady is I’ll admit sort of my type, so I have absolutely no objection to watching and listening to her adventures every week. On a more objective level, she’s the rookie whose experiences are the ideal way for the viewer to explore the worldview and ask the questions that we the viewers are all asking.

    I don’t like to jump to conclusions about a TV show from the first couple of episodes (Yurikuma Arashi, anyone?) but I feel pretty confident in having high hopes for this one. It’s a psychological character study in a beautifully-realised setting, delivered with real suspense and Tim Burton-esque black humour as well as being a shining example of what the Anime Mirai project can do…plus it stars a mysterious sort with a hime cut and an enquiring mind. What’s not to like?

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  16. RPM Challenge 2015 submission

    It’s that time of year again…four weeks shut away indoors, tied to my keyboard and frantically trying to get ten songs or 35 minutes of sound down to (digital) tape. There are no prizes or awards for this – Record Production Month is open to anyone with the time and tenacity, whether they’re professional musicians/songwriters or enthusiastic amateurs.

    I just like the motivation to *do something*, and for some reason find working under a constraint like this to be helpful as well as limiting. For we OCD and perfectionist types, it does mean we don’t really have the option of retakes, extensive planning or laborious ironing-out of bum notes. It’s a bit rough, chaotic and making-it-up-as-you-go-along.

    This year I again decided to aim for the 35 minute target instead of the ten song one (the last track is divided into sections for its Soundcloud upload, although the original edit is all in one go).

    Going Full Walrus and Goat Beer are straight-up guitar rock numbers, consisting of guitar lines recorded over a bass guitar and electronic drum beat that were run through a distorted valve amp (in the former’s case, the drums and bass were recorded through the amp simultaneously, to give a really messy lo-fi vibe).

    Echo Chamber Experiment #1 and Glacial Lake were more experimental, being my first attempt to use an electric piano/keyboard. Velociraptor Waltz in F Major was just a bit of fun, because I wanted to break up the pattern with a song that was arranged in a 3/4 time signature.

    Weight of Memory is one of the longest tracks I’ve ever recorded, and is a shameless tribute to Echoes by Pink Floyd because the idea of one song that could fill and entire side of a 12″ vinyl record appeals to me somehow. Most of it’s a patchwork of lengthy guitar lines recorded in one take, and stitched together. The lyrics weren’t a major concern, but I wrote them hurriedly in the space of an afternoon and used Vocaloid 2 for the final arrangement.

    The whole thing is on Soundcloud as one playlist, but here’s the individual order:

    1. Going Full Walrus
    2. Echo Chamber Experiment #1
    3. Goat Beer
    4. Velociraptor Waltz in F Major
    5. Glacial Lake
    6. (overture)
    7. Weight of Memory – 1
    8. Weight of Memory – 2
    9. Weight of Memory – coda

    Fun fact: all the guitar tracks were recorded through the same four watt Matamp valve head that was connected to a 2×12 speaker cab loaded with a pair of Celestions. I’m still amazed at how a mere four watts are more than loud enough for a home studio!

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  17. My thoughts on Psycho-Pass season 1

    I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: Netflix is pretty great. The convenience of having so much stuff available with just a few button presses of my remote can’t be overstated, especially when Real Life circumstances have left me with more free time than I know what to do with in the past few months. Their anime selection is pretty good too.

    Take Psycho-Pass. Somehow it slipped under my radar, as things annoyingly all too often seem to do. With hindsight I can’t even explain why, because I soon discovered how it ticks so many boxes in terms of setting, writing and, well, pretty much everything.

    Cyberpunk is one of those ‘comfort zone’ things that I keep coming back to, even when it fulfils just the basic requirements of being a futuristic film noir style story. Of course, originality isn’t everything: when William Gibson saw Blade Runner at the cinema he recognised its potential as a cult classic, but worried about what his debut novel Neuromancer could bring to the table. As it turned out, both titles are still highly regarded on their own merits and helped define cyberpunk as a whole.

    Psycho-Pass was intended to sit amongst what has followed since, which is surprising when the anime industry has probably crowded the cyberpunk genre as much as anyone. As with Ghost in the Shell, Appleseed, Mardock Scramble and numerous straight-to-video efforts of the 80s and 90s, it has all those neon lights, high-rise buildings and stony-faced cops with guns that go ‘pew-pew’ instead of ‘bang’ to gleefully gory effect, so initially it doesn’t do much to set itself apart.

    What’s even more astonishing is that, at first glance, Psycho-Pass is formulaic to the point at which it looks like it’s trying to sabotage its own success. Heck, one bit of dialogue is literally a discussion of cyberpunk fiction in which two characters liken their world to a Gibson or P K Dick novel (and in the same episode, there’s a flash of a crooked gold baseball bat as a nod to Satoshi Kon’s Paranoia Agent…as I said: this show ticks a lot of my boxes)!


    There’s the well-worn premise of wide-eyed rookie paired with cynical old-timer too, but once the character roles of Akane and Shinya are established, it finally comes into its own. The crucial point here is the feat that Pyscho-Pass pulls off: it’s so damn good at what it does that I was able to forget that I’d seen much of it before somewhere else.

    A futuristic worldview justifies itself through explaining both how and why it’s different from reality’s past or present, so seeing the way that a justice system is reimagined from the ground up was refreshing. Although it superficially looks like just another futuristic urban dystopia and although the science-y bits go all vague in the mechanics, Psycho-Pass’ world-building is really satisfying. It proposes an extrapolation of the ‘Surveillance State’ idea, but follows the train of thought through and examines the end results in gritty detail.

    For instance: what do cops actually *do* when forensics are replaced by drones, and when the whole procedure of officer on the beat leading to trial-by-jury is replaced by the drawing of a high-tech smart-gun? With the introduction of such profound changes, the lowly status and resentful mentality of the Enforcers make a lot more sense.

    In the first episode, the likes of Masaoka and Kogami – who in any other crime thriller would be the hero detectives – are painted as anachronistic and even dangerous. The reasoning goes, the world has evolved and they have been unable to move with the times, so have had to settle for a downgraded role. As their traditional approach has become redundant, the old-school detectives have to either mould themselves to the new way of doing things, accept relegation to the role of Enforcer or quit the job altogether.

    I’ll be really honest here: I truly felt for the Enforcers, especially when they’re just as dedicated as everyone else. Even before Makashima rears his head and highlights the flaws in the new system, their ‘second class citizen’ status is doing them a disservice and isn’t a very elegant solution for a society that prides itself on its supposed perfection and fairness. They’re not valued or respected, but at the same time their skills are still grudgingly required.

    The characters contribute greatly to what makes Psycho-Pass such a success. The sexual tension between Akane and Shinya is rather understated, instead portraying them as two people with vastly opposing points of view gradually coming to understand one another better…as professionals. The conclusion of which appears in the final episode when Akane is now the experienced Inspector taking a newbie out on the beat for the first time. The deliberate similarities to the equivalent scene in the first episode neatly highlight Akane’s growth into a badass champion for justice, and how she could be a force for positive change.


    After a while, I felt the character study and moral questioning aspects were familiar; vaguely reminiscent of Kinoko Nasu or his inspiration, Natsuhiko Kyougoku. Its worldview reminded me a little of Loups-Garous and the whole setup isn’t far from how I’d imagine a Nasu work to be if he took a break from Type Moon and tried some SF instead. I realised the vital ingredient was Gen Urobuchi’s writing, which can explain why many aspects of the story clicked with me.

    I daresay this is Urobuchi on top form. For all its poetic elegance, the storytelling of Madoka Magica had a coldly mechanical and emotionally-detached feel, possibly because it was an intentional pastiche of the magical girl concept, and Akiyuki Shinbo’s directing style is so attention-grabbing. Fate/Zero worked brilliantly too, but still had to fit into an existing franchise. The themes and setting of Psycho-Pass on the other hand felt like Urobuchi had been able to assert his own ideas without compromise.

    He has this unflinching approach that I admire enormously: unafraid to take the story into dark places, but also prepared to kill off characters if the storytelling demands it. It’s effectively done though, so I reckon the ‘Urobutcher’ label is as undeserving as Joss Whedon’s notoriety for applying similar instances in his writing; it’s a departure from their contemporaries, which is a good thing. A certain climatic scene in the eleventh episode for instance had me open-mouthed in shock, thinking: “I can’t believe they just did that!” But guess what? It’s sure as hell effective in context.

    I still can’t shake off how the writing of Nasu and Urobuchi have so much in common though. I know they’ve been interviewed together and collaboration was part of the Fate/Zero writing process, but their work backgrounds are similar and I have a mental image of them exchanging frequent e-mails and possibly catching up with a few beers every now and then before and since. Perhaps this is why the other lingering impression I had of Psycho-Pass was the nearest we’re ever likely to get to a full-on Nasu-esque SF crime thriller.

    The gorier moments and the all-pervading sense of tension and fear might make it too graphic and oppressive for some, but for me that’s the point: there’s a lot wrong with the society that Psycho-Pass portrays, and it pulls no punches in demonstrating why. There are still good reasons why Akane and her team put their lives on the line to defend it, which makes their sacrifices all the more poignant and nuanced in meaning. They stare into the abyss and risk being dragged into its depths, so the rest of us don’t have to.

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  18. Your Lie in April and Nodame Cantabile: music is the food of love

    While keeping up with currently airing/streaming TV, I recently watched Your Lie in April. Its premise of classical music performance reminded me of those times I’d been recommended Nodame Cantabile, in that weird way that often happens. It’s a barely-noticeable drip-feed of “this is cool. You might like it…” over many months or even years, finally reaching critical mass after being reminded through something else, and practically forcing me sit down to watch the thing then wondering where it had been all my life.

    Source: Pixiv (click pic for original)

    In a recent Twitter conversation I was asked the very good question, “which is better?” but sadly could only come up with a “that depends…” cop-out answer. For the record, I personally enjoyed Nodame… more, but I don’t know how helpful that would be to anyone else. Sorry. Here’s why.

    I find music-related film and TV stories fascinating because you get to see and hear the characters’ thoughts as well as the performances themselves. Despite spending most of my time listening to noisy guitar bands – or perhaps because of it? – I feel the need to occasionally and publicly point out that I’m a closet classical fan as well.

    There’s an aura of perceived snobbery surrounding the popular opinion of classical though, so I constantly feel that I’m not knowledgeable enough to appreciate it properly…in the same way that I don’t consider myself to be a proper musician because I’m not formally trained and can’t read standard notation fluently. Unyclopedia not inaccurately describes it as “…a stereotypically instrumental composition that most commonly only old people, villains in action movies, your grandparents, the living dead, and smart people listen to.”


    Lighten up, buddy! At least it’s not her mongoose outfit

    Despite my piano skills being limited to the first few bars of 65DOS’ Radio Protector with a couple of false starts, and my ‘live performance’ experience being non-classical (namely: standing in a pub full of drunk people with a second-hand electric guitar), I do have some idea of what it means to be a musician in terms of the drudgery of practice, the introspection and dedication, and the mixture of terror and exhilaration that comes from live concerts. One thing that I think both these series do very well is convey those things to a general audience, despite the relative inaccessibility of many classical genres and the personal challenges of people who are, let’s face it, in a different league to the rest of us.

    My favourite story arc of Your Lie in April is that of a piano competition in which the young hero Kousei is up against two old rivals with vastly different personalities and playing styles, but whose piano skills rival his own. This segment isn’t all that different from psychological drama or sports anime in that the tension and suspense come from what’s going on inside their heads, and the way it explores the reasons behind their prodigious skills and all-consuming ambition.

    If Your Lie in April ever spawns a sequel in which we see Kousei, Emi and Takeshi cross paths again, I’d tune in without hesitation. In fact, I find that prospect even more appealing than the production we actually got. Many of us like to see personal drama and nailbiting competition after all, and the soundtrack would be just as fantastic. The fact that they’re still in their mid-teens means there’s loads of mileage in the emotional development of those three contrasting characters too.


    Source: Pixiv (click image again for original)

    Surprisingly, the ages of Your Lie in April’s cast weren’t the main issue I had with the show. Nor was the melodrama; not in of itself, at least. The protagonists are adolescents after all: a time of life when even the most minor things feel overwhelming and raw. It also looked and sounded absolutely stunning, and the stylistic tricks it employed to visually convey nebulous concepts like childhood trauma and stage fright were very convincing indeed.

    From what I saw of other viewers’ reactions, the drama was divisive: for every person who got ‘The Feels’, another thought it overwrought and forced. I was able to let that slide and run with it, but the ending was what rubbed me up the wrong way. Genre conventions pretty much dictated how things panned out, so whichever of the two main possible resolutions the writers went for (I’m trying so hard not to post spoilers!) it would still have felt clichéd.

    I was supposed to have The Feels: to be in tears at the tragedy and pathos of it all. I instead felt angry that the story had wasted a fascinating premise, complex and believable characters, gorgeous visuals and enchanting music, to shamelessly try to squeeze tears out of me in such a heavy-handed and hackneyed way. Again, without posting specific spoilers, the ending was foreshadowed very heavily near the show’s midpoint, so when it arrived I approached it with a mixture of dread and misplaced hope that it wouldn’t take the formulaic route I expected it to.

    With my ‘classical music anime’ itch still wanting to be scratched satisfactorily, I remembered all those little things I’d read about the NoitaminA oldie Nodame Cantabile. At 3am this morning, when I should’ve been asleep, I saw the first season through to its conclusion. In all honesty though, I didn’t want it to end at all.


    Rather than ramp up the emotion and angst to Jun Maeda proportions, Nodame Cantabile picks up the story when the characters are at – to me, at least – a more relatable age and opts for a more everyday and organic storytelling style. There are still arguments, blossoming romantic relationships, chibi-slapstick comedic interludes and music performances that are rendered with a gloriously realistic attention to detail, but for all the similarities in themes and settings the execution is very different.

    There is a large and appreciative audience for the ‘tragedy pr0n’, ‘sick lit’ or whatever the popularly-accepted term for Your Lie in April’s genre category is called. In terms of catering to that audience, it does what it sets out to do very well. But if you didn’t get into the show for that, you’re not duty-bound to like it.

    I guess I simply have limited patience for emotionally manipulative stories with predictably tragic endings. Nodame Cantabile has suspensions of disbelief of its own in the form of fortunate coincidences and an apparent idiot savant heroine (voiced by a nigh-on unrecognisable Ayako Kawasumi. Honestly, I could barely believe it was her) but it’s more mature, subtle and real.

    While Your Lie in April’s final episode left me cold, the closing moments of Nodame Cantabile’s first season did actually leave me with a lump in my throat. I’m sure the differing demographics of their target audience are the underlying reason for all this, but the fact remains that it’s one of the most immersive and emotionally satisfying animated dramas I’ve ever witnessed. Shinichi may be stand-offish and arrogant and Megumi may be too dorky to physically exist…scratch that, they actually are. Except, none of that really mattered.

    I’m not even sure why. For all their flaws, they somehow endeared themselves to me and watching trivial incidents and chance encounters lead to the creation of the ‘S’ orchestra and the ‘Rising Stars’ was an emotional journey I don’t regret one bit. Perhaps the truth is that there’s something magical and cathartic in seeing bright young people doing what they love, and working hard together to dig deep within themselves, creating something beautiful and worthwhile. And doing so without a death flag in sight.

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  19. Mirror, mirror, on the wall (on your desk, in your home, in your pocket…)

    I can remember once doing a GCSE English coursework assignment on the portrayal of fear and horror in Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds and the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe. I didn’t enjoy Poe’s stuff at the time, and I’ve never been much of a horror fan anyway; I thought du Maurier’s book was cool and unusual though.


    The main argument in my essay (I wish I’d kept it: I got an A!) was inspired by an article I’d previously read in the monthly magazine that was later rebranded BBC Focus, on the possible origins of horror stories (theories that vampire myths originate from symptoms of the medical condition porphyria, and so on). It also explained the psychology behind horror writing, and I wish I’d been able to keep a copy of that article too.

    I think we partially grow out of ‘traditional’ horror as our childhood fears of ghosts and monsters are replaced by other things: as an adult, I find psychological thrillers more effective. The gist of that old Focus article was that traditional monster-themed horror stories feature an exterior threat, but psychological horror is more frightening because the threat comes from people, and as a result is much harder to hide from.

    In the 1990s reboot of The Outer Limits, the most chilling instalments for me were of the SF variety (apart from the episode “Under the Bed”…), featuring people tampering with technology rather than fighting supernatural beasties. Fast-forward to the day in 2015 when I discovered Black Mirror on Netflix…

    I know of Charlie Brooker for his dry, humorous commentary on current events in Weekly Wipe and How TV Ruined Your Life, so between these and his newspaper columns I already knew that he’s a damn good writer with a sharp eye for satire. Although there are elements of dark humour in Black Mirror (the twisted premise of the opening episode National Anthem for instance) his writing mostly plays it straight here and charges fearlessly forward, casting aside doubts over plot holes along the way.

    Behind the sardonic wisecracks and puns of his presenting style, I’ve always detected an underlying fierce intelligence and firm sense of morality in Brooker’s work. There’s rarely a happy ending in Black Mirror’s stand-alone stories – there’s a sense of resigned hopelessness that reminds me of Philip K Dick’s and George Orwell’s most well-known works – but the downbeat cynicism doesn’t completely obscure his moral compass. Rather, these are cautionary tales told from the point of view of someone who’s all too aware of our weaknesses but still has enough faith in us as a species to believe that it’s worth warning us in the first place.

    The settings of the stories are set in alternate presents or near-futures, which adds to the realism and ease by which the audience can relate to what’s going on. SF is such a broad term that it covers a wide spectrum from “hard” to “soft” science, from university degree-level terminology to circumstances that are virtually indistinguishable from our own. Black Mirror plays down the science-y side, using recognisable terms and familiar-looking people and places to keep the events close to our own experience.

    The end result is a set of stories that can deliver their emotional and intellectual payload – often within forty-five minutes – without large amounts of info-dump exposition or obscure jargon. The storytelling is concise, vivid and leaves a lasting impression: as with a lot of futuristic SF, it extrapolates the course of existing technologies and trends, and then examines where that course could take us, but says as much about our present as it does about its own fictional worldview. The things it has to say are truly unsettling.


    My derision and distaste for X Factor-style talent contests and ‘fat shaming’ now feel vindicated. The phenomenon of “trial by social media” feels like even more of a pressing conversation that our society needs to have. While social media has helped us in so many ways, Brooker is absolutely right to liken it to a drug; a drug whose side-effects we’ve yet to fully grasp.

    I think the downplaying of the nuts-and-bolts of the technology that appears in these stories is a wise move, and not just to ensure that viewers who are uncomfortable with hard science aren’t put off. It doesn’t really matter what algorithms are used to create a ‘virtual’ personality of someone using their social media data. It doesn’t matter what mind control is used to wipe someone’s memory. It doesn’t matter what active ingredients go into Cuppliance.

    The problem isn’t the technology itself; the problem is our relationship with it, our addiction to it, and all too often the root cause of the paranoia and tragedy that unfolds is due to old, familiar human nature. Domestic arguments already happen without couples recording past conversations and experiences for future reference. Desperate people still sacrifice their dignity and principles for fifteen minutes of fame. Our notion of ‘justice’ is still influenced by revenge and spite as it is by deterrence and rehabilitation.

    Simply put, technology should be handled carefully and responsibly, but the problems it appears to cause still stem from human failings such as cowardice, jealousy, selfishness, ignorance and cruelty. I’m recommending it with trepidation here, because I know that you’d probably find it gripping and memorable, but at the same time I don’t know whether you’d want to thank me for it afterwards. The mirror may be black, but it’s a mirror nonetheless. Gaze into it, and we still see ourselves.

    At the time of writing, both the first and second season are available on UK DVD, Netflix  and the 4oD catch-up service

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  20. Examining the personal side of technology in Channel 4’s Humans

    By now, we’re probably familiar with A.I. and realistic androids in cinema. I sometimes wonder whether there’s anything new to add to a theme that’s still years away from actually *happening*, especially when moments like Rutger Hauer’s “tears in the rain” speech at the end of Blade Runner are so iconic. Then Yasuhiro Yoshiura’s Time of Eve happened. And then, unusually for mainstream TV, Channel 4 gave us Humans.

    In a similar way to Black Mirror, which incidentally was also the approach in Time of Eve, Humans is ‘soft’ SF that concentrates on the social and emotional repercussions of technological advances while downplaying the nuts-and-bolts details. In my view it’s a wise decision: we’re not currently at an advanced enough level to create real humanlike robots, so explaining how stuff like operating systems, battery life and other details might actually *work* wouldn’t have been time well spent when there are other interesting, and relevant, avenues to explore.

    The writers and broadcaster also had to contend with creating something that casual “non-SF” audiences can enjoy, and the impressive ratings for the opening episodes suggests they’ve succeeded.  Although the contemporary setting invariably helped prevent the budget ballooning from futuristic props and costumes, every event and situation feels more recognisable and easy to relate to because, with the obvious exception of the synth technology itself, we’re already there.

    Humans follows the idea that good SF makes as many observations about the present day as it does about its own fictional worldview. In this case, we see the depiction of fictional “synths” examine existing social issues such as family secrets, medical care for the elderly and the unwell, the legal framework for human rights, and the career uncertainties that young people face in a changing world.

    An important point is that the new emerging technology doesn’t cause problems on its own. Rather, it brings existing problems closer to the surface and/or gives people an excuse for their own shortcomings. By which I mean: the ‘real’ people have problems already, and all that happens during the interactions with the synths is that it makes them more obvious than they would otherwise have been. Which is not unlike the everyday occurrence of a “computer error” being blamed for a human error caused by someone making a mistake while using a computer.

    The heart-rending story of the elderly scientist George (played to perfection by William Hurt) for instance highlights the loneliness of solitary elderly people, and how society isn’t catering for their needs despite technological advances supposedly making things easier. Although his role in the development of the synth technology may prove to be pivotal to the series as a whole, the emotional significance of his situation really resonates with me: those of us who have ageing relatives living alone with failing health will immediately recognise the pain he is going through, and how there’s no quick-and-easy fix for it.

    If a domestic relationship between a lone ‘organic’ human and a ‘synthetic’ one can be problematic, what happens after the intrusion of artificial life into an entire family? From the point of view of Mr and Mrs Hawkins, the presence of something that can do the housework effortlessly and look after the kids is an appealing prospect in this hectic twenty-first century of ours. That is, unless the ‘something’ turns out to be a ‘someone’…

    There are a lot of secrets and simmering issues that are coming to light as the series progresses, but even individual incidents give us plenty to think about. The awkwardly amusing moment when the middle child’s teenage hormones and curiosity get the better of him while alone with the family’s ‘female’ synth actually raises some interesting questions, as does the telling way in which some of them are treated by the people they serve.

    For example: the safeguards against inappropriate physical contact between synths and their charges make sense from an ethical as well as a health and safety point of view, but after he begs ‘her’ to not tell his parents about his embarrassing little indiscretion, she agrees. Why? As well as protecting people from harm, synths are supposedly not allowed to lie. Is it a simple assumption that telling the parents will result in him getting into trouble, and therefore constituting putting him in harm’s way? Or perhaps a more ‘human’ gesture to save him from embarrassment?

    On one level, it’s a rare moment of comic relief in which we may ask ourselves the rather flippant question, “how do Asimov’s Three Laws apply when a robot’s owner tries to cop a feel?” but when taken together these seemingly innocuous moments start to add up to something more complex. Not just in terms of the hidden pasts behind specific characters, but in how we might incorporate advancing technology into our daily lives…not necessarily for better or for worse, either. It just happens in the messy, nuanced and predictably unpredictable way that human beings often do things.


    There are bound to be ongoing arguments that Humans is treading familiar ground, but I suspect that the writers were well aware of that fact before they even put pen to paper. The Turing Test and Asimov’s Three Laws have been examined in detail elsewhere already, so they took the logical step of looking back at the people and seeing how *we* react to *them* instead.

    Although this is a rare example for terrestrial TV, fans of futuristic SF are probably used to being asked the question, “when should treat these things as people?” but, to quote the late and great Sir Terry Pratchett, evil begins when we treat people as things. He also said that natural stupidity beats artificial intelligence every time, so perhaps the synths aren’t the ones we should be worried about.

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  21. Stepping back into 2008 with Re/Oblivious

    There’s been some heated discussion in fan circles just lately about the recent output and the future direction of composer/songwriter Yuki Kajiura’s Kalafina project. Since hearing them for the first time in early 2009, I’ve seen them grow from a movie theme tune side-project to being a chart-friendly act playing the prestigious Budokan, which I believe holds the same level of kudos as a UK act “playing Wembley”.

    I started trawling the used market for some of the more obscure and hard-to-find items in their back catalogue, outside of the usual CD singles, live DVDs, T-shirts and squishy shark-shaped phone charms (don’t ask). Some of the releases are already out of print, but the b-sides and other rarities can be some of the most interesting. The one thing I’d been looking out for over the years was the little-known Re/Oblivious.

    With the benefit of hindsight, the CD’s plastic inner sleeve is a weird little prediction of their most recent releases getting vinyl editions

    What exactly IS this? A maxi-single? An EP? A remix mini-album? If you’re a long-standing follower of the group it’s like a time capsule, with an ad leaflet for a 2008 live event and minimalist packaging that lacks detailed credits or member photos. My first thought was that the Kalafina of 2015 would never release something like this, which makes the time and effort to find a copy all the more worthwhile (as in, I understand why you’d want the thing, but I wish you the best of luck in actually finding one).

    The opening track is a variation on their debut single Oblivious, with a stripped-down arrangement that retains the lead vocals and synthesised beat, but otherwise lacks many of the lush layered overdubs and reverb-drenched choral backing chants. I have to say I prefer the ‘fuller’ sound of the original over this rather more bare soundscape, but the vocal melody has enough impact to carry the song and give the listener a refreshing change. I vaguely recall that Kajiura had her doubts about the single version sounding too ambitious and overproduced, so this could well be her answer to that.

    Interlude #1 is one of those obscure tracks that only dedicated fans are likely to be familiar with, although it did get occasional live performances (their Fifth Anniversary Live compilation album for instance). Interlude #2 and Finale continue the same theme, so give a sense of continuity and cohesiveness that prevents them being mere filler designed to fill up space on the CD. They’ve clearly used the melodies and harmonies from Oblivious as a template, in the same way that successive movements of long classical pieces often have recurring themes.

    The two other songs on here that might be more familiar are Kimi Ga Hikari ni Kaete Iku and Kizuato, which were the original b-sides of the Oblivious single and eventually joined it on the full-length debut Seventh Heaven the following year. Here though they’re given the re-arrangement treatment with simpler accompaniment of piano and strings.

    Acoustic or ‘unplugged’ versions of already-released songs are something of a rock and roll staple, but can give artists the opportunity to experiment with new ideas or present existing songs in a new light. These tracks fall into both categories for me, and I suspect may have inspired alternative arrangements for certain songs in their more recent live concerts, such as the Kalafina With Strings Christmas shows or the slower renditions of Sprinter.

    In the same way that Seventh Heaven made use of leitmotifs due to so many of its songs being written for the same movie series, Re/Oblivious shares that same sense of revolving around the common themes from the Garden of Sinners movie adaptations. This means that, as short as it is and as familiar as three of the tracks will be to anyone who’s listened to that album, it still feels like a self-contained release in its own right. Rather than some afterthought made up of half-baked ideas and failed experiments, it’s a delightful little companion piece that captures a moment in time for the band that the more devoted among us will find quite fascinating.

    As with the single b-sides later in their career, the songs on here are presented without the pressure of meeting expectations that an a-side or album track may be exposed to. Again, this isn’t something I’d expect them to do with songs from their latest releases, mainly because the group enjoys a higher profile and have had time to find their signature sound and identity that are distinct from, say, See-Saw or FictionJunction.

    These songs also highlight Kajiura’s eclectic musical inspirations, from the likes of the Cocteau Twins, Depeche Mode and Portishead to European classical orchestra and opera (well, I can hear them!). Which is in contrast to the last few of Kalafina’s singles, which sound more similar to standard TV anime theme song fare. What this might mean for their output in future it’s impossible for me to say, at least until I’ve had sufficient time to experience their next full-length Far on the Water. Which is a discussion best left for later I think.

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  22. 2015 in music: Far on the Water

    Aaand…now for something new. Released shortly after the CD version (and right around the time of my other most-anticipated album of 2015, but more on that later), I now have the limited vinyl edition of Kalafina’s latest full-length: Far on the Water. Their last two singles had been given the analogue treatment, so I was hopeful that their next LP would be released in the same way…and here it is.

    The artwork is the most “minimalist” of their albums so far, but it still looks great in full 12″-sized format with the discs in plastic inner sleeves accompanied by a large lyric sheet. Going on my previous experiences with Japanese vinyl releases (Praparat and Noise by Boris and Level3 by Perfume, for those curious) this is pretty standard, and I can’t fault the quality either. The discs are plain black vinyl with no sign of scratches or warping, and sound excellent on a decent home hi fi setup. Because it’s an album produced in today’s CD-dominated era, the track listing is too long for one vinyl disc so it’s split across two…which gave the ideal opportunity to package it in a gatefold sleeve with more photo artwork inside.

    I may as well get my major criticism out of the way now. In theory, all the singles released since their last full-length should be featured on here. Except, they aren’t. Anyone who wants Kimi no Gin no Niwa or Alleluia are going to be as disappointed as I was that they’ll have to buy either the “Red” and “Blue” Best Of compilations (in typical music industry tradition, they are split across both for maximum customer purchase incentive. Thanks for that, Sony) or the singles themselves.

    We do however get the other four post-Consolation singles: Heavenly Blue, Believe, Ring Your Bell and One Light. Many fans I’ve spoken to don’t rate the first two very highly, and I feel inclined to agree: they’re just generic-sounding theme songs written for TV shows rather than a stand-alone LP. Of course, anime soundtracks are what the band was founded on, but these two sound rather “ordinary” and similar to one another. The latter two are an improvement though, and despite sharing the “tie-in” vibe they’re considerably more enjoyable.

    The inner gatefold artwork (click for full size)

    The good news is, the new songs recorded for the album itself are much better. I suspect that the songwriter Yuki Kajiura hasn’t been suffering from writer’s block because these (and, interestingly, the b-sides of their singles) are among the strongest in their back catalogue so far.

    By which I mean it works well as a cohesive album. The intro track Into the Water gets the listener into the mood with the Sigur Rós-style fictional language “Kajiura-go” chanting, concluding with an abrupt coda that I assume alludes to the title in evoking the sensation of diving into the drink with a splash.

    This is followed by Monochrome, which really grows on you after a listen or two. The brisk percussion and vocal melodies have a Middle-Eastern atmosphere, while the accordion adds a European folk flavour. They’re really doing what they do best here: experimenting and exploring what can be done in terms of unusual “world music” instruments and arrangements when added to the standard rock/pop formula (hey, it worked for Talking Heads).

    Another case in point is Usumurasaki, which uses a swaying time signature that I’m pretty sure isn’t standard 4/4, along with a strings section providing a brooding backing harmony to the opera-inspired vocals. Wakana’s singing style is particularly dramatic and “violin-like”, so fits this type of song perfectly.

    Another personal highlight is the storming up-tempo Identify, which may not topple the old fan fave Ongaku from live set lists, but will I’m sure sound every bit as blistering in a concert setting as it does on record. Keiko takes the lead vocal duties with Hikaru adding her delightfully expressive brightness in the verses; Koichi Korenaga provides the hard rock guitar with some stadium-sized “one foot on the stage monitor” solos. Fun. ^_^

    Perhaps my only other criticism of the album, apart from “why did Believe and Heavenly Blue have to be on here when the vinyl format doesn’t let me skip them?” is that Keiko’s vocal contributions are rather limited, so it doesn’t showcase her full potential. Her unique and resonant contralto adds some extra energy and vitality to Identify but is somewhat downplayed elsewhere on the album.

    The discs and lyric sheet (click for full size)

    That’s not to say that their brighter and softer songs are lacking. In a similar way to their most recent singles, Gogatsu no Mahou is probably closer to mainstream pop, but it’s undeniably pleasant despite sticking to the standard verse-chorus-verse structure. Sometimes though, less is more: the tender ballad Hokage has just a piano and string quartet as accompaniment, and is no less effective and moving.

    Musunde Hiraku is in the brighter vein of Kalafina’s output and is a shining example of how the three vocalists’ efforts harmonise and work together to create something that we don’t often hear in contemporary “non-classical” music. Even so, the harp and acoustic guitar in Sorairo no Isu revisit the classically-inspired folk ballad approach that gives it a delightful timelessness.

    The title track follows the band’s own tradition of wrapping things up with something gentle and/or uplifting, and allows you to walk away with a positive impression. At this point the roster of supporting musicians has found a good working dynamic thanks to recording and performing with this and the FictionJunction project, and all three of the vocalists sound better than they’ve ever done.

    Unfortunately, two of their recent high-profile songs have been omitted while two others aren’t nearly as interesting and inspiring, which does let it down a little in terms of consistency. They’re still head-and-shoulders above most of their rivals, and it holds enough pleasant surprises to avoid being disappointing. Perhaps the lesson to be learned here is to not judge a band purely on their singles.
    Track listing

        Into the Water
        五月の魔法 (Gogatsu no Mahou)
        Ring Your Bell
        うすむらさき (Usumurasaki)
        灯影 (Hokage)
        One Light
        むすんでひらく (Musunde Hiraku)
        Heavenly Blue
        空色の椅子 (Sorairo no Isu)
        Far on the Water


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