Daily Prompt: Facing The Inevitable

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about mortality. Specifically, when you realize you weren’t immortal and how you reacted to it. This actually happened to me a couple of times when I was growing up, the first of which when I was still a child. When I was in elementary school, I’d always spend my Christmas vacation at my grandparents’ house. It was a tradition that involved weeks of decorating the house, wrapping presents, and cooking yummy desserts. But 1995 was different; my grandfather had been diagnosed with a brain tumor and was rapidly declining. I’ve already written about watching him die, so I’ll skip straight to the aftermath. That was the first time I’d ever been so close to death, and the realization that yes, it is a thing that happens. But I never cried over it; I never knew my grandfather as a person, but as an old man who gave out laughs and tickles whenever possible. When the adults awkwardly asked me if I had any questions about death, I shrugged and said no. He’d been sick for almost a year, and the writing was on the wall. With it came the understanding that death was an inevitability – it was just a matter of how and when – and that I’d have no choice to accept it. So I did.

Yeah, I was kind of creepy as a kid.

The second occurrence happened a few years later when I was in high school. I was walking onto the campus when I witnessed a car speed through the red light right next to me…and into a kid who happened to be in the crosswalk. I’ll spare you the details – pretty sure I’ve mentally blocked out the worst parts – but I’m sure you can imagine it. I pride myself on being a fighter now, but back on that chilly, bloody morning, I couldn’t do anything. I stood there, utterly transfixed by death’s proximity and brutality, and I watched a dozen or so people run to assist in what was already a hopeless cause. I knew it was already over, that other people were taking care of it, that I’d just get in the way. I slowly turned away, hands slightly trembling, and numbly walked to my first class. I don’t think I spoke that entire day, even when they announced the accident and death on the PA system.

It was then I realized that death wasn’t reserved for just the old and sick; anyone can die anywhere. What made more of an impression was the sheer randomness of it; there was no dramatic build-up, no final family farewell, nothing but a big hunk of metal zooming into an unsuspecting victim. And if could happen to some kid crossing the street, it could happen to me. If you look at the mortality rates provided by WHO and do a little math, that roughly translates to two people dying every second. Yeah, think about that. I’ve had that stat burned into my mind for years. It’s a sobering reminder that my – and everyone else’s – days are numbered. I don’t fear death, though; I’ve embraced my mortality head-on as I’ve grown older. I’ve come close to dying myself three or four times now, so I’d like to think we’re on good terms. I’m more afraid living a disappointed and unfulfilled life; there’s far too much to see and do, and I refuse to be just another statistic in a history book.

The acceptance of mortality is a double-edged sword, though. It’s a very liberating experience, but it can lead to a slippery slope of some rather grim philosophical pondering. Death is an inevitability; you cannot escape it forever. Most people try to ignore it by distracting themselves with whatever they can. The advent of social media has certainly ensured that people desperate to be remembered and acknowledged won’t (for better or worse) be forgotten so easily. For others, particularly anyone severely depressed, it underscores how vapid and pointless daily life can be; death is ever-present, so why bother sticking around? For me, I’ve come to realize that life’s inherent meaninglessness isn’t a bad thing; as Nietzsche once explained, you can give life your own meaning. Skipping out early is an option, but there are so many, many better ones to try first. Since death is coming regardless, might as well do – and be – something awesome to pass the time. It’s not easy to do – I still have moments when I feel the exact opposite, and I do not look forward to growing old – but it’s more fulfilling than the alternative. My problem is finding happiness and fulfillment, but that’s a whole other issue.

As for death, it’ll stop by and visit eventually. I intend to make the wait worthwhile.

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Sailor Moon Crystal Episode 2: Ami – Sailor Mercury

Episode 2 opens with Class 2-5 at Juban Middle School. The entire room is filled with students, and each of them is gaping in wonder at the chalkboard. Every available inch of the board is covered in what appears to be Precalculus. It’s too blurry to see if all the equations are correct, but given who’s writing it out, I’m willing to believe it. It’s a short, silent girl with blue hair. She comes up to teacher’s desk to receive her graded test. The subtitles read, “Ami Mizuno, perfect.”

The scene changes to outside the school. Ami is slightly hunched over a book, twirling a pen as she works. We don’t see her face yet; she’s absorbed in her studies. Two male classmates saunter by as they leave soccer practice, gossiping obnoxiously about our newest main character. The pen stops mid-twirl the second Ami hears her name. The boys mention how she’s always studying, and that she’s rumored to have an IQ of 300. Since the highest measured IQ in real life is supposedly in the low 200s (a quick Google search offers no definitive answer), I’m taking that story with a grain of salt.

There’s no doubting Ami’s intelligence, though. There are plenty of visual cues in her design; those huge glasses, small frame, stiff posture, and the presence of a book are stereotypical enough to get the message across. There’s also her blue hair, which is such an overused trope that it’s easy to take for granted. Not only is it a reference to Ami’s latent powers – water is blue, after all – but her personality as well. Unlike temperamental redheads or energetic blondes, blue-haired characters are typically shy and introverted. Having cooler, calmer personalities allowed them to do more thinking and introspection. Characters like Ami (and Evangelion’s Rei Ayanami, among others) popularized the concept, though it certainly isn’t limited to anime. Take a closer look at Violet Parr in The Incredibles sometime. Or Spock, for that matter. The idea is much more common than you might think.

Ami demonstrates one more quality: loneliness. It’s not fun being the shy, smart one; people think you’re being arrogant and standoffish, but you’re just not used to social interaction. It kills self-confidence and drives you into further isolation. Everyone feels like that at some point, regardless of personality. The guys notice that she’s heard their gossip and leave, because an apology would require more maturity than they can muster. The damage is done, of course; the pained, bitter expression on Ami’s face sums it up perfectly. I’m still not a fan of the new series’ doll-like eye designs, but the animators manage to capture her sadness surprisingly well. Ami is on the verge of tearing up, but she never quite makes it that far. She regains her stoic façade long enough to observe Usagi and her posse chatting nearby.

After the opening theme, the scene shifts to a familiar castle in a snowstorm. Jadeite, the monster-summoning baddie from the first episode, is being chewed out for not getting the Legendary Silver Crystal. We’re finally given a good look at Queen Beryl, the main villain of the first arc. Her eyes are shrouded, but her pale skin gives her an almost corpse-like pallor. Her muscular arms, full lips, and mass of red hair suggest otherwise, though. But it’s her open hand that draws the most attention. The fingers are long and graceful, each topped by what looks like a razor-sharp nail. It could easily be mistaken for a claw, and that’s the point; Queen Beryl’s beauty hides something far more unnatural and dangerous. Or it could be an animation error, as the hand looks too large in proportion to the rest of her body. Either way, Jadeite doesn’t waste time with excuses. He states that he’s of the Four Kings of the Dark Kingdom, which is a double-whammy of foreshadowing and danger. Not only will there be more evil on the way, but the number four is associated with death in several Asian cultures. Jadeite summons another monster and tells it to find the Crystal. He does this despite knowing the existence of Sailor Moon, a bumbling heroine who killed his last creation single-handedly. You’d think he’d do the dirty work himself after that kind of embarrassment, but anime logic dictates otherwise.

Back at the Tsukino household, Usagi drops face-first onto her bed. She’s weary after a long school day. You’ve got to wonder what Luna is thinking; this whiny, pouty girl is destined to be a superhero? As far as we know, she hasn’t spent any time as Sailor Moon since the showdown in the previous episode. Judging by her reaction, she clearly has no interest in fighting again. Instead of lecturing Usagi about laziness and responsibility – she’d probably just tune it out – Luna gives a little exposition. The Evil (and that’s capitalized in the subtitles, without the Dark Kingdom specifically named) are “spirits that are not supposed to exist in this world.” It doesn’t really provide any insight into their nature or how and why they’re suddenly showing up in Tokyo. What exactly are they trying to accomplish? Are they supposed to be aliens? Creatures from another dimension? Can they be reasoned with? What are their weaknesses? Do they have to be killed? Even YuYu Hakusho explained this stuff better. Luna just tells her to find allies and save their princess. In a bout of not-so subtle foreshadowing, Usagi assumes Tuxedo Mask and Sailor V are on her side.

Luna has a better idea, though. As our heroine slumbers, the cat handles the real legwork. Apparently, she can open up some kind of pocket dimension that contains a staircase and a magical computer. You’ve got to wonder about a computer designed for cat paws; how does Luna get any work done on that thing? Also, is this how she’s able to find other Sailor Scouts? In the first episode, she states that the moon-shaped mark on her forehead is what helps her search. Does that mean the mark lets her access this pocket dimension? Or does she use both? Also, the data displayed includes name, photo, birthdate, astrological sign, age, and blood type. That’s really specific; if Luna knows all this, shouldn’t she be able to find where these people live and just wait for them to come home? And if she knows that information, then why does she explain things to Usagi in such a vague and roundabout way? It would be much easier to say, “Hey, there’s a girl nearby that we need to recruit. Her name is Ami. She’s at your school, and she looks like this. She always eats lunch alone, so meeting her in private shouldn’t be hard.”

The next morning at school, the latest tests results are up on the bulletin board. Ami, as usual, has a perfect score. Umino (yes, they haven’t forgotten him yet!) mentions that she’s attending the Crystal Seminar, a supposedly high-profile local study program. There’s also talk of her mother being a doctor, which is an early reference to Ami’s interest in earning of a medical degree. Someone makes an offhand remake about their star classmate’s lack of friends and, speak of the devil, Ami is shown standing alone at the end of the hallway. She stares at the crowd warily, but backs off. She’s barely off school grounds before she runs into Luna, who pounces from a tree and gets up close and personal. It’s a good thing Ami isn’t allergic and doesn’t scare easily. Usagi takes the opportunity (seriously, why didn’t Luna just tell her about the potential recruit?) to meet and befriend the other girl. Their hands touch for a second, and Ami gets a vision of Silver Millennium. If this were a more cynical anime, she’d probably panic, back away, and refuse to be anywhere near Usagi again.

Instead, she’s merely flustered and gets talked into playing at the arcade. We’re treated to the familiar images of the Sailor V video game, as well as Usagi’s feeble attempts at playing it. Once Ami gets behind the controls, however, it becomes apparent that academics aren’t her only forte. Her fast reactions, pattern recognition, and knack for strategy let her dominate a game she’s never played. This is a clever way to demonstrate the difference between Usagi and Ami. The former doesn’t bother with planning, and is easily distracted and overwhelmed by emotions. The latter approaches combat in terms of tactics and analytics; she understands all the tools and powers she possesses, the limitations of her foes, and the necessity of precision over raw power. For the first time, Ami cracks a smile and allows herself have fun. She plays well enough to win a special pen, prompting Usagi to shake the arcade cabinet until it spits out a second one. Because vandalism for the sake of jealousy is totally heroic. The girls become friendly enough to be on a first-name basis, but Ami realizes she’s running late for the Crystal Seminar and leaves.

The seminar is just as ominous and dehumanizing as you’d expect. Drab, gray cubicles seemingly stretch on forever. The overhead fluorescents are off, leaving only the computer screens as the only light sources. Mouse clicks and keystrokes break the deathly silence. Then there’s the instructor, whose shadowy visage and narrowed eyes mark her as the episode’s monster in disguise. She gives Ami a Crystal Disk, promising that it’ll help her achieve her doctoral ambitions. It’s worth noting that the object in question is actually a CD; along with the flat-screened desktops, this is the first direct evidence that the series is set in the current time. Ami starts the program and is hypnotized within seconds. Apparently, the monsters in this show have the same modus operandi: enchant an everyday object, gain control over people, and build an army to search for the Legendary Silver Crystal. Fair enough, but why would they need to use a special CD to spread the spell? Is the magic limited to small objects? Why not infiltrate a major ISP or social media platform and distribute it from the source? It’d certainly reach more people. If the goal is to create an army of brainwashed humans, then why bother with just the brightest students? Wouldn’t the removal of their free will hamper their judgment and supposed intellectual superiority?

It’s certainly done something to Ami. She looks fine – she’s even smiling as she uses her new pen at the library the next day – but that changes as soon as Usagi offers an afterschool ice cream outing. There’s a flashback to the evil instructor lecturing her about studying, and her eyes glaze over in a surprisingly creepy animation. She shuffles away in an obvious zombie-like stupor, leaving Usagi to wonder what happened. She notices the Crystal Disk on the desk (you’d think Ami wouldn’t be so careless regardless if she’s brainwashed), and takes it home. On the way, she notices the instructor handing out Crystal Seminar pamphlets at the train station. Ami is apparently so into the program, she’s allowed them to use her likeness for the advertisements. Rather than using the paper to learn more about the seminar, she crumples it up and throws it over her shoulder…and right into Mamoru’s face. Gee, where have we seen that before? Is this going to be a once-an-episode kind of thing? He’s still wearing his impractical tux and sunglasses, too! He’s understandably miffed about being treated like a trash can, but he’s focused on something more important: the fact that Luna can talk. Usagi grabs the cat and frantically runs away, yet Mamoru doesn’t bother chasing them. He just stands there and stares. Why? If you were confronted with a talking animal, would you just let it get away? Maybe he didn’t want to mess up his suit.

Usagi makes it home and tries to figure out what the Crystal Disk really is. She pops it into what looks like a pink Samsung laptop (hooray for more technology updates), only to find it looks like a normal study and quiz program. Unsurprisingly, Usagi knows none of the answers. Instead, she just types randomly…and it cracks the code. Seriously, she button mashes (much to Luna’s incredulity) until the hypnotic message starts playing through the speakers. What kind of evil spell is this? Who designs a brainwashing program that can be defeated through randomness and sheer stupidity? What happens when someone at the seminar gets too many questions wrong? Do they accidentally activate the message before they’re hypnotized? That’d be pretty awkward. Is the instructor banking on the students getting perfect scores to become fully entranced? Also, Usagi seems to be completely immune to its effects. Is that due to her super powers, or did she just break the program that badly? Whatever, Ami needs to be rescued.

Getting inside the Crystal Seminar is trickier than it looks, however. Since there are armed guards at the entrance, Usagi needs a disguise. Apparently, the pen she “won” at the arcade is imbued with the power to change her appearance. Now, is it the pen itself that has the magic, or could any object be enchanted to do the same? Also, does it just change clothes, or can it alter bodily features as well? It’s not explained. Usagi decides to change herself into a doctor, even though it wouldn’t make sense to do so. When you have the ability to change into any outfit you can imagine, why would you choose something so out of place? Usagi tells the guards there’s a medical emergency in the building, and they let her go in. Wouldn’t that just raise the alarm that something bad is happening, thus alerting the rest of the security team? Also, this is supposed to be a place for people to study; she could’ve just pretended to be a newly-recruited student and walked right in. Depending on the extent of the transformation power, she could’ve posed as the evil instructor and done some reconnaissance. But hey, Usagi looks cute in the nurse’s outfit, so the fans probably won’t complain.

Meanwhile, Ami has gotten worse. Her eyes have this sickly green shade, and she doesn’t notice how much the instructor is pressuring her. When she is demanded to solve the questions faster, she can barely murmur an apology. Apparently, Ami is so intelligent that the evildoers plan to use her to conquer Japan. Though it raises the question of how effective a brainwashed strategist could be. The instructor notices Ami’s special pen, causing the poor girl to look up from the monitor and remember Usagi’s words. When the pen is flung across the room, she actually gets up from her chair to retrieve it. That’s telling of how much Ami values it; her newfound friendship and fond memories are enough to (at least partially) break the spell! Amazing what a little humanity can do. If that’s all it takes to overcome the brainwashing, the monster’s plan would’ve fallen apart before long. Ami briefly struggles to get away, and gets a well-timed assist from Luna. Usagi pretends to be a doctor and confronts the instructor, though she only succeeds in making her angry.

Knowing that the jig is up, the instructor drops the disguise and assumes her true, monstrous form. She’s not as scary as the first – there are no fangs or corpse-like flesh – but the gigantic claws and green skin tone are still intimidating. That goes double for the dozens of paper sheets she can telekinetically throw around the room. To her credit, Usagi doesn’t completely panic; she briefly hesitates to transform in Ami’s presence, and then does so anyway. Sailor Moon bravely stands up to the monster, yells at her for hurting Ami…and frantically dives for cover against the monster’s deadly paper barrage. She even tries her ultrasonic crying attack, but the enemy is immune to it for some unspecified reason. Our heroine gets hit head-on by a torrent of paper and gets pinned to a wall. The monster doesn’t waste time; she busts out her claws and goes straight for the kill, prompting Ami to finally kick the brainwashing spell and trigger her latent super powers.

The new Sailor Mercury transformation hasn’t changed much from the 1992 version. By no means is it as extravagant as Sailor Moon’s, but it has its own charm. Mercury’s power is water-based, and the sequence has a distinct skating theme. After waving her pen around and spouting CGI liquid, Mercury glides around with the grace of a figure skater. She does a quick spin, enveloping herself in water and sending a ripple through the floor. After a few lingering shots of her costume and the formation of her tiara, Sailor Mercury is ready for combat. Her phrase, “Douse yourself in water and repent” and accompanying pose are way more intimidating than Sailor Moon’s antics. Rather than attack directly, Mercury fills the room in fog to disorient the monster. I used to dislike Ami’s lack of a direct attack, but I appreciate now. Keeping enemies confused and leaving them wide open is a much smarter tactic than trying to overwhelm them with sheer power. Especially when you don’t know the extent of their capabilities. Unfortunately, Sailor Moon isn’t ready for the finishing blow; she’s still trapped against the wall, requiring Tuxedo Mask to swoop in the nick of time and carry her to safety. One Tiara Boomerang later, and the day is saved. Tuxedo Mask vanishes (thankfully without doing his silly parkour from the previous episode), and Jadeite is revealed to be observing the scene nearby.

As the sun sets over Tokyo, Usagi and Ami walk home and chat about what happened. If Jadeite were a competent villain, he’d attack them right there and then. Or at least follow them to find out their civilian identities. He should certainly know who Ami is, given how much time she spent under the evil spell. The girls probably don’t even realize they’re being watched. Instead, they talk about how the pen Ami won from the arcade turned out to be her transformation trinket. Apparently that was Luna’s plan, even though it makes no sense. Luna already knew Ami was a potential recruit; why did she go through the process of planting a magical object inside an arcade game? Does that mean whoever beats the game is Scout material? Why didn’t she just give Ami the pen in the first place? Whatever, Usagi and Ami are best friends now. They walk off into the city, happily planning their next move. In a candlelit shrine nearby, a young woman scowls into the darkness.

Gee, I wonder who that could be.

Thus ends the second episode of Sailor Moon Crystal. Though it primarily serves as Ami/Sailor Mercury’s introduction, it was done in an interesting way. Now that I’m older, I appreciate the subtle ways in which the characters are conveyed; when a show can explain so much about its cast with minimal exposition, you know they’re doing it right. Unlike Usagi, Ami is a more realistic take on the pressures of being a young, intelligent student. The subtext is rife with commentary on the high standards and expectations of the Japanese school system, though the extent of Ami’s character development is still unknown. Hopefully the next episode will keep the momentum going.

Sailor Moon Crystal Episode 1: Usagi – Sailor Moon

SAILOR-MOON-CRYSTAL-GROUP

In 2012, the Sailor Moon franchise celebrated its 20th anniversary by announcing that the series would have an updated re-release. Somehow, I completely missed it. So imagine my surprise when the first episode debuted on CrunchyRoll this past weekend. The nostalgia hit me like a freight train; it was as if my inner ten year-old burst forth like a shaken can of soda. It was like the weekday afternoons of yore, in which getting home from school meant being treated to hours of awesome and creative cartoons. Once it wore off, the cynicism set in. I’ve seen plenty of anime, and stuff like Madoka has changed how I look at at this particular genre. How well does Sailor Moon hold up against modern expectations?

****SPOILERS FOR A 22 YEAR-OLD SERIES AND ITS UPDATED REMAKE****

The episode starts with a panning shot of a drawn solar system. It’s obvious foreshadowing of the characters to come; each Sailor Scout is designated one of the planets (except for Earth), though what’s curious is that only the planets between Mercury and Saturn are shown. Does this mean the anime is going to include the events of Sailor Saturn’s arc? What about Sailors Neptune, Uranus, and Pluto? Before that fully sinks in, the camera closes in on Earth and the moon. I doubt it’s drawn to scale, but I appreciate that the animators display a fair amount of distance between the two. They share the screen, implying their connection despite being so far apart. The background music and choir swell up, and we’re given a closer view of the moon, with its realistic glow mostly hiding its craters and natural formations. Then a lingering shot of Earth as seen from orbit (someone must’ve watched Gravity), before it shifts to a bird’s-eye  view of the Silver Millennium kingdom. A young woman – we don’t see her face, just her ornate white gown – runs down a flight of stairs to a dark figure in a cape. Fans already know it’s Princess Serenity and Prince Endymion, but props to the animators for making it seem beautiful and mysterious. Arms outstretch, and the silhouetted vision of two people closing in for a kiss…

Then the alarm goes off.

A mother calls out to her daughter, Usagi, saying she’s going to be late for school. A bundle of blonde hair shuffles under the covers. A panicked screech, and Usagi Tsukino’s unmistakable high-pitched whining takes over the audio. She scrambles to get dressed, and promptly falls down the stairs. It’s a nice contrast to the previous scene, and it highlights the supposed differences between the dreamy, idealized young woman with the clumsy, awkward teenaged girl. Kotono Mitsuishi reprised her original role as Sailor Moon’s Japanese voice actor, and it shows. I grew up with the English version – I still catch myself calling Usagi by her dub name, Serena – but there’s no mistaking who the character is. Everything we need to know about Usagi (as a normal girl, anyway) is established in that moment: she’s unorganized, lacks composure, irresponsible, whiny, prone to mistakes, but still sweet. She has yet to become the woman she was meant to be.

Before the scene ends, Mrs. Tsukino sighs and glances back at the newspaper she was reading. We’re given a huge foreshadowing moment with the article about Sailor V (aka Venus), a crime-fighting heroine who’s recently appeared in town. If I recall correctly, Venus was the first Scout found and activated, but was the last to be introduced in the series due to the story being told from Usagi’s perspective. She was doing her own heroics for about a year before joining the rest of the team. What I’m wondering is how this is going to be reflected in the airing of the episodes. Crystal is supposed to be truer to original manga than the 90s anime, which means pacing is going to be sped up considerably. It took 8 episodes for another Sailor Scout to show up in the original run, and 33 before Venus joined. How long will it take this time?

Never mind, the opening theme and animation finally show up. The original five Scouts stand side by side in a field of flowers, with the moon dominating the background. Then, individual character profiles and some attack displays. The art stunning; the hair flows in the wind, their signature moves look so much better. Especially Mars’s flame attacks, which are given some impressive shading and highlights. Their eyes, while much bigger and shinier than before, make me wonder about the extent of their expressiveness; Toei’s animators are going to have a tough time making sure the girls can emote with those doll-like faces. Queen Beryl and the other villains are only seen in fleeting glimpses, but even they have more definable facial expressions. On the other hand, the new song is much better. It doesn’t have the grace and sweetness of the original; it’s faster, louder, and much more direct. It spells out what Sailor Moon has always been about: badass, determined superheroines who aren’t waiting for someone to save them. There’s even a line about them not needing men’s protection, but that statement itself isn’t needed. Unless they’re completely oblivious, viewers should be able to figure it out pretty quickly. I do appreciate the shot of old-school version of Silver Millennium accompanied with the line, “A new legend begins right now.” It’s an unspoken reassurance to older fans that, despite the new look, some things haven’t changed at all.

Back to Usagi frantically running to school. She introduces herself via voice-over (I seriously can’t believe she’s only 14!), admitting she’s a little clumsy and a crybaby. She steps on a black cat, AKA Luna, the being that will inevitably grant her Sailor powers. It’s a good thing this encounter happened in a highly idealized magical girl anime, because Luna would’ve broken her back and died from the injuries otherwise. Despite being in a rush, Usagi takes the time to make sure Luna is okay, and removes the band-aids covering the cat’s moon-shaped forehead mark. Not only is this the first indication that something’s weird about Luna, but it demonstrates a couple of Usagi’s other qualities: she’s easily distracted, but cares about those around her. Luna should’ve been able to speak at this point, but Usagi hears the school bell and runs off. The scene ends with Luna staring pensively after her, implying their business isn’t over.

The scene changes to what appears to be a castle in the midst of a snowstorm. Pale, almost sickly color scheme. A young man – we can’t see his face, but savvy viewers know it’s probably Jadeite – summons some kind of evil monster from the ground. The shifting mass of flesh and whatever else takes the shape of a woman, and Mr. Faceless commands her to find something called the “Legendary Silver Crystal.” She bows and vanishes, and the scene ends. That’s all. Queen Beryl isn’t mentioned by name, but Mr. Faceless refers to serving a master. It’s enough to imply that this guy is middle management at best; enough power to summon Monsters of the Week, but still has to answer to someone higher up on the evil food chain.

Back to Usagi’s adventures at school. She didn’t make it on time, so she has to stand outside of the classroom as punishment. As she starts monologuing, there’s a brief shot of her entire body standing next to the door. Is it just me, or do the characters’ proportions seem off? Specifically, the legs. They’re way too long. The girls were pretty leggy in the original anime, but they at least seemed better fleshed-out. This version of Usagi has long, narrow, spider-like limbs; I can’t tell where the knees actually are, and she looks too tall to touch the doorknob. Then again, it’s not that far off from the manga…Usagi thinks back to the dream she had at the beginning of the episode, wishing that she could be a princess so she wouldn’t have to attend school. The main character of an escapist superhero fantasy is her having own escapist fantasy! Never mind the responsibilities of ruling a kingdom and the burdens of authority.

Usagi tries to sneak an early lunch, but gets caught and reprimanded by her English teacher. We get to see her latest test results: a solid 30/100, with a page full of red marks! Even if you don’t like her at this point, you can still feel the sting of a failing grade. She’s then lectured a bit by her classmates, Molly and Melvin. Er, Naru and Umino! Their names are Naru and Umino. Sorry, the English dub his hard to shake. These two characters are remnants of series long past. Umino is a little guy with huge, swirly-patterned glasses that cover up his eyes. If this was a modern show, his glasses would likely be transparent to give viewers a better look at his youthful face. He’d probably be more serious, aloof, and shy. Here, he’s much friendlier and slightly annoying. Naru is explained to be almost as smart (scoring 85 to his 95), is pretty, and comes from rich family. In more recent anime, she’d probably be a class representative, arrogant, and snooty. But here, she’s down-to-Earth and kind, and sociable.

The kids get together during lunch and discuss the recent crime wave. Someone’s been targeting jewelry stores, and Sailor V’s been busy apprehending thieves. It’s unclear what Sailor V actually is; Umino mentions a rumor that she’s a special police officer, but I doubt the NPA would allow a masked heroine into their ranks. At best, it’s probably something along the lines of Batman’s vigilantism in Gotham: an illegal necessity. V is clearly more fabulous, though the practicality of a sailor fuku in combat is questionable. The same goes for some of these schoolgirls’ priorities; some say they relate to to the robbers, because “jewelry is shiny and gorgeous.” A commentary on cultural materialism? A breakdown of morality? I don’t know, but if Usagi is anything to go by, I wouldn’t let these girls anywhere near my bling. Naru would, though; her mom owns a local jewelry store, so she invites everyone to shop without committing larceny.

Cut to the store. The girls ogle at some gems in the window, and Naru points out one worth a billion yen…Wait, what? One billion yen?! I don’t doubt the translation, but has that price been adjusted for inflation? How can something that valuable be sitting in a storefront display?! It’s not like this is some high-brow exclusive establishment; it’s a place where anyone can walk in and check the selection. And there are indeed a lot of people here; Naru’s mom has started a 95% off sale, and she offers the schoolgirls even more of a discount. Naru notes how weird her mother is acting and wonders what’s going on. She’s right to be worried; as the crowd shuffles through the goods, we hear the mother’s inner musings. She observes the scene with a sinister smile, thinking how she needs the youthful energy of her eager customers.

Knowing all too well that she won’t be getting any allowance after her poor test performance, Usagi calls it quits and starts to leave. She crumples the proof of her miserable failure into a ball and throws it over her shoulder, because ignoring problems makes them go away. She accidentally hits a guy that was standing right behind her. Tall, dark, handsome…and wearing a tuxedo and shades. He calls her out, makes fun of her hair (I wish he would’ve called her Meatball Head!), tells her to study more, and shoves the paper back in her face. There’s a sweet, love-at-first-sight moment when they make eye contact, and suddenly the chattiest character on the show can’t speak. An obviously flustered Usagi walks away, thinking, “Who wears a tuxedo in the afternoon?” That’s actually a very good question. Newcomers to the series will undoubtedly connect him with the prince from the dream, but older viewers know it’s Mamoru/Darien/Tuxedo Mask. As in, the male hero/love interest who frequently helps the Scouts by throwing roses and looking classy. So, why is he wearing a tuxedo? He states in a monologue that he’s looking for the “Legendary Silver Crystal” in the jewelry shop. But doesn’t he realize how much he sticks out? If he’s trying to be incognito, then why is he dressed exactly like his alter ego? That’s like Superman trying to pass himself off as Clark Kent while wearing a Superman costume!

Sigh. Usagi and Mamoru truly deserve each other.

In an attempt to forestall the inevitable showdown with her mom, our heroine takes a detour into the local arcade. She sees a Sailor V video game, and wishes that she too were a superhero; she’d get to skip school and kick bad guy ass. Be careful what you wish for, Usagi…Also, how in the name of the Moon did developers make a video game about Sailor V? She’s only been active for a year. Did someone follow her, take notes of how she fights, and program the game accordingly? Also, V’s detailed likeness is all over the media. Why did she allow her picture to be taken? That gaudy domino mask doesn’t hide anything. Does she want someone to figure out her identity?  At least the video game looks like a decent arcade beat’em-up; no game in 1992 was that complex or well-animated. We’re also introduced to Motoki, the part-time worker at the arcade who serves little purpose other than being a potential/ultimately hopeless love interest.

He’s promptly forgotten when Luna reappears. Either she’s got a ridiculously strong sense of smell, or she’s been tracking Usagi all day. I’m betting on the latter. There’s an awkward moment in which the  two characters stare at each other. Why does Luna, a little black cat that doesn’t talk (yet), have a more expressive face than the main character? Usagi just stares back with a vacant look in her eyes. It’s kind of creepy. It’s quickly forgotten when our heroine finally makes it home and has to face the music. Maybe it’s because a I’m a huge bookworm, but I totally identify with Mrs. Tsukino in that scene. She puts up with her daughter’s shenanigans, but flunking class is pushing it. However, she doesn’t suggest finding a tutor or study group; she just kicks Usagi out of the house for a while. Not exactly a productive punishment, mom. This apparently happens so frequently that Usagi’s little brother (I completely forgot he existed) mocks her as he enters the house. Our heroine responds maturely by performing a patented Sailor V Kick on the closing door, stubbing her toe in process.

Thankfully, we’re spared from Usagi’s blubbering via scene change. Night has fallen over the shopping district, and Mamoru steps out of the shadows. He’s still wearing a tuxedo, but he’s changed his shades for a domino mask that hides even less of his face. Who is he trying too fool? At least his over-sized top hat and cape look decent. Something evil is afoot in the jewelry store! Naru’s Not-Mom is doing some kind of evil spell. Everything sold is apparently an enchanted trinket capable of stealing the life energy out of its wearer. Okay, that’s kind of interesting. But wasn’t this baddie supposed to be looking for the Legendary Silver Crystal? Why does she need people’s energy? Is that something she just came up with on the side? How does that help her in her search? She states that the object isn’t in the shop. That raises another question: Why did she choose Tokyo to begin with? The Crystal could be anywhere on Earth. Can she sense its magical energy or something? Also, why would something that rare and valuable be in a jewelry store?  If she was the one behind the recent crime wave, shouldn’t she have enough sense to skip town for a while and search somewhere else? Whatever. Naru walks in by chance, and the thing pretending to be her mother bares her fangs.

Back to the Tsukino household. Usagi is in her room, and she decides to blow off her homework in favor of a nap. Naturally. It’s back to her dream, in which she’s running away with a dark-haired man with a cape and sword. Gee, wonder who that could be. They’re fleeing from what appears to be Godzilla. What. The Sailor V shows up, and it turns into a video game. Eh, I’ve had stranger dreams. She gets a rude awakening with a cat scratch to the face. Luna’s back, and she can talk! I know this is just nostalgia bias, but I seriously miss Luna’s stuffy, British accent from the old dub. The little cat is grateful for their encounter earlier that morning, stating the band-aids were preventing her from speaking and searching properly. Kind of a lame weakness, but still interesting. Usagi refuses to believe any of this is happening until Luna gives her a magical brooch. She’s too distracted by the pretty shiny thing to hear Luna giving her a rundown on her destiny. Priorities, young lady.

The brooch glows with a blinding light, and Usagi triggers her first transformation into Sailor Moon. The background choir is suddenly back in an epic way, along with a brief shot of a full moon. There’s an art style shift; apparently the new transformation scenes will be done in CG. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It just depends on how well it’s animated. Within the first couple of seconds, it becomes clear how much of a homage this is to the original anime. It’s not quite a shot-for-shot remake, but there are still several echoes. The same magical ribbons wrap around her torso (the big ribbon on her chest bursts into existence separately now), and there are longer, angled shots of her limbs. There’s a few seconds more of her sans skirt, probably because the censors are more lenient than they were in the 90s. Compared to stuff you see in anime these days, this little bit of fan service is downright tame. I never understood the point of Usagi arching her back as she gets the tiara; is it just to show off her figure? Also, I never really noticed how much spinning is involved; I wonder if anyone’s gotten motion sickness from watching this. When compared side by side, this new transformation is actually longer than the original. Well, at least Toei knows how to put on a show.

Back to reality. The red baubles in Sailor Moon’s meatball hair buns start flashing, and it’s unintentionally hilarious. Apparently, they can tune in to people screaming for help. It’s in the manga, and I completely forgot about it. What a weird power. It’s like having a couple of radio antennae stuck to your head. This is all based on magic; couldn’t her hearing just be enhanced? What about precognitive abilities? Whatever. Naru’s in trouble. It’s a good thing Usagi recognizes the voice, otherwise she’d be running around Tokyo all night looking for the bad guys. Speaking of whom, the Monster of the Week has given up pretending to be a human. She’s on the verge of killing Naru, yet she’s kept her mother alive for some reason. Probably because a human being murdered outright would be too extreme for this series, logic be damned. At least she’s visually creepy. Her fingernails have grown into spikes, her eyes have a watermelon color scheme, and her body has become all mottled and skeletal.  It’s kind of terrifying if you think about it; imagine stumbling across a friend or loved one late at night, and they suddenly turn into a demonic, shape-shifting monster. Paranoia, much?

Before Tuxedo Mask can step in, Sailor Moon makes her grand, awkward entrance. Usagi has been transformed for a few minutes at best; she doesn’t even have a proper superhero name yet. She gives the classic In The Name of the Moon introduction, and it is gloriously cheesy. Way to show that super sentai influence! While such exchanges are essential to the franchise, I always found it funny how none of the monsters ever attacked the girls while they were spouting off their speeches. This particular monster is confused more than anything else, and promptly summons a horde of mind-controlled women to the battle. Apparently enchanted jewelry can do more than consume your soul. Hey, Usagi! Remember how you wanted to be a superhero because it would be fun? Now’s your chance! Oh wait, you’re bleeding? Yeah, this isn’t a video game. You don’t know how to fight, do you? Whoops.

In true Usagi style, our heroine stumbles around the store in a frantic attempt to escape. When she’s cornered, she starts crying like she’s been doing all episode. But thanks to her new power-up, her whining produces supersonic waves. Seriously. I’m torn between being offended that Sailor Moon’s first attack is tied to her emotional instability, and the awesome fact that the mangaka weaponized one of her defining character traits. I completely forgot this was a thing, but it was in the original version as well. There are some awesome visuals of the power emanating through the building, shattering windows and wreaking havoc. It stuns the monster long enough for Sailor Moon to learn how to use her Moon Tiara Boomerang. There’s a nice moment when the tiara starts floating and glowing, and Usagi just blankly stares at it because she has no idea how to use it. She finally throws the thing, and the monster collapses into dust in a nightmare-inducing death sequence. You saved the day, Sailor Moon!

Tuxedo Mask finally comes out of hiding. Why was he just standing there the entire time? Didn’t he see Sailor Moon could’ve used some backup? What was he doing? He didn’t even throw a rose! Whatever. He introduces himself from a distance, then extreme-parkours his way into the night. The flowing cape and flat facial expression make his exit strangely hilarious. Hopefully the animation improve over time. Also, I really hope these two recognize each other; it’s not like their costumes hide their faces. I appreciate that the scene ends with Sailor Moon looking off into the moonlit sky, along with Tokyo Tower in the background. The building exists in real life, but it’s iconic to this and several other anime series. The camera zooms out to display the image in the villain’s crystal ball. There’s a second or two of this-isn’t-over-yet hinting before the screen fades to black.

The next morning, and it’s back to school as usual. Naru conveniently passed out when the battle started, which means she didn’t get a good look at Sailor Moon. Good thing, because she would’ve recognized Usagi in a heartbeat. Speaking of whom, our heroine is now hiding in a corner with Luna. She’s still too shaken up about what’s happened, and even she knows talking about magic powers publicly is a bad idea. I like that the anime takes a moment to show her pondering over her future; it demonstrates that someone as unlikely as Usagi can be introspective, and her new powers have given her an inkling of responsibility. She’s still far from what she’s destined to be, but she’s made the first step in the right direction. The episode ends with a lingering shot of another schoolgirl with blue hair. She feels rainwater on her hand, and quickly runs for cover.

Gee, I wonder who that could be.

Thus ends the debut of Sailor Moon Crystal. So far, it’s delivered everything promised: the return of a classic series with the benefits of modern animation technology. I’m still on the fence in terms of facial expressions and overall proportions, but it’s nothing that ruins the experience. Though the nostalgia is strong, it’s fun looking back at the old series with a fresh perspective. There’s stuff – both good and bad – you don’t notice or appreciate when you’re younger. When I was a kid, I was ashamed to admit I liked Sailor Moon; boys were shamed and shunned for liking girls’ shows, after all. But looking at how the Internet has reacted to its return, I’ve realized that I was far from the only one. The next episode is in two weeks, hopefully this is just the start of something great.

*Header image taken from the Huffington Post.

Tomodachi Life Review

“Ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby…”

When it was first unveiled, Tomodachi Life was considered one of the strangest things Nintendo had ever made. The idea was simple enough: create an entire community of Mii townsfolk, give them basic necessities, and let them have their own day-to-day adventures. It’s rather telling that a wacky life simulator with customizable characters is weirder than things like Fire Flowers, Metroids, or Tingle. The game’s selling point wasn’t just that you could create anyone you wanted; it was the ability to turn the mundane – eating breakfast, having dreams, going out to the park, etc. – into the bizarre. At a glance, it’s easy to believe Tomodachi Life accomplishes everything it promises. But once you get into the daily grind, you’ll realize this simulation is far more tedious and unrewarding than it looks.

Oh, it seems fine at first. You’re tasked with populating your island, either by creating new Mii avatars, importing from your 3DS system, or downloading QR codes from an online database. The initial options are taken straight out of the 3DS’s Mii Maker; you’re given several choices of head shape, facial features, eye and skin color, and hairstyles. It’s not until you access the voice programming that things get interesting. Not only can every character speak, but their voices can be tweaked for age range, speed, pitch, tone, accent, and even intonation. By no means does it perfectly mimic human speech, but it’s far better than what you’d expect from a handheld game. The designers also had the foresight to include customizable pronunciation, just in case the computer doesn’t understand your inputs. The most impressive aspect, however, is the personality builder. You’re given spectra in which to measure a character’s movement speed, politeness, expressiveness, attitude, and even quirkiness. Much like in real life, these aspects make a huge impact in how the Miis operate and interact. For example, my personal Mii is quick, direct, somewhat expressive, mostly serious, and absolutely weird. She’s designated as a Confident Adventurer. Darth Vader, on the other hand, is slow, deadpan, and takes himself way too seriously.

Yeah, you read that right. Darth Vader is my Mii’s next door neighbor. When you can program anyone into your game, such wackiness is inevitable. The majority of Tomodachi Life’s humor comes from those slice of life interactions among unlikely friends. Bowser didn’t even look at Princess Peach; he fell in love with Bayonetta and married her within a week. They even have a child now – they named him Jason – who has his mother’s hair and his father’s fangs. Captain Picard thinks I’m his BFF, and it’s only a matter of time before Batman proposes to me. Gordon Freeman occasionally goes out for coffee with Luigi and Travis Touchdown. Though managing up to 100 residents might seem daunting, the game’s info displays make it easy to keep track of friendships and romances. You’re tasked with introducing characters and manipulating the major points of their relationships, giving you ample opportunities to partake in the drama. It’s like reading bad fan fiction, only with more control over the characters’ choices.

Regardless of who you put on the island, the objective remains the same: make them happy. When you look at the apartment building, flashing icons indicate a problem needing to be resolved. It’s usually something simple, like feeding someone or giving them new clothes and advice. Sometimes they’ll ask for fancier things, like a bath set, camera, a new room background, or a specific item. You’ve got to be careful, though; if you give them stuff they hate or bad advice, they’ll end up even more miserable. If the Miis get enough of whatever they need, they’ll reward you with money, items, and expensive gifts that can be sold for more cash. The characters’ happiness ratings level up individually, allowing you to give them presents to expand on their hobbies and social lives. Most are practical, like books, laptops, and sports equipment, while things like the Wii U and the metal detector are more for laughs. Then again, watching Ganondorf practicing the Hula is pretty entertaining in itself. If you don’t want to spoil the characters too much, the leveling system can be used to teach them new phrases and songs, and change their apartment interior. The more stuff the Miis have, the more they’ll interact with each other and develop their relationships.

It’d be a great concept, if the game actually made it fun.

The whole cycle of buying supplies, leveling up happiness, and getting cash gets old within minutes. You’ll spend most of the time just staring at the apartment complex and visiting whoever needs help. There’s very little variety in terms of problems and how they’re phrased. Everyone seems to love “practicing their funny faces” and vocally impersonating their friends. Others just want the same bath time, have identical stomach problems, etc. Even special items get stale fast; I’ve used several travel tickets, but my Miis often end up on the same vacations. The game tries to hide the repetitiveness with a small selection of touch screen-based mini-games. These usually involve catching falling items, matching icons from memory, and identifying items in pixelated or silhouetted images. That last one is particularly overused; after the first dozen or so games, you’ll likely have memorized most of the answers! It’s not like any of the mini-games are particularly difficult or rewarding, either. Success merely grants you another sellable trinket, and the sheer amount of opportunities to play takes the sting out of failure. Even the interactive dreams – some of which are admittedly hilarious – lose their appeal after repeated viewings. How many times can you watch someone dream they’re a Super Sentai character, race like snails, or chase a plate of food on a string?

Things get slightly better once you leave the apartment complex. There are nearly 20 locations on your virtual island, each with their own activities and features. However, most of them are strictly for utility; you’ll only have to visit the clothing shops, apartment interiors, and grocery store once a day. Even the town hall, which could’ve been used for all kinds of social functions, serves as little more than a Mii creator and index. The rankings board and its extensive amount of information would’ve been great if you actually, you know, cared about the characters. The beach, observation tower, and amusement park are utterly disappointing. Oh sure, you can watch your Miis run along the shore or ride a roller coaster…but that’s all you can do. You can’t change the camera angle, let alone do anything beyond taking funny screenshots. There’s no exploration, no details, nothing at all to keep you interested for more than a few seconds. There’s an optional NES-style RPG with turn-based combat mechanics, but it lacks customizable stats based on Miis’ clothes, optional weapons, leveling, or anything else resembling depth. Even the cafe, in which characters indulge in Seinfeldian conversations, gets repetitive after the first few minutes. You’ll hear the same tales of someone buying a pirate ship, hair problems, their latest obsessions, and bribing professional singers with cake. Let them go long enough, and someone will point out how they always talk about the same things. When the characters notice how repetitive things have gotten, it’s a bad sign.

While nearly all the attractions on the island are one-dimensional, the concert hall is the only thing remotely interesting. Miis can learn to sing eight song styles, such as metal, pop, opera, and techno. Though every song has a default tune already programmed, you’re allowed to change the lyrics. Even if you’re not going for a parody, watching your Miis trying to reenact Broadway-style musicals is hilarious. The animations are a little jerky, but whoever programmed those vocals and dance moves did an impressive job. The same can be said for the customization in general; you might not have much interactivity with your characters, but you can certainly make them look nice. There are hundreds of potential outfits and accessories, ranging from simple t-shirts and bandanas to gothic dresses and suits of armor. The various apartment backgrounds got the most love, though. Your Miis can live in the middle of movie theaters, Japanese arcades, golden temples, ice palaces, star-studded galaxies, and dozens more. Some of them are absolutely dazzling, tempting you into believing that buying all of them is worth it. But no matter how well you dress it up, you’ll still be confronted with the same lackluster gameplay.

The shallow design becomes especially apparent once you activate StreetPass. You can send and receive Miis – but only the children of married couples – along with special items and accessories. Aside from selecting the single export for your island, the wireless functionality serves no purpose. There are no additional mini-games or activity beyond greeting your visitors. This is a gargantuan oversight in terms of the game’s design; rather than just importing and exporting an item through chance meetings, it would’ve made more sense to develop it around an online multiplayer experience. Islands could’ve been used as hubs for gamers to visit and exchange goods. There could’ve been an option to design and sell clothes, or put rarer items up for auction. How about playable volleyball at the beach? Rather than just watch characters enjoy the amusement park, there could’ve been a way for you to develop and customize the attractions to appeal to other gamers. Instead of featuring bland, repetitive chunks of fake dialogue, the cafe could’ve used the 3DS’s microphone to let gamers hold live conversations. The sheer amount of missed opportunities is mind-boggling.

I wanted to like Tomodachi Life. Really, I thought it had a lot of potential. The concept is clever. The ability to customize voices and personality is an impressive accomplishment; it’s far more extensive than what you’d find in Animal Crossing or similarly-designed games. Despite such advancements, the game loses sight of the most fundamental aspects of gameplay: making something fun, and giving players a reason to care about its characters. Rather than having a fully fleshed-out world, this is nothing but a bare-bones collection of repetitive mini-games. It doesn’t even bother trying to hide it, either. There’s no satisfaction in shoving food and trinkets into an avatar in attempt to level up their happiness; <i>true</i> gaming satisfaction should come from building a little world for yourself from scratch and enjoying the results. Tomodachi Life demonstrates the real problem with life simulators; regardless of humor and bizarre situations, they’re limited to their programming. In the end, real life will always be better.

*Originally posted here.

A Puzzle, Piece By Piece

When I was a young child – before kindergarten, even – someone would read to me every night. It was rarely either of my parents, but that didn’t matter; I just wanted a story told. It was part of the bedtime routine, like brushing my teeth. There was something special about reading, that all those strange little symbols and pictures meant something beyond my comprehension. I thought that if I looked at the book just right, then maybe I could understand it, too. I knew what some of it meant (Wheel of Fortune taught me the alphabet) but I had to make sure. I asked whoever was watching me to read the same stories to me over and over. I had the tales of Peter Rabbit, Goodnight Moon, and Ping engrained in my memory through sheer repetition, so much so that I knew when the storyteller was skipping pages.

That’s right, I memorized Peter Rabbit before I even knew how to read.

Needless to say, the adults in my life were quite happy when I learned to read on my own. Oh sure, I had my share of toys and cartoons, but everyone knew I spent most of my time with books. Visiting a bookstore was like going to Disneyland, and hand-me-downs from a grownup’s library were treasures. My parents weren’t particular about the things I read; if I came across something I couldn’t understand, I’d just ask or pull out a dictionary. Most of my early childhood books were standard for the time. The Boxcar Children was one of the first series I ever encountered, and I loved how the kids had distinct personalities, could solve mysteries, and go on adventures without supervision. There was something striking about its first book, which focused on the group running away from home, dealing with illness and hunger, and attempting to survive in the eponymous abandoned boxcar. Though the writing was easy to understand and led to a happy ending, the ideas it introduced were pretty scary in retrospect. The same could not be said for Goosebumps, which introduced me to zombies, ghosts, vampires, and all those other stock terrors. Those books are laughable now (as anyone who reads Blogger Beware can attest), but most 80s-90s kids followed them religiously.

The mysteries and horrors must’ve affected me more than I realized, because I practically devoured Stephen King’s work. I started with The Shining, and it rocked my little world so hard. You think it’s scary now? Try reading it when the only character anywhere near your age is Danny Torrance. Room 217, man! Long, deserted hallways still creep me out sometimes. I moved on Salem’s Lot, The Stand, It, and beyond, broadening my interests in the supernatural with each passing book. You’d think that such grisly content might traumatize young readers – I wasn’t even in middle school yet – but I just kept turning the pages. My mother kept track of how much I read, earning me in-class awards for extra work and setting records. I’d go to the school library and borrow books by the stack, including relatively age-appropriate works like The Giver, Babar, Tintin, and Aesop’s Fables.

For my 10th birthday, my parents decided that I was ready for classic literature. My gift was a used copy of The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. No, seriously. I’m not kidding in the slightest. I’m pretty sure I was the only sixth grader hauling around a 1,026-page anthology on the playground. You want to get a kid hooked on reading? Try making him or her read a short story every day, and ask them about it. The Tell-Tale Heart is one of my all-time favorites. So is Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, whose brilliance and eccentricities made him stand out amongst all the protagonists that crossed my path. Even to this day, I still gravitate towards characters like Naoto Shirogane and Batman because of my love for the detective archetype. The rest of the novels collected and read during those years is like a Barnes & Noble classics section: The Odyssey, Les Miserables, Huck Finn, A Tale of Two Cities, The Scarlet Letter, Dracula, Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice…the list goes on and on and on. I’m not sure if I could accomplish that level of retention now that I’m older. By the time I reached AP English in high school, I’d already finished most of the required reading.

Looking back, I probably let books take over too much of my life. You should’ve seen me. A short, shy, quiet, overachieving, ambiguously effeminate boy with big glasses, no friends, and spends all his time reading large books? That’s prime bullying material right there. All I needed was a bow tie, inhaler, and a pocket protector to complete the stereotype. There’s always that cliche of people having huge personal libraries to look smarter. But for me, I read all those books because I wanted to. I was fascinated by all the references and information, and wanted to learn everything about them. I didn’t know anything about Greek mythology until I read Homer. The more I read, the more connections and themes I saw. Religion, psychology, politics, history, sexuality…things kept reappearing, but in different ways. Books became more than stories to me; they were complex puzzles with pieces that twisted and flowed together. If I could see those individual parts, I could better understand the whole. I didn’t say much, but I let my schoolwork do the talking for me. All of my teachers noted exceptional writing ability, especially when it came to critical thinking and analysis. Despite being so quiet and reclusive, I was often near or at the top of my class.

I didn’t really understand what the big deal was. I just wrote about what puzzle pieces I noticed, and everyone seemed to like it. I was surprised when I was chosen to do a speech at the graduation ceremony; why’d they want a shy, little guy like me up on the stage in front of everyone? Nor did I expect that my General Education courses would be so easy. Even my video game reviews – something I did on the side for fun – garnered a massive readership. I improved my writing with each passing week, but never appreciated the change. It wasn’t until I took a university course in Critical Theory that everything finally clicked together. Someone else understood how I approached reading? There were names for all those pieces? Deconstruction was a thing? The revelation was stunning, and I realized I’d tapped into something awesome without even knowing. I took that knowledge and ran with it all the way through the rest of my degree and beyond.

I still read and write, of course. It’s a not so much of a hobby as it as a necessity. When you’re a quiet loner, you need an outlet for communication and creativity. You’ll drive yourself crazy otherwise. Most people can’t hear me when I speak aloud, but they can read my writing all too well. I love doing critical analyses of works, be they novels, movies, video games, etc. I wish I could write and publish fiction – I dream of an endless library à la Borges – but completing NaNoWriMo twice has left me wary. I’m much better at taking things apart than I am at building them. There are few individuals in my personal life, and even fewer who’ve seen my work offline. Everyone had their own interests, and they consider writing beyond academics to be strange. There’s an unspoken sense of shame and contempt involved; these days, it’s as if writing isn’t worth the time and effort. But I know better. I take pride in what I write. It’s fulfilling and enriching. It allows me to better understand the world, and hopefully pass on that knowledge to others. Like the detectives I idolized, I keep looking for answers.

Life is a puzzle, and I see the pieces. Can you?

Zero To Hero Day 16: The Reputation Spectrum

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about reputation. The funny thing about reputation is how wildly it differs depending on who’s perceiving it. It’s a matter of an individual’s background or beliefs; we judge each other based upon our own expectations. A reputation is just an impression of only a part of someone’s personality; it’s like assuming a person’s whole identity based solely on their musical or literary tastes. Or their sign and Myers-Briggs type, for that matter; I’m an INTJ Scorpio, but such classifications have limited relevancy. Human beings are more complex than that, and everyone needs to be mindful of not cramming each other – and themselves – into little, stereotypical boxes.

If everyone I knew were to attend my funeral, no one would be able to agree on the exact way I’d be remembered. My reputation spans a whole spectrum of social expectations. Everyone would I agree that I’m intelligent, with a knack for observation and planning. Weird and quiet, too. But beyond that? It’s up in the air. Part of my family would disgustedly declare that I was decidedly unmanly, just because I don’t conform to their idea masculinity. They’d say my love of literature, humanities, and style was…interesting, but they couldn’t fathom why I’d rather be alone instead of going shooting, getting drunk, or watching sports for hours. Another part of my family would argue that I was an ungrateful, blasphemous rebel who left everything behind. They’d say I was just a distant, morose shadow who blatantly disregarded the rules, asked too many questions, and should’ve gone to church more. Other family members would claim that I was kind and thoughtful for keeping the house running, helping them when they were sick, and making them laugh when they needed it most. A few might even whisper about my fiery temper in hushed tones.

My coworkers and classmates would say that I was efficient, responsible, and withdrawn. Maybe a little insane. They’d all talk about how I’d traveled the world, and actually camped under the stars the old fashioned way. That I’d always somehow grab everyone’s attention despite being so shy. There would be anecdotes about how I seemed always able to explain something in simple terms. That I wrote papers and solved puzzles with reckless abandon. And switch from serious to snarky at the drop of a hat. They’d say I was crazy for not owning a smart phone, but admit bringing homemade lunches every day was clever and healthy. The higher-ups would say I was either a great mentor, a good sounding board, a vicious debater, arrogant, sarcastic, frightening, or intimidating. That I preferred stating awful truths instead of pretending. That I refused to play politics, for better and worse. Some would concur that I was a total charmer, despite my protests otherwise. They’d say I had warm, boundless energy and a knack for making people smile.

Certain circles in gaming community would say that I was an awesome reviewer with high writing standards. There would be tales of enigmatic emails featuring advice on critical writing and video game history. They’d mention how I’d always lurk somewhere in the background, surprise everyone with a new article, and vanish again. Some of the old timers would reminisce how I worked my way up from a crappy newbie. Anyone I’ve played against online would accuse me of being a flagrant trickster and a completely off-the-rails strategist. They’d moan about how I didn’t take anything seriously, yet somehow managed to beat them on several occasions. Very few could claim they ever spoke to me personally.

See what I mean? Reputation isn’t set in stone; it’s based upon others’ perceptions of you. A single person could have dozens of stories levied against them. The real danger is when you start buying too much into the expectations; if you focus too much on how you should act, you end up losing sight of your real personality. Everything I mentioned in the previous paragraphs has a bit of truth to them, but they’re ultimately inaccurate. They’re just like jigsaw puzzle: small pieces of a larger whole. I’m not sure what I kind of reputation I’m developing on WordPress, but I hope it’s a good one.

Truths and Lies

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about truth. Specifically, the importance of honesty. You know that proverb, “honesty is the best policy”? Whoever came up with it was on to something. Honesty is a good thing; it allows you fully express your perspective and hopefully influence other people in a positive way. Lying requires effort; not only do you have to craft something that seems believable, but you have to carry it with you. Those extra bits don’t seem to weigh much on your conscience and mind, but they add up. Trust me, I know all about it. That depression thing you keep hearing about on the news? Yeah, that’s me. Maybe it’s you, too. It devoured me from the inside out, and yet for years I had the witty, smiling, snarky persona down perfectly. Seriously, I fooled everyone. By the time I got help for it, I was reduced to a nervous wreck. Not just because I was stressed and angry, but because I’d become too exhausted to keep the lie – and my life – going anymore. Admitting and dealing with it was what kick-started my desire to see myself and world on my terms.

Oh, if only it were that simple.

Honesty is the best policy…as long as it doesn’t present a danger to yourself and others. Imagine you know a secret that meant the deaths of countless people if revealed. Let’s say you’re in the military and get captured by enemy forces. Are you going to spell out the logistics and tactical information to your captors, resulting in the annihilation of your comrades? If you’re a secret agent, you’re not going to walk in and say, “Hey, I’m a spy! Can I see your plans?” If you’re trying to bluff your way out of a situation – be it poker or any other appropriate metaphor – you’ll have to lie. You know how some people wait years to come out of the closet? There’s a plethora of reasons for that. In a perfect world in which everyone was accepted and worked toward the betterment of humanity, lies wouldn’t necessary.

But they are, and I hate that.

Lies can save lives, too. Take Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat in Budapest circa 1944. He raised enough money to rent 32 buildings and have them protected with diplomatic immunity. Not only did he manage to fool the authorities, but he housed nearly 10,000 people. He even intercepted a train carrying Jewish prisoners to Auschwitz and handed out as many fake passports as he possibly could. While guards were shooting at him, even. Those who had his documents – again, not legit – were allowed off the train. The deception was so huge and ridiculous, but it worked. And Wallenberg wasn’t the only one; World War II had resistance efforts all over the place. Countless lives were saved, and all because people were willing to lie and fight to protect others.

So, I guess it’s really a matter of balance and context. Honesty is the best policy. You should always strive to find the truth and benefit from it; that’s the point of learning. You need honesty to develop as an individual. Most people appreciate honesty, and it leads to a healthier and more productive life. But if you can’t be honest, then lie for the right reasons. Do it help others, not hurt. Just don’t rely on deception too much. After a while, the only one you’ll fool is yourself.