Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Shedding of Innocent Stuff: Tools for Habitat for Humanity

It's been awhile since I've done a Shedding of Innocent Stuff entry :).

When we first bought our house back in 1999, I was convinced that I was going to be doing many of the repairs and updates to the house, and so it seemed only logical that I should outfit the house with all of the tools necessary to build and maintain a house. Thus getting a table saw, a router and router table, plus other attachments for each seemed to make sense.

Fast forward ten years, and the majority of these tools, plus a number of items that I purchased to support the making of Pinewood derby cars for my son's Cub Scout pack over the last decade now no longer being used for that purpose because, well, he's not a Cub Scout anymore, and what we have is a number of expensive tools that take up a lot of garage space and that just sit and collect dust. As an experiment on January 1st, I decided to gather all of the items that did not get used, or that I figured i would not use, and I put them all on a shelving unit in a corner of the garage. If I found that, in the course of a hear, i had any need for these items or if I used them during the course of the year, I could justify keeping them. If I did not use them during the course of the year, then it made sense for them to go to a new home.

Last weekend, I decided the experiment had run its course, so I took a table saw and support legs, a router and router table, various blades and attachments for the table saw, one of a number of sanders, a band saw, a scroll saw and the shelving unit that did nothing during the year but hold these tools, and I brought them over to Habitat for Humanity in Oakland. For those who are not familiar with habitat for Humanity, their mission is to help people build housing who otherwise might no9t be able to afford to buy or maintain a house. it was this spirit in which I decided to donate these tools to them. as I went down to drop off the equipment, I passed by a familiar landmark. The Habitat for Humanity ReStore center was just a few buildings away from what used to be Paradigm studios, the place where High Wire used to rehearse and store our gear. I was also gratified to see the look of surprise and happiness on the faces of the volunteers who took in the donation. they said that they knew these items would be placed quickly and be in use in short order by a grateful team of people who were in the process of doing re-work on houses in the area.

So now I have a fairly large section of garage that is now open and free of stuff that was collecting dust. This experiment also let me see which tools and items I actually used and which ones were important to keep. What's more, I had the opportunity to get a tax write off for items that I know will be helpful and useful to people to help them achieve and have a part of that American Dream that is owning and maintaining their own home.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Is Samurai X OVA “Trust and Betrayal” Really The Best of The Best?!

Yeah, it's another anime post. What can I say, I'm on a roll :).

A few days ago, I commented on the fact that I came across what I felt was one of the best anime series I had not yet seen, Wolf’s Rain. I freely admit to being a dilettante when it comes to anime; I’m not a rabid fan, and I do not wait in line to read and scour the news of every new title, or even classic titles that I hear about. I like what I like, come across what I do often by chance encounters, and oftentimes, what I like doesn’t always follow public taste or even popular interest. I freely admit to being an outlier fan of things that many others either don’t like or they wonder why on earth I would be interested in [fill in the blank]. Case in point, my girlfriend in college was the one who turned me on to ElfQuest, and for many years I was a huge fan of that series. I can’t claim to be an original fan, or one who necessarily knew every nook and cranny about it (though I did know a lot about it :) ). I also realize that it was not a really “cool” title to dig if you were a late teen or early 20 guy in the 1980s, but I liked it because I liked it, and that was enough reason.

In my quest for Anime titles and other such things, I occasionally look to rating sites, or to forums, just to see what other people find interesting, and to see what strikes people’s fancy or makes them react a certain way. I also often see that titles I like a lot may not rank highly, and titles I’ve never heard of or know little of or haven’t sought out rate way up there. Every once in awhile, I want to find out if there’s something I’m missing, something that will astound me or make me really take notice. Thus, when I started looking at some ratings sites and looking at different weightings and ratings, one title stood out time and again with the most representative votes as being considered, possibly, the best of the best. That title was “Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal”.

Now, for those who are curious... Samurai X is a pseudonym for the character of Himura Kenshin, and he himself is the protagonist for the often goofy and cute anime and manga series “Rurouni Kenshin”. With RK’s somewhat cutesy style and simple, classic anime elements, it comes across as a sometimes light-hearted telling of a Ronin samurai’s life after his time and era have passed (RK takes place in the era just after the close of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the rise of the Meiji restoration, when, effectively, the class of samurai was made obsolete and allowed to die out in real world Japan). Again, having seen a few episodes of RK, it was a cute series, but really, I wasn’t quite sure where people were coming from when they would consider “Samurai X” so highly. Was I missing something?

The answer is “yes”, in a big way. If you take a look at the style of animation for “Rurouni Kenshin”, it’s the fully “Kawaii” cute style of so many television anime productions, the style made famous by shows like Ranma ½ and Azumanga Daioh. Samurai X, on the other hand, goes for a much more real look, striking in its difference from the televised anime. In addition, the character of Kenshin is never portrayed as cute or silly; here the story is grim and focused, and it is also gripping. Where Rurouni Kenshin may have played to teens and young adults, Samurai X is clearly developed to appeal to an older audience. It’s high drama, and with a story beautifully told. There are two OVA’s in the Samurai X series. The first, Trust and Betrayal, is the prequel to the events that take place in Rurouni Kenshin. The second, called Reflection, takes place after the events of Rurouni Kenshin. In Trust and Betrayal, we discover what led Kenshin to become the swordsman that he ultimately became, the politics and the machinations of the ending of the Tokugawa era, and the bittersweet story that foreshadows the events of Rurouni Kenshin, and answers the question “where did he get that X shaped scar on his face”?

Again, those expecting to see a light hearted romp akin to the anime series will definitely not find what they are looking for here. However, those interested in a rich and beautiful depicted story, albeit highly on the “graphically accurate” side, will find much to like here. For those who like their anime real, with deep character, honest storytelling, and a minimum of added gimmicks, and where the artwork is absolutely breathtaking, definitely see this. For those wondering what to get me for my birthday or Christmas, if anyone wants to surprise me with Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal, I’ll be overjoyed :). Does it rise to Best of the Best? Well, that’s a subjective thing anyway, but I can say this much… it’s definitely way up on the excellent meter. I can certainly see why so many people do consider it so highly. If you decide to watch it (or have already seen it), let me know what you think.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

An Anime Classic: Wolf's Rain

Somehow I missed this one the first time it came around, but in my quest for searching for new titles to see and enjoy, I came across what has become one of my favorite shows in Anime, and felt like sharing it here and my reflections of it.

"Wolf's Rain" is the story of four wolves. In this world, Wolves have been hunted to the brink of extinction. To survive, the remaining wolves have found a way to take on human form, or at least to appear human to most of the people that see them. The goal of the series, and the story arc, takes these four wolves as they travel a war torn and life weary world as they search for "the Flower Maiden" and open the gate to Paradise, a place where the wolves can live free and renew their war torn world.

OK, first, this series is visually stark, frightening, and beautiful, all at the same time. It's a production by Studio Bones, who have done a number of other gorgeous Anime titles as well (RahXephon, Fullmetal Alchemist, and Eureka Seven some prime examples). The series is encapsulated in 26 regular episodes, plus four additional OVA episodes that extend the story arc. With the exception of four re-capitulation episodes (used as a recap method in the middle of the story, telling the preceding events from the perspective of the four main characters) the series moves along very well and each episode is enjoyable in its own way, and often for different reasons. We see both wolves and humans dealing with very real problems and very real emotions in ways that are both believable and redeeming. It's an Anime, so it takes some dark turns here and there, and the story can be pretty grim at times, but it is also hauntingly beautiful and satisfying if you stay for the entire ride.

For me, the music of an Anime is just as important as the story, as often much of the music used in Anime comes to be part of my regular listening. In the list of composers that have become part of my everyday musical repertoire, none hs had the impact or staying power that Yoko Kanno has had, and here she does not disappoint. The opening and closing themes are both beautiful, haunting and mesmerizing in their own ways. The opening theme song, "Stray" has a Seal vibe to it, and it's a song I enjoy listening to as a standalone title. The ending theme, "Gravity" is also strikingly beautiful. Once again, Kanno shows how varied and skillful her musical talent is, and how well she blends in with the titles she scores.

So with all that, concider this a huge two thumbs up for Wolf's Rain. It works on a lot of levels, and it ultimately a very redeeming and beautiful story told from a perspective of what is ultimately a Shinto and Buddhist world view put to images and music. Here's hoping you may enjoy it as much as I have.