2016

2016 has come and gone faster than … *insert appropriate analogy*

That’s how well my brain is keeping up by the way, my usually amazing (if I do say so myself) analogies are eluding me and I have to resort to asterisked blahs to get some mediocre humor going on.

Oh well. Anyway, back to the whole 2016 issue.

2016 was a big year for me and a lot of people around me. Kylie Jenner famously said 2016 would be the year of realizing things and while I don’t put much stock in the opinions of reality stars, I do have to agree with her on that. In all my 21 years of life (OMG I can’t believe I’m 21), there’s hasn’t been a year that’s been more hard-hitting with the universal truths as 2016 has been.

Truth number 1: You will get hurt. Over and over and over. You will leave everything on the line, get your hopes up and be dismally heartbroken when what you hope for doesn’t come to pass. It’s a part of life, that you get hurt, and this year I finally realized that people don’t stop hurting.

Truth number 2: There’s no place like home. Home. I came to America in Fall 2015 and was filled with wide-eyed wonder at this great big mess of a country. But 2016 rolls around and all the homesickness rolls in with it. I spent a veritable 3 weeks of my first semester of 2016 (way back in January) engulfed in daze of homesickness-fueled dullness. But then I went back for summer and basked in the glory of being home and contrary to my belief that I’d uprooted my life successfully to Philadelphia, I still very much found that I was rooted back home. And I realized that’s not a bad thing.

Truth number 3: If you don’t work, you don’t get anything. Having coursed through high school doing the bare minimum in terms of studying, I tried to extend that work pattern in college to disastrous consequences both during my Winter quarter of freshman year this most recent fall quarter of sophomore year.

Truth number 4: No one can make me do something I don’t want to do. This comes with advantages and drawbacks. No one can force me to do anything or persuade me to do anything that I don’t want to do. I found that I hold a frightening level of control over my life and that only I, get to make decisions in my life. This may be a head-scratcher for some of you out there but believe me, I realized this fact only this past year. So in terms of someone trying to change me by way bullying, peer pressure or trying to pressure me into drugs or drinking, I’m not going to give in easy. The bad side of this is work: motivation becomes an issue when I’m this strongly inclined to follow what I want.

Truth number 5: Best friends really do save you. They know who they are and if they don’t I’m going to make sure they do. I went through something really bad during spring of 2016 and if it weren’t for my best friends, in America, back home as well as Australia, China, UK and Dubai, I would not have recovered as fast as I did.

I learned several other minor things too but overall, the above five things are the things that I feel I need to put out there. These five things have led me to re-evaluate who I am, where I’m heading and a lot of other stuff about myself.


 

2016 was also special in that I read, watched and listened to a lot of things that I feel impacted my life more than I could have ever imagined. At the time I was experiencing them I may not have realized their importance but afterwards, they left lasting impressions on me. Here are some of them.

 

Books

 

Music

 

 

TV

 

 

Anime

 

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I obviously watched, listened to, and read many other things but the ones mentioned above stuck with me. Look them up, they’re all pretty amazing. That does it with my 2016 recap, I’ll get back to you with a 2017 look-see. Till, then. Kick butt and conquer!

NaNoWriMo: 2016

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As an effort for me to further overload myself with work, I undertook for the first time the National Novel Writing Month Challenge. Similar to #InkTober (a challenge of one ink drawing for each day of October) which my roommate completed a few days ago: https://www.instagram.com/emaadfayaz/

And similar to #NoShaveNovember (a pointless challenge that only measures a man’s worth by his completely hereditary ability to grow facial hair)

National Novel Writing Month challenges participants to write a novel of no less than 50,000 words within in the month of November.

And because I’ve been juggling a story (which could quite possibly be the first true-to-form novel I’ve ever NOT given up within the first two days of starting it) for a year, I entered #NaNoWriMo.

Of course I have my problems with #NaNoWriMo.
1. It produces a concept of mass production in fiction which in my opinion is completely inappropriate. The whole deadline thing I can understand AND get behind but introducing the severe daily word count target and stat tracking system makes the whole novel writing feel less creative and more industrial.

2. It therefore retards the very goal the institution is setting out to accomplish: boost Novel writing, creative writing and fiction writing standards in today’s world where more and more people are moving away from novels and books and into videogames, movies and TV. Encouraging poorly-thought out, panicky, mass produced literature to circle around on the internet decreases the quality of literature in general. And in a world where people are too quick to point out the flaws of reading in a modern technological society, this focus on mass production of literature is the first nail in the coffin of literature.

But it does motivate fledgling writers like myself to write for their lives. To get out of bed and write and write and write. Even if no inspiration strikes, to exercise their writing muscles and flex them and show off to the world that you don’t need to be a potential Pulitzer or Booker Prize winner with a unique, harrowing tale of love and woe to consider yourself a writer. A cool, writing society with a massive support system from around the world mutually egging each other on to finish their novels, providing inspiration for each other and connecting over a shared love of fiction and reading goes a long way in boosting your creative juices and getting you out of your writing slump. Even if your woe-ridden story of a vampire falling in love with a werewolf won’t be hitting the bookshelves soon. (to be clear, that is not at all what I’m writing about)

So dear followers and readers of this blog, I hereby pledge myself to this hare-brained challenge. To complete my novel by the end of November and instead of attempting to grow a beard for a month (what purpose does this show really except for a disregard for personal hygiene and appearance?) I will finish my novel.

 

BYE.

 

 

Bungou Stray Dogs

Bungou Stray Dogs finished airing during the official Spring 2016 season and has promised its second season for the Fall 2016 season. As a sort of preview of what to expect, what it needs to do and an overall recap of everything it got right and didn’t during the first season, I though I’d write up:

A discussion

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When anime and manga get slapped with the label Seinen, you can pretty much expect an action-packed anime with great fight sequences and a large cast of characters. The main ones will have somewhat predictable backstories of pain/anger that lead to their current status in life. The anime doesn’t have to run for long, in fact most of them finish up with one season. They deliver a short, adrenaline filled romp through a universe that usually brings up more questions that it answers.

Bungou Stray Dogs hits some of the typical Seinen characteristics but it also manages to avoid some by quite a distance. In this viewer’s opinions it hits the important ones that draw in the audiences and it avoids the right ones that make Seinen anime and manga tired and predictable.

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Bungou Stray Dogs is certainly an adventurous little anime. It narrates a story of a special crime fighting unit whose members each have a special power. And to this group is recruited our seemingly gutless, cowardly and overall wishy-washy protagonist Nakajima Atsushi.  It’s an interesting premise and with a bit of special ‘uber-cool’ otaku trivia in association with the character names (the names are based on famous authors and the powers of the characters are usually named on those authors’ most popular works), one can hardly call the storyboard and plotline of Bungou Stray Dogs slow or boring. It glues together a compelling yet simple plot, a good cast of quirky characters and a great bit of animation work to pull off one of Spring 2016’s most overlooked anime.

But what this anime should get its standing ovation for: Comedy

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It’s hard to mix comedy and drama. Anime usually tend to mess things up with genre mixing and often does best with purist commitments to single genres. Truly, I can only remember only one anime that successfully pulled off comedy and action to be able to qualify as part of both those genres on equal basis. (I’m thinking of Kill La Kill)
Bungou Stray Dogs comes quite close to that masterful piece of work. Its comedy is impeccably timed and while some other reviews called the comedy misplaced and blamed it for destroying the climatic moments of the anime, I found the comedy to be a welcome surprise. With recurring gags (Dazai’s suicide fixation) as well as spur-0f-the-moment quips (Dazai’s taunting of his former associate jumps to mind), Bungou Stray Dogs does a great job balancing the action and drama with comedy. Without the comedy, the plot would end up looking half-hearted, with no one able to take this world of inexplicably poetic superpowers seriously. But when the character who’s about to deliver knockout punch quips out a grimacingly painful one-liner, you settle in comfortably.

Yes, character development is severely lacking. Except for two of our main characters, everyone else pretty much stays the same shade they were originally painted. If you’re expecting a mystery filled thriller because this anime has a crime fighting unit, you’ll be disappointed. In that regard, here’s the typical Seinen we’re all used to and quite frankly kinda tired of by now.

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When the anime ends, you’ll no doubt end up feeling like you got of the ride halfway. And that’s with good reason: there’s a second season coming this October. Dazai’s backstory, why everyone has power and the details of the Port Mafia will hopefully all be revealed. If the anime doesn’t spin itself into a million knots and fall of the cliff that is. Anything is possible.

 

 

 

I’ll Give You The Sun

It’s been a while since I’ve read a GOOD book. And by good book I don’t mean one that you’d recommend to a friend offhand, in passing as in ‘oh hey read this, it was good’. I mean GOOD as in it meant so frigging much to you that you don’t ever want to tall about it.

Ever.

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I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson narrates the story of a set of twins a la God Of Small Things that grow up together, grow apart and then find their way back to each other.
The narrative starts when they’re 13 years old and concludes when they’re 17. And in between, well, A LOT of things happen.

In Noah and Jude, we find thought and imaginative voices of childhood and growing up. Filled with self-absorbed imaginations and thoughts of typical 13 year olds, quite a few things set Noah and Jude apart from the other kids. Noah is a child prodigy gifted with a keen eye and deft hand. He paints the world around him in both his mind and his sketchbook. Jude is popular and wild, blessed with an aptitude for sculpting sand and communing with dead relatives.

“The worst thing that could ever happen to Noah has happened. He’s become normal.”

But their story is the story of their death. Their wide-eyed talent and hope for their futures dim all of a sudden and they transform into two completely different beings. Betrayal and lies drive them apart and their family breaks apart.
As far as the story goes, it’s a painfully poignant one. Watching Noah and Jude fall in love with separately, get their hearts broken and finally fixing each other is beautiful story. It’s got deep themes running through: sexuality, family, friendship and trust to name a few and even on the surface, plot holds up well. In that it feels like a rollercoaster.

But I’ll Give You The Sun is far from perfect.

Noah and Jude remain, perhaps, the only characters that seem to truly come out alive from the pages of the book. They think real thoughts and do real things. They match each other, word for word, thought for thought and action for action. Their stories are intertwined and in this duality lies their authenticity. The other characters sadly, fold back into the pages. They read like a well cooked stock pot of archetypes. There’s the tortured genius, the mysterious and devilishly handsome ‘bad boy’, the scientific and clueless father and the passionate and loving mother.

“Each new self standing on the last one’s shoulders until we’re these wobbly people poles?”

Jandy Nelson’s writing rises and dips in quality. In places her writing is masterful. It dishes out words poetically and lyrically, fashioning quotes that would look perfect on Tumblr, Twitter or even Instagram. In other places however, the writing jars. In places where she writes from the innocent viewpoint of the 13-year-old twins, she dabbles in a sort of pseudo-magical realism to bring the imaginations of the two children to life. In such places, the narrative feels like a choppy stop motion film. It skids and shudders, interrupting the flow and prompting the reader to read the lines several times to actually comprehend it.

But even with its skittish writing and rather typical characters, Jandy Nelson has written a gem of a book. It’s heart warming in the right places and tear jerking in all the others. See-sawing between the two, I’ll Give You The Sun is a worthy addition to anyone’s bookshelf.

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Kiznaiver

Current season anime is pretty scary. You’re making a commitment to watch an anime which you can’t get any opinions on, not properly at least. It might be boring, it might start out great but fall flat on its face. It could be terrible, absolutely terrible, but because you committed to it, you have to sit through it.

But then, like Kiznaiver, it could be magnificent.

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Kiznaiver was primarily produced by Studio Trigger, which should sound familiar to some of you as they were the group responsible for the amazing Kill La Kill series a couple of years ago. Not to mention Kiznaiver also had the assistant director of Kill La Kill working on it which lead to very high expectations.
And it didn’t disappoint.

Kiznaiver is a story about pain and sharing pain. Out of the blue, seven high school student are chosen for an experiment which involves them being connected to each other through their pain. So if one of them gets hurt, everyone else feels the immediate and momentary pain of.
And where ordinarily these seven students wouldn’t even dream of talking to each other due to very different personalities and cliques, their shared pain has forced them to come together and become friends. But being connected through their pain comes with more than a few conditions. They also have to carry out missions to help each other during summer, missions that are delegated by the research team that initiated the experiment.
It’s a strange story to say the least. Borne out of a world view that sharing other’s pain, literally, could lead to world peace and friendship, it’s a concept with huge potential. But also perhaps a little bit too ambitious for a 12 episode romp.

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The sheer scale and implications of the plotline and storyboard, all the concepts and ideas it brought up reminded me of another anime called Gatchaman Crowds which tried to force down ideas of humanity, heroism in a digital age, worshipping superheroes and digital privacy and security among a great many others in a short 13 episode run. The end result was chaotic and rushed, leaving a lot of loopholes and gaping flaws in the story.
Kiznaiver isn’t that big, it’s got far fewer lofty ideals but at times the story feels a little too big for the small length.

Which isn’t to say that this anime was anything less than great.
What Gatchaman Crowds failed to do – establish an emotional aspect the audience could relate to – Kiznaiver does masterfully.
The story about our young protagonist regaining his capacity to feel pain, both physically and emotionally, and his friends helping him and getting hurt in the process is a beautiful concept. Does the anime romanticize pain a little bit? Oh yes.
But frankly, without the throes of hurt and anguish washing over the screen as our protagonists fall to the ground and cry out into the night, this anime would not be as good.
Shared pain is a double-edged sword and Kiznaiver does a great job of showing us this. Pain can go both ways, especially if you’re connected to someone else through some fantastically improbably surgery.

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The production of this anime is top notch. It’s got visuals that reminded me, several times, of the masterful animation in Terror in Resonance which had the most beautiful animations in its own rights. The same bright colors, the same sharp contrasting color palette but for all it’s realistic background settings, the characters are straight out of a fantasy anime. The character designs are quirky to say the least, more Mawaru Penguindrum than Terror in Resonance really. They’re bright and loud and perfect for this type of anime.
The soundtrack is a great companion here, a futuristic, synth-driven ambience which, coupled with the beautiful opening theme by Boom Boom Satellites fits the overall theme of the anime to a T.

Kiznaiver does have its flaws. It’s a little ambitious for a seasonal anime and occasionally trips over its lofty ideals and goals in story telling but what it lacks in terms of plot integrity, it more than makes up for in emotional impact, narrating a story that is as heart-wrenching and tear-jerking, occasionally, as any you’ll find. With its impeccable visuals and soundtrack to match, Kiznaiver is one of the best anime Spring 2016 had to offer.

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The Descendants

Some films enthrall audiences by how big it is. Big action (think the Bond series), big effects (a la Marvel superheroes) or big drama (12 Years A Slave or Blue Jasmine) that revolve around explosions, gunfire, multi-million dollar FX teams and larger-than-life performances that leave the audiences themselves feeling drained.
But once in a while, along comes a movie that despite lacking any of the aforementioned three features, touches something deep and private in us and we fall in love with it.

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Matt King, an estate lawyer in Hawaii, is faced with the pressure of selling off a pristine piece of virgin land that belongs to his family trust, his family having owned the land for generations and more. But while he’s deciding, his adventurous wife has a boating accident and slips into a irreversible coma. He now has to pull the plug on his comatose wife, sell off his family legacy and raise two daughter, Alex and Scottie, 17 and 10 respectively. Oh and it gets worse: his wife was in love with another man.

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This is a deeply poignant film. In a thoughtful, subdued and reserved way. Watching Matt quietly handle everything, relying on his elder daughter’s rebellious daring and female sensibility is like watching two best friends at work. They play off each other’s strengths and fall back on each other. Alex steps up in front of Scottie and Matt deals with the land and the hospital. Formely estranged, the quiet dynamic between the father-daughter duo is gives the film its beautiful, insightful feeling. The mother’s boating accident had unified our previously estranged duo in a dual conspiracy: to soften the blow for Scottie and find out who Matt’s wife was cheating on him with.

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George Clooney and Shailene Woodley give, perhaps, their most mature performances to date. As a father struggling to keep his family intact while simultaneously working on his personal anguish and emotion, there’s a lot of room for George Clooney to go off the deep end into the overdramatized trope of bitter, distant and, quiet and angry father but he doesn’t. He lends the role a warmth and humility that make the performance that much more fragile and noteworthy. There are undercurrents of something about to break in every scene he grits his teeth and soldiers and when he finally breaks down, it’s as bit as tear-jerking as you’d expect.

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Woodley, in a her film debut, is impressive to say the least. She is a troubled teen, out drinking on school nights and when her father drags her home, she’s every bit as defiant and rebellious as you’d expect her to be. But when she hears the news, she breaks down and from there onwards, takes on one of the most pensive performances ever. She becomes a “mother” figure for her sister, admonishing her for bad friends and behavior even when their father doesn’t. You can tell she’s doing it on purpose, with supreme effort because that’s not who she is and that’s what makes it that much more believable. This rebellious teen didn’t change overnight, but is trying to and that’s  beautiful.

The Descendants is a thoughtful, poignant movie about family and loss. It’s as hopeful as it is sad and moving. The lush setting of Hawaii is perhaps perfect to this story, quietly rebelling against the idea of eternal and perpetual paradise. With a great soundtrack, earmarked by typical Hawaiian ukuleles, this movie is a beautiful look into tragedy in paradise.

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Your Lie in April

Along came a brave little girl who took what was left of her short, fragile life and ran with it, pell-mell right in front of the boy she liked, the music she loved and the food she loved and the rest, as clichéd as this sounds, is history.

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From left to right: Tsubaki, Kaori, Kousei and Ryota

 

I’m referring of course to the anime above:

Shigatsu Wa Kimi No Uso
Your Lie in April

 

Here is an anime all about embracing your life, taking joy in it and expressing yourself through the absolute joy that is music. Throughout its 22 episode run, Your lie in April touches heartstrings and provokes smiles and tears alike. It’s a soft, subdued and gushing tale of teenage love and music. Sit down and enjoy the ride.

The premise is simple enough: Arima Kousei, a child prodigy on the piano bumps into Miyazono Kaori, who herself is a child prodigy on the violin. He gets to know her as the girl in love with his best friend, Watari Ryota and she gets to know him as Watari Ryota’s other friend next to Sawaki Tsubaki. And amidst all the hanging out and accompanying her violin pieces on his piano, Kousei Arima grows and falls, hard.

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It’s a story that’s been told numerous times but as much as the overarching plot has been retold over and over and over, Your Lie in April paints it a whole new way. I could talk endlessly about the animation, the music and the storyboard but I think I’ll think to what stood out the most: the emotional well in the story.

You’d think the story of a couple of friends hanging out and jamming together is an equation for a happy ending but oh lord was I wrong. The story runs deep, deep here and pulls and tugs the viewers into and out of it with frustrating regularity. And no matter how clueless you are about classical music (I’ll admit it, I can handle a piano but I don’t know the first thing about actual music theory), this will draw you in. It’s not about the Chopin or the Bach that our friend Kousei is playing, it’s about the story he’s telling or the picture he’s painting through the music and my god have the developers done some wonderful animation work in showing us that. Ranging from faceless demons hiding behind his shoulder to clouds floating by his head, the anime just jumps up in terms of quality whenever someone’s tinkling the ivories. And don’t even get me started on the soundtrack.tumblr_nlsgq2uHfO1rcufwuo2_500

But the story is so delicately balanced between happiness and sadness, it’s perfect. Unlike Anohana, the only other anime that made me feel like the world ended, where every episode hit the viewer hard and unrelentingly with scenes of characters breaking down, Your Lie in April holds back and reserves itself. There’s tones throughout the entire anime of something deeper and sadder than what seems to be going on but until the last moment, you expect everything to work out.

Your Lie in April handles the concept of hope very well. Everyone in this story is hoping for something and some of them succeed and some of them, sadly, don’t. This realistic portrayal of the bittersweet end of hopes and dreams are probably what hits the viewers hard. Whereas Anohana dealt, gratuitously and rather heavily I might add, in death, grief and mourning Your Lie in April doesn’t bog itself down with any of that. The anime is filled with joy and happiness, the scenery and the backgrounds drip with lush tones and the soundtrack is bright, lilting and masterful to say the least. And yet this is definitely a sad story,  a story of kids growing up, facing demons, struggling to survive, realizing and losing dreams and ultimately, as the sweet cherry on top of this profoundly bittersweet anime, music.

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Rashomon

So a while back I discovered the joyous feature that allows students to reserve books from our campus library online and then have it searched for and picked up from whatever musty shelf it’s been biding its time on so that we, the students, can check it out at the front desk. It’s essentially a e-borrowing system.

And when I found it I just typed up “Murakami” in the search field and look what turned up on the results.

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Granted this wasn’t written by him but it DID feature an introduction by him so why the heck not? AND IT’S RASHMON. THE SEMINAL JAPANESE CLASSIC which spurned the SEMINAL JAPANESE FILM!

So I borrowed it and it was glorious.

This was my introduction to my first Japanese author other than Murakami and I have to admit it was refreshing. To those of you who’ve read Murakami, his writing tends to be rather minimalist. But on the other scale we have Akutagawa Ryuonosuke who writes in such vivid detail and about a large range of subjects.

The book is divided into two sections. The first section contains Akutagawa’s older work, written when he was a student and a new college graduate. These are his ‘historical fiction’ works where he uses, for the lack of better words, historical settings and props and spins a fictitious story that fits into the whole transitional period during that era. Murakami speaks in detail, in his introduction, about the quality of writing in these works and I can only wish that I could read Japanese so as to enjoy the stories in their original lyrical beauty. Even translated though, they read beautifully.

The second section contain Akutagawa’s later work when he stepped out of his natural inclination towards historical fiction and wrote modern stories, often autobiographical. I personally loved these stories more because I felt more emotion and feeling in these stories. Whereas his earlier work felt more detached from the medium, like he was relating an incident and commenting on it, these later stories felt more personal. Of course this was probably because he drew mostly from his own experiences to write these ‘modern’ stories.

I especially loved his “Fool’s Life” and “Spinning Gear” which are his most clearly autobiographical works.

This collection was very well put together in that I felt that reading the stories in their order of appearance in the book was like looking at snapshots of Akutagawa’s life and their progression somewhat correlated with his own life.

It was a moving collection of short stories, probably the best collection of short stories I’ve ever read actually.
Find it, read it, Love it.

 

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