Posts Tagged ‘anime’

In the “Shadow Dragon Saga,” the final plot arc of the epic Dragonball series, the good dragon Shenron turns to the dark side. Dragonball has some philosophical groundings in Zen, which show clearly here. Every character has facets of good and evil. Several times, readers encounter characters who have split themselves into good and evil halves in order to reach a sort of enlightenment. However, the ‘evil selves’ always have their own goals and often become deadly villains.

In the same way, when heroes gather all the dragonballs and make their wishes, good and evil energies are created. Good energy goes into actually fulfilling the wish (assuming it is a benevolent one). Evil energy is contained within the dragonballs and released slowly over hundreds of years. This works all right in the era when the scattered dragonballs are nearly impossible to find, but advancing technology such as Bulma’s “radar” makes it relatively easy to gather them. As the dragonballs are used more and more often, the evil energy can’t be released. Eventually it builds to a critical mass.

When Goku makes his latest wish, an “evil half” of Shenron is created. Black Smoke Shenron seizes the dragonballs before they can disperse. He divides himself into seven Shadow Dragons, each connected to one of the dragonballs. Each of the Shadow Dragons has a distinct appearance, personality, and power set. The relative strength and malevolence of these dragons corresponds to the nobility and the scope of the original wishes. So the most comical dragons are linked to small or silly wishes, while the most vicious spring from wishes that revived many people or righted great wrongs.

The Shadow Dragons are, roughly from least to most powerful: Haze Shenron (pollution), Rage Shenron (stretching), Oceanus (water), Naturon Shenron (earth), Nuovo Shenron (fire), Eis Shenron (ice) and the most devious and cruel of all, Syn Shenron. Syn is a lethal martial artist whose goal is to destroy all life in the universe. He loves to taunt and torment his victims as much as he enjoys bloodying his hands.

In the closing chapters of the Shadow Dragon Saga, Syn devours the seven dragonballs and becomes Omega Shenron, whose awesome and terrifying power is capable of obliterating Earth itself. An array of heroes face Omega through many twists and turns. Both sides appear certain of victory at times, but finally Goku destroys Omega Shenron with a technique called Universal Spirit Bomb.

In the aftermath, the original Shenron returns. He heals the wounded and reverses all of the Shadow Dragons’ damage. Then Shenron tells the heroes he needs time to recover. He takes the dragonballs and disappears. Now the people of Earth must stop depending on him and begin to make better choices.

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Among the multitude of recurring characters in the Dragonball saga, three important ones are dragons. These are Shenron, Porunga, and Icarus.

Shenron is the magical dragon of Earth. When brave heroes gather all seven dragonballs, this is who they summon. Shenron is a classic Asian dragon — long and serpentine, with stag horns, flowing whiskers, and so on. His scales are bright green above, buff/gold beneath, and his eyes are scarlet. Like all Asian dragons, Shenron has a benevolent personality. However, he does have his pride and sometimes expresses scorn for humans who make selfish decisions. His home is in the fiery core of the Earth.

In granting wishes, Shenron shows kindness by fulfilling the intent of the wish without trying to twist or undermine it. He seems able to grant almost anything, such as eternal youth or the restoration of destroyed lands. In quite a few cases, the victims of various evildoers are restored to life by a wish. They return as they were, not as any form of undead.

Some of the adventures in Dragonball take place on the alien world of Namek, where Porunga is the wishing dragon. He shares Shenron’s green-and-gold coloring but is more naga-like, with a distinctly human torso giving way to a serpent’s tail. His head and shoulders bristle with spikes, while his features are more crocodilian than Shenron’s.

Despite his more fearsome appearance, Porunga is even more amiable than his Earth counterpart. Though sometimes impatient, he has a sense of humor and has been known to cast minor magic for friends even without a wish being spoken. Like Shenron, Porunga is generous in granting the full intent of wishes rather than their literal meanings.

Back on Earth, a third dragon appears later in the sagas of Dragonball. Icarus lives in the wilderness near Goku’s home. He first appears as a baby dragon and becomes friends with Goku’s young son, Gohan. The two grow up together and have many adventures.

Unlike the other dragons, Icarus is a Western-style dragon with wings. His scales are lavender above and buff underneath. He has very humanlike, blue eyes. In general, his appearance is chunky and cartoonish compared to the others. For instance, his wings are tiny, though still capable of sustaining flight. Ultimately it seems the creator ran out of things for this character to do. He quietly drops out of the series, and fans speculate he returned to his forest home at some point.

Are these all the dragons in Dragonball? Not quite! Check back on Saturday for the darker side of the saga.

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We’re talking about Dragonball, a Japanese series that started as manga in 1984 and continues in animated form up to today. Those who have only heard the name may be wondering what, exactly, is a dragonball? Is that a sport? Perhaps a dance event for dragons.

Dragonballs are legendary artifacts that have been hidden all over the world. They were created by Kami (“God”) to reward the most worthy warriors and explorers. Each set includes seven balls. Whoever collects them all, from wherever they are hidden, can use them to summon a dragon who will grant one wish. After that, the balls become inert for at least one year and are again magically scattered until another worthy hero seeks them out.

The dragonballs appear as round orange stones, crystal or glass, about the size of a softball. Each has a number of red stars within it, denoting its place in the set. They shine with a soft light. Because they are relatively small, the dragonballs had traditionally been difficult to locate. However, one of Goku’s first companions as the series begins is Bulma, a young genius who has created a device to detect dragonballs. This “radar” allows her and Goku a big head start as they compete with evil forces who are also trying to gather the dragonballs.

Next time, I’ll talk about Shenron, the mystical dragon who is summoned by the dragonballs.

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Dragonball is one of the great epics of Twentieth Century manga and anime. Creator Akira Toriyama published the first series in 1984, in the pages of Shonen Jump. He continued producing installments until 1995. The combination of crazy humor with martial-arts adventure and operatic drama was immediately successful. Animated series based on the manga began to appear in 1986. There were also various video games and movies, some of which merely repackaged animated episodes.

At the outset, the main character was Son Goku, a young boy with a monkey tail and a cloud to fly on. He was based on Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, a character out of Chinese legend, but Toriyama was never one to stick with the tried and true. After many travails it was revealed that Goku actually was an alien of the Saiyan race. He had been dispatched to destroy the Earth, but lost his memory and grew up among a loving human family. Innocent and fun-loving, Goku loves competition and always seeks out more powerful opponents. As the years go by, we see him mature into the patriarch of a warrior clan who battle for the greater good on Earth and beyond.

With the manga spanning more than a decade, you can imagine the many epic heroes and villains who tread those pages. Important plot arcs are identified as “sagas,” some of which merge into overlapping “mega-sagas.” There’s no way I could describe them all here, but if you want you can check out the Wiki.

But wasn’t there something about dragons? You betcha! Check back on Saturday to learn more about them.

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Last weekend my husband and I watched the live-action rendition of Space Battleship Yamato. Don’t recognize the name? Hmm, how about Captain Avatar. Wave motion gun? Well, trust me. It was an important anime series created in Japan during the late 1970s under the award-winning director, Leiji Matsumoto. This was translated in America as Star Blazers during the early 1980s. For many fans, it was our first introduction to anime with long story lines and complicated characters.

So how was the movie? It’s been a good 20 years since I watched Space Battleship Yamato, but the basic scenario and characters seemed faithful. The creative team stuck with much of the original design and sound effects, which I enjoyed hearing. Funny how a particular noise can really take you back!

The major update was adding a few female characters, both in speaking roles and as extras. Particularly, the sake-swilling Dr. Sado became a woman in the live action. I know this will bother purists, but gender parity really is not optional in today’s world.

The previous character of Yuki Mora was strengthened considerably. She is now a fighter pilot rather than a nurse, and speaks her mind quite a bit where in the original Yuki mostly stood in the background worrying about her boyfriend, Kodai. There are a few unfortunate lapses near the end, though. Midway through, one of the men, Saito, is possessed by an alien entity and remains fully clothed, though levitating. When Yuki is possessed by an alien, her uniform is blown off and she then goes around in a tank top and sweat pants for quite some time. She also apparently forgets all about being a  soldier and lets Kodai drag her around by the hand instead of grabbing one of the weapons that are lying on the ground. (But, to be fair, Kodai also ignores these weapons in favor of his cute stun ray.)

But what does this have to do with Godzilla, King of the Monsters?

Well, the setup for Yamato is that aliens are bombarding the earth with “meteor bombs” that irradiate the surface, destroying all life and forcing humans to live in squalid underground cities. In real life, during the 1950s, Japan actually had endured radioactive fallout from nuclear testing in the South Pacific. The incident of Number Five Lucky Dragon and its enduring legacy made a deep impression. The opening scenes of Godzilla directly relate to nuclear testing. It appears the same experience again found expression in the setting for Space Battleship Yamato.

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More about the video game Dragon’s Dogma (Capcom, 2012).

As with most games any more, you have great freedom to choose what your character will look like. Characters can be male or female without penalty, and can appear of any race and age. So you could make your character look like a Tolkeinian dwarf or a small child or a grizzled old woman. You also get to design your main pawn to your liking. None of this affects gameplay.

Another feature that’s become common in fantasy games is that you can hire other pawns up to a total of four (including Arisen and main pawn). If you are online, you can use other people’s main pawns. I’ve found it very interesting how some people dress their pawns. (A fighter in a g-string. Really?) You can give equipment to your pawns and have them carry things for you. On the down side, they continually make inane comments like “Tis a grand fortress,” and there’s no way to turn off the repetitive chatter.

Although you can tailor your character’s appearance, there are only three character classes: Mage, Strider or Fighter. These can move up, if you wish, to Warrior, Sorcerer and Ranger. Each class has only a limited set of attack skills to choose from, and they don’t stack up. If you change classes, you select new attack skills from a new list.

There are no secondary skills. I missed being able to choose from a wide array of skills, the way you can in games like Oblivion. None of that “warrior with a bit of magic” in this game.

Allegedly, Dragon’s Dogma is an open world where you can wander anywhere, gather materials to craft items, and explore caves or ruins. I found the landscape pretty small compared to games like Skyrim. Most locations are related to various quests, so you can’t just wander around exploring ruins and such.

The story aspect is also fairly limited. You have one main quest and a number of side quests which you pick up at message boards in the inns and taverns. Characterization of the NPCs is cursory. More frustrating for me, there are no dialog options for my character to say all the snarky or heroic things I wanted to say. Perils of a novelist playing video games, I suppose.

That said, the main plot does have a payoff in a climactic scene where Grigori (the dragon) poses a really interesting, lady-or-tiger challenge for the Arisen. You make your choice and pick up the pieces. My decision led me to another big confrontation where my choice affected the direction of the game. Indeed, the first time I clicked the wrong button and ended up transforming my character into a dragon, which flew off to afflict the land. Not the ending I intended! I like this approach, since in so many fantasy games you just cut people down, take their stuff, and go on without a thought.

All the above may sound like I’m down on this game, but I’m not. Though it isn’t as good as Oblivion or Skyrim, I found myself planning my next character as I approached the end of the game. So it will have replay to keep me busy for a while, and I’ll pick up some of those quests I passed on the first time. I know there’s an expansion, called Dark Arisen, and I’ll probably pick that up at some point.

Dragon’s Dogma hasn’t been a bad way to spend my summer, all in all.

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Besides using various weapons and artifacts to slay dragons, there’s a time-honored tradition of heroes emerging victorious by some form of happenstance. For instance, someone (I can’t remember who, but I’ll let you take credit if you remind me nicely) commented that they were surprised by how Smaug was slain in The Hobbit. That is, while Bilbo was in Smaug’s lair he saw the sleeping dragon on its back, and there was a gap in the crusting of jewels that armored Smaug’s belly. Later he revealed this to Bard the Bowman, in Laketown. Bard was able to shoot an arrow into that exact spot, thus bringing down the dragon.

However, as is pretty well known, Tolkein was a scholar of Germanic myth, and who’s the most famous dragon of Germanic myth? Fafnir! Well, Fafnir was slain by Sigurd, who lay in a ditch and stabbed upward through his softer belly. I did a post on Fafnir about two years ago. You can read it again here, if you wish.

Actually, this “lucky shot” ploy comes into quite a few dragon adventures (and some non-dragonish ones). In the first episode of Record of Lodoss War, Woodchuck makes a dragon falter by throwing a dagger into its eye. Afterward Parn kills the dragon. In the first Wizard of Oz book, Dorothy accidentally kills the Wicked Witch by throwing water at her.

To me, it’s a little cheap for a hero to battle a dragon and succeed by accident. At the same time, I think we could all name a favorite legend or myth where the mightiest combatant has just one point of weakness. Achilles and his heel. The sorcerer who hid his heart in a box. Werewolves and silver. Vampires and garlic.

When it comes down to it, even the mightiest foe has to have some sort of weakness. A one-sided battle just isn’t a good story, not matter how logical the outcome. The reality is, most readers are not satisfied when the dragon kills the hero. We want our heroes to triumph in the face of great odds. Even if it comes off sort of random and feels like cheating.

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The death of Avatar Roku, as mentioned in my past post, left Fire Lord Souzen free to pursue his ambitions. He gathered his troops and began a war against the Air Nation, where the next Avatar was destined to be born. But, worse, Souzen abandoned the Fire Nation’s long alliance with the mystical dragons. No longer wise companions, dragons became victims hunted by the elite.

(Personally, I wonder about this. Couldn’t the dragons just fly away? But, that’s what the story says.)

So popular was this sport, the mystical dragons were completely wiped out. Or so it was believed…

Another major character in Avatar, the Last Airbender is Iroh, a once-mighty Fire Prince who retired from public life after the death of his beloved son, Lu Ten, who fell in the war for world conquest. Iroh wears a lot of hats — sage, general, royal heir, resistance leader — but the one we care about here is “Dragon of the West.” Iroh, like all Fire Princes, went hunting for dragons to prove his prowess. He returned claiming to have slain the very last dragon in the world.

Throughout the series, Iroh is a mentor to the tormented Fire Prince Zuhko. Once Zuhko gives up on rage as a source of his firebending, he has to find another path. By this point Iroh is in prison, but Zuhko goes with Aang to search the retreats where the last dragons lived in hopes of gaining insight. To their surprise, they encounter a secret cult of Sun Warriors who are protecting… the last two dragons!

These are Ran and Sha, two ancient spirits who test Aang and Zuhko both in body and spirit. Ran and Sha are red and blue, a yin/yang pair similar to the two carp Tui and La who embody the moon and sea in waterbending lore. They are much larger than other dragons, perhaps due to their age, and seem much more powerful than other dragons depicted in the series.

After finding the Zuhko and Aang worthy, they impart the true meaning of Fire, which is the sun’s life-giving heat. With this knowledge, Zuhko is able to face his terrifying older sister, Azula, in personal combat. As for Iroh, once the 100-year-long war ends, the “Dragon of the West” opens a tea shop and lives out his life in peace.

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I mentioned in my last post that red and blue dragons represent honor and compassion vs. greed and hatred in the animated series Avatar, the Last Airbender. This contrast appears in a dream sequence involving Zuhko, the exiled Fire Prince, but is explored more deeply in the life story of Avatar Roku.

Roku was born to the Fire Nation, where he trained alongside Souzen, heir to the throne. The two young men grew up together and seem to have been close friends. Each of them had a dragon companion. Roku’s was the red dragon, Fang. Souzen commanded a blue dragon (not named in the series). However, as Roku devoted himself more fully to the duties of Avatar, this friendship was strained. Souzen had designs that the Fire Nation should dominate the world. Roku was forced to stand against him. Although Roku won the debate, Souzen never forgave what he saw as a betrayal.

Roku lived for many years on a small island, where he had a wife and family. But one day a volcano erupted on a nearby island. Roku and Souzen both rushed to the scene. Together the two old friends saved a group of villagers from certain death. But, alas, Souzen remembered his old grudge. Before the volcano was under control, he left abruptly. Roku alone was not strong enough; he and Fang died together.

Despite their tragic deaths, Fang and Roku play an important role in the animated series. Nor is Fang merely a pet obeying Roku’s instructions. When Aang stumbles into the spirit world, it’s Fang who first greets him. Fang brings Aang to Roku. Several times, he facilitates spiritual journeys or revelations that warn Aang of danger and help him develop his skills as Avatar.

Next time, I’ll continue the tale of Avatar’s firebending dragons.

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One of my favorite American animated series was Avatar, the Last Airbender, which aired on Nickelodeon from 2005 to 2008. The show is a children’s adventure set in a quirky, Asian-influenced fantasy world. By turns hilarious and dramatic, it presents the struggle of Aang, last of his tribe, to fight off the rapacious Fire Nation. He’s joined by many friends, chief of whom are Katarra and Sakka from the Southern Water Tribe and Zuhko, a Fire Nation prince who (late in the series) becomes Aang’s comrade in arms.

In Avatar, magic takes the form of “bending.” Through moves similar to a martial art, bending allows people to control one of four elements — Earth, Water, Air and Fire. In charge of it all is the Avatar, the only person who can command all four elements simultaneously. He’s responsible for maintaining the balance of nature and negotiating between spirits and people.

In this series, dragons play a small but important role. As in Asian myth, the dragons are long and thin, with elegant manes and whiskers. Dragons exist in both the physical and spirit worlds. They are wise guardians and advisors to all humans, but especially to the Fire Nation. Dragons were the original source of firebending, although it can’t be said they willingly taught this skill. An enterprising man named Wan watched a white dragon swooping gracefully through the sky. By copying its movements, he was able to master his new element.

Wan taught others what he had learned, and eventually his followers grew to become the Fire Nation. Centuries passed, and it became a tradition that the most powerful Firebenders had dragons as companions. Not pets, mind you — companions who help and protect them but also seem to provide a moral compass.

Throughout the series, there’s a dichotomy of dragons representing yin/yang or good vs. evil. Red dragons are virtuous beings who accompany the most enlightened characters. Blue dragons are vicious creatures who join with forces of hate and greed. It’s a striking way to show who some of the characters really are.

In my next blog, I’ll get into some of the specific dragon characters in Avatar.

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