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Micheal Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People is a film that would probably hold a special place in the heart of anyone who grew up in the 70s and 80s during the punk/post-punk/early rave scene in the UK. But more likely, it’ll be enjoyed by younger viewers who only wish that they could’ve been around for it. The film came out in 2002, so its release conveniently coincided with the rise of file-sharing and music blogging, during which countless listeners suddenly had access to music that had been gathering dust in the corners of mainstream culture throughout the 90s. No, no one had forgotten about New Order, but only the loyalest readers of, say, Spin or something, could’ve possibly known who The Durutti Column, A Certain Ratio, or Happy Mondays were.

That’s not to say that punk rock or dance music had gone completely underground during the late 90s. Rather, their origins and mythologies, along with countless numbers of artists who’d broken new ground and helped define the scenes that gave birth to the music, were in the midst of slowly fading from public consciousness. Maybe it was just too soon for any kind of revival anyway, but even if the time had been right, how could it have even happened without the Internet to help it spread?

As curious listeners scoured the Internet for music new and old, a new musical pantheon of sorts, of which the Boomer generation had paid little notice to, was beginning to establish itself. In the US, you’d have been hard pressed to find many fans of indie rock (Pavement, Modest Mouse, Sebadoh, etc.) who knew or cared about Joy Division. Today, they’re as big of a gateway to “indie” music as The Pixies or Sonic Youth ever were. Furthermore, their brief existence, along with their transition into the much more successful New Order — whom Americans tend to lump into nostalgic “retro 80s” music along with bands like Simple Minds or Siouxsie and the Banshees — broke down barriers between “rock” music and “dance” music that artists are still exploring.

I don’t mean to write a musical thesis here (and what a trite one it would be if I were), or to suggest that I enjoy this film simply because it features a lot of music that I like. To be honest, I’ve actually begun to wonder if the film’s narrative and reliance on its audience’s familiarity/fascination with the scenes it follows is really its undoing. I’ve watched the movie with friends on three separate occasions. The first time (2003?) was with a small group of people who were big fans of indie music. They didn’t seem to follow what was going on and were confused by the narrative structure. The second time was with another friend who hadn’t heard of any of the “Madchester” scene or any of the bands featured in the film. He seemed to enjoy it, but the more we talked about it, the less it seemed that he understood any of it whatsoever. The final time (just a few years ago) was with my girlfriend. Not counting the first three Naruto movies, it’s the only film to date that we’ve watched together that she’s expressed a palpable disdain for.

Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the movie and trying to pin down exactly what it was that I enjoyed about it. I find its manically-edited, 4th wall-breaking structure, which certainly fits the out-of-control nature of the Manchester music scene during the late 70s to the late 80s, to suit the film and capture the energy of its subject. But what I love most are the characters, especially the protagonist Tony Wilson, whose total devotion to the DIY nature of the movement he finds himself caught up in, to be both hilarious and endearing. This gets to the heart of what I love most about the film, which is a portrait of fandom at its most involved and enthusiastic. Wilson wasn’t a participant in the music scene at the time, but his work presenting the artists he loved on his television show, and later creating a space for them to grow and build a scene out of (The Hacienda) established him as a great appreciator, a fan like so many others but one whose vision of the things he loved actualized into something concrete, recontextualizing the work of so many individual artists and bands into a cohesive movement. Granted, it was a movement that rose out of nowhere seemingly overnight and fell back underground just as quickly, but its influence would change the course of British music for good.

My hope for anyone watching this film for the first time would be that it isn’t viewed in historical terms or even musical terms, but that they would simply try to identify with Wilson’s belief in the movement that he was both building up and barely clinging to at the same time. Not content to passively participate in the music scene as a listener or concertgoer, he had a vision of the scene as something greater than it was and used his influence to bring it to life (much to the detriment of his personal life and career). In many ways, his efforts were a super-sized mirror of what other fandoms have tried to accomplish. Establishing Factory Records as a means to distribute his favorite music could be comparable to how fansubbers brought anime to a greater audience for the last thirty or so years. Opening The Hacienda as a gathering place for both his favorite bands and fellow-minded fans wasn’t much different from how anime and comic conventions sprung up to feed the desires of fans to have an immersive and social experience with their favorite hobby.

In short, I appreciate this movie as a tale of a subculture’s journey from the fringes of society to a fully-blown cultural phenomenon via the naive devotion of one man bold enough (or dumb enough, take your pick) to take something as socially trivial as music made by groups of outcasts very, very seriously. If you have a subculture-dwelling hobby or interest, imagine it suddenly becoming massively popular and acceptable, all due to a massive gamble or two from a small group of people. Maybe then you’ll start to get why this film can be so thrilling for some people, whose passions probably follow a similar track, while being boring and incomprehensible to others (who may still have niche interests, but are content to keep them personal and don’t see the appeal of blowing them up into paradigm-shifting movements for the masses). Again, as the Internet makes connecting with others who have extremely similar interests exponentially easier than ever, it’s easy to forget how hard it used to be for outcasts and misfits to find each other, let alone turn their obsessions into something concrete and bigger than themselves. But once in a great while, it did happen, and it changed the world for good. It’s an illustration of how it’s not always the subject that’s the most interesting thing — be it music, anime, comics, or whatever other hobby you can think of — but the culture that gels around it.

The trailer does do a good job of showcasing the film and summarizing some of my points about it. Too bad it has some of the corniest voiceover work I’ve ever heard.

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I first stumbled across the existence of Katawa Shoujo about a year ago when it was still in development (Lord knows how this happened, it’s not like I post or even lurk on 4chan). Sounded interesting enough, so I bookmarked its site and forgot about the whole thing until a few days after Christmas, when I found the link for it once again and discovered that it was actually finished and would be coming out in a manner of days. “Pretty cool,” I thought, knowing almost nothing about its origins or just how widespread the anticipation for it actually was. Needless to say, when lengthy reviews singing its praises started popping up on anime blogs left and right only a few days after it was first available for download, I realized that it was officially a BFD.

Truth be told, it’s been a few months since I last touched this game and I really don’t know if I’ll be coming back to it for much more or not. I guess after playing through two routes to completion, the novelty of it wore off for me. That probably sounds like a harsh dismissal of both the game and its entire genre as a whole, but I don’t mean it as such (and it says more about me than it does about Katawa Shoujo). I mean, I’d say the same thing about RPGs, but that doesn’t mean I think they suck or anything. I just don’t have the patience, time or curiosity to play through them anymore.

Katawa Shoujo was my first hands-on experience with a visual novel — to be honest, I don’t know what makes a “visual novel” different from a “dating sim” or if they’re just different terms for the same thing, the former being a more respectable descriptor, for sure — which I was already familiar with thanks to Genshiken, Welcome to the NHK and a few other titles in which they play a prominent role. So I knew what to expect for the most part, and true to form I wasn’t too surprised by the way the story unfolded and how the characters were introduced. But I was taken aback by how much thought was put into the entire project, with everything from the art and the music to the writing and characterization surpassing my expectations.

The very existence of the game is proof that there are Western otaku who live and breathe this stuff, honestly appreciate these kind of games and understand the language and reliable conventions of them, and wanted to contribute something worthwhile to their lineage. And the overwhelmingly positive reception it received within the Western otaku-sphere was a sure sign that they succeeded. With so many players banking on the promise that the game was going to deliver big, maybe that was a forgone conclusion? I really don’t know how to judge it, myself. It’s a hell of a lot more interesting and, for being the fantasy that it is, grounded in reality than any of the visual novels I’ve seen portrayed in anime or manga.

The creators have already been repeatedly raked over the coals for their choice of a title for this game, so I won’t pile on them anymore for what they’ve already admitted was a poor decision. And it’s unfortunate that they saddled themselves with that mistake, because the rest of the game is nothing but considerate and thoughtful in its treatment its characters and the debilitating conditions* that they deal with. This seemed to take a lot of bloggers by surprise, many of which seemed honestly shocked that the game turned out to be something more than mere amputee porn or disability paraphilia for ogling otaku. Most reviews were emphatically positive, but a lot seemed to either (A) praise the game for overcoming the low moral/thematic standards set by most other visual novels or (B) imply that the game would naturally attract ignorant and misguidedly devious-minded players, but was effective enough of a teaching tool to “correct” their outlook, if given a few hours’ time (a nice way to write a review while staking out the moral high ground for yourself). In short, a lot of reviews came out that read like this (click the picture below for legible text):

But outside of the creators of Katawa Shoujo, the reception it received seemed mired in confused attitudes and beliefs about both the medium and the subject matter. Yes, visual novels are a legitimate platform for telling meaningful, heartfelt stories. But, most are just fap material. But, not this one! Not that there’s anything wrong with that, if it was. Etc. Similarly, the stunning conclusion that some of the most vocal fans of the game reached after playing it — that these girls aren’t freaks — will hopefully plant a seed of empathy and respect in some players that will carry over into their real-life encounters with others (this sounds totally naive on my part but I honestly believe there’s potential for some good here). What makes me squeamish about these kind of circuitous conclusions is the necessary standpoint of prejudice or ignorance that someone would have to come from beforehand for such epiphanies to have any meaningful consequence. At least their hearts are sort of in the right place, or at least getting there.

But hey, why should I care about this and who am I to say what the right way to enjoy a game is? It’s like I’m back in high school and banging my head against the wall because too many kids are listening to Live or STP and don’t even know what real alternative rock is, man. I should just be thankful for this game’s existence because it’s pretty much the only piece of media in 2012 I can even think of that focuses on characters with disabilities. Is there a single character on television now that’s blind? Hearing impaired? Would a character with missing limbs or third-degree burns ever make it past the test audiences that shows are surely wrung through before airing? In our age of competitive reality TV and fashion/makeover shows, should we be surprised that nothing short of total physical perfection is demanded and portrayed throughout the rest of our media? Games and television aren’t “real life” but they’re certainly a reflection of the dog show that we all live in. It’s probably worth taking notice and paying a little respect whenever one bothers to break from the herd and show a less glamorous side of life that people won’t necessarily want to see. Not that Katawa Shoujo isn’t glamorous. It wouldn’t be a visual novel if it weren’t.

*I don’t claim to be an authority on what qualifies as a “disability” and what doesn’t, so I don’t want to offend anyone who would disagree with my use of the term. So here’s a better piece written by a few Yamaku-elligible authors who know a thing or two more about this stuff than I do.

When you think of autumn traditions, what comes to mind? Maybe costume parties, raking leaves, or (American) football? Maybe you enjoy a glass of strong apple cider? Why not try a few pumpkin beers, too? I’m not even a big beer drinker, but I’ve really enjoyed most of the pumpkin ales that I’ve tried over the past few weeks. These have been around for years and years, I’m sure, and as usual I’m probably one of the last to come around to “discovering” them, but I’ve got to say that they’ve done more to expand my palate than any other new food or drink that I’ve had an opportunity to sample in 2010.

Unfortunately, by the time you read this, most of these limited-time, seasonal brews will probably be very difficult to find. Heck, by the middle of September, it was already impossible to obtain some of the most desirable pumpkin beers, a lesson we’ll just have to heed for next year. Just a few impressions from our trips to Binny’s and beyond:

Hoppin Frog Frog’s Hollow Double Pumpkin Ale
My personal favorite, a spicy and rich brew full of flavor and aroma. Pours on the darker side, probably tastes more like pumpkin pie than any other beer I’ve tried, but not sickly sweet or overwhelming. Comes in a large bottle and on its own will probably satisfy anyone who’s drinking for pleasure and not just to “get drunk.” I really couldn’t drink anything else after I finished this (its 8.4% abv easily tops any other pumpkin brew we were able to find), not can I imagine wanting to down any other beers beforehand either. But to each their own. This one’s a real treat that’s meant to be savored on its own.

Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale
Pours a light amber color, mild pumpkin taste, a smooth and light pumpkin brew. This one never really stood out for me but is still a pleasant experience to drink. Into late October, this was the only pumpkin beer still available in our area, but rest assured that its relative non-scarcity doesn’t mean that it’s a sub-par beer. We bought the last case we could find and hope it lasts us until Christmas. Definitely worth trying out.

Wild Onion Pumpkin Ale
Ever since I’ve been old enough to drink, I’ve held a misguided disdain for canned beers and done my best to avoid them altogether (Guinness being the sole exception). So when I first saw Wild Onion’s Pumpkin Ale at the store, I quickly turned up my nose at the display of six packs and rolled my eyes at its whimsical can design. Didn’t they know I was now a sophisticated beer drinker? Alas, my snobbish ways nearly made me miss out on a great beer. If you love pumpkin flavor, you won’t be disappointed by Wild Onion, which pours a deep, dark brown and brings a spicy and rich pumpkin pie taste. Quite a find.

Dogfish Head Punkin Ale
We bought a pack of this back in mid-September and drank through it rather quickly, though I held onto the last bottle and kept it in my fridge for about a month. Going back to it after trying all the other brands listed here, I was surprised at how bold and spicy it tasted. Next to Hoppin Frog, no other beer brought the flavors of brown sugar and spices like Dogfish Head. A surprisingly thick pour with a creamy texture and strong taste, Punkin Ale goes down smooth and will leave you looking forward to your next bottle.

Blue Moon Harvest Moon Pumpkin Ale
Harvest Moon is surely the most widely brewed and distributed pumpkin beer that we tried, but that’s no reason to write it off. It’s a little on the bland side, with a light pumpkin taste that’ll probably disappoint hardcore seasonal beer fans, but like the original Blue Moon, I found it to be an above-average, enjoyable beer. As much as I hate using the word, it’s very drinkable. And as it only appears to be sold in packs of 12, that’s more important than it sounds.

Post Road Pumpkin Ale
Pours a pleasant dark amber. With a mild vegetable taste and a hard-to-detect aroma (at least in the batch we had), Post Road is a reliable, although somewhat unexciting, pumpkin beer. There’s nothing wrong with it, but when the narrow window for pumpkin beers opens once again next September, we’ll probably seek out and revisit at least a half dozen brands before coming back to this one. Seems to have its fans online, so I definitely do want to give it another shot in the future.

Jolly Pumpkin La Parcela No. 1 Pumpkin Ale
The most expensive pumpkin ale that I tried this year. Also, my least favorite, by far. Very mild pumpkin flavor that’s strongly overcome by a sparkly Champagne taste/feel that leaves everything feeling watered down and sour. Comes in a large bottle that I couldn’t finish. What I’m trying to say is, this probably isn’t your father’s beer, even if he was a hip dude into microbrews. Not recommended, but there are probably plenty of beer aficionados out there who genuinely like this sort of thing and could tell me why I’m wrong about it.

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