Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Blood on the Tracks 1 and 2 by Shuzo Oshimi

* Blood on the Tracks ! by Shuzo Oshimi

Seiichi is a normal young man with a very protective mother, Seiko. He doesn't have many friends and his cousins frequently come over to spend time with him. They call to his attention his mother's history of being overbearing and he also has errant memories of finding a dead kitten in the road with his mother. Everything seems fairly normal until a family trip goes horribly wrong.

Blood on the Tracks is horror, but a more quiet, domestic type of horror than I'm used to reading in manga. For much of the book, nothing seems overtly wrong. There is an sinister undercurrent to the whole thing, but it's hard to point to something wrong. On the surface, Seiko is just a concerned mom who is a little clingy for her son's age. Looking closer, there are some things that could be a coincidence or could be something wrong: Seiko going to Seiichi's classes every day to keep an eye on him and constantly inviting his cousins over so he can't invite any friends. Maybe she's just worried or values family, but it also looks like she can't be away from him for long and wants to prevent him from making any true friends. The ending of the story culminates in a devastating event. The art around it plays with time, elongating the sequence unnatural and focusing tightly on expressions. Once the devastating event happens, Seiko's true nature becomes clear. 

I'm so excited to read more of this series. Horror manga are usually involve ghosts, conspiracies, or large world changing events. This small scale horror is done so well and feels earth shattering. The casual fanservice panels of women's bodies are absent here, which is incredibly refreshing. I see it so often, it seems to be a convention of the genre and it's nice to have the focus on the story instead of titillating the audience. The art style is much more delicate style than usual. The first pages in color are absolutely beautiful, done in a watercolor style with muted colors. Even the black and white panels have a keen attention to detail. 

My rating: 4.5/5

* Blood on the Tracks 2 by Shuzo Oshimi 

* spoilers for book 1* 

After Seiko pushes Seiichi's cousin off a cliff, Seiichi is completely in shock. Seiko acts like it was a tragic accident and Seiichi is too traumatized to say otherwise. They are questioned by police and follow the cousin to the hospital, all the while acting as concerned family and Seiko lying through her teeth. Then, Seiichi's crush shows up at their house, leading to another bombshell from Seiko.

Blood on the Tracks impressed with the first volume and surpassed that with the second volume. It's all about Seiichi's emotional journey trying to understand his mother's horrific actions, struggling with his own role in her lies, and coping with her new bombshell. This whole volume is about Seiichi holding it together as best he can. The close ups and elongation of scenes do a wonderful job of showing his internal struggle and true feelings he tries to keep inside to save his mother. After a girl who has a crush on him leaves a letter stating she'd like to be his girlfriend, his mother reveals a deeper level of obsession and control. 

I'm eager for the next volume to see how far the horror goes. The art is exquisite and as detailed and beautiful as the first volume. I feel so much for Seiichi under the thumb of his abusive, suffocating mother. This volume truly focuses on the psychological horror and effects on Seiichi which Seiko manipulates and pretends like everything is ok. I'm very interested in the story's developments.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

Monday, October 5, 2020

Possessor (2020)

Tasya Vos appears to have a normal life with an adorable son and an ex-husband who still loves her. In reality, she is a highly paid assassin with access to advanced technology that can insert her mind into another's and overtake it to kill her target. Over time, this practice has changed her mind, causing her to have intrusive violent thoughts in her own body and lose control over the host mind. Her latest job has her eventually trapped in a man's mind, unable to return to her own body.

I had no expectation going in beyond the eerie and beautiful imagery shown in the trailer and Possessor blew me away. The world building is immersive and different than many other science fiction films. Besides the tech industry and the secret assassin organization, the world feels the same as the present. Both companies we see feel like stepping into another world compared to Tasya's mundane, familiar home life. The visual style is so dreamlike, abstract, and colorful. The controversial sex scene with Tasya in a man's body and his girlfriend visually conveys gender dysphoria in a way I haven't seen before. 

Tasya is an exceptional assassin that shows a perfect fa├žade to the world. It's as beautiful as it is fake, shown by her practicing mundane phrases to sound suitably interested and normal to her family. She carries this same practice into her job, learning how her future hosts speak to the people around them, their inflections and tone, to keep living their lives undetected until she kills. Her sense of self unravels while her mundane life seems to feel empty, only holding her back.

Only two of her assassinations are shown, but they are memorable. The first has her living in the body of a Black woman, brutally stabbing her target to death (not according to plan), and being killed by police. This sci-fi blackface and portraying death so like those we see in the news frequently is a poor choice especially when the scene is only used for attention-getting shock value and no other deeper commentary. This is my only real problem with the film. 

The second assassination is even more brutal as the mediocre white man she inhabits is fighting her control over him and making the target (his girlfriend's admittedly horrible dad) suffer as much as possible on top of killing his girlfriend. While this reflects intimate partner violence that happens frequently, these characters and their story are the focus of a good section of the film. The deep rage over feeling inferior to his girlfriend and her wealthy father was enough to overtake Tasya's control to destroy them. It says volumes about toxic masculinity and misogyny.

Possessor takes a futuristic concept and jumps right in. The rituals and regulations around the assassination method feels well developed, like we're only seeing a piece of a greater whole. I was hooked on each twist and turn of the film and the ending truly surprised me. Possessor is a huge step forward from Antiviral (despite the flaw) and I look forward to more films from Brandon Cronenberg. 

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Friday, October 2, 2020

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor La Valle

* major spoilers for The Horror at Red Hook and The Ballad of Black Tom*

Charles Thomas Tester lives in Harlem with his disabled father in the 1920's. While he could destroy his body doing honest construction like his father, the racist standards of pay and hiring practices simply don't appeal to him. He opts to do more covert, esoteric work in the hidden industry of magic that offers more risk and more reward. One day, he delivers a tome to an old woman for a large amount of money, but tears out the last page, rendering the whole thing useless. This simple act of sabotage doesn't technically violate any rules or agreements, but it exposes him to the scrutiny of both corrupt law enforcement and an even more ambitious sorcerer.

The Ballad of Black Tom is a retelling of Lovecraft's most appallingly racist short story, The Horror at Red Hook. In the original story, Malone investigates the sorcerer Suydam and witnessed unknowable horrors, human sacrifices, and the man's corpse reanimate. This is placed alongside the most dehumanizing, monstrous descriptions of people of color you will ever read. The Ballad of Black Tom, on the other hand, places a Black man at the center of the story instead of a cop and views this same population more as it was. This story is better than the original in every possible way from prose and characters to plot developments and conclusion.

Charles Thomas Tester navigates his world deftly, knowing when to look unaware or foolish to be underestimated and when to show his true intelligence. The strategy doesn't always work and he's often at the mercy whatever mood white men around him are in. Police are corrupt and only serve to protect the tender feelings of white people at the expense of black and brown lives. When Charles is forced to stay in Suydam's house overnight, the police kill his father over the complaint of the old woman with the missing page. They describe the murder so nonchalantly and then mock him for not being more upset. At every turn, Charles is at the mercy of the white men around him who can change their mind whenever they want and expect him to comply. If he doesn't, his life is expendable to them. 

The second section of the book is narrated by Malone, the original protagonist. He is not as virtuous here and shows the casual racism of the time (and of the present) on full display. The most egregious moment is when a white woman complains about a nearby tenement populated by people of color. She hysterically describes them as threatening and calls on him to protect her daughter (who cried over hurting herself). He soothes her and invades the tenement, where the climax of the story occurs. Malone also has a minor supernatural sight that shows him things ignored by others. He's been obsessed with the occult for years, which ultimately leads to his downfall. His ending is deserved.

Previously, he had posed as a street musician with a limited repertoire and a subpar singing voice to obtain jobs. His father taught him a powerful song before he died that he sang many times throughout the course of the novel, most notably for hours and hours after his father's death to absorb the loss in an uncaring world. The song comes back when he seems to be a mindless servant to Suydam, but turns around and murders him with the weapon his father gave him. In addition, he opens the portal for Cthulhu and becomes the monster white people see him as. The book ends with eyelidless Malone seeing the monstrosity looking down at him from the sky, unable to ever work as a cop again and with no hope of anyone sharing his knowledge, and Charles questioning his decision to unleash the monster on the world. Malone's fate is deserved and Charles was able to wield power in way he was never able to in the nonmagical world to get revenge for himself and his father. I don't blame him at all and find his actions justified.

The Ballad of Black Tom improves upon The Horror at Red Hook exponentially. It shows New York in the 20's closer to as it was with immigrants forced into slums and attacked just for existing instead of through an idealized, white lens as we usually see it. This very short book packs a punch and transforms a damaging piece of literature into one that portrays the injustice and pain people of color still experience today alongside amazing cosmic horror.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

Thursday, October 1, 2020

The Stylist (2020)

Claire, a lonely hair stylist, works day after day in her salon. Once in a while, she will choose a customer whose life compels her (and the circumstances are right) to kill and take their scalp for her collection. When Olivia, a long time client, asks her to do her hair for her wedding after her original stylist abruptly canceled, something snaps within her and her deadly urges spin out of control.

I absolutely loved The Stylist short film and I was super excited to hear about it being lengthened into a feature film. Najarra Townshend reprises her role as Claire and infuses the character with sympathy. Claire is incredibly lonely. She has no friends or family, only acquaintances at work and at the coffee shop she frequents. The scalpings and murders seem to be driven by her need to pretend to be other people, those who have secret affairs, husbands, children, and the lengthy list of things she doesn't have. Anxiety and self loathing follows every social interaction over every word she says or outfit she wears. The self loathing in particular tracks with her ritual around pretending to be others in their scalps. These feelings also contribute to obsession with Olivia who is everything she isn't, social and bubbly. It's refreshing to see that Olivia doesn't have the perfect life yet Claire wants it anyway because it's different. 

One person pays attention to her, the barista she sees every day, but Claire doesn't acknowledge her or seem to realize the potential for some sort of relationship is right in front of her. She has to chase things that aren't hers, as is repeated throughout the film. When she spend more time with the bride to be and her family and friends, Claire starts to kill with greater frequency and much more recklessly. Then she tries to stop killing all together and finally throws herself into it once again. It was interesting to see such an emotional, relatable portrayal of a lonely person with anxiety alongside the typical behavior of a serial killer.

The Stylist expands upon the short film pretty well. It lost me a little bit in the third act before the ending. I felt it dragged  and could have benefited from editing out some sequences. For instance, there were several repetitions of her waking up days in a row that simply wasn't needed. Also if a director is going to insert themselves obviously into the film, it usually comes off a bit cheesy as it did here. Other than that, this film does a wonderful job crawling into the psyche of deranged yet familiar character.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins