Deficiencies peek out from behind ‘Miracle Mask’

Layton coverToday’s profile: Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask
Publisher: Nintendo
System: Nintendo 3DS
ESRB rating: E10+ (suitable for everyone ages 10 and up)

For those of you who are still procrastinating on getting a gift for the gamer in your life, I’ve got a great suggestion: Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask!

Yes, you knew this was coming — particularly because, well, this, this and this — and here it is.

But for this latest Layton series game, which was released Oct. 28, I’ll skip my unofficial tradition of recounting how insane I went trying to get the game on release day (mostly because I didn’t go as nuts this time around). I will say, however, that a certain store advertised it in its circular, I rushed to said store and got there before it opened, and there was one other customer actually trying to find the game along with me because it wasn’t out on the shelves, so we had to bug two separate sales associates, and the store had only 5 in stock, and WE SNAGGED TWO OF THEM.

In Miracle Mask, the titular professor Hershel Layton once again receives a letter from an old friend, this time from one Angela Ledore, whom he hasn’t heard from in many years. She talks about a personage calling himself the Masked Gentleman — and he does indeed wear one — who is terrorizing the desert oasis of Monte d’Or, a Las Vegas-type city that her husband, Henry, helped build from scratch into a haven of glitz and glamour in a mere 18 years. Angela, who was like a sister to Layton in his youth, asks the professor to investigate before these actions destroy the town.

74075_Animation_01_13_The Gentleman has been performing what he terms “dark miracles” — events that include the apparent transformation of people into horses, a cage full of Monte d’Or residents going up in flames but with those same people later found at home unharmed, and paintings suddenly coming to life with their subjects running out into the streets and wreaking injurious havoc. But what really clinches things for Layton is the mention of the Gentleman pulling off these stunts with the power of something called the Mask of Chaos — a relic from an ancient civilization and one that has a very personal connection to the professor.

Miracle Mask is the second prequel game, coming after Last Specter and before the animated movie Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva. Layton’s assistant from Last Specter, Emmy Altava, returns here along with his self-appointed apprentice, Luke Triton.

withi durin n the first 15 minutes you’re already treated to a bevy of new controls and animation
because you now have to essentially double-tap to find coins, it’s difficult to keep the magnifying glass in the same place
the space to input your answers is now on the touch screen
It makes for some extra work as you need to tap the arrow to pull up the text of the puzzle, but it’s also handy to be able to write down answers as you might think of them
controls take a bit of time getting used to. i kept tapping the suitcase when i wanted to move, as the move “shoe” icon was located there in previous games.

To envision this in 3-D, please print out this image, cut out the figures and hold them slightly above the background. Crinkle for texture.Within the first 15 minutes of the game, you’re treated to a bevy of new controls and animation. In-game characters are now drawn in 3-D (without needing to use the 3DS’s built-in ability), and although it’s strange at first, it grows on you soon enough. Most cut scenes are still done in the old 2-D style, but some scenes using the 3-D figures do come later in the game. They’re well done and the characters move as fluidly as in the regular 2-D animation, though they still give a sense of being slightly stiff marionettes.

Moving around town is a bit simpler. Instead of a Shoe icon as in previous games, a map of your current location and adjacent areas appears on the 3DS’s touch screen. Places you can move to are marked as orange dots; touch the desired dot to move there, and the location will show up on the upper screen. In this way, you move through Monte d’Or.

However, exploring is a little more complicated than before. Along with the familiar Trunk icon on the touch screen is a magnifying glass, which is the Investigation icon. To check around an area, first you must tap that magnifying glass to enter Investigation mode, which causes a corresponding glass to appear on the upper screen. Instead of tapping madly, you now slide the stylus on the touch screen to move the magnifying glass over the area. The glass will turn orange when you land on something of interest; tapping on it then reveals a person with something to say (and very likely with a puzzle to throw your way); a distinct feature of the town, with commentary from Layton, Emmy and Luke (and all three of them WILL comment); a hidden puzzle or treasure; or a hint coin.

Sometimes the glass will turn blue, denoting a place to zoom into. Zooming in uncovers deeper areas, along with more people and treasures.

Adding to the complexity: Locations now extend beyond the dimensions of the 3DS’s physical screen, so you need to move all around while in Investigation mode to see everything possible. This could prove slightly dizzying if you’re like me, wiggling the magnifying glass all over everything to try to find every nook and cranny where the glass might turn orange or blue and reveal secret items.

The controls do take some getting used to. Because of the disconnect between the movement of the magnifying glass and your control of it, and because of the lag the 3DS has in responding to stylus movements, it can be hard to home in on points of interest if, like me, you slide the thing around rapidly and keep passing over the precise point where the glass turns orange. You now have to double-tap to grab hint coins, and it’s difficult to keep the magnifying glass in the same place to do so. I also kept accidentally tapping the Trunk icon when I wanted to move to another area, as the Shoe icon was located in that spot in previous games.

Yes, there's a puzzle involving Layton's hat. There always is. Luke's hat? Never. But Layton? Every single game.Then there are the puzzles themselves. The mandatory, zero-picarat “puzzles” that must be solved to advance the game make a reappearance — mostly in the form of multiple-choice questions as Layton and the police are dissecting the Masked Gentleman’s “miracles” — and there is no loss if you don’t quite solve it the first time around. Other puzzles are standard Layton franchise fare, and none (that I’ve found so far) take advantage of the console’s 3-D ability. What they have added are mostly aesthetics: The puzzle and the space to input your answer will be on the touchscreen, and some kind of animation will often be on the upper screen — such as little statues of cats jumping over each other when trying to clear a board of all but one statue, or pizza slices flipping upside down and right side up as you try to get the entire pizza facing the correct way up.

Because of this, the text of the puzzle is hidden, though you can easily pull it up again by tapping on the arrow to make it appear on whichever screen you choose. It makes for a little extra work, but it’s also handy to be able to write down answers as you might think of them.

But similar to investigating areas, there’s a disconnect in the controls in some puzzles, such as one in which you must guide a ladybug around a corncob that has had pathways “eaten” into the corn. The corn and ladybug appear on the upper screen, while on the touch screen there is a “dial” that rotates 360 degrees and that is used to direct the ladybug’s movements. Again, the lag in reaction time means you often find yourself smacking the bug against a wall of corn or missing the intersection you wanted to take. It’s a good thing running into corn is harmless in this case, as opposed to, say, trying to maneuver the bug around a maze atop lava and trying not to fall off the edge into the lava below.

Silly rabbit, tricks are for kiGAH LOOK OUT FOR THAT TREEAnd, of course, there are the usual mini games found in the Professor’s Trunk. This time, you have to train a lazy rabbit to perform actions in stories on stage so the circus ringmaster will allow him back into the circus. (After awhile, your rabbit becomes your hint-coin-finding helper, appearing every so often to warn you of coins that you missed in a particular scene. However, the rodent’s more useless than animals in previous games because all it does is pop up in the corner and doesn’t point out the exact location of the coin.) Another is a robot game in which you must guide a toy robot to land on a goal while avoiding enemies. The last is the one I had the most fun with: a shop game in which you arrange items on the shelves in such a way that the customer will be enticed into buying out the entire stock in one fell swoop. Successfully complete the mini games to unlock more difficult puzzles in the Bonus section.

But the most fascinating part of “Miracle Mask” is the Ruins Mode, which is more of an action-adventure that’s easier to play using the D-pad and buttons. The Ruins are an integral part of the game, so without giving too much away, I will say that the first few rooms offer a tutorial into how to make your way through the Ruins, although the first room you come across with an obvious solution to veteran adventurers is painful as you watch Layton go through the motions of being at first unable to solve it.

Ruins Mode is where the game really gets exciting because it’s so different from the usual puzzles. (Plus, those mummies are actually kind of scary. My heart was pounding when they closed in on me as I tried desperately to run to safety.) The concept is simple: Each room has a mixture of enemies, obstacles, switches and rocks, and you must use some things and avoid others to get to the door at the other end of the room to advance. Hint coins are occasionally buried in the ground, marked quite obviously by a glowing yellow light.

The Ruins are also a turning point in the story, when you discover exactly what happened that affected Layton — and indeed his entire life — so drastically.

In this scene, Luke gets in some needed "point with conviction and purpose!" training, foreshadowing his meeting with Phoenix Wright and Maya Fey in "Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney." (Or not.)And ah, the story. Perhaps I’m getting a bit desensitized to the plot lines in the Layton series, but in this regard the series seems to be failing. While uncovering the secrets within Monte d’Or is certainly engrossing, the denouement is more of a disappointment now than in previous games. Instead, they seem to be focusing on the larger, overarching story — if you recall the end of Last Specter, you know there’s something bigger going on, and the end of Miracle Mask advances that.

It’s really the promise of how everything comes together in what’s supposed to cap this second Layton trilogy that’s making me look forward to the sixth game — no longer is the prospect of solving more brain teasers as much of a draw as it was when I first discovered this series. In fact, I haven’t downloaded a single daily puzzle — oh yes, there are daily, rather than weekly, downloadable puzzles in Miracle Mask — nor have I been as eager to go back and find all the hidden puzzles and solve all the 80-picarat brain-busters. I haven’t even been tempted to enter the secret code from Last Specter to unlock the mystery goodies. The difficulty of the puzzles seems to be ramped up in this game — I probably used more hint coins in this game than the previous five combined — which might also explain my dampened enthusiasm for unlocking all of them.

Overall, I still enjoy the series. The great interactions between Layton, Emmy and Luke, the dialogue of other characters, and the excellent voice acting make “Miracle Mask” another worthy addition. But the series also seems to be wearing out its welcome. (For one thing, just how many depressing things can we believe the professor’s gone through without snapping?) The fan in me is more than a little ready to move on after the sixth game … or perhaps to Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney, Capcom? Level-5? Just a suggestion.

Specter of disappointment loomed large

As the scheduled October release date approaches for the fifth game in the much-heralded “Professor Layton” series, subtitled “Miracle Mask,” let us have a little retrospective on the previous game, “Professor Layton and the Last Specter” for the Nintendo DS.

I think every time a new game in the “Layton” series comes out, I also hit a new low in terms of desperation and sanity loss.

lastspecter_coverFor “Last Specter,” I actually started an intermittent countdown to its release date on my Twitter feed. The only reason it was intermittent was because the surrounding days also happened to be chock full of personal stuff that prevented my fangirl mind from drooling over the impending “Layton” release every second.

Two nights before the scheduled release, my mind slowly started whirring. Very slowly, because the aforementioned personal stuff was still in full swing and still taking up the majority of my brain power. But apparently my hysteria takes an amazingly short time to spool up to sky-high levels, as evidenced by the fact that I was already trolling the website of the particular store that I bowled into last year to get the previous “Layton” game, hoping to find that store’s new Sunday ad to check if they’d have the game on the day of release. Keep in mind that I was frantically trying to get this information on Saturday night. I figured that hey, it was already midnight on the East Coast by this time, surely the latest flyer would be posted!

I found the ad and rapidly flipped through the digital pages. Much to my disappointment, the game was not listed. I then decided to check certain other likely stores’ websites, hoping for a glimmer of hope in once again getting the game two hours earlier, as with what happened with “Unwound Future.” Still nothing. My despair was growing.

Being that “Last Specter” was released nearly a year ago, I can no longer remember the exact sequence of events that led up to me eventually getting the game in my hands on the afternoon of the release date — which, as tag-team-partner-in-fandom Jason Y. tells me, was a moving target, with the date having been changed several times. I do not remember any of that, so I can no longer write about it. Which is probably just as well, considering the already pathetic state of my mind as evidenced by previous paragraphs. I do remember that Jason managed to snag me a copy on the morning of release at a certain big-box store that we never thought about checking originally, which hopefully means that I have more options this year for getting “Miracle Mask” early in the morning. I cannot remember how my feverish fangirl self managed to survive that ENTIRE MORNING knowing that “Last Specter” was available on the mainland but might very well not exist here on our little island in the Pacific. I can only barely remember reading the instruction book and then popping the game in my Nintendo DS.

So anyway. “Last Specter” is the first of a prequel trilogy to the “Professor Layton” games in which we see how the good professor and his young apprentice Luke first met. The game opens with Layton at his office at Gressenheller University, where he receives a certain letter that causes him to drop everything and rush out — although not, of course, without first having a spot of tea freshly brewed by his housekeeper, Rosa.

As Layton drives away, he runs into — or more appropriately, is chased down by — a young woman named Emmy Altava, who was hired by the dean to be the professor’s new assistant. He has Emmy read the letter, which is from his old friend Clark Triton, the mayor of the town of Misthallery. The town is being destroyed by a mysterious giant, and Clark asks his friend to investigate. But there’s also a hidden message in the letter that makes Layton think there’s much more going on. Emmy accompanies him to Misthallery and they meet with Clark.
Something dastardly is happening in the town of Misthallery, and Mayor Clark Triton asks his old friend Layton and the professor's assistant Emmy to investigate. --Courtesy GamesPress
The mayor is glad to see Layton, but he denies sending the letter that brought the professor into town. Eventually they discover that Clark’s son, Luke, was the one who sent the message. The boy has become somewhat of a recluse since the specter arrived; he desperately needs to talk someone to about the incidents, which is why he enlisted Layton’s help. Turns out that Luke is able to predict the specter’s attacks, and according to his calculations, one is scheduled that night. Layton, Emmy and Luke hurry off to the North Ely part of town to uncover what they can about this destructive giant.

“Last Specter” has all the familiar aspects. Anyone who’s played previous games will immediately fall into the well-worn routine of tapping madly around each scene to find hint coins. It was worse for me in this game after I discovered that the availability of hint coins within each screen is triggered by certain events — not all the hint coins will be there the first time you visit, so it will take several visits to grab all the coins in one scene. This causes some funny breaks in the storyline:

  • “Oh, there’s the door. Let’s knock!” — But first, let me tap around for hint coins.
  • “Look, there’s a bell on the counter. Let’s ring it and see what happens!” — Yeah, after I tap around for hint coins.
  • “Come on, we need to hurry to North Ely before the specter appears!” — Wait, I have to tap around for hint coins!

Again, “Last Specter” includes some improvements over the previous game — or perhaps “twists” is a better word. Characters once again move animatedly onscreen in the same manner I noticed in “Unwound Future,” but now the environment itself is much more interactive — signs at a rope bridge tilt or twist when you tap on them, mailboxes open and shut, sunlight fades in and out of a shady forest, a woman’s luggage falls off a cart. (I tried to tap on that last one to replace it on the wagon after being alarmed by its unexpected falling-off, but to no avail.)

Lead a tiny kitty out of a maze by tempting her with fresh fish. You'll see the cat run up to each fish and gobble it up. --Courtesy GamesPressSome of the puzzles are more dynamic, as well. One brain teaser requiring you to fill buckets at water fountains shows the containers being filled and makes splashing noises when you trace your path near the fountains. Another, in which you must lead a cat out of a maze by using fish as bait, shows the tiny kitty running to each fish and quickly devouring it until nothing but bones are left.

Something else new are mandatory puzzles that, unlike regular ones that are preceded by the well-known “Puzzle!” marker, are introduced with the “Layton” logo and are built directly into the storyline without necessarily having to initiate conversation with a villager. They must be solved to advance the story, but are worth zero picarats and are usually more interactive than normal puzzles.

One thing I’m not particularly pleased with is the increase in the number of puzzles that require you to rotate pieces before putting them into place. As I noted in “Unwound Future,” the game and/or touch screen isn’t often sensitive enough, or perhaps it’s too picky — a lot of times I found myself rotating a piece when I wanted to slide it into place, and vice versa, causing a lot of frustration.

One neat new feature is you can now move around the shoe and suitcase icons to wherever you want them to sit on the screen. Now left-handers will no longer have to bear the indignity of blocking their screens when moving to tap on the respective icons. Although a caveat is the location of hint coins — you might inadvertently be obstructing your way to a coin by moving the icons, so I choose to leave them in their default placements.

Another thing that’s been changed — at least after you solve a certain small number of puzzles — is the screen that comes up after you input your answer, in which you see one of the game’s characters reacting to whether your answer was correct. It’s now a kind of sliding puzzle rather than showing the person’s plain expression, so you can’t tell which way your answer is going until the last second. It’s not something that matters much in the long run, but it was nice to have a little more forewarning as to whether you’ll be doing the puzzle again.

The conversation that comes up when tapping items is also kind of annoying — the dialogue appears the first time you tap on something when you enter a screen, no matter HOW many times you’ve visited the screen before — but I guess it’s slightly less irritating than previous games, which would bring up the same dialogue EVERY SINGLE TIME you tapped a particular item.

But the biggest change is the fact that “Last Specter” is not just one game. It’s TWO games: Included on the same DS card is a role-playing game called “London Life.”

As a fan of “Layton,” I was, of course, drawn to “Last Specter” for the simple fact that it was another game in the series. The addition of “London Life” was just a bonus for me, aside from the usual in-game secrets to find and mini games to complete and weekly downloadable puzzles. And as I am generally an anti-spoiler person, I didn’t try to look up any details of what this “London Life” was supposed to encompass, although the title alone is pretty much a dead giveaway.

The first 'request' you'll get is to talk to your new landlady, Ingrid, outside the house you'll soon be living in.And “dead” is certainly what it sounds like. Despite my determination to not follow news of the game, I couldn’t help but pick up bits and pieces. It seemed as though the RPG consists mainly of Layton and Luke walking around and, well, doing everyday stuff. Now while this might sound like an incredibly dull premise, one must remember the wild success of Nintendo’s “Animal Crossing” — a game in which all you do is gather fruit and lumber and whatnot, ride the train, visit friends in neighboring towns, comb for seashells and fossils, all in the name of stashing up cash to buy cute stuff to decorate your home. In other words, Life.

“London Life” sets the tone for cuteness and a bit of surprise, with one introductory screen cautioning of the tiny populace, clothing, and plants within, and another warning: “This game is played with the Control Pad and buttons. Put away your stylus!” It was a concept that admittedly was rather foreign on the touch-screen DS, as I kept tapping the screen intermittently during the character creation portion to make my choices. I quickly got the hang of this strange “D-pad and buttons only” scheme, however, and I was on my way to picking various appearance and personality traits and playing some ordinary, brown-haired, punk-styling female with a sweet tooth in Little London.

You’ll meet some familiar characters — Sammy the rock-n-rolling conductor and the Molentary Express from “Diabolical Box” are the first you’ll encounter — along with plenty of ordinary townspeople.

I got a kick out of seeing what stuff is available for you to do in this game, just by checking out your stats in the menu. Among other things are counters for Flowers Picked and Fish Caught, and options for the (rather mysterious) Livelihood and Newspaper (both of which are locked at the beginning of the game but I’m sure will be made clear later).

One of the first jobs you can do for money is picking up litter around the town. Someone's gotta do it, I guess.Aside from that, this really does start off as “Life.” Check all your surroundings by simply going up to an item and pressing A, and you’ll get descriptions that are funny in their ordinary-ness. You go around completing “requests” that the townspeople give, which start off pretty mundane at the beginning: The first “request” you get is to see your new landlady, who then gives you another “request” to register your address at City Hall, and then “requests” that you visit the department store. It’s not all worthless, at least: All these manini tasks add to your Happiness score.

One extremely useful control to remember: Press the B button while walking to walk faster. It will relieve most of the boredom that comes from strolling about Little London when you want your promenade to be more brisk than leisurely.

It’s all somehow entertaining in its simplicity and stupidity. At one point I put my DS to sleep and recounted to my ever-patient fiance the first few moments of life in Little London, with these constant and rather silly “requests” that aren’t really anything such.

“See,” my fiance responded. “I told you it was going to be a quest-based game. And you keep doing them again and again, so they’re ‘re-quests’!”

My fiance is one of the kings of bad puns.

Don’t knock “London Life,” though. I found it strangely addicting, but it’s perhaps because I have an affliction for exploring and discovering things, as Nintendo’s “Legend of Zelda” series has ingrained in me. Echoes of the DS game “Hotel Dusk” (which I previously reviewed) by the late, lamented Cing are here as well, with the silly descriptons of plants, furniture, and other ordinary objects almost as fun to read as Kyle Hyde’s comments are in “Hotel Dusk.”

Overall, though? There’s a reason why this review is coming nearly a year after “Last Specter” was released. There was just something about the game’s story that didn’t hold my attention as much as previous ones. The first “Layton” game, “Curious Village,” certainly set the series’ precedent for off-the-wall explanations, but I was already tired of that implausibility by the second game, “Diabolical Box.” The secret behind this game’s titular specter could be seen from a mile away, although the secrets beyond THAT were a little more engaging, at least.

Still, I’m a fan and I fully intend to immerse myself in the next game, “Miracle Mask.” I’m interested in seeing how they incorporate 3-D into the puzzles, if at all. At the same time, I’m hoping that 3-D won’t be essential in too many of them, given how easily it strains the eyes, and when a puzzle stumps me, I can be staring at the screen for hours.

And, of course, here’s hoping that I’ll actually find a copy of the game on the scheduled release date of Oct. 28.

Feasting on ramen, “Oishinbo” style

There’s a fascination with delving into the nitty-gritty of everyday things and realizing that what you may take to be simple, uncomplicated things often actually requires a lot of thought and work. It’s especially intriguing with something you’re a fan of or that you particularly enjoy.
And so enters the manga “Oishinbo: Ramen & Gyoza.”
eagerly drink up
In Japan, the manga “Oishinbo” clocks in at a whopping 100-plus volumes, and it’s still going.
because of the way viz decided to bring out this series in the U.S. — taking stories from different parts of the entire manga and compiling them into volumes by subject — this manga is something that needs to be enjoyed carefully and digested slowly.
Numerous notes at the back of the book explain the (vagrancies, quirks) of not only Japanese cuisine but the Japanese culture. While such notes are becoming more common, I really have to give props to Viz for also including numbers on the majority of its pages. Many other manga released in the U.S. lack this basic feature, which makes it very difficult to figure out what page the notes refer to.
There’s a fascination with delving into the nitty-gritty of everyday things and realizing that what you may take to be simple, uncomplicated things often actually requires a lot of thought and work. As someone whose ramen feastings are either prepackaged instant noodles or steaming bowls brought to the table that are immediately devoured, I certainly had no little thought left for the care that goes into just the creation of the raw noodles.
I love ramen, but that love is mostly limited to either prepackaged instant noodles at home or steaming bowls brought to the restaurant table that are immediately devoured — forget about all the meticulous work that went into making the noodles perfect or the char siu tender or the broth not too salty.
If you’re not already familiar with many of the basic noodle dishes or common ingredients served in Japan or China, the terminology might cause your eyes to cross as you keep flipping back and forth to the end notes for their descriptions. Most of us in Hawaii have been immersed in Japanese culture one way or another from small-kid time without realizing it, so things like miso and nori are everyday items here that need no explanation.

(Jason’s note: The monthly Manga Movable Feast virtual gathering of manga bloggers usually celebrates series and artists. This month, though, the Feast, hosted by Khursten Santos over at Otaku Champloo, is hewing a bit closer to its name and celebrating … food. Or, to be more specific, Oishinbo and other food manga. With that in mind, here’s our contribution to this month’s potluck.)

There’s a fascination with delving into the nitty-gritty of everyday things and realizing that what you may take to be simple and uncomplicated often actually requires a lot of thought and work. It’s especially intriguing with something that you particularly enjoy.

And so enters Oishinbo, a manga written by Tetsu Kariya and drawn by Akira Hanasaki that’s been serialized in the pages of Big Comic Spirits since 1983. The story follows Shiro Yamaoka, a journalist with the Tozai Times and a serious foodie who’s been tasked by his editor to come up with the “Ultimate Menu” as part of the newspaper’s 100th anniversary. The meal is meant to embody the pinnacle of Japanese cuisine, so Yamaoka and his partner, Yuko Kurita, set out to discover the best of the best.

oishinbo ramenThe books being released in the U.S. by Viz are actually only a small part of the entire Oishinbo series. There are more than 100 volumes in Japanese, so rather than taking a chance with a relatively niche subject and publishing as is, Viz has instead taken highlights from the overall story and compiled them into so-called “a la carte” editions on one topic. And the particular one that caught my eye was the Oishinbo: Ramen & Gyoza volume.

I do love ramen, and in fact I’ll urge my ever-patient fiance to out-of-the-way places to try a shop that I’ve been told has good stuff. (And by the time I finished this review, my keyboard just barely managed to escape the destructive slobber of a stomach made ravenous for hot noodles topped with tender char siu and crunchy menma and garnished with green onions and … I’m going to have to stop there. My keyboards have come much too close to destruction lately.) But with those ramen feastings consisting of either prepackaged instant noodles or steaming bowls brought to the table that are immediately devoured, I certainly have far more interest in the delectable finished product before me and have little thought left for the care that goes into the individual elements.

But that very enjoyment is also what leads me to appreciate the detail that “Ramen & Gyoza” goes into regarding the many factors — including the science! — that can influence the taste and texture of each ingredient and, therefore, the entire product as well. Despite the title, the book centers on ramen and has just one story on gyoza, although, like an Iron Chef episode, that story is just as dramatic and insightful as the others.

Because of the way Viz decided to publish the series, readers miss things like people’s introductions and backgrounds, interactions and story progression. However, because the manga is episodic, brief descriptions of the characters and a synopsis of the overall story at the beginning are sufficient enough to grasp the plot. The only part that needs explanation — which is given in the numerous notes at the back of the book — is the sudden declaration of Yuko being out on maternity leave and the situation surrounding that.

Those notes also explain the intricacies of not only Japanese cuisine but the Japanese culture. So if you’re not already familiar with many of the basic noodle dishes or common ingredients served in Japan or China, the terminology might cause your eyes to cross as you keep flipping back and forth to the end notes. Most of us in Hawaii have been immersed in Japanese culture one way or another from childhood without realizing it, so things like miso, nori and even the Obon festival are well-known here and need no explanation. Aside from that, the notes aren’t required reading, but do give more background for those interested.

While such commentaries are becoming more widespread, what I really have to give props to Viz for is including numbers on the majority of its pages. Many other manga released in the U.S. lack this basic feature, which makes it very difficult to figure out what page the notes refer to.

One thing that remains obvious despite the omissions is Yamaoka’s advocacy of pure, natural ingredients and farming methods to make healthier, better-tasting food. This focus on organic methods — with all the assertions made by both Yamaoka and his father, Yuzan — isn’t annoyingly preachy and definitely opens your eyes to all the additives and shortcuts that go into making food these days that you don’t realize, and that may not necessarily be great for your health.

The characters are likable enough, and there’s enough conflict among all involved as well as non-food plot to keep things interesting. Yamaoka’s humorous stubbornness is clear throughout, and we see the hint of the romance starting between him and Yuko. Still, the main draw of Oishinbo is the depth at which they explore food and the discerning palates of Yamaoka and his cohorts. The series isn’t geared toward gourmets so it’s easy to follow along and doesn’t make you feel like a food fool. Oishinbo is a manga that is ultimately thoroughly enjoyable.

“Ace Attorney,” the review: Turnabout perception

Ace Attorney theatrical posterIt makes sense that the person emotionally closest to a particular subject is both the best and worst person to write about it, whether it be a eulogy or a movie review.

So the argument applies when I leaped at the chance to review the movie Gyakuten Saiban, based on Capcom’s video game of the same name that was released in the U.S. as Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney for the Nintendo DS. In case the analogy isn’t clear, I am a fan of the game, which is why I allowed myself two viewings of the movie — renamed Ace Attorney for U.S. audiences — before I was ready to render my verdict.

Sometime in the future, crime is so rampant that a new judicial system has been instituted: Prosecutors and defense attorneys go head-to-head in trials that last a maximum of three days and in which solid, physical evidence is the key to getting a “guilty” or “not guilty” verdict. Enter newbie defense attorney Phoenix Wright, who is under the tutelage of lawyer Mia Fey and whom we meet as he is getting trounced in his first trial, which is being held in a backwater courtroom that is apparently the headquarters of the janitorial staff. With Mia’s last-minute help, Phoenix wins the trial and saves his client, childhood friend Larry Butz, who has a knack for getting into trouble.

Phoenix doesn’t have time to savor his victory, though: Mia is murdered in their law office not long afterward, and accused of the killing is her younger sister, Maya, who happened to be there that fatal night. Phoenix takes up Maya’s defense and discovers that Mia was close to a breakthrough in an old case — and that something just might have been what got her killed.

When Maya goes to trial, Phoenix has another blast from the past when he ends up facing the young, infamous prosecutor Miles Edgeworth. As pointed out by other defense attorneys and even by Edgeworth’s role model Manfred von Karma, the young man will go to any lengths to speed up the trial and get a guilty verdict. Phoenix will need to be on top of his game to defend against the shady tactics that Edgeworth will be certain to throw his way.

Hiroki Narimiya as Phoenix WrightThe movie’s visuals play well to the envisioned crime-ridden future, with a mostly desaturated, slightly off-color look that mingles at times with bright colors, giving it a post-apocalyptic feel despite the outlandish costumes and hairstyles. The use of screens projected in midair to show evidence in court is another nice futuristic touch.

The subtitles use the English names of the characters rather than the original Japanese, so those who haven’t played the games before and are listening carefully to the spoken dialogue might be thrown off by hearing, for example, “Haine Koutarou” instead of “Yanni Yogi,” “Naruhodou” instead of “Phoenix” and “Chihiro” instead of “Mia.” Some errors also make their way into the subtitles in the preview version of the movie — the word “prosecution” is used at one point when it obviously should be “defense,” and typos like “trail” instead of “trial” pop up. Whether the actual movie has these errors remains to be seen.

Those who’ve played Ace Attorney the game will appreciate the cameos of familiar characters, the re-creation of the courthouse, and the parodies that Phoenix’s first trial makes of the game’s courtroom antics.

Let me first speak as a fan and previous player of the Ace Attorney game: I was highly disappointed with the movie upon initial viewing. The characters’ personalities don’t seem to have been captured very well, and in the filmmakers’ attempts to do so, they were instead reduced to ridiculous caricatures of their game selves — as silly as that may sound, considering the game personas were already caricatures themselves. Phoenix is even more of a bumbling incompetent, with his “cornered” expressions making him seem as though he has a bad case of constipation, and it’s painful to watch what feels like interminably long periods in which he’s in a jam and trying to figure out what to do. His composure is on the meek side, with a slight hunch as he approaches the judge or witnesses or when laying out his deductions.

While I’m sure such acting is meant to portray that Phoenix is indeed green when it comes to courtroom trials, it’s his burgeoning confidence and stature as he closes in on the truth of the case that originally made him such a powerful character in the games.

Takumi Saito as Miles EdgeworthThe prosecutors, interestingly enough, go the opposite direction. Von Karma comes off as far, far too much of a father figure, while Edgeworth is simply cold and unfeeling. Both their movie portrayals miss the full extent of the calculating ruthlessness with which they approach their trials and use to crush the opposition into quivering puddles.

Meanwhile, in the movie’s worst turnabout, Redd White’s flamboyant, blinged-out, purple-and-pink game character is now a long-haired druggie type who looks like he just crawled out of the sewers. And the development of bungling police detective Dick Gumshoe is almost completely overlooked, so the devotion he shows for Edgeworth comes across as odd.

A big part of this disappointment is the fact that the very silliness that made the game so fun and the characters so memorable simply cannot be translated well into live action, partially given the laws of physics and partially because of the unwelcome intrusion of realism. In a game, you KNOW you’re in for crazy facial expressions, impossible body movements, over-the-top reactions and such. But when you put the stamp of reality on it, you expect realism — and that eliminates half the enjoyment of the original game. The characters’ signature actions just can’t be pulled off with any plausibility, and much of the comic relief is lacking and instead comes in unexpected, scattered bits that seem to have been tossed in randomly.

However, after a second viewing, Ace Attorney played out better, partly because I began appreciating more how the movie managed to squeeze so much background into so little time — two out of the game’s four interconnected cases are focused on while the other two are stripped down to pretty much the announcement of their verdicts — but also because I tried to rid myself of any preconceptions and see the movie from a non-fan’s eyes. I stopped trying to identify who was who and stopped trying to compare them to the game.

But I also have to admit that it was better mainly because familiarity breeds a kind of liking, and so I was no longer surprised by what I originally saw as the movie’s flaws.

What will a non-fan notice first? The silliness, that’s for certain — the confetti and the exaggerated audience reactions. Possibly the painfully long times when Phoenix displays his constipated countenance. Some scenes that are a few seconds too long (do we really need to focus on the parrot for such a length of time?) and the lack of much logic to the defense’s investigations.

Otherwise, if one can get past the video game absurdity and instead focus on the mystery behind the cases, then this becomes an engrossing court drama. You find yourself sweating bullets as much as if you were in the defendant’s chair or in Phoenix’s shoes — after, of course, suspending disbelief enough to allow for some of the more eccentric witnesses and their behaviors. Some aspects of the game’s original story are changed for a more dramatic turn, but the revelations behind each crime are still just as tragic.

The one thing I could not get over, no matter what mindset I was in, was the feeling of, “What, you mean there’s still MORE to this movie??” about three-fourths of the way through. Ace Attorney weaves in and out of the cases, slowly connects the dots and then finally reaches a climax in court — or so it seems. Once you realize this isn’t the end of things, not by a long shot, there’s almost a sinking feeling. Rather than a happy surprise that there’s more to discover, the new revelations and yet another trial are rude interlopers that crash in from out of the blue, especially after the particularly heartbreaking scenes that come just before it.

But again, that’s speaking from the view of someone who already knows the story, and the impact of that foreknowledge can never be completely eliminated. The main thing that appeased my mind on this point was a growing interest, upon subsequent views, in dissecting exactly how the filmmakers played out this part of the story. (I’ve watched the film about 3.5 times now. And yes, I’m still going to see it in the theater. I’ve already bought tickets.)

Overall, as both an adaptation and a stand-alone movie, Ace Attorney isn’t bad. It does a good job of recreating in live action a game universe that for the most part just can’t really be done in the real world. As much as I loved the game, it’s not something I’d want to put myself through again. The finding of evidence, the tension of trying to detect contradictions in testimony, the thrill of discovering how the pieces fit — that’s something that can truly be experienced only once. The Ace Attorney movie, however, is something that the fan in me is thoroughly willing to immerse in time and time again.

Ace Attorney screens as part of the Hawaii International Film Festival Spring Showcase at 7 p.m. Saturday and noon Sunday at the Regal Dole Cannery Stadium 18 Theatres. For more information or to buy tickets, visit www.hiff.org.

[Kawaii Kon 2012] Panel discussions: Horikawa, Miya and Amano

“Meet Ryo Horikawa and Kenichi Miya”

Putting your heart and spirit into whatever role you play is key to a good voice actor, Japanese actor Ryo Horikawa emphasized.

It’s that same heart that allows him to differentiate which American voice actors are good. “It’s about knowing the character, giving life to the character,” Horikawa said.

Kawaii Kon marks Horikawa’s first visit to Hawaii, along with fellow seiyuu (voice actor) Kenichi Miya. The two shared a panel on Friday, talking about their careers, their inspirations and the industry in general. That’s Miya on the left, Horikawa on the right.

miya_horikawa

With decades of voice acting under his belt, Horikawa now runs a school for aspiring seiyuu. When asked whether it’s better for an actor to have a wide range of voices or to concentrate on one role, “It’s hard to say,” he replied. “There are those who can do multiple and are good and there are those who are known for one voice.” What’s most important, he said, is to “enhance what you’re good at no matter what type you are.”

Concentration is another key aspect to what Horikawa does. Because he’s played so many different characters over the years, he said he has to completely ignore all his other roles when he goes to voice another one. “It was challenging to play Vegeta at the same time I played a very justice-driven character with a baby face,” he said through translator Sachi Kaaihue, that latter description likely referring to Reinhard von Lohengramm from Legend of the Galactic Heroes.

As for Miya, he’s a student at Horikawa’s school and said that meeting Horikawa-sensei and coming to Hawaii are the defining moments of his career.

Not that Horikawa seems to regard himself as such. Despite the noteworthy roles he’s played — he’s most well-known as the voice of the angry Vegeta in Dragon Ball Z, but he’s also done Heiji Hattori in Case Closed and Andromeda Shun in Saint Seiya — he downplayed it when Kaaihue called him “sensei” when introducing him at the start of the panel.

It’s probably because Horikawa regards himself as an eternal student, always looking ahead to the next role. When asked about his own defining moment, he said he loved all the characters he played. “The most important thing for me is to feel the new power inside,” he said, adding that he constantly wants a challenge, so he looks forward to the next job that could very well be the best of his career.

In fact, his latest role is one that he’s quite excited about. He has both a voice and a production role in Magical Dreamers, a new type of manga coming out for iOS and Android devices. Not only is it bilingual, it’s also interactive, with voices as well as printed text. (Jason will have more from that panel later.)

Both Horikawa and Miya said they enjoy their careers for the different lives in which they can immerse themselves. For Horikawa, the character of Vegeta is an excuse for him to yell all the time. “It makes me feel fun and excited. … I’m usually not like that in real life,” he said.

Miya is the same. He gets to go on adventures, go to war, and have relationships with the ladies — things that, he said through a translator, he probably would never get to experience in real life. (I’d argue against “relationships” being included in the “things Miya will not experience” list, though.)

But no matter what that next role might be, whether it be a teenage boy or an angry alien or something completely different, Horikawa’s up for the challenge. He’s pushing the e-manga as well as working to make his voice acting school truly international, so he’s still got a lot more on his plate.

“Face to Face: Yoshitaka Amano”

The same passion for his work can be found in Yoshitaka Amano. Wearing a just-purchased aloha shirt, the artist and character designer described how the vast majority of his artistic inspiration actually came from American sources.

He was a huge fan of Disney characters, he said, having grown up watching the cartoons. In the 1970s, when he was in his 20s, he was influenced by American pop artists such as Andy Warhol, and also by American psychedelic art. He was working in anime at the time, and those influences made their way into his character designs.

amano

Amano likes every character he draws — or at least he tries to, he said. Like Horikawa, he immerses himself into the person being drawn. “Even if it’s a bad guy or girl, there’s always something appealing,” he said through a translator. He really becomes the person, to the point where, if it’s a scary character, he said, he tends to become a little scary in real life.

But, he hastened to add, he usually forgets most of it after he’s done, so fans can be assured that Amano won’t stay a scary evil guy forever.

Still, Amano apparently better enjoys drawing the bad guys. Actually, he specifically said he enjoys doing the “cool” designs, which most often turn out to be the bad guys. He cited the vampire hunter D as an example of a design he’s proud of.

And in a declaration that warms my fangirl heart, Amano said that out of all the Final Fantasy games he’s worked on, he loved FF6 the most, although he couldn’t say exactly why that was so. In admitting that for the most part he likes easy, “comfortable” drawings because there’s less pressure involved, he pointed to FF6’s Moogle and Tina (called Terra in the English version of the game) as favorites.

But even with all the fame he’s accrued, Amano said he always harbored doubts as to the quality of his work. Did people like his art for itself, or did people like it because they enjoyed the game, anime, or other product that it was associated with? This was one main reason he said he stepped away from character design and went into the fine arts, which comprises about 90 percent of his work now. He’s even held a few museum exhibits of his artwork. All of what he described as “getting outside his small box” served to challenge his talent by having viewers focus on his art rather than the game or animated series.

Amano advises other artists to be the same way. For example, when designing a dragon, he said, we are influenced by what others have drawn before. But he “tries to interpret what’s in (my) own mind,” he said. “If you do that, you can be very different in drawing. Being different is important.”

Another key piece of advice: Love what you do. “Then you will work hard and if people don’t recognize you, you will still be satisfied,” he said.

Then in a complete 180, Amano gave this last piece of advice: Don’t listen to his advice. When asked what kind of counsel he’s received from other artists, he said he neither received any nor gave much to others. Which is good, he said, “because (I) learned to come up with (my) own ideas.” He finished: “Think for yourself. … Keep inspiration close to your heart.”

“Ponyo” off a cliff

ponyo_posterWith Studio Ghibli’s latest film to be released in America, The Secret World of Arrietty, breaking box-office records for Ghibli films, I’m reminded of director Hayao Miyazaki’s 2009 film, Ponyo, Ghibli’s former top-grossing champion.

Being that Miyazaki is a perennial favorite of mine and my fiance, we had eagerly attended the early preview screening of Ponyo in Ward Theaters with high hopes. Afterward, however, we came out feeling, “…Huh?”

Admittedly, we went in with absolutely no knowledge of anything about the movie aside from the fact that it was done by Miyazaki and that its original English name when advertised in Japan was “Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea.” The house lights went black, the familiar Totoro logo of Studio Ghibli came up, and then … we seemed to stray into some other world — a fantasy world, granted, but it was something that decidedly was not Miyazaki.

For those who don’t know the storyline, Ponyo is about a boy named Sosuke who discovers a strange ocean creature whom he names Ponyo, who has the body of a fish but the head of girl. Ponyo in her ocean homeland was always a curious girl, which is how she ended up stranded ashore to be found by Sosuke. After coming into contact with humans, Ponyo longs to be one of them, but her wizard father, Fujimoto, refuses to let her go. The clash between father and daughter eventually causes the oceans to swallow the land and threatens to destroy Sosuke’s world, and Fujimoto is forced to give in — and risk having his daughter learn of the pain of rejection, unless Sosuke can pass a test that Ponyo’s mother, the goddess of mercy, crafts for him.

Sosuke and Ponyo. (Photo courtesy Nibariki-GNDHDDT)
Sosuke and Ponyo prepare for their magical boat ride. (Photo courtesy Nibariki-GNDHDDT)

The opening scenes used a simplistic animation that I would expect of a PBS toddler’s cartoon. The bright multitude of colors used to illustrate the fanciful undersea creatures gave even more credence to this impression.

Once we hit land, it seemed the old Miyazaki was back, with carefully detailed homes and cliffs and landscapes similar to another of his films, Kiki’s Delivery Service — but for only a moment. Then again we reverted back, and again the animation was very different from his previous films, with many of the backgrounds seemingly done with colored pencils, creating a soft, ethereal atmosphere that nevertheless seemed far less magical than the more solid scenery that normally dominates his films.

The one thing that did remain throughout was Miyazaki’s penchant for realistic movements and his attention to the small things that people do. The way Sosuke carefully crawled under the gate, making sure not to drop the bucket holding Ponyo; the way Sosuke’s mom Lisa unlocked the house door and hauled in the groceries after her; the way Fujimoto carefully protected and poured the life-giving elixirs — they weren’t the movements of everyday cartoon characters given motion by an animator bent merely on making them do one thing as fast as possible as smoothly as possible, but rather by a master artist skilled at depicting the many actions that one simple maneuver by a human often requires.

Sosuke's dad, Koichi, is often busy at sea and can't visit his wife and son as much as he'd like. (Courtesy Nibariki-GNDHDDT)
Sosuke's dad, Koichi, is often busy at sea and can't visit his wife and son as much as he'd like. (Courtesy Nibariki-GNDHDDT)

Still, in many ways, “simple” was the theme of the movie. Unlike the numerous trials that Miyazaki’s past heroes and heroines had to endure, all Sosuke had to do was proclaim his love for Ponyo and his willingness to accept her for who she was — an extremely easy thing for a 5-year-old to promise without understanding the full import of his words. And then came the goddess’ simple declaration that “The balance of nature is restored!” and now we’ll all go live happily ever after — never mind the floodwaters that are still covering the town and that don’t seem to have any inclination to go away any time soon.

All of this combined to create such an anticlimactic ending that both I and my movie-going companion were struck dumb.

This may be a kids’ movie, but even children enjoy experiencing the awe of something as impressive as a water goddess’ magic restoring the land to what it was — an oft-used ending that may be cheesy and cliched to us adults but is usually pretty awesome-looking on the big screen, especially in the hands of an animator such as Miyazaki. And unfortunately, such a climactic scene didn’t happen in this movie.

Gran Mamare, the goddess of mercy, visits with Fujimoto to talk about Ponyo. (Courtesy Nibariki-GNDHDDT)
Gran Mamare, the goddess of mercy, visits with Fujimoto to talk about Ponyo. (Courtesy Nibariki-GNDHDDT)

But I came into Ponyo having certain expectations. And contrary to those expectations, there was no epic struggle, there was no character-building transformation. The usual moral message was there — sort of — but then was never followed up on and then fizzled out. In the end, there was just a selfish fish-girl whose longing to stay with the first human she came in contact with was such that she didn’t care whom she hurt in the process, leading to the destruction of an entire town. She’s the bratty child who ended up getting her way through manipulation and tantrums. After all is said and done, does Ponyo realize what her actions caused? Does she care?

For that matter, does ANYONE care? Lisa’s nonchalant acceptance of: 1. a girl who appears out of nowhere; 2. her son’s crazy-sounding explanation of how this girl came to be; and 3. the aforementioned girl’s equally crazy-sounding description of her parents and home is so unbelievable that one can’t help but think that Lisa’s missing a few screws. Face it, no one is THAT magnanimous. How can you not be at the least annoyed at this girl whose single-minded desire endangered not only, oh, your entire town, friends, and all you hold dear, not to mention your sailor husband whose fate out on the stormy high seas is unknown? “Annoyed” would probably be the BEST of my reactions.

Maybe I’m just being too much of an adult. Too much of a Western adult, who craves some kind of logic and resolution and closure. But even that aside, even after suspending disbelief, Ponyo just wasn’t up to Miyazaki’s par.

As a children’s fairytale, Ponyo did deliver. Perhaps that’s what it was meant to be all along. But as a Miyazaki film…somehow, it was missing his usual magic.

A somewhat expected turnabout

Sorry, we haven't been given any promotional still for this movie yet, so you'll just have to settle for this box art from the original game.As some of you may know, I am a big fan of the “Ace Attorney” video game series, called “Gyakuten Saiban” in the original Japanese. So when news of a live-action “Gyakuten Saiban” movie came out, I jumped on it. Thanks to tag-team partner in fandom Jason Y., I found and watched a subtitled trailer several times (not several dozen, I admit — there’s only so much drool that my keyboard can tolerate), feeling the chicken skin rising with every second. I tweeted like a madwoman every time fresh bits of news about the movie would come to light. Various conversations Jason and I later had led me to hope beyond hope that the esteemed Hawaii International Film Festival would be bringing in the movie.

Turns out HIFF did one better: Not only are they indeed screening the movie, but according to their latest eNews newsletter, it’s going to be shown at their Spring Showcase! A previous brief Twitter exchange between me and whoever runs the HIFF feed (Christopher Hall, I believe?) had already escalated my anticipation of such, so you can perhaps imagine the intense squeeing that this confirmation elicited from me (though silently and only in chat with Jason, due to me being in a place at the time that would not exactly be thrilled with loud whoops of ecstasy). The exact date and time has yet to be announced, but because the Showcase takes place April 13-19, that means “Gyakuten Saiban” will be playing almost TWO MONTHS BEFORE the other major event that’s also sewn up the movie, AMC2 in California! (And you would not believe how much I cursed at the thought of being so close yet so far to what was then the first and only announced U.S. showing!) I could barely contain the glee as I immediately tweeted the news out.

So, assuming that no other convention or festival snags screenings rights before April, this would make the HIFF Spring Showcase the U.S. premiere of “Gyakuten Saiban”! How’s that for a feather in HIFF’s cap? (Maybe I’m just being biased.)

I’ve already blocked out all possible days available to see this movie, I’ve warned my quite understanding fiance, and my HIFF membership’s been locked down, so I’m armed and ready for when HIFF announces that rare date. I WILL be there, oh yes, I WILL BE THERE.