Season 1 of U___

This post’s fill-in-the-blank title (given the “season” clue that we’re talking about television shows) might refer to any of at least three series, all coincidentally from Amazon Prime studios. In fact it refers to all three, although this post is only about two because I already wrote about Upload. As it turns out, I liked it best of the three U___ shows.

The other two are Undone and Utopia (the new one). I’d tried the former last year but wasn’t grabbed. This time I liked it better and binge-watched the whole season. The latter was dark and very murder-y. Both of them were… okay. I don’t quite recommend either, though.

What I do recommend (highly!) is the anime movie, Penguin Highway.

Undone is an Amazon Prime Original series that premiered back in 2019. As is common these days, there is a season arc and a series arc, so the season ends with a cliffhanger. The good news is the show is renewed for a second season.

The production uses the digital rotoscoping technique used in the movies Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006). Both movies, and this series, tell surreal stories; the rotoscoping gives them a surreal look. It’s both eerily real with implicit detail, yet at the same time unreal and cartoonish. (It also makes some special effects cheaper because the rotoscoping can easily hide things.)

The story revolves around Alma Winograd-Diaz (Rosa Salazar), daughter of Camila  Diaz (Constance Marie), sister of Becca (Angelique Cabral). Her father, Jacob Winograd (Bob Odenkirk) died in an auto accident one Halloween night when Alma was a kid.

When the story begins, Alma works at a daycare center and has a boyfriend, Sam, who lives with her. She is loved by those who know her, but Alma suffers from ennui and discontent. She’s never happy with anything. She does have some reason for her feelings, and she may be suffering from depression. But she can be alienating to those who love her.

Alma in the hospital (dead dad only she can see in background).

The first episode starts with Alma driving fast and recklessly, crying and yelling. (We later learn she created a scene at her sister’s wedding.) She speeds through stop signs and stop lights, barely avoiding a crash. Then she sees a vision of her dead father standing in the road and loses control of the car. She crashes; loses consciousness.

She wakes in the hospital, seeing visions of her father (who wants her help in solving his murder), and embarks upon a strange and mystical journey. Her father’s death isn’t what anyone (including him) expected.

That fateful Halloween night when her dad died.

I give the show a strong Eh! rating. It was interesting enough to keep me engaged, and I kinda like the rotoscope look. It’s appropriate for the material. I didn’t much take to Alma, though. She’s a typical modern character — driven, self-centered, impatient, often prickly. I guess people find that interesting. I don’t particularly.

With only eight 23-minute episodes, season one isn’t much of an investment. It was easy to binge. I’ll definitely watch the second season.

§ §

That won’t be possible with Utopia (2020) because it’s already cancelled. Amazon seems quite willing to pull the plug on shows, so one should avoid getting attached too soon. Be warned this season ends with a even bigger cliffhanger (that will never be resolved).

The series is adapted from a 2013–2014 British series with the same name and basic plot. (There is an unrelated American series from 2014 and an unrelated Australian series that ran from 2014–2019.

It’s a dark and murder-y story. Children are killed. A number of characters I assumed would persist get killed early. One was especially surprising; someone I believed was part of the main cast. All the more reason not to get attached.

Almost oddly, the show isn’t based on a comic or graphic novel (so many shows today seem to be). However it is about a group of comic book fanatics and their love of a comic, Dystopia, which a small group of them believes contains messages about deadly viruses that have affected humankind in recent history (SARS, Ebola, Zika, etc). For years they’ve anticipated a sequel, Utopia.

Fans and believers of the Utopia comic (one gets killed early).

The story begins when a husband and wife inherit a relative’s house and discover he was a hoarder. Going through massive piles of stuff, they discover the original artwork for Utopia. Once they discover what they have, with great ado, they put it up for private bidding at a comics convention.

This triggers a series of murderous events because that small group was right and there is a lot more going on. We very quickly find out that Kevin Christie (John Cusack), the supposedly benevolent CEO of an international company, has evil plans to create a utopia by ending over-population.

These plans involve first convincing the world there is a deadly virus sweeping through the USA — one that seems to affect mostly children. (Of course he’s behind that virus. It’s being spread via rabbits in a traveling petting zoo.) Then he’ll offer a vaccine that, despite FDA regulations, the public will clamor for. They will insist their children get that vaccine. (Although, as we’ve seen, that’s not a given in America.)

John Cusack (the evil Mr. Rabbit) is such a great evil villain!

The thing is, the vaccine contains a genetic bomb that will end childbearing for three generations. The intent is to seriously reduce the world population and give humanity a fresh start.

Unfortunately, the show is about a viral outbreak and a suspect vaccine, which was pretty bad timing given COVID-19. That may account for why the show did badly enough to get cancelled.

Or it might be because it was kind of stupid in places. I found myself shaking my head a lot at it. Parts of it were engaging, but overall I have to give it a low Eh! or even a Meh! rating. Plus we’ll never know how it ends.

§ §

Penguin Highway is a magical delight, a breath of fresh air. There are no villains (just one fairly harmless child bully), no gun battles, no fist fights (just some kids tussling), no deaths, and no gore. It’s something of a coming-of-age story, but it’s also a science fiction fantasy.

It began as a 2010 novel by Tomihiko Morimi. It was serialized as a three-volume seinen manga in 2018–2019. At roughly the same time it was made into a full-length anime feature film (running time is 118 minutes).

Aoyama and “the Lady” riding a flock of flying penguins.

I had seen it listed on Amazon Prime, but neither the name, the title graphic, nor the description, grabbed me. Then I was looking for information about a Serbian anime I’d watched, Technotise: Edit & I (2009), and stumbled over one of those “25 Best Anime Films Ever” lists. Penguin Highway was high up on that list.

Since every other film that I recognized on that list was a gem, I decided to give Penguin Highway a chance. I’m really glad I did. It’s the most delightful, whimsical, upbeat, creative magical fantasy I’ve seen in a long time.

I give it two thumbs up and a strong recommendation. I’ll even give it a Wow! rating with the mild caveat that it’s a dessert more than a full meal.

In a small Japanese suburb, Aoyama encounters… penguins?

The main character is Aoyama, a precocious ten-year-old boy with an urbane and intelligent father who has instilled and encouraged a love of scientific investigation in his young son. Aoyama has a big interest in science, boobs (the geometry of), and the Lady, a woman who works at his dentist’s office. The Lady has become a friend and chess coach.

One day Aoyama and his friend, Uchida, see a flock of penguins in a field. It turns out that penguins are appearing all over the town. Many of them seem to be going somewhere (following a “penguin highway”). Aoyama and Uchida try to follow them, but lose them in the forest.

Then Aoyama has an encounter with the class bully and pals in which they deface his map of penguin sightings and leave him tied to a vending machine. The Lady was nearby watching (but she never interferes with children). She frees him, they talk, and Aoyama comes to discover that the Lady is creating the penguins (but doesn’t know why).

Uchida, Aoyama, and Hamamoto studying the “Ocean” sphere.

Following the penguin trail through the forest, Aoyama and Uchida encounter a vast open meadow, and — very much to their surprise — find classmate Hamamoto investigating her own mystery, a giant sphere of water hovering a few feet above the meadow. She refers to it as the “ocean.”

Distracted by this other mystery, Aoyama joins Hamamoto in studying the sphere. They spend several days observing it and trying various tests. They can’t approach too closely because, when they do, the sphere extends pointed arms towards them, and they fear contact from those arms. (Rightfully so, as it turns out.)

They create a probe, but the probe and its line are sucked into the sphere and vanish. Then the Lady shows up, and they begin to discover that the ocean sphere, the penguins, and the Lady, are all part of one mystery.

Follow those penguins!

Later the sphere is discovered and the government moves in. Unfortunately they’re not as careful, and a team that includes Hamamoto’s meteorologist father is sucked into the sphere and vanishes like the kids’ probe did. (But this is an upbeat positive film, and they are later recovered.)

The sphere is a problem — a flaw, so to speak — and the Lady, who isn’t human, is the solution. So are the penguins (who do most of the work).

I enjoyed this on every level, and I’m sure I’ll watch it again to pick up the small details. The animation itself, especially the backgrounds, was gorgeous. I noticed the music, too. Some of the percussive tracks were so tasty I rewound to hear it again.

The story logic is a bit dream-like; things just are the way they are. It presents somewhat as science fiction, but I think plays better as magical realism. For some reason I was reminded, in story tone, of the old George Herriman comic Krazy Kat. Not visually, but in how the story plays. The surreal whimsy seems similar somehow.

§ §

In contrast, and very briefly, I also watched Fafner in the Azure: Heaven and Earth (2010), an anime film that’s part of a Japanese mecha anime franchise. I have to give it a resounding Meh! but that might be at least in part to having just been blown away by Penguin Highway (a hard act to follow). I’d also had three of these by then and was getting sleepy.

Long ago I enjoyed the Mobile Suit Gundam series, and I’ve thought I might get into watching the many modern versions. But watching Fafner made me think I might have moved beyond the notion of people piloting giant humanoid vehicles (why humanoid?) and often having giant fist fights.

Overall the thing to me had a Jonny-Quest-meets-JLA kind of feel. It has the richness of character Japanese anime usually has, but it was still a bit too young for my taste. Bottom line, I wouldn’t take my rating too seriously. It may be a matter of taste and malt.

§ §

So now I’m waiting for season two of Upload and Undone. And Invincible, although I’m not entirely down with that one (so dark and murder-y).

Funny we still call them “seasons” — some have switched to calling each group a “series” (which is confusing, since that term can refer to multiple “seasons”). But except for the dying broadcast TV, there aren’t “seasons” anymore.

Stay seasoned, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

22 responses to “Season 1 of U___

  • Anonymole

    I applaud your ability to write words, sentences even, about a show you didn’t like. I’d have just gone: Do Not Watch, and be done with it.

    Upload, so season N+1 kaput? It took some doing, the tech and such, but I got into it. Slinging around multi-terabyte images of dead loved ones only goes to show how selfish we are. Then again, why the hell not? William Shatner’s image will live forever, or as long as there are viewers for his visage. VisageViewers.

    Will add penguins to my list.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Ha! Writing about stuff I didn’t care for can almost be more fun. Venting! (I enjoyed trashing Sabrina!) And a blog post provides some degree of payback for having sat through something. (If I’m watching and start taking notes… it’s caught my attention one way or the other. There will be a blog post…)

      Upload will have a season two. I’m glad; I liked it. I liked it more the first time I saw it — I gave it a provisional Wow! rating — but after re-watching it I think a strong Ah! rating is better. (FWIW, I think graveyards show how selfish we are. It’ll be ashes in the ocean for me.)

      William Shatner is one of a small list of Hollywood people I wish I could meet at length or be friends with. (Steve Martin tops that list.) As Kirk he was kind of a childhood god to me, but gods turn out to have clay feet. But then he redeemed himself in my eyes, and I came full circle. He seems to have turned into an interesting human being. At the 50-year mark I decided I was over Star Trek but I still think his Denny Crane on Boston Legal is my favorite Shatner role. “Denny Crane!” 😀

      Definitely add Penguins!

  • Wyrd Smythe

    It’s been over seven hours since the post published, and it still hasn’t shown up in the Reader. Apparently WP doesn’t have online chat help anymore; email only, and apparently they don’t work on Saturday? 😡

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    On getting it to show in the Reader, try unpublishing one of your last ten posts and republishing it. Historically that’s done it for me.

    I didn’t care that much for the chat support, but it would be a bummer if they only respond M-F now.

    So much of sci-fi anime has mecha. It seems like an indelible trope for them. I don’t mind it that much as long as it’s just part of the technological landscape. That was the case with Aldnoah.zero and Knights of Sidonia. Even the original Gundam series didn’t focus too much on the mecha. I could see myself getting bored very quickly if I ran into a series that did.

    I’ve never heard of Penguin Highway. Might have to check it out at some point.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      The novel apparently won the Japan Science Fiction Grand Prize (whatever that is), and the film won an award too. Rotten Tomatoes gives it 100% (critics) and 74% (audience). I sure enjoyed it, but our tastes do vary a little wrt stories. (The less glowing audience reviews on RT found it colorful but shallow or vague. I mentioned in the post I saw it as “dessert” and “dream like” but I had a strong positive reaction to it and rather like that mode of Japanese storytelling.)

      What do you mean by unpublishing? Changing the Status to Draft?

      I wouldn’t take much from my reaction to Fafner. It had a really hard act to follow, and I was a little bit sheeted at that point. Some of my earliest anime experience was with Mobile Suit; I haven’t given up on it, although I am leaning away from anime that centers on battles. I kinda got my fill of that from Fairy Tail. The battles would run on for over a dozen exhausting episodes in which the heroes always got their asses seriously kicked before finally rallying. Usually the winning just took serious determination along with a full appreciation of the value of being part of a team of friends.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        It’s been a while since I had to do it. I think switching it to draft mode would do it. It should make it disappear from your RSS feed. Then when you publish it again, that triggers a specific type of event that causes the Reader to update from your feed. (At least that’s what support told me a while back.) The Reader will eventually do it on its own, but it may take days.

        The Japanese do like their extended fight scenes. There are a bunch of them in both anime and manga. And I recall long fight scenes in the Japanese martial arts movies I used to see on cable TV. Nearly the last 20 episodes of Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood is a day of battle (with lots of individual fights lasting several episodes). Some of the fights in the Battle Angel Alita: Last Order manga go on for several chapters (with each chapter being like 30-40 pages). I tend to quickly turn through those in manga. It can work in anime if they have good music. But yeah, often I’m just ready for the plot to move on. I stay away from the shows that are explicitly about fighting.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Ha! Also wow! That worked instantly, thanks! I just used Quick Edit to change the Status to Draft, saved it, and then changed it right back to Published. Now the post shows up in the Reader. Yay! Good trick to know.

        Fairy Tail was exactly the way you describe others. Battles that go on forever with multi-episode arcs for individuals. Every time a major battle began I thought, “Oh, here we go again.” At the same time, weirdly, it never really felt like padding. It always seemed to fit the narrative.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        If done well, the extended fight scenes can be extremely satisfying when they finally conclude. Often there have been one or more false conclusions to the fight and the real one feels like a major accomplishment. FAB actually has several fights against the same antagonists which keep ending inconclusively before the final battle, where it sometimes manages to make you feel sorry for the antagonist in their final moment.

        Fairy Tail comes up on a lot of recommendation lists. It’s just so long. (I have the same reaction to One Piece, among others.) Hundreds of episode, even in 20 minute chunks, is a lot.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        It took me a few years to get through Fairy Tail but part of that is watching it in streaks. I’d get tired of it and not watch for a while until I was in the mood again. It is quite a commitment. I’m doing mostly anime films at the moment (when I’m in the mood for anime).

        Totally agree about the fight scene structure. Definitely a feel-good moment when it finally ends, although some of that is sheer relief the darn thing is finally over. 🙂

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Last night I watched the first season of the British version of Utopia, which is the original version. As mentioned in the post, the story — almost unusually these days — is not based on a graphic novel, even though it’s (sort of) about a graphic novel.

    The Amazon Prime remake has some interesting changes although other parts follow along very closely. The one (and only) Amazon season is roughly parallel to the first season of the British original. The Amazon show got cancelled, but there is another season for the British version.

    The British version is about as murder-y as the American one, although the body count in the American one is (not surprisingly) definitely higher.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Watched the second season of the British original, and I like it better than the Amazon Prime remake. More texture and depth, and a more involved story. Still dark AF and very murdery-y, though. The character “Arby” is the best part of either version, but the UK Arby is better, too.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Watched Trigun: Badlands Rumble the other night and enjoyed it enough to add the (one season) series to my watchlist.

    It’s an interesting premise. Basically an SF western. An expert gun-fighter (with a pacifism ethic) has a sixty-billion dollar ransom on his head for an incident in his past (one he can’t remember). It has a lightness of heart that I enjoyed. The main character, Vash, is a lot of fun.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Deca-Dence was kinda cute. High action, but a nice whimsy and some interesting art. Only 12 half-hour episodes, so it’s easy to binge, and the single season appears to be a complete story.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Added the Gun X Sword series (2005) to my Hulu Watchlist and watched the first episode (to see if I wanted to keep it on my Watchlist, and I do).

    It’s another sci-fi western format, pretty dark and violent, not (so far) cute or whimsical. It does feature mobile armor and shape-shifting swords, so it’s fantastical SF. One season, 26 episodes, apparently an original and complete story.

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