Book Review: The Return of George Washington 1783-1789

Book Review: The Return of George Washington 1783-1789 by Edward J. Larson

Disclaimer:  I received this book through the Goodreads giveaway program on the premise that I would review it.   My copy is an Advance Reader’s Edition, and changes will be made in the final version, including an index and more illustrations.

The Return of George Washington 1783-1789

George Washington, “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” has had a great number of books written about him.  However, most of them are general biographies of his entire life, or focus on his two most active periods, being Commander in Chief of the American revolutionary forces, and being the United States of America’s first president.  This book covers the period between those two, when Washington was trying to retire to his day job as a farm owner and landlord.

As one might expect, Washington being away in the war for eight years had done Mount Vernon no favors, and there was much to set right.  In addition, land that he owned in the west was either mismanaged or infested with squatters.  For these personal reasons, and because he feared that the newly settled lands might pull away from the new republic unless there were good communication routes, Washington sponsored building a navigable waterway up the Potomac River.

Unfortunately for George, it quickly became apparent that the Articles of Confederation weren’t a sufficient framework to run the new country on.  The Continental Congress couldn’t pay its bills, including the back pay of the Revolutionary Army, because the individual states didn’t want to give them any money.  And the Articles didn’t allow them to force payment.  (Kind of like how certain countries are perennially behind on their dues to the United Nations in the modern day.)

Bad money policy led to hyperinflation in some states, while too strict a money squeeze in Massachusetts led to Shays’ Rebellion when debtors could not get relief.

So a convention was called to fix some of the problems with the government–only to have it taken over by those who felt a wholesale overhaul and a new constitution was the only way to go forward.  Washington was reluctantly called forward to chair the convention and give it the public gravitas it needed to be taken seriously.

The convention adopted a strict rule of secrecy as to its proceedings, and Mr. Washington took this very seriously, not writing any of the details in his diary or personal letters.  As he seldom spoke on the floor, what was going through his head, and what backroom conversations Washington might have been having are mostly unknown to us.

Still, the convention came up with an innovative three-part federal government with checks and balances built in.  Not everyone liked all the compromises made, but as a process for amendment was included, it was sent to the states, who mostly voted for ratification.

The problem for Washington at that point was that the new Constitution called for a strong central executive, the President.  And there was just one man the Federalists trusted to be the first, Washington himself.  So he spent the first Presidential campaign not running for office, but desperately trying to get on with his personal life before it was wrested away by his country again.

There’s an epilogue which briefly covers the Presidential years and Washington’s later life.  There is a long endnotes section and several black and white illustrations.

Mind you, this story isn’t all good news.  George Washington, like everyone else, had his flaws.  The most pressing one is that he was a slaveowner, one of the biggest in Virginia.   He seems to have been ambivalent on the subject of slavery, regretting its “necessity” but always finding it economically unfeasible to do without buying more slaves, and only making good on his promise to free his personal slaves in his will…with the actual freedom to be after Martha Washington’s death.

For more on one particular slave of the Washingtons, see this article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oney_Judge .

However, it seems likely that his slaveholding helped the Southern states accept the Constitution and the idea of a President more willingly than they otherwise would have.  And Washington’s patriotism and sense of civic duty were strong influences on the early shape of the United States government.

As with other biographies that only cover a limited time span, students will want to supplement this volume with a more general biography.  I’d recommend this book for high schoolers on up, as the subject matter is a bit dry for most younger readers’ tastes.

And to round out this post, let;s have a look at the Preamble to the United States Constitution.

Book Review: Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

Book Review: Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder

The title is pretty self-explanatory; this book is about the location of the worst mass murders of the 1930s and 1940s; the part of Europe between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.  Starting with the 1933 deliberate starvation of Ukrainians by the Soviet government, policies of mass murder were followed by both countries.

Bloodlands

While there were also massive casualties from World War Two, this book focuses on those policies that were deliberately designed to kill as many people as possible whether this was necessary for military purposes or not.  After the starvation of the Ukrainians, Stalin created the Great Terror, designed to remove anyone in the western part of the Soviet Union  who might have loyalties to things other than Communism, or might be able to lead a resistance.

The Nazis got a later start, but kicked their murder into high gear when they allied with the Soviet Union to invade Poland.  Both sides started slaughtering the locals, the Soviets as an extension of the Great Terror, the Nazis because Hitler wanted the area cleared of all non-Germans (but especially Jews) so that it could be colonized as the Americans did to the Wild West.

Then Hitler decided to go to war with Stalin, invading the rest of Poland, and points east to Moscow.  Naturally, the murder of anyone who wasn’t a German or immediately useful to the Germans came with them.   When Russia turned out to be harder to defeat than planned, the Nazis decided to ramp up killing Jews as an actual war aim–if they couldn’t actually win, they were at least going to take the Jews of Eastern Europe with them.

As the Soviet Union advanced towards the end of the war, they were no gentler than they had been before, and those caught between the two dictatorships suffered for it.

The book goes on to describe the post-war “ethnic cleansings”, where millions of people were moved across new borders to match their “nationality”, which only killed people incidentally.  Then it delves into Stalin’s efforts to rewrite history and make World War Two the Great Patriotic War when the forces of imperialism attacked the heroic Soviet Union, and only the Communists (especially the Russians) fought back.  Yes, some Jews were killed, but only as an incidental side effect to them being Soviet citizens.

There even seemed to be a movement by Stalin towards the end of his life to justify a new Great Terror against Soviet Jews–cut short by him dying.

This is all horrific material, and some readers may find it too strong to stomach.  Along with the mass murder, there’s torture and rape.  Nevertheless, it’s an important book with relevance to many modern topics, including the current state of affairs in the Ukraine.

The author believes that it’s not so much a matter of whether Hitler or Stalin was a worse mass murderer.  The Bloodlands were caused by both of them, separately and working to encourage each other.  Even the Western Allies are culpable to the degree they chose to overlook what Stalin was doing and had done, because Nazi Germany needed stopping.  The phenomenon must be studied and understood so that we can avoid it ever happening again.

The danger is not that we might be the victims, but that under the wrong circumstances, we might become the perpetrators.

The book contains multiple maps, an extensive bibliography, end notes and index, and an abstract that summarizes the main points of the book for the “too long, didn’t read” crowd.

Movie Review: Private Buckaroo

Movie Review: Private Buckaroo

When bandleader and trumpeter Harry James (playing himself) is drafted, his entire band enlists to accompany him.   However, his main vocalist, Lon Prentice (Dick Foran) is initially classified 4-F due to a foot problem.  One visit to the doctor later, Lon is cured and can enlist with the other fellows.

Private Buckaroo

However, the vain Lon is already an expert shot and finds most Army training and menial duties below him.  To everyone else’s surprise, the base commander (Ernest Truex) gives the order that Lon is excused from any training or duties he doesn’t want to do.  At first, he doesn’t mind, even though his fellow trainees are giving him the stinkeye when they get saddled with his guard rotations.  It’s not until Lon learns that he won’t be shipping out with the rest of the boys, but assigned to a rear echelon desk job that his attitude changes.

Meanwhile, First Sergeant “Muggsy” Shavel (Shemp Howard) is in a rocky relationship with his fiancee Bonnie-Belle Schlopkiss (Mary Wickes).  Not only is she rather shrewish, but USO entertainer Lancelot Pringle McBiff (Joe E. Lewis) is making time with her, and she doesn’t seem at all reluctant.

This 1942 musical is essentially a recruiting film for the Army put out by Universal Studios.  In addition to the above mentioned entertainers, the Andrews Sisters feature heavily.  The more unpleasant aspects of boot camp are skipped over entirely, and it ends with a montage of our brave boys shipping out.

There’s a fair amount of slapstick humor, with Sergeant Shavel taking the brunt of most of it.  The fact that Bonnie-Belle is the dominant one in their relationship is played for laughs, but the domestic violence won’t play as well with a modern audience.  There’s also some period slurs against the Japanese, in keeping with the subject matter.

As part of the mildly military aspect, the base commanders’ nieces have pretty much free run, especially precocious tyke Tagalong (Susan Levine), who gets some of the best lines.

The musical numbers are well worth seeing, but the previously mentioned content may make it a no-go for younger viewers without parental guidance.

Here’s a trailer for the movie.

 

 

Book Review: Naked to the Stars

Book Review: Naked to the Stars by Gordon R. Dickson

Section Leader Calvin Truant of the 91st Combat Engineers has not slept in two days, his unit is at less than half strength and their translator is dying, and all the officers have been killed, leaving Cal in command.  The truce with the alien Lehaunan is about to end, and it looks like the village they’re stationed near has been getting reinforcements all night.  So it’s understandable that Cal orders an attack as of the official end of the truce.

Naked to the Stars

 

The 91st takes the village, only to discover it undefended beyond a few mine guards.  Cal abruptly wakes up in an ambulance ship sixteen hours later, with wounds he doesn’t remember getting.   The physical injuries are healed with future medical technology, but the missing hours are still a blank.   The brass won’t let him re-enlist for a combat role unless he undergoes a psychiatric probe, but Cal fears that they might find something that would bar him from service forever, and being a soldier is all he knows.

A recruiter offers a way past this impasse.  While Cal is barred from combat, he could become a Contacts Officer, a non-combatant medic/translator/diplomat embedded with the troops to win alien hearts and minds as the humans conquer them.  It’s not an admired profession, but someone’s got to do it, and it’s a way to get back in uniform.  Cal reluctantly agrees, and completes the training just in time to be assigned to the war against the Paumons.  There, he may be able to confront his daddy issues and the horror that lies within the missing hours.

Gordon R. Dickson was best known for his Dorsai novels, military science fiction about futuristic mercenaries.  This book takes a different tack, as Cal must confront the fact that winning a war isn’t just about conquering the enemy militarily.

It’s interesting to compare this book to Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein, also published in 1961.  Both feature societies where politics is dominated by military veterans, with public flogging, and extensive sections set in boot camp.  But where the Heinlein book had the troopers protecting a largely apathetic citizenry from aggressive aliens who sought only to destroy, in this book, the government suppresses dissent by violence, and is engaged in expansionist colonization with preemptive attacks on technologically inferior aliens on flimsy pretexts.  The books are also almost polar opposites on pacifism, with one discarding it as useless passivism, while the other sees it as a better way forward.

As mentioned above, Cal has issues due to his difficult relationship with his father, who he chose to blame for the death of his mother.  He also has what we’d consider untreated post-traumatic stress that causes him to detach himself from those around him.  This being the kind of novel it is, most of this gets resolved by Cal having epiphanies, rather than therapy.  It also makes him rather unsympathetic in the middle section.

Cal’s relationship with nurse Annie Warroad is somewhat disjointed; much of its development is off-stage, but at least it’s clear that it does develop (as opposed to the usual 50s/60s SF thing of “love happens because the hero gets the girl.”)  The difficulties in the relationship realistically come from Cal’s emotional issues and tendency to push people away.

This is not considered one of Mr. Dickson’s stronger works, in part I think because it has an agenda that plays against the grain of the subgenre.   And given that the Earth is more or less the bad guys in this one, it may not sit well with some more jingoistic readers.  But it’s got some interesting ideas, and is probably available in a used book store near you, or even your library.

Book Review: Insurrections of the Mind

Book Review: Insurrections of the Mind edited by Franklin Foer

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  The copy I read was an uncorrected proof, and changes will be made in the final edition.  (Specifically, a second introduction by Leon Wieseltier–an index may also be forthcoming.)

Insurrections of the Mind

The New Republic magazine has its centenary anniversary this year, so a collected volume of some of the many interesting articles that ran in the magazine is an expected celebration.  For many years, the New Republic (so named because there was already a Republic magazine at the time) has been the home of many of the leading voices of liberal political philosophy.  But in addition to politics, it covers art and cultural events as well.

After an introduction which explains the history of the magazine, its ups and downs (Stephen Glass is cited as a mistake, and his writing is not represented), the remainder of the book is essays grouped by decade.  From “The Duty of Harsh Criticism” by Rebecca West to “The Idea of Ideas” by Leon Wieseltier, this book is jam-packed with thought-provoking work.

I especially liked the afore-mentioned Rebecca West piece (I am a reviewer, after all), “Progress and Poverty” by Edmund Wilson, which contrasts the opening of the Empire State Building with a ruined man’s suicide,”Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell, in which you can see some of the ideas that went into 1984, and”Here Comes the Groom: A (Conservative) Case for Gay Marriage” by Andrew Sullivan, which is what it sounds like.

Not every writer represented here saw the future clearly–some of them guessed very wrong about the issues and people they wrote about.  But all of them are worth at least checking out.

“But Scott,” you say, “I am not a liberal.  What is there for me in such a book?”  I recommend the essays “The Corruption of Liberalism” by Lewis Mumford, “The Liberal’s Dilemma” by Daniel P. Moynihan and “The Great Carter Mystery” by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.  Liberals are not above raking each other over the coals, after all.

The book is due on shelves by the end of September 2014.  i recommend it to former readers of the New Republic (current readers should already be aware of it), 20th Century history students, the politically-minded, and those who enjoy a good essay.

Movie Review: Stage Door Canteen

Movie Review: Stage Door Canteen (1943)

A troop train carrying soldiers to a base near New York City has typical troopers California, Dakota, Jersey and Tex on board.  Only Jersey has a steady girl, and he’s hoping they have some time before being shipped overseas to see her.   California’s never even kissed a girl, and Dakota has sworn off romance for the duration.  Tex would like a new girl, but it seems unlikely.

Stage Door Canteen

Meanwhile, several young hostesses get ready to work at the Stage Door Canteen.   This is a special servicemen’s club set up near Broadway where celebrities volunteer their time and talent to entertain the troops.  One of the women, Eileen, is less interested in the volunteer work than in being noticed by a Hollywood or Broadway scout, so she can advance her acting career.

Our troopers get passes as their ship is not ready to leave, so they come to the Stage Door Canteen.  Despite the restrictions (the hostesses are there to lend a friendly ear and dance partners to the lonely soldiers; no physical affection or outside dating allowed) Dakota and Eileen find romance blossoming.  Too bad there’s a war on!

This 1943 film is a tribute to the real-life canteen, and can be fairly described as star-studded.  Musicians like Count Basie and Benny Goodman,  comedians like Ed Bergen and Harpo Marx, and many cameos from performers like Lunt & Fontanne and Johnny Weismuller.  In real life, the canteen probably didn’t feature all these people at once, but all of them did appear at the Stage Door Canteen or the West Coast Hollywood Canteen at one time or another.

The story is paper-thin, only there to connect together the music and comedy acts.  The music is first-rate, and the format allows a variety of musical genres, from swing to religious.  The comedy is a bit more dated, and younger viewers may find themselves lost trying to figure out who some of these people are.  The wartime setting is often mentioned, with as many different types of servicemembers crammed in as possible, including the Allied forces.

That leads to a bit of puzzlement at one point where Chinese airmen are set to sail to China–from New York City.  (There are some mild ethnic slurs towards the Japanese.)

The film is long by 1940s standards, over two hours, but is in the public domain so you can probably find a good version online or on cheap DVD.  Highly recommended for fans of any of the artists involved–your kids may want to skip right to the music bits.

In fact, let’s have a moment with Gracie Fields singing “The Lord’s Prayer.”

Book Review: The Elfstones of Shannara

Book Review: The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

The Elfstones of Shanarra

Long ago, before even the rise of the old humans, the good and evil faerie creatures had a great war.  At the end of it, the evil beings who would go down in legend as “demons” were sealed away in a dark dimension by the Forbidding, a barrier maintained by the tree known as the Ellcrys.  The elves have long protected the Ellcrys, through the rise of the humans, the Great Wars, the creation of the new human races, and even through the reign of the Warlock King.

But now the Ellcrys is dying, and the Forbidding with it.  Already a few demons have slipped out, and eons of imprisonment stewing in their own hatred have done nothing to improve their temperaments.  One of their first acts is to slay all the Chosen, those elves who could be used to replant the Ellcrys and restore the Forbidding.

The last Druid, Allanon, seeks out trainee healer Wil Ohmsford and renegade elf teacher Amberle to go on a perilous quest to find the mysterious Bloodfire while he and the elves fight a delaying action against the demon hordes.   Wil and Amberle gain and lose companions along the way, while Ander Elessedil, second son of the Elf King, must muster the armies of elves and their allies on the homefront.

This was the second of the Shannara books, and generally considered an improvement over the first as it moved away from the Tolkein-derivative plot and themes of the previous volume.  It’s worth noting that the Shannara books were the first fantasy doorstoppers to become big hits when first written–The Lord of the Rings took quite a while to find acceptance.  As such, they opened the floodgates for other weighty tomes of magic and monsters.

Wil and Amberle are reluctant heroes, to say the least.  They have careers they’re much more interested in than gallivanting off to save the world.  Wil suspects that Allanon isn’t being entirely truthful about the nature of the quest (which is correct) and Amberle has her own reasons for not wanting to return to her homeland, although we don’t find out the full details until nearly the end.

Allanon is fallible; he has lived too long by secrecy, and feels compelled not to reveal certain details, which means that those who’ve been burned by him before do not trust him.  He is overconfident in his ability to predict the enemy’s moves, and misses an important clue that hampers everything the good guys try to accomplish.  And he realizes very late in the story that all the secrets needed to fight future problems will die with him if he doesn’t find an apprentice soon.

Ander is a more traditional heroic figure, who steps out of his brother’s shadow to become a competent and charismatic leader when his country needs him.

Female roles are a bit iffy; while the Roma-like Rovers have aspersions cast on them for treating their women as servants at best, there are no women in the councils of the elf kingdom  or any other place shown–no woman rises above the post of innkeeper in this story.   Other than Amberle, the only prominent woman is Eretria, a fiery Rover girl who takes a fancy to Wil, and is primarily characterized by her attempting to get him to reciprocate.  Wil has to be repeatedly reminded to consult Amberle on plans he makes for both of them.

This book is also the one that started the Shannara tradition of bittersweet endings; Mr. Brooks has no hesitation about killing off major characters.

Overall, a good epic fantasy novel slightly hindered by the author’s then blind spot about female characters.  Worth looking up if you somehow missed the Shannara series in the past.

Book Review: White August

Book Review: White August by John Boland

It is one of the hottest Julys on record in Worchestershire.  In a time before air conditioning became common in Britain, the people are roasting in the summer heat.  So they are more bemused than frightened when it suddenly begins snowing.  English weather, isn’t it funny?

White August

Except that it doesn’t stop snowing.  For days.  As the temperature starts to drop, it becomes all too clear that this is not a natural phenomenon.  And as the snow starts to pile up, it is noticed that it’s also radioactive.   Britain is under attack by an unseen, unannounced foe with an inexplicable weapon; can science find an answer before it’s too late?

This 1955 novel is a quick read, positing a science fiction device that causes a massive environmental disaster.  (J.G. Ballard would later work in the same vein to better effect.)  The author works out the details of what a steady fall of snow for weeks on end would have on the infrastructure and society of 1950s Britain.

The government officials depicted in the story are remarkably competent and sensible for the disaster novel subgenre; even the American general is calm and reasonable.  The memory of the Blitz is resonant in this story, as people try to muddle through as best they can (though late in the novel, the commoners start going feral.)

The main hero of the story is William Barnaby Garrett, Doctor of Science.  He’s a bald, middle-aged scientist who has a thing for his secretary Mary, but more importantly, he used to work with the mad scientist the government is pretty sure is behind the snowfall.  Thus, his line of research might hold clues as to how to stop the disaster.

One of the more chilling aspects of the novel is that while everyone becomes reasonably sure Hans Bruderhof, a deformed Austrian with a hatred of humanity, is responsible, he never actually appears, it is never positively proved that he did it and his accomplices if any are never figured out.  There are no villainous monologues, no demands made, only a cold silence, freezing fog and the never-ending snow..  In the end, the British government is forced to have the Americans drop an atomic bomb on the presumed source of the problem.  The snow stops, but Bruderhof may not have been there, and the plans for the device may still be in the hands of Britain’s enemies.

Mary, alas, is in the book mostly to be a plot device, someone to show Garrett’s humanity by having him emote to and about her.  She’s not really even able to be an exposition person, as Garrett’s work is too secret for her to be kept in the loop.

There’s a lot of stereotypical British stiff upper lip going on, although some people do fold under pressure.

This would make a good summer vacation read, with its descriptions of cold and snow, but moving quickly.  It’s not something I’d recommend for serious reading, and it could stand some serious expansion of the subplots (better use of the female characters for a start.)

Book Review: Tigerman

Book Review: Tigerman by Nick Harkaway

Disclaimer:  I received an uncorrected proof of this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Tigerman

Mancreu is dying.  This island in the Arabian Sea was once a quiet backwater, last colonized by the British Empire.   But a combination of industrial waste and volcanic activity have made the island a biohazardous ecodisaster waiting to happen.  A UN mission is just waiting for the final orders to evacuate the locals, and the British government has sent a final Brevet Consul to be the last watchman.

That man is Sergeant Lester Ferris, late of the British army in Afghanistan, a light duty for a man who’s seen too much war.  It’s a quiet post, having tea in the afternoon, making friends with a comic book-loving local boy, settling minor disputes and bidding farewell as those who choose to leave the island early trickle away.  And of course he very deliberately does not notice the Fleet of ships offshore, the ones who are taking advantage of a legal black hole to do things not allowed on land or sea.

But murder comes calling on Mancreu, and the situation seems to need something more than diplomacy.  It needs a hero straight out of the comics, larger than life and gifted with strange abilities.  Lester Ferris could be that hero, if he is willing to become Tigerman.

Good stuff:  The pacing of the book never feels rushed, without being too drawn out.  Even in the early expository bits, it doesn’t feel too slow or sloggish.  There are some lovely turns of phrase, justified by most of the people on the island having learned English from movies, and thus talking like characters, and by the atmosphere of Mancreu making everyone a little crazy.

Sergeant Ferris becoming Tigerman is almost plausible; he has “a very particular set of skills”, access to all sorts of interesting equipment, and just enough odd coincidences happening to him that he can believe this is something that needs doing.

The book managed to blindside me with a twist towards the end that’s not entirely original, but works well here.

Not so good stuff:  While I realize that American pop culture has steamrollered the world’s imagination, the fact that a British man in his forties makes no references whatsoever to British pop culture is weird.  I know for a fact that there is a long tradition of British comic books–Billy the Cat would seem to be an appropriate thing for Sergeant Ferris to think of when he becomes Tigerman.  But no, it’s American comics, American TV and movies.  I have to wonder if this book were deliberately written to appeal to American readers who might not get the references.

Some readers may find the “quirky” a little too thick for their tastes.

The book is due for official release 7/29/14.  I would recommend it for those seeking something a bit more “modern literature-like” in their superhero fiction.

Anime Review: Matchless Raijin-Oh

The fifth-dimensional Jaku Empire (literally, “the Evil Empire”) has decided to conquer the third dimension, starting with Earth.  Good thing Earth has a powerful guardian spirit named Eldoran.  Or perhaps we should say had a powerful guardian spirit, as Eldoran blocks the invaders’ one-shot superweapon at the cost of crippling himself to a near-death state.

Matchless Raijin-Oh

Eldoran has a back-up plan.  He bestows the remainder of his power, in the form of giant robots that combine into larger giant robots, on a class of fifth-graders who are in school on Saturday doing make-up work.  The military isn’t too thrilled with the fact that the world’s fate is in the hands of a bunch of pre-teens, but the Earth Defense Class is the only ones who can use the mighty Raijin-Oh against the weekly monster attacks.

Zettai Muteki Raijin-Oh was a 1991 anime series for children, the first of the “Eldoran Trilogy.”  It falls into the “super robot” subgenre of the mecha genre, which means that it generally ignores questions of practicality and treats the laws of physics as mild suggestions.  (As opposed to the “real robot” subgenre where they at least handwave explanations as to how the mecha work in realistic terms.)

There are eighteen kids in Class 5-3, nine boys and nine girls of varied size, shape, social status and personality, so it’s easy for most viewers to have a favorite.  And all of them are important.  Sure, some of them get much more screen time, but even if your job is just to pull the transformation lever, no one else can do that, so if you go missing, the team will lose.

The kids who get the most screentime are:

  • Jin, the pilot of Ken-Oh, a swordsman mecha, and lead pilot of Raijin-Oh when the robots combine.  He’s a typical boys’ anime lead, spiky-haired, hot-blooded and book-dumb.
  • Asuka, the pilot of Hou-Oh, a bird mecha.  He’s a handsome and diplomatic lad, and a hit with the girls.  Asuka likes being treated well because of his looks, but doesn’t really grok why being liked by women is a thing.
  • Kouji, the pilot of Juu-Oh, a lion mecha.  He’s a dreamer and UFO nut, who’s a bit timid, but is better at understanding people than his two buddies.
  • Maria, the class leader.  She’s an all-rounder who’s good but not the best at many skills, and coordinates the Command Center when monsters attack.  Her only flaw is a bit of a temper, mostly caused by Jin’s antics.  (The series is clearly setting Jin and Maria up for a romance in their teens.)
  • Tsutomu, the class nerd.  He’s the one who handles technical issues and discovering new powers for the robots.

While the adults are shut out of being able to save the day, Mr. Shinoda (the homeroom teacher), Miss Himeji (school nurse) and the Principal (who is skilled in kung fu) often are able to help the kids out with real-world problems.  Even the General eventually is a bit helpful, though he never completely warms up to the notion that military might is not the answer.

Over on the villain side, the leader is Belzeb, who is literally heartless.  Instead, he has an evil fairy named Falzeb living in his rib cage.  He’s assisted by the bumbling Taida, a chubby, childish fellow who isn’t really cut out for the villain lifestyle.   The monsters start out as akudama (“evil balls”), round bits of darkness that are scattered around the landscape.  When activated by the word meiwaku (“troublesome”, “annoying” , “problematic”) then turn into a small monster that takes its theme from whatever was described with the code word.

Thus we have things like a pollution monster, a flu monster, a superhero monster (that one had some serious “which side am I on?” issues) and so forth.  At some point, Falzeb would energize the monster, turning it into a larger, more powerful version, and Raijin-Oh would need to fight it.

The plots do tend to be formulaic.  One of the children has a spotlight subplot, such as being afraid of dogs.  The monster may or may not relate to that subplot, but generally defeating the monster will also resolve the subplot.  There’s plenty of stock footage of the various uniform changes, robot launches and transformations and special attacks.  One episode about halfway through is a clip show, though it does answer a few pertinent questions.  (The robots combining to form Raijin-Oh takes less than three seconds real time, not the over a minute it looks like in the stock footage.)

Some of the spotlight episodes are more disappointing for fans of those individual characters, as Jin has his own secondary subplot, meaning that the character whose spotlight it is gets even less time.

The series is being brought to the U.S. by Anime Midstream, a small independent company formed for the purpose.  They’ve titled it Matchless Raijin-Oh and five volumes are currently available on DVD.  The disks have both subtitled and dubbed versions, with the dub being done mostly by enthusiastic amateurs.  (It’s okay, but not quite up to professional standards.)

The series is kid-friendly, but parents should be aware that Japan has different standards for how much nudity is acceptable for children (we see a couple of naked butts in a non-sexual context) and some old-fashioned ideas about physical discipline of children are on display.  (Jin’s  parents especially believe in the usefulness of a good smack to the head.)  The blooper reels are less kid-friendly; the worst words are bleeped out, but parental no-nos are still heard.

If your kids already enjoy loud exciting action cartoons, please consider supporting this small business.  Older anime fans may find it a bit childish, but there’s still plenty to love.

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