Reviews: The Fog of War, Azumanga Daioh

It’s a good day when you can avail yourself of 2-for-$3 day at the local video rental store and wind up with two excellent DVDs. It’s even better when those two DVDs are such complete opposites of each other that you fear putting them next to each other, lest they annihilate each other in a ferocious release of energy that leaves you on bad terms with the video store.

Anyway, on to the reviews.

The Fog of War is a very interesting documentary on Robert S. McNamara, best known as the United States Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson. The core of the film is McNamara talking about his experiences, primarily World War II, his career at Ford, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and of course, the Vietnam War. McNamara is surprisingly blunt and to the point in most of what he says, although he usually dodges any questions about any responsibility he feels for what happened under him. For example, he states flat out that had the United States lost World War II, he probably would’ve been convicted of war crimes for his involvement in the firebombing of Japan. The picture he paints of the Cuban Missile Crisis is one where we literally lucked out of nuclear war, and he draws an interesting comparison between the Crisis and the Vietnam War: whereas the Cabinet was able to empathise with Khrushchev and thus find a way out with both sides saving face, the United States and Vietnam had total misunderstandings of what the other side’s motives were — the Vietnamese saw the conflict as a civil war and having nothing to do with Communism, and interpreted American involvement as imperialism.

The documentary neither tries to glorify nor demonize McNamara or his actions, instead choosing to let him tell the story of what happened, and for his part McNamara doesn’t give the impression of being dishonest with anything he says, though he does refuse to answer the more pointed questions asked of him. My main complaints with it aren’t with the content but the presentation. The timeline jumps back and forth several times instead of starting with the earliest events and working forward, so some things get told out-of-order and some explanatory digressions end up derailing the flow of the narrative. Also, presumably as the result of editing for time, there are many quick cuts during shots of McNamara talking to skip forward a few seconds, resulting in jumps in the video. It’s not a big deal, and if the content of the film were different I might suspect ulterior motives for the edits, but it’s merely distracting.

Nevertheless, The Fog of War is definitely an interesting documentary and is certainly worth watching.

What could be the exact opposite of a documentary on McNamara? How about Azumanga Daioh (Volume 1), a goofy anime comedy about a bunch of girls in high school? I was a bit apprehensive about what I had gotten myself into during the first couple of minutes, but any fears I may have had were soon laid to rest. There’s a diverse group of characters, from the child prodigy who skipped ahead five grades straight into high school, to the absent-minded transfer student, to the ridiculously hyperactive supercompetitive girl, to the English teacher who’s jealous of the P.E. teacher’s popularity with the students, etc. Almost the entire main cast is female, with the only non-throwaway male character being the creepy classics teacher (“Why did you become a teacher?” “I like high school girls.”)

In what seems atypical of anime, the plots tend to be centered on fairly normal, everyday events: the transfer student adjusting to the new school, a P.E. class at the pool, the friendship/rivalry between the two teachers, summer break, and so on. There’s no shortage of laughs, and the tone of the series stays playfully goofy (as obvious from the animation style) without venturing into the bizarre. And how could you not like what “American” is slang for? (Is that real Japanese slang? I hope so.)

In fact, the only bad thing I can really think of to say about it is that I may regret getting myself hooked on a series that’s still in the process of being released in the U.S. I think I now understand why it’s been checked out every single time I’ve gone to the video store this summer. It’s hard to imagine how someone couldn’t like it, unless they were some sort of joyless, inhuman monster or something. Or just not into that sort of thing, I suppose.

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