GameSpite Quarterly Interview: Richard Honeywood on The Rise of Square Localization

Richard Honeywood Interview

In January 2011, I conducted a series of email interviews with Richard Honeywood, who worked at Square and Square Enix from 1997 to 2007. Honeywood contributed immensely to the development of localization practices at Square, building up a team of translators and building tools that are still relevant to the industry today. The bones of this interview appear in an article I wrote, “This Guy Are Sick: The Rise of Square Localization,” for GameSpite Quarterly 8. It was also published on 1UP.com. Please read it, and think about buying a copy of GSQ8, which chronicles the history of Sony’s Playstation over the course of nearly 450 pages. Thanks again to Richard for giving me such a wealth of information. Writing an article with the information he gave me consumed my life for weeks and was far and away the most fulfilling project I’ve ever worked on. The full interview is presented below.

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The Wonderful World of Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball

The Art of Dragon Ball

My first experience with anime came several years before I even knew anime was a thing, a wholly different style of animation hailing from its own country with a unique cultural identity at its core. The show was, by chance, Dragon Ball Z, airing on some random block of late morning cartoon programming picked up by the rusty over-the-air antenna at my family’s lake house. This was before Dragon Ball Z had made its mark on Cartoon Network and become the blockbuster leading man of Toonami’s anime lineup — in fact, I suspect it was before Funimation had begun dubbing the show on its own.

dragonball-art1I couldn’t have watched more than 10 minutes of the show. I didn’t know what was going on or who the characters were, but somehow it made a lasting impression–more than a decade later I can still remember that the episode took place on Namek, placing it somewhere in the Freeza saga. But that knowledge springs wholly from an image I have in my mind: I didn’t know what the hell a Namek was then, and certainly didn’t retain an ounce of exposition at 8 or 10 years old. I just remember the trees, the rocks, the sky: that blue-green color pallet that distinguishes Namek from Earth. And I’ve realized, lately, how absolutely incredible that is.

A couple months ago I began watching the anime adaptation of Dragon Ball. I’d watched plenty of it on Cartoon Network as a teenager, but was looking for something relaxing and entertaining with a Japanese flavor that would last me awhile. I needed some shonen, basically, and got it into my head to revisit Dragon Ball. Unlike Dragon Ball Z, I remembered it being a light-hearted adventure with no episode-long incidents of beefy dudes powering up. I’ve long seen Dragon Ball Z as cheesy, overwrought, poorly paced and generally a shining beacon of the worst form of cliche Japanese storytelling.

But what I’ve come to appreciate is how incredibly iconic, warm-hearted and influential Akira Toriyama’s creation truly is. Dragon Ball Kai, a condensed re-telling that closely follows the pace of Toriyama’s manga, cuts out most of the junk that made DBZ awful. It’s the original Dragon Ball, though, that highlights the magic of Toriyama’s art and storytelling. In Dragon Ball he crafted a world that mirrors the wide-eyed innocence of his protagonist, a version of Earth bursting with wonder. At times it reflects the rustic nature of rural Japan, but with dinosaurs and anthropomorphic animals commonplace. At times it veers off into wild science fiction with the inventive capsule technology and charmingly goofy vehicle designs. Most of all, it fosters a peerless sense of adventure; that the world is vast and never-ending, with a new pastiche of cultures waiting just beyond the next mountain range. On Dragon Ball’s Earth, everything imaginary is real and anything is possible.

Perhaps we’re not meant to think of Dragon Ball as if it’s envisioned through Goku’s innocent eyes — that kind of storytelling concept may have been beyond Toriyama’s intentions when he began a quirky adaptation of the Chinese fable Journey to the West. Panty jokes are everywhere, the villain is a jester, and all Bulma wants from the wish-granting Dragon Balls is a boyfriend. But Toriyama’s relentless creativity turned his young adventurer and the world he explores into two sides of the same coin. Goku resonates because of his innocence, his kind-hearted hope and determination and skill. But the world resonates as much for its art style as it does the wide swath of cultures and imaginary creations it invokes. Can any cartoonist of the past 30 years claim to have influenced an entire genre — an entire industry and generation of artists and readers — in the way Toriyama has? Some, perhaps. But few.

dragonball-art3The theme of adventure so strongly reflected in the early fantasy-heavy portion of Dragon Ball takes seemingly clashing ideas and makes them work together effortlessly. The quest for the Dragon Balls spans the globe, so naturally the characters have to get around quickly. Bulma showcases the advanced science of Toriyama’s fiction, materializing high-speed jet planes or motorcycles out of capsules with a characteristic “Bomb!” But even with these devices commonplace, the world is vast and untamed, full of regions unreached by technology or outside influence. We’d expect science to have mapped out the whole of Earth, yet fantastic new locales constantly wow Dragon Ball’s characters.

Goku is the perfect mechanism for this sort of exploration, of course — he knows nothing of the world, so every new locale is filtered through Goku’s innocent acceptance. By the time the other characters express their incredulity, we’re already indoctrinated. Why wouldn’t he fly around on a magic cloud? No damn reason at all!

Penguin Village may be the best example of this — by charging headlong into a high-speed pursuit, Goku finds himself in Penguin Village, which takes the anthropomorphism to an extreme (even the sun has a face in Penguin village) and introduces a baby who can repair anything with telekinesis and a random girl who effortlessly beats up an opponent even Goku struggles to defeat. The characters and environment here are a touch more exaggerated and cartoony than usual. Similarly, the land of Korin has its own identity with the Native dragonball-art2American touchstone of the totem pole greatly fantasized into Korin’s tower. Toriyama deftly wields this skill time and time again, creating character expressions and landscapes so iconic that we can recognize them years or decades later. Toriyama didn’t invent the large eyes that have defined anime for decades, but he did help solidify them as an indelible style- – you’re not likely to mistake Toriyama eyes, hair or eyebrows for the work of any other artist.

His art style holds more power in the fantasy adventures of Dragon Ball than it does in the more serious sci-fi heavy DBZ, but the power of his influence endures. For me, it was the trees of Namek. For Japanese pop culture, it was the blonde fury of the Super Saiyans and the themes of hope and redemption that rippled through the minds of prospective young artists and manifested in Dragon Ball Z heirs like Yu Yu Hakusho. Perhaps the animation industry would be better off without an endless string of anime and manga working from the Dragon Ball formula. Toriyama changed a generation of art, and it’s only fitting that his early work — the work that doesn’t get Dragon Ball Z’s level of attention — captures one of the most enchanting and cohesive worlds ever put to paper or cel.

You’re so cool, You’re so cool, You’re so cool.

True Romance

It’s rare for a title to perfectly capture the spirit of a movie. True Romance does this, right down to its very core. It’s a movie about love, of course. The best ones always are. But it’s a love that extends far beyond the destined union of Clarence and Alabama; True Romance is an ode to pop culture, country style talkin’, The King, kung fu, sex, drugs and rock & roll written with the kind of passion only Quentin Tarantino could deliver.

But unlike Tarantino’s later works, which deliver the same cultural worship chock full of amazing dialogue and memorable references, True Romance is driven by the love affair at its heart, a completely unbelievable journey that somehow feels oh-so-right.

Why? Because it’s destiny. Why should everything work out for Clarence and Alabama, when they’re in over their heads, hunted by the mob, married and practically strangers? Because they deserve it, he says. And they do. That’s romance. Are they crazy? Absolutely. Violent? Without a doubt. But maybe their actions are excusable because they’re in love. Where would cinema be without violence, after all?

True Romance is a great film because it infuses Tarantino’s off-kilter cultural appreciation with a massive dose of lighthearted, downright sweet whimsy. The film clearly doesn’t take itself too seriously, and we are to accept that sometimes people fall in love and that’s just how it’s damn well supposed to be. Hans Zimmer’s score perfectly establishes the tone–at first it seems utterly bizarre and out of place, but gradually it begins to evoke the caution-to-the-wind love affair of Clarence and Alabama.

It’s not a love affair that gets development or depth. It is what it is, just as the movie homages and elaborate dialogue are only skin-deep elements that bind together a wild plot. But Tarantino has proven that the homage is an art of its own. This is a movie lover’s movie, made even better by the power of hindsight. Nearly twenty years after release, we can see True Romance as more than it was in 1993. It’s not just a movie in love with the idea of love and the glorified violence of the silver screen–it’s a movie in love with the 90s and the late 80s, or at least a movie that has come to define the culture of the time. So many of the actors went on to famous bigger and better roles, it’s easy to see the romance of them acting these small parts in a movie that, more than anything, wishes to say only this: movies are so fucking cool.

Amid the chaos of that day, when all I could hear was the thunder of gunshots, and all I could smell was the violence in the air, I look back and am amazed that my thoughts were so clear and true, that three words went through my mind endlessly, repeating themselves like a broken record: you’re so cool, you’re so cool, you’re so cool.

The American

The American

The American is an unusual film. It takes a familiar movie framework, the spy thriller, and gives us something we don’t expect. Unlike the Jason Bourne films that exemplify the genre, there is little quick-cut action and even less sophisticated spy talk for the protagonist to dazzle us with. Instead of taking on an assassination mission, The American’s Jack spends the length of a calm film studiously constructing a weapon, artfully piecing together a lethal sniper rifle that he hopes never to fire. More than a Bourne film, The American is like a subdued, emotionally distant cousin to Luc Besson’s Leon, and all we have to sustain us through the film is the beauty of the European countryside and the gravity of George Clooney’s performance.

It’s unusual–and unsettling–to watch Clooney in The American. He looks so much like the handsome, charming man we expect from Ocean’s 11 and Up in the Air. He’s mostly wearing his typical look–hair cropped a bit shorter, but still salt-and-pepper. Yet it’s amazing what difference a smile makes. Without that disarming charmer grin, Clooney in The American is cold and aloof, and it’s apparent early that the film will rest heavily on his acting. He certainly delivers, crafting a hunted killer who is cautious (paranoid) and troubled (tormented). Jack is never at ease, eyes always roaming for the assassin who could be lurking around any corner. The cinematography expertly keeps up, exploiting the twisted walkways and narrow European streets to heighten the suspense of looming attack.

What Jack yearns for more than anything is companionship, and the film ends just as this plot thread is really developing. Director Anton Corbijn clearly focused on Jack’s tormented soul, and spends much of the film exposing the audience to the nerve-racking life on the edge that Jack lives. The film cultivates a powerful atmosphere, but viewing it is an experience that mimics Jack’s own hollow existence. Many films give us endings that leave us yearning for more, but the best, like No Country for Old Men, deliver a satisfying experience until those final moments. The American, too, leaves us wanting more, but it’s lean on satisfaction.

That’s the point, of course. There is no satisfaction for Jack in the life he has lived, even as he tries to leave it behind. The methodical construction of a deadly weapon focuses the film, and Clooney’s performance carries a power that lends The American a heavy sense of reality. Perhaps that’s why it feels all the more unsatisfying as the inevitable ending plays out and the credits roll. Does reality have to be so predictable and depressing?

Machimarium: A Robot Love Story

This is Machinarium.

As a child of the point-and-click adventure era, I love Telltale Games. Yet I have an embarrassing confession to make: I haven’t played a single one of their modern 3D revivals. I’ll get around to Sam & Max and Monkey Island eventually–the original games are near and dear enough to my heart to guarantee that. But I love Telltale for their steadfast devotion to adventure games. They have almost singlehandedly breathed fresh life into the genre, and without their successful experiment in episodic point-and-click adventures, independent projects like Machinarium may never have been made. And that would be a tragedy, because Machinarium is a quiet masterpiece.

Developed in Flash by Czech studio Amanita Design, Machinarium begins with a basic groundwork of accessible, logical puzzles and then surrounds them with a lush and vibrant world, dripping with life and detail in its characters and environs. Or, perhaps there’s not life, but there’s indeed sentience–every character, from the intrepid hero to the troublesome owl, is a robot, just a small part of a thriving steampunk ecosystem. Without its incredibly detailed, textured hand-drawn artwork Machinarium would be a very different game indeed.

The art drew me in, of course, and it’s what kept me playing, eager to make it to the next screen and pore over the background, taking in each little touch in the new area. Like the best point-and-click adventures, though, Machinarium handles narrative wonderfully, but in its own unique way. Like a classic cartoon, Machinarium eschews dialogue in favor of thought bubbles, where images pop up to flesh out plot points and character motivations.

The game also follows the logic of a cartoon–there are some mean bad guys who have treated our hero unfairly, and as we help him follow in their tracks, we gradually learn more about him and more about his enemies. They’re out to create mayhem for kicks, and he seems to want to stop them. But as we conquer each new area and move closer to the hero’s origin, a new piece of the story fits into place, and suddenly the entire thing gains a new sense of heft and meaning.

He perseveres for love, of course. What else?

A robot love storyDialogue or voice acting would likely undermine the power of this robot romance, but somehow the charming sound design, character animations and thought bubbles add up to something downright sweet. Though love gives our hero momentum in the second half, it’s almost unnecessary–the rest of the world is so charming it’s a delight to interact with each NPC to see how they’ll behave or what key item they have to offer (or demand).

Machinarium may not be laugh-out-loud funny in a Ron Gilbert or Tim Schafer way, but I challenge you to spend more than a few minutes at a time without grinning. It will be tough, unless you’re stuck on a particularly obstinate puzzle. Though nearly all of them are logical, a few were obscure enough to make me dip into the game’s built-in hint book. Another guilty omission: I grew up playing everything from Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis to Hugo’s House of Horrors, but I’ve always been pretty terrible at adventure game puzzles. The few that stumped me in Machinarium may be a cake walk for those with godlike critical thinking skills.

The clever design of Machinarium’s hint book actually helped me complete at least half a dozen puzzles without ever giving me the solution. It acted like a cheerleader for me, since every time I was ready to give up it stood in my path as if to say “Do you really want to give up?” Turns out I didn’t. By locking the solutions away behind a mini-game, the developers give you ample opportunity to pull your beleaguered brain up by its bootstraps, renew your will and press on towards the solution.

Even though it’s been over a month since I finished Machinarium, little bits and pieces regularly pop up in my mind: a snippet of amazing background music here, an awesome wrench-bodied robot there. When I realized that it was essentially a quieter, more subtle version of Spike Jonze’s robot love story I’m Here, I couldn’t resist the connection. Play Machinarium. It’s available on Steam, a platform on which it’s easier to buy games than it is to resist them. Wait for a sale, if you must, but buy it, both to support the developer and play the game. Your heart will thank you for it.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Scott gets it.

Question: how hard must a movie rock to escape from the pull of the Earth’s gravity, to jettison itself from our planet and our universe, and then to carve out its own world with the power of an electric bassline and pop-culture references to define a generation?

Answer: about as hard as Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, a nonstop whirlwind of energy which delights in cranking the fun up to 12 or 13–all the while winking back at us, because it knows a simple 11 would’ve sufficed.

Edgar Wright doesn’t settle for good enough.  Every inch of Scott Pilgrim is meticulously detailed, every scene packed with sounds and costumes and posters and special effects that, quite frankly, make Scott Pilgrim the film a more unique creation than Scott Pilgrim the comic.  In comics, onomatopoeia are almost necessary to transform the silent print medium into something we can fully relate to, but in film the audio pretty much takes care of that itself.  Yet this alternate reality, this wonderful vision of Toronto brought to life as a 21st century version of magical realism becomes more authentic and individual for all its comical sound effects, CG embellishments and narrative exposition.

Wright is relentlessly inventive, employing a dazzling variety of effects that blend together to create this coherent piece of media that doesn’t quite behave like any other movie out there.  And just when you think you’ve seen all the tricks, an old one will suddenly be used in a different way, as if the blend of sight gags and chiptunes and soundbytes and references could be endlessly combined in innovative ways.  This is just what we get.

A very few fans may gripe that Cera’s Scott isn’t the same as the Scott from O’Malley’s comics, or that the secondary cast are marginalized to make way for the hugely entertaining battle scenes.  Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a movie that never slows down once it gets up to speed, and combat does take center stage.  But it’s only a sign of excellence that we want more time with these characters–they’re far from neglected, all played with style and talent, and besides, this is Scott Pilgrim’s show.  He kicks ass, smiles goofily, rocks his heart out and freaks out about his haircut in perfectly measured proportions.

If this is a genre film, I’ll be damned to tell you which one. No action movie has this kind of music, crafted by Beck and other visionaries into an intrinsic element of the film’s world.  No romantic comedy has this much cultural awareness, this keen a sense of the baggage we all carry with us writ large with glowing katanas and videogame sound effects.  And no comic film ever used the elements of comic books so blatantly or originally, mixing illustrations and wild camera technique and multi-frame action to suit the scene at hand.

I don’t know how it could be possible not to like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World when it enjoys itself so much.  As long as you’re willing to leave our world and travel to one very similar, which delights in the sights and sounds we’ve grown oblivious to and promises to one-up your expectations at every turn, you will find something to love in Scott’s fantastic battle.

The mixed up, muddled up, shook up world of The Other Guys

STOP HUMMING

As a genre, buddy cop movies thrive on the cliche.  Oftentimes they are nothing but a series of recognizable cliches strung together, from the sassy love-hate relationship to the victorious shootout finale.  Sometimes they’re done well and you get Lethal Weapon.  Sometimes you get Rush Hour 3.  Adam McKay’s The Other Guys may share structure with those movies, but its tone is so utterly bizarre that between every bout of laughter, I was left feeling downright weird.

Ferrell and Wahlberg star as a number-cruncher and a screw-up who get no respect around the office, and hardly deserve to.  They’re pretty terrible police officers by movie standards.  When they happen to stumble upon a major case, they immediately screw it up, but keep doggedly pursuing it to prove they have what it takes.

The most interesting thing about The Other Guys is how McKay intentionally plays with the genre–the plot actually intentionally subverts a lot of predictable cop movie elements, and the action actually involves very little ass-kicking.  In one awesome White Stripes-driven scene, Mark Wahlberg wields two guns in a slow-motion shootout…and doesn’t actually seem to hit anyone.

The Other Guys does have a few problems, mainly driven by a minor identity crisis.  Yes, it’s a comedy first, but as the film draws closer to the end it begins to focus more and more on the nation’s financial crisis and the crimes perpetrated by mega corporations.  The ending credits even go so far as to provide facts and figures about the government banking bailouts and ludicrous salaries of CEOs.  It’s actually really disturbing, and retroactively paints earlier moments in a pretty dark light.  Michael Keaton’s turn as by-day police captain, by-night Bed Bath and beyond manager sounds funny and looks funny, but man is that a depressing image.

The Other Guys either needed a bit more comedy or a bit more serious cop drama–either way, the two made for a slightly uneven mix, which the writing capitalized on to make things even more awkward.  It’s hard to describe what makes the movie so downright bizarre–the writing and delivery are so off-kilter that they clash with the relatively realistic world Wahlberg and Ferrell bumble through.  It’s like this celluloid version of New York has its own reality–common for cinema, especially comedies or fantasies–where we don’t know quite how seriously we’re supposed to take things, which leads to quite a few “Oh man did that just happen” moments.

Even if the movie bounces kind of weirdly between farce and reality, the writing is spot-on most of the time and stays pretty damn funny throughout–though the film begins on such a high, it would be impossible to retain that momentum until the end.  You may finish the movie feeling as though you’re not quite sure what you just saw.  But for a genre movie, isn’t that the most pleasant of surprises?

So bad it’s good: Runespear

With the company of a friend or two, sometimes a terrible movie can be a whole lot more fun than a great movie.  It’s simply a cinematic truth.  How else could Mystery Science Theater 3000 lasted for a decade and developed a massive cult following?  Mystery Science Theater builds the friends right into the experience, of course, but they’re hardly pivotal for the bad movie experience.  In high school, a friend and I had a monthly tradition that included deep dish pizza and the worst direct-to-DVD movie we could find on the shelf (Hint: Lionsgate likely guarantees a winner).

Yes, it's from the authors of The Cybernetic Samurai.So I love watching B-movies: the ham-fisted acting, the amateur camerawork, the cheaper than cheap special effects.   But until recently, I never thought about reading B-…books.  Some things I am powerless to resist, though, and when I came upon Runespear in a used bookstore, I had no choice.  I had to buy it.  The cover was what piqued my interest, at first.  A giant man with an eye patch and a spear, whose torso inexplicably melds into a mountain range?  Tell me that wouldn’t wouldn’t grab your attention.  Considering it indirectly led to me buying the book, it may well be a pretty clever cover — but in my mind it conjured up a long history of cheesy paperback science fiction and fantasy, pumped out in such mass quantities that better representatives of the genres are lost in the noise.  Still, there’s something kind of fascinating about sci-fi and fantasy covers from the 50s and 60s, some winning mixture of camp and cliche and weirdness that makes them fun to look at, even if the books themselves are pretty terrible.

With a general interest in sci-fi covers suddenly triggered by Runespear, I flipped the book over to read the back, but man was I not even slightly prepared for the sheer ridiculous joy wrapped up in its brief plot description.  It’s like the perfect mixture of genre cliches and powerful goofiness — Nazis, Indiana Jones ripoff Rafe Springer, Norse mythology, and…British Professor Melbourne Shrewsbury.  The greatest name of all time?  Quite possibly.  Naturally, I had to buy it.

Reading it, on the other hand, was a different matter.  Could a book that looked so hilariously awful actually be fun to read, or would it simply be dull and painful?  I waited a few weeks before taking the plunge, but the results pleasantly surprised me.  The characters clung to adventure cliches and the writing occasionally dipped into bizarrely overwrought analogies, but for the most part it was descriptive and entertaining.  And every time I found myself criticizing the writing, I realized I probably couldn’t write an entire novel with the same degree of creativity.  Maybe it wasn’t so bad after all.  My brain could also be permanently damaged from watching too many B-movies, but next time I see a mass market paperback with a hideously awful cover, I might have to give it a try.  And if you ever come across Runespear, buy it.  You probably won’t regret it.

Three Days of the Condor

I liked spy movies better when they used phone booths.

The paths we take to movies can be strange, sometimes.  Case in point: after I first listened to an audio book of John Grisham’s The Pelican Brief more than half a decade ago, Three Days of the Condor set up shop in a tiny corner of my brain.  Grisham’s shadowy assassin loves Three Days of the Condor because it’s familiar territory for him: a smart espionage thriller set in a world of hired killer, government operatives, and code names.  All I gleaned from the brief reference was that it was a spy movie with Robert Redford, and that was enough to keep it bouncing around in my mind until the time was right to finally see it.

And when I did, imagine my surprise when Redford turned out to be a computer geek (to the extent that was even possible in 1975) dealing with arcane bits of data in a cleverly disguised CIA office.  The technology of spy movies has certainly moved on since Three Days of the Condor was released — and it seems like the world has, too.  It’s a movie I’ve never heard mentioned or seen on TV, though perhaps I’m not talking to the right people or watching the right channels.  But you’d think one of the smartest thrillers ever made — with a talented pair like Sydney Pollack directing and Robert Redford starring — would show up a little more often.

Three Days of the Condor begins innocently, introducing you to a small group of CIA researchers, which makes their murder all the more abrupt when it happens.  From that point on, it’s intensity overdrive, with Redford gradually shedding his bookworm persona to become more confident, more daring, more in control.  Unlike most thrillers, in which the gun is the weapon of choice, Redford fights primarily with information.  For most of the film he’s fighting to figure out who wants him dead, and why, he knows it’s something he knows.  So he’s constantly thinking and planning, desperate to untangle the knot of secrets surrounding him before he’s caught.

The weakest link of the movie is Faye Dunaway’s presence as a requisite love interest.  Her acting is by no means bad, but after Redford hijacks her and her car and holes up in her apartment to lie low, their ensuing romance is slightly unbelievable.  Then again, it’s pretty standard fare for these types of movies — I don’t know if we can write it of as Stockholm syndrome or simply accept that people in emotionally charged situations tend to develop feelings for each other, but the romantic subplot is the only element of Three Days of the Condors that plays it by the book.  And really, it’s pretty hard to imagine anyone could resist Robert Redford in his prime.

We’re obviously geared to love Redford from the start, but Max von Sydow utterly steals the show during the finale, driving home a magnificently taut twist ending that’s far too good to spoil.  From the first time Sydow appears on screen, we know quite clearly that he is the enemy, that he is cold, merciless, and evil.  But by the end…he is, perhaps, the most respectable character in the film.

Watch Three Days of the Condors for the fun of keeping up with the plot.  Watch it for Redford or Max von Sydow.  Watch it for the 70s charm of ancient computers and phone booths.  But definitely watch it, because thrillers that brew intensity and brains into this fine a cocktail are few and far between.

The Many (Frightening) Faces of Robert De Niro

Bang.

As part of an ongoing summer campaign to catch up on the all-too numerous pop culture landmarks I’ve somehow missed over the years, I recently found myself watching two of Scorsese’s most famous movies, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, within the span of a couple days.   While both fantastic films, neither would top my list of Scorsese’s best.  But with all the acclaim Raging Bull gets, it would have to be damn incredible to outmatch my expectations.

As a boxing film, I think I prefer the story of Rocky more.  Stallone’s original manages to capture something special about boxing as a way of life.  It draws in the 70s culture, and admirably balances the sad state of urban decay with Rocky’s heart and clumsy romance.  But Raging Bull is an altogether different movie — after all, it’s based on a real man, a real story, and has a narrower focus.  And for the first time in a long time, it made me appreciate what an amazing actor De Niro is.  So when I was going into Taxi Driver, an idea was already crystallizing in my mind.  I wondered: would Travis Bickle disturb me more than Jake La Motta?

Few biographical films can match the intensity of Raging Bull.  Of course, few biographical films are directed by Martin Scorsese — but the cinematography, editing, and sound work during the boxing matches are absolutely incredible, creating this sharp, powerful edge that goes beyond the typical heavy-handed (no pun intended) sound effects of Hollywood brawls.

Still, as impressed as I was with the filming, De Niro’s acting undeniably deserves even more praise.  His portrayal of Jake La Motta had to be one of the most realistic — yet inhuman — performances I’ve ever seen.  He seemed all too believable at times, which was what made La Motta’s madness so difficult to watch.  In one moment, he clearly adores his wife and cares deeply for his brother.  In another, he stands in the ring, absorbing blow after blow as blood and sweat fly from his body, daring his opponent to continue, enjoying it.  I haven’t seen too many depictions of masochism in movies, but unlike Bill Murray’s hilarious bit part in Little Shop of Horrors, De Niro’s masochist is chillingly insane.

The way De Niro captures La Motta’s calm moments really highlights his shocking ones.  And as the film goes on, it’s not just the pleasure he pulls from violence that eats away at you — it’s his constant, neverending jealousy and insecurity, which builds and builds until it’s clear something is seriously wrong with him.

That’s about where Travis Bickle comes in.  Maybe it’s because Taxi Driver dips further into extremity than Raging Bull, or maybe it’s because I already knew more about the film’s main character, but I actually found Travis to be less disturbing than La Motta.  What’s interesting is how well De Niro plays crazy, but in completely different ways.  Travis is obviously unbalanced and deranged from the very start — he can barely relate to other people, suffers serious insomnia, and harbors a volatile anger that he gradually feels right in letting loose.  That he plans to die by story’s end indicates he simply can’t cope with the world — or how he sees the world, anyway — and has to simply mark it with destruction before leaving for good.

Given that Taxi Driver is fiction and Raging Bull is grounded in history, saying Travis is more of a character than LaMotta may seem pretty obvious.  But it’s true.  And what’s scarier to watch — a homicidal madman, only a step removed from serial killer territory, or a man subtly coming apart as his life progresses, who thrives on pain and slowly self-destructs, both in his personal life and his career?

Yeah, I guess both of them are pretty disturbing!  For my money, LaMotta is the true madman, and De Niro deserved his Oscar.  Maybe it’s time I watched Cape Fear.