Thursday, 17 April 2014

Fantastic Mr Fox

I very much wanted to see Fantastic Mr Fox when it was in cinemas, but somehow it slipped by without my managing to get my bum in a seat. And then it wasn't until five years later, after having seen director Wes Anderson's latest - The Grand Budapest Hotel - that I remembered I wanted to watch it and finally got hold of a copy. 

And this is exactly the sort of film I'd expect the maker of that film to make for children. Highly idiosyncratic, understated, oddly-paced and thoroughly modern, it may be irreverent to Roald Dahl but it is also a wonderful tangent for an auteur to go off on given a strong starting point. And if, somehow, you didn't notice the fixation with the centre line and how symmetry can draw attention to it in The Grand Budapest Hotel, I'd certainly hope you'd see it here. 

I mentioned Dahl, and indeed, this was one of the books I read in my childhood. I can't say that I ranked it as one of my favourites, though - it was no BFG, or Matilda, or either of the Charlie books. There's not much of an emotional arc to the book, though it had Dahl's trademark nasty streak, which is largely replaced here with the theme of how awkward communication can be that Anderson seems to very much enjoy. Other than that, really, what Anderson takes from Dahl is the setting - fox vs three nasty farmers - the symbol of contrition that is a tail being cut off and, in a way, the ending. What comes in the middle is all Anderson, and even more than a highly disciplined mise-en-scene, what seems to be his calling card is glib, naturalistic dialogue in which people often don't really listen to each other and often want to talk about their problems in a way that makes other uncomfortable. Very distinctive - and very bizarre to see in an animated film, which is partly what makes this so enjoyable. 

Somehow, there's just a slight edge of absurdity added to an awkward young boy who thinks he can't live up to his father's expectations feeling upstaged by the taller, more athletic cousin who has come to live with them being foxes rather than humans. There's a really amusing surrealist spark to the inclusion of mundane family issues into this film, only for the foxes to wildly attack their food and remind you of what they are. On the other hand, the dryness of the dialogue and the somewhat drab aesthetic probably make this an animation that adults will enjoy more than kids do. 

The film is somewhat unique and stands alone. I find myself wondering what would have been different had Henry Selick stayed on this project rather than going to work on Coraline, but equally I'm glad both exist and have the fingerprints of their makers all over them. Fantastic Mr Fox is an oddity, and isn't necessarily one for the Dahl aficionados, but I find it rather an enjoyable companion piece.  

Thursday, 10 April 2014

イナズマイレブン / Inazuma Eleven: season 2

As season 2 of Inazuma Eleven kicks off, they fully embrace that charming incredibly-stupid-and-over-the-top-idea-done-very-sincerely style of storytelling that nothing at the moment does as well as anime and its related media - like the Inazuma Eleven games. 

If the first series' story of a ragtag group of football-playing boys with pure hearts and lots of shounen-tastic FEELINGS going undefeated from incomplete and unpracticed school team to national champions who can beat others with powers that are literally godly sounded daft, just wait for this. Is the next level competing with adult teams? Foreign children from nations like Brazil? Oh no. No, what happens in season 2 is that aliens show up and begin destroying cities with their cannonball-like footballs. Who is assembled to fight them off with football? World cup teams? The Japanese national players? No no - the schoolchildren of Raimon Junior High. Of course! 

Not without some roster changes, however. When Aliea Academy first appear, they injure many of the team and render them out of commission for the entire season - including my favourite Handa and his close friend Max, as well as the funny little dot-eyed kid. 

Other players depart on journeys of self-discovery, including star striker Hitsugaya...wait, sorry, Gouenji. Speedy girly-boy Kazemaru and funny little buck-toothed midfielder Kurimatsu last a while but eventually feel they have to leave the team, though may well return. 

To fill these gaps, a whole lot of colourful characters are needed. Strange, quiet boy with an uncanny knack for befriending the ladies Fubuki becomes a star player for a while, but has issues up the whazoo and essentially serves as a benchmark for the others to catch up to. Two girls join the team - the prime minister's tomboyish daughter after Aliea Academy go so far as to kidnap him, and an outspoken gyaru-type. Then there is the little prankster Kogure-kun and brash surfing savant Tsunami. 

Most uselessly, but most adorably, is the Endou fanboy Tachimukai, who they put on the team despite the fact he's really a goalkeeper, and soon becomes the weak link, which is strangely adorable because he tries so hard. The series ends with the dramatic appearance of an old ally and an old foe, who work together to defeat one of Aliea Academy's three top teams. Then comes a curious cliffhanger ahead of the short third season. 

The scale has become even more ridiculous than ever before - and characters in the previous series were stopping time and summoning vast stone walls. Here there are wormholes and great demons - but there's a sort of dispensation for madness when it comes to sports special moves, and it's more of a surprise that you get aliens and explosions and huge submarine training facilities (for school football teams) and presidential kidnappings. It's that silly a series. 

And yet at the heart of it is the relationships between the various young boys, their fiery rivalries and strong bonds. That's really the point of this anime, probably of all sports and indeed school anime - and it does it far too well to ignore. I didn't know when I set out that I'd want to finish this story, that I would end up starting to associate Takeuchi Junko's voice with Endou more than with Naruto, and be very happy to enjoy more and more series. 

Monday, 7 April 2014

マギ/ Magi season 2: The Kingdom of Magic

With its opening episode containing a play about the adventures of the main characters with some exotic casting, the similarities between this series and Avatar came to an end...with it instead becoming Harry Potter with Dragonball Z-style flying battles and power-ups. 

If that sounds disparaging, it isn't: I continue to love Magi and its cast of daft characters, its colourful world and its occasional very affecting tragedies. This second series opens with an awesome flash-forward, a cold opening with Aladdin showing his real powers, and possibly going rogue - and then the action returns to the point we left off at. 

The four main heroes each go their own way, seeking to improve their powers. Alibaba joins some formidable gladiators; Morgianna manages to meet a wandering Magi; Hakuryu seems to have fallen in with Judar; and little Aladdin? Well, he goes off to wizard school, hiding his true powers to infiltrate a country where he feels something mysterious and sinister is happening. 

This starts sweetly enough, with his suppressed power meaning he ends up put in the lowest class and has to work his way up, gaining allies and rivals on the way, of course, eventually finding what he is looking for in wizened old Mogamett, who has lived a long time - and developed a philosophy of wizards being an oppressed people who need to be raised to dominance. 

Unfortunately, Mogamett's extreme measure of having an underclass providing 'Ryuk' for a wizarding society while trapped underground sets him against Aladdin, but things really develop when the Leam empire - led by Scheherazade in the last of the Arabian Nights references - launches an invasion against the small wizarding kingdom. The Kou Empire is also on the move, and it seems very likely that Sinbad will want a piece of the action as well. 

The real antagonist, however, is none of these powerful nations, but the hidden society manipulating Mogamett from behind the scenes, giving him power that might just bring their dark god into this world. 
The story is a little convoluted, but comes together well - even if poor Alibaba, even vastly improving his powers, gets totally overshadowed. 

The series remains one of the prettiest on television just now, and shows its shounen colours rather more clearly this season. It's another one where the power creep with the characters has now reached a point that it's a little absurd, and I do wonder where the series will go from now, but I must say...providing they may more, and I sincerely hope they do, I will certainly be on board. 

And if they don't, well, I will just have to become a manga reader. 

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Adventure Time - Season V

The fifth series of Adventure Time was long - 52 of its half-episodes, spread out over more than a year, sometimes with only one or two episodes in a month. 

Thus, it seems like a long while since the cliffhanger of season IV, in which we were introduced to the mysterious Farm World, created when Finn wishes that the Lich had never existed. This of course goes awry, but Jake isn't too bothered because he has met a very chilled-out omnipotent being and is able to put things right. 

The numerous episodes since tend to fall into three brackets - straightforward, simple little stories, which are where the show mostly feels a bit tired - though Finn does get a flashy new sword; episodes referring back to previous bits of continuity and bringing them forward, such as where the Ice King regains his sanity and brings someone from his past back; and the out-and-out weird and experimental, like when everything is done in glitchy CG or when an episode is dominated by James Baxter the Horse on his unicycle. 

Really, though a few of the episodes could have been dispensed with and I wasn't a personal fan of the Lemon Hope saga, it was the interplay between these three that keep me watching and make me feel like there's more for the show to say - at a time when plenty of shows have outstayed their welcome. 

I am still interested in Simon's backstory. I am still interested in Finn's inept stabs at relationships. 

I am still interested in Treetrunks and her shady past, Bubblegum and her far shadier one, and even the Earl of Lemongrab with his numerous clones. 

The show can still shock me, like when Lumpy Space Princess misunderstands a device for sending things back in time and blatantly kills someone - only to be made to forget all about it. And I am interested in this newest cliffhanger, and where Season VI will take it. 

From its humble beginnings with the web pilot, I really thought that Adventure Time would either burn very brightly and briefly before ending or that it would get very tired and end up a bad parody of itself. 

There's something in its formula - including occasionally churning out a brainless, uninteresting episode - that makes it stay interesting and relevant, though. I'm not sure what it is, but I'm glad it's there. 

Monday, 17 March 2014

とある飛空士への追憶 / To Aru Hikuushi-e no Tsuioku / Recollections For a Certain Pilot / The Princess and the Pilot

I'm not entirely sure why I decided to get hold of The Princess and the Pilot a while back - it took a while to get around to watching it and I've forgotten whether I just wanted another interesting-looking Madhouse film to watch or if somehow, from the Japanese title, I thought it had something to do with the 'To Aru' series (Index, Railgun et al), which I am currently enjoying. Either way, I got it, forgot about it for a while, and then finally got around to watching it. 

The Princess and the Pilot is something a little different from the usual Madhouse film, which I suppose is to be respected. Most Madhouse standalone films have a certain everyday quality, a real-world grounding, even when concerning werewolf children or time-travelling teenagers. There's a remoteness to The Princess and the Pilot, an otherworldliness to its fantasy setting, even though its fantastical elements are rooted in reality and nothing magical or particularly outlandish happens. 

In the world of this film, which largely resembles our own in the early 20th Century, there is a war on between the Levamme Kingdom and the Amatsukami Empire. If that sounds vaguely European and heavily Japanese to you, respectively, I suspect that this is no coincidence. Levamme could be Imperial Russia or Britain or even the US, and we can extrapolate a few things from the names which are largely either British or Italian, and possibly even from the hatless American-style indoor salute, but when it comes down to it, this is a fantasy world and Levamme is a homogenised 'The West'. Levamme, meanwhile, is a slightly unsettling fantasy of Japanese empire. They are the 'bad guys', yes, but they are an established Empire with superior technology to all around them, honourable and highly skilled pilots and - in case you are unsure if this global empire is really Japan - a code of 'samurai' one-on-one duels. To make things worse, the two eponymous main characters are really the only likeable characters in the whole thing, save perhaps the pilot's one friend at the start and the captain at the end with the twinkle in his eye, and other than that everyone in Levamme seems to be a nasty piece of work who is deeply racist against 'bestados', not far from the Portuguese 'abestado' but more like 'bastard' - the racist term for half-Amatsukami kids who suffer a life of extreme prejudice. 

In this unpleasant world, one bestado has managed to rise up to become the flying ace of the Levamme Kingdom - our hero Charles, amusingly rendered 'Sharuru'. He is entrusted with an important mission - to take the kingdom's princess covertly through enemy lines to her Prince, that they may be married and troop morale bolstered. Of course, things don't go smoothly, the princess Fana is extremely good-natured but accident prone and the idiot prince has leaked the nature of the mission to the enemy, leading to many close calls. There is a nice moment where the mercenary Charles reveals that what he said about being incentivised by money was not actually true, and that really what he wants is to finally take on a mission to save someone rather than to kill, but largely their trip is a long, tedious one and the romance that springs up between them is strained and awkward, entirely lacking in chemistry largely because neither of them is very interesting. 

This is the central flaw of the film that all the high-octane aerial dogfights and near-drowning scenes can't make up for - it never makes its central characters interesting, and with almost no other characters getting significant screentime, that's a huge problem. It doesn't have the redemption, comedy or subtle romance of Porco Rosso,with which it shares much terrain, so to speak. It is all very sincere, but there's very little heart there, and the contrivance that the two had met in their childhoods is very strained and lacks credibility. 

Not a waste of time to see, but certainly not a favourite, or one I would recommend to any but the biggest fans of aerial combat. 

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

ソードアート・オンライン Extra Edition / Sword Art Online: Extra Edition

Not a whole lot to write about this 'special episode', but since it is, after all, movie-length, I thought it worth an entry. 

Extra Edition is a mishmash of throwaway extra episode - about an underwater quest that gives Kirito yet another chance to be the one who saves the day - a recap of the series and a whole lot of swimsuit fanservice of the main girls. None of them are particularly interesting, and it's quite odd to say that it was actually the part that usually so rankles - the flashbacks - that I enjoyed the most. Because it reminded me of what Sword Art Online looked like it was going to be back when it first aired. 

I don't think that the backlash against any popular season has been so universal and so harsh. Attack on Titan is beginning to have the customary backlash every popular series has, but it's still mostly small pockets of detractors against legions of fans. My personal dislike for Code Geass outweighs my dislike for Sword Art Online, but I was aware that was a minority view. With Sword Art Online, though, not only was the swing from it being a big hit to what seems like every anime fan in the world sneering at it more extreme than even what the likes of Naruto and Dragonball Z suffered, it happened before the initial two-season run had even finished. 

Which, of course, SAO did to itself. What the recaps reminded me was that the series began with great promise - a likeable, vulnerable adolescent protagonist adrift in a fantasy world, stuck yet given the tools to protect himself, even putting himself forward to be seen as a villain for the greater good. Only later did it devolve into the meanderings of a do-no-wrong sap and his bland harem overcoming the constraints of computer programs through the power of feelings. For a while, Sword Art Online looked like it was going to be very good. 

Which is why, I suppose, it got a big fandom, and why episodes like this could be made. But what follows is pretty embarrassing. The underwater adventure is sub-Digimon prattle, without a likeable crew to spice up the journey. And the swimsuit parts are the kind of brainless fanservice that people rolled their eyes at - yet bought - in the early 2000s. Everything about this feels regressive, well-trod and boring. I didn't even watch the whole thing in a single sitting, or even two - something very rare for me. 

Yet something keeps me coming back. This was bad, but I know that if another special were released tomorrow, I'd watch that too. I still like the art style, and Kirito's design - and want to see him become vulnerable and interesting again. I still like the concept and am curious about the other worlds I've seen on the covers of the light novels. I still feel like something clever might come out of the whole thing, despite all the evidence to the contrary. And if I'm a sucker for thinking so, oh well - it's not a whole lot of time to commit, and I will go on being suckered for as long as they pump this stuff out. 

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Transformers - G1 season 1

I may have been very keen on Thundercats, and probably consider it the better cartoon today, the cartoon I loved above all others as a young child was Transformers. There's a long list of cartoons I loved and will eventually revisit - MASK, Inspector Gadget, He-Man and She-Ra, plus all the home-grown cartoons like The Raggy Dolls, The Poddington Peas, The Family Ness, Trap Door, Stoppit and Tidyup and The Shoe People. And now that we're making a list I can't leave out the quirky Mysterious Cities of Gold - need to finish Season 2 soon - and its sister Ulysses 31. Or, indeed, that Betamax to the VHS of Transformers that is the Go-Bots

For all that I loved the Transformers, though, I can't say that these episodes of the very first season were familiar to me - and they deserve their reputation for being very low-quality in production terms. Of all the big 80s cartoons, only He-Man is this clunky. There are constant colouring errors, with characters that share very similar designs constantly being confused, layering errors and plain bad animation choices. Grimlock and Devastator have robot heads that keep changing. Thundercats had its iffy parts, but every episode of Transformers is stuffed full of them - something compounded by the DVD I was watching, from the Kid Rhino remasters, had gone back to pre-broadcast masters that contained even more animation errors than made it to the original airings, for the sake of better overall picture quality. Luckily, the latest DVDs from Shout! have mostly fixed these problems - but I don't have those. 

My Transformers is really the Transformers of the latter part of the second season and the movie - which I will still defend. I didn't see much of season 3 - I don't think it made it to terrestrial television in the UK, so what episodes I saw were bought on VHS. Similarly, I don't remember a this season either, with only Heavy Metal War as part of my modest video collection. My brother and I didn't know at the time that the Marvel Comics continuity was different from that of the cartoon, so until I rewatched these initial 16 episodes I thought the Dinobots were created to deal with Shockwave but trapped in a tar pit. That's only in the comics - here, they are simply built. If anyone asks about the later need for Vector Sigma to activate new Transformers, you either hand-wave frantically and talk about supercomputers being needed to make intelligent bots but regular ones being able to make simple-minded robots, or you just point to the numerous contradictions within the cartoon (just try to trace the Constricticons' origins) and run away. 

The fact is that Transformers is simply not well thought-out. The plots are clearly utterly thrown-together and often nonsensical. Reasons for the Decepticons retreating can be as simplistic as having some foam on them. In one episode, Skyfire is honoured as having sacrificed himself for the rest, and then after only a couple more, they dig him up when they need a lift and he's alive and well. The pilot episodes end with the Transformers preparing to return to Cybertron...and then they just pretend that never happened. Most egregiously of all, the show never gives adequate reason for the robots to ever need to transform, which is rather the key point of the whole series. Soundwave will turn into a tape player to sneak into a station...but the giant robots can just rip the walls apart and walk in anyway, so why bother? Why does Reflector need to change into a camera to look at a code when the robots all have these capacities in their eyes? There's a vague sense of powering up by transforming - the Dinobots' dinosaur forms are like heavy artillery, Megatron's entire form being a gun makes him more powerful than just using his fusion cannon, and the Autobots who for whatever reason cannot fly get places faster by being vehicles, but the premise is robots in disguise, and given that they do not fool one another and are so much stronger than the puny humans that they have no need whatsoever to fool them, there's never any call for a disguise.

For this first season, I must say that I entirely sympathise with the critics who condemn the cartoon as a poorly-made excuse to sell toys. It's undeniable that this is not a cartoon made out of love for telling a story. A whole lot more effort could have been put into this. The times it looks awesome are far outweighed by the times it looks stupid, the human characters are all absurd - especially 'hacker' Chip Chase, who can somehow completely remote-control a super-advanced living robot on his 80s computer - and Megatron's vague plans to get 'energy' soon becomes bizarre, once he has access to Cybertron and could go and harvest energy anywhere. The cast is also plain outsized, so the likes of Skywarp, Blue Streak and Windcharger aren't exactly unique enough to be well-remembered. 

And yet - there is a certain sparkle here, and it's not just nostalgia talking. There's a reason Transformers excelled beyond various very similar franchises, and it wasn't just the marketing machine, which was also present with its competitors. Even if the series never really gets there with the explanations, the transforming robots thing still captures the imagination and the sound they made for it is perfect. And in common with the Go-Bots and Thundercats - especially once the Lunataks arrived - one of the key factors to Transformers being compelling is that the bad guys are not just cackling maniacs, though Megatron is little more than this, with plenty of hubris. What is crucial, though, is that he is surrounded by such a colourful crew of fellow baddies - the hilarious Starscream, always trying to usurp Megatron and mocking him yet being entirely ineffectual, the hilariously deadpan Soundwave with his awesome shoulder bazooka, and his snappy little streetpunk tape Rumble, who I'm oddly glad became the nicer-looking blue robot despite the well-known controversy. Looking into the extant fandom I found lots of cutesy 'Daddy Soundwave' art, with Rumble and Frenzy as his badly-behaved kids and Ravage and Laserbeak his pets, something which has no more support in canon than Soundwave stroking Ravage in 'Heavy Metal War', but my god it plucked my heartstrings in a funny way. 

This first series was laying the groundwork for something better. In season 2, there would be a lot more development for the primary cast, the animation would gradually improve and the new characters would often add a lot to the dynamic of the teams rather than simply exist somewhere in the background. I still feel the Transformers series is defensible - even good. But that's with a few provisos, and one of those is that it isn't judged purely on its first series. Because much as I enjoy every episode, that's with a fair bit of cringing.