Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Aggressive Retsuko: We Wish You a Metal Christmas

This short Christmas special was a welcome fix of this cute animal world. Now that the show is a Netflix anime, I do feel like there’s a slightly more Western feeling to it and the ways the characters interact, as though major plot points were suggested by foreign execs, but I can’t say I’m complaining. Just dipping back into this world brings a smile to my face.

The plot is in large part a way to continue from the cliffhanger of the main season but end up more or less in the same place as it started. Haida-kun has to keep on working hard and taking baby steps, which will presumably bridge into a new season that maintains the status quo a bit more than I thought it might.

One problem with having watched the original and the Netflix reboot almost on top of one another is that I forgot which parts aren’t in this continuity. For example, I had to wonder whether that hippo was ever investigated for being an international spy for a little while. And interestingly, it seemed like Washimi and Gori took a step back towards their original roles of being somewhat regular older women in the workplace who are as unlucky in love as Retsuko. They were a lot more with-it in the reboot.

There’s not much to say here. The story basically follows the tensions of what to do on Christmas Eve, a big date night in Japan. Retsuko is getting addicted to Instagram and is trying to find the perfect pic to upload for her followers. Meanwhile, Haida is hoping to pluck up the courage to ask her out. The show is now held aloft by these relationship tensions, and it is a great way to keep things intriguing. But there’s only one outburst from Retsuko’s inner metalhead and I’m starting to wonder if the show will run short of ideas in a new season.

It certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome in a half-hour Christmas special, though, and I enjoyed it start to finish.

Sunday, 23 December 2018

The Incredibles 2

While certainly one of the less outright iconic and emotionally affecting Pixar movies, I definitely think of the first Incredibles movie fondly. It's nice to see what happened next, even if after a frenetic opening with plenty of interesting character dynamics, we find out that not much has changed.
In an effort to get Supers legitimized again, Mr. and Mrs. Incredible team up with a telecommunications firm who essentially aim to improve their PR. Because Mr. Incredible is so destructive, they choose Mrs. Incredible - AKA Elastigirl - as their opening gambit, meaning Mr. Incredible is left to be a single dad for a while. That leads to some very funny and well-judged scenes of Mr. Incredible alternately struggling, seeking help and having genuinely sweet breakthroughs with his kids.

This is most likely the strongest portion of the movie. The rest of it suffers somewhat from not really seeming like anything special. Brad Bird's best movies are when there's really heavy emotional hits - The Iron Giant will likely always be his masterpiece - but there aren't really meaningful emotional stakes here. The bad guy was only ever going to be one of two possible new characters (or possibly both) so there's no weight to the reveal. Despite the fun set-up of Elastigirl getting the limelight and Mr. Incredible having to deal with his conceptions of his own superiority, that kind of gets left undeveloped when the battles kick off and everyone has to get involved. It also seems a bit weird that nobody reacts to the latest episode of the Supers causing massive damage because of a supervillain who basically exists only because Supers exist in the same way that they always did, too. Overall, the story felt too much like an episode of a spin-off TV show and honestly, it wasn't a whole lot different from Despicable Me 3

There were some great moments as usual. Edna has always been the best thing about The Incredibles and that remains true here. Baby Jack-Jack is adorable and a fun element of chaos in the mix. I loved the theme songs they made for the characters at the end, especially Frozone's funky one. And I liked Violet going from shrinking violet to stroppy teen. From the trailers I wasn't sure, but by the end I was won over by the new direction they took her, and her moment when her father apologises to her probably is the scene with the most heart. 

Obviously, the visuals and animation are top-notch as always, with elements like fire, ice, underwater scenes and midair battles all spectacular throughout. Wouldn't have minded a post-credits scene, though. 

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Miraculous, les aventures de Ladybug et Chat Noir / Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir / Miraculous Ladybug: saison 2

Something about the first season of Ladybug hooked me in. There were a lot of things I found fault with - I liked the character designs for the main characters and the antagonist, but a lot of the minor characters looked iffy and generally the show's movements are still in that floaty, clunky area so common in weekly computer animation. The villain-of-the-week plotting got tedious and the 'Lucky Charm' gimmick removed quite a bit of tension from the set-ups. Yet still I found myself wanting to watch more and more. And I spelled it out in my impressions of season 1 - what kept me coming back was the slow-burning but adorable romance where our heroine is in love with the boy in her class, but he is in love with her superhero form, and neither knows the other's secret identity. Marinette and Adrien are absolutely one of the cutest pairs I can ever remember being in Western animation, and I really do want to know how it all unfolds. 

So this was the problem the writers have for season 2 - people are coming back to look for developments in that relationship drama, which is absolutely the heart and soul of this show. But if they just outright jump forward to the pair finding out they're in love with one another in different forms, there's not much else to keep the show going. And goodness knows having that kind of drama actually play out often backfires - having Aang and Katara actually get together in Avatar or Yuugo confess to Amalia even though he's stuck in a body that never ages just ended up sloppy. And yes, this relationship drama is much more natural than those were and there can't be many fans of the show at this point hoping those two don't get together (even if I personally could totally buy both of them realizing they actually prefer their own gender in the end, in the Korra vein), but essentially the writers had two choices - bring the relationship drama to a head while setting up a more epic and all-consuming plotline that would keep people coming back for more no matter what the relationship is doing (the route the aforementioned shows took) or to slowly, slowly tease out more nuggets of intrigue in the relationship story while sticking with the villain-of-the-week format. 

They went for the latter route, and it just about works. Just about. But certainly at times things get stretched thin. A lot of the villains of the week are insipid, and it's only at the very end that Papillon mixes things up and almost wins after trying the same old nonsense way too many times. I couldn't bring myself to care about the heroes getting new powers like being able to operate underwater or on ice, nor about their friends getting to try out being superpowered for a while. 

The way every single minor character, from the rock musician's assistant to the brothers and sisters of tritagonists, has to get a villain form gets a bit silly, and I guess at some point we have to find out why the akumatisations happen only in the vicinity of the heroes, even in their supposedly hidden identities. The fact that the accidental transformation of a baby actually makes for one of the show's more memorable villains this season just speaks to how uninteresting most of them are. 

So the show lives and dies on the strength of that central relationship. Does it work? Just about. By the skin of the writer's teeth, there's enough for me to say this season was a success. But it really is just barely short of being too much filler with far too little killer. 

Yes, it’s worth sitting through an episode where the manservant becomes a teddy bear if there’s a slow dance between everyone’s OTP. Sure, it’s worth a battle with a stupid ice cream giant when you can have an adorable scene where Chat Noir prepares a candlelit dinner for Ladybug, gets stood up and then unloads to Marinette. An episode about the headmaster trying to be an owl-themed superhero becomes genuinely exciting when the two superheroes are forced to turn back into their regular selves right in front of one another, only their shared trust stopping them from finding out who their counterpart is. Sure, the monster of the week being the henchman turning into a King Kong type with a name that seems embarrassingly not to realise the name ‘Godzilla’ already came from the word ‘Gorilla’ (plus ‘Kujira’, whale), but look – Marinette and Adrien basically dating and watching a movie that’s super-important to Adrien! Plus Papillon’s idea that Adrien might be Chat Noir gets shut down.

Some episodes are just good concepts with good villains and fun relationship drama together, usually when the writers play with the formula a little. The season opener where Gabriel cleverly gets himself akumatized to throw the scent off him is both clever and humanising for the antagonist, whose somewhat Nox-like motivations are becoming clearer as the show goes on. While the villain of the week being a random TV host was a bit of a stretch, confronting the two heroes with scandalous pictures really ramped up the shipping drama for a very enjoyable episode. Similarly, Adrien and Marinette just happening to end up having to portray Chat Noir and Ladybug for a TV show was a whole lot of fun. The season finale, while perhaps not pushing things quite as far as I’d hoped, at least showed Papillon and his sidekick-assistant try something new when the same plan had failed several dozen times in a row. I also really liked the introduction of Marc, an adorable and very feminine boy (going by synopses, at least – the character could well be revealed not to identify as male) and how the show seems quite happy to have a gay couple and a lesbian couple in the school, even if it’s only in the background. It’s also fun that the show enjoys having its characters act contrary to their usual selves, be it evil Ladybug, scardey Chat Noir, weird horror movie twitching nightmare Adrien or sensitive, vulnerable Chloe. Oh, and, uh, if you wanna see Chat Noir tied up cruciform, blindfolded, scared and with a round object in his mouth for no reason at all (it could totally have been in his hand), yeaaah, the show has you covered there too.  

Typically, there’s also a love rival introduced for both characters. I didn’t much like Luka but I could see why Marinette would, and Kagami is a likeable character and it’s amusing they’re hinting at Adrien having yellow fever, but they’re both basically being set up to fail and their episodes weren’t the strongest, including when they were brought together for skating. It’s a nice touch of realism that the characters might have other possible love interests instead of only one true soulmate 4eva, but at least for now they just feel like plot elements rather than actual characters.

Once again, the show was released in a wild schedule all around the world. Fans found and posted the episodes where possible, but I don’t think the whole season has aired anywhere in the world yet. Some episodes came out first in France, others England, Canada, Spain, Switzerland, even Brazil! It’s a bit bizarre but I suppose it means we got episodes early, even if I had to watch some dubbed!

I am still hooked on this show and definitely want more. Preferably more episodes where there’s a solid plot and the monster just appears peripherally while proper plot development builds. I don’t need more sidekicks or superhero versions of classmates. I’d much prefer a sustained storyline where the emotional content can keep building. But in all honestly, I’ll lap up whatever I get. Well, weird dialogue-free chibi-style mini-episodes don’t count. So bring it on – in however many years it will take for the next season to come out.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

はたらく細胞 / Hataraku Saibou / Cells at Work

I’ve mentioned it a couple of times already, but the trend of having anime about personified versions of animals, machines and objects is having a comeback. A decade or two it was all the rage, and my personal favourite version was when operating systems became the OS-tans, but let us not forget I once watched a (super cute) anime about a personified piece of charcoal.

These days we have horse girls, sword boys, bullet train mecha and, yes, cells at work. And of all of them, I have to say I think it’s the cells that work the best. Not only is it an extremely easy idea to work with (cells as people) but it provides a perfect opportunity for that classic of anime writing – starting with a happy-go-lucky concept but then letting things go dark and semi-apocalyptic for the big finale. Which I’m a total sucker for.

One of the fun things about watching Cells at Work is that there’s a doctor on YouTube who also gives analysis of the concepts raised here. He’s currently on episode 3 but I’m looking forward to watching more. He also comments on House and had a little spat with a more famous doctor in the US who did the same idea for his own YouTube channel, and it made me remember how I used to watch that show and read the blog posts from a medical doctor. It’s fun to hear an expert’s opinion, especially on a pretty silly anime show.

And this definitely isn’t the first time cells have been personified. The doctor talks about French cartoon Once Upon a Time … Life and then there’s the thematically even more similar Osmosis Jones. Plus you could argue Inside Out and other personifications of mental processes are on similar lines. But Cells At Work is definitely its own unique take on the idea, perfectly balancing cuteness, humour, action and sentimentality.

We primarily follow a particularly hapless red blood cell, whose ahoge marks her somewhat airheaded character as she tries her best but keeps getting lost. She repeatedly gets saved by a white blood cell who got his hairstyling tips from Mushishi, and the two form an unlikely friendship. The first half of the show is actually more centred on the white blood cell, a neutrophil, as his different comrades in the immune system like macrophages and killer T cells are introduced. Then we shift back to the red blood cell as she gets more responsible and finally gets a neophyte of her own to train.

The joy of the world creation here comes from the inventive ways different cells are characterised. The helper T cell is a bookish commander, the dendritic cell lives in a tree and helps other cells to develop and the cancer cells are normal cells who have undergone a mutation and started to harm the tissue around them – with a clever few that blend in with the rest.

Plus the show goes VERY heavy on cuteness. Not only is the main character pretty cute as she is, we get a flashback to her and the white blood cell as kids – though they don’t remember each other. The naïve T cells are presented as adorably lacking in confidence, a story we actually get repeated, once fighting an infection and once in a flashback sequence. And then there’s the platelets, characterised as elementary school kids who work hard repairing damage and are just ridiculously cute.

First the story develops very much like a battle manga adaptation – admittedly I’m not sure how directly this comes from the original manga, which I haven’t read – with lots of bacterial invasions being like typical monstrous anime bad guys and viruses being more like zombifying parasites. With the cancer cell it becomes a bit more complex, with the ringleader character given a remarkably sympathetic character arc even though he is quite literally meant to be cancer.

And of course, if you make your story about blood as people, the question can be raised – what happens when there’s bleeding? Or injury? That allows for the depiction of big catastrophes and the effects on characters we’ve come to know and understand in calmer situations. It’s nothing new to see the main character who’s hitherto been a clutz getting a chance to show her grit and devotion when things get really taxing, but it’s still very sweet. And the idea of a blood transfusion bringing in a bunch of new characters with strong accents was very funny.

This anime felt refreshingly old-school. It didn’t try anything startlingly new or brave but relied on its concept with familiar set-ups and ideas. There were very classically anime-style fights against monsters, romantic tension that was only hinted at, big explosions and peril, and plenty of chances for more in future. At only 13 episodes, it doesn’t even come close to overstaying its welcome, and with strong voice acting, fun music (with a theme song that, again in somewhat old-school fashion, directly references the title) and solid but stylised animation from the JoJo studio, David Production, it was great fun from beginning to end.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

ハイスコアガール / High Score Girl

I was wary for a long time about these CG anime shows. CG crept into anime bit by bit – first vehicles in shows like Last Exile, then mecha, then cute girls strictly when singing and dancing, and now we’ve reached the stage where whole shows are made in CG. I’d still much rather see traditional animation, and CG animation on TV still usually looks awkward and stiff, but slowly these shows are winning me over. I really enjoy watching Koneko no Chii even after its transitionto CG, and Kemono Friends is undoubtedly cute even if the animation style is rough around the edges.

With High Score Girl, I wanted to watch no matter the medium. I love shows that bring in characters or references from all kinds of properties that you don’t often see together. Maybe the trend got a bit out of hand lately with Wreck-It Ralph and Ready Player One and all the rest of it, but the prospect of the show heavily referencing nostalgic video games really appealed to me. There was also a bit of interesting history here, with SNK having made a copyright claim against Square for use of their characters in the original manga, later settled out of court. The very premise of these characters sharing pages with dozens of other retro game characters really piqued my interest.

There isn’t actually much of the game characters in the series. Aside from Guile from Street Fighter, who acts as a kind of guardian angel, generally we just see games as the characters play them. A few others pop up from time to time, but this isn’t a story about video game characters or anything like that. It’s a story about a boy who plays games.

Partly, this show is fun to watch because of the nostalgia goggles. Obviously, I didn’t grow up in Japan, but I did grow up at a time when the arcade scene was thriving. It’s so fun to see someone getting excited over Mortal Kombat or Darkstalkers games, and remembering back when Tekken and Virtua Fighter were the new kids on the block.

At its core, this is a love story. A love triangle story, in fact. There’s a funny-looking kid obsessed with games called Yaguchi Haruo, and the only thing that’s important to him is playing video games, right when they’re emerging. Otherwise he’s a bit useless. Useless at sports, useless in school, useless with girls. Except that one day he comes across his elite, rich, ladylike classmate Oono playing Street Fighter 2. The two of them then become close and begin to bond over escaping the problems of their daily lives by playing games. Not only that but a few years later, another girl called Hidaka is drawn to Yaguchi’s passion and develops a crush on him.

Now, on a superficial level, this is some pretty awkward wish-fulfilment with a certain level of objectification that is uncomfortable. Despite being a scrawny, ugly kid who just loves to game, this boy gets not one beautiful girl but two falling for him. Pretty standard wish-fulfilment. To make it even more questionable, the idealised, universally-adored, wonderful love interest Oono has a defining characteristic – she never talks. The perfect girl that everyone loves is the one who doesn’t ever speak. Just blushes, relies on the boy she likes and occasionally gets angry and lashes out at him in slapstick style. The perfect girl doesn’t speak. Not because she can’t. She just doesn’t, or is never seen doing so onscreen.  

But y’know, strange as that is, Oono is very cute at the same time as being mute. I suppose there’s space to project onto her. And Yaguchi being so hapless yet having one all-consuming passion makes him very easy to identify with. He can be crude or neglectful at times, but it seems understandable, and he often gets the chance to demonstrate that he’s a good guy with a good heart. And that’s why I kept coming back to High Score Girl and will absolutely watch the OVA and any more they animate.

I don’t think this show will go down in history as one of the best, but it was absolutely a fun watch and satisfying from start to end. And the little appearances of some great games of the past definitely sweetened the deal.  

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

僕のヒーローアカデミア / Boku no Hero Academia / My Hero Academia season 3

The third season of BnHA just ended, and honestly it feels strange. In many ways, this show is a successor to the big Shounen Jump series of the past – Naruto, Bleach, HunterxHunter. As such, it doesn’t really suit coming out in seasons. The story isn’t designed that way and there’s no real hook to the season openers or the season finales. Plus we had to have much of the first episode taken up by recaps. I’d much rather the show could be continually produced every week like those other titles – as long as there wouldn’t be too great a dip in quality and we didn’t have to descend into filler hell. Maybe that’s just too much to ask for.    
Which is not to say that Boku no Hero Academia is lacking in quality. It’s a great shounen show full of interesting characters, inventive powers and some great humour. Yes, it’s still as derivative as it ever was, with training arcs, tournament arcs and more and more concepts we saw years ago in Naruto or decades ago in X-Men, but everything is done so well, and centred on such likeable characters, that it never feels tired or recycled.

This season follows our academy class through some pretty significant changes. The kids go to a training camp where they get attacked by the villains, acquitting themselves pretty well but ending up letting Bakugo get kidnapped. That leads to a rescue operation that intriguingly subverts some expectations for shounen manga and has Midoriya-kun learn the lesson that trying to play the hero and face up to your foes can often be totally self-destructive, whereas running away and letting your elders and betters take care of it tends to be the better strategy. 

This chain of events, though, leads to the most important part of the series, awkwardly in the middle of the run. All Might faces his nemesis and the puppetmaster of almost all the bad guys un the shown One for All, and in their showdown the big bad realizes that All Might has passed on One for All and is essentially running on fumes. It's a pivotal moment, especially as it unfolds with the world watching, and the final result is that All Might s revealed to have lost his powers and will no longer be the sole protector of the world. In a society with heroes at the very centre, this has vast repercussions as the populace loses their sense of security under a fittingly almighty protector. 

The rest of the season is essentially the fallout from that event. The kids enter another exam, to get their provisional hero licences, but there's a shift in the mood. This isn't just about the kids working their way up the ranks - there's a power vacuum now and people are uncertain and liable to lash out at the system that's supposed to protect them if they feel it's showing cracks. These kids won't just continue carefree student lives if they get these licences, they'll be on the front lines against villains out for blood. And then awkwardly appended on the end before they go off for new, more serious internships, they meet the top students at the academy, including some weird guy who looks like Lucas from Mother got buff.

So in the end, my biggest complaint here is that adapting an ongoing Jump show in seasons makes for unsatisfying pacing and weird cliffhangers, like introducing Overhaul but having no development at all for him. But that being the worst thing I can say about a show means there’s really not a lot to complain about here. BnHA does what it sets out to do fantastically, with a rich and varied cast, a likeable protagonist, great setpieces, an intriguing world, beautiful fluid animation and flawless voice acting. It’s not breaking any new ground, but that doesn’t stop it being one of the most fun things to watch right now – anime or otherwise.

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

映画 ハイ☆スピード!-Free! Starting Days- / High Speed! Free! the Movie: Starting Days

Honestly, watching more Free! wasn't a priority for me. My impressions of the second season were some of the worst-written on this site. I know the show is shipping trash, but my review sunk way too far into that. 

But since then, more and more Free! has been released. I was always a little interested in this prequel movie and honestly, while it's not something I'm desperate to see, I do want to watch the rest of the show at some point. So I decided to take the plunge (ohoho) and sit through Starting Days

To ease myself into it and to remind myself who the characters are, I watched the season 2 OVA that I'd never seen. It was indeed pure shipping trash, but hey, that's generally what OVAs are. The boys go to Rin's school for their culture festival, tease the first-years who have to dress as maids (fuel for that crack ship I said was my favourite in my trash review), have a fight with water pistols and generally follow tried-and-tested formulae for cute boys/girls doing cute things. 

I'm quite pleased to report that Starting Days is a much better prospect. In fact, it's probably my favourite entry into the canon so far. It's based on an official light novel spin-off, and there's a higher writing quality on display here. While it's a bit awkward that these events - before the main series but after the childhood flashbacks that drive the main drama with Rin - are never mentioned in the original, broadly speaking they work, fitting into a void in the storyline pretty well. 

And frankly, even though I couldn't get through the whole movie in one sitting, I was much more invested in these characters as young teens than I was with them as high schoolers. I never liked the condescending blank slate that is Haru, nor the hulking, slightly creepy teddy bear known as Makoto. I liked Makoto as a kid in the flashbacks, his personality making much more sense for a somewhat insecure little kid, but the flashback versions of the others were pretty annoying. Nagisa in particular, while the high schooler I liked the most, was portrayed as a very annoying little kid. He's still very annoying here, but as he's a year younger than the others, he hasn't graduated from elementary school so only appears in a few cameos. 

The story here is a classic school sports story. Haru and Makoto start middle school and are reluctant to join the swimming club. Haru doesn't think any relay can match up to what they accomplished with Rin and Nagisa, while Makoto is diffident, seemingly not wanting to make a decision until Haru does. But eventually they are persuaded to try, and join a relay with two other kids - brash dunderhead Asashi and prickly emo kid Ikyua.

We get the standard formula for these movies - at first they are a mess, each having some personal issue that prevents them from giving their all and working well as a team. By the end - spoiler warning for extremely predictable ending - they pull it together, bond as a team and win the big race! Happy feelings all around. But the test of such a predictable storyline is how well the characters are developed, and how well the emotional notes are hit. And this is what goes unexpectedly well with this story. 

Haru, essentially our protagonist, is much more likeable and sympathetic as a young adolescent than either a young teen or a kid, as seen in the main series. Being emotionally stunted, keeping others at arm's length and sometimes acting way too impulsively makes way more sense for a kid that age than for a young man, and I actually believe in this character much more than the main series' Haru. I believe he would get weirded out by a sudden change in his best friend and start avoiding him, even if it means eating only tinned mackarel and rice and ending up collapsing from hypoglycaemia. I can make allowances for his odd behaviour and the walls he puts up because of his age, where I find it difficult when he's pretty much a full-grown man. 

Makoto is also more interesting here than in the show, getting directly confronted with the question of what his character is when Haru is taken out of the equation. Does he even have his own identity without him? Does he like swimming or just like being with Haru? It was probably the least interesting dilemma but it was probably the most development this poor lapdog ever got. 

Then there's Asahi and Ikuya, the new characters. I loved their dynamic together and they were a pleasure to watch. They’re chalk and cheese but gel really well. It’s like throwing Naruto and Ciel Phantomhive together and watching what happens. I know these characters will show up in the newer seasons but I kind of don’t want to see them get messed up because they were hilarious here. And while Asahi’s personal problem was nothing that exciting, generally a confidence issue (though there’s a fun scene where a young Rei helps him out), Ikuya made his way to the heart of this movie, his conflicting feelings about his brother and his adorable overreaction putting him centre-stage and making him a catalyst for the final act.

The characters’ problems go away very easily, and it’s almost overly brief, watching the boys suddenly start gelling after a sleepover and a weird underwater sequence with Haru and Makoto that would never work in live action and only works here because the animators decide to totally ignore what water does to hair. But the core of the story wherein they struggle with them, with themselves and one another, makes for compelling viewing.

As usual, Kyoto Animation make beautiful, fluid, very cute character animation with pleasant backgrounds and generally nice water effects in spite of that one odd quasi-romantic sequence. They’re by now well established as a powerhouse of light-content but relaxing anime that’s always easy on the eyes. They tend not to know when to stop milking a series (see K-On) and I’m expecting to find the same problems with the Chuunibyou movie I’ve got lined up to watch next, but this was actually a pleasant surprise. Mostly KyoAni shows start well and get progressively worse. Free! might buck that trend, but I guess I’m mostly feeling that way because I don’t particularly like the main show. Now that I think about it, the same happened with Haruhi.