Sunday, 9 November 2014

ナルト/ Naruto (manga)

It finally ended. After fifteen years, and overstaying its welcome by at least eight, one of the pillars of anime and manga of the last few decades has come to an end. Shounen Jump has lost one of its more recognisable figureheads, and I no longer feel compelled to complain every week about a new chapter of rushed plotting or emotion-free battles between giant blob-creatures.

As I mentioned in my review of the pre-timeskip anime seriesNaruto is deeply unfashionable. But I will defend it to the ground. Of its fifteen years, I’ve been following it for twelve-ish. Twelve years of my life with these characters, at least once a week, and most times two. That’s pretty remarkable. A large chunk of the crowd at any anime crowd will have been learning to spell ‘cat’ when I started to read Naruto. So my perspective is a little different from the average, I guess.

That, I think, is why I’m keen to defend it. Or at least, what it was. Post-timeskip, Naruto was largely an emotionally flat, highly contrived, rather ugly series of battles between uninteresting men with an inflated sense of self-importance. But it wasn’t like that to begin with. Which is why, once again, I think that in a few years’ time it will be rehabilitated and remembered fondly – just as happened with Dragonball. When I first joined the anime fandom, Dragonball was hated for GT and the prolonged screaming matches of Dragonball Z. Now it’s largely adored, primarily on the strength of the first series and the early parts of Dragonball Z. I expect the same will happen with Naruto when its best parts come into focus again.

Because I maintain that early Naruto was genuinely good. It was about ninja kids who were weak but ingenious, and who had people ready to push them, challenge them and if need be, protect them. Back then, it was largely a school drama.

Naruto himself was an intentionally annoying brat, while Sasuke was uppity and smug. Yet both were likeable and oddly cute. What made Naruto huge was the quick succession of two story arcs that blended cuteness and silliness with genuine emotionally heavy-hitting moments: first, the battle against Zabuza and Haku, which brilliantly had the enemies be sympathetic thanks to their deep bond and also immediately pitted the kids against someone genuinely dangerous. Naruto had a lot to prove and did it well – even if it had to rely on the cheesy ‘he didn’t really die!’ moment. Kishimoto proved this wasn’t just a one-off by following up with the chuunin exam arc – first, with the compelling character of Gaara, who was tortured, antisocial and merciless. The idea that this was a world of incredibly powerful warriors was cemented, and Orochimaru was a genuine threat in the background. While there was a certain laziness to then going into a tournament arc, as so many series do, Kishimoto did these battles better than most, with almost all of the fights between low-level opponents being won thanks to some genuinely clever little trick. Itachi was an enigma, part of an organization that seemed genuinely threatening and cool (back then), and the summons of the sannin seemed like absurdly powerful, more or less exclusive talents.

It all fell apart around then. Big summons led to bigger and bigger ones, and then the use of tailed beast powers, ending up with dull fights between big blobs. There was a time skip and the characters were no longer underdogs. The tricks were no longer clever because the stakes had to constantly be upped. Naruto couldn’t get away with being annoying because he was adorable any more, and Sasuke just became annoying. Akatsuki were revealed to be largely ridiculous and could mostly be defeated by being made to realize their evil actions were – gasp! – evil. Itachi was given redemption, but not before being made to look completely ridiculous in what should have been a series highlight. The final battle with a very old man and some almost random summoned goddess woman was entirely without tension and the last clash of all, prefigured for fifteen years, was rushed into very unconvincingly, over very quickly and entirely without emotional weight.

Like so many shounen titles – particulary Dragonball and Reborn – as well as a fair number of Western kids’ stories (like Harry Potter), the big problem with Naruto is that it started fun, jokey and cute, then tried to take itself too seriously. It lost the balance and became largely tedious, and unable to have much emotional impact.

Thus, which the classic ‘see-them-as-adults-with-their-kids’ ending of Digimon and yes, Harry Potter had some small smiles in it, mostly for minor characters, I can’t say I’m sad to see this era come to a close. But I remember that Naruto was once great, and that’s the main thing I’ll always take from it.  

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

黒執事・サーカスの書/ Kuroshitsuji: Saakasu no Sho / Black Butler: Book of Circus

Well, at the end of the second season of Kuroshitsuji, which I really didn’t like, I considered the anime finished. There were the strange OVAs, but they were mostly gag side-stories. How could the anime continue? It showed us the inevitable end of the pact between a boy and a demon, and that was the best thing about it.

Meanwhile, the manga continued and got rather better. What a shame, I said, that the anime writers went off on their dreadful tangent about Alois rather than following the manga to its best arc, that revolving around the Noah’s Ark Circus.

Well, the property is still a hot one after all these years. That combination of pretty man/grumpy child paedophilia is still irresistible to the fujoshi and there is after all plenty of manga material yet – though I have to say that apart from Lizzy kicking butt in it, I can’t remember much at all about the arc that follows this one. So A-1 Pictures decided to just shrug off continuity and backstory and plunge into an adaptation of the arc as a stand-alone piece. We can just say that it took place at some point before the end of season 2, right? Honestly, that was probably the best thing they could have done.

I don’t really like Kuroshitsuji, but this arc is as good as it gets. A strong premise, what is effectively Ciel’s backstory finally made plain, and then a morally ambiguous ending where there really aren’t any good guys – this works well. The lack of a strong villain – the antagonist essentially being a crazy, feeble old man – creates a hole filled by the notion that the bad guy is, in fact, Ciel himself. With his demon sidekick, of course.

The set-up is a clever one for the kind of dress-up escapades that this sort of fanbase loves. Ciel, still the ‘Queen’s watchdog’ (despite her having so many incredibly strong people around her who should be able to take care of any business), is sent to investigate the disappearances of children near a circus. To gather information, Ciel and Sebastian pose as performers and thanks to Sebastian’s skills, manage to be accepted. Ciel, meanwhile, is pretty useless, and is very cute taken down a notch or two, teased by the others and striking up a friendship with his kind-hearted roommate. Nicknamed ‘Black’ and ‘Smile’, they get to know the rest of the peculiar cast – including ringmaster Joker, cross-dressing tightrope walker Doll, anachronistically-named trapeze artists Peter and Wendy and my favourite, animal tamer Snake, who has named his numerous serpents after prominent Victorian and pre-Victorian writers: Bronte, Keats, Wordsworth and both Oscar and Wilde. Quite pleasingly, Snake is also not involved in the main conspiracy – and so can appear again later.

‘Black’ strikes up a rivalry with ‘Suit’, a shinigami named William T. Spears who has also infiltrated the circus – indicating to Ciel and co that they’re on the right track – and after a while they find the clues they need to uncover the truth: the circus folk, while good-hearted, are eternally indebted to a rich old man who saved them from street life. However, they do his bidding, kidnapping children for his entertainment. Driven mad by having seen Ciel as a child, as well as his father (whose form Sebastian adopted when he manifested), and realizing he will never be as beautiful as they are, this crazy old man has children put through such suffering their minds break, then has them perform deadly circus tricks, dying horribly while he laughs. Because of his obsession with Ciel, he has also exactly replicated the room where Ciel first made his pact: an old operating theatre-style ritual chamber, with an altar where he was to be sacrificed by mysterious shady occultists, that favourite of Victorian books about demons. Incensed, Godzilla stomps on Bambi, and Ciel is merciless – even with the surviving children, who he considers broken beyond repair.

Meanwhile, the circus members storm the Phantomhive manor, intending to threaten Ciel so he will be easily controlled. However, the staff members are finally able to show how truly formidable – and frightening – they are. This is one of the highlights of the series, and I’d probably rather watch an anime about the exploits of those three than one about Ciel. The shinigami show up to mop up the mess, though their presence is largely extraneous and rather sillier than the rest of the arc, especially with one of them wielding a lawnmower. But I can overlook that, and the comic relief just about works.

As a narrative arc, it has its faults – mainly with the antagonist not really having been much of a threat and very little being at stake to Ciel himself – but overall it’s excellent as part of a larger narrative. It gives Ciel a huge amount more depth, showing him being hapless, being vulnerable, being authoritative and being tyrannical. It shows his dark past and the dark present that has resulted. It fleshes out his staff’s stories and makes them more formidable. But most crucially, it sets up a group of enemies who are very likeable – while they do things they can’t be forgiven for, they have been conditioned from a very young age and have very little choice in their actions. 

The anime will continue – first of all with two OVAs entitled ‘Book of Murder’. If they maintain this quality, I might actually start to like Kuroshitsuji.

Friday, 31 October 2014

ハイキュー!! / Haikyuu!!

If I said another sports anime was my favourite recently, then that didn’t stand for long. Because I fell in love with Haikyuu!! at episode one and basically watched the whole 25-episode season in three days.

I noticed Haikyuu!! figurines all over the place on my most recent trip to Japan, and liking the designs – the main characters represented being Hinata and Kenma – but decided against buying any (or taking chances on the UFO machines for them) because (a) I didn’t know the characters and might have ended up hating them, and (b) slightly embarrassingly, I thought they were actually characters from Kuroko no Basuke.

Haikyuu!! does something rather special, sitting in the middle of the cutesy passionate-boys-bonding thing Inazuma Eleven makes so enjoyable and the rough, relatively gritty, boys-with-issues-finding-purpose-through-sport thing that you find in the likes of Rookies and Slam Dunk. It also has the best rivals-who-become-allies story since Hikaru no Go, with which this series shares much. Since HikaGo remains my favourite manga of all time, that’s high praise.

Haikyuu!! has a classic rival-story opening episode: at a school tournament, there is a gruff and moody elite player, who goes up against a good-hearted, naive go-getter type. They clash but the go-getter is actually a genius and very much impresses the elite. The genius cannot carry the whole team, though, so they lose, but the episode has a deep effect.

A year later, the boys begin high school and discover they are now in the same club. They are chalk and cheese, so are soon at one another’s throats, but it soon becomes clear that the shortcomings of each are balanced by the skills of the other, so they begin to develop a real bond. However, will this allow them to compete with much more established players?

This central relationship is brilliantly-done. Our main character, Hinata, is short for a volleyball player, even mistaken for an elementary school boy at one point, but can jump extremely well and idolizes another short player recognized as brilliant. The secondary character is the tall, extremely intense setter, Kageyama, who has undeniable skills but is seen as very arrogant and hard to get along with. He’s the kind of gruff character I usually dislike, but as he reveals more of his goofy side and is coaxed out of his shell by Hinata – as well as shown that his way of playing is terrible for a team game – he really grew on me, until eventually I came to realise I actually identified with him more than I have with any character since Tomoya in Clannad. That was deeply unexpected, as was how much I enjoyed seeing the interaction between these two. They’re very like Akira and Hikaru in HikaGo, and that’s certainly no bad thing. They spark off each other, and it’s brilliant to watch, and by the time they start to rely on one another it’s like they’re in a comedy routine together. Very sweet.

Very much helping this is the fact that the minor characters are extremely strong. They come from stock, but they are extraordinarily well-developed. The volleyball team also contains a typical yankee, an extremely tall surly bully type, a dependable captain who has an extremely scary side, a wild child even smaller than Hinata, a gentle giant who has great spiking strength but the heart of a coward and an older setter who may not be a genius but has a lot of clever ideas and is very relatable as the underdog.

I very much enjoyed the art style, which was pitched very well. Production I.G. have done a lot of very flashy productions, but this one is more modest, yet moves slickly and captures the manga’s aesthetic well. It is not cutesy or pretty-pretty, and it is not ugly and scratchy, but can pull off elements of both styles without them seeming incongruous. Thus, Hinata and the diminutive libero Nishinoya are very cute, but the yankee types like Tanaka can pull faces right out of Cromartie High School without it seeming bizarre. This allows for both broad and subtle character-based comedy and the some very sweet good-hearted childlike characters, which I very much enjoy seeing together.

The series is of course based on an ongoing manga, and ends at rather a heartbreaking moment, though that makes sense for leaving the audience thirsty for more. This isn’t a feelgood anime where the characters power up to win every match like Inazuma Eleven, but a fairly realistic take on an interesting sport where there aren’t any superpowers – only particular strengths and weaknesses, none of which are infallible.

It’s perhaps telling that not only did Haikyuu!! make me want to try out volleyball, it made me want to go and compete in the sports I’m good at again. I don’t think that I’ll have a hot-blooded rivalry blossoming, but the series captured something of the adrenaline rush of a close competition, and I consider that praiseworthy. 

Monday, 27 October 2014

フリー!エターナルサマー / Free! Eternal Summer

As predicted, there was a second season of Free!. Very probably there will be more, too. And I must say, I didn’t mind. This second season did a lot of things wrong, but a lot of things right as well.

The problem with Kyoto Anime follow-ups is that they often stagnate. The characters are established and liked by the fandom, so we get the likes of K-On!! Where cute girls do cute things. And this continues until the fans get bored and reject the show, which sours any early success.

This series looks badly like it is going in that direction. For the first half, not a lot of swimming happens, and there’s a whole lot of regurgitation. There’s another struggle to find new members (none arrive, at least for the main bulk of this season), worry about what the boys are eating, and a cultural festival where they have to run a foot race in their swim clothes. There are rather dull episodes about each of the characters, usually revolving around a misinterpretation where the others think something serious is going on, which turns out to be nothing. The best of these is when Makoto seems to come to realise that he’s not going to be able to keep up with the prodigies around him but would be better off thinking of becoming a teacher – being naturally good with kids and caring enough to check on their well-being outside his classes.

But what the series does well is to break out of this closed circle and look elsewhere for more interesting stories. The most obvious place to do this is with Rin’s swimming club. Rin himself is developed a lot here, and becomes far more likeable as his story is fleshed out, he begins acting less selfishly and actually does some very kind things for others. We also get new characters, lone wolf Sousuke, brooding and stirring up competition yet having a tragic fate (of course), and chirpy, naive comedy loudmouth Momotarou. Aiichirou also gets a lot more development, falling behind badly but working extremely hard to catch up and being vindicated – as well as being the straight man in a fun manzai comedy-like relationship with Momotarou.

There are really two emotional threads running through the season, which work quite well. One, presumably relating to the title, is the grim inevitability of happy times ending. The older characters are going to graduate, new relay teams are going to have to be formed, and kohais are going to have to accept that their sempais are going to leave their lives, or at least their daily lives. The second, closely related to this, is the coming-of-age of the characters and the need for them to find their true paths. Haru in particular is just uninterested in his future, or taking any responsibility, feeling that career paths inhibit his ability to be free. The high point of the season, perhaps of both seasons thus far, is Rin spontaneously taking him to Australia to show him the competitive swimming scene there, opening his eyes to the wider world. It’s a very sweet gesture and works well. Even with some rather awkward attempts to make Rin sound fluent in English.

Of course, the series is still aimed squarely at the fangirls, and in all honesty, the homoeroticism gets strained here. As I suggested in my review of the third season of Inazuma Eleven, these aren’t a bunch of young kids who might all be very confused about their sexuality and ignore it. 

They’re young men, and there’s a certain point where the obviously unusual intimacy between these guys simply wouldn’t go unspoken – even in Japan. The way these boys act, people would be making a whole lot of comments. The closest the series gets to addressing the possibility of homosexuality is when Rin gets angry that the hotel he’s booked for himself and Haru has a double bed. As a result, I found it all very contrived and unconvincing, especially since I continue to not actually ship any of the muscly men together at all (though Nagisa and Ai finally got some scenes interacting with one another, hoorah! If they didn’t have such weird bodies, I’d totes ship it). And I ship characters very easily, from just about everyone who isn’t hideous in Inazuma Eleven to the vast majority of the pretty girls in Saki. I just don’t see the men in Free! as cute in any way. (Flashback versions are another story of course!)

I don’t know that there’s much more that can happen in Free!. It may be better to leave it open as to how well Haru does in the adult world, and who the new swim team recruits might be. But if there’s a movie, or another series, or even just some OVA, I’ll probably tune in. And I’m all for more series like this, treating boys just the same way that anime has long treated girls. But preferably slightly less...bara. Please. 

Sunday, 26 October 2014

イナズマイレブン/ Inazuma Eleven: season 3

Well, the short third season of Inazuma Eleven is more a transition than anything else, but it gives some fun surprises.

Firstly, and not exactly surprisingly given Level-5’s usual silly twists, the aliens from the last season are revealed to not have been aliens at all – only determined regular children who have been affected by strange materials from a meteor. Because in Japanese Manga-world, the ones who work hard always trump the ones who dope, and the meteor is effectively a kid-friendly metaphor for doping in sports. So of course, strong feelings eventually get through to the kids and they see the error of their ways, once they get past the manipulative adult controlling them, of course. And the true feelings of the nice adult who ought to be protecting them comes through.

Since this clears things up pretty neatly, and our heroes reach a truly absurd level of power, the question of what’s happened to all the old teammates left behind comes up. They haven’t shared in all the experiences that powered up this season’s main team – but they also haven’t been left alone. 

They’ve had another evil adult controlling them, and have gained enough power to challenge their former teammates and the new members. It’s a good way of having old issues come to the fore and the question of what will happen once the team is way bigger than eleven kids...or even fourteen with a few extras.

Of course, with Aliea dealt with, of course, some of the kids who were picked up on the tour around the whole country no longer really have a reason to be part of the team, their friends and families being far away – so there’re some fond farewells at the end.

This is of course another fun continuation of a fun, stupid season. I enjoy having Inazuma Eleven in my life. The cast is either adorable, absurd or both, the plotlines are downright stupid, and the special attacks are hilarious. The series gets homoerotic undertones just right – possibly because the boys are a bit young for romance, as opposed to the ones from, say, Free!, where the fact that it seems to go over all of their heads just isn’t believable.

In technical terms, I don’t think anything’s likely to change with the series from the beginning to the end. It’s a cheap kids’ production and it runs continuously, so there aren’t gonna be many differences between the series. OLM keep things nice and bright and smooth and simple, and that’s what woks best.

I have to say, though, the problem with having this kind of likeable but huge cast is that I know I’m likely not to see a fair few of them again. They can’t keep having half the team hospitalized, and I know they’re going to go on a tour of the world to fight kids from around the world (which I’m looking forward to!). This means that they’re gonna get rid of quite a few of the team...and I don’t want that!  

Thursday, 16 October 2014

夏目友人帳 参 / Natsume Yuujinchou San / Natsume’s Book of Friends season 3

I didn’t realise until I went to Japan a couple of months ago how popular Natsume Yuujinchou is over there. With Nyanko-sensei toys in every arcade, little models everywhere there were gachapon and the manga prominently displayed in bookshops, it was probably the most visible I’ve seen any non-Jump anime be there since I went over at the height of Fullmetal Alchemist’s popularity – and it doesn’t have the hot-new-property quality Danganronpa had when we visited last year. 

The fact is that the funny fat cat who acts like a petulant middle-aged man and the pretty-boy sidekick who is meant to be the show’s main character clearly resonated, and the show is more successful than I had realised.

And yes, I got a couple of little gachapon toys, featuring both Natsume and Nyanko-sensei.
Series 3 was effectively more of the same, but there were subtle changes, both in presentation and in story. The art seems to be simpler and effectively looks cheaper, yet somehow small changes have made Natsume himself look much cuter. 

The series isn’t scared of broaching homoerotic elements, while trying desperately to avoid being vulgar about them, for example by letting Natsume be possessed. We also see more of Natsume’s lonely, misunderstood past, and the overall message of the show – especially its final episode – that it’s good to have friends and comrades is sweet. Even if they’re a bunch of weirdoes. 

His human friends are also given greater insight into how he lives, now, especially those who also have some sense of the supernatural, and essentially this is a series about strengthening bonds.

Gotta say, though – sorry, humans, but when your bonds are with hilarious huge-faced spirits and giant awesome horse-spirits, that’s gotta stand for something.

There’s also an episode devoted to the ridiculous adorable little fox character, learning to stand up for himself and rely less on others – though he still has his enormous boy-crush on Natsume, bless ’im. I’d happily watch a whole anime about fox-shota adventures, but I’m afraid that’s not really what’s on offer, haha.

If there’s a problem with this series – and especially having already watched half of season 4 by accident I know this won’t be rectified – it’s that there’s no real progression. The show has always reminded me a lot of Kekkaishi, which similarly suffered from stagnation, but at least Kekkaishi felt like there were big loose ends dangling that needed to be tied up, and immediate tensions with Yoshimori’s family members. 

With Natsume Yuujinchou, there’s the huge question of what happens if Natsume returns all the names – not that I think it’s even vaguely likely that Nyanko-sensei will truly become a vengeful murderous beast, formidable though his true form may be. I like this set-up and I’m actually a little upset that it will come to an end because it’s so fun and comfortable to watch, but before too long I’ll think the show really needs a strong direction to head in, and the only way I can think of for that to happen is for the tensions between Natsume and the organised exorcist household to really come to a head.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

咲-Saki-全国編 / Saki - Zenkoku-hen/ Saki – Episode of the Nationals / Saki: The Nationals

It seems that every successive series of the Saki anime is going to be not what I expect. I thought this series would cover the Nationals tournament – as indicated by the title – incorporating Saki finally facing off against her scary sister and what happens to the cute alternate team from Nara we got to know in Episode of Side-A. Perhaps they’d be sacrificial lambs.

Well, all of that remains for some as-yet unmade series – there’s an OVA on the way next year, for starters. What this series did was some of the preliminary rounds of the Nationals competition. True, there were some fun new character introduced – I loved the extremely tall girl and the ridiculous shrine maidens who could summon the powers of gods – but ultimately there was little here that was particularly consequential. The fact is that the fun of super-powered Mahjong games eat up episodes, though, and this half-season flew by. What Saki really needs is to be very long and ongoing – too little happens for this sort of length of series to satisfy.

So while our heroic team manage to prevail thanks to each member’s skill and Saki’s ridiculous luck with her rinshan kaihou hands, all that has really happened is that the central conflicts of the larger series have been delayed for another future adaptation – if we even get there. It may be that to see the actually important parts of this story following its exposition, I may have to go to a manga.

But for all that annoys me, I can’t deny how enjoyable the ride is. The ridiculous characters and exaggerated drama of the hands played, the way formidable players can sense one another’s auras, the fanservice – it’s all very funny and entertaining, and makes for compulsive, brainless viewing. And I need a few series like that here and there.

So yes, I will go on watching whatever Saki I can get. But until I have to, I won’t feel any real need to read the manga.