Thursday, 24 July 2014

ノーゲーム・ノーライフ / No Game No Life


NGNL fell short of everything I wanted it to be. Obviously, I never expected it to be sophisticated like Paranoia Agent or epic like Seirei no Moribito, but I hoped it would be a silly, entertaining bit of fluff I could watch with my brain switched off. Sadly, it aimed for a little more than that, and the result was a mess I mostly found annoying.

The No x No Life formula is common in Japanese uses of English. Tower Records in Shibuya has a huge plaque reading ‘No Music No Life’, for example. No Game No Life, unsurprisingly, centres on two characters whose entire lives are devoted to playing games. Instead of an amusing Welcome to the NHK study on a NEET not fitting into society or a Rozen Maiden take on how a fantasy adventure can lead to a person making changes in their everyday life and getting over psychological issues, No Game No Life is a wish-fulfilment fantasy. Though it is interesting in that the light novel was written by a writer who was not born in Japan – Brazilian born Thiago Furukawa Lucas, who writes as Kamiya Yuu – ultimately I am quite surprised it’s as successful as it is, even with its heavy fanservice.

Two siblings game together as ‘Blank’, largely online. They hate the larger world and have no place in it. They also have a rather dubious relationship – 18-year-old big brother Sora and 11-year-old little sister Shiro are attached to one another in a way clearly designed to appeal to loli fans. After being approached by a god who takes the form of a little pageboy named Tet, they are sucked into another world where everything is a game. Of the sixteen races – equivalent to one side of a chessboard – humans are ranked lowest, but with Blank on the scene that’s all going to change.

The drama of the series has no tension at all. Blank are ridiculous. They are so good at games that they surpass human limits, can effectively predict any enemy’s actions and have the physical ability to do things like force a tossed coin to land on its edge by moving a pavement slab with a foot. They are overly perfect despite having lived an absurdly unhealthy life, with Sora handsome and suave – with women constantly throwing themselves at him – and Shiro blank-faced, submissive and prone to getting naked a lot, as well as acting suggestively to other girls. Both have the ability to play games on a level that’s plain stupid, and though sometimes the way they win is clever – like when they use an NPC’s movement to put a team member in the right position to counteract cheating – sometimes it’s just unnecessarily convoluted to give the appearance of something smart, like with ‘dematerialisation shiritori’.

These overly perfect protagonists quickly assemble a harem of girls who lack any sort of character whatsoever. There’s the stooge girl, the subservient angel, and the two former antagonists who are in somewhat of a lesbian relationship, but of course so enamoured by Sora that he becomes centre of their lives. Later there’s the cute girl with the animal ears who is their final challenge in this series.

Other than social anxiety, which is played for laughs, and an absolute need to be with his sister, Sora is without flaw. His mind runs calculations beyond those anybody else who has ever existed can possibly manage, he is capable of impressive physical feats with a gun, and he is handsome enough that every woman is beguiled. People complain about the Mary Sue archetype, but Sora is a Gary Stu of an order that makes Kirito in Sword Art Online look like a joke. Since every other character is either there to look stupid so that Sora looks good, or look impressive until Sora makes them his sex slave – including 11-year-old Shiro, if we’re honest – there isn’t a single likeable or fleshed-out character in the entire cast. I could probably deal with this if the humour had been good, but it was terrible – all ‘look, her panties are showing!’ or ‘look! Sora doesn’t care about Stephanie and so she gets hurt a lot!’ It doesn’t even get old – because it was never funny at the start.


Add to this the fact that the series doesn’t actually get anywhere near a conclusion – only to the defeat and takeover of one other nation – and you can see that this is a story not even half-told, and thus deeply unsatisfactory. I don’t really want to see more, but I probably will now, because not finishing a series I’ve started irritates me – part of me still itches to watch the rest of Hidamari Sketch. The saddest thing about this series is that its success clearly shows this IS what a lot of young Japanese males want to be – removed from their world and put in another one where they can be lauded by all for their cleverness, have little girls and big-boobed women alike throw themselves at them, and never think for a moment that they should think for themselves or dislike being used. Sure, it’s wish fulfilment – but I can’t approve of those wishes.  

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

The Boondocks – Season 4

And so The Boondocks came to an end. I was glad there was a little more of the show, that I could watch the last episodes knowing that no more would be to come, and there were a couple of good episodes here. But this was definitely more whimper than bang. Firstly, Aaron McGruder wasn’t on board, and what he brought to the show – what this season lacked – was very obvious. He is clearly a good bit smarter than any of the remaining writing team, and knows that there needed to be an intelligent undercurrent subverting everything all the characters said for the show to work. It wasn’t there.

Secondly, the animation – which was never top-notch – has been given over to Studio Mir. Now, I suspect Studio Mir and Studio Moi have a fair bit of cross-over, but it is downright strange having Legend of Korra and the last season of The Boondocks very obviously animated by the same people. When Korra starts pulling Grandpa faces and all the comedy has the same not-quite-beat-perfect rhythm to it, and you know that the same people are animating the epic story of flying bisons and world-changing defenders of civilisation one day and intentionally offensive gay stereotypes the next, it’s a little unsettling. Plus I’m guessing Nickelodeon pay a fair bit more than Cartoon Network, because The Boondocks looks a fair bit cheaper and more rushed.

But technicalities aside, it’s important to judge The Boondocks on its writing. Some of the previous episodes of this show have been so perfectly-done that I would genuinely rate them as comedy classics. McGruder’s cutting, all-encompassing mockery of modern culture puts the show’s highlights up there with the best South Park episodes. But he’s not on-board any more, and instead the season is masterminded by a woman who wrote for Scrubs and McGruder’s former writing partner on the previous series. There’s an edge missing here – the satirical links don’t quite close, and mostly the set-up is great but the idea doesn’t get developed and stagnates. I think the writers felt like a good idea for an episode was enough to sustain the full 20 minutes. Instead, we end up with some good opening scenes leading to very boring mis-fires.

Old ideas are rehashed. Stinkmeaner comes back yet again to antagonise Robert. There’s an all-out Breaking Bad parody that raises the questions of why that show needs parodying at all. There’s a full episode tediously following Robert inadvertently joining the Freedom Riders that despite a lot of action goes nowhere and makes no point. When two of the better episodes are about Robert having an abusive relationship with Siri, and about him becoming a ‘male escort’, you know a show is on its last legs. Though the inevitable old-lady-pimp scenes were funny.

Still, of just ten episodes, three stood out as genuinely good. One was about a hair product that does wonders for afro-American hair, but is derived from Huey’s attempts to make home explosives. It unfolds in a by-the-numbers way, but its jabs at the beauty industry and the fact that even when it’s revealed the stuff is dangerous people still love it make for a clever and entertaining episode. Better than that is the very last episode, though it didn’t have the heft of a season finale. When Riley finally gets called out on saying everything is ‘gay’, it leads to a twisted sequence of events where he is extorted by a series of oppressed groups until finally he becomes ‘the poster boy for retardation’. 

It was an irreverent mix of political incorrectness and social commentary, which raised some good points: in condemning using ‘gay’ to mean ‘bad’, do we also end up censoring observations that something is an action associated with gay culture? Are the groups who garner attention and funding defending minorities actually out for the best interests of the group, or do they just use them and extort others who they can bully? Is there a kind of one-upmanship in different underprivileged groups? Sure, the South Park episode on the Special Olympics did much of this better, and the final stinger uncomfortably fell back on the ‘looking retarded is inherently funny’ concept, but with side-references to Of Mice and Men, a non-mainstream representation of the whole ‘check your privilege’ movement and some genuinely funny moments, it was a good episode.

But my favourite was ‘Freedomland’, in which the Freemans willingly sign a contract to work as entertainers in a slavery-themed amusement park. Now, it may seem like a cheap shot, The Boondocks doing modern-day slavery with the white guy using corporations instead of brute force to get exactly the same results, but it’s more subtle than that. Tom sleepwalks into the same position because he imagines it’s noble. Only Huey wants to upset the corporate system that put them in this position, at least until things escalate. Sure, it all ends in a silly kung-fu scrap, but it’s a clever bit of observational political comedy. And that’s what The Boondocks is supposed to be doing, not just ‘Hurr Grandpa is a shallow idiot and Uncle Ruckus is racist’.


The Boondocks was worth the ride. The last hoorah may have ended up being muted and unconvincing, but there were enough flashes of brilliance to remind me how good this show very nearly was.  

Sunday, 20 July 2014

劇場版 魔法少女まどか☆マギカ叛逆の物語/ Gekijouban Mahou Shoujo Madoka Majika Hangyaku no Monogatari / Puella Magi Madoka Magica: Rebellion

Well, this is the project that made the movies exciting. After two rehash movies, the third is the payoff – something exciting! Something all-new that advances the Madoka world. But once you’ve made your main character a god erased from all history, where do you go? How do you enhance such a neatly wrapped-up story?

Well, you subvert it, of course!

If I’m honest, there were a few things in the third of this movie series – and the only one that’s all original material – that disappointed me. I thought the world we were shown at the end of the Maoka series was worth exploring, and though this story nodded to that, it was set somewhere quite different. In many ways, the writing is deeply lazy – when you effectively create a character that has the powers of a god, plus an alien race with indistinguishable-from-magic sci-fi technology, you end up with a world where anything at all can happen, and you don’t need much logical consistency or detailed world-building. You can make time paradoxes, and have characters who are removed from timelines to fight alongside a godlike entity for no better reason than she quite likes to have them around. It’s lazy and simplistic and any problems can be very easily handwaved away.

But at the same time, this kind of story allows the writers to deliver fanservice by the bucketload. Not sexy fanservice – just things that the makers of the series would love to see. Characters are dead? Bring them back to life! An antagonist has gotten a big fanbase? Bring her back, make her good and reveal her human form! People have a real burning hatred for your intentionally sinister cutesy mascot? Arrange to have it dismembered, enslaved, tortured and more!

And while yes, it feels for much of its length like a cop-out, Rebellion is a hell of a lot of fun.

Everything is wish-fulfilment, by design. All the magical girls work together in a happy Ojamajo Doremi world of bright colours and cooperation. They even have cute sidekicks – Madoka has a Kyubey who is as cute as it looked like he would be at the start of the original series, and Mami has Bebe. Bebe, of course, an extra-cute version of Charlotte the Dessert Witch, able to communicate in weird gibberish that shows up as floating characters, and a staunch ally of the girls – perhaps the most enjoyable sequence in the film is where the girls chant a creepy nursery rhyme that leads to Bebe showing her true power.

Ultimately, Homura is still the main character and still the one to discover the truth behind this slightly perturbing alternate universe. Behind it, of course, are the Kyubey race, who having hypothesised the existence of the Madoka force of nature – which, after all, Homura told them about at the end of the series – and who want to try to counteract her wish so that they can tap this far more efficient way of getting the energy to save the universe. Neat, but not exactly hard to predict.

What comes as a surprise is that Homura has her own agenda, which is far more selfish than I had ever expected. It makes for some moral grey areas at the very end of this interesting and twisted story, and something remarkable that Madoka couldn’t have accounted for. How she is empowered to do what she does doesn’t really matter – it is poetic and has a bittersweet beauty.


The third film doesn’t feel necessary. It doesn’t feel like it completes an otherwise incomplete story. It feels added-on, an unnecessary appendage. But there’s no doubting that it was deeply enjoyable, especially for fans. 

Monday, 7 July 2014

劇場版 魔法少女まどか☆マギカ永遠の物語 / Gekijouban Mahou Shoujo Madoka Majika Eien no Monogatari / Puella Magi Madoka Magica: Eternity

It seems a little illogical, but actually it makes sense. What perhaps ought to be expected is that if I very much enjoyed the first Madoka film, based on the part of the series that I wasn’t passionate about, surely I should really love the part based on the episodes where I really started to admire the series’ writing. Right? But no – being repackaged as a movie did quite a lot for the first part of the series, especially as the result was a much-increased pace and more of a sense of steady progression. Sadly, the second movie doesn’t enhance its source in the same way here, and because there are far fewer episodes included, the pace is too slow for a standalone film.

Of course, this film covers the remaining episodes of the series after Miki succumbs to despair. She must be dealt with, and sacrifices must be made – so having grown close to Miki, Kyouko takes the fall. So as a result, the only one left to deal with the coming Walpurgis Nacht, the coming of a hugely powerful witch no magical girl can defeat solo, is Homura.

And we learn Homura’s story, which I didn’t see coming in the series and found quite genius – Homura has mastery over time, and has lived this story over and over again, trying to find a way to save Madoka by preventing her becoming a magical girl. Rather than, y’know, talking it through with her – and ‘as you will become the most powerful magical girl ever (thanks to my actions), you will then become an unstoppable witch’ probably would have helped – and rather than perhaps trying to go back and act much more supportive to Miki to ensure she and Kyouko are there to help with Walpurgis Nacht, Homura decides the end of the world is inevitable. Either she stops Madoka becoming a magical girl and the world ends because it seems she can never keep everyone together to fight Walpurgis Nacht, or she lets Madoka deal with Walpurgis, in which case Madoka becomes a far worse witch and the world ends.

Of course, Madoka also has a wish associated with becoming a magical girl, and because Homura has made her fate such a significant event, it can be an incredible one. Perhaps she could have thought of a better one – like, y’know, dealing with the root cause of entropy rather than the effect of Kyubey’s race having to harvest energy from human emotions – but nonetheless, Madoka’s wish makes her essentially a god. She removes herself from the timeline and changes the past and future so that every point a magical girl turns into a witch, she stops them. The girl will lose her power and return to her normal life – it is implied – but will not turn into a witch and need to be killed by her former peers. The result of this needs to be all but omnipresent is that she essentially becomes wiped from the real timeline, creating a whole lot of paradoxes because after all, if witches hadn’t been there before, she wouldn’t have been inspired to become this godlike existence. Nonetheless, the sheer magical power of her potential prevails – and there is a satisfying ending where the girls instead battle wraiths to battle entropy, in partnership with the Kyubey race, but only Homura remembers what truly happened.

It’s neat and it’s clever. It was a great ending to a series that cleverly challenged the conventions of its genre. It took childish concepts and later iterations that sexualised them and subverted them all – with a presentation that despite my initial misgivings because of Hidamari Sketch I think really work. Those potato-headed girls have a classic, winsome look that adds to the subversion.

I do sometimes feel Madoka is a little over-rated. While very good, it is not genius and isn’t nearly as thought-provoking as, say, Kaiba nor as clever a subversion as Princess Tutu. It is only the sheer silliness of magical girl shows that make it seem so intelligent by contrast. This is of course not to say that it isn’t smart. It emphatically is. It’s also compelling viewing and definitely well worth seeing, and there’s more to explore in its universe.


Which is why a third film makes sense – a chance to build on what has been established, and perhaps even subvert that. And that, as we will see, is precisely what the next film does. 

Friday, 4 July 2014

ソウルイーターノット! / Soul Eater Not!


Though I started to read Soul Eater Not! as soon as it began back in 2011, I didn’t really stick with it. It was probably because I was – yes, despite the title – expecting more Soul Eater, but what I got was a spin-off about three new characters who I never really got to know, plus occasional cameos from the major cast of the original series. Especially since at the time, the original manga series hadn’t even finished.

Somehow, I found myself liking the anime adaptation of Soul Eater Not! much more. I was even sad that it ended, wanting more than just twelve episodes. It may have had much to do with the fact I wasn’t expecting anything else. While it’s never been a problem in any other series I’ve watched, perhaps in anime form the girls’ colourings and their seiyuu’s assured voice performances contributed. Either way, I found myself far more engaged and eager to watch every episode.

In the original Soul Eater series, we see the adventures of the elite students of Shibusen – some incredible fighters are partnered with living weapons able to transform perfectly. But what of the other students? What of the ones who aren’t very good at it yet? Perhaps the living weapons can’t fully transform – or found out about their abilities late in life?

This is the NOT class – who are expected to Normally Overcome Target. Hey, English isn’t Oukubo’s first language! New student Tsugumi, cute and impressionable, has just started learning to use her powers. In the NOT class, she finds herself getting close to two other girls her age – the bizarrely forgetful and well-endowed Meme and the privileged, standoffish Anya, who is one of the better recent examples of a tsundere who’s actually likeable. It becomes apparent that both of these masters want to form a partnership with Tsugumi-chan, but how can she decide?

The kids learn to deal with their weird loli dorm mistress, with the totally reformable bully extortionist Kim (probably the character with the biggest role in both series), with part-time jobs in the local cafe and the brash sisters Liz and Patti they meet there, and in the end with a witch causing mayhem. The mystery of Sid’s death is made clear, there are cameos from characters as major as Maka, who is a kind of mentor figure to Tsugumi, and as minor as Ox Ford, who is treated with rather more reverence and respect in this series. We get more of the sweet chalk-and-cheese relationship between Kim and her rival/admirer, the ‘straight-laced chick’ with the incredible name of Jacqueline O. Lantern Dupré. She does not play the cello, at least as far as we were shown.

But while I never really grew to like Meme, whose entire personality seems to revolve around being forgetful, I really liked Tsugumi and Anya by the end of this. Tsugumi’s determined, innocent personality and Anya’s snootiness along with her fixation on things ‘commoners’ like were marvellous. There were other very funny parts of this season, like the guy who can transform into a dagger – except for his head, which stays there – and the poor bookish girl who Kim decides should be called ‘Eternal Feather’, a name that sticks.


The scale is small here, and the ultimate ‘Why not have both?’ moment is a bit unconvincing, but the journey was very satisfying and the characters very likeable. The occasionally clunky pacing of the manga was fixed, and the simple but effective animation was cute. A fun series – even if I’d much rather just have more Soul Eater. 

ハンター×ハンター / HunterxHunter: Chimera Ant Arc

Though I normally only review full series and this arc will actually have a few aftermath episodes, I feel that after the latest episode, the time is right for a second post about the 2011 HunterxHunter. The arcs are so long that it doesn’t feel so different from a post about one of the other big shounen series up to a timeskip. That said, I probably won’t do the next post until both the election and the new world exploration arcs are over...unless the anime stops again.

I had problems with this arc as a manga devotee. Not just because Togashi had his breakdown during it and we had to deal with chapters that were embarrassing scribbles. Not just because HiatusxHiatus meant that the arc stretched out over, what? Four years? Let me check. Hmm. It was more like nine. Nine years to finish an arc. Mostly, I simply had problems with the fact that in aiming for his usual starting-with-something-silly-and-then-transcending-it way of working, Togashi ended up making the arc look pretty goddamn goofy.

Yet seeing it all together as the arc finally, finally had its last chapters, I realised Togashi had planned it brilliantly all along, and did a lot of things no other shounen writer does. He broke the conventions and defied the cliches, and he made the dubious-looking characters the ones we truly cared for. If the York Shin arc is a masterclass in clever shounen writing with remarkably sympathetic antagonists and enemies that the good guys genuinely couldn’t hope to overcome through lame random power-ups, the Chimera Ant arc is a tortured, uneven yet brilliant experiment.

The anime had none of the big superficial problems of the manga. It did not have scribbled first-draft artwork, and it did not have enormous and frustrating breaks. It had Madhouse’s above-par animation, some superb voice work and some very clever stylistic decisions, and true to its source, it did things that no other series in its position does. What other big shounen has a whole episode based a single scene in which on a minor antagonist is confronted by his vastly superior leader and has to contemplate his mortality, divided loyalty and subservience? What other anime has the young protagonist set out with a clear goal, only to find that goal was never possible and that the one he wanted to save is beyond help already, only to sacrifice everything he has for a power-up...in order to kill a second-in-command figure? 

And what anime leads its antagonist not to a big showdown, but beyond that, to contemplation of the nature of humanity, mortality and inner peace not in using his ultimate power but sharing a game with the only person he ever cared for, a weak, blind, feeble-minded and yet hugely gifted player of a board game? Giving the ostensible bad guy a dignified, peaceful, bittersweet exit while a previously unseen character in exile muses on the unpleasantness of human nature in creating weapons of mass destruction is not what one expects from a Jump show. My only disappointment was that the brutality of Pokkle’s death was sanitised.

But defying expectations is what I keep coming back for. Superficially this arc is a hard sell: it’s about scary bugs who absorb the characteristics of any creature they consume. When they eat humans, they become a truly formidable threat to the rest of mankind and must be dealt with. The newborn bugs start looking like various animals – bulls, bugs, cheetahs, penguins – and it’s all very much like furry fanart. Then the three royal guards are born, a big meathead, a ridiculous fey poet type prone to histrionics, and a cheeky androgynous catgirl. The king himself, once born, is a clear tribute to Cell from Dragonball Z. None of these elements seem very mature, and a cutesy octopus joining the rebels doesn’t help. Once a big fight scene became about fish men throwing teleporting fish-darts, I thought the series was in big trouble.

And then somehow, Togashi brings it all together and exceeds all expectations. His human characters make big sacrifices and have to face the possibility of their own deaths and the deaths of their friends. The little octopus becomes heroic and bizarrely manly. Old favourites reappear – and the side-story with the Ryodan remains one of my favourite parts of the series, planet summonings and silly clothing removal scenes included. But the real winner of the idea is the anticlimax, the ultimate warrior who transcends the desire to fight and subjugate, and becomes wise as humans seek to kill him.


This arc is what HunterxHunter is all about: surprising even its core audience. Togashi seems to make mistake after mistake...yet unlike Naruto or Bleach, it turns out that’s all building up to something deep and challenging. What more can you ask for in a shounen? Bring on the election arc – and Beyond! 

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

劇場版 魔法少女まどか☆マギカ始まりの物語 / Gekijouban Mahou Shoujo Madoka Majika Hajimari no Monogatari / Puella Magi Madoka Magica: Beginnings

Given that I ended up rather liking the Madoka anime, I left it quite a while before getting around to watching the movies – and even now have only seen the first one. Rather disappointingly, the first two movies are mere recaps of the series, which I could understand with Evangelion, because after all many years had elapsed since the series and animation standards had risen considerably, so it made sense. Here, though, there was only about a year between the series airing in 2011 and the film coming out in 2012, so it all feels a little redundant to truncate the series for the big screen. Most of it doesn’t even appear to have been re-animated, with the main changes being better backgrounds and a new opening. So in that sense, I’m pleased I left it a couple of years before watching, because I’d forgotten enough of the plot details to enjoy this again without the feeling of rewatching something I’d just seen.

Madoka was a series that I didn’t feel got really good until right at the very end, starting with the tenth episode of the twelve-episode series. Thus a film version covering the first seven or eight episodes didn’t hold that much appeal for me.

In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by the flow of this adaptation. It works as a single film, pulling off its typical magical girl setup at just the right pace, Mami losing her head in a stressful situation making for a very good climactic moment in a feature-length film (albeit rather a long one), and then the gradual realisation that Kyubey is not what he seems – or at least, operates with an entirely different moral compass – and the ultimate fate of magical girls works well for a reveal-style ending. But what really makes this work is that it becomes Sayaka’s movie: her centre-stage moments are all there in the series, of course, but because of the way the other characters rise to prominence, she becomes rather peripheral in the overall view of the series. Being the centre of attention here, the film essentially following her story from being introduced to the world of magical girls, grasping somewhat the meaning of it, debating the importance of wishes with Kyouko and becoming ever more powerful and ever more lost until the end of the film, she gets a chance to shine more clearly.

I think this works well even if, ultimately, it’s to the expense of Mami, who gets even less of a chance to make an impression as a complete person than in the series, not even getting to talk about her wish.
There’s also a strange dynamic in taking a markedly short series and turning it into a film trilogy. It’s rather strange how there’s the same amount of material, yet the impression left is different because the series was shorter than the usual, whereas a film trilogy is longer than usual. It’s odd how less material seems to be longer and given more time to breathe because of this context, but it is palpable how simply being a feature film expands the sense of scope. It turns out that Madoka suited being a film all along!

Ultimately, I was on board from the beginning. I love how Madoka subverts the genre, not just by being dark and edgy – that’s no real innovation these days, and I talked about Nanoha a lot in my review of the series – but by subverting it early on and then going on to add in more interesting twists and changes of focus. I’m actually looking forward to seeing the second film, but looking forward the most to seeing what new developments the final, original film will bring.


But talking about subversive Magical Girl series that are more sophisticated than they seem at first, go to dark places and would make great movies, how about a Princess Tutu movie version, huh? Now there’s a series that would benefit greatly from reinvention.