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.  

Monday, 13 October 2014

Avatar: Legend of Korra – book 3: Change

Avatar gets stronger and stronger...ironically as the focus shifts gradually away from its main characters. 

The second season was a huge improvement on the first, but the giant squiggly spirit antagonist was a bit unconvincing. This time, the threat is more earthly: when Korra opens the gates to the spirit realm, all of a sudden new Airbenders begin popping up around the world. At first, this is a time for celebration, but it also empowers a dangerous prisoner. Using his new abilities to escape, he also sets free his three old comrades, who of course are from each of the other elemental factions. This group, part of the evil hidden society the Red Lotus, set about trying to draw out the Avatar and kill her in the Avatar State – which will end the reincarnation cycle. While this is classic kill-the-innocent-main-character bad guy stuff, the fact is that they’re quite cleverly depicted as genuinely believing what they are doing is in the interest of the balance of the world, and are fleshed out quite a bit through both romantic and comedy scenes. They are fleshed out well, and if Bolin has rather descended to Sokka-level inappropriate goofiness by this season, one great thing about having him around is that he sometimes brings out a more interesting side of other characters, giving them another dimension.

What really made me happy, though, is a shift towards a younger generation, more like that of the old season. Much as I like the older teen main characters, I find them pretty dull and hard to like. On the other hand, giving Jinora more of a spotlight is very much a breath of fresh air in the show, and then there’s the introduction of Kai. Looking rather like Aang with darker skin and a Hitler Youth haircut, he has the classic introduction of annoying streetrat thieving brat who repents when he gets into hot water and falls under the positive influence of older brother figures – but beyond that he gets really likeable and is given a role that is clearly leading to a much-expanded one in Season 4. His puppy love with Jinora is also absolutely adorable. He brings the same sort of energy Aang brought to the original, and it’s extremely welcome.

Which isn’t to say I dislike the screentime given to the others. I like how Korra’s mind works in this season, suspicious of authority figures and determined to improve herself and make sure those she cares about are getting on – even prickly Lin, who gets lots more development as she is reunited with her estranged sister. Bolin and Mako also get some good development thanks to reunions – stumbling upon their extended family, including their grandmother.

Ultimately, of course, the whole thing boils down to a big scrap, and the many overpowering the few, thanks to Jinora’s quick work and leadership. It’s pretty satisfying and the stakes genuinely feel high without being on the huge scale of the season 2 finale. Perhaps it would have been good to get some indication of where the next season will lead, as things feel neatly wrapped up other than the political upheaval of the Earth Kingdom, and of course the fourth season began very quickly after the (online) airings of the last episodes of this season.

It remained a little unsettling to the end that the same animators were working on this and The Boondocks. Especially in the comedy scenes, there was often a lot of Grandpa Freeman in Korra’s expressions, and that is pretty weird and jarring. But arguably the influence is actually going in the other direction. It feels like there’s less ambition in the animation now, all looking just a little cheaper than it used to, but the art stays on-model remarkably well, and the lava effects are great.

Certainly I want more – especially more Kai and Jinora, which from watching the first episode of the next season I know I’ll be getting, with their designs really not changing much after a time skip. I’m slightly sad Jinora grows her hair back, though – she looked so cute as a bald girly-Aang!  

Thursday, 9 October 2014

咲 Saki 阿知賀編 episode of Side-A / Saki Achiga-hen episode of Side-A

Saki was the latest very silly, brainless anime I enjoyed. I always like to have at least one of these on the go (the other one I currently have being Inazuma 11), which I can put on in any mood, no matter how tired, and enjoy myself. And Saki episodes are compulsive fluff – they’re stupid, the way the game at the centre of the story is played is largely irrelevant, and the fanservice is often tedious, but the fact is that it’s extremely enjoyable nonetheless.

There are some odd choices with this second season. Firstly, it’s a complete side-story. The first season’s main characters are seen only in glimpses and flashbacks. Instead, we follow some of Nodoka’s childhood friends as they see her on TV, revive their Mahjong club and make their way to the national competition to be reunited with their old friend. Of course, this involves placing highly their regional tournament, which as ever means confronting girls with mahjong super-powers.

The powers here are even more extreme than the last season’s ability to disappear from view or mess people up with ultra-beginner’s-luck. Here, we have girls whose bonds are so deep that if one wins a hand in a round having placed imaginary bondage restraints on herself, her partner is guaranteed to win that hand on the next round – after having a rather erotic reaction. We have a girl who can see into the future after a near-death experience, who can grant that ability to her best friend by rubbing her head on her thighs. Yes. And one of our main characters spent a long time deep in the mountains, which has bestowed her with the gift of claiming any territory she can perceive as a deep mountain as her own – including going up against formidable opponents, who are like mountains, and being deep into the tiles lined up in front of her. What even more absurd abilities await in the next season I am eager to know, and the way the absurdity is racked up and up reminds me in a good way of Yakitate!! Japan.

However, one of the problems here is that there are so many interesting, colourful characters. There’s Saki’s strangely indifferent sister, who is an indomitable monster held off only by another player’s bizarre ability to never lose all of her points, even if she is not very strong. There’s the adorable tomboy who gets embarrassed when she has to wear a skirt – always my preferred character type. There’s the sharpshooter who makes people feel she’s an archer as she shoots them down with targeted mahjong hands, and the angler who can always pick out what she needs. Beside all these, the core group of five, who have character quirks like feeling cold all the time and having been keen on bowling, just don’t stand out very much. I ended up much more invested in the teams trying to get in their way than the main characters themselves, and that’s a bit of a problem. They were just relatively uninteresting.

And of course, the whole endeavour seems a little pointless. Presumably, these are going to be sacrificial lambs in the end, losing to Saki’s sister so that they can have a big showdown at the end. I may be wrong, and the final may be between two teams we’re supposed to root for, but that just doesn’t seem likely. That probability in the back of my mind just makes it harder to feel very engaged with these side-story characters.

Still, for all it seemed like a strange diversion, the actual journey was extremely enjoyable and I shall certainly progress to the next season. And as for the change of studio, as Gonzo staffers split to form Studio Gokumi? Well, honestly it made no difference at all. 

Monday, 29 September 2014

攻殻機動隊 / Koukaku Kidou Tai / Mobile Armoured Riot Police / Ghost in the Shell

For a long while now, I’ve been meaning to rewatch Ghost in the Shell and review it. And by a long while, I mean several years – since around the time I wrote my Akira review. After all, when I was growing up, those were the two most iconic anime films in the West – Akira and Ghost in the Shell, held up as the pinnacles of what anime can achieve. And having enjoyed Akira, I expected to love Ghost in the Shell too. But I must confess, I did not. I was disappointed at the time: it was beautiful, but rather sterile and dull. I never felt involved with any of the characters, and found the incessant nudity a bit puerile – too obviously titillation masquerading as art.

Yet I’ve always wanted to reassess, and to rewatch. This was especially the case on a recent trip to Japan, where I visited an exhibition of the artwork for the film and its various sequels. I hadn’t fully appreciated the sheer level of detail in the artwork, nor the obvious joy in machinery, weaponry and the human form that went into them until that gallery. It really is astounding and rather beautiful, and the long pan up on the city that ends the film made for a beautiful sketch and painting. That really set me wanting to watch the first film again – but still I put it off, and I’m quite glad I did. Last night, there was a one-off screening of the remastered version in a local cinema, and that really was the best way to see this visually stunning film.

Plot-wise, for an action piece, it actually moves very slowly and makes a point of making much of its more dramatic violence stately, with languid, epic music composed by Kawai Kenji rather than pounding rhythms. It’s remarkable how far that goes to elevate things. Based on the first part of the manga by Shirow Masamune, it tells a thoughtful but not very eventful story that unfortunately ends just as it gets most interesting.

In a world of cybernetic implants and enhancements, law enforcement officer Kusanagi Motoko is almost entirely robotic, to the point that she worries if she is still human or not. We see her and her likeable team of colleagues investigating the ‘puppet master’, a hacker capable of controlling others. Eventually, it turns out that the Puppet Master is actually artificially created, though now believes itself to have a mind and a soul. Trapped in a single body so as not to spread over the network, it engineers events to bring itself into contact with Motoko, realising that without the human element, it can never diversify in a way that it can protect itself through unpredictability. Everything works, a new gestalt being is created and...the film ends, just as it becomes most intriguing.

Still, the journey has many very interesting elements, including interesting philosophical questions related to the Cartesian ghost in the machine. Most affecting is the minor character manipulated into believing he has a wife and daughter: if the soul results from important memories and relationships, what is the soul when those are fabricated? Is the mind just a ghost and the body the shell? How is that affected when the body is artificial? For a film that also has a beautiful woman stripping off all her clothes to do physical battle with a huge spider-like ‘tank’ and beat up her target while cloaked to even scratch at the surface of such questions is quite satisfying, and this balances them well.

But the problem with that very elevation is that especially around the middle, without any real clear goal or motivations made apparent, the film is actually quite dull. I was kept engaged by simply enjoying the art – the detailed backgrounds, the interesting angles, the highly detailed machinery. But I ought to be engaged by the plot. And the thing is, I know that Oshii Mamoru can give his characters a whole lot of heart and soul and interesting character arcs. But I don’t really see it here, and that Motoko remains a glacial figure of intrigue and mystery works only if the real emotional heart of the piece is with her teammates. And while the beginnings of that are there with Batou and Togusa, it’s not taken nearly far enough. The result is something rather beautiful, but icy and distant. Conceptually understandable, but for 90 minutes, not especially enjoyable.

The film achieves much, especially visually. But I can’t call it one of my favourite anime films of all time. Nice to have finally, finally watched it in Japanese, though! 

Thursday, 25 September 2014

HunterxHunter (2011): Election Arc

Well, I don’t think that when they revived it, Madhouse thought that in the time it would take to animate 16 years’ worth of HunterxHunter manga, Togashi would only have managed about 40 chapters.

So, well...the inevitable has happened. With the end of the Election arc, HunterxHunter is over once again. And I’m sad, because watching that final episode, which is actually a good place to end because it marks the culmination of Gon’s emotional arc with him getting to hand over Ging's Hunter licence and accomplishing the goal established at the very start, I’ll realised a few things.

I realised that even if One Piece is consistently better and I enjoyed Naruto more in its first 40-odd episodes, HunterxHunter is the Jump action property I care about the most (and second overall only to Hikaru no Go). Gon is by far my favourite of the action protagonists, much more pure-hearted and less annoying than Luffy, Naruto, Ichigo, Goku, Tsuna, Allen Walker, Yugi, Yoh or any of the rest of them, as well as going through far more harrowing experiences. HunterxHunter does darkness far better than any of the others ever did, and I’m going to be sad if Togashi is demoralised by the end of the anime and stops again for another long hiatus. Money isn’t going to motivate him – I’m sure that with his titles and the money the new Sailor Moon is bringing in for his wife, the only motivating factor is gonna be love of the piece. Is it still there? It feels like it, when he’s writing, but then for months and months he won’t do a thing.

Anyway, inception aside the Election Arc, while short and almost entirely lacking the protagonist of the story – another bold decision you won’t see from other Jump writers – is actually a very satisfying one. It reintroduces the long-absent character of Leorio and makes him look pretty impressive (setting up his role in the next arc), it despite a magical solution illustrates that the power-up Gon received was not a typical shounen ass-pull but genuinely put him and those close to him through significant pain and suffering, and with the parallel story arc for Killua, it further fleshes out his relationship with his family and fills in some important blanks.

But best of all, we get introduced to the Zodiac. Some are absurd, and some uninteresting, but Pariston is one of the most brilliant creations in any manga I’ve ever seen – and I detest him. But to have such powerful feelings about a fictional character who is only ever seen on the surface and who is named after Paris Hilton is quite the accomplishment. Pariston is an utterly brilliant depiction of a smarmy, insincere politician type. He’s slick and polished and knows that everyone hates him, but has an incredibly deep cunning under the surface and runs intellectual rings around the others – especially poor likeable Cheadle – while making it all look accidental or idiotic. Bringing Ging to the fore – and having him a foil to Pariston yet not entirely able to deal with him – is the most wonderful, watchable dynamic and again, sets up the next arc.

But fun though the election story is, the real emotional heart of these episodes was of course Killua’s rush to save Gon. Gon turned himself into something horrific in exchange for the power to defeat Pitou, and Killua can only think of one way to save him – the fearful power of his little sibling (most likely biologically male but identifying as female) locked up in the Zoldyck household.

With a set of strange rules, Alluka – or the other personality residing within, known as Nanika – can grant wishes when various demands are met. But failing to meet those demands brings horrific consequences. It’s the furthest HunterxHunter delves into horror territory, and it works really rather well. What Togashi does best is show that Killua actually sees Alluka as human, which none of the rest of the family do, and their bond is quite touching.

Illumi and Hisoka end up giving chase, another interesting dynamic – and Hisoka is enigmatic as ever, though brutally effective in his battle with Gotou. There are also some interesting new Zoldyck butler characters, though I think Tsubone’s goofy, rather embarrassing-looking ability was a waste – especially since she herself is awesome. It’s a pretty classic chase storyline, but wrapped up with all sorts of family drama, as well as Killua’s love for Gon and conflicted feelings.

The big climb to finish the arc is very sweet. Not only is that kind of ascent an old classic of shounen stories – most notably Dragonball – and finished off with trademark Togashi silliness with the nest, the conversation Gon finally has with his father is done brilliantly – it’s not too saccharine or emotional, but the message that Ging imparts, that the journey and the people you meet on it are more important than the goal, comes over very nicely.

I’ll very much miss my weekly dose of HunterxHunter. But I have every faith that it will come back again – someday. And until then, well, there’s always the manga. Sometimes. 

Saturday, 13 September 2014

The Boxtrolls

I could already tell from the way it was marketed, but it’s already obvious that The Boxtrolls, a likeable and funny film, will not do anywhere near as well as Laika’s previous films. While I can see there being life after Selick for the studio, what hooked people before was associations with Tim Burton and Neil Gaiman. What The Boxtrolls needed was the kind of concept that immediately hooks people in, like Wall-E or Happy Feet. They needed something that kept the dark edge but still seemed accessible. A grimy film about ugly trolls who live underground with a hermit crab-like relationship with cardboard boxes may have a lot of gems in the actual execution – and indeed it does – but I am completely sure that fewer people will give it a chance than it deserves. If they had marketed it with the human characters more to the fore, as the main point of identification and even with some cute factor highlighted, it could have attracted more of a crowd. But the trolls themselves were very much where the campaign centred, and that felt to me like trying to sell Frozen on those funny little rock troll things. They may have an important place in the plot, but they’re not what an audience identifies with.

And that gets in the way of a cracking story full of very well-executed characters. It has a neat set-up that both gives us our hero and sets the antagonist’s actions into motion – though we have to assume the evil Mr Snatcher works extremely slowly for it to really work.

In the rather wonderful towering fantasy-English town of Cheesebridge, the curious little Boxtrolls live a nocturnal existence scavenging for bits of technology to put into their rather steampunk-ish lair. 

When a respected inventor vanishes and his son is taken by the Boxtrolls, the community begins to fear them – egged on by the nefarious Mr Snatcher, something of a tribute to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s child catcher, and voiced with as much evil camp as Ben Kingsley can muster. Snatcher is the most dangerous kind of social climber, desperate to join the elite of Cheesebridge, who wear white hats and mingle to discuss governing the town over all the finest cheeses – and he will do anything for this goal. He is aided by three henchmen who are rather brilliantly rendered – one is utterly unhinged, but the other two, played by Nick Frost (for once having a larger role in a film than Simon Pegg) and Richard Ayoade (star of The IT Crowd), wrestle throughout the film with questions of morality and the ever-dwindling chance that they are in fact the good guys.

The child taken by the Boxtrolls, however, was not snatched away. He was given willingly by his father (Pegg), who was attacked by Snatcher, demanding he invent a killing machine. Adopted by the Boxtrolls, he grows up believing he is one of them, even getting a name like theirs, based on what is on his box – ‘Eggs’. Eggs is joined by the likes of ‘Fish’, ‘Shoe’ and, indeed, ‘Fragile’. When he is somewhat grown but Snatcher has succeeded in capturing almost all the Boxtrolls, he has a chance encounter with Winifred, daughter of the highest-ranking official in town. Winnie (Elle Fanning, spirited as ever) has something of a fixation on blood and gore, a character quirk that sits just on the right side of contrived, and resents how her father is much more interested in cheese than in her. Together, they put together a plan to rescue Eggs’ adoptive family – but ultimately it is Snatcher’s own plan reaching fruition and then finally him getting everything he ever wanted that proves his undoing.

Some of the scenes here are the funniest in any animated film I’ve seen in a very long while. Eggs trying to pass in high society is just the right balance of embarrassing, disgusting, adorable and humbling. I loved the henchmen’s banter, and while I don’t usually like that kind of humour, I enjoyed the closing stinger of Ayoade’s character musing about his existence. Snatcher was animated with such grotesque relish, and I very much enjoyed the steampunk elements. Laika also seem to be the only American animation studio alongside Dreamworks-in-serious-mode who seem to be able to get adolescent characters right these days: Eggs and Winnie are not only a very enjoyable odd couple, they are both very sympathetic in their own right, and Eggs in particular I found extremely cute – helped by a natural sort of performance with an estuary twang from Isaac Hempstead-Wright, better-known as Bran from Game of Thrones.

For a film animated in Portland, this was a remarkably British sort of a film, from its setting to its cast, and with that comes something of an appreciation for the dirty and grimy, as well as a celebration of quiet, unassuming hard work and a dislike of those who pull others down to advance themselves. That this also has a neat story with likeable characters attached to it, as well as some really stunning visuals and incredibly smooth stop-motion, and you have a highly enjoyable film. But I can’t help but feel it just wasn’t the film Laika needed just yet: they needed a couple more to really make themselves a household name with more obvious ideas first, and then this could be a follow-up.