Saturday, 23 July 2016

The Simpsons: Season 9

If problems had begun to appear in the last couple of seasons, this season is the one where it no longer felt like the next episode was likely to be good, with a small chance of being a stinker. This is where the Simpson family stops being relatable and start being outright scary. It’s also where the show completely disconnects from reality, where things that were previously Treehouse of Horror material enter regular episodes. Witness, for example, Kirk Van Houten’s arm being sliced off, never to be mentioned again. Or the launching of a submarine captain as a torpedo when Homer randomly gets put in charge. It just doesn’t seem like The Simpsons in its prime any more. Family histories can be altered whenever it’s convenient to the plot, like when Grandpa shows Lisa that Homer and Bart were very smart as young children, and perhaps most irritatingly and controversially, Principal Skinner’s character is totally assassinated when he is revealed to be an imposter, which for many – such as Chris Turner in Planet Simpson – is the show’s ‘Jumping the shark’ moment. It’s not just the abrupt change in continuity that sits uneasily – it’s the sheer implausibility of the town’s reaction. That said, it’s not up there in implausibility with things like moving the whole town five miles on wheels.

None of these are the nadir of the season, however. That honour goes to ‘All Singing, All Dancing’, which may be my least favourite episode of The Simpsons ever. I’m just glad these episodes weren’t among the first I saw.

But there are certainly strong episodes here, too. Nelson as a star peewee footballer, Lisa falling victim to an elaborate advertising gimmick, and Bart actually facing some consequences when he gets caught in a string of lies all work well for the show. Moe finds love and actually gets some proper character development, and Mr. Burns – despite it coming over as a bit strange so soon after an episode where he was broke – has one of the season’s funniest episodes in possession of a trillion-dollar bill. The season finale, with Homer and Marge trying to reignite their sex lives, is also full of strong moments and still manages to feel like envelope-pushing, almost two decades later.

But the real problem with this show at this stage is how quickly the characters can be remoulded to fit an idea or concept. We’re already getting to the stage where Homer is a psychopath who doesn’t care if he kills. It’s a struggle for Marge to be interesting. Bart is badly in need of more depth and Lisa seems to be losing her strength of character and cleverness.

Sadly, it’s downhill from here. 

Saturday, 2 July 2016

少年メイド / Shounen Maid / Boy Maid

Trash. No denying it.

But I enjoyed every episode. And it’s no more egregious than the OreImos and Love Lives of the world.

The female demographic is clearly becoming more and more lucrative in the anime world. It’s female buying power that is the engine behind the success of the likes of Osomatsu-san, Kuroshitsuji and the various hot-blooded sports series like Kuroke no Basuke, Haikyuu!, Free! and Yowamushi Pedal. And just as the male demographic gets feel-good pandering trash, so too do female audiences get their own flavours. Which are perhaps a little more…surprising to Western tastes?

Before it becomes an elephant in the room, yes, a lot of Japanese women like to watch homoerotic stories involving a little boy and an older man. The older man is usually on the feminine side, but the kind of pretty that makes women around him blush and giggle. The boy is usually innocent and often feminised. Kuroshitsuji is perhaps the most prominent example of this set-up, but by no means the only one. And the idea of putting a young boy in a rich man’s house as a maid has been done before in the explicitly pornographic Shounen Maid Kuro-kun.

So this series already begins in a very, very weird place. Little Chihiro-kun in just an elementary school student, 11 or 12 at most, when his mother dies and he goes to live with his extremely wealthy uncle Madoka. Madoka is a clothing designer who loves frills and when he finds out his nephew loves to clean, he promptly puts him in a frilly apron over his shorts and long socks. Though the writer is careful not to make anything overtly sexual about this relationship, Madoka is a rather infantile man who often decides to come and sleep in the same bed as Chihiro.

This odd couple relationship is fleshed out as Chihiro finds out more about his family, various friends and relatives are introduced and Madoka’s personal life gets whipped into shape just as his professional life is kept in check by his personal assistant Keiichirou. A cute member of an idol group called Ryuuji also befriends the motley crew, and I have to say I’d probably rather watch the spin-off about the group that’s airing on Nico Nico Douga (and thus not getting translated by anybody), which at least is sexualising a 16-year-old rather than a 12-year-old – while pretending to be innocent.

But for all the bad taste in the mouth this series might leave, the fact is that it’s cute and fun, just like shows for men about adorable lolis tend to be cute and fun. That Chihiro is only a kid but far more responsible than the adults around him is cute, the occasional embarrassment of being seen in his apron (and his friends ending up with the same fate) is cute. The dynamic between the Uchouten Boys – the idol group – is clichéd and drawn briefly, but also cute. And yes, Chihiro himself, with his serious exterior but obvious vulnerability, is extremely cute.


There’s no denying that the premise is creepy, there’s glamorised paedophilia running under the surface throughout, the characterisation is lazy and the show doesn’t really go anywhere, but it’s no more creepy than numerous little sister or loli comedy shows, and is still very enjoyable for those of us who like cuteness, whether aimed at guys or girls. 

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Zootopia

Disney is in another extremely strong age, following the Fairy Tale double-whammy of Tangled and Frozen with the wonderfully big-hearted Wreck-it Ralph and Big Hero 6. Now comes Zootopia, an animal allegory that holds a mirror up to human society in the time-honoured way, but with a clever and timely message that crucially seems to please everyone.

Zootopia follows Judy Hopps the adorable anthropomorphic bunny as she follows her dream to become the first-ever rabbit police officer in the multicultural urban utopia that is Zootopia. Even though she manages to surprise everyone and make it through Police Academy as valedictorian, she is constantly underestimated until she manages to wrangle a simple investigation that soon unfurls into a conspiracy that will rock Hopps’ society to the core. But with her new odd-couple friend Nick Wilde the sly fox – and a coincidental powerful little ally – perhaps she has a shot at solving the mystery.

This is of course a look at the current fixations the world has – diversity, integration, celebrating differences or fearing them, and comes with the refreshingly stark opening message that even if you’re told platitudes about following your dreams, it’s seldom that simple. Perhaps the cleverest part is that the messages offered by the film please opposite ends of the political spectrum. For the left, there’s the central message that if you have a dream you can follow it and defy the odds to buck the trend and win over all the doubters. For the right, there’s the concurrent message that there are fundamental differences between various groups, which come with innate limitations and strengths, and draw people into different roles based on averages – even if outliers can be encouraged. Everybody is happy.

And using animals means that time-honoured jokes based on stereotypes can be gleefully employed – only about animals, so no human groups will be offended. The film is replete with sight gags based on appearance, comments about traits associated with different creatures and even jokes revolving around slurs. It’s quite nice that using animals circumvents the current problems about being ‘problematic’, or seeking to be entirely PC.

Pace-wise this is a classic smooth committee-approved script, ticking off exposition, mystery, investigation, development, disillusion, revelation and final confrontation. It’s neither hard to predict nor new, but it works very nicely and hits all the right emotional notes. I wouldn’t say it has heart to the same degree as Wreck-It Ralph or Big Hero 6, but it absolutely gives the audience engaging characters, a fascinating and amusing world, a believable story, some hard-hitting moments and material for social debate, which is pretty good going for a children’s film.

The ensemble cast is also very strong, with the likes of Idris Elba and Oscar winner J.K. Simmons having fun with broad roles, Maurice LeMarche doing a classic impersonation, Tommy Chong being Tommy Chong and Shakira rather bizarrely providing the emotional heart of the movie as well as a rather catchy Sia-penned closing number.

I watched this movie late – I don’t think it will be showing in Japan much longer, and it’s months since its American release – but I’m glad I managed to catch it on the big screen. The way Zootopia is set up for creatures of all sizes and various climates is rather charming and the level of detail in every frame is astonishing. Another hit for Disney, and another set of characters I hope will soon be regarded as beloved characters from a classic film. 

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Wakfu OVAs

As a proud Kickstarter contributor, I got these OVAs from Ankama months ago in my nice big pack of goodies. But I put off watching them until I could find a way to watch them in French with English subtitles, because the English voices don’t sit well with me after so long watching the originals – which is also why I STILL haven’t got around to finishing the new season of Mysterious Cities of Gold.

But a few days ago Ankama E-mailed mentioning their trailer for season 3, and wanting to watch it but not wanting these three specials spoiled – which I now know they would have been had I watched – I decided it was time to figure it out. I was able to do so, and once again had the pleasure of dipping into le Monde des Douze.

And what a pleasure it was. The specials were more than I had anticipated, continuing the adventures but building on them in dramatic form. We got to see a lot more familiar faces than I had expected, which was great for fanservice but also for the expansion of the world – not only Joris helped this time, but Kerubim and Atcham too (though I’m not sure when they took to calling Joris their father – maybe something the Dofus films will explain? I should probably watch Julith sometime soon!). Goultard appears too. More interesting still are the foes we see – most brilliantly, this OVA focuses on Ogrest and all the problems he causes the world. Great to see that story concluded after all this time. There is also Remington, Ush, the intriguing future threat Lady Echo, and intriguing mind-controlled cameos for comic characters Maskemane and Percimol. Nox is of course gone for good, but it was nice to see the references to him. These appearances were a lot of fun for a fan, but mostly it was just good to see the Brotherhood back in action, especially Yugo.

The story continues with Tristepin and Evangeline’s peaceful life with their cute twin girls interrupted by the call of Otomai summoning them to the Sadida kingdom. The kingdom is in trouble, inundated by Ogrest’s tears. The time has come to deal with the absurdly powerful Ogrest, but to do that, they need the Eliotrope Dofus to counter Ogrest’s Dofus. And the Dofus have gone missing...

What follows is an enjoyable quest with lots of scraps and two mightly power-ups for our main two heroes, but more crucially contains a whole lot of very sweet and engaging interactions between beloved characters. Whether Pinpin gets the power of a god matters to me far less than whether he is a good father, or if Adamai will come to understand his brother’s rash actions or the huge efforts he went to in order to preserve the World of Twelve. 
Personally, I loved this and regret that I didn’t watch it sooner. I’m a little sad it’s still so hard to get hold of and consume Wakfu materials, because it remains a firm favourite. What I’ll make of season 3 I’m not yet sure, but I’m confident I’ll enjoy it – and whatever else Ankama put out. It’s not that they can do no wrong, and I am a little worried that after Nox, the Shushus, the Eliotropes and Ogrest himself, the Siblings and perhaps the Gods themselves are going to seem a tad underwhelming. 

But I certainly haven’t had enough of Yugo, Pinpin, Amalia, Evangeline, Ruel and the rest...so I’m certainly on board for more and willing to see just how good Ankama’s follow-ups will be!

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

The Simpsons: season 8

With season 7, I felt The Simpsons had turned a corner, but season 8 felt like more of the same. It’s still mid-turn, with some very goo
 episodes, and my all-time favourite Simpsons moment (‘There’s your answer, fishbulb’). There are two of the best parody episodes in the series (X-Files and Frasier), another moment that really last
 in an otherwise episodic show (The Van Houtens’ divorce), some good episodes for Ned and Reverend Lovejoy, and the best of Seymour Skinner’s many dabbles in romance. The Frank Grimes episode is also a clever bit of meta-humour examining the premise of the show, and homer’s chili-based hallucinations are wonderfully 90s. ‘Bart After Dark’ showcases some slightly more complex issues than typical for a cartoon, and Marge gets some fantastic moments, and ‘Homer’s Phobia’ is a bit ham-fisted but brave in what it attempts.

On the other hand, this season has some real duds. The spin-off showcase is a bad idea done badly, the Poochie episode falls flat and the parody of Mary Poppins is too obvious, too lazy and definitely not funny enough to work. A James Bond villain fighting with machine guns and grenades while Homer doesn’t notice and an Italian mafia-Yakuza showdown in Evergreen Terrace just take this show too far from its relatable origins and simply don’t feel very Simpsons. Firing people from human catapults just about passes.


But at this stage, I miss the days of a normal, dysfunctional American family, but they already seem distant. The Simpsons is still kept afloat with some classic moments and clever writing, but it’s right on the edge of sinking, and that’s a shame. 

Friday, 3 June 2016

ワンパンマン / Wanpanman / One Punch Man

I realised when I posted my review of the OVAs that I had never actually written my thoughts on the first season of One Punch Man – in fact, I decided not to because those OVAs were coming out and I thought I could write everything together. But that was six months ago and I forgot all about it. Well, I’ve posted my thoughts on the OVAs, so I’d better post about season one!

One Punch Man has an interesting creation story, which really helps its success. It’s the kind of feel-good underdog success story that you can really get behind. A writer calling himself One started to publish a crudely-drawn webcomic about a superhero so strong that no matter how powerful his opponents, they can be beaten with one punch. Rather than looking incredibly cool, this hero is a rather ordinary-looking bald guy with a silly costume reminiscent of Anpanman with colours inverted, the Japanese title being a play on that classic children’s character. Not only is our caped hero Saitama goofy-looking, but he has a very detached, deadpan attitude to the world, speaking his mind and undercutting all the usual inflated rhetoric of comic book villains by using a single punch to destroy them. As a vehicle for bathos to undercut all of the clichés of a world where huge monsters and cheesy superheroes do battle, it works marvellously.

I was a little sceptical when I heard the premise. Godzilla vs Bambi is never much fun. If Saitama overcomes all obstacles with one punch, what drama can there be? But this is where One’s writing makes a difference, and why, I presume, readers were hooked despite the terrible art (which has it has to be said vastly improved by this point) and the obvious concept. Rather than Saitama’s power, it is the world he is part of and the way he balances indifference and yearning to be recognised and appreciated that makes this series so compelling.

One of the things that I like the most about One Punch Man is that in many ways it echoes HunterxHunter. One is not shy about this – some character designs are direct echoes, and one frontispiece had Saitama reading and praising HunterxHunter in Jump. The Hero Association in One Punch Man is very similar to the Hunter Association, with some very familiar dynamics.

The real compelling drama of One Punch Man is the slow recognition of Saitama’s talents. He is first acknowledged by Genos, a rather adorably pure-hearted cyborg out for revenge and powerful enough to go right to the top of the Association. Saitama, meanwhile, is held down by not being the brightest bulb, despite what his shiny head might make you think, and enters the association near the bottom – and is given the rather unfortunate name of ‘Caped Baldy’.

This premise is what got me hooked, but it’s the ensemble cast of S-Class heroes that took me over the boundary to loving this series. Each of them revealed thus far is very interesting and interacts with Saitama in a very amusing way, be it tetchy master telepath Tatsumaki or the wonderfully misleading King.

I’m delighted that One Punch Man is so popular and will soon be having its second season. It’s funny, it does smart things with its simple concept, and above all, it’s likeable. I want more!

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, season 5

I got a certain gratification from the deflation of hype that came with My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic season 4. It became very clear that this cartoon was really nothing that remarkable, one in a long line that sat alongside all the other animation I watch in a fairly normal way. The fandom started to fizzle out and it seems people are forgetting being a ‘Brony’ was ever a thing. Can’t say that’s something I’m sad about. I watch so much animation that having to disassociate myself from a subculture just for watching this as well was a little tedious.

But season 5 also lost me a little. I grew tired of it, stopped watching for a long period of time, and just decided to finish the season and start the next this past week. Trying very, very hard to keep their fandom alive with an episode full of in-jokes that the wider audience must have been baffled by in ‘Slice of Life’ rubbed me the wrong way, and after the mid-season break I just didn’t continue with the show for almost a year.

There’s a real feeling of a show running out of steam here. The Cutie Mark Crusaders are finally given a pay-off moment, which honestly I thought would be saved until the last five or six episodes of the show, and was of course pretty anticlimactic. Continued episodes with them in season 6 can only be more so. Discord episodes become less of a treat and more flogging a dead horse, and bringing yaks into the equation just came over as very patronising.

The flow of the season seemed very odd. Barely any rarity in the first half, but then way too much of her in the second, which is too much Rarara for any but her staunchest fans. Pinkie is as annoying as ever, and while I liked the writing of the episode where Applejack meets her friend who is now famous, direct Lady Gaga references are going to get very dated very quickly, and were already hardly up-to-the-minute.

It’s now very clear that Friendship is Magic is not revolutionary, is not going to break boundaries and is not going to provide entertainment that’s far more epic than expected. But I have to say, the variety of alternate universes glimpsed in the season finale, including several where the familiar characters are in a tough post-apocalyptic warrior setting, were a pleasant glimpse of that. I’d love to see those angles developed more, but sadly I know that’s not going to happen. Because this is no longer a show that has the capacity to surprise or redefine cartoons for girls. I’d like to say a new Powerpuff Girls would be more likely to accomplish that…but honestly, I don’t think we’ll see anything but the same old safe formulae there either.