Wednesday, 29 December 2010

かのこん/ Kanokon

I thought Kanokon might be a new Rizelmine or Sumomomo Momomo – something pretty lowbrow and perverted that I occasionally watched in order to turn off my brain and enjoy some silliness. But it wasn’t Rizelmine or Sumomo. If anything, it was more similar to Moetan. Only less funny. And less classy. Yes – less classy than Moetan.

With the recent ruling regarding the moral fibre of Tokyo’s youth, which commentators are calling the end of ecchi, lolicon and shota in the anime broadcast industry, Kanokon may just have gone down as the most perverted thing to have aired as a regular late-night anime, if not for the fact that belying belief, it aired in the morning when kids could see it. It had copious fanservice and nudity – that was basically the purpose of the show - and indeed, the DVD extras are straight-ahead, no-nonsense animated pornography, complete with cheesy music.

It’s actually somewhat of a surprise that this came from Studio Xebec, who usually concern themselves with kiddy or cutesy fare like Megaman, although they were also behind the Love Hina anime. The production values are cheap and nasty, hopefully a last gasp of the moeblob anime, although the flat-chested loli characters are secondary to the giant-breasted principal love interest.

The story, such as it is, goes that an incredibly naïve high-school student called Kouta, with the appearance and voice of a ten-year-old, has transferred to a new school. There, he meets tall, busty Chizuru, who turns out to be a fox spirit. She announces her love for Kouta and her desire to marry him. However, she has competition in the shape of Nozomu, a flat-chested, spacey Lolita wolf spirit. The two begin trying to one-up one another, with more and more overt sexual advances towards the always petrified little boy.

I thought perhaps the idea of having this shota in the anime was to make him a sexualised object, in the vein of Negima, but in fact that assumption was wrong. He appears like a child in order, I think, to make him totally unthreatening to the target audience of straight, lonely males who want to fantasise about the girls involved. He has no prowess, social or athletic; he is scrawny and awkward and undeveloped; he is in every way inferior, apart from cuteness. Thus he is no threat at all, and his basic design – noseless and with simple face and hair shape – makes him easy to imagine away – while his lack of sexual drive allows the plot to be strung out.

And the conceit clearly worked. Not only was the anime already a spin-off – of a light novel – but there have also been manga, drama CDs and a visual novel. The DVDs sold remarkably well and there were even two OVAs.

This is somewhat disappointing. This really is anime at its worst. Ugly, plotless and catering to the lowest urges in the most obvious way, it really isn’t the finest moment of animation, or even close. I can’t really understand anyone finding even the ludicrous pornographic extras appealing, but hey – my taste is not everybody’s taste.

Sex sells, in animation as much as anywhere else, and this is simply an example of that. But oh boy, is it bad.

陰陽大戦記 / Onmyou Taisenki / Great Yin-Yang War Chronicles

Onmyou Taisenki is in the same sphere of existence as Otogi-Zushi Akatsukin: not quite down there in the lowest-brow bracket of Pokémon, Beyblade et al, but really not elevated from them by much.

The story is straightforward: a young boy finds a mysterious Digidrive-esque piece of equipment and finds that it allows him to summon a cute Bengal tiger-type catboy. Of course, not long after this revelation comes the inevitable appearance of another with a similar ‘drive’ and anthro companion, and they must do battle. After a few fights, power-ups and life lessons, the boy starts to learn that his own past is in some way tied up with a history that will threaten the entire world.

So yes, a generic plot. Blatant toy tie-ins in the drives. Borderline furry designs. But Onmyou Taisenki works, and while it didn’t have much substance, it had enough to sustain its 52 episodes in enjoyable style, and while far from life-changing it was well worth a watch.

I picked it up simply because a sample of the manga appeared in one of the Jump spin-offs I picked up in Japan and quite liked the designs, especially for (furry jokes aside) Kogenta, the aforementioned catboy. Otherwise, I probably never would have heard of it, since it’s one of those kids’ anime that gets subbed by groups that for some reason don’t seem to publicise their releases in the usual places.

The presentation is very Sunrise, all prettiness and cute round faces and smooth but economical animation. While it sounds formulaic, though, the anime is actually very idiosyncratic, mixing conventional moé with sheer bizarreness: when the ‘shikigami’ anthros appear, they have a kabuki-themed entrance where screens open to reveal them and they list their name and affiliated ‘house’ with the obligatory ‘kenzan!’, and while these are initially straightforward, they soon veer into sheer bizarreness, like the lion-man whose intro is a pastiche of noir detective stories. The comedy is genuinely funny, from the cute kitty that seems to turn demonic when only one person is looking to the typical childhood-friend-with-huge-and-adorable-unrequited-crush angle, and the series juggles lightness and its winsome stabs at the epic and emotional deftly, with strong performances from its well-established group of seiyuu. And as ever in these shows, what matters most is the character relationships, the frosty rivalries softening into affection, the betrayers looking for redemption and of course one young boy’s growing bond with his tiger-spirit friend.

Nothing special and certainly not the show to present to cynics to illustrate why anime should be taken seriously, but for a light and charming diversion, quite a pleasure.

(Originally written 19.10.08)

精霊の守り人 / Guardian of the Sacred Spirit / Seirei no Moribito

Seirei no Moribito just should not exist. But I am so very glad it does. There just should not be an anime that looks this incredible, takes on such an immense and far-reaching storyline, especially not in a world where no-one’s heard of it because they’re all too busy watching Lucky Star.

Everything about Seirei no Moribito is head and shoulders above anything else in the weekly anime world. The production standards make the show look like a movie from a big studio like Ghibli. The theme comes from hugely successful J-Rock band L’Arc~En~Ciel (though does contain some rather strained English pronunciation) and the incidental music sounds fantastic. The art is stunning, from backgrounds you could stare at for hours to some very appealing character designs that never go off-model. Every frame is done perfectly, no corners cut, and the animation is as good as it gets – just look at how those fights are choreographed, and how they move! Weapons really have weight, characters try to outthink one another, and while the acrobatics are fanciful, they’re more believable than wire work in kung-fu movies. This anime is a feast for the eyes.

And fortunately, it’s coupled with an ambitious story. Seirei no Moribito’s plot comes not from a manga, but from a novel, and the difference in crafting, I must admit, becomes apparent. The story is slightly reminiscent of Scrapped Princess’s – the Emperor’s son is marked with the sign of the water spirits, so his own father tries to dispose of him, thinking it the mark of a demon. His mother sends him away with a spear-wielding female bodyguard, and they flee their pursuers, beginning to find out the truth about the water spirit as well as more about one another as Prince Chagum adapts to life outside the palace.

It’s actually quite a lazy storyline, driven like too many fantasy stories by the inevitability of a prophecy and magical creatures with magical rules that can be made up at will by a writer. Even accepting the magical setting, it’s only just believable that court advisors with access to ancient knowledge can believe something evil until one person actually reads the ancient texts left to them and realises that’s all wrong. There are some silly-looking magical fish-men and an old shaman who is an extremely adept fighter, both of which were just a little too daft to fit in here, with the otherwise realistic tone. Similarly, the arbitrary rules affecting battles with otherworldly creatures, like being able to fight them only after eating a certain kind of flower, make some of the climactic parts really rather hard to find exciting, in a similar way to the final sequences of Mononoke-hime. But very much like that film, it is the detail of the fanciful historical setting and the small, intimate moments of human contact that make this series transcend its rather uninteresting main plotline and become superb. Some anime bloggers complained of a slow patch around episode 7, but side-stories like Chagum beginning to get some idea of how the streets work and making some friends (even if they’re soon left behind) gave a vital human element to the story. Yes, perhaps it could have been done more quickly and effectively, but the main story was simple so the side-plots were spread out to a reasonable degree, and focus on the details of life, on how to survive in a cave in winter, on how a mill with a waterwheel works, on a spoilt child who’s never gone hungry realising food tastes so much better when you’ve gone without for a while, gives you characters you care about, and that was this series’ strength.

And also, having an actual child in the voice-acting cast enhanced the sincerity of the show’s presentation far more than I anticipated it would. Seeing a stern woman developing maternal instincts over what on some level you know is just a middle-aged woman pretending to be a young boy just doesn’t work as well as a real child.

Despite an imperfect and rather bland story, the art, animation, setting and performances here are superlative.

(originally written 18.10.07)

Monday, 27 December 2010

交響詩篇 エウレカセブン/ Koukyoushihen Eureka Seben / Symphonic Poem Eureka Seven

It took me until the very last episode of Eureka Seven for me to really know whether I thought the series had been a good one or a poor one. And finally, I came to the decision that after all, it was a disappointment.

I watched the first episode when I was searching for a new anime to get excited about, since a lot of my favourite series had come to an end and I hadn’t found anything to replace them. I had high hopes for Eureka Seven after seeing that; the character design and series art were very nice, the idea of surfing in mid-air, on ‘trappar’ instead of water, was very cool, Bones’ animation was up to their usual high standard, and most of all, I took a real liking to Renton. Our protagonist seemed to be a typical teenaged boy, with big dreams, a comic relationship with his grandfather and a charming tendency to act a bit goofy when he was on his own. It soon became apparent that the series was going to be mecha, but it looked like the setting of the world was interesting enough to make giant flying robots work in an interesting way.

But a few episodes in, the tone of the series shifted. Following a mysterious girl he rather fancies, Renton goes to join a group of rebel surfer(‘reffer’)-types he much admired, and we get far too many episodes of them hazing/bullying him, and him just being so totally pathetic and whiny about it that all my initial liking for him vanished. Things pick up a bit as an antagonist who looks like Eureka but is her absolute opposite in terms of temperament makes an appearance, and then again later when Renton leaves his idols in Gekko State and experiences a bit more of the world around him, but apart from those short interludes, the series spirals out of control.

Yes, the planet is covered with ‘Scab Coral’, an intelligent lifeform that only wants to communicate, but it can’t fully awaken because then the ‘limit of life’ will be reached, with apocalyptic consequences, but certain people are in touch with it, or made from it, or have it plugged into their hearts, and then a dastardly bad guy tries to blow it up for no decent reason except some typical bad-guy drivel about purging the world, and then there’s a portal to a promised land, and then all sorts of inter-dimensional hopping and slowly the plot spins and turns in on itself so much that there’s nowhere left to go but up its own arsehole. So in it plunges.

Any plothole can be covered with a new bit of made-up babble that would make the Star Trek writers blush, and who cares if a dozen more are opened as a result? Who cares if there’re impossible odds? The giant robots can be powered up by heightened emotions – but ugh, power-ups can be excused only in the silliest of shounen, not series that attempt to tackle sophisticated themes of existentialism, religious faith and moral relativism. After a while, when yet another term like ‘Command Cluster’ is pulled out of nowhere in another attempt to get the plot to make sense, you just stop listening.

Which leaves the characters. Renton redeems himself after his aforementioned fall from grace after his time with a surrogate mother and father, though it must be said that it’s not really that his character grows up, just that the people around him abruptly change the way they behave. Eureka is nothing we haven’t seen in a million anime already, but she’s sweet. The relationship between these two is interesting, and about the only thing that makes the series really watchable, apart from impressive art/animation. The Gekko State crew (the ones Renton joins), despite a lot of screentime, are mostly totally undeveloped, and I had no connection at all to, say, the bald guy in the engine room by the end. The focus is on Holland and Talho, who get fairly well-developed, but not nearly as much as they should have been in a 50-episode series. The slobbish, discourteous priest was a better character than either of them, despite only being in a handful of episodes.

Far worse, though, was the baddie, a military man called Dewey. He not only had no character, but had to be surrounded by the characterless, because only they would go along with his plans – his only allies that are real characters defect almost as soon as they actually stop to actually think. He wants to bring an end to the world. Why? Well, it’s a bit of a grey area.

Worth noting, though, the cast is unusually racially diverse for an anime, perhaps influenced by Bones’ last major project, Fullmetal Alchemist. There are two black adults in Gekko State, Eureka has adopted three kids – one black, one white and one oriental (and he actually does look oriental, more so than anyone else on the cast) – and, a step or two uncomfortably closer to sheer tokenism, one of the little children that Dewey inexplicably has as his trusted advisers (survivors of some purge or camp – what, no adults there?) is dark-skinned with a bindi. It’s not something you see often in anime.

I think I’d take their stab at multiculturalism more seriously without the bizarre allusions. Lots of anime are very allusive, but usually to religious concepts or mythology. Eureka Seven alludes to…anything it fancies, really. Arbitrarily. Machines are named after obscure British bands like the KLF, episode titles are taken from well-known rock songs or Disney numbers, the three kids are named Maurice, Maeter and Linck (and a Maeterlinck book is glimpsed at one point, not that I can see any real influence from Maeterlinck anywhere...) and an attempt at using trance music is evident. Apart from the latter, which was quite fun, most of these just sounded pretentious or totally pointless and distracting.

In fact, I think they epitomise my thoughts on Eureka Seven – they showed that the writers aimed high, and perhaps even thought they were being sophisticated and eloquent, but ultimately they made a mess of things, and they fell short of what they were supposed to be. But isn’t it better to have a series aim for complexity and erudition than for yet another brainless harem or shounen show to be churned out? Well, no, not in my opinion. I would much rather have a show that has modest aims and accomplishes them with charm than a show like this, that aims to be something greater than the rest, yet falls far short of the mark and ends up being a disappointment.

(Originally written 30.11.06)

Additional: Movie impressions, 24.10.09

I was ultimately disappointed by the series, so was actually quite pleased there was a whole new storyline. It was gorgeous, I much preferred Renton's character arc and the Nirvash redesign was fun. Doesn't quite stand alone, too shallow and bizarre without the grounding of the series, but well worth watching.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works

I didn’t know quite what to expect from Unlimited Blade Works, and for the first half thought it was just a remake, something along the lines of Evangelion 1.0, but with a series much less necessary to update. I shrugged off elements that I didn’t quite remember as my fuzzy memory of a series that honestly wasn’t all that memorable. But when Gilgamesh defeated Berserker and little Illyasviel was definitively taken out of the story, I knew that this was an alternate scenario from the game. And that was a good thing, because just retelling the original story but with a little more eye candy would have been unnecessary and quite annoying, especially as the first act was far too rushed.

Given that the story of a full season was squeezed into 105 minutes, that was no great surprise, but given that this film really makes little sense to the uninitiated and is purely for the fans, I thought the exposition could have been dispensed of altogether, preferably to give more time to Saber, who was altogether extraneous in this version, even being a damsel in distress for one chunk. The main storyline has a more satisfying ending, but the Unlimited Blade Works storyline focuses on the relationship between Shirou and Archer, which is a lot more complex than it may seem.

All the strengths of the series are here, and the faults are mostly only when the film is considered as a standalone work as opposed to a companion piece. And it is nice to see the characters, especially Saber, with a feature film production budget. Some sequences were utterly gorgeous, and there were some shots of Rin that showed subtle emotion in a way that was just perfect. On the other hand, the fight scenes were decidedly unimpressive and the stupid blob thing with the much stupider static Shinji head in it really let down the whole climactic section. Saving a fight with the assassin, who wasn’t a proper character at all, until right at the end also felt like awkward plotting.

But the purpose of the film wasn’t really great storytelling. It was putting a visual novel well-loved by a hardcore fanbase into motion, and if details are skipped, they know them all anyway. Too bad I just never liked Fate/Stay Night that much.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Fate/Stay Night

One of the stones that’s caused the most ripples on the anime pond this year, Fate/Stay Night has met with a lot of excitable rhetoric and some very mixed reviews. While it seemed to be aiming for last season’s Mai-HiME status, with beautiful art, animation and direction (lots of interesting little cinematography tricks, from quick cuts to Dutch angles) it didn’t create nearly so much buzz, nor prove anywhere near as exciting. It reminded me more of Shakugan no Shana, which I began watching at the same time – a pretty much ordinary boy is saved by a mysterious and powerful girl and is dragged into a strange world of magic and combat, while at the same time the girl becomes integrated into his private life and their feelings for one another get increasingly complex. And while it wasn’t as childish as SnoS, it also wasn’t as charming, and where it really fell down was in the character development.

The anime was based on a visual novel from Type-Moon, meaning that a lot of the fanbase was already established. Perhaps as a result of being an adaptation, the story felt rushed, cluttered and poorly paced. The story is a typical one: a young boy with a tragic past, aware of magic but totally lacking in talent for it, becomes involved in a battle of mages. This time, the mages are fighting for the Holy Grail. No, really, the Holy Grail. To help in their fights, these ‘Masters’ summon ‘Servants’, legendary fighters from throughout time, calling them by their ‘class’ rather than their name, to avoid betraying secrets. Just as we in the West find Eastern imagery funky, the Japanese love Western mythology, and draw on it heavily here, with the usual characters that pop up in role-playing games: Gilgamesh and Medea are just two of the fighters summoned. Our main character, Emiya Shirou, inadvertently manages to summon the ‘Saber’ class warrior, a beautiful blonde girl who turns out to be…King Arthur. Yes, a girl. Arturia.

I’m very keen on my Arthurian legends (in fact, since my enthusiasm for Middle English is growing, now that I don’t HAVE to study it, I should probably read Malory, who I all but ignored in college), but I don’t mind something a little different being tried, and all the characters are pretty far from their origins: Heracles is a huge brainless powerhouse with twelve lives, Medea a powerful energy-bolt-shooting sorceress, etc.

When Shirou is brutalised after entering this conflict, for some reason a classmate, Tousaka Rin, heals him and begins to help him. The true identity of her ‘Servant’ is never revealed, though I’ve found out the truth since from those who’ve played the visual novel. As successive enemies are defeated, Shirou’s power grows, and his relationships with various girls, especially Saber, become more and more complicated. This is compounded by the fact that more than one of his rivals in the war are cute girls who come to live with him. There are scenes reminiscent of Rozen Maiden, where the tensions of various different characters interacting are played upon for comic effect, but the characters just aren’t likeable, familiar or dynamic enough for this to work. Only Shirou and Saber get any sort of development, but most of it is terribly long-winded and reveals lots about painful pasts, but little about the characters those pasts shaped. Saber’s difficulty expressing emotion is cute, but soon becomes tiresome.

What really hurts the series is the convoluted story. It starts simple – there are opponents to beat against the odds, so they fight. Attempting to elevate this to something more ambitious, the writers throw in overlong flashbacks, introduce characters from behind the scenes who really do nothing to flesh out the story, and keep changing their minds about what can be done with the Holy Grail, but since it’s just a magic McGuffin, they can do whatever they like with it, ESPECIALLY if it involves crucifying naked young girls on it for no apparent reason.

The show had style. Great music, great art, great animation, great fights (until the end, where it was just energy bolts, and previously powerful characters were culled in moments). A good premise. But I’ve seen it all before, and I’ve seen it done so much better. Ultimately, a bit of a disappointment.

(originally written 28.6.06. Sequel movie Unlimited Blade Works here)

Monday, 13 December 2010

出ましたっ!パワパフガールズZ / Demashita! Powerpuff Girls Z

The idea was certainly an interesting one. Powerpuff Girls is a postmodern animation for kids that distorts, mocks and yet clearly admires the magical girl subgenre of anime. It takes its tropes and takes them to absurd lengths: the anime heroines tend to be superpowered, colour-coordinated little girls with huge eyes? Well, we’ll make them preschoolers! Yeah. With eyes that take up ¾ of their heads! And yet the tongue-in-cheek schtick worked a charm, the characters were actually sympathetic, the villains were hilarious and the music was awesome.

And online, an artist called Bleedman became one of the most famous of any in that arena by taking the characters and others from Nickelodeon and putting them back into an exaggeratedly serious context. So when the first clips of a real Powerpuff Girls anime were leaked, I took an interest. And it tickled me that the Japanese took the property and removed just about every shred of irony, while taking on board every anime cliché there was. The girls stopped being lab creations and became regular Japanese girls empowered by ‘white light’. They were adolescents again, with big and rather vacant eyes, daft outsized weapons and rather too many suggestive shots of their scantily-clad bodies.

Still I liked the idea. The ironic property becoming straightforward and trying to be adorable could be extremely funny. I liked that Blossom became boy-crazy, Bubbles became so soft and loving, and especially that Buttercup was a tomboy to the extreme that she went past bokuko and referred to herself as ‘ore’. It even amused me no end that the humour of the villains clearly didn’t quite translate to Japanese, and Mojo Jojo’s amazing speech patterns got rendered as a ‘-mojo’ stuck on the end of sentences, Him’s creepy cliché-transvestite voice became the familiar effete anime baddy voice and very nearly has the same effect, and that the ‘my property!’ redneck cliché that informs Fuzzy’s character doesn’t cross cultures and becomes a doglike obsession with claiming territory. Powerpuff Girls Z, with chemical Z instead of the original chemical X, was always supposed to be an alternate retelling, so it worked.

So Powerpuff Girls Z was on its way to being a little curio I was fond of and unloading all its clichés before going away…but it lasted 52 episodes and soon became the worst anime I have ever seen. Not overall, but some of the episodes were quite simply the worst writing I have ever come across in Japanese animation. To pad the series, the story goes that ‘black particles’ take over people and even things and send them on rampages. If the idea of superpowered girls battling evil bits of sushi, pencils or flowers sounds hilarious to you, you probably haven’t sat through it actually spun into a 15-minute plot.

And call me overly optimistic, but I had hoped that the last episodes would have some genuine emotion to them, not the horribly artificial and momentary tearjerkers of robot dogs sacrificing themselves. Overall, a silly idea that could have amused and entertained for 13 episodes, possibly 26, but at 52 long outstayed its welcome.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

結界師/Barrier Master/Kekkaishi

I’ve said much of this before, but I am honestly surprised how little impact Kekkaishi seems to have made, at least on the Western anime crowd. In Japan, it has every sign of a big success. Yellow Tanabe’s manga netted her some high-profile awards, and is still continuing strong. The anime began with great fanfare in Japan and ran in the ‘golden time’ slot of 7pm, and even had Happy Meal tie-in offers with McDonalds. Its ratings there are sensational, behind only institutions like Sazae-San and One Piece, consistently getting into the top 10 most highly-rated anime shows in Japan and outdoing the likes of Naruto and Bleach by several million weekly viewers – and those are two of the most successful anime in history. It has been translated into English and is being aired. Yet Kekkaishi seems almost unknown in the English-speaking fandom. The problem, I suppose, is that it didn’t strike a chord with the three main demographics over here – the brainless action fans who only ever come to the party very late, the snobs who want sexy little girls getting naked transformation sequences and the yaoi fangirls who need their homoeroticism immediately apparent, not slow-boiling and with a quirky sense of prettiness.

Yet there is much to love about Kekkaishi. Its characters are subtle and likeable. As with Fullmetal Alchemist, one can tell the writer is a woman, which puts a different slant on home life, responsibility and the need for violence than you might get in typical shounen. It is not beautifully animated, but it is good-looking and fluid, Sunrise as usual adept without being stunning.

The problem, I suppose, is that it took too long to get into a meaty plot. Too many episodes at the beginning are given to establishing characters, telling little side-stories and emphasising comedy with a dead pastry chef (which was totally ripped off by Bleach, leading to viewers of both shows feeling they were watching a rehashed story). But Bleach took much longer to get going, and was far from gripping for a long time. Yoshimori is odd in that he is described as not being particularly attractive, and having a big dream totally at odds with his fights and his powers, and I suppose people who don’t take the time to see him for the likeable, quirky boy he is could find him unappealing. And yes, the series, like Fairy Tail or HunterxHunter, does suffer from not having a goal at the end of the series, no return to original bodies or confrontation with Sasuke drawing you on, only a mysterious mother and a shady group of powerful figures, and even those barely make it into the anime.

I want to rationalise why Kekkaishi was not a success, but the fact was that it was, it was a huge success in Japan. It just didn’t manage to cross over to a world where, perhaps, gratification must be more instant, or more challenging work must be obviously challenging. I just wish that it was an ongoing series; 52 episodes only just reached the parts where it gets good.

(originally written 16.3.2010)

Friday, 10 December 2010

ぼくらの/ Bokurano

I thought I’d read the original manga before progressing past the first three or four episodes of this anime, after hearing the director disliked the source and because of my admiration for Narutaru, the mangaka’s previous work - but in the end, it was the first anime in a long while that has left me craving more and more, so I happily consumed it all.

Apart from the character designs, quite a lot is familiar from Narutaru – the serious presentation of the extreme hardships teenagers can experience, and the near-fetishising of their suffering and burgeoning sexuality; the cute and bizarre mascot-like characters that you soon start to think of as sinister, and the affection for aircraft and weaponry. But the premise is much more direct and simple. It’s one of those anime concepts that makes you roll your eyes until it’s developed in full, and realise that it can really be taken seriously.

Fifteen children start to play what they believe is a video game, controlling a giant robot to fight off enemies. But of course, it turns out to be more than that, and they soon realise that those who play are ending up dead.

If it seems like a brainless concept in the beginning, and the kids seem to be drawn straight from stock, you soon realise that there’s a lot more going on under the surface, and remember that really, the things these children are feeling can’t be so much different from what goes through young soldiers’ minds when they are going to fight in a war. The situation is grossly exaggerated, but as a medium for provoking thought about mortality, battle and self-sacrifice, it works extremely well. Like Mai-HiME, which ended up in similar territory towards the end, sometimes it makes you uncomfortable watching it, with the inevitability of the characters’ suffering, especially when you start getting attached to them, and there’s no cheesy Sunrise magical resurrection ending to fall back on here. It’s blunt, abrupt and macabre, but also absolutely fascinating.

It’s not an anime to show to newcomers. It works by taking anime fans’ expectations and subverting them. Giant robots are fighting with advanced technology, but they’re also prisons and execution chambers. There are funny cute things, but they’re just avatars for twisted minds. Kids come to heroic decisions, but it doesn’t change their fates or make them anything more or less than the cowards.

A startling and grim anime, and certainly one I’ll be eager to watch again one day. Great theme song, too.

(originally written 23/1/08)

ヒーローマン/ Heroman

Heroman was an experiment that caught the attention. Anime studio Bones seemingly approached comic book legend Stan Lee – creator of Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk, The Uncanny X-Men and many more – to collaborate on a new anime (and manga) with an all-American angle to it. And what they came up with was Heroman. It’s pretty obvious that all he came up with was the origin story and the very basic plot outlines, the rest coming from tried-and-tested anime tropes, but the octogenarian’s ideas of a good origin story – very naïve in this postmodern age, but somehow full of exuberance and conviction – completely transform what the series is and how its tone will sit, making it stand out from the rest of the recent shounen anime crop. It’s not deep, and it’s not clever, but it revels in that and embraces clichés with a sincerity that even other exuberant and silly shows like Gurren Lagann don’t have.

Heroman somehow catches a mood that almost nothing since the 80s has had, which only One Piece even approaches in my sphere of reference. It isn’t being self-referential or ironic in its excesses or silliness. It’s just delivering overblown daftness with such self-belief that I can’t help but be charmed. Add into the mix great characters with lovely designs and good old-fashioned humour and even a very poor plot doesn’t hold it back.

Here’s what I mean about a naïve origin story: Joey Jones is an (adorable, highly adorable) American teenager from a family without much money. He’s friends with the lovely Lina, whose big brother is unfortunately the local bully. When the latter discards the latest toy, Joey takes it home to repair, but it is hit by a bolt of lighting, and of course transforms into the amazing, astounding Heroman, a strong, silent, robotic aid to Joey, who himself gains a control device that grants him a powerful shield and super-speed. Well, makes as much sense as radioactive spiders or cosmic rays. Coincidentally – well, if you discount the dodgy ‘Earth knew it was the time’ line towards the end – at that point some lame beetle-like aliens invade with their superior technology, and only Joey and Heroman can stop them. With help from his friends!

But what would have been utterly stupid in other hands works so well because of the sheer blind self-belief of the makers. And of course, Joey’s endless cuteness, coupled with the sweet everyday stories here and there. Admittedly, if he had been a smug, loudmouthed protagonist with boundless confidence, I probably would’ve been much less inclined to bother with Heroman. But he is a skinny, wimpy, crybaby with girly hair and a pretty face. Who reminds me of someone special. It’s rather shallow, I know, but I would watch Joey in just about any story, even one that starts with a rubbish invasion of evil aliens, kills them all off, meanders about for a further half-season before bringing back the already-defeated bad guy for an incredibly artificial climax. Oh wait! That’s exactly what did happen. Ah well!

The truth is that this terrible sub-pulp story (and sub-Timely) manages to make itself extremely enjoyable through the power of childishness, cute relationship-based side-stories and a pretty face. And that is why Heroman is fun!

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Chico and Rita

A heartfelt homage to a time and place, Chico and Rita is the current darling of arthouse animation. It had at its heart an interesting love story, and the music lends it an exciting beat, but I can’t help but think its appeal is limited.

In glamorous pre-revolution Cuba, Chico is a gifted pianist in the bebop scene. He sees Rita singing at a club and falls in love. Cold at first, she soon reciprocates, but Chico already has a girl, leading to fiery Latino clashes. A collaboration, however, wins a local contest, and soon Rita is whisked to New York. Misunderstandings tear the two apart, even after Chico finds his way to the Big Apple, and deportation at a time of revolution could be dangerous, but perhaps the music will win through in the end and Chico will find his way back to the States.

The main problem I have with Chico and Rita is that I did not like either of the lovers. Chico is a two-timer and a bad drunk, while Rita is willing to sleep her way to success. If they had been drawn ugly, the film would have been disastrous. If anything came over from the world of jazz, it was the current connotations of smugness and arrogance.

In animation terms, it was extremely variable. The use of CG for much of the background art made for some of the most beautiful parts of the film, and also the most terrible. In one moment, the imagined camera would beautifully pan up as though on a crane – and then a motorcar would move across the screen totally static, like a cut-out. A basement jazz scene with Charlie Parker, Chano Pozo and Thelonious Monk (‘That guy in the hat’!) was a beautiful and loving evocation of a musical scene, but then you get horrible animation duds like the background of revolutionary Cuba where everyone is totally still with arms waggling like sticks, or faces appear completely flat against the window of aeroplanes. CG models ended up looking like cel-shaded computer game graphics, too.

There is much of the romance of fiery heady music here, and a world where music takes centre-stage in a culture is indeed to be looked back on wistfully. But the promiscuity gets in the way of the love story, and the naïve use of heavy political issues that had hitherto barely been mentioned just for plot contrivances rankled. Fun, but no classic.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

しゅごキャラ/ Shugo Chara

I am genuinely quite saddened by what happened to Shugo Chara. The anime adaptation came out, really, far sooner than it ought to have, with the manga quite thin on the ground and only coming out monthly, but despite some iffy filler chapters, it actually managed to flesh out its characters in a likeable enough way that it actually stood alongside the original as more of a companion piece than a ropey adaptation. Original characters may not have been universally popular, but they were often likeable enough by the end and allowed for more development for the major characters. So it was saddening when after the series’ major plot arc, the producers seemingly decided to draw it out further, abandon the fanbase to go after a younger demographic. A very young demographic. The last series, Shugo Chara Party, incorporated fifteen minutes of anime, shifting focus to a young original character, while the other fifteen minutes was a hideous variety show. It had some omake mini-episodes in a cutout-like style, which were actually great, but the rest of it was some funny-looking little kids learning to dance, decorating their nails, doing stupid quizzes and pretending badly to be having a great time. Unsurprisingly, it got cancelled, the story had to be awkwardly concluded in two episodes and the ultimate end of the series was one of disgrace. Like so many others, it was an anime series that on the surface looked meant for little girls, but was actually made for older, geekier guys and girls old enough to want to follow the intricacies of a budding adolescent relationship or four.

The manga came from Peach-Pit, who are behind the likes of DearS and, of course, Rozen Maiden. There’s quite some crossover here: a young person who shows a false face to the outside world is gradually changed by small, quirky, secret little familiar-type companions. While Rozen Maiden was a darkly elegant, dreamlike and rather insular tale, Shugo Chara is completely different, dealing mostly with interaction between friends within a school and extremely upbeat. So while there are a lot of parallels between some key figures, Suu and Miki in particular sharing much with Suiseiseki and Souseiseki, in tone the series falls closer to Chicchana Yukitsukai Sugar – A Little Snow Fairy Sugar – especially without Peach-Pit’s distinctive and beautiful artwork. It’s a shame the manga ground to a halt, too.

But what sets it apart is really the romance. Romance doesn’t really matter in Rozen Maiden – there’s some scenes between Jun and Shinkuu, but they are more silly than affecting, and it is of course an impossibility. However, Shugo Chara protagonist Amu first has a big crush on the cute blonde pretty-boy in her school, but later is courted by the dark and mysterious older teen Ikuto, and the tension between the three brings about some of the best episodes in any anime I’ve seen – especially when capricious Ikuto thrusts himself into Amu’s life at his most vulnerable ebb.

There are so many characters I love in Shugo Chara, and more than any other series, it was adept at making me come to like characters I’d initially found annoying. It’s also impressive to think that the silliness here was written at the same time as some of the darker chapters of Rozen Maiden II: versatility with a distinctive voice is impressive.

I must confess I don’t find the ages of the characters a fit. Amu is 11-12 and Ikuto is around 16. This doesn’t fit at all, as Amu seems at least 14 and Ikuto more like 18-19. But that’s a minor qualm, and is probably only to broaden the audience. It doesn’t stand in the way of what is, ultimately, one of the only anime I’ve loved in recent years.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

風の谷のナウシカ/ Kaze no Tane no Naushika/ Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

I can’t help it.

I know the historical value of the film. I know that without it, Ghibli may never have been founded and some of my favourite films might never have existed. I know it’s an iconic part of Miyazaki’s canon. But I just do not like it.

Nausicaa is just a bad film. The manga was much, much better – and that wasn’t exactly great.

Okay, for its time, some of the animation is excellent. There are shots when Nausicaa is flying that are just awe-inspiring in their smoothness and daring, and the guy who went on to make Eva did a superb job with the Giant God Warrior. At other times it looks dated or unimaginative, and parallax-style animation is relied on a little too heavily, making everything look like it’s made of big cardboard cut-outs, but that I can forgive. But I really do think that Miyazaki, Takahata and especially Hisaishi have honed their craft considerably since these early days (though I shall have to watch the World Masterpiece Theater series, Conan and Panda Kopanda before I really make my mind up about that), and it was really the Totoro/Hotaro double-bill that marks the beginning of the Ghibli I love.

Still, this was the film that propelled Miyazaki to success. Made by Topcraft animation, it is nonetheless generally considered the first Ghibli film and these days is prefixed by the famous Totoro logo.

I think my problem with the film is much the same as the problem I have with many other Miyazaki films – that he is very good at imagining a setting, but not very good at putting a story into it, which remains true even in his most recent films – Sen to Chihiro in particular. Nausicaa’s setting, this world where nature has risen against humanity, is great, as is the idea of focusing on a small community caught between two larger states at war. But the storyline just lurches about, dragging on and on until its very artificial climax and even more artificial resolution. There’s never any real sense of danger or purpose, and it doesn’t even have the epic global scale of the manga.

Plus I have real problems with the voice cast. The Japanese cast are just so bland, so obvious and flat that I get very bored of them very quickly. I didn’t like the girl who plays Nausicaa when she was in Cagliostro, and she was far more annoying here. it’s as if she was only interested in sounding pretty, and to hell with the performance. The new English voice cast was just as bad (and when a dub cast can only be decried as ‘Just as bad’, something’s very wrong with the original version). Whoever was playing Asbel was plain embarrassing, Nausicaa sounded even more vacuous, Uma Thurman sounded like she was embarrassed by the material and Mark Hamill seemed determined to read the script as you would read a scary picture book to a three-year-old. Patrick Stewart was great, though, and mercifully free of problems with lip-synch because he only had to worry about, in his words, ‘Moustache-synch’. He kept things understated and the casting decision worked well.

I have to say, of all Miyazaki’s movies, this is the one I’m least inclined to watch again. You’d think two armies facing off would be more exciting than a little girl waiting at a bus stop with a strange furry monster, but you really could not be further from the truth.

(originally written 17.09.06)

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Kuroshitsuji Season II

Kuroshitsuji season II was…terrible. The first season was no masterpiece, but even though it’s become widely reviled and held up as an example of all that’s wrong with anime, mostly by people who judge things by the fandom rather than for the actual value of the show, beside season two it was a piece of perfection, it was the ceiling of the Sistine, it was La Giaconda, it was…well, Faustus.

While it was, I stress again, no masterwork, Kuroshitsuji was not only quite fun and striking, it ended well. In the few seconds of epilogue after the absolutely terrible climax of the story, that is. I had expected the Faustian story to end with a somewhat limp Goethe twist, but it ended up nicely Marlovian.

Except of course, that ending doesn’t leave room for season two. The contrivance that allowed the story to continue wasn’t terrible – a rival appears! – but instead of finding some way to get back to the interesting, dark manga storyline, the anime writers made something original.

A little blonde boy with a by-the-numbers faux-edgy screwed-up past of being used as a sex toy by a fat old man has also made a pact with a demon. He soon ends up clashing with Ciel, and the two very similar butlers are pitted against one another. Over twelve very dull episodes, little predictable twists come and go, and the whole thing hinges on being emotionally invested in Alois. And I just cannot fathom why anyone would like him. He’s such a flat, unbelievable character, right out of a badly-written pornographic fanfiction written by a 13-year-old girl. He gets abused in a silly exaggerated way that is frankly an insult to people who campaign to have abuse better-understood, he becomes a ridiculous sadistic cackler, and he acts like a spoilt brat. I don’t know if the fangirls who love him just want to see him suffer erotically, but I didn’t even take pleasure in his realisation that he was insignificant and inferior. I just wanted him not to be on the screen at all. Claude, meanwhile, was just a slight variation of Sebastian.

I think the writers fundamentally misunderstood almost every character other than Ciel and Sebastian. Grell in particular was neutered from unpredictable, idiosyncratic nutjob to comedy gay #37, playing Ophelia in an absurd and unfunny rendering of Hamlet and being coerced into anything with sexual teasing.

The one saving grace was an interesting ending. It was really one of only three or four possible conclusions, but despite the unsatisfying way they got there, the final fate of Ciel and Sebastian was quite satisfying.

Part of me always hoped that Kuroshitsuji would prove its doubters wrong and improve. But the anime is beyond saving, now. Time to see how the manga is getting on…

Monday, 1 November 2010

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole

I’ve been waiting for this film since first seeing the trailers for it. A beautiful CG film with a traditional old-fashioned epic storyline – revolving around owls! And while it was perhaps not everything that I hoped it would be, it was very enjoyable indeed, and certainly one I’d be happy to see again, even if it’s not the full 3D IMAX experience.

From Animal Logic, who animated Happy Feet, at the very least the beauty of this film must be acknowledged. Some of the settings are incredible, and if the CG models for the owls look impressive, seeing them talking, fighting and especially flying through the rain is breathtaking. Happy Feet was a feast for the eyes, but this film was just far more ambitious, more varied and more striking to look at.

And while the naïve, old-fashioned tone clearly hasn’t captured popular imagination
like tap-dancing penguins did, I found this plot to be more interesting and compelling, mostly because it didn’t have an annoying and preachy final act. Indeed, though there was a degree of formulaic Hollywood preaching (the plot revolves around the struggle against a group of barn owls who have decided they are ethnically superior to smaller species and begun to call themselves ‘the Pure Ones’), the issues raised in the simple good-against-evil story were quite interesting. Hero-worship of warriors is tempered with a grizzly old fighter spitting out the realities of battle, and while the plucky young hero told that he will be useless in a fight and that it takes many years to train as a guardian eventually holds his own against veteran warriors in a rather unlikely manner, it feels more like a relativistic complexity than the weak writing of…well, blatantly contradicting the lesson you had your protagonist learn. After all, a heroic story should end with a big fight.

Do the same film with live-action actors and admittedly it would be nothing special. It’s a very by-the-numbers story and it doesn’t even end properly, leaving things open for sequels. It suffers from Star Wars chronology syndrome, too, setting up the impression of an ages-old mythology and then revealing that all these stories about olden times and great heroes are actually from within living memory. But the fact is that this film is about owls, owls who can use tools and speak and harness mysterious magnetic powers. It doesn’t need to be that strong in story terms, because it is carried by its visuals, its spectacle and the sight of realistic owls interacting like people.

The only thing it needed was more original characters and a better story. Which is why I’m very interested by rumours that Animal Logic are going to produce a Watership Down remake.

That said, if they do adapt more of the Guardians of Ga’Hoole books, I’ll certainly be buying a ticket. I just hope… they don’t put in another Owl City song just for their name. It was alright for the credits, but for a montage? They could have chosen so many better options….

Friday, 29 October 2010

狼と香辛料 /Okami to Koushinryou/Wolf and Spice/Spice and Wolf

Arguably, Wolf and Spice is one of the titles that set off the whole moé trend, with its adorable lead female and tsundere tropes. But it came before the moéblob explosion, Horo doesn’t look like a baby, and it has always been a little more sophisticated than the likes of Lucky Star and K-On, which I notice have gone out of fashion again.

I watched the first episode of Wolf and Spice back when the first subs came out, and this is why I’ve never quite been able to get used to the official English title of Spice and Wolf. I think that Wolf and Spice sounds better anyway, and seems to fit with the two series, the first seeming to focus more on the wolf, the second on the trading aspect.

For what makes Wolf and Spice stand out is that its plotline sounds utterly bizarre at first: the wolf part is nothing wholly original, an ambitious, personable trader in a medieval European-style world coming across the wolf god Horo, who shows herself to him as a human girl (with kemonomimi and a tail), sparking an unlikely companionship. What makes the series special, and somewhat peculiar, is the way that in the episodes that follow, the two of them engage in a number of trades, most of which have a clever twist or hidden factor to them that require you to pay attention to such things as the value of salt in the region, or the pecuniary standing of the church in a town. It makes for an elegant, cerebral and delicate series that I not only enjoyed but rather admired.

And Horo is something special, too. While I cringed a little in early episodes, where she was naked most of the time and it all felt very juvenile, her character – proud but vulnerable, wise yet not very self-aware, vain but insecure – is developed extremely well, and the sometimes tempestuous relationship that unfolds between her and the merchant, Lawrence, as well as the business acumen she soon acquires, make for an excellent through-line for a series.

While small animation studios Imagin and Brains Base were sometimes inconsistent with animation quality, Wolf and Spice consistently looked better than the average anime, and when it was at its best, it was visually exquisite. Imagin’s work (series one being, I believe, the only time I’ve seen a show of theirs that they produced solo) was particularly painstaking and often brave in terms of angles and mise-en-scene, and the background work on this show was some of the best I’ve ever seen. The voice-acting also could not have been better.

It’s been over a year now since the second season ended, and I remain hopeful for a third. There’s plenty of story to tell, and the second season admittedly ended on a rather abrupt and unsatisfying note…it was the only way that the story arc could have ended in a way that made sense, but the turnabout in the final episode was far too brief, and its aftermath much too short. I really would like to see more of Lawrence and especially Horo, with her wacchi and nushi!

あずまんが大王 / Azumanga Daioh

When I couldn’t sleep last night, and wanted to watch something that suited my good mood, I knew what to put on: Azumanga Daioh. When I say that this show is amongst my top five comedies of all time, I’m not just talking about anime: I mean in any format. This was one of the anime that our uni anime club was showing when I matriculated, and I fell totally in love after watching the first two episodes.

Being based on four-panel gag strips, the show has a very simple storyline, and jokes every few seconds, but there are moments of great poignancy and stillness amongst the chaotic humour – and what brilliant humour it is. Azumanga thrives on its characters, and does so with more success than any other show I know.

I am not exaggerating when I say that the characters in Azumanga are some of the finest comic creations I’ve ever come across. In all of literature and televised comedy, I can think of only a few characters who evoke in me the same affection as these girls. In all of Shakespeare, perhaps there are as many brilliant characters as there are in this one show. No overstatement.

The anime follows a group of girls through high school, and their ordinary everyday lives, punctuated by summer trips, sports days and two memorable trips to a theme park called ‘Magical Land’, which, in a stroke of storytelling genius, is never actually shown, and is all the more special for it. This simplicity is the key to the show’s brilliance – every episode simply concerns the girls, their personalities, and their relationships, and because they are such perfectly-sketched and familiar characters, they are always a joy to watch.

The main cast consists of Chiyo-chan, an 10-year-old prodigy who has been moved all the way to high school because of her intelligence, but is of course still a sweet, innocent little girl, often teased by the others, but of course protected by them, too. Then there is Sakaki, a quiet girl who towers over all her classmates, and is idolised by another girl called Kaorin, who doesn’t know that beneath Sakaki’s cool, taciturn exterior, she just loves cute things like kittens, and is always trying to stroke one particular cat: which never fails to bite her. There's also Tomo, always hyperactive and a little bit dense, and her best friend Yomi, always the rock in the midst of Tomo’s tornado, although she does have a complex about her weight. Later, they are joined by Kagura, who has a real competitive streak, but isn’t too bright – though she’s the only one who can match Tomo’s hyperactivity. Finally, there is Osaka-san, real name Kasuga Ayumi. Words cannot describe her brilliance. A little slow and spaced-out, her lateral ways of thinking about things give some of the best laughs in the series. In addition, there are the teachers, childish Yukari-sensei, her long-suffering, sensible childhood friend Kurosawa-sensei, and then Kimura, easily the strangest man in the world, with a predilection for high school girls & a constant expression of vacant amazement.

These elements make up the perfect comedy team, with no weak links at all. Everyone has their favourites (mine are Chiyo, Yomi and Osaka-san), but it’s the chemistry between them, the superb direction (with flawless comedy timing), the plaintive music and the endless brilliance of the observational comedy that really makes you care for these characters, and laugh along with them for the whole series.

(Originally written 27.4.2005)

Friday, 1 October 2010

Pumpkin Scissors

When Fullmetal Alchemist became one of the most successful anime of all time, I predicted that in its wake would be a great influx of copycat shows revolving around the Military. In fact, I was wrong, but Pumpkin Scissors is perhaps an early indication that I may yet be proven right. However, the show does something rather different with its military setting, and comes close to being a great show, one or two bad decisions just making it fall short.

Pumpkin Scissors focuses not on the military during a war, but in the wake of one. Yes, that’s similar to Fullmetal Alchemist, but in shifting the focus to war relief, Pumpkin Scissors offers a novel perspective on a country picking up the pieces after the devastation of war, and the class struggles that ensue.

Like many Gonzo anime, the show has a very European feel, with early 20th-Century Western architecture, uniforms and vehicles, and heavy use of German which in tandem with the major subplot of human experimentation brings to mind the aftermath of the Third Reich. The aesthetic of the show is mostly dark and serious, although there is comic relief, mostly coming from the adorable childlike Sergeant Major Stekkin and her over-enthusiastic military dog Mer-kun (who also star in the light-hearted, sometimes inappropriate end theme, which sounds like skiffle). In fact, the principle characters are remarkable, taken from anime stock but put in positions of prominence that are very unusual. Our two main characters are the huge, hulking, simple-minded gentle giant Oland and the stern but softhearted Alice, a noble who nevertheless devotes her life to rebuilding the country and defeating injustice in a purposefully strange way. There are some other likeable soldiers in the military section, and the dynamic between the characters is one of the most enjoyable parts of the show.

The trouble with Pumpkin Scissors is that it’s good – but one feels it could have been great. Oland has been experimented upon to make him a super-soldier, an infantryman who can take on tanks, and the central arc of the show is a fight against another man whose body has been altered by the military. However, once that arc is concluded, the writers seem to think they have said all they need to, and rather than taking on the corruption within the army, the climax of the show is provided by a standoff between disillusioned peasant revolutionaries and decadent nobles that just falls flat. The last few episodes are given over to a duel between Alice and some bodyguard, with a peasant mob standing around watching, because of course angry and disillusioned men who’ve seen their children starve will be persuaded by big speeches and moving words and unexpected tears. Yes, the idea that nobles apologising and peasants forgiving is a nice one, a powerful one, but it’s just not done right and there’s no way that given the situation, with cackling baddies unleashing bodyguards that things would have worked out that way. And then at the very end we get a token scene to show that the powerful corrupt individuals still exist in the army. Yes, it leaves things open for another season, but I can’t help but feel that really, the full story should have been told here, and characters like Oreld and Machs should have been better-developed, because the final arc was a real misfire that cast a shadow back over what was otherwise an excellent series.

(Originally written 13.05.07)

Friday, 24 September 2010

Soul Eater

I was cautious about Soul Eater at first. It looked somewhat childish and derivative, with very typical shounen designs and lots of elements hinting at brainless sexy fanservice. But there was something about it that was attractive; beside the typical designs were some that were very cute, some that looked like the stylised, bold and edgy designs of Jamie Hewlett, and some that were out-and-out insane. After a few episodes, you realise that the characters’ extreme and exaggerated personalities are soon tempered with real flaws and depth through relationships and a growing seriousness. The humour is some of the best of any recent shounen, and the somewhat simple art is partnered with some gorgeous animation and excellent plotting. The world is a very well-realised one and the fairly large ensemble of central characters is fully explored. Whether comedy characters like Shinigami-sama or Excalibur, bizarre but truly likeable characters like Crona, Stein or Eruka Frog, or the ostensibly superficial but eventually awesome Black Star and Death the Kid, after a little while it becomes very difficult not to sympathise with the students of Shibusen.

The main character eventually resolves itself as Maka, and it is a pleasure to have an action-packed shounen with a strong female protagonist who isn’t constantly finding herself to be a damsel in distress. (Gangan seems to do this much better than Jump.) She is an everyman character with a lot of potential, not always cute, not always nice, not even always sane, but very hard to dislike, and her bond with Crona becomes the highlight of the series. Indeed, alongside a rather more subtle delivery of its fanservice (actually rather minimal in the anime), this is the one place the anime actually outdoes its source – creating an arc for the retrieval of Crona, who quickly went from a character who annoyed me to one of my favourites of all time.

However, that doesn’t quite make up for the biggest flaw here, one shared with Kekkaishi, Claymore and so many others: the anime was only given two series, when really it ought to run and run. Thus, while the manga continued with an interesting new arc, the anime had to come to an end, and while the set-up was not a bad one, per se, the very last episode was so cheesy, underwhelming and unlikely that if not for the availability of the manga, I would have been very disappointed. As it is, I hope for a second season or movie, and continue cheerfully with the manga.

(originally written 6.10.09)

Soul Eater Not!: Link

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Sensitive Pornograph

No need for a long review here. Sensitive Pornograph is only half an hour long, and doesn’t even have enough material for that. It’s two fifteen-minute stories, and yet still manages to be horribly boring.

This isn’t the first time I’ve done a review of pornographic anime, and it won’t be the last. But this has probably been the worst of them all. Not because it’s more reprehensible or ridiculous – I’ve seen Boku no Pico and Wordsworth after all – but just because I cannot see how this could appeal to anybody.

The first story is about a 22-year-old mangaka who is approached by a very pretty guy who calls himself a fan. Over coffee, this guy reveals himself to be another manga artist. Despite appearing to be around 17, he is in his thirties. They go home and have some really lame bedroom scenes, argue about promiscuity and meaningless sex, then make up. The second story is about a young pet-sitter who instead of a rabbit finds a weird-looking guy tied up in a closet. He’s been set up by a pervert into humiliation who wants them to have sex. Knowing he’ll get in trouble if they don’t, he forces himself on the pet-sitter, who of course enjoys it and apparently never considers the fact he’s being seen. Later, the abused guy makes a mockery of being scared to defy his perverted dom by leaving him anyway, seeking out the pet-sitter at school to start a friendship. So many psychological issues left unexplored there…but that’s not the point.

I decided to watch Sensitive Pornograph mostly because it was uncensored and I couldn’t remember seeing any Japanese gay porn (for women) that was unpixellated. Turned out that it would have been better left blurry. Ridiculous mushroom things for penises being sucked up by monstrous egg-tube anuses, the familiar weightless sexual positions of…well, all animated porn, and that horrible fixation with body fluids so universal in hentai.

The other animated porn I’ve seen mostly makes me laugh, but with the ones I mentioned, even with the cringey Enzai or limp Papa to Kiss in the Dark, I can see how this might hit kinks and appeal. But Sensitive Pornograph isn’t cute, isn’t edgy, isn’t hot and frankly has the ugliest character designs I’ve ever seen getting their kit off. Badly made, plotted and conceived, it manages to mix all the worst tropes of porn for men and porn for women into a huge mess.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

妄想代理人/ Mousou Dairinin / Paranoia Agent

While I’d heard of the titles of Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress, it was probably only when Paranoia Agent (like the films, animated by Madhouse) began to garner attention and gain a wide Western following in 2004-2005 that I heard the name of Satoshi Kon put forward as one of anime’s premier directors. And while since then I’ve been meaning to watch the show, only earlier this year, after having seen both of those films, did I begin to watch it.

The series was released after Tokyo Godfathers, and contains traces of all three films: the realism and temperance of harshness with humour and warmth of that latter film, the pastiche and easy transition between real and fantastical worlds of Millennium Actress, and the darkness and heightened emotions of Perfect Blue. In particular, the story of three unlikely companions in a suicide club very directly echoes Tokyo Godfathers. On the other hand, it is clear that many of the ideas that go into this series are ones that fit on television far better than they would in a feature film, allowing for many radical changes in style, different points of view and stories that unfold and satisfy in twenty minutes where they might grow stale in eighty. Interestingly, some of the things that made me feel dissatisfied with Paprika are also here: while there may be more depth in presenting a world where fantasy and reality really have melded rather than offering a rational explanation, if it has the feeling of simply ‘winging it’ and not really putting any thought into how and why these paranormal events have occurred, that smacks of bad writing to me and leaves me unsatisfied. Such is the case here, although as it affects only the last few minutes of the last episode, it can pass.

For while Paranoia Agent is episodic and prides itself on stylistic changes, it is also coherent and stylistically consistent. The story revolves around the figure of ‘Shounen Batto’, translated as ‘Lil’ Slugger’ for English-language versions, which is probably a good way to translate something quite awkward to render into English without sounding like a Batman reference. A young boy on golden skates, he seems to appear to those ‘backed into a corner’ in their lives and attacks them with a bent metal baseball bat. Two very different police officers pursue the case, while more and more people fall victim to the strange and increasingly supernatural assailant. Meanwhile, the first victim, a young woman struggling to think of a new character to follow up her incredibly successful mascot dog may be key to it all…

Only a few episodes directly deal with the plot. Others may feature it obliquely, while some are almost completely distinct. Inevitably, some episodes aren’t up to the standard of others: ones about the prostitute or the runner with the tape of the Maromi anime show cannot match up to brilliant episodes like those with the fantasy world, the bullied schoolboy, the suicide club or the police inspector’s wife commanding such gravitas sitting in seiza and talking.

When the series misses, it’s good, solid seinen anime. But when it’s on form, each episode is as good as almost any animated short I’ve seen. That makes this show really something special, and it’s the kind of thing we need more of today, amidst a storm of brainless moé and revived kiddy franchises. Alas, save perhaps Kaiba and Dennou Coil, I’ve not seen anything come close since the second half of Ergo Proxy, and that was almost five years ago, now.

Satoshi Kon passed away far too early, but there’s no arguing with his accomplishments, or small but incredibly bright legacy as a director. I can only hope his stature will have an effect on the ambition of current anime directors.

Friday, 3 September 2010

冬の日/ Fuyu no Hi/ Winter Days

The idea behind Fuyu no Hi is a very clever one, and it is one of two things that draw an arthouse audience to this short animated film – to see how that concept can be executed. The other is, of course, the big names involved, bringing together some giants of worldwide animation.

In 1684, history’s most prominent writer of Haiku, Bashou, put together a collection of poems called Fuyu no Hi. One of the poems was a renka, a collaborative work: in this case, six poets took turns to write single lines, each relating to the one before in sometimes extremely subtle ways. To reflect this, Fuyu no Hi’s director (actually working more as a producer, I would assume), the puppeteer Kawamoto Kihachirou, assembled 35 animators, each to take a stanza and make a short clip of animation based upon it. Kawamoto himself alone produces two segments.

The real draw for me was Yuri Norstein, this being his first true release since Tale of Tales. It is clear that he is held in extremely high regard here, not only with the longest segment, but opening the piece and, apparently, noted as a ‘special guest’. And it must be said that his presence is the focal point of the whole, not only providing the best of the animations, an uncharacteristically sprightly and coherent 110 seconds, but his wolf and hedgehog characters also appearing later in another animator’s piece – albeit one about a ‘spiteful’ arrow. It also means that early on, a high standard is set that unfortunately is not met by the majority of the animators who follow.

While the variations of tone are part of what make a renka what it is, and it is perfectly correct to feature funnier animations alongside more serious efforts, too often these are incongruous and seem to have little to do with their source. On the other hand several contributors, including most of the non-Japanese animators, try to follow the lines of the poem so literally it becomes unintentionally hilarious.

It’s very difficult to pitch. Too vague or experimental and there seems to be no emotional link with the source. Even Takahata Isao, my preferred Ghibli lead director and extremely capable animator, does not manage to hit the right notes. Too simplistic and there is little impact at all, which surprising affected Yamamura Kouji, who directed the ultra-weird Franz Kafka’s A Country Doctor. And trying to subvert the poeticism with simplicity or puerile humour…well, that’s what made the UK’s contribution something of an embarrassment.

Just once or twice, this compilation, this mash-up, this mix-tape is note-perfect. But I have to wonder what, given more thought, more time, more communication and more emphasis on the original poetry, this could have been.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

アリババと40匹の盗賊/Aribaba to 40-ppiki no Tozoku/Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves/Ali Baba’s Revenge

This is in all likelihood the end of my personal little trail of devotion. Like several other Ghibli enthusiasts, I’ve tracked down all the significant feature films of Miyazaki Hayao’s career, some much more difficult to find than others, and found myself happily watching some golden-age Toei in the process.

But while others uncovering this half-lost little gem, seemingly only disseminated at present as English dub Ali Baba’s Revenge (which is more or less the direct opposite of what this film is about), have raved about its frenetic action and quirkiness, I must confess how disappointed I was. By 1971, when this film was released, Toei had already released Hols, with a scope and tone that hinted at great things to come. Puss In Boots was slightly limited by its time, but it was slick, clever, funny and satisfying. Doubutsu Takarajima looked good and moved at a nice pace. So why, around the same time, with Miyazaki working on key animation, was Ali Baba so crushingly awful?

Awful? Yes indeed. This is simply a very bad piece of animation. While it has a nice premise – with the riches found in the cave, Ali Baba seized control of a whole kingdom, and begat a dynasty of tyrants, until finally the descendent of the murdered head thief (the part about his killing Ali Baba’s brother conveniently left out) leads a rather feline rebellion – the execution is horrible. For one thing, it looks terrible, apparently aiming for an American comic strip aesthetic, with round eyes that mostly stay crossed in a horribly unfunny way, the most ugly yellow cats I’ve ever seen and a genie apparently traced from the cover of a Dr Seuss book, only with all the charm surgically excised. For another, it moves horribly, full of recycled animation and always changing between shots with nasty, choppy editing. For a third, it’s dull, with no characters actually having stories that are in any way interesting: the king’s character changes in almost every scene, and the little thief boy is just swept along by events and an exposition-spewing mouse.

It sounds terrible, too, especially the musical numbers, but since this is the English dub, the original may be better.

While it’s true that in the chase scenes at the end, there is a faint glimmer of Miyazaki’s hand, but I’d hesitate to call it ‘undoubtedly Miyazaki’s animated choreography’ as does, unless they have read things I have not (quite possible as they almost never cite their sources), for it’s much more generic and less distinctive than the chase scenes in the earlier Puss in Boots, and totally lacks his distinctive sense of weight and momentum.

Ugly, annoying and dull, this is by far the worst of the pre-Ghibli films Miyazaki worked on. But of course, a film is determined by its director, script and budget, and a key animator’s influence will always be limited. But this is nothing like as good as the other films from Toei at the time. It’s not even as good as the peculiar and dated Gulliver. Indeed, even the mess that is The Flying Ghost Ship was far more watchable than Ali Baba was. A shame, but there it is.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

千年女優/Sennen Jyoyuu/Millennium Actress

Judging from the fact that I got this DVD free in the goodie bag from Virgin Megastores’ Naruto Cosplay Event, I’m guessing Millennium Actress’s sales weren’t quite what they were hoped to be. Indeed, it got nothing near the amount of hype Kon Satoshi’s last film, Perfect Blue, managed to receive. And this is a shame, because Millennium Actress is not only an excellent and rather clever little film, but is in fact one of the best animated movies I have ever seen – and I’ve seen a fair few in my time.

A documentary filmmaker and his cameraman seek out the reclusive actress Fujiwara Chiyoko, who disappeared from the public eye after becoming one of Japan’s premier actresses in the 40s, 50s and 60s. In a way that is far more like theatre than cinema, once Chiyoko starts to relate her life story, the filmmaker and his cameraman become enveloped in a flashback, able to see it and interact with it, with flashes of ‘reality’ returning at times to show us that really, Chiyoko is just re-enacting her story with the help of the director, who seems to have more of a connection to the fading actress than that of simple admirer. Because she was an actress, she steps into many of her past roles, her real life and that of her characters seeming to intertwine, allowing her to appear in a multitude of guises and the movie to take on a variety of styles, which is a joy to watch. We see all the great staples of Japanese cinema – the Kurosawa-like feudal samurai/ninja movies, the suppressed maiko in a geisha house, the apocalyptic war film, even a brief snippet of a Gojira-like monster rampaging – and throughout, Chiyoko is searching for her first love. It’s a bit far-fetched, this endless quest for a man Chiyoko knew as a teenager and remained in love with for her entire life, a bit like the cheesy love story in Memoirs of a Geisha, but the point was to have a simple plot strand that could carry the central concept of a girl stepping into a multitude of roles at different stages in her life, allowing us to see her grow older as well as adopting the costumes from many different periods, while around her the same motifs are repeated to various degrees of subtlety – the film director doing the same at her side, and a bit of level-headed comic relief being provided by the goofy cameraman.

Millennium Actress is a film-lover’s film, and to really enjoy it, it helps to be familiar with the kind of films that are popular enough in Japan for their settings to have seeped into public consciousness, the kinds that are always returned to for historical dramas, though a pretty general knowledge is enough – one doesn’t need to be able to spot Shinsengumi coats to understand a general time period. Animation fans also have much to admire, for while there are few displays of animation pyrotechnics (though they do exist), it’s in the little details that one can observe just how good MadHouse’s animation was here, in the girl slipping over while running and pushing herself back up, or the posture of a woman vacuuming.

The idea is simple and well-executed, the characters charming and the canvas uniquely both broad and intimate. The music is idiosyncratic and might make the film date badly, but works quite nicely. I recommend this film quite highly.

(originally written 24.06.07)

Live-Action Adaptation: The Last Airbender

I nearly shed a tear, I must admit it.

Not at the travesty of what M. Night Shyamalan did to Avatar: it was a bad film, but not as awful as has been suggested. Not at the politically incorrect parts dubbed ‘racebending’: I have never been too troubled about the casting, knowing the Hollywood machine is and will long remain extremely racially prejudiced, because it caters to its audience. Certainly not for the emotional high points of the film, such as stabbing a fish.

I nearly cried with laughter at the increasingly infamous scene of a whole group of earthbenders performing a long sequence of complex martial arts moves associated with element-bending…only for one puny rock to drift across the screen. Fortunately, this was the absolute nadir of the special effects in a generally good-looking film, although some inconsistent CG, obvious miniatures and rickety sets will date the film very quickly.

But this was not at all a good adaptation of Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender, a brave attempt by a Western company to make a series with the tone of an epic anime; other similar attempts have almost exclusively been comedic. It was not entirely successful and while I look back on it with fondness and would certainly rank it amongst my favourite American cartoons, it ought not to be forgotten that the series frustrated me almost as much as it pleased me, and a lot of episodes had me gnashing my teeth at bad pacing, annoying characters, dubious power-ups and poor world-building. But in the end I loved much more than I hated, and this film made it all look so good.

Before its release, fandom was mostly critical of the racial elements. I must say that these were not as I expected. I thought that we would see a Central/South-Asian Fire Nation, maybe some East-Asian monks and everyone else would be white. In fact, while this seems right for the Fire Nation, everyone else was a cosmopolitan mix – although of course all young heroes were white. Dev Patel is an anti-hero, of course, but still virtuous, and we ought not to forget that the original casting had lily-white Jesse McCartney in the role. The Earth Kingdom seemed predominantly East-Asian and Aang himself had an appearance suggesting mixed white and Asian heritage. Indeed, while he is a long way from the series’ Aang, far less playful and yet still seeming even younger, and not so much of a pretty-boy, this ‘Aang’ (‘Ong’? One of many odd pronunciation changes) fit his badly-developed role well, performing acrobatics skilfully and delivering stilted lines with enough directness to just come over as naïve, not wooden.

Unfortunately, his co-stars were not so good. Worst was the guy from Twilight as Sokka. I assume that he was cast purely to try and draw in teenagers, because he was so, so wrong for the part. Quite seriously, if I didn’t already know the plot and world of Avatar, I would have expected a twist to come later on that revealed he was a robot or emotionless alien. His performance was just that flat. And it’s a real shame that apart from one amusing moment where Katara’s water-bending goes wrong at just the wrong moment, all comedy was removed from his character. Not even an extremely pretty Yue whose performance was excellent given the terrible material, could excuse the entirety of her relationship with Sokka being told to the audience by Katara’s voiceover.

Katara herself fit quite well, looking more formidable towards the end, but as yet she has nothing of the strength or warmth of her cartoon counterpart. Dev Patel as Zuko was worse, and he apparently worked in cahoots with the hairdressing department to give us a Zuko who was based entirely in appearance and performance on Ross from Friends. I really could not see past this. Every emotional outpouring seemed to directly channel David Schwimmer.

Uncle Iroh was a rather cool hawklike Asian man, and while there’s much to be said for hidden strength found in a fat, affable old man, this new formidable interpretation worked nicely. I can’t help but think he would make a better Ozai, though, for the man cast in the role looked like some office clerk.

The plot could have worked, as an outline, but it was all so rushed and distant, events unfolding with barely a reaction shot to give the impression the characters were in any way involved. There was no reason to care for any of the characters, and making a plot point of Aang being emotionally repressed is hardly a way to make us sympathise with him. The climax had its moments – some waterbending looked great, and Aang’s moves occasionally made him look incredible, but the crisis of the moon spirit lasted all of a minute, after which the battle was clearly decided, leaving no tension for Aang’s Avatar State moment, which while impressive did very little of any effect.

No tension, no emotional attachment to characters, no climax and no development made for a dull, detached film.

I sincerely hope that the sequel does not get made, and look forward to the new animated spin-off.