Tuesday, 25 May 2010

灼眼のシャナ / Shakugan no Shana

While based on an intriguing idea, Shakugan no Shana embodies all that is generic and unimaginative in anime. From the obvious love triangles to probably the most predictable and cheesy deus ex machina I’ve ever seen (topped only by the fact that it doesn’t even have the promised repercussions), it treads the same tired ground as a thousand other anime, and uses all the fantasy gubbins it can muster in place of having a decent plot.

But despite that, Shakugan no Shana is fun. Clichés got to be clichés because they're enjoyable, after all, and there’s much enjoyment to be had in a run-of-the-mill anime series.

The story goes like this: every person in the world has a certain amount of ‘power of existence’, craved by demon-like entities known as Tomogara, who are served by subordinates called Rinne. In order to feast, these creatures freeze the world, suck the life out of humans, and then move on. So that no humans notice their friends and family disappear (though why the demons should care, I don’t know – perhaps it happens without their volition), the victims are replaced by ‘torches’, false replacements for humans that slowly vanish as the people around them forget they ever existed.

When one such ‘torch’, a high school student called Sakai Yuuji, finds himself able to move when the Tomogara freeze the rest of the world, it is clear that he is different from the rest. A huge doll-like Rinne comes after him (to eat him again, I suppose…), but he is rescued by a young girl with incredible strength. She is a ‘Flame Haze’, a hunter destroying the Tomogara to maintain balance in the world. Yuuji pursues the girl, managing to protect her, and although she at first sees him as nothing more than an object, they become friends, and he gives her the name ‘Shana’.

Based on a series of light novels, one of the series’ strengths is its playful use of words. Most of the characters have a second title, usually something wonderfully excessive like ‘Chanter of Elegies’ or ‘Judge of Paradoxes’. The pompous tone really suits the gleeful obviousness of the series, making it hard to take seriously, but easy to enjoy. The plots tend to be very weak, though, usually involving a baddie arriving with some contrived magical plan, and then a fight climaxing in an even more contrived magical solution, or just some old-fashioned arse-kicking. Better is the character development: the series was probably at its best when it was dealing with the uncertainties of love and two girls competing for the affection of one boy. The drama and angst was very typical of the genre, but also very cute, and all the characters were very likeable and sweet. The supporting cast was also fun, from the creepy Tomogara with a doll fetish to the huge-breasted, brazen, provocative Flame Haze Margery Daw, who chants iffy translations of British nursery rhymes before attacking. All very silly, but fun. There was also an extended flashback to Shana’s past, but it was mostly rather daft and I ended up wanting to get back to the main plot long before it reached its conclusion.

The art was rather lacking. I have a feeling that like MAR, Bleach or Naruto, a lot of the monsters looked good in the manga but when simplified for anime, ended up looking very childish. The novels were first made into a Deneki Daioh manga (though the novels featured illustrations), and the seinen audience is firmly targeted. As a result, most of the ‘high school’ characters look about 12, with eyes the size of jet engines. Shana (who unlike some of her classmates even has the figure of a small child) is naked or clad only in bandages countless times during the series. I think in the last fight, there were more shots of her knickers than of her face. It all just added an extra layer of cheesiness.

But as I say, despite the extreme cheese (perhaps in part thanks to it), Shakugan no Shana was good fun, and some of the soap opera moments in the main romantic story were genuinely very sweet.

(Originally written 31.3.06)

ハチミツとクローバー / Honey and Clover (season 1)

First impressions - 6.5.05
Today, I watched eps 1 and 2 of Honey & Clover, which I downloaded on a whim and had heard absolutely nothing about. I am already totally hooked. This looks to be the anime of the season for me. I went into it with no expectations, and finished episode 2 longing for more. It’s a simple shoujo at first glance, but brilliantly funny – not just in a zany, insane way, but also warmly and wittily funny. It’s the story of the lives of several students. The two main boys are the sweet and quiet Takemoto, who I’ve taken a real liking to, and his mad sempai (upper-classman) Morita, who is endlessly entertaining!

The first half of the episode is a genuinely hilarious sequence wherein Takemoto tries to wake up a seemingly comatose Morita in order for him to attend a class that will allow him to graduate. Poor Takemoto tries everything, with the help of his friend Mayama, but nothing works. In the end, Mayama takes a photograph of Takemoto with a clock in the background as proof that he TRIED, which will, according to Mayama, ‘fend off at least 30% of his curse’ when he wakes up. Brilliant. At college, the boys are introduced to and immediately fall for the adorable Hagu, a doll-like 18-year-old who looks more like 10. She’s very cute, but the more teenaged-looking Ayumi is the more interesting girl.

But, aside from a very weird claymation opening sequence (reflecting the fact that these are art students) and a rather dull ending one, this anime is stunningly beautiful. People raved about the way AIR looked, but H&C is much more aesthetically pleasing. The characters are beautiful, but not in a saccharine or distorted way (except maybe Hagu’s first scenes), the animation is smooth, the backgrounds look like lush watercolours and the music is superb. Best, though, the characters, while interesting enough to be engaging and very funny, are also real enough for me to care about them, and wonder what is going to happen to them. Best anime of the season so far, without a doubt.

Final Thoughts

Hachimitsu to Kurovaa, or Honey and Clover, is something a little bit different. It’s a romantic shoujo story, but not saccharine, nor full of wish-fulfilment. It is not even told from a predominantly feminine perspective. Like many naturalistic shoujo stories, it could just as easily be live action, and I hear that a live action version is actually in production, though it’s doubtful that the charming prettiness of the show will remain intact.

Takemoto is a somewhat naïve and extremely sweet-hearted boy attending an art college, living with his peers in student accommodation in Tokyo. One day, his teacher introduces a new girl, the cripplingly shy and awkward Hagu, who looks more like a prepubescent child or a doll than the 18-year-old she is. Takemoto sees how vulnerable, how nervous, but how incredibly gifted she is, and falls in love. However, Hagu, in her own quiet way, seems to be more interested in Takemoto’s crazy, unpredictable, but also remarkably gifted roommate Morita. Meanwhile, their classmate Ayu is deeply in love with Mayama, another of Takumi’s housemates, but he is devoted to another, older woman. These two difficult love triangles form the basis for the dramatic structure of the show, with much melancholy yearning, plus plenty of unrequited feelings and embarrassment. However, to balance this angst, there is a liberal amount of quirky humour, lots of warm-hearted scenes of friendship and devotion, and a healthy amount of Japanese culture. In summary, it sounds limited, but the atmosphere of the show sucks you in and the humour is genuinely funny and bizarre.

The only things I found irritating were minor – a propensity to draw Hagu too much with her expression of stylised shock, the somewhat difficult to swallow idea that some of these art school geniuses are already making big changes in the world, the sometimes heavy-handed poeticisms of the character’s inner monologues, but overall this show was utterly charming, elegant and moving, and I find myself wishing for a second season.

(originally written 12.10.2005. The second season has since aired.)

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Hisaishi Joe in Nippon Budokan: From Nausicäa to Ponyo, 25 Years with Miyazaki Hayao’s Animation

This little musical gem, for all its small size, is a lot of fun for any Ghibli aficionado. The premise is simple: gather a staggering number of musicians in the cavernous Nippon Budokan, hang an immense projector behind them and get Hisaishi Joe in to conduct his compositions written for Miyazaki’s Ghibli films. Have him to personally contribute a little delicate but accomplished piano-playing at key points, and intersperse the sadly too-short clips with him speaking about his musical process, and you have a very pleasant viewing experience.

It’s somewhat like the trips to see Howard Shore conducting an orchestra playing the music to the Lord of the Rings films I’ve been on, but more informal, less involving, and surprisingly enough, on a much grander scale.

For not only is there a full orchestra with some specialized instruments like taiko drums for a booming rendition of ‘Tataraba’ from Mononoke-Hime and a child choir for the adorable saccharine singalong of the Ponyo theme (with a very sweet little girl looking just the right amount of hapless as she sings the lead line at the front), but about five other full choirs for a truly immense sound, a full marching band providing perhaps the most powerful moment of the night, and even a great little slinky jazz band Hisaishi himself looks like he’s having great fun playing along with for the music from Porco Rosso.

Everything is consummately performed and sounds beautiful, leaving me deeply impressed. My only faults were that from what I could tell in the interview, there’s a certain eagerness to sweep under the carpet those horrible original synthesised scores for the likes of Laputa, to pretend the recent reworkings were in fact always there (although I may be totally wrong and have just failed to understand the relevant parts), and much more than that, that it was all so very short. I wanted three hours of this! Altogether the music was perhaps 45 minutes. That’s just not enough!

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Adziu's Small Corner's second release!

My second release from the Psychic Force Shinseisha anthology is one of the cutest one-shots I’ve ever read, and one of the reasons I wanted to do this at all. It features Emilio, a little egg and a particularly sociopathic Wong. This is a much better introduction to the series and its characters (well, two of them) than the first chapter, and one I’d recommend anybody read. It’s not the…LEAST cheesy thing ever, but I find it adorable.

Psychic Force Shinseisha chapter 3 released!

Mirror 1: Sendspace
Mirror 2: Depositfiles
Mangafox: http://www.mangafox.com/manga/psychic_force_comic_anthology/v01/c003/

時をかける少女 / Toki-o Kakeru Shoujo / The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

Toki-o Kakeru Shoujo made a big splash in the anime community, and even some small ripples in the Japanese mainstream. A tiny wave even reached the UK’s arthouses, and thus today I got to see the charming little film on a big screen, albeit not one any bigger than a home projector system would give me, and with an annoying kid who couldn’t chew with his mouth closed, a rather poor flickery transfer and strange subtitles made up of individual strokes you could see crossing over one another colouring the experience.

Such minor complaints about the cinema itself can’t detract from how good the film is, however. It may not be as lush visually as Ghibli’s most ambitious films, but it equals some of their subdued and mature efforts, like Mimi-o Sumaseba and Omohide Poroporo, and has some really excellent visual moments: the final leap through time, for example, or some of the wonderful background animations. At one point, two girls push a third to approach the boy she likes in a piece of charming and hilarious silent comedy done in the background of a scene.

The story is the kind of thing that only anime develops along the lines we see here, a zany idea treated very seriously and made believable, even with increasingly bizarre twists. A girl discovers she can ‘leap’ through time, going back to replace her previous self, making her effectively able to live through an experience and then change it entirely. Although this could lead to a typical sci-fi story along the lines of Quantum Leap or Bill and Ted, because our heroine Makoto is too naive and pure, or possibly too lacking in imagination, to do anything but sweet things like repeating her time in the karaoke room or retake a test she did badly on, she never abuses her new power. Of course, things get more complicated when her two male best friends begin to show an interest in her and in other girls, and her life gets more confusing as their relationships get more and more convoluted by her attempts to get things just perfect.

Drama becomes heightened as Makoto has to encounter life-and-death situations and there are some superb moments where Makoto and the audience realise what is about to happen with grim inevitability while those in the situation are still unaware. The relationship drama is really top-notch, with both boys sympathetic, tomboyish Makoto absolutely adorable and even the minor characters developed just enough, raising fond smiles.

The animation is not superb but it is solid, the aesthetic appealing and the character designs attractive. The music works well and the voice actors have a freshness to their performances reminiscent of Bokura ga Ita. It just about pulls off its more high-faluting parts and there’s only one real problem with the conclusion, which without giving much away is that you can say, ‘Well, just get more once you go back and you can keep going back and forth.’ The story works well and keeps up a brisk pace, although there is a little too much of a lull in the final act between the film’s major climax and its conclusion, which is a bit of a shame.

Nonetheless, this film is cute, well-crafted, mature and still very entertaining. Highly recommended.

(orginally written 29.9.08)

Saturday, 8 May 2010

サマーウォーズ/ Summer Wars

Without paying special attention to him, I’ve been watching works that Hosoda Mamoru has directed for many years. I was impressed by the early Digimon short movie he directed, finding it surprisingly artistic and mature, given how the franchise developed, while not being so keen on his One Piece movie, which in spite of some clever and brave development of a simple plot disappointed me with its slapdash visuals and unsatisfying conclusion.

Almost two years ago, now, I went to see his Toki-o Kakeru Shoujo, or The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, which had made quite an impression on the arthouse crowd. It wasn’t perfect, but I liked it very much, enjoying the characters and iconic setting. With Summer Wars, though, Hosoda has become a major player on the international animation scene, and it will probably be he who takes Madhouse from successful television studio to huge filmmakers.

Its brilliance is in blending three elements: a sophisticated family saga with a huge cast that actually made me think of Ozu, a cute and goofy teenaged romance story and an exaggerated, high-stakes action story set in an online world. It’s very hard to make such disparate elements gel, but they do, brilliantly. There is some overly coincidental plotting, significant figures just happening to be in the family, there clearly could have been better ways to make the antagonist feel ‘challenged’ when a whole world is involved, the morality of providing a password to someone malicious could have been explored more and the trouble with an imagined online world is that too much just seems arbitrary, but none of these things really detract from the deft way a world is built up, the elements balanced perfectly.

Kenji was a very likeable protagonist, Natsuki was more than a pretty face, and I found Kazuma adorable. The story allowed for great humour, joy and sadness that just about managed not to be hollow and exploitative. Wonderful little touches like the use of a woman watching the Koshien to echo the highs and lows of the main story, the chorus of ‘KITA!!’ when King Kazuma appears and the power of collaboration made this a deeply satisfying, moving film.

Friday, 7 May 2010

満月をさがして / Furu Muun o Sagashite / Searching For the Full Moon

For a long time, circa 2003-2005, Full Moon o Sagashite was #1 on Animenfo’s ‘Top 100 Anime’ list, which was based on fan votes. Arguably that was because its relatively small audience found little to object to in such a charming anime, while the more prominent and boyish anime it outranked, like Rurouni Kenshin and Akira, had their vociferous detractors. The show still made some big ripples, and even though its run was just when I was starting to become a real anime obsessive, it had started just that little bit too late, and only now have I gotten around to watching it.

In many ways, Full Moon o Sagashite is an archetypal girls’ series: a sweet, happy-go-lucky young orphan girl is living a stifled life with her overprotective grandmother, but has a big dream – in this case, to become a singer. But thanks to a sarcoma in her throat, little Mitsuki has only a year to live. For some reason, she has the ability to see the Shinigami (gods of death in Japanese mythology) who have come to ensure no-one interferes with her fate, and even manages to convince them to use their magic to transform her into a sixteen-year-old so that she can begin her singing career.

Everything in Full Moon o Sagashite is cute. Mitsuki is a thoroughly lovely girl, who has a pure ambition, pure love, and often acts selflessly, though rebels and argues when she feels she has good reason, meaning she’s believable as a very, very sweet twelve-year-old. The people working with her in the music industry have her best interests in mind, and even the nasty rival figure is soon won over. The gods of death are of course wonderfully pretty and not only have cutesy kemono-mimi but can transform into adorable mascot characters – that genuinely are very cute. Of course, Mitsuki’s rise to prominence is jarringly fast, her very first single selling hugely, though since she’s a heavily-produced, heavily-promoted aidoru (pop idol) this makes a degree of sense. Studio Deen, the show’s creators (responsible for other cute shows like Binchou-tan and Maria-sama Ga Miteru), made the excellent decision of actually hiring real singers to voice Mitsuki (and her rival Madoka) and getting good songs written for them, which you can really believe would sell well – for that’s often the crucial element that music anime (like Beck) lack.

Arguably the real meat of the story would have fit into a 26-episode series rather than a slightly slow 52-episode run, but the relaxed pace and episodic nature to the middle part actually helped create a mood of relaxed intimacy that helped make proceedings more likeable. The anime, which like many adaptations that begin while the manga is still running, veers off in its own direction when it runs out of source material, is perhaps less mature and less realistic than the version fully realised by a single mangaka (the anime, for example, never shows how a singer has to struggle to stay in the public eye, and rather sidelines Meroko), but its pace is far more conducive to the kind of atmosphere in which this sort of story thrives – unhurried, detailed, rich in character; the manga, on the other hand, can at times seem like a rushed infodump.

Full Moon o Sagashite may not feature clashes for the fate of the world; it may not have the best, deepest study of how death affects people (though there are some lip-wobbling moments), nor have all its details fully worked out (for an anime all about death and the certainty of an afterlife, it seems strange that people are always insisting on what a loss it is, especially since Izumi tempting Mizuki with a vision of Heaven gives such a great opportunity to discuss the issue). However, it is a light little drama-comedy with some profound moments that at the very least will always stick in the mind, and always bring a smile to the face.

(Originally written 9.7.2007)

Thursday, 6 May 2010

New scanslation project: Psychic Force official doujinshi anthologies

Back in the mid-90s, I fell in love with a quirky, rather unbalanced Taito fighting game called Psychic Force. The game’s superb anime intro (watch it here) played a large part in sparking my interest in Japanese animation in general and it was because of this game that I first started delving into Japanese websites, even if back then slow connections and lack of support for East-Asian fonts made it all strange and mysterious.

With a fairly large fandom in Japan, a lot of doujinshi were produced for the game, including some in an official capacity. I got hold of a couple of the Broccoli anthologies and one from the now-bankrupt Shinseisha, who used to produce spin-off manga for numerous fighting games. I’ve slowly been translating bits and pieces, and now that my Japanese is good enough to actually be able to understand chapters, I thought it was time to share with the world with some scanslations! The near-future setting was, after all, 2010, so it seems timely to do this now.

Thus, here is Adziu’s Small Corner’s first scanslation, chapter 1 of the Shinseisha anthology. It’s only a very short chapter, a rather strange little gag story about a bunny, but you get some rather lovely artwork included as well. Please don’t judge Emilio too harshly, though! This isn’t how he usually behaves! XD

Mirror 1: Sendspace
Mirror 2: Depositfiles
Mangafox: http://www.mangafox.com/manga/psychic_force_comic_anthology/v01/c001/

Monday, 3 May 2010

京極夏彦 巷説百物語/ Kyogoku Natsuhiko Kosetsu Hyaku Monogatari / Kyogoku Natsuhiko’s Hundred Stories

I decided to check out Hundred Stories because I watch very few horror anime, and somebody suggested this was quite similar to Jigoku Shoujo. While there are some thematic similarities, however, this is not even close to the same league as Hell Girl – and I didn’t even like Hell Girl all that much.

Hundred Stories
follows a young writer compiling supernatural tales for a book that will truly make his name. On his travels to research supernatural phenomena, he keeps bumping into a strange little man called Mataichi, who with his two equally bizarre cohorts always seems to appear wherever strange events are happening and ends up punishing those who have wronged others. These stories tend to involve grisly murders, and the young writer again and again finds himself in danger, becoming fascinated by the strange world he can glimpse but never be a part of.

It’s all very juvenile. With the possible exception of D.Gray-Man, Tokyo Movie Shinsha’s anime tend to look dated, be it intentionally (The Snow Queen) or because they’re churning out kids’ shows on the cheap (Bakugan), and even though it aired in 2003, Hundred Stories looks and feels like something from the 80s, replete with over-the-top gore, weird and ugly character designs and scenes that are supposed to be sexy but come over as juvenile and awkward. They go for an edgy look with bold black lines and lots of shadows and deep colours, but it’s never very nice to look at and often gets confusing as to who is who. None of the episodes are what I would call memorable, and while there is nothing to dislike about them, I never particularly cared about any of the sympathetic characters.

The sooner this sort of thing stops representing the idea of anime in the general Western mindset, the better. At least things like the original Vampire Hunter D had a certain naïve charm. Things have moved on, thank goodness.