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.