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)