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….