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.