Sunday, 30 January 2011

Gunslinger Girl (series 1)

I’ve now finished this all-too-short series, and I was very impressed. Explaining what is so good about this anime is difficult, because to summarise it is to oversimplify a complex and elegant story, and the concept sounds admittedly childish when explained – much like the title. Nonetheless, over the course of thirteen episodes, we are shown a secret wing of the Italian government that takes teenaged girls who have lost everything - through crime, disaster or personal loss - and turns them into soldiers. Many have tried to commit suicide. Others have lost all use of their limbs. The government division replaces much of their bodies, giving them superhuman strength, and wipes their memories clean: they use teenaged girls because their bodies accept these modifications more easily. The girls are then trained as elite assassins, and used on important secret missions.

All this sounds like the premise to a very cheesy, forgettable series, and when you add that these brainwashed girls are each allocated one adult male partner, and implanted with such strong feelings of devotion and such powerful protective urges that they are essentially in love with them, and it starts to sound like perverted teenaged wish fulfilment. But at the same time, this is what gives the series its impetus. You see what the writers do with this concept, and that is what makes a classic anime.

The characters are what matter here. The delicacy and innocence of Henrietta, who despite everything is still a sweet little girl who wants to be loved. The confidence and bittersweet awareness of her position that Treila shows. The sadness of watching Angelica trying to keep up with the other girls when she simply is not capable – and more than that, the human touches. The sight of four girls singing Beethoven as they watch shooting stars; the room full of teddy bears from a man who doesn’t know how to show his affection to the teenaged girl suddenly introduced into his life; the big sister figure who goes to help adults with their work just so that she can make sure there’s someone there to take her and her friends on a trip. The horrible perversity of the scenario is explored, and the lingering uncertainty as to which feelings are true and which are created creates an atmosphere of pathos, affection and pity throughout.

On one hand, I wanted much more. On the other, I knew that as it was written, more would have been a mistake. There is no plot to speak of – only individual stories, backstories and standalone episodes. If anything could have improved the series, it would have been a consistent through-storyline, but only if there were a full 26-episode season over which to tell it. As it was, the slow, elegant pacing and slice-of-very-strange-life presentation worked well. The tone would not suit a saving-the-world-from-evil plotline, but that’s not to say that there couldn’t have been an intelligent and compelling storyline. In lieu of such, however, we have a superlative prologue and introduction, but nothing more.

(originally written 10.3.05)

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Read or Die

Upon watching RoD for the first time on October 13, 2002, here’s what I wrote: ‘Watched the utterly mad Read or Die, an insane story of an avid reader who is ‘The Paper’ – given the ability to forge shields, shuriken or (best of all) a giant paper aeroplane out of a briefcase full of A4 sheets. The Paper must foil plots to get a resurrected Beethoven to play his ‘Subliminal Suicide Song’, an eventuality which will cause the destruction of humanity! It was as bizarre as it sounds, and even funnier.’

While indeed, RoD is a totally insane piece of anime exuberance, my view of it necessarily changed in light of my fondness for RoD the TV, the series that followed. I actually liked the latter enough to rather wish that it had nothing to do with the original OVA (or novels), because that silliness doesn’t suit the slightly more serious tone that makes the series work well. Both stand well alone, but - despite recurring characters, setting and silly paper manipulation conceit - rather clash with each other.

It’s the OVA that endures as the more iconic and memorable work, for better or for worse. There is something impressive about its endless absurdity and sheer joyful exuberance. But for my money, RoD the TV shows what it could’ve been.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

電脳コイル / Dennou Coil

Dennou Coil is, for me, a sign of Madhouse’s real maturity. Now that they’re second only to Ghibli in making large-scale and well-plotted feature animations, their regular TV anime is going from strength to strength. Paranoia Agent was no one-off, and Dennou Coil finally scratched my itch for something more mature and challenging left after I finished Kaiba – one that has recurred since watching Monster. All these impressive efforts have, yes, been Madhouse.

And Dennou Coil, like Kaiba, was one I was introduced to by the anime club well over a year ago now. I put off watching it for quite some time, saving it as something I knew was good until I needed just that, and I have since worked my way through the 24 episodes I had left to watch more quickly than any series in a long while.

The world of Dennou Coil is a great one: in the near future, everyone uses glasses to see a virtual world overlaid on top of ours. It’s similar to those apps on phones that use the camera and then overlay information about restaurants and shops, but taken to a greater extent – and perceived directly as though the objects really existed. After a commercial boom, there are now virtual pets, virtual weapons and, here and there, bugs and hacks. A group of schoolkids begin to investigate various types of anomaly in this virtual world, but of course, things get ever more complicated, and at least two of the kids are interested in ‘the other side’, a virtual place your consciousness can go, detached from your body, but just maybe will not be able to return from. Delivered with great seriousness and considerably less cryptic cheesiness than I just gave it, everything is plausible, presented extremely well (I love the ‘tags’ thrown like ninja paper talisman) and, crucially, rooted in the lives and personalities of a series of likeable kids.

There’s something very like Mei from Totoro about Yasako’s sister Kyoko, too. That can only be a good thing.

Centred on the naïve, likeable Yasako and the taciturn and highly skilled Isako, the number of coincidences that fuel the final twists, mostly things family members happen to have done, is just about acceptable. One great thing about the series is that it’s given time to develop, with whole episodes dedicated to side characters interacting with various ‘illegals’ and making for a greatly entertaining ensemble cast. Dennou Coil is also defined by well-known voice actresses delivering performances that are far more subdued than their usual. It seems strange that gentle Yasako is voiced by Orikasa Fumiko, so forceful and mature as Seras in Hellsing, or that Isako was the formidable Clare in Claymore. Paku Romi as Haraken tones herself down so much that her extremely distinctive voice is hard to identify at first, and somehow that makes her performance seem so much more mature. Then there’s Kobayashi Yumiko, in her usual bratty kid role, but going back through the necessary exaggeration of Black Star or near-miss of Azuma Kazuma and to her best performance – Tetsu in Peacemaker Kurogane.

As immersive and as attention-grabbing as the world it represents, Dennou Coil does everything it aims for just right – gives a strong sci-fi plot, some great action and a clever twist or two, but adds on top a loveable cast, some very cute, idiosyncratic mascot characters and great human drama. Easily amongst the best anime of the 2000s.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

N・H・Kにようこそ!/ NHK ni Youkoso! / Welcome to the NHK

Sometimes, when it’s feeling like all anime is written to a formula, something very different and quirky comes along and reminds you how nice it is to have some originality sometimes. Animation studio Gonzo often get criticised for putting out ugly animation, or letting the quality of their anime rapidly fall after a few episodes, but in the past few years their risk-taking has made their work essential viewing, and such shows as Gankutsuou, Last Exile and to a lesser extent Peace Maker Kurogane rank amongst my favourites. Afro Samurai may be a risk too far, but I’ll certainly at least watch with interest.

And the most original and idiosyncratic show I’ve seen in the past year, even above Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuuutsu, has to be NHK ni Youkoso!, a show that, like Genshiken, features its own target audience as its subject. While Genshiken was about a group of friends in an anime club, however, NHK is about Satou Tatsuhiro, who is a hikikomori – an agoraphobic youth who spends his days in the safety of his room, dreading meeting others or leaving the comfort of his four-walled prison. Jun from Rozen Maiden is a hikikomori, but NHK is a more realistic show, and as such, it deals with the various perils of modern life that have been in Japan’s public consciousness in recent months.

Plus it plays directly into the reclusive anime fan’s fantasies. Satou, despite being terrified of the outside world and a bit histrionic, is quite a normal guy. Like many otaku, he obsesses over things, spends a lot of time procrastinating and doesn’t mix well with others. But then a pretty, cheerful, immensely adorable girl called Misaki enters his life and tries to ‘coach’ Satou out of his lifestyle while often trying too hard, blushing over Freudian imagery and slowly revealing problems of her own. Can you say ‘EVERY OTAKU’S FANTASY’?

Since the show takes on several issues, it ends up being a bit uneven. It’s at its best when Satou is in his room, being an otaku, getting obsessed by otaku things to the exclusion of all else, like the hilarious episodes in which he gets addicted to an MMORPG or when he and his neighbour, anime otaku Yamazaki, are trying to make a perverted gal-game together. It works less well when baffling but recently common Japanese news-making cultural obsessions like suicide cults and pyramid con schemes are treated in a few episodes – these feel like the issues are left unexplored and the comedy both undermines the seriousness of the event and doesn’t feel right because of it.

Despite its unevenness, though, NHK is a treat. Funny characters who are very gentle on the eyes, believable even in their extremity, some superb fantasy sequences and pastiches of other genres, and a great, totally insane ending theme that sadly was changed halfway through the season. I may not have liked Misaki-chan all that much, and her way of thinking about others was reprehensible, but I am certainly otaku enough to see the appeal of someone a little troubled, a little needy and yet cute as a button coming stalking me. Perhaps for that, one doesn’t need to be otaku at all…

(originally written 1.1.07)

桜蘭高校ホスト部/ Ouran Koukou Hosuto Kurabu / Ouran High School Host Club

When I hear that Bones are making a new anime, I sit up and pay attention. However, when I heard that the famous shounen studio (responsible for animating, amongst others, Fullmetal Alchemist and Wolf’s Rain) are trying their hand at a light shoujo comedy, I just had to see how they fared. As a matter of fact, they managed to make one of the biggest shows of the last season, and win the affection of many a young female viewer – and a fair few male ones, too.

Ouran revolves around a girl of average income named Haruhi at a school for the incredibly rich. Some of the prettiest boys in this school have formed a ‘host club’, whose modus operandi is to charm the female contingent of the school and profit from their custom. When Haruhi stumbles across the club and ends up breaking a valuable vase, they coerce her into joining, believing her to be a pretty boy. She soon gets to know the club members, who are well aware that they fit neatly into typical shoujo archetypes (a handsome leader, a quiet bespectacled academic type, a tall silent one, an adorable chibi who looks about 7 and two very close identical twins) and most of them soon become enamoured with her. But beneath the dressing-up games, the whacky adventures and the cheerful quests to help others who have found themselves in predicaments, each of the original host club members has problems of his own.

The show has the comfortable situation of being ostensibly a comedy, so its over-obvious premise can be accepted as a parody of the genre – indeed, it’s quite fun to watch this alongside Meine Lieber, which is a serious shoujo drama with many of the same clichés sent up by Ouran (more on that when I finish ML series 2) – and yet the writers can turn things serious and angsty and still be taken seriously because of the comedy base. Anime creators like even their cutest shows to be bittersweet, so it’s a formula that works well. While Ouran didn’t always hit the mark, and had a fair few boring, pretentious or just plain forgettable episodes focusing on secondary or peripheral characters, it was always a show worth watching, because almost every episode had some great laughs, some cute moments and some pure joyful randomness. The ending, while very open, was both serious and silly enough to work well, and ended with a clever juxtaposition of characters and settings. Will there be a series two? Very possible, since the series was a hit in Japan and there’s more manga source material to go on. Possibly why few series-long loose ends were never really tied up.

Fun, cute, vibrant, well-acted, well-animated and genuinely funny character-driven comedy. Not the funniest show I’ve ever seen, nor the most moving, sweet or clever. But always a joy to watch, and thus recommended.

(originally written 10.2.06)

Sunday, 23 January 2011

ザ・サード~蒼い瞳の少女~/Za saado: aoi hitomi no shoujo/The Third: The Azure-Eyed Girl

Last season was a little lacking for good shounen. Having missed Noein and Black Lagoon, I began to watch the bloated Kiba and the bland Jyu Oh Sei. But then there was The Third, something a little bit different, and while it’s by no means on my all-time favourites list, it was certainly one of the better shows of recent months.

However, I’m beginning to suspect that Xebec’s adaptations of ongoing series of manga or novels will always suffer the same flaws – despite nice art and pretty, likeable characters, they will always produce series that are overly episodic and have an unsatisfying ending.

Honoka is a spirited young girl who possesses incredible skills with a sword. In the company of Bogie, the sardonic AI unit of her massive tank, she works as a mercenary-for-hire. But her world is one divided, between humanity and The Third, elf-like beings who control and regulate the technology of their world through the use of a third eye. When a mysterious young man named Iks appears, we gradually learn more about Honoka, more about the secrets of her world.

There’s not much that’s new or especially gripping about The Third, and it does deal with its plots in a neat, pat sort of way that doesn’t really leave you desperate to find out what happens next. Many of them fall flat, too, with silly stories about The Third and mystical fairies and wolves, often crucially lacking in human emotion. It’s actually the episodes between these adventures that are best, for what The Third really succeeds in is its characters and their designs – although the off-model disaster of episode 13 will live in infamy forever more, and I hope an animation studio went out of business because of it. Honoka is my idea of moé – a pretty girl, more than handy with a sword, with a boyish face and genderless clothes, who gets very embarrassed and blushes adorably when contrived circumstances make her wear a form-fitting bodysuit, and whose sense of right and wrong and selfless attitude to others show her decency and compassion, yet who is a little naïve and not above silly jokes. Toyoguchi Megumi pitches her voice perfectly, finding a great balance between the hyperactivity of One Piece’s Nami and the stately but rebellious Sei from Marimite. Great protagonist, and the supporting cast was also excellent, especially the fatherly yet perpetually indignant Bogie (Jet from Bebop’s seiyuu), the teasing, confident, more sexual older mercenary Paifuu (Kobayashi Senae: the Akiras in Hikago and Mai-HiME, Allen in D.Gray Man etc) and the ultra-cute loli Millie, who sadly doesn’t complete the interesting plot arc that starts to develop in her last few episodes.

One irksome thing about the series is its narrator, who earned the name Captain Obvious from me, his intrusive tones cutting in at very inappropriate moments to describe what we could all see anyway. It may have been an attempt to make things more epic, but it was just silly.

Honoka and Millie made this a series I was happy to have watched. But I feel sure that while I will remember them for a long time yet, the finer details of The Third, desert wolves, alien Observers and robotic Blue Breakers will fade away and not be missed.

(Originally written 23.12.06)

Friday, 21 January 2011

Finding Nemo

‘Finding Nemo was a joy to watch, if not on a par with the Toy Story films (graphic effects excluded). Another charming, escapist buddy movie with some incredibly entertaining voice actors – the girl from Ellen as Dory was endlessly loveable, Geoffrey Rush and Dame Edna’s against-type roles hilarious and Willem DaFoe spot-on. At the forefront, though, as ever with Pixar, were charm, humour and simple but uplifting emotions.’ - Oct 16, 2003.

Those were my impressions upon seeing Nemo at the cinema, a surprisingly long time ago. Please forgive the naivety of 'The girl from Ellen'!

It has endured as one of the best of Pixar’s films – pretty high praise – and won the Oscar for best animated film, beating out The Triplets of Belleville. It started a trend for buying tropical fish, which was a little tragic for animal lovers because far fewer people than wanted to look after clownfish were very capable of looking after clownfish.

But Finding Nemo is iconic. It’s a simple idea, but all of Pixar’s best tend to be just that. Talking fish are nothing new, but the way their world looks here, and the inspired choices of species that will now forever be associated with the personality quirks they have here, this will most likely forever be the definitive underwater animated film.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

太陽の王子 ホルスの大冒険/Taiyō no Ōji: Horusu no Daibōken/ Hols, Prince of the Sun

Forget Nausicaa. This is where Ghibli really begins. Takahata may not have the mass international appeal of Miyazaki, but he is at least as important to the Ghibli story. With this, his first movie as director, Takahata shows how pervasive his influence is on all the work that came after him, even if his films tend to be much less conventional now. Here, too, we see the union of Takahata, as director, and Miyazaki, as key animator and ‘Scene designer’, which according to information on the Internet really means ‘Creative Consultant’. This is Takahata doing the heroic boy’s adventure, with a young hero called Horusu (Hols/Horus) fighting against an evil demon, and it starts in a way that is pure Miyazaki-helmed Ghibli, with a boy battling wolves only to be interrupted by a huge stone golem. But Takahata tends to be more subtle than the man who now overshadows him, and the film evolves into a curious study of village life and an angst-riddled relationship.

Now, these are all things that are very familiar from anime, to the extent that they could be called generic clichés. Horusu himself is the bold, simple type that can be seen in Pazu and Ashitaka, not to mention the likes of Goku, Naruto and Luffy (if you add in a fair bit more clownishness). But it’s important to remember this film is from 1968 – and that it was a disaster, resulting from a huge struggle between director and studio.

So what are the major influences here? Osamu Tezuka, certainly – you can see how Ghibli’s house style has evolved from his via this movie, and some of the background characters look like they’re right out of Tezuwan Atomu – though others are more reminiscent of European comics like Asterix and The Smurfs. Disney is more clearly influential here than in later Ghibli productions, with talking animals (a cute sidekick and then two with an angel/devil-on-the-shoulder dynamic) and a tall, skinny, pretty goofy-looking villain who could have been from an early Disney film, as could the songs.

But what’s impressive is that the film really isn’t what I had expected. I expected tweeness, bad animation, poor plotting and a lack of emotional depth. And while all those issues were present, Horusu had so much more to redeem it. The middle section in the village is remarkable, and Takahata’s direction already feels like that of a European arthouse director, with the little intimate scenes, the concern with the everyday and even the random nudity, as well as a rather hallucinatory section. And while the idea of a major character having a dark side is by no means new, I’ve seen few movies aimed at younger kids that have such a tortured sympathetic character as Hiruda. Great stuff.

Other elements are mixed. The animation ranges from terrible shots of Horusu almost motionlessly sliding down a hill on his bottom to some wonderfully fluid fights and a sequence that follows a great image of the surf breaking with a superb one of the sun behind Horusu’s back. There are also two complex scenes that just aren’t animated, a series of stills, a coloured animatic storyboard, presumably because with Takahata many months over schedule and unlikely to make their money back, Toei pulled the plug before these difficult-to-animate scenes with large numbers of animals were made. Some plotting is too brisk – Horusu just gets told where to go and what to do by the people he runs into, so there’s no real sense of a coherent, driving plot, and more than once, a small child is disappointed and upset only for it never to be mentioned again and them to be as friendly as ever afterwards.

It certainly doesn’t have the epic scale of Mononoke or the intimately recognisable characters of Mimi-o Sumaseba, but for its time, its budget and its significance on the world of anime, as well as for just being plain fun to watch, I recommend it.

(originally written 19.2.07)

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within

I saw this film in the cinema on August 14, 2001, and here is what I wrote:-

I actually quite enjoyed Final Fantasy – The Spirits Within. Technically astounding, though only for the moment. Soon, it will look hopelessly outdated and mannequinesque. But it’s a bold step forward towards the ultimate in pointlessness – photorealistic animation.

However, this one was marred by a weak plot and stilted dialogue. It wasn’t bad, though. Some characters, like Dr. Sid, approached a realism that I wasn’t expecting. Some voice actors, like Steve Buscemi, were able to successfully escape their distinctive looks, if not personalities

Almost a decade later, it’s not a film I would watch again. The best of today’s games look almost as good as The Spirits Within during their in-game graphics, and cutscenes of higher quality are par for the course. The film not only failed to break even at the box office, but cost Square millions – and Square Pictures collapsed soon after. Square Enix since produced Final Fantasy: Advent Children, which in all honesty was what the first film should have been, tying in the Final Fantasy brand with one of the worlds from the games, instead of making up some obscure and totally unmemorable sci-fi world. Today, about the only thing that people seem to think of fondly when remembering The Spirits Within is a short clip on the extras DVD of the characters doing the dance from ‘Thriller’.

An interesting footnote to the history of Squeenix and CG movies, it was nonetheless a disappointment and dated quickly. These things would have been excusable with a stunning story, but sadly, it was a dull, soulless letdown.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011


Tekkonkinkreet is an interesting animated movie, something of a milestone in anime history, despite being far left of the mainstream. For one thing, it’s the first major anime film ever to be directed by a gaikokujin – American special effects artist and cell-shaded cgi pioneer Michael Arias. On the other hand, the film is very much in the house style of Studio 4°C, and was based on an existing manga, but the daring compositions of shots and the high-octane action sequences recall the (separate) sequences from The Animatrix that the director and the studio were responsible for. I think the American’s influence is most obvious in brutality of the fight scenes, the willing embrace of weird hallucinogenic sequences that recall Scarfe’s flowers in The Wall, and perhaps the need to cram in a bit too much, making the middle of the story sag really quite badly. But it’s 4°C who really leave their fingerprint on this film. One of my favourite anime of the last few years has been their Mahou Shoujotai: Arusu, and having seen that overlooked classic, I instantly recognised the distinctive style of their animation: Mahou Shoujoutai may have had prettier character designs, but it took similar risks, with impressive CG, fluid animation and quirky art that didn’t necessarily follow the conventions of anime anatomy or stay wholly consistent.

Tekkonkinkreet is the story of two street kids, Kuro and Shiro (Black and White) who rule their city. When yazuka and property developers invade their turf, it becomes clearer and clearer that despite their superhuman skills, the two of them need one another more than even they know. Kuro is the tough one, the fighter and the breadwinner, while Shiro is something of a village idiot, possibly autistic and certainly mentally undeveloped, but pure and good-hearted. It’s the situations the story forces these two into that really matters – which makes a lot of the peripheral stories seem somewhat extraneous, but the payoff is worth it.

The rather ugly characters contrasting with the beautiful cultural mishmash of the background art makes this unique and will keep it away from the mainstream, which expects its aesthetic a lot prettier, and while it could have done with a good 25 minutes trimmed off, and has some very predictable twists, it’s a moving and effective anime movie and well worth seeing, even if it won’t be for everyone.

(originally written 11.1.2008)

Monday, 17 January 2011

僕等がいた/ Bokura Ga Ita / We Were There

Be it because of cultural differences, the filter of Internet culture or because there are few casual female anime fans here, it's generally true that in the West, far more girls watch more shounen than shoujo, proportionally to their Japanese counterparts. Shounen is aimed at boys, shoujo at girls. Of course, plenty of girls watch shounen, and Shounen Jump are always being accused by Japanese detractors of purposefully including homosexual subtexts and lots of pretty boys in order to entice the sort of fangirls personified by Ogiue in Genshiken. But the shoujo market, of manga made by women for consumption by girls, is largely sidelined over here, and thus while a series like Bokura Ga Ita can be massive in Japan, it can be all but ignored on occidental shores.

And Bokura Ga Ita is true shoujo. Most shoujo series need something more than just romance to hook in the audience - the art-school dynamic and humour of Hachimitsu to Kuroova, or the rock music elements to Nana. In fact, the most direct romance stories I see tend to be aimed at young men, based on erogames and centred on male leads (like Kimi ga Nozomu Eien or Kanon, though there are some supernatural elements there). But Bokura Ga Ita is just a high-school romance story, and it's that simplicity, that purity, that makes it so good.

When she comes to her new school, sweet young Takahashi is just one of several girls with their eyes on Yano, the most popular boy in her year, and no-one is more surprised than she is when he almost indifferently agrees to go out with her. But Yano of course has a complicated past, and issues about his ex that need to be sorted out in his mind, and while Takahashi wavers, unsure whether or not the relationship can work, Yano's best friend Takeuchi begins to show an interest in Takahashi, too.

I know it's not in my assigned gender role to like slushy romance stories, but despite my dislike of Jane Austen books, I've never given much of a damn about gender roles - and I like Charlotte Bronte. Sometimes I don't want to watch anime about things blowing up, or girls showing their knickers, and want something level-headed, sweet and emotional. I began to watch Bokura Ga Ita because it looked quite similar to Hachimitsu to Kuroova, and while I am very fond of that series, I found myself liking this rather more. Where Hachikuro sometimes went over the top, and juggled several storylines which made you sometimes wish you were watching one of the others, BgI has some melodramatic elements but never pushes credibility, and always focuses on the love triangle between its three central characters, plus Yano's relationship with the sister of his deceased ex.

The series wins points for realism. Takahashi is amongst the most adorable anime characters ever created, but she isn't perfect. She is sometimes selfish, sometimes petulant, often a pushover, but that only makes her easier to identify with. Yano, meanwhile, is damaged goods in a very romantic way - handsome but with issues, being popular and confident but always hiding his true feelings. Takeuchi seems a far better match for Takahashi, but that's not how love works, after all, and we must question him for even entertaining thoughts of stealing his best friend's lover away. In 26 extremely slow-paced episodes, these adolescents explore their feelings, all experiencing happiness and heartbreak and a whole lot of uncertainty, until the open ending that only promises more to come - and there's plenty of manga to adapt, after all. All events are really minor - break-ups and make-ups, drama about graduation, competition between the boys – but it's the emotions that drive everything. Anyone can understand these three characters, and form their own opinions. Me, I adored Takahashi, identified with yet disliked Yano and rooted for and admired Takeuchi, though of course all of them behaved in ways that made me like them more and less over the course of the series. There may be a cultural gap between us and the Japanese, but as characters in a story, they are totally understandable, and nothing seems unfamiliar to me in the idea of going for dates to movies and zoos, going to take purikura sticker-photos, wanting to have sex but hesitating because of the moral questions raised. These kids seemed very real to me, and there are few better things I can say for characters.

The presentation of the series was strange. An interesting choice was made to cast dilettante voice actors in the leading roles. Takahashi was making her debut, and Yano had barely done anything except appear in the Prince of Tennis musicals. The result is excellent - a really understated, heartfelt performance that seems so unpolished that it somehow gains verisimilitude. It seems realer than smooth, well-enunciated voice-acting. The art style is odd, with nice, pretty but very simple character art, lots of soft-focus and light spots, but also a weird inclination to draw faces with only one eye to make an expression more enigmatic, and some very ugly facial profiles.

It mostly worked, and was presumably an adaptation of the manga's style, but a slightly nicer look would have suited the show, particularly since the animation must have been so low-budget, given how little happens.

I found myself really wanting to know what was going to happen to Takahashi, whether Yano could really prove himself, or whether Takeuchi would get a chance to prove himself a better match. I feared I was more like Yano than I wanted to be, and wondered what I would do were I him, were I Takeuchi, even were I Takahashi. It made me smile with the characters, worry when they were upset, and I soon stopped doubting them as characters and accepted them as people.

The best that proper shoujo has to offer. I doubt many people will give this slow, uneventful series the time it needs, but it's their loss, and I hope I get to find out what happens next to these adorable young teenagers in love.

(Originally written 18.3.07)

Sunday, 16 January 2011

すもももももも〜地上最強のヨメ〜/ Sumomo-mo Momomo ~The World’s Strongest Bride~

Anime like Sumomo-mo Momomo, adapted from a Shounen Gangan gag manga, have a definite place in the landscape of modern anime. They lack originality, are cheaply and poorly realised, their humour is largely recycled and they will never stimulate or uplift anyone, but they are cute, silly, brainless entertainment with very cute girls drawn to look markedly younger than they are implied to be. The fanservice is unlikely to really turn anyone on more than things like beach postcards or a Carry On film, so even if there are a few times that Sumomo-mo Momomo is little more than softcore pornography, it’s mostly silly, cheeky fluff that passes by pleasantly.

Its lack of substance is also why I wasn’t particularly bothered about actually finishing the series until now, a good three years after I first saw it. Inuzaka Koushi is a studious young man who works hard to become a lawyer and battle injustice with his mind. Unfortunately, he is the successor of a powerful house of martial artists, one of six eastern families engaged in a war with the six from the west. One day, a young girl from the western families comes to tell him she is to be his bride, ensuring peace between all the families. However, there are some amongst the twelve families who do not wish for this union to take place, but no assassin is a match for the fighting prowess of little pink-haired loli Momoko.

This flimsy set-up gives way to lots of fanservice. It’s a classic comedy set-up to have a girl that lots of anime otaku will fall for endlessly trying to give herself to a boy, only for him to show no interest. See Rizelmine et al. Added to the mix are another cute blonde loli, some meathead guys who are never lucky in love and one girl whose fighting style hinges on the embarrassment of losing more and more of her clothes. It’s dumb, lowbrow and very very silly, but that’s really the appeal of it. Disengage brain, smile guiltily at the cuteness of the lolis, and enjoy.

(originally written 23.11.09)

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Fantasia 2000

Another old review from the dawn of time, brought up to date! “Saw ‘Fantasia 2000’ at the iMax – it was excellent! absolutely brilliant. No John Cleese, which was a bugger, but the feature itself was outstanding.
“Beethoven’s 5th, Stravinsky’s ‘The Firebird’ (my fave!), The Sourceror’s apprentice, dancing Flamingoes, Noah’s ark with a cool Donald Duck sequence, amazing whales and toys, and clever Rhapsody in Blue animation! Excellent.
“One to commit to memory. Unforgettable. Loved it!”
– February 14, 2000.

That was what I wrote almost eleven years ago, spelling mistakes and all. This was the second time I had been to the IMAX, this time as a school trip with the music class – the John Cleese reference is because the first time, there had been an entertaining introductory film explicating the screen technology before the feature begun.

Fantasia 2000 essentially continues from 1940’s Fantasia, but bigger, smoother, slicker but rather less charming and ingenious – and with notably fewer racial caricatures that need to be censored in later releases. Again, musical segments by great composers like Elgar and Beethoven and Shostakovich are set to advanced animation, with some celebrities of dubious lasting power introducing them. There isn’t much to say about stories or characters, but as with music videos, there are some snatches of characterisation and interaction that can be quite touching. But primarily Fantasia 2000 overwhelms the senses with incredible sights. Not all of it is superb, but there are some moments where an image and a swell of the music – when ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ kicks in, for example – really are quite affecting, with an immediacy that really does come from the simplicity of matching images to words.

Fantasia films can’t really compare with narrative features, but they certainly have a lot of charm and visual clout.

耳をすませば /Mimi-o Sumaseba/If you Listen Carefully/Whisper of the Heart

Now, the first time I saw Mimi-o Sumaseba, it wasn’t in the best of circumstances. It’s never good to watch an achingly cute love story when you’re in the midst of an argument with your girlfriend (in fact, I think the argument stemmed from the broken promise of going to see the film together – or was that The Cat Returns?), and as such, while I remember enjoying the movie, I didn’t actually recall much about it before rewatching it yesterday. And I’m glad I did, because it’s now amongst my very favourite Ghibli films.

When the film was made in 1995, Miyazaki was considering giving up directing, and most people inside the studio expected his successor to be Kondo Yoshifumi. However, this was to be his only movie as helmsman before his tragic passing in 1998. Nonetheless, for a movie the world remembers you by, you could certainly do worse than Mimi.

Sorry, Hayao, but I have to say that the stories of Ghibli films tend to be strongest when based closely on that of a novel- or in this case, a Ribon manga, even if one heavily adapted by Miyazaki himself for the film's screenplay. While Sen to Chihiro, Mononoke and Kurenai no Buta are in my opinion the best films the esteemed sutajio has ever made, their greatest strengths are decidedly not their storylines. On the other hand, Hotaru no Haka and this film benefit enormously from having really simple yet strong, cohesive storylines to build upon. Shizuku is a normal girl with some talent for translating lyrics from English but no idea what she wants to do with her life. She meets a boy named Seiji, and while they quarrel at first, she begins to see more of him after discovering the fairy-tale antiques/knick-knack store his grandfather owns and they grow closer.

It’s a simple story, told at a slow pace, full of charming details. Time is spent on cuts that would never be seen in an average Hollywood movie, let alone animation – people waiting politely for others to pass, things getting dropped and picked up again, typical petty family squabbles. Thanks to this attention to detail, the character animation is probably the best I’ve ever seen, being so very real. Shizuku is getting out of bed, reaches for the bottom of the bunk above her, misses it and carries on unperturbed; she lets out a breath or holds back her tears; Seiji and a group of musicians play an impromptu session, and they actually look like they’re playing. It’s sublime. There’s magic in, say, Sen to Chihiro’s Yubaba literally blowing her top and surging towards the camera with her hair a mass of living, fiery tentacles, but there’s magic too in simply capturing the unconscious mannerisms of a young girl. And then there are the fantasy sequences involving the Baron – the parts that make this a project suited to animation rather than live action…and they are astonishingly beautiful.

Some minor story details seem far-fetched (Seiji’s trick with the library cards, for one) but mostly the coincidences work within the idiom, because it’s not as though coincidences cannot happen, and you feel most of the events in the story would have occurred anyway, even if not for the circumstances that brought them about here. As a story, it is sweet, simple and touching, a romance in the simplest sense – affecting rather than titillating, which I for one far prefer. Easily in my top five Ghibli movies, despite being one of their most conventional. It may not be an adventure, as such, but it’s a story anyone can recognise and understand. Beautiful.

And undoubtedly, Miyazaki’s little story tweaks worked a charm. Violin-crafting? Inspired detail.

(Originally written 10.10.06)

Friday, 14 January 2011

吸血鬼ハンターD / Kyūketsuki hantā D / Vampire Hunter D

The first of a new little series of my anime impressions, now: I will be taking my brief words on different animations from older diaries and updating them somewhat. The very oldest reference I’ve found, almost as soon as I begun to write a diary, is from May 31, 1999: ‘I got "Vampire Hunter D" – a Manga Film, for a fiver, and it’s okay! I quite like it!’

Simple as that – and by ‘Manga Film’, I of course mean a film from Manga Entertainment, a company name that caused some confusion in its heyday because it made people mix up manga (comics) and anime (animation). While not the first anime of my life – aside from the terrestrial broadcasts of Pokémon et al, by then I’d already been admiring Eva for a year or two – Vampire Hunter D was for me something a little different. A horror anime with blood, guts and even gratuitous nudity, it was very much a product of its time. It was already quite old by the time I saw it in 1999 – it came out in 1985 in Japan, and indeed, the far more mature and impressive sequel Bloodlust was to be released in 2000 (in Japan). Animated by Ashi Productions, before they fell to their current role of mostly doing in-betweening, it exemplifies 80s trends in anime, and indeed as one of the first films to be publicised as anime from Japan, helped establish some of them.

It is juvenile, silly and rather lowbrow. There’s lots of overblown blood and the nudity is totally unnecessary. But it’s targeted squarely at teenage boys, so really that isn’t such a surprise. Anime has thankfully grown up a lot since those days, albeit even now struggles to outgrow its reputation from back then. For all its childishness, though, for some moments here and there, Vampire Hunter D is stylish and brilliant. D himself sets a template for cool, mysterious and pretty-faced protagonists for years to come, most obviously influencing Castlevania and its Alucard character. His wise-cracking sapient hand is weird but genuinely funny. And Magnus Lee despite his posturing and simplistic motivations, manages to look very impressive and admirably formidable.

But too many bits of daft cheesy schlock tear down the overall experience. It’s easy to enjoy Vampire Hunter D as a silly curio, knowing that really it’s not very good, but anyone looking for a genuinely exemplary example of anime is likely to be disappointed, and Bloodlust would be a much better choice. Charming, occasionally great and in some cases very nicely-designed, it is nonetheless a prime example of why anime in the 80s was rather poor.

Thursday, 13 January 2011


It was purely because of aesthetics that I expected this to be the kind of film I really enjoyed. A grim post-apocalyptic cgi movie featuring a cast of little homunculi made from burlap sacks? Seemed great to me.

Which is why I ought not to be all that surprised that I was disappointed by poor plotting and weak characterisation. Save perhaps some sequences with human characters who try to leap the Uncanny Valley by being exaggerated caricatures, only looking incongruous and false, the film is stunning to look at. Machines and little creatures and especially landscapes largely destroyed by warfare and lit in gorgeous half-light look incredible.

But the story is just too thin, too functional, too grounded in boardroom approval. Our little sacking heroes are cute, but their characters are derived from stock and fit roles without ever actually becoming interesting, in spite of spirited performances by Elijah Wood and Christopher Plummer. The actual narrative is a mess of coincidence, unexplained robotic functions that really make no sense within the setting and horrible exposition- and motivation-spewing talking heads who just happen to know the right thing to do without it really being explained why. The final scenes are emotionally manipulative and the closing contrivances are there really so that we can excuse the fact that actually, 9 himself did absolutely nothing good, creating a problem for no reason and then solving it at huge cost to the others.

Really, 9 should have been taken to task far more for what he did, and the characters’ reactions to what happened because of him were never even close to appropriate, including 1’s sniping little reprimands.

A fascinating setting and intriguing premise, but ultimately let down by poor execution and lack of human emotion.

(originally written 29.10.09)

Les Triplettes de Belleville / The Triplets of Belleville / Belleville Rendez-vous

Les Triplettes de Belleville, somewhat confusingly retitled Belleville Rendezvous here in the UK after the song that opens the film, is a 2003 animated co-production between France, Belgium, Canada and the UK, but French-written, French-directed and overall very, very French indeed. One of the handful of arthouse animations to make an impact on the mainstream, along with the likes of Persepolis, it has become something of an animated classic.

The story is simple, if surreal. A young boy (who in his childhood looks incredibly like a caricature of Peep Show's David Mitchell) is raised by his grandmother to participate in the Tour de France. However, when his grandmother's vehicle for coaching him is sabotaged, he is one of the cyclists to fail a mountain stage, dismounting and getting into the van to be carried the rest of the way. However, this is not his grandmother's van, and he is whisked off to the mysterious Big Apple-like city of Belleville. Only his grandmother and three mysterious triplets can save him from enslavement and eventual death at the hands of the French mafia.

The film is, as I said, extremely French. The plot is very French. The way the film starts with a miserable life so surreal as to be hilarious is extremely French (the idyllic little home gets an elevated railway bridge built so close to it that it actually forces the building to lean out of its path). The character design is incredibly French, every character a newspaper caricature brought to life - each and every design is lovingly playful and grotesque, from the adorable little old lady to the funny little mafia busybody who seems to be at least half mouse. And that merciless and absurd ending is extremely French, too. There are even live-action clips of the Hulot films to show a direct influence.

And leave it to the French to make something ugly, absurd and at times disgusting (the Triplets for some reason seem to have a diet consisting entirely of frogs and tadpoles) and yet make it full of heart and affection. It may be hard to care for the wiry, sharp-nosed, silent grandson apparently named 'Champion'(there is too little dialogue for names to actually be established, other than that of Bruno the dog), but it would be very difficult not to care about determined little Mrs. Souza (the grandmother and protagonist), and one would have to be cold-hearted indeed to wish her to fail.

Because of the small, private scale of the story, the anti-epic flavour, I can't see many considering this their favourite film or best animation of all time - but equally, there can be very few who would not smile through it, and enjoy the quirkiness, the eccentricity, the sheer delight in the medium. And whatever you think of the art style, it cannot be denied that the animation on show here is amongst the most technically beautiful ever seen.

おとぎ銃士 赤ずきん/Otogi-Juushi Akazukin/Fairy Musketeer Red Riding Hood

Anime speaks in many voices – action-packed and brainless, mature and sophisticated, artsy and whacked-out, achingly romantic, hilarious…exactly like most modes of popular storytelling, in fact. But one area that anime has that you’ll be hard-pressed to find in, say, contemporary cinema, is the mixture of cutesy, action-packed and epic that characterises several popular anime, like Cardcaptor Sakura or DNAngel. The closest you’re likely to get is probably Disney animation, but anime is about cute kids, not cute lion cubs or cute cars, giving an element of moé that inspires a hardcore fanbase of 16-25-ish male otaku to buy, buy, buy. And its to this audience that Otogi Jushi Akazukin shamelessly caters. But while it starts as a paint-by-numbers set of clichés and recycled plotlines, its warmth, strong if archetypal characterisation and knowledge of how to make the cheesy genuinely moving vindicates it, making it more than just a marketing tool for ‘sweet phones’ and action figures – making it charming.

In Akazukin, there are two worlds – the world of science, or Erda, where we all live, and the world of magic, or Fandavale. A young boy named Souta, who used to be told stories of these two worlds by his mother before she mysteriously went missing, is drawn into a battle between the forces of good and evil in the world of magic. You see, he has a mysterious power inside of him, which soon acts as the driving MacGuffin. Yeah, like I said, clichéd.

Akazukin draws heavily from Western fairytales, putting a cool spin on familiar characters to fit them into the anime mould of little girls with super-powers. He is protected by three of Fandavale’s most powerful warriors: Akazukin, which means ‘Red Riding Hood’, an endlessly adorable spunky girl who sometimes thinks with her fists rather than her head, and has a wolf as a sidekick; Shirayuki-hime (Princess Snow White), a gifted mage with a somewhat inflated sense of self-importance; and Ibarahime, the narcoleptic briar princess, based on Sleeping Beauty (‘Briar Rose’ in the Grimm version). But there are more interesting sources, too – the musicians of Bremen are comic relief antagonists, while more obscure figures like Trude pose more serious threats. Rather than the familiar English translations, the Germanic and French sources of these tales are used for names, so Souta is helped by characters like Hameln (based on the Pied Piper of Hamelin) and is ultimately opposed by Cendrillon, whose name sounds far more impressive and sinister than it would have been had she been named Cinderella.

There’s very little new here, but the show succeeds in doing familiar things well. The central characters all have interesting and moving backstories, including Cendrillon. Randagio the comic relief cat is genuinely funny and the comradeship within Bremen towards the end is actually very affecting. The little quirks of characterisation, like Shirayuki and Ringo’s prickly rivalry, help them to be more likeable, and Souta is easy to sympathise with. Let’s face it, there’s little real reason that 99% of the population of Fandavale should look about 11 years old, but it makes them all absolutely adorable and Akazukin in particular, with her good heart and innocent spirit, is pure moé.

This show would not convert anyone who hates anime or is repulsed by cuteness, but it does what it sets out to do, presenting old ideas extremely well, like One Piece or Naruto at its best, like Trigun or Hellsing. One of my favourite shows of the past year.

(originally written 11.9.07)

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

バンブーブレード / Bamboo Blade

Sports anime tend to fall into three categories: slapstick manly comedy (Slam Dunk), moody and usually cheesy drama with homoerotic appeal for the girls (Prince of Tennis) or slice-of-life whimsy with lots of moé sweetness for male otaku. Bamboo Blade is in the latter category, and it does the concept the best I’ve ever seen it done.

Revolving around a kendo club and its quirky female members, it is reminiscent of other feelgood, small-scale stories about groups of girls like Azumanga Daioh and Manabi Straight. There are prominent male characters too, budding romances, powerful rivalries and a neat balance of very successful comedy with warm moments of friendship. Tama-chan, the central figure, is as moé as they get, spacey and innocent and childlike, but with a prodigious talent for kendo. It catered both for people with no knowledge of the game and those who have trained in it without alienating either, while good production values complimented the great acting, facilitating a very pleasant aesthetic and nice smooth animation. The characters are all loveable and the humour is some of the best I’ve seen in recent years.

The only thing I can fault about Bamboo Blade is the cheesy way it ended, with very artificial ideas of strong feelings allowing people to catch up on years of training, which simply isn’t the case in any sport, but then again, is rather a staple of anime. For all people moaned about the ending of Hikaru no Go, though, one has to respect that it was realistic and mature when it came to wins and losses. Bamboo Blade is, on the other hand, intentionally lighter and cuter.

If you want something heavy and sophisticated, or if you find moé frivolous and unnecessary, this may not be for you. But anyone who wants something nice and light and genuinely funny, I’d recommend Bamboo Blade highly.

(originally written 2.3.09)

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

天空の城ラピュタ / Tenkū no Shiro Lapyuta / Laputa: Castle in the Sky

In light of Film 4’s current ‘Ghibli Season’ (which should really have been called a ‘Miyazaki Season’, given that no other Ghibli directors are represented, and that two films predate Ghibli’s foundation), I thought that perhaps it was time to dust down my old CDs and slightly less old DVDs of the great studio’s productions and give them a proper evaluation. First, then, to Laputa.

A favourite of many Ghibli enthusiasts, Laputa’s main appeal is its charm, but for me at least, therein also lies its greatest flaws.

An airship is attacked by pirates, targeting a young girl named Sheeta, who wears a mysterious and precious stone around her neck. In trying to escape, she falls from the ship, but instead of getting splattered across the mining town below, she is enveloped in soft lambency, a light emitted from the stone at her neck, and so floats down to earth slowly as a feather. She lands in the arms of a young boy called Pazu, and so their adventure begins: not only are the pirates still after the girl, but so are the army, for Sheeta's stone may just be the key to finding the lost floating city of Laputa.

The staff of Ghibli were clearly still perfecting their craft when Laputa was made. The framing of shots and the cutting is for the most part very conventional. The animation is varied, ranging from superb shots of flight over the countryside and the collapse of huge pieces of architecture to decidedly awkward running animations and repeating backgrounds. Joe Hisaishi’s music, so magnificent in later films, especially Mononoke, is anaemic and sometimes inappropriate. Admittedly, I was watching a badly-compressed digitised version of an old VHS fansub, so quality was poor, but it didn’t stop me seeing the art was also of mixed quality. The voice acting has an improvised quality I like, giving a natural and familiar feel to proceedings, but Pazu (voiced, amusingly, by the woman now best known for her inspired, inimitable performance as Monkey D. Luffy in One Piece) grated slightly with too many over-exaggerated noises meant to imitate exertion, and the bad guy became so cheesy at the end that it was all a little bit painful.

But the thing that makes Laputa a success is that it has charm by the bucketload. Julie Andrews’ conversation over tea and crumpets in a gazebo in an English country garden couldn’t be more charming. Pazu is plucky and extremely loyal, Sheeta is the very personification of sweetness (yet can stand up for herself when she needs to), hearts of gold are found in unexpected places, the mining community is populated by kind souls who only want to help the vulnerable and love a good scrap with ne’er-do-wells, fathers’ dreams can be reached, magical sights really exist, million-to-one chances always resolve in the favour of our heroes and good triumphs over evil with a minimum of fuss. It all makes you smile, uplifts your spirits, and that’s what makes the film genuinely enjoyable.

But it’s also what prevents it from ever being special. The very warmth of spirit that makes Miyazaki such a great writer makes this film movie feel like a low-quality Saturday morning TV cartoon. The story is as flimsy and formulaic as they come – baddies want the McGuffin, our heroes are put in peril as a result, girl gets captured so boy goes to rescue her, the McGuffin magically leads to the climax, and everything turns out right in the end. The characters never feel very fleshed out. Yes, I like cuteness. Sheeta is adorable, but never really does much. Pazu is also sweet (bafflingly, I was once told I looked like him, despite being in university at the time and he being about 12. I was actually quite flattered...) in a typical young-boy-hero way, but the way he can just call up superhuman agility and the great power of coincidence at will really saps any tension from scenes with him. As I mentioned before, the bad guy is just way too nutty to be taken seriously. The only characters who aren’t so flat that they irritate are the two seniors of the pirate family.

That’s not to say perfectly good movies cannot be made with very obvious and uninspired elements. They can, and this is one of them. It’s just that beside the truly memorable classics Ghibli have produced, a movie that is simply good just isn’t enough.

(Originally written 6.8.06. Note that Hisaishi since recorded a new and far superior score for the film, although apparently it has now been cut again from 2010 DVD releases. I have of course seen the film in better quality since this, and while I'm probably a little fonder of it in hindsight, and want to stress how beautiful the scenes with the robot soldier peacefully gardening are, it remains one of my least favourite Ghibli works)

Monday, 10 January 2011

ヘタリア/ Hetalia

When did I first hear about Hetalia? Hrmm, a few months before the anime. I enjoyed a web-manga called Afughanisu-tan, and after it was all translated people online compared it to Hetalia. A few girls I know started talking about it, saying it was adorable, and then all of a sudden it was an anime, it was dubbed…it was huge.

Hetalia personifies the countries of the world, almost all of them as pretty or cute boys. A few countries are girls, but…well, none feature very prominently. The first season concentrates on the Second World War and the relationship between the Axis powers, while the second is more general, mostly twentieth century but with a bit of variety.

Its success is astronomical. Teenage girls in particular latched onto the characters and the numerous homoerotic hints and begun to draw, write and enact all sorts of perverted things. There can be few anime fans now who have not heard of Hetalia, and as with many popular things, it now attracts a lot of hatred. Much of this is directed only at the fans, who tend to be loud and obnoxious, and do things like have pictures taken doing Nazi salutes on Passover, or disrupt veterans' parades and drag flags around indifferent to whether they go on the floor or not.

This doesn’t bother me, but a lot does. I mostly get frustrated at how it just doesn’t seem like the writer really understands any of the history he is writing about (and yes, the mangaka is male). I accept that Hetalia is supposed to be about stereotypes, and how a Japanese person (presumably also influenced by life in America, where he spent three years) sees other nationalities - often very differently from how we do in England - but too much just doesn’t make sense. How is carefree, stupid Italy compatible with the Fascists and Mussolini? (There are occasional references to orders from ‘bosses’ but I’m talking about national characteristics.) Why is only Italy (and right at the end Germany) split into two separate parts, when other countries have at least that much difference between their different regions? Does he know about Finland and Russia’s war? Does he know about Italy’s campaigns in Africa, a continent almost entirely ignored here? The invasion of Libya and slaughter of the Bedouins? Does he think that the Holy Roman Empire was around at a time that it could interact with anything resembling modern Italy? Does he think that ‘Splendid Isolation’ meant the UK was politically alone…during the British Empire when it ruled half the globe (as opposed to isolated from the great powers of Europe)? Does he really think that Japan’s arguments in favour of whaling are eloquent and persuasive (even put in the mouth of a cat)? There were just too many little irritating mistakes or misinterpretations: I’d probably have liked Hetalia if it just stuck to stereotypes interacting and funny little nuggets of information, but superfluous and inaccurate bases for plot points just irritated me too much.

The only part that worked really well was Sealand. Not just because he was adorable, but because Sealand is just so simple and easy to understand, as well as fundamentally funny, so he couldn’t really get things wrong.

Otherwise, well, episodes were only five minutes long, and most of the humour was just character-based – if repetitive – so there was no great horror to watching it. But too much irritated me to recommend Hetalia.

I bet the feature-length film will be terrible, too.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

ブレイブ・ストーリー/ Brave Story

It may not be the most well-known anime, but Brave Story has made ripples: a decent-sized Western DVD release, video games based on the same source novel and there’s even talk of a theatrical release here in the UK. I don’t actually remember when or why I got hold of it, but I’m glad I did, because it has instantly earned a place amongst my favourite anime movies.

This is partly because it’s so ‘classic’ – there’s little original thought here, and it can be called clichéd and derivative, but that only makes it more of a pleasure to watch.

It’s cut from the same cloth as Kingdom Hearts – a young, goofy and good-hearted boy is taken from his world to another, where he meets various loveable creatures and learns to fight against unpleasant monsters with the magical weapon bestowed upon him. However, the cool, slightly older boy he admires in a more or less overtly homoerotic way has the same goal as him, and will resort to more extreme methods to get there, which will inevitably bring the two friends head-to-head sooner or later. The seme/uke relationship of Sora/Riku, Hikaru/Touya et al is repeated almost precisely here, the naive one looking up to the knowing but standoffish one until the pure heart of the dumber one ends up forcing the angstier one to acknowledge his own flaws. As usual, there is a token female love interest for the main character, in this case a catgirl, but let’s just say that at the end there aren’t any tears shed for separation with her and it’s not her who appears in the final scene of the movie.

As I said, the plot is classic – our hero Wataru is having a hard time at home. His father is walking out and his mother is taken ill. Seeking to escape, he follows Mitsuru, the new boy he is infatuated with, through a magical doorway to another world, where he is given the RPG class of a hero and is told that if he fills his sword with magic stones, one wish will be granted. Looking to repair his broken home, he sets off on an adventure, his good heart and loud mouth getting him into scrapes, his sword and his friends getting him back out of them, until he finds Mitsuru and realises just how far his friend will go to get his wish. Ultimately, Wataru comes to understand the cost of getting his own desires, and that he will have to balance his own desires with the needs of many others.

This standard fare is made fun by great characters, that adorable homoerotic subtext that female Japanese writers do so well, some fantastic imagery and smooth animation with the usual CG touches Gonzo have incorporated into their work since Last Exile, energetic voice acting and of course, the naivety that doesn’t care whether old ideas are rehashed or goofy, cutesy ideas get a stage, and also likes to pluck hard at your heartstrings. Cheesy, yes. Simple, mostly. Unoriginal, certainly. But who cares when there’s so much to make you smile?

(originally written 26.8.08)

ノエイン もうひとりの君へ / Noein: Towards the Other You

The mangling of science for a good story is no great crime. Something like Jurassic Park is just feasible enough for you to nod and get on with the story. If I’m watching comedy, it really doesn’t bother me when parallel universes, temporal paradoxes and time travel are used to make an entertaining story – Back to the Future, Bill and Ted, Red Dwarf, Day of the Tentacle, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books…they all deal with similar ground to Noein. But the trouble is that Noein sets itself up so seriously, tries to make itself look so clever, that its basis in Quantum Theory really irked me.

Noein tells the story of when soldiers from a possible future invade our time to retrieve the great MacGuffin, in this case the Dragon Torque (I don’t know if the physics pun is intentional, but it IS a necklace), which is embodied in a normal young girl named Haruka.

Perhaps fifty years ago, the incompatibility of quantum with a probabilistic, uncertain, chaotic macroscopic universe being solved by the idea of infinite possible worlds was new and exciting, but by now it’s a total sci-fi cliché. And Noein really makes things worse by oversimplifying, picking and choosing buzzwords from the Many-Worlds AND Copenhagen Interpretations, and showing a fundamental misunderstanding of most of the concepts it drew upon - from seeming to think that Schrödinger’s Cat would start disappearing in its box until its being acknowledged by an observer made it solid again to falling into the usual (perhaps inevitable) pitfalls of storytellers working within infinite spacetimes. These would be placing too much emphasis on a central, coherent timeframe (as if it wouldn’t diverge infinitely over the course of the series), thinking that a person can be unique in spacetime for more than a frozen moment (infinite divergences happen at infinite moments, so our central character’s powers cannot be unique to one version of her) and thinking a threat to time, space and causality can appear and become a slowly-unfolding threat, constraining to time what is supposed to be disrupting it.

I know that I’m watching anime to be entertained, not for Quantum Theory to be faithfully represented, but when I see gadgets mapping an infinity of infinities or random mysterious old men who can push the story forward when the writers can’t think of any consequential manner to make it happen, I have to fight the urge to get madder than Ming the Merciless. What the writers really wanted was a classic comic book parallel universes story, but had to try and be all smug and knowing with scientific theories, and it just detracted from what was otherwise a great story.

Because, yes, Noein was an excellent series, absolutely outstanding in many aspects. It had a quirky style of art and animation that reminded me of Mahou Shoujotai: Arusu and character designs with a similar retro feel to Fantastic Children, two series I very much enjoyed. Animation was some of the most remarkable I’ve ever seen in a TV anime, with incredibly strange CG weapon-creatures and smooth body animations, especially on the kids, that were absolutely superlative. The fight scenes deserve mention, too, for taking such risks – the art would simplify and the camera would pan and swoop around the fighters with such dynamism that it makes most other anime fights look extremely lazy. Occasionally it goes too far, and the art is too noticeably simplified, at one point just looking like a couple of shaking storyboard images, but usually these sequences are incredible, and unlike anything else.

The design of some of the characters didn’t work for me, though. Atori, with his crescent moon of hair on his Wicked Witch face, looked too much like a hastily-conceived caricature and had a 2-D personality to match until he lost his memories and became zomboid. The best-friend character, Fujiwara, suffers in early episodes because he’s the comic relief, but his big chattering square teeth and funny face often look TOO daft; while he develops well later, his catchphrase (‘Ariane!’ – impossible) just about worked as a catchphrase in ultra-cute Pretty Cure, but not here. And then there’s the capitalist pig minor bad-guy, who just looks like he was lifted from a primary school doodle pad.

The positives far outweigh the negatives, though. Rousing choral music and some deliciously crackling electrical sound effects seduce the ears while Haruka’s cute round pacman eyes (and voice – Hagu from Hachikuro), Tobi’s ethereal prettiness and Karasu’s undeniable coolness (assisted by a great performance (or two!) from Nakai Kazuya, Zoro from One Piece), keep the eyes sated even between the incredible fight scenes. The characters are likeable and some soap opera scenes of puppy love really bring you closer to the characters. Far from a perfect anime, but one that indeed does overcome its flaws to be entertaining, impressive and yes, perhaps a little groundbreaking too.

(Originally written 9.1.07)

Friday, 7 January 2011

The Lion King (1994)

The Lion King deserves a review from me. Disney’s influence on the world of animation has been singularly immense, for better or for worse, and while not every one of their films is a classic, The Lion King is quite possibly their masterwork, by far my favourite of the studio’s works, and probably my favourite animated movie of all time.

Few people are likely to need a synopsis, but in brief: the lion king Mufasa rules over his pride with dignity and wisdom. A son and heir is born, the adorable cub Simba, and he grows up mischievous and headstrong with his friend (also his ‘affianced’, by arrangement) Nala. However, second in line is the king’s brother Scar, who arranges a clever coup: he has his hyena accomplices start a stampede in a gorge, trapping Simba there. Mufasa comes to his rescue, and Scar makes sure he ends up dead. He sets the hyena on Simba too, but the cub escapes, meeting the carefree duo Timon and Pumbaa and growing up in an idyllic jungle. However, the Pride Lands have fallen into ruin, mismanaged by Scar. Searching for food, Nala meets Simba and recognises him – and hearing about his home, Simba is also reminded of his responsibilities, and eventually he is convinced to go back and confront his uncle.

Much has been made of the similarities to Hamlet, right down to comparing Timon and Pumbaa to Rozencrantz and Guildenstern, but the story is unique enough to seem more homage than rip-off – not that, of course, Shakespeare is to be credited with much in the way of original storytelling. And this is not even mentioning Tezuka’s Kimba. Still, the twist of having the traditional story set in the animal kingdom of Africa works so well, and makes for some of the most beautiful animation and scenery ever drawn. Mufasa’s circle of life speech, with the camera panning around father and son, is amongst the best shots I have ever seen rendered in animation of any sort, done with consummate skill by an animation studio at the height of its powers just a few films before an undignified fall from grace.

I first saw The Lion King in the cinema as a primary school trip. A friend then passed on a pirated VHS until we could buy the legitimate copy. Since then I’ve got the DVD (dust forming what looks very much like the word ‘sex’ excised), seen it in the IMAX and gone to the musical adaptation numerous times. At one point I could very probably have transcribed the entire film from memory. There is very little I do not love – the cast is superb, especially Jeremy Irons, James Earl Jones, Nathan Lane, Rowan Atkinson, Matthew Broderick, Whoopie Goldberg and Cheech Marin. The songs are the best in any Disney film since The Jungle Book, from stirring epics to comedy numbers, and Hans Zimmer’s haunting score adds so much, with incredibly strong themes and stirring Swahili choruses from Lebo M.

There are a few minor problems if you overthink the story. Who is Nala’s father? Shouldn’t a pride have just one male? Do these lions kill prey begging them for mercy? Can an ecosystem really get devastated and recover that quickly? Do we really need a ghostly vision, for all the Shakespearean precedent? And sure, you have your noblest characters played by black men, but superb as the performances are, why are those lowly hyenas all so…ethnic? Why is Scar so much darker of hue than Mufasa? But these are such tiny matters, on a par with the little animation errors I can’t help but notice after seeing the film so, so many times. They don’t matter at all. Because as with Aladdin, TLK was Disney in such a strong position that they could take risks. The film contains stark death scenes, scary visuals and doesn’t even introduce its two main comedic characters until halfway through. There is a certain formula to the plot, but it is far from by-the-numbers and staid. ‘Nothing new’ is not a criticism that can be levelled here.

The Lion King does everything right – and what’s more, it does it all beautifully. Truly superb animation.

(The Lion King 2 here; The Lion King 1 1/2 here; The Lion King 3D, with trivia and observations, here)

黒執事/Black Butler / Kuroshitsuji (first season)

(Season 2 impressions here:
OVAS here: )

It’s taken me some time to get around to finishing Kuroshitsuji, which I started watching over a year ago. I suppose to some extent I lost interest, especially when the anime diverged from the manga, and instead of going to the interesting, dark places the original went in the circus arc, embarked on its own climactic section opposing the demon with an angel.

Kuroshitsuji is the story of a little boy with the unlikely name of Ciel Phantomhive, a young earl in Victorian Britain, although mangaka Yana Toboso apparently never found out an earl needs another name to go with the title. Poor Ciel has had an incredibly sad life, losing his parents and very nearly losing his own life as a human sacrifice. He was saved only by a Faustian pact with a powerful demon, who takes the form of a butler. With this immense power under his control, Ceil becomes a great aid to the Queen, solving lazily-plotted supernatural crimes, tangling with some flamboyant death-gods and introducing finger-food to the Great Exhibition, all with the aid of his inept but super-powered staff members.

I am perhaps describing it unfairly, because while it has healthy doses of silliness, it is an anime that presents itself with a pleasing lack of irony, and aims for elegance and some degree of emotional depth. The heart of its appeal is the homoerotic, pederastic relationship between the 12-year-old boy and his pretty-faced adult demon, and some scenes, such as when Ciel is disguising himself as a girl and needs Sebastian to put a corset on him, are open references to the homosexual implications of the scenario, even if they are jokes. The rather pretty coupling has attracted a huge female fanbase, who like that sort of thing. Personally, perhaps to the surprise of some, I didn’t really find Ciel cute or Sebastian interesting, and thought Finnie was much sweeter. Possibly it’s just an aversion to the tsundere character mould.

That said, the character designs are very nice, with special emphasis placed on the attire, kodona rather than authentically Victorian, and the animation from new studio A-1 Pictures (put together by Sony to be, presumably, a more complete, standalone anime studio than Aniplex, A-1 are working on adaptations of games like Persona and Valkyria Chronicles, but are also one of the studios behind the disappointing Fairy Tail anime) is unspectacular but neat and pretty to look at.

The danger is taking Kuroshitsuji too seriously, for while the manga has managed to take itself to more mature places, the anime is still about demons fighting with silverwear, naked werewolf-men, effete shinigami with stationary chainsaws or paper scissors and elite assassins working in the kitchens and sculleries. There is tragedy at the heart, but Kuroshitsuji is primarily daft and proud of it, and that’s why it was almost always fun to watch. And while the ending went off on a strange tangent about Queen Victoria and ended with a very unimpressive power-up moment, it also impressed in several ways: I rather liked the way lots of clichés about London were used, but transplanted: there was a Great Fire, but with a shot of the Monument to make sure the viewer knew this was no anachronism. There was a London bridge, falling down, but it was Tower Bridge, under construction. And then the very ending…well, with its charged eroticism, sado-masochism and finality, it was something I certainly didn’t expect to see – and it’ll be interesting to see how the second season deals with it.

One minor quibble at the end, though – I really hated the way Shinsen-Subs (and a lot of others following them) decided to translate the show’s catchphrase, ‘あくまで執事です’, ‘akumade shitsuji desu’, which means something like ‘(I am) a butler through and through’ or ‘(I am) a butler to the core’, but also serves as a pun: ‘悪魔で執事です’, or ‘(I am) a demon and a butler’. Seeking to preserve the pun, Shinsen decided to translate it as ‘I am a hell of a butler’, which everyone seemed to love. I thought it was terrible. It’s just horribly anachronistic (especially from a British-biased group like Shinsen) and gives a false impression of confidence rather than humility. I’m sure some suitably infernal reference could have been devised, like ‘I am a butler from very deep down’ or similar. But that is just a translation issue, and nothing to do with the actual series.

I will watch the second season, and continue to read the manga, too. As Kuroshitsujii’s popularity swells, so does antagonism towards it, and it weathers a lot of abuse for being aimed squarely at ‘yaoi fangirls’. But I’ve never abandoned something I like for its reputation, and if it does aim vulgarly for that market, so what? It’s not like it aspires to be great art, and it’s funny!

(Originally written 3.4.10)

Thursday, 6 January 2011

火垂るの墓/Hotaru no Haka/Grave of the Fireflies

This film is beyond a doubt Takahata Isao’s masterpiece (although I may personally prefer Cero-hiki no Gauche), and amongst Studio Ghibli’s best films. Arguably it is their best.

The movie was released on a double bill with Totoro (at the time, Totoro was considered too hard to market to release on its own!), although the sole resemblances between the two films lie in character style, attention to detail and nostalgic childhood settings. They represent the opposite ways of approaching storytelling concerning childhood: the winsome idealism of a fantasy world or the brutal indifference of a cruel reality. In Hotaru no Haka, a teenaged Japanese boy and his tiny sister struggle to survive when the Second World War leaves them all alone in the world. Few films are more affecting; Hotaru no Haka is commonly spoken of (after the example of Roger Ebert) as one of the best war films ever made, regardless of being animated.

Indeed, the film would have worked well in live action – there has recently been such a version made that I’ll watch sometime in the coming weeks. Certain elements will have to be dealt with very carefully to be as effective as they were in animated form, such as the lights of fireflies cast over the children’s faces or the silent watching figure who reappears several times bathed in red light, whose presence is made more acceptable by the coherence of the art than it might be in live action. Besides, the character designs, beautiful period backdrops and the attention to detail in animation on which Studio Ghibli can pride itself make it an animated project of extremely high standing.

A simple but heartbreaking little story, Hotaru no Haka succeeds by allowing its characters some degree of happiness even in their destitution, moments that really make you smile before the seriousness of the situation is once again brought to the fore. The story develops at just the right pace to never be boring, despite the scarcity of actual events and the extremely melancholy atmosphere. Moving, beautiful, unforgettable and haunting, it is a purposefully small-scale and personal tragedy, and all the more powerful for it. I can find little to fault. The only kind of person I can envision not considering this a great, indeed a classic movie is the kind of person who only wants to be evanescently diverted and a little amused by their entertainment, never upset or made to think. If this is not you, I urge you to see this film, no matter whether or not you’re interested in animation. Unforgettable.

(originally written 17.10.06)

Additional: first impressions from July 3, 2004.

Grave of the Fireflies is an astonishingly powerful movie, a tragedy that exists simultaneously on the smallest and largest conceivable scales. I agree with Ebert when he declares it one of the best war films ever made – and yet despite being the catalyst for the events of the story, the war is almost incidental.

The characters are always children, always so real…and their flaws are understandable but paramount…it is Seita’s childish stubbornness and pride as much as tragic circumstance that brings about the final tragedy. Deeply sad, truly magical film–making with a fine voice acting cast. To have a five-year-old give that performance is nothing short of breathtaking, and the life given to the characters by the animators is inspirational. Seita is beautiful in his humanity, Setsuko so pure, showing the link between sweet behaviour and weakness.

One of the best films I’ve ever seen – and probably the saddest.