Monday, 28 February 2011

R.O.D. the TV

I’m sure I mentioned before that Read or Die (the OVA) was the first thing I ever saw with the Cambridge anime club – and it was a riot! A ridiculous premise, a big-boobed character with power over paper, daft Engrish names…and a whole variety of stupid action sequences. But R.O.D. the TV turned out to be far better – less laughable and considerably cooler. It was a spinoff, essentially, but the characters, style, pacing and basic ideas seemed to be a step up from its predecessor.

The series was such a success because it took something so bad it was good and turned it into something so GOOD it’s good. At least until they have to get back to the main plot, when it all gets silly again – but the first half of the series is fantastic…because it focuses on the characters, and in particular Anita King – the pink-haired, strong-willed, utterly adorable girl with a harsh past. It’s not her fighting skills or her past that really matter, though – it’s seeing her going to school, making friends, then finally having to say goodbye to them that’s really important. It’s the soap opera of the action show that make it special – and other characters, especially Maggie and Junior (who for some reason have almost identical personalities), just make the whole thing work, despite the daft story they have to keep going back to: while this means amusing glorification (and disgrace) of a mythologised British Empire, it also means a lot of nonsense about the mind of one ‘Mr. Gentleman’ and a war between China and Britain’s secret services. And really, ‘Ziggy Stardust’?

The show is at its best when the lives of its characters are in focus, and Junior and Anita make such an adorable pair. It’s so rich with ideas. But…when the shounen parts take up too much time, I end up longing for the shoujo elements.

For a story about characters who have magical paper-related powers, based on one of the most absurd animations I’ve ever seen, R.O.D. the TV managed to be one of the best shows of its decade. And the music wasn’t half bad either.

(Collated from impressions on 6.12.03, 16.12.03 and 12.8.05)

Sunday, 27 February 2011

L’illusionniste / The Illusionist

Not to be confused with The Illusionist, the 2006 film with Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti, itself easy to confuse with 2005’s The Prestige. All centre on stage magicians and prestidigitation, but L’illusionniste is very different, no thriller or murder mystery, but a small-scale drama from the director of Les Triplettes de Belleville, Stephen Chomet.

The story of the script is quite interesting, written by renowned mime Jacques Tati in 1956 but never produced. The animated illusionist is clearly a depiction of Tati himself, with a section in a cinema added to the film just to drive this point home, so this is something like a new Tati film. It’s also worth knowing that the dynamic of the characters is intended to mirror the fondness of father for daughter, because without knowing this beforehand, it is very hard not to see the film in a very different way – and besides, the matter is complicated by the fact that the daughter in question was abandoned by Tati as an infant…although even the matter of which of two estranged daughters the script was inspired by is in dispute. Indeed, central to the problem of this film is that it often doesn’t make its concepts clear enough.

Les Triplettes de Belleville was of course in many ways a tribute to Tati and his Hulot character, but L’illusionniste is altogether more melancholy and realistic than Chomet’s previous film. With stage magicians losing the attention of their audiences, the central character decides to leave France for England (it was Czechoslovakia in the Tati script). Having no luck in London, he goes to perform in Scotland, and there makes friends with an impressionable young woman who marvels at his talents. He buys her a train fare to Edinburgh, then pays for her board and lodging, and lavishes gifts upon her, struggling hard and working several jobs for the money. She, meanwhile, does nothing but keep house and do some cooking, not only for him but other down-and-out performers in the lodging house.

In the end, she finds a dashing man and the illusionist leaves her behind to find a new way to live, all but penniless and alone. If you see the story from his point of view, it’s a bittersweet tale of self-sacrifice and affection. But focus on her and her motives…and you start to wonder. If you accept that she genuinely thinks the Illusionist can work magic and has unlimited resources, then she’s at first a bit thick and by the end a total moron. Even without common sense her experiences should have made things clear, and they clearly aren’t living lives of luxury. If you think she’s figured it out, she’s a leech and a scrounger. Either way, there’s no reason why she shouldn’t get a job, why she shouldn’t realise that finding a new man in her life could upset her illusionist friend.

Some parts of the film are very funny, especially when the illusionist thinks his rabbit has been cooked. One shot at the end, when light moves as the pages of a book are blown in the wind, is stunningly beautiful. Edinburgh looks incredible, and its realisation was testament to the local artists used for the film. But there is so much more this film should have been, but wasn’t. I would be surprised – indeed, disappointed – if the film won the Oscar, even if it is more sophisticated and artistic than Toy Story 3 or How to Train Your Dragon. For sophistication and artistry are not all that go into a good film.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

雲のように風のように/Kumo no you ni, Kaze no you ni/ Like the Clouds, Like the Wind

Often mistaken for a Ghibli movie thanks to its character designs and charm, KumoKaze was in fact produced for TV by Studio Pierrot (who make the animated versions of many shounen classics, like Naruto and Hikaru no Go), and for a TV movie from 1990, it’s very kind on the eyes. The premise – a girl strives to become the Emperor’s head wife in 17th-century China amidst the turmoil of civil war – makes it seem the movie will be an epic, but in fact it is a rather gentle little gem, light and silly and fun.

True, the movie tries to do a little too much at once. It starts out very comic, endearing the childish and vulgar Ginga to us, plus introducing various memorable minor roles, from the mad old woman who guides girls into the palace to the ice-cool girl who just lies on her bed and smokes, but then towards the end brings in some rather overblown drama that doesn’t really sit well with the tone of the rest of the film. Also unconvincing is the sheer coincidence of the antagonists being people Ginga met on her travels. Suddenly what have been rather daft fight scenes are abruptly meant to be taken seriously, and we’re supposed to swallow that Ginga has become rather more adult and assertive without really seeing much in the way of character development. Still, with a cheery grin from the young Kiki-lookalike and a bit more of that fantastical but absorbing period detail, we can forgive these little issues.

Kumokaze isn’t particularly clever, nor especially gripping. Its vast palaces and gorgeous costumes look nice, though some jarring watercolour imitations, repeating backgrounds and economised fighting animations keep the standard definitely below contemporaneous Ghibli (though once again, this was a TV anime). In all, it was like its protagonist a loveable upstart, an underdog that wins affection by brazenness, daring and good humour. I can’t say that I really loved it, but I certainly enjoyed its simple charms and was left feeling very much like I felt after I had watched Majo no Takkyubin – warm and, yes indeed, slightly fuzzy.

(originally written 7.5.07)

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

クレイモア / Claymore

I wasn’t sure about Claymore when it first began. It was a premise that was, speaking euphemistically, very familiar. In a world overrun by powerful monsters, warriors who are half-human, half-monster fight to protect mankind while at the same time never being accepted by them. It’s a thousand pulp vampire novels, countless sci-fi penny dreadfuls. But as ever with such concepts, there’s always the possibility of doing them extremely well.

Claymore’s monsters are yoma, typical goofy-looking creatures, usually with spindly arachnoid limbs and gnashing fangs, easily the worst part of the show’s aesthetic. The force aligned against them is that of the claymores, an organisation of pale, light-haired women with silver eyes and heavy armour who fight with – you guessed it – big ole claymore swords. When we are introduced to them, it seems they are all cold, emotionally aloof, distant, taciturn – although later in the series ones with more varied personalities appear.

Our story follows a young boy called Laki whose family is slaughtered by the yoma, who are in turn exterminated by a Claymore by the name of Clare. She barely eats, hardly sleeps, possesses superhuman strength and endurance and shuns Laki, but he follows her doggedly until finally her icy exterior begins to soften and she grows to need Laki and his humanity in order to combat her dark, monstrous side.

It is when we are shown Clare’s back-story, abruptly and unexpectedly, that Claymore really takes off. Clare is less like her fellow warriors than she is like Laki, and has an interesting story of her own, one that culminates in a driving desire for revenge. However, we soon learn that while her skills are formidable, Clare is nowhere near at the level she needs to be to succeed, and her rebellious ways lead her organisation to put her in more and more dangerous situations. It is seeing her grow, as well as grow more human, that makes her interesting.

Unfortunately, despite the early promise shown by the series, it is ultimately either unfinished, or deeply unsatisfying. Being based on a manga that is not yet concluded and moves at a slow pace, it became necessary for the anime team to make up an ending – though all they managed to do was destroy any chance of a second season continuing to follow the manga, while showing an ending that resolves nothing and leaves stories untold. Laki, after being our human connection with the storyline, becomes first peripheral and then utterly useless; no great victory is won; the story ends on a note that is less ‘to be continued’ than ‘end of exposition.’

Claymore has a lot of promise. The animation and art is excellent, with a deliciously grim aesthetic, good-looking characters and some great costumes. The trouble is that it’s not even close to having finished yet. I hope for a second season, but in the meantime, I’ll just have to check out the manga if I want any sense of closure.

Monday, 21 February 2011

学園アリス/ Gakuen Arisu / Gakuen Alice

It’s often much easier to know whether a manga, or an anime based on a manga, is written by a man or a woman than it is to describe why, even when they’re generally action-oriented. It’s difficult to say that female mangakas tend to make ardent friendships central to their story and resolve tension with melodramatic speeches while men tend to focus on striving for a goal and solving problems with fights when you have, for example, Naruto and Sasuke’s deep friendship in a very male comic indeed (though it’s true that Naruto makes more concessions to its female fanbase than most shounen manga) on one hand and the dramatic fights of Rozen Maiden on the other.

But sometimes you get shows on very familiar turf that are a little bit different because of gender differences. Gakuen Alice is about a little girl who follows her best friend to a privileged school, only for it to turn out that all the children there have super-powers known as ‘Alices’. But while the premise is very X-men, the tone of the show turns out to be far more Harry Potter – and I mean before it got ‘dark’.

Pretty much every male character is waifish, pretty and sexually ambiguous. Girls tend to have crushes and get themselves into embarrassing situations that make them blush. There are darker themes, kidnappings and forced child labour, but really, the problems never seem very threatening, and there’s never much real sense of danger. Kids may be tied up and dumped in a warehouse one week, but soon after they’re happily watching boys cross-dress in school plays. (Now there’s something typical to female writers!) No combating galactic perils here, only threats to a way of life, and problems that can be resolved by having a tearful talk with the opponents. And of course, the show is cute, cute, cute, cute, cute!

The heroine of the piece is Mikan, an earnest little girl who isn’t too smart but who always tries hard, voiced by Ueda Kana (Yumi from Marimite, to whom Mikan bears some resemblance) with such a strong Osaka-ben accent that when she tries to speak English, she calls herself ‘House’! Mikan’s best friend is the spacey, rather cold Hotaru, voiced by Kugimiya Rie in a role very far from Alphonse Elric in Hagaren, which is amusing because Paku Romi voices Natsume, the dark, brooding boy with a painful past who of course starts to open up to kind-hearted Mikan, with a voice very similar to the one she used for Edward Elric. Natsume’s best friend is Ruka, who can talk to animals, and while the two are together with suspicious frequency, they might just both have a crush on Mikan. All these characters are adorable kids, with very cute character designs and archetypical anime personalities. It’s nothing new, it’s nothing incredibly gripping, but it’s very sweet and makes for compulsive viewing.

But it is undeniably girly, with a lot of cute and not much cool – and what cool there is neatly packaged into understandable categories. Which is fine, for a nice, light series. There’s nothing epic about Gakuen Alice – except for how long it took to get subtitled: I started watching this show in 2004 and the last eps were released yesterday!

(originally written 22.5.07)

Friday, 18 February 2011

カードキャプターさくら/ Cardcaptor Sakura

Okay, let’s get this out of the way first of all: Cardcaptor Sakura has been a seminal success partially because even though Sakura is not only a ten-year-old girl but also about half the size of an average adult, she’s one of the most desired girls in anime fandom. But considering she could have been drawn exactly the same way and been labelled 18 (see the cast of Lucky Star), and considering that most of the time there’s no frame of reference to an adult, I can’t say I find it particularly disturbing – Sakura is adorable. Personally, I can imagine few things less appealing than Cardcaptor Sakura porn, but it’s all over the internet. This is just the way of the world, for better or for worse, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think the little loli was a cutey.

That, I think, needs to be said, not only as a reflection of the show’s success but because a large part of the series requires the audience to not only believe it’s appropriate for Sakura to be old enough to have crushes and fall in love, but to find that cute.

Because Cardcaptor Sakura is nothing if not cute. Written by all-female mangaka team CLAMP, CCS is less obviously aimed at pervy males than Chobits, and in fact draws much of its appeal from its girliness. Every single one of the main kids (except Eriol, who in the manga isn’t actually a child anyway) has a crush on someone else, half of them being overt about it, the other half blushing and acting tacit, but nevertheless making their feelings very obvious. If the idea of puppy love and little girls struggling with their feelings doesn’t appeal, then CCS is likely not the show for you. But since I can think of few things to make me grin more than my moé-meter maxing out, it certainly doesn’t put me off.

The basis of this long series (70 episodes, two movies and a comic relief mini-episode) is simple, the clichéd stuff of episodic anime and video games: Kinomoto Sakura stumbles across a book full of magical ‘Clow cards’ (rhyming with ‘cow’ rather than ‘crow’), which scatter. A cute little sidekick creature appears to grant her magical powers and help her gather them again. These sidekicks are often incredibly annoying (the main reason I can’t bear to watch much Pretty Cure), but Kero-chan (short for Keroberosu, a Japanese rendering of ‘Cerberus’) actually didn’t annoy me at all. His obsession with sweets and video games was endearing, his Osaka-ben accent and exaggerated enthusiasm actually were funny, and it was a nice (if hardly original) idea to have a cute sidekick who transforms into something much cooler.

In mostly interchangeable episodes, Sakura goes around collecting each of the cards, which typically of magical items in anime come along one at a time and confine their appearances to Sakura’s immediate surroundings and personal acquaintances. Once all the cards are collected, she then has to transform them into ‘Sakura Cards’, allowing another season’s worth of adventures.

There’s little that’s clever about CCS in writing terms. Most of the twists are signposted from miles away, despite some red herrings. There’s foreshadowing, but really, prophetic dreams are not nearly as clever a concept as they sometimes seem. The real strengths of the writing are the situations each card creates, usually affecting a relevant area of Sakura’s daily life, and in the developing relationships between the leading characters. It may lack subtlety, having characters suddenly become crazy about one another and blush during every conversation, but it allows for some cute situations.

CCS is a simple pleasure, writing decisions tending to err on the side of simplicity. Li Syaoran is very obviously named after Bruce Lee (Lee Shao-Long), and calling a character from England Eriol Hiiragizawa is just a little strange. No danger ever really seems real – characters can fall from great heights unharmed, and magical cards always seem to know just the right thing to do at the right times. But CCS exists as escapism; it’s supposed to be about a cute little girl who’s just about perfect (though the way she squabbles with her big brother shows another side to her that makes her more believable) and her relationship with the other adorable people around her. It’s simple, elegant and for what it is, extremely well-executed. Very much a show for a specific audience, but the fanboys should count themselves lucky, because there are few ways this show could be more satisfying. A show every anime fan should at least be familiar with.

(originally written 23.6.07)

紅の豚 /Kurenai no Buta/Porco Rosso

‘Watched Porco Rosso, the last of Miyazaki’s Ghibli films I hadn’t seen – and I found it to be one of his best. It was light and comic, with cute scenarios, wonderful gags and some superb characters. It seemed to be very much an homage to Western cinema, but all the Miyazaki hallmarks were in place. The minor characters were delightful, especially the pirate captain (reminiscent of Popeye’s Bluto), whose camera moment was sublime. And of course the old oba-chans in Piccolo’s workshop’ - Oct 13, 2003

Over seven years later, with a sequel in development (a first for Ghibli, unless you count the ‘Mai and the Catbus’ short that is exclusive to the Ghibli museum, or consider The Cat Returns a sequel to Whisper of the Heart, which is something of a stretch), and 1992’s Porco Rosso remains in my favourite three or four Miyazaki films. Often a thin plot is grounds for criticism, but here it manages to work extremely well, giving focus to the characters and setting and lending an impression of gravity to a film that at its core is about a man with a pig’s face flying a plane.

The screenplay was based more or less in its entirety on a strange little manga Miyazaki drew in just ten pages, and was originally intended as a short to be screen on commercial flights. From an extremely fast-moving and minimal basis comes a slow-moving, wonderfully old-fashioned story about a man proud of his flying skills falling in love and being challenged by a flashy rival. There is a lot of absurdity here, and physical comedy, and slapstick, but everything is so wholesome and the tone so varied that it is never boring or overly frivolous, and when it is at its best, it is fantastic.

Of all Miyazaki’s films, this is the one I would argue feels most like Takahata directed. It is a little more European in feel than the rest of his work, smaller-scale and more charming, and yet more sophisticated, too. If a sceptic had seen Mononoke-Hime and Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi but remained convinced Miyazaki was just peddling cutesy fare for adolescents and younger, this is what I would show them to change their minds. It is much more meticulously researched than anything else he wrote, set against the rise of fascism and with a great love for inter-war aircrafts.

I am very much looking forward to see where the sequel will take Miyazaki and his studio, and wait eagerly for its release.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The Lion King 1 ½

Well, finally I’ve seen TLK3 – or TLK 1 ½…and being the huge Lion King geek that I am, I’ve got lots to say about it.

It was an inventive idea, and quite cleverly done. Putting Timon and Pumbaa in scenes before their original appearance and showing how they interacted with the film’s earlier events is clever, and some of the ways they are integrated – such as causing the mass bow in ‘The Circle of Life’ or making Nala explain things again and again – are irreverent and funny.

But because of all the holes – why does Timon not remember Rafiki? The end of Can You Feel the Love Tonight gets integrated well, but what about the beginning? – I have to consider it more like a piece of fanfiction, a bit of non-canon playfuless, rather than a real prequel. What happened to Timon’s mother after this? When did they move back to Pride Rock for Simba’s Pride? And the passage of time is iffy – are we to think Simba going from cub to ‘I Just Can’t Wait to be King’ took just one night? That said, little Simba was adorable…

There were other, larger questions, too. Were there more explicit statements about gay adoption here? Were they equating meerkats with Jews? And…was that Marge Simpson?

Definitely a cheeky direct-to-video film worth seeing. A ‘Rozencrantz and Guildernstern are dead’ to the original’s Hamlet – only less carefully woven…and with considerably more snail-eating content!

(slightly tweaked from when originally written on October 31 2004)

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Afro Samurai

It pains me to call this ‘Anime Impressions’, rather than labelling the show ‘Western Animation’, because this production, catering for Western tastes, exemplifies everything that is wrong with the mainstream perception of anime in the West. Being animated by Gonzo doesn’t qualify it as anime – although then again, I'd say being based on a doujin series does.

Watching Afro Samurai was like being transported back to the early 90s, where if I wanted anime, I had to buy shitty VHS dubs of crap like Vampire Wars, only to find that there’s no plot, just cheesy fights between badly-conceived characters, along with an excess of gore, objectified women and awful, awful acting from English VAs. In fact, that pretty much sums up Afro Samurai.

The plot, such as it is, is as such: the great warriors of the world fight for headbands that supposedly grant great power. Anyone can challenge Number Two for his title, but only the existing Number Two can go after Number One. As a child, Afro’s (yes, that’s his name) father was Number One. He was killed by the then-Number Two, who happily remains Number One until Afro can go after him for revenge. On the way he is attacked by several antagonists, just about all of whom just happen to be linked to his past, so that we can have cheesy, dull flashbacks. He is accompanied by his comic relief imaginary friend, seemingly there only so that Samuel L Jackson can do more than grunt – yes, the respected actor gets to reprise his Boondocks role with painful clichés. Only here, it’s not funny.

There are some good voice actors here. Ron Perlman is great in one of the best-voiced American cartoons around, Teen Titans. But it’s the dialogue that’s awful. It’s just obvious, flat, dumb, disjointed. Some of the actors are pretty sub-par, but some are very good, and they falter too because everything’s so excessive.

Even RZA’s beat-heavy music is bland, except for the awesome OP. And Gonzo should have learned from Peacemaker Kurogane that gushing fountains of blood are not cool, and only get in the way. But PMK managed to prove itself a good show despite the fans it lost with the gore in ep. 1. Afro Samurai is just a stinker.

(originally written 17.7.07: 'Anime impressions' refers to label on old site)

Monday, 14 February 2011


It took me roughly four seconds to get over my disappointment that this film did not look like a Fragonard picture, as it had been hinted it would in preproduction. The film looks stunning, far better than I had anticipated from stills and clips, and what’s more, even more so than The Princess and the Frog, it leaves me feeling certain that Disney is about to come out of its slump (considered without Pixar) and begin a new era of films that are both of the moment and classically Disney.

This is absolutely the film Disney needed to make just now. After proving they could do something different, up-to-date, clever and slightly dark with The Princess and the Frog, they needed to go back to another classic story from the fairytale canon and do a good job adapting it in a more classic, traditional way. And that’s what they’ve managed to do. Rapunzel, a story told most famously by the Brothers Grimm, was a great choice for the Disney treatment, and the writing was pitched perfectly between the modern sensibilities of recent Western animation – all snappy dialogue and sarcasm – and the innocent, straight-forward mode of storytelling of classic Disney, complete with musical numbers, funny animals and magic.

The story bears only a slight resemblance to the original. Old Mother Gothel (who for a few minutes made my skin prickle a little, as I felt like she was an anti-Semitic character without quite knowing why – only for me to realise I was just thinking she looked a lot like Lisa Cuddy from House) happened to chance upon a magical flower that restores her youth. She cunningly hid it from the world to live forever until the king’s guards found it and used it in a tonic to heal the sickly, pregnant queen. When the child was born, she was imbued with the powers of the flower – so Gothel kidnapped her and locked her away in the tall tower. There Rapunzel stayed until, just before her 18th birthday, a charming rogue jumped through her window and forever changed her life.

The story flows well: the set-up is neat and precise, segueing into an odd couple comedy before turning into a predictable but effective story of life-lessons learned, daring rescues effected and true love shining through. The visual style is extremely pretty, CG made to look like pretty cel-shaded animation, only with stunning camera moves and some complex background sequences that really make for visually iconic moments. While the first song was a little awkward, a simple country-pop number with lyrics that were just a little too clever, the songs ended up being some of the best in Disney since at least Mulan, including the poignant central theme, the deliciously bravura ‘Mother Knows Best’ and the comedy number recalling Monty Python performed in the pub. The voice acting was smart and well-timed, and the only times it didn’t look quite like the voices were coming from the animated figures were in the big notes of the songs.

The film also saw two of the best mute characters in Disney. The adorable little chameleon Pascal and the rather brilliantly hammy horse Maximus provided some of the best entertainment in the piece, and showed lessons in physical comedy learned from Pixar. As you may be able to tell from the hints there, the fairytale setting is a remarkably diverse one: the royal guard seem to be Roman legionnaires, the pub is full of apparent Vikings and…well, there’s a chameleon. Somehow, the combinations work very well and never seem jarring, in the same way that the film can transition from arrant silliness to sincerely affectionate moments or to some genuinely frightening scenes, as when the heroes are about to drown, trapped in a cave.

Tangled does just about everything right, and does it without being a blatant rehash. Impressive!

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

“I grew up watching ‘Who framed Roger Rabbit’. It’s easy to underestimate it, to expect silly slapstick rather than the clever pastiche of hardboiled noir detective fiction that you get – mixed up with numerous clever cartoon references. It’s a wonderful film with a great central story, but real laughs are still to be had seeing Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny sharing the screen (in an excessively equal way that has become somewhat notorious). The Donald vs. Daffy piano duel is still comedy gold…even if they’ll never convince me Donald says ‘nitwit’.”
- Dec 9 2003.

There’s not really a whole lot more to say about Roger Rabbit, the 1988 milestone for comedy animation. It may seem commonplace to reimagine childish things in a serious way these days, but Roger Rabbit’s cynical and gritty melding of two very different worlds is pure brilliance – and executed superbly. Not only did it treat cartoons in a way that was at once affectionate and mocking, it helped Disney revive from its major slump and produce the string of hit films of my childhood. It has also proved enduringly iconic: the Jessica Rabbit character is instantly recognisable to, I suspect, almost the whole of the English-speaking world, and considerably further than that too.

Somehow, it also gives me quite a thrill that Disney did all the animation here – albeit mostly hired hands in Elstree rather than the core American teams (for more on that point, see my entry on The Thief and the Cobbler). The idea of Disney artists animating Warner’s Buggs and Daffy, or Max Fleischer’s Betty Boop somehow makes an animation fan like me strangely pleased. Very nearly every major Golden Age cartoon character appears (although there is a gaping lacuna where Tom and Jerry ought to be, whose animators after all pioneered the whole ‘animation and live action’ thing…well, not counting the Alice Comedies and various other early shorts…), but probably the best thing about it is that at its centre, it is not a cartoon, it’s a silly detective mystery with Bob Hoskins at the centre of it somehow making a great American private eye, and the cartoons just happen to be the gimmick that fills out the edges.

Nothing is quite like Roger Rabbit, but nothing needs to be. We already have Roger Rabbit, so what more would we need?

Thursday, 10 February 2011

The Iron Giant

Brad Bird has had an interesting career. The first of his works as a director I can remember seeing would be the video for the rather embarrassing and naïve ‘Do The Bartman’ rap - the one Michael Jackson wrote for Matt Groening. It was huge when I was a small boy, and I still remember the first verse, even though without Sky it was a few years before I actually saw The Simpsons. Bird, who prior to that had a brief stint with Disney and had been involved with The Simpsons from the start, came to popular attention with this feature film and went on to be the second big name of Pixar after John Lasseter, directing (and providing the best voice in) The Incredibles and later the less memorable Ratatouille, both of which won Best Animation Oscars.

At least as interesting is the story of The Iron Giant, which started out in 1968 as Ted Hughes’ The Iron Man. Back then, Ted Hughes was a known poet and the drama with Sylvia Plath was already behind him, but Crow had not yet made him the sensation he would become. The Iron Man was seemingly a rather odd story of a giant robot at first assumed to be malevolent, but then fighting off a space creature to save mankind after being befriended by a boy, and seeking to make a rock opera with the stature of Tommy, Pete Townshend chose this text for one of his solo projects. Townshend had for years been working at Faber and Faber, so knew Hughes personally. A rather terrible stop-motion video was made for the singles, as well as a stage performance; the spectre of the former can be seen in Bird’s 1999 film: there are some similarities in the robot designs, and…well, I can’t help but thing the animated Hogarth’s ears owe something to those of his live-action predecessor.

Bird’s decision to transpose the story to 1950s America, replete with big ice creams, beatniks, hilarious parodies of the ‘Duck and Cover’ films and the shadow of the Cold War, works brilliantly, but I have the feeling this director and this cast would have made something equally brilliant with any setting. The story is neat and effective, and while I wasn’t sure at first, I actually rather like that there is no indication where this childlike robot came from. The ending is predictable but moving, and the animation is very American in just the right way – not pretty but technically impressive, bold and often hilarious.

But what sets this above so many animated films is its cast. I wasn’t sure about it at first. Rachel from Friends? The guy who I mostly remember for singing about a turtle from space (‘Admittedly, the cross is mine’ is embedded in my memory of one roommate from school)? Vin Diesel? But the voice performances are actually superb. Even the government agent character who serves as antagonist ends up so nuanced and varied in his performance that it’s great. Simple lines like ‘I said I’m hip’ are just delivered with hilarious timing even by the kid, who does his job really well. Anniston is warm and loving in the mother role and Connick Jr ought to have a successful voice acting career. And Vin Diesel? Well, his limited role is note-perfect.

I don’t think that, even in Pixar’s catalogue, there is a more perfect balance between action and humour. Superb film.

Monday, 7 February 2011

獣王星 / Jyu Ou Sei / Planet of the Beast King

Jyu-Ou-Sei got attention for a lot of the wrong reasons. For being forced to be only 11 episodes thanks to Honey and Clover II being higher-priority. For having a famous voice-actor in the lead role for the second arc (he did a good job, especially opposite the guy who plays Zoro in One Piece). For having a very quirky OP that a lot of people detested (I really liked it; I like eccentric things – though I don’t know why the singer pronounces his words like an okama). For being a shounen-themed show that was written for a shoujo audience. But I, as always, took it on face value, as a story. And in that vein…it was frustratingly mediocre.

I like Bones. I like them a lot. Fullmetal Alchemist, Wolf’s Rain, Scrapped Princess, Eureka Seven – they’ve done some truly top-tier anime. Even Ouran I enjoyed quite a bit. But this was certainly not one of their finest moments. Some of the animation was very nice, but most of it was functional, awkward, and in the last episodes Thor’s movements looked bizarre, like a bad thesp severely overacting. Plus I never grew to like the way the noses had been drawn. That style works in black-and-white manga, but not in coloured animation.

And the trouble is that the story is really sub-par. The premise – twins are abandoned on a hostile planet, one is killed but the other survives to adapt to life in the tribal, vicious society – is unimaginative but workable. The young boy’s struggle to survive is fairly interesting, but the later episodes, where a series of insipid, far-fetched and clichéd twists are revealed, people start getting killed off for no reason but for a slightly poignant moment (or for a neater resolution) and you find out that either the rest of the series contained no real danger at all or the conclusions that the string-pullers came to are really based on hugely unscientific trust on one improbable outcome - they really feel messy, uninspired and thoroughly, thoroughly lame. No points for the ending, either.

And why is it that younger teenaged boys presented as sex symbols for teenaged girls in anime are so often dressed in bizarre cycling shorts and flimsy vests? Here, in Gundam Wing…it’s a really odd look!

(originally written 17.9.06)

Thursday, 3 February 2011

千と千尋の神隠し/ Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi / Spirited Away

‘I cannot stress enough how much I enjoyed Spirited Away – so gloriously bizarre yet so completely feasible in its own terms! Like Alice in Wonderland on a considerably greater scale, the characters, setpieces and concepts showed an astounding creativity, and the madness contrasts so well with the epic Mononoke-hime. The characters were wonderful – if we were to imagine Sen/Chihiro to have been acted by a real person, that little girl would be a sublime mime artist; Haku was so beautiful in the way all Miyazaki’s youths are beautiful; Yubaba was such an awesome presence when filling the screen, like some twisted Margaret Thatcher caricature…and all the sweet minor characters were brilliantly conceived. If Jeunet chose to direct a Disney film, he couldn’t hope for better results. And I needn’t mention the Freudian implications abounding throughout the film – riding on a serpent god indeed!’

Those were my impressions almost a decade ago, on October 24, 2002, shortly before Ghibli’s popularity exploded over around the world and certainly before I had much experience of the studio’s work. But even now, it’s one of my favourite animated films of all time, so full of flights of the imagination, superlative imagery and even subtle touches: how many of us notice that tiny glint of a hairband that indicates that the whole thing truly did happen and wasn’t just a dream at the end on a first viewing? I know I didn’t.

To date Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi is the only anime film to win the Best Animation Oscar, although perhaps it is notable that it was in a year no Pixar film was nominated. It brought Ghibli to a much larger audience and with Mononoke-hime, represents the pinnacle of Miyazaki’s filmmaking. Yes, I love Totoro, but the scale, tone and technical qualities of those two films, especially complementing and contrasting one another, are in my esteem amongst the greatest achievements of any director. Much as I think Takahata is the greater maker in that particular partnership, he has yet to produce two great films in such close proximity.

ハンター×ハンター / HunterXHunter

It’s been years, now. The last Greed Island OVA was back in early 2004, and since then the mangaka Togashi has (supposedly) suffered a mental breakdown - producing only half a story arc in the last seven years. Most of the younger crowd of anime fans now probably don’t even realise that once, HunterXHunter was considered the third of Shounen Jump’s ‘big three’, and probably more major than Naruto was. Bleach didn’t even get a look in.

The anime reached 62 episodes and would have run longer, but they were running out of manga material. What they would do now would be to start endless horrible filler and ruin the series’ reputation. Instead, Nippon Animation came up with a cleverer idea. They stopped the series and instead, produced a lot of OVAs. The impression we all had at the time was that they would finish the Greed Island arc, and then when the Soldier Ants arc finished, more OVAs would come.

But then the manga became a disaster. Artwork became mere scribbles, and Togashi’s little ‘breaks’ became months long – and then years. It wasn’t worth animating half an arc, so the series ended – and quite possibly the end of its relevance is why shows now don’t go down the route of stopping for a while and then resuming, resulting in Naruto and Bleach becoming jokes (though Bleach actually has some pretty good filler), and One Piece ending up with absurdly long intro sequences. And when Naruto recycles concepts from HunterXHunter, most of its fandom doesn’t even know.

It’s sad, because HunterXHunter is great shounen. It follows a young boy called Gon as he joins the Hunter Organisation to find his father. He was always strong, but even in the entrance test he finds people far, far in advance of him. Nonetheless he makes some close friends, and together they get ever stronger, and he inches closer and closer to his father – as well as helping his close friends.

As with Naruto, the best characters come from the mysterious criminal organisation who exist on the periphery of the story. Unlike in Naruto, they don’t end up all getting defeated absurdly easily and ultimately seem like very little threat after all. They’re also a good deal more eccentric, although possibly Bonorenof was a step too far in the end. Still, the only real shame about the Soldier Ant arc not getting animated is that some superb chapters with them never got shown in motion.

I still hold out some tiny hope that HunterXHunter will have a renaissance, one final arc…but realistically, the manga is going to finally end in a real shambles, the anime will never enjoy the advances of the last few years in animation techniques, and ultimately what was one of the very biggest shows around will fade into obscurity. Which is a shame, because at its best it was as good as anything else in Jump, and probably carries the torch of Dragonball better than any other. That said, it was the last arc that resembled Dragonball most closely, and that may just be the arc that signalled the series’ death knell. Too bad.

(A few months later I was proven wrong as HunterXHunter got a reboot)

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

ラストエグザイル / Last Exile

I was hugely impressed by Last Exile. What a shame I dismissed it after only two episodes originally. It was an excellent piece of writing, and while I wouldn’t put it in my top 10 list, it certainly comes close. It looked amazing, was flawlessly acted – especially the great decision to make adorable little Arvis quiet, polite and nervous instead of the usual voiciferous kid – and admirably ambitious. The plot was of the epic variety, albeit a little haphazard, with a typically ambiguous and rather rushed ending. It also had a slightly absurd premise (Exile unlocked seems to really have no use for the evil Guild) and some underdeveloped characters, but oh…the world in which it’s set! And the characters! The characters we get to know so well!

The story follows Klaus and Ravey, two childhood friends who pilot a vanship – a small two-person flying machine, wonderfully designed by series creators Gonzo to look like 1930s cars. They run errands, mostly delivering messages to huge airborne warships engaged in battle with people from above the sky. Two worlds are in conflict, one frozen over while the other lacks drinkable water, and relations have more or less collapsed.

When these two find little Arvis, a small child on the run, and promise to protect her, they are drawn into a plot that will determine the future of both worlds, and soon find out Arvis is the living key to a mysterious ship called the Exile.

What was special about the narrative was the interplay between the important characters – although beautiful art didn’t hurt. The subtle relationships and histories of some of the characters, even ones who weren’t especially likeable, really made it a joy to watch. Shame that many of the interesting supporting roles were overlooked and things like the relative powers of different ships seemed to change on every writer’s whim.

Overall, though, an excellent and moving series.

(originally written 14.1.05)