Tuesday, 31 May 2011

ナルト / Naruto (pre-timeskip)

Naruto has become the series everybody loves to hate. Well, Dragonball Z once held that position, until it was rehabilitated by nostalgia, and I feel quite confident that Naruto will eventually go through same treatment, once people forget about the debacle of a year’s filler episodes and the mess of Shippuden, or at least can balance it against the excellent first few years. Because Naruto started out very, very good and only became a laughing stock much later.

I heard of Naruto before it was big. I don’t want to sound hip or smug about this – it’s simply true. In 2002-3 I would check Toriyamaworld.com daily for their translations of Hikaru no Go and HunterXHunter. The site was a real hub of the anime community back then, far smaller than it is now. And they not only scanslated but provided anime subtitles for Naruto, then not long out of its first plot arc. I remember that all the character biographies on the site were from the Haku/Zabuza arc long after it ended. I resisted it for some time, not liking the first episode much, but eventually watched more. By the time the chuunin exam arc began, I was hooked, and I don’t care how reviled the series has now become: I have a great affection for the characters, the mood Kishimoto spun and the degree of clever foreshadowing he once had.

And thus, here are my thoughts on the series from way back in mid-April 2005: ‘High time I got around to talking about one of my favourite anime: Naruto. Now well past its hundredth episode, Naruto is one of the most successful anime in Japan, and (if the dub doesn’t butcher it, which it almost certainly will), may yet capture the imaginations of western children. Deeply indebted to Toriyama Akira and his Dragonball Z, Naruto spends a lot of time building up to a fight, a little while on the fight itself, and then another lengthy spell explaining the fight, or showing its deeper emotional conflict through flashbacks. However, at its best, it transcends this derivative format and gives real emotional depth to its characters.

It has some dreadfully cheesy moments, and animation standards have fallen considerably since the beginning, but because nothing can touch it when it’s at its best, I rank it higher than the more consistent but never quite as brilliant One Piece. The story revolves around a young boy, Uzumaki Naruto. Sealed inside Naruto’s body is the spirit of a powerful demon that almost destroyed his village, and because of this, he was ostracised. Nevertheless, he finds companionship and competition when he is put in a team with Haruno Sakura and Uchiha Sasuke, the latter of whom is a tortured and aloof boy, the last of his clan. Proceedings kick off with a truly amazing opening story arc, in which this trio, with their teacher, Kakashi-sensei, are pitted against a dangerous criminal ninja and his apprentice, the androgynous, powerful and deeply emotionally disturbed Haku. The art, direction and story here was superb.

This was followed by the introduction of several unforgettable characters. Because the story is loosely defined, with the protagonist’s aim distant and unlikely, there is much scope for subplots. One of these is an exam for the young shinobi, where we meet Naruto’s peers, along with his rivals from other villages. A wonderful pantheon of larger-than-life but still believable characters appear: the hilarious but formidable Rock Lee, with his teacher Gai; the reticent, vulnerable Hyuuga Hinata and her jealous, powerful relative, Neji; the lazy genius, Shikamaru; the dark, merciless, tortured Gaara…

As in HunterXHunter, It is these characters, and their interactions, which drive the series, and the full range of emotions are explored, concisely and intelligently. The stock characters are given life by their backstories and quirks: something of which many writers should take note. While sometimes ridiculous, and sometimes trying far too hard, when Naruto gets it right, it really is a work of genius. Outstanding, if not for everyone.’

Six years later, not much has changed, except that I would retract that part about One Piece, which has since reached much higher degrees of brilliance. However, the enthusiasm I had back then can only be tempered with my disappointment in what Naruto has become. Despite that, though, I will strongly defend the show against the now-numerous detractors who claim that it never had any worth and has always been a terrible show. Because that simply is not true.

Movie 1: link
Movie 2: link
Movie 3: link

ワンピース/ One Piece (pre-timeskip)

One Piece’s timeskip really didn’t make as much difference as most timeskips do, but it provides a useful place to stop and write impressions, as well as to dig up thoughts originally written in 2005. Here's what I wrote back on March 8 of that year:

One Piece is one of the most wildly successful anime of the past ten years, with an episode count well over 100 and twice as many chapters of the manga released. It has a huge following, and has been dubbed into English (albeit in a fashion even worse than FMA, for not only is it generic and poorly acted, but every gun, cigarette and drop of blood seems to have been changed).

The premise is a simple one: Monkey D. Luffy is a young boy who has only one aim – to become the Pirate King. In a world dominated by pirates, he gathers around himself a crew of nakama, or close comrades.

There is Zoro, the master swordsman and ex-bounty hunter. There is Nami, a clever young thief with a dark past. There is Usopp, a great teller of tall tales. There is Sanji, the chef and lady’s man whose kick is without equal. Later, there are others, including Vivi, a princess in disguise, and Chopper, the fuzzy little hat-wearing reindeer who is one of the cutest things in any anime.

In the world of One Piece, there exist many ‘Devil’s fruits’, which bestow a life of great power on those who eat them, but when they come into contact with seawater, their bodies cease to be able to move. Why these people invariably pursue a life of piracy and spend their days floating on the one thing that would be lethal to them is another question, but in One Piece, it is the kryptonite to many characters’ super-powers.

Luffy has eaten the gomu-gomu fruit, which endows upon him the bizarre ability to stretch his body like rubber, and the momentum of a fist on the end of an arm extended a dozen or more meters behind and then swung forward gives him a punch like a bullet from a pistol. The plot moves slowly, with simple ideas and long fight sequences. Generally, the pirate crew find themselves on a new island, where they find either a person in need of help or someone from their own pasts, discover a dire situation through a series of flashbacks, and then go and fight with whatever wicked person has caused the situation. Sound silly? It’s meant to be.

One Piece is unsophisticated, escapist fun that will occasionally pull your heart-strings in some really moving and elegant ways. Always worth watching, and occasionally ingenious - if never likely to top my list of best anime ever - I remain very glad that I undertook the daunting task of watching such a gigantic series as this. I feel I know these characters now; what could be better than that?’

Six years on, with the anime now at 500 episodes, and One Piece exceeded all my expectations: it certainly is within my list of best anime ever, certainly the manga is probably by third-favourite of all time, after Hikaru no Go and Yotsubato!. I seemingly wrote that during the Drum Rockies arc, which ended with one of the best emotional pay-offs of any anime ever. Since that, Nico Robin, Frankie and Brooke have joined the crew, each with a fascinating story. One Piece proved it could do fillers better than any other shounen, and with the Whitebeard war, provided the most epic conflict I’ve ever seen in a battle manga. More so than any other series, it can move its audience between laughing helplessly and holding back tears in moments. Oda managed to create a world that perfectly balances humour and seriousness, and that is why One Piece outdoes Naruto, Bleach, HunterXHunter or anything else action-oriented Shounen Jump has run since Dragonball Z.

Movie 4: link
Movie 6: link
Movie 7: link
Movie 8: link

Transformers: The Movie

Transformers, despite how erratically it was broadcast on UK terrestrial TV – all I had – was my favourite programme as a child. The movie, which bridged the two major eras of the classic television show, is as much of a cult classic as it’s possible to get, and the quintessentially 80s rock soundtrack is oft-played at nostalgic and geeky events.

Older commentators in particular have been hostile to this film, objecting to Transformers fundamentally because it existed to sell toys, and the 1986 film can be interpreted as an old toy line being killed off so that kids would want to buy newer ones. But while there is undoubtedly truth to this, it is also an oversimplification: part of the cultural impact of the film was its brutal killing-off of favourite characters, and if anything, it was the Autobots who ended up as part of the bodycount who ended up being the most desired toys, even when like Ironhide and Ratchet, theirs were hopelessly inadequate – those two came with no heads.

The film, with its sprawling cast and multiple locales, is difficult for the uninitiated. Set a generation after the beginning of the original series, it comes after a time-skip that unsettles even those familiar with the world of Transformers. The identifiable human character Spike now has a son, Daniel, who is friends with a plethora of transformers who have apparently come into being since the end of the series, notably Hot Rod, Springer, Arcee and Kup. The Autobots have set up a permanent base on Earth, Autobot City, but the Decepticons have control of the Transformers’ planet Cybertron. A supply run to Earth is ambushed and most of the leading Autobots from the first two series are shot down in pretty violent fashion, robotic heroes allowing for more brutal animation than could have been possible with humans. A lot of people will tell you they were traumatised as children by this scene, but I must confess it didn’t really affect me: I was too young, I suppose, and the likes of Prowl and Brawn being killed didn’t affect me too much when they were still being shown in the series when I tuned in – although I was amused enough when I first got online by the controversy around Brawn’s easy death to buy a T-shirt referencing it, like the complete and utter nerd I am.

The Decepticons infiltrate Autobot City and are just barely repelled when Optimus Prime arrives with reinforcements. Both sides have sustained heavy casualties, and thus begins a new era, with the Autobots searching for their new, worthy leader and the Decepticons rebuilt by a sinister force that has an agenda of its own.

Animated by Toei at the beginning of what I suppose should be called their silver age, a lot of money has obviously gone into making this look slick – it looks much smoother and more polished than, say, the first Dragonball episodes or the last Yamato film. Being a very masculine effort – lots of explosions, big robots and action – there’s a temptation to dismiss the animation as immature, but that would be unfair: some of the shots are ambitious, clever and well-realised: witness Unicron transforming or Prime’s big arrival to the war. The amount of money changing hands here is also reflected in the voice cast: Leonard Nimoy’s gravely tones sound great, Eric Idle sounds like he’s enjoying the performance more than anything he’s done since early Python and the film was the last Orson Welles worked on. Welles, a true legend of the screen – some have portrayed this as a terrible fall from grace, such a legend in his own words playing ‘a toy’, but the role is as memorable as it is short, and I doubt that he’d have been horribly embarrassed by it had he lived on for another decade.

Transformers: The Movie is not supposed to be clever or innovative. But it is both brave and powerful. It is emotionally heavy-hitting without coming over as exploitative: there’s something impressive about both the drawn-out death of a major character and of poor Wheeljack just being a random dead body glimpsed for a second at most. On the other hand, Huffer doesn’t even get that, which is a disappointment. The film meanders around its saggy middle section, with underwater sequences really not necessary overall, but the big payoff is worth it.

牙 / Kiba

Kiba was one of the big disappointments of the last year. I so wanted to like it, I felt so sure that it could be a great series, but ultimately, it just tried to do too much at once, was too ready to lower itself into really goofy territory, and ended up after 51 episodes with only as many good ones as there are fingers on one hand. Which is a shame, because early in its run it was being tipped as the new Hagane no Renkinjutsushi.

There was a lot that was right about Kiba: some really great character design in a slightly more adult style than Madhouse’s usual (and I love Madhouse’s designs); a good set of lead rivals with interesting characters, both a little dark and certainly imperfect; an appealing love interest with a great design and an interesting past; and a childish sidekick-like character it was easy to genuinely care for, useless as he was (though the subplot making him a temporary antagonist was ill-judged). The opening episode, set in a cyberpunk-like world from which the two main characters, Zed and Noa, are drawn through a portal, promised the interest of contrasting settings – but then other than in brief flashbacks and snippets, that world was never seen again!

The rest was the kind of stuff an anime can only carry off if there’s enough that balances it out, and here there simply wasn’t. Our lead character Zed, a pretty awesome teenaged boy with spiky white hair and emerald eyes, wearing a long red coat with one sleeve, finds himself in a somewhat daft fantasy world, where big monsters stored in pokéballs embedded in the flesh fight one another. Different countries are in conflict with one another, and the bulk of the story revolves around the struggle to stop various of these countries conquering the rest with the latest strong Digimon. It soon develops that the strongest of these monsters, the ‘key spirits’ (one of which of course Zed is blessed with) will grant great power when they are all gathered, so various big-shots try to gather all the Dragonballs, until it turns out that it’s necessary to be the ‘chosen one’, all of which leads to a rushed, meaningless and uninteresting ending.

It’s a shame that this wasn’t better. Zed, Roia, Noa, Miki, the main bad guy (before he takes the bandana off his face) and the little girl were all great character designs, and for the most part their actions were interesting too. But when you throw in big hulking beast-men that look like badly-drawn yetis and duels between big blue things with bird masks and giant gold golems with faces on their shoulders, it’s hard not to wonder how much better this setting could have been without that kind of goofy anime nonsense.

A nice-looking but overlong series with some really badly-judged plotlines and settings, as well as a woeful lack of focus, redeemed somewhat by a couple of interesting low-key character-based mini-arcs. Overall, though, a very disappointing mess.

(originally written 26.3.08)

Monday, 30 May 2011

フルーツバスケット / Fruits Basket

I finally finished watching Fruits Basket, and I have to admit a certain disappointment. It’s not because I was expecting too much (though everyone I’ve spoken to about the show has been almost universally positive), nor that the ending let down the series (as it did for many).

I simply didn’t like the show at all, from only a few episodes in to the very end. I hoped that it would improve, but sadly, the climax of the series was probably its weakest element.

Furuba belongs to a very specific type of anime that is very obviously written by a woman, along with Gakuen Alice, Hikaru no Go and anything by CLAMP. I don’t just mean shoujo (the loose genre aimed at girls) - which Hikaru no Go is not - and nor do I dislike anime with an obvious female mangaka, but there are certain characteristics which recur – in particular, lots of bishounen and biseinen (pretty male characters), usually rather androgynous and invariably hinted to be less than entirely straight; a preponderance of angst - lots and lots of angst, obsession and dark childhoods, through which the principle female character can often help the poor boy(s); and finally, cutesy mascots/sidekicks. This is all fine: in fact, most of it makes for some great drama. But in furuba, it’s so tedious and monotonous that I often finished an episode thinking the story could’ve been told in a third of the time.

The story is simple: sweet and pure Honda Tohru, who has been living in a tent so as not to inconvenience anyone, befriends and moves in with the Souma family. It soon transpires that the Soumas are cursed, transforming into animals from the Chinese zodiac whenever hugged by members of the opposite sex. This leads to some amusing farcical situations, especially as they return to human form sans clothing a la Woof, but it soon transpires that every single one of this accursed family has some weird personality quirk. As, indeed, do all the peripheral characters.

This means most of the characters are little more than one-trick ponies, never actually developing any depth. The comedy also falls short: jokes are repeated ad nauseum, and there’s only so much appeal to watching weird people being weird. This would be alright if the drama was compelling, but honestly, the endlessly formulaic appearances of tortured characters, who Honda persuades to cheer up by being terribly terribly earnest begins to grate.

Add to this unresolved and uninteresting love triangles, one bizarre mutant and an incomprehensible obedience to a clearly deranged head of the family, and you get an insipid, repetitive anime. Yes, there were some very cute moments, especially with the younger members of the cast and the animals, but I got the impression it was all supposed to be achingly pretty. It wasn’t.

(Originally written 05.05.05. I've been told many times the manga goes on to be far better, and genuinely intend to find out if that's the case. But six years have now passed...and I've never yet felt the inclination.)

ひぐらしのなく頃に / Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni / When the Cicadas Cry / Higurashi: When They Cry

I’m not going to deny it. I only watched this because of its great impact on the anime community. If it were one of those obscure series I often watch, it also would have been one of very few series I’ve dropped, and it’s quite hard to get me to forget something permanently.

As it is, I watched all 26 episodes, and will most likely subject myself to …Kai, the second season. But I cannot for the life of me understand this series’ enduring popularity, over here as well as in Japan. It is just one of the worst anime I have ever seen, in every aspect. The only thing I can say without reservation is that I like the song played over the opening credits…and I can’t even phrase that as ‘I like the opening’, because I really wish they didn’t have Rena’s face appearing over that splat noise on the bass just before the beat kicks in, because it’s always unintentionally amusing.

Anyway, there is very little to recommend Higurashi. I can only think of two reasons you would like this: you’re extremely squeamish but like things that make you cringe just a little bit, or you like the fanservice of tiny girls who look about 5, drawn so close to super-deformed that it doesn’t look like their hands could actually touch the top of their heads. Me, I found the violence unimpressive and the fanservice unattractive. Yes, having to rip off your own fingernails as a form of atonement will make anyone cringe, but it just makes me think of the yakuza, who in real life famously cut off whole joints from their fingers to make amends or just to pledge loyalty, which is rather more horrific, and realer. As for the fanservice, there’s very little attractive in the girls here, partly because they’re really annoying and partly because they’re really badly drawn.

Let’s deal with those two things separately. First, the characters. There’s nothing wrong with the two main boys (Keiichi and Satoko's brother Satoshi), plain old everyman characters, nor with the peripheral, functional cast. But at the centre of the story are the five girls. And all of them – every single one – can suddenly change from cute to psychotic. Ridiculously, the voice actresses are directed to totally change voices, meaning that the tiny little blue-haired girl with the cute voice will suddenly start sounding like a middle-aged woman. Not creepy. Just makes you think of the Japanese actress in the booth. Otherwise, the characters are annoying anyway, especially the little ones, one of whom goes, ‘Nii-paa!’ for no reason and refers to herself as a boy, while the other has a fixation on her brother. Really aiming low, this series.

Then there’s the art. Presumably drawn from an amateurish game, it’s very ugly. Exaggerated hair colour and jarringly cutesy designs, very simple lines, lots of off-model frames and poor animation, especially when the girls go nuts. I’m sure it’s supposed to be creepy, but the ridiculous distortion of Shion’s face when she’s shaking the ladder is just totally laughable, and the size of Rena’s mouth when laughing just makes her look like Kimura from Azumanga Daioh – surely not the desired effect.

All of which would be fine with a good story. This ain’t a good story. Telling events out of order may confuse people, but it does not make a story clever. ‘Which identical twin is which?’ really is just so lazy. And the overall concept? Badly thought-out to fit around desired events, rather than them arising naturally from it. Convoluted, lazy and not exactly watertight. The series’ climax? A girl has taken a school hostage, threatening to blow it up, with a timed bomb they know is plugged into the mains.

Not once does anyone think of, y’know, just shutting off the power.

Cheesy, ugly and unintelligent, it makes me sad that people might think this is the best that anime has to offer. It’s a triumph for marketing, I suppose, because people are talking about this show. I just cannot fathom why anyone would think it was good.

(Originally written 19.6.08)

Sunday, 29 May 2011

雲のむこう、約束の場所 / Kumo no Muko, Yakusoku no Basho / Beyond the Clouds, the Promised Place / The Place Promised in Our Early Days

I watched director Shinkai Makoto’s famous debut Hoshi no Koe when it was first available, a beautiful short film all the more astonishing because he produced it entirely by himself – drawing, animation: just about everything but the sound. Here, he has been given a greater budget and presumably an entire production studio, and made a full-length animation.

Unfortunately, it suffers the same problems as his debut, which while stunning to look at, was ponderous, mindlessly pretentious and self-indulgent. Both films have good premises: Hoshi concerns the heartache of a couple separated when one of them goes into space, the time it takes between sending and receiving messages growing exponentially wider as the distance between them increases, until finally messages sent by a youth are received by an older and older addressee; Beyond the Clouds, meanwhile, is about an alternative, divided Japan where a huge tower has been constructed, and some schoolboys’ dreams to one day fly there in a plane they are building.

The film is breathtakingly beautiful. Some of the finest depictions of skies and buildings I’ve ever seen pass by in the background of scenes only a few seconds long. However, the director unfortunately seems to think that painfully slow, vague storytelling is how to make something seem deep and profound and beautiful, and it just becomes dull. However, the characters are much more interesting than those of Hoshi no Koe, and overall it was a solid, dazzlingly beautiful film - just one I don’t think I’ll have much inclination to sit though again for a long, long time.

(originally written 12.5.05)

Thursday, 26 May 2011

ブラックキャット / Black Cat

Black Cat had a lot going for it: the manga was something of a success in Shounen Jump, by far the best place any shounen mangaka can get published, the character designs were appealing, and the theme song was alternately pretty and kinda cool. The first episode did a good job of introducing its characters and setting: in a cartoonishly noir world, bounty hunters called ‘sweepers’ struggle to make ends meet by going after wanted criminals. Standing above this underworld system are the Chrono Numbers, top hitman and assassins, and amongst the most accomplished is number XIII, Train Heartnet, also known as Black Cat. When this young prodigy meets a surly but good-hearted hitman and the two of them get mixed up in the rescue of a young girl - the subject of some sinister experiments - their old ways of life have to be left behind and new paths found.

To put it like that makes it sound a bit epic, and let’s face it, Black Cat isn’t epic, and really ought to have either been half as long as it was (and it didn’t quite make 26 episodes) or have somehow embarked on a much more exciting quest, because as it was, it sort of hopped between story arcs and as a result never really got anywhere. When the series’ main arc ends and there are still two or three episodes to go, and they start a whole new storyline that’s supposed to tie up all the loose ends. And then it just…stops.

Every cheesy anime cliché is here: cute little girl with big power, lots of pretty boys and big-breasted and/or excessively up-front women with amazing abilities, mad obsessives who want to purify this rotten world, and even magic spells that make adults into children for a novelty episode. This is more low-brow than Naruto. This is down with Pokémon and Shaman King, but actually lacks their cuteness and charm. Yes, Black Cat has its moments – the central threesome getting more like a family, some of the showdowns between the Apostles of the Stars and the Chrono Numbers, but in general the series falls flat: none of the characters develop to an extent that they actually become likeable, and there’s no overall story. Everything’s a series of small subplots that don’t have much significance and are largely nonsensical – madman goes after main character, small boy is beaten up until he remembers he really ought to be looking after his young friends, main girl turns into giant world-cleansing blob…

Black Cat has some solid ideas, and there are some decent characters, but overall, it’s a mess. Possibly the manga has more coherence and…well, intelligence, but as an anime, I can recommend this only in a very limited way. Characters are nicely-drawn, and it is quite fun, but honestly, it’s anime’s lowest rung.

(originally written 24.4.08)

Wednesday, 25 May 2011


I’m guessing it’s because people think back to watching the show in their childhoods, and then to more recent discoveries of Ghibli films, and assume that Thundercats must have been made many years earlier than the likes of Totoro - but there has for years been a tendency online to say that Pacific Animation went on to become Studio Ghibli. Or that Pacific Animation Corporation was the name for a group of studios that included Topcraft. It is a prevalent myth that I want to lay to rest. While not far off the truth, it is nonetheless false.

For one thing, it doesn’t make sense to say Thundercats animators went on to form Ghibli when by the time Thundercats went into continuous production in 1985, Ghibli were already hard at work on Laputa, which would be the company’s first film in 1986. The fledgling studio did not have the capacity to work on both, and of course Thundercats was still being produced in 1990, by which time Ghibli were well-established and certainly not churning out Saturday morning kids’ TV.

What it is true to say is that several staff members who worked on Topcraft’s Nausicaa went on to work on Thundercats. Nausicaa transformed Topcraft, and the bulk of the studio’s staff were absorbed into Ghibli. However, many staff members did not want to join Miyazaki and Takahata’s new company, and instead went to join others, like Oh! Production, or form new studios. One of these was Pacific Animation Corporation, an animation company in its own right, not a name given to a group of other studios, nor Ghibli in disguise. While, as I have observed before, some of the first series of Thundercats looks like it could be taken right out of one of Miyazaki or Takahata’s works with Toei, neither of them had any part in Thundercats whatsoever. So while a link exists, it is a tenuous one indeed.

Thundercats was my favourite cartoon as a child, after Transformers. I have over the past few years rewatched the show from beginning to end, and nostalgia played a big part in why I enjoyed it so much – for the truth is, it really isn’t a very good show. It has a great concept, iconic designs, some very well-done episodes and some brilliant humour, but it is also overall very poor.

The story may well be familiar: when the planet of Thundera is destroyed, a small number of its inhabitants escape in spacecraft. One of these holds key nobles of the planet, the Thundercats. Wise elder Jaga sacrifices himself so that the others may live – the swift Cheetara, with psychic powers; the muscular Panthro, a capable mechanic; the thoughtful Tygra; the mischievous young ‘Thunderkittens’ Wilykit and Wilykat; and the heir to the throne, young Lion-O - along with his comic relief nurse Snarf. In a not-entirely-explained failure of his suspension capsule, Lion-O awakes at their destination as a muscle-bound adult, and for the first season at least, is a child in an adult’s body.

Lion-O, guided by the rest and acting as their leader, must establish a new home on Third Earth and defend it from various iconic bad guys, including the Mutants and Mumm-Ra, an ancient evil Egyptian wizard. The Thundercats are later joined by other survivors – blind father figure Lynx-O, handy Bengali, Snarf’s relative Snarfer and the athletic Pumyra, who oddly barely features in the fourth series and is conspicuously absent from the final episodes.

Certain things work in Thundercats and others do not. Giving Lion-O trials, being tempted by different vices and overcoming them, meeting new, powerful enemies, or being tricked and then thinking their way out of trouble: these can prove good templates for the largely episodic series – although there is a degree of continuity, with different cast members joining, vanquished foes staying in captivity, and a whole new planet becoming the Thundercats’ home base. But the big problems come from lazy plot solutions – one of the series’ biggest failings is the Sword of Omens, which contains the Eye of Thundera. At first, the magic sword is a useful tool, but only that – it can show Lion-O his friends in danger (‘Sight Beyond Sight’), it can summon the others, it can extend and it can shoot energy beams. By the end of the show, it can break any spell, cross dimensions, repair broken structures, shoot hugely powerful lasers and anything else the writers feel they need to end the episode. We get good set-ups, plenty of peril, and then it’s too often undone by this magic solution.

And while it wouldn’t occur to a small child, the need to sell toys is too prominent. The Thundercats often gain new vehicles for only an episode or two before they vanish. Captain Hammerhand is well-designed, but his cohorts are obviously based around what actions can be given to plastic models. The Lunataks are introduced as equals to the Thundercats, each of them at least a match to one of the heroes, but then a season later any Thundercat can easily overcome all of them at once. Mumm-ra gets more humanised with episodes centred on him, and even a pet dog, but he soon devolves from power-hungry to prattling about how wonderful evil is apparently for its own sake, and ends up really stupid – in one episode he transforms Ma-Mutt into a fly in order to spy on things he can already see in his cauldron.

Thundercats is full of great ideas and great characters. I could forgive embarrassing misfires like an episode centred on moths and spiders if overall the campy fun was satisfying, but taken as a whole, it’s enjoyable only knowing it’s crap, really. That said, I love the Thundercats and especially Wilykit and Wilykat, always my favourities; I can’t wait for the Studio 4°C reboot. But much as I enjoy the nostalgia, the simplicity and the world, if asked if Thundercats is good…I have to say no.

For my final word, what I wrote in 2007: ‘I will defend the show’s quality from detractors; it’s formulaic, simple and the dialogue is atrocious, but it’s imaginative, sincere and fun in a way very few shows today ever manage. Yes, it is sincere, for while it’s written in a way that seems somewhat condescending, you can tell the creators are writing what they genuinely think kids will like and what they think is good stuff, rather than patronising them with attempts to be hip and postmodern.’

BECK / BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad

I had mixed feelings all the way through Beck. In the end, I can only say I really enjoyed a handful of the episodes. In general, having tried out both, I'd say that the manga is high-quality, but the anime adaptation lets it down. The plot is simple but effective – a young boy called Koyuki, picked on at school and without any real friends, meets an older boy called Ryuusuke, a keen guitarist who used to be in a band with one of the most successful rock artists in Japan.

Koyuki-kun soon takes up the guitar, helped by his eccentric teacher, Saito-san, and practices as hard as he can. Soon, he’s good enough to play rhythm guitar in Ryuusuke’s new band, along with some other strong musicians – a band named after Ryuusuke’s dog, Beck. It is only when Koyuki reveals his angelic singing voice that the band truly begin to shine, and through Ryuusuke’s connections and a successful American independent release, they get to headline the third stage at a popular festival.

The band seems to be falling apart, based on the impossible wager that they can get more people watching the third stage then either of the others, and Koyuki is the only band member willing to perform. He goes up and sings a Beatles song, gradually joined by the other members, and they play such a storming set that the unlikely (indeed, faintly ridiculous) feat of drawing the biggest audience slowly comes about – helped by the fact that the main stage band have no integrity (as if THAT really matters!) and the second stage’s equipment broke down.

The real charm of the series comes from the relationships Koyuki has – the achingly ambiguous relationships with girls, the friendships with band members, the comic relationships with certain adults. Where the series gets somewhat daft is in a crazy crime-subplot about Ryuusuke’s stolen guitar, which involves people coming in helicopters to see him, assassins and shadowy rock legends.

The real trouble with this being an anime, not a manga, is that no band, no voice, is ever going to do justice to what you can imagine when you’re told that this band is incredible. I can forgive the dodgy Engrish and terrible animal noises. But I never once believed that Beck could be a success, because they just weren’t a good band. That, along with an often slow and far-fetched story means that this anime will never be a favourite.

For all I was unconvinced by the band, though, Beck had one of the most catchy opening theme songs I've ever heard.

(originally written 6.4.05)

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

アリソンとリリア / Allison and Lillia

I must admit to being a little suprised by Allison and Lillia.

I really expected it to be my sort of anime. It had a nice, simple yet pretty art style and a slow, lyrical pace, both in the World Masterpiece Theatre mould.

Set in an old-fashioned European-influenced world in the shadow of war, I thought it would be sophisticated, epic and ambitious. Which is why I am now more than typically hostile to it now, after it came to an end. What a letdown!

Adapted from a series of novels, it concerns a long-running war and its resolution, then the various adventures of those who were instrumental in bringing about peace, as well as the lives of their children.

The big problem with the series was its paucity of fine detail and horribly rushed storytelling. Stuffing full novels into a few episodes made resolutions stupidly simple and pat, revelations abrupt and babyish, and character reactions and dialogue irksomely basic and unconvincing. Far too many unintentional laughs in this show, when baddies go tumbling over balconies for no real reason, heroes are saved by stupid coincidence and big twists are revealed to be painfully badly thought-through. Not to mention painfully obvious dialogue, horrible cheesy speeches that melt the blackest hearts and over-simplistic resolutions that contribute to the sense of bathos.

There are cute elements, the comedy of an admiring partner and a totally clueless object of affections often genuinely eliciting warm laughs, and the main characters are likeable, if not enough to elevate them from being dull. It's just that the action is so lame and cheesy, the emotional attachment possible with the characters is so insufficient for the running time, meaning the abiding impression left by this series is of how shallow, goofy and very, very dull it has been.

And the dénouement at the end of the series made me want to punch things.

(originally written 22.2.09)

Friday, 20 May 2011

サムライチャンプルー / Samurai Chanpuruu / Samurai Champloo

The first episode seemed to me to promise something great. After the success of Cowboy Bebop, the director, Watanabe Shinichiro, was given a new project with an extremely high budget. The animation was stunning, the fight direction inspired, the characters well-designed and expertly voiced, the story – three misfits thrown together by tenuous circumstances – fairly interesting and the anachronistic humour of inserting elements of hip-hop culture into 17th-century Japan gave ample opportunity for laughs. But SamCham suffers from the same flaw as Bebop – no story. There’s a loose framework: the characters are searching for ‘a samurai who smells like sunflowers’, and get into all sorts of scrapes on the way, but ultimately, the series was totally episodic. This made for an extremely varied quality – sometimes good, solid stories were told in one or two episodes, sometimes it degenerated into terrible slapstick, as when the drifters were forced to play baseball against some visiting Americans. Yup. We also had to endure ogres, fake Christian missionaries, graffiti artists and beatboxers. The hip-hop elements were funny as incidental details. Over a whole episode, less so, especially when you just want to know when the real plot is going to kick in.

But in the end, it was an excuse to have two hyper-powered, pretty much invulnerable heroes (who survive stabbings, massive explosions and various other grievous injuries unscathed) going around kicking arse. Okay for a while, but it gets old quickly. Especially since the characters weren’t that good to begin with. Mugen was essentially Zoro from One Piece (with the same voice and everything), except less likeable. Jin was the strong, silent type, which was fine, but didn’t allow for much development. Fuu was the everyman character, but the injected plot device of this sunflower-smelling samurai that she keeps whinging on about despite never seeming very personally involved made her rather irritating.

The show was at its best when showing traditional fight scenes, such as when Jin battles a blind woman who is nevertheless an expert with her weapon on one of those Japanese bridges that has a gap between every step. Hard to swallow, perhaps, but extremely impressive nonetheless. But good fights can’t make up for a deficiency in plot, and that’s what really matters. A shame, because I was hoping to genuinely love this show.

It will find an audience with people overawed by pretty clashes and bangs, who like superpowered heroes who never really seem to be in much danger. But for people who want a little more substance, I would advise looking elsewhere.

(originally written 3.11.05)

Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children

I watched Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children almost the moment it was leaked. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I devoted a monstrous amount of time to FFVII in my early teens, seeing every last scene in the game (although I never bothered to play it so that Cloud would take Tifa to the Golden Saucer. Yuffie and Barrett, yes, but Tifa? Meh. Even though they ended up together, ring and all!). I spent my days reading various speculations on the ending and even having my own little site with what would now be called crack fanart comics. So I was understandably quite excited by the prospect of Advent Children.

CG still has a long way to go before it looks truly real, but the graphics displayed here are phenomenal. Beautiful stuff, with some daring directorial decisions. The early fight scenes seem a bit clunky to me, and not all the animation is convincing, but by the time the whole gang was reassembled to fight the Bahamut-like summoned creature, I was so captivated that I didn’t care. That scene had me grinning for its entire length. Even Cait Sith made an appearance!

Set two years after the end of the game (I guess Red XIII just ages badly!), human life goes on as normal, despite the intervention of the life stream. However, many people have been infected by the cells of Genova, giving them a disease called Geostigma, giving disturbing visions and scars. Three men have apparently received more of Jenova’s cells than others, as well as being 'remnants' of Sephiroth thanks apparently to his strong will refusing to be absorbed. These men, led by Kadaj, assemble everyone with Jenova’s cells in order to have a ‘reunion’, which will heal them, or bring back Sephiroth, or stop them making angsty nonsensical speeches, or something. Honestly, the plot barely exists: it’s just a loose framework in order to link one fight scene to the next. For this reason, it’s not a great film, but its entire purpose seems to be to give a thrill to fans like me – and in this, it succeeds admirably.

Snazzy graphics, overlong and overblown fight scenes, lots of psychobabble and plot incoherence are exactly what I was expecting from a FFVII movie. And if it made little sense to a devotee of the game like me, to the uninitiated it would surely be an hour and a half of utter nonsense. Cloud says ‘I pity you, who understands nothing’ - but I can't help but feel he's talking to the audience as a whole.

Not too impressed by how totally useless the Turks were, and it was a shame they didn't have an updated version of their theme, which was always damn cool. Still, an in-joke involving a ringtone really made me giggle.

Nice to watch something from Japan where the characters, to my eye at least, actually look Japanese. Albeit all Japanese models and boy band members. Oh, and Vincent rocks my socks, clocks and even my box. And I love Yuffie, too. They need more screen time!

Overall, highly enjoyable just for the fact that I could see well-loved characters in glorious CG. Otherwise, not great.

(originally written 13.9.05)

Thursday, 19 May 2011

エイリアン9 / Alien Nine

I was expecting all the wrong things from Alien Nine. A lot of the anime and manga I love subvert expectations. Princess Tutu begins as a daft shoujo piece and then later on starts playing with your mind and you realise just how clever it has been. Narutaru begins a cute show with dark edges, and then evolves into a dark show with cute edges. 20th Century Boys purposely revolves around the kind of clichés preteen Japanese boys love. So when I heard it had dark elements, I thought Alien Nine might be similar. In the end, though, the only subverted expectation was that the annoying character flaws of the protagonist would be overcome and she would prove herself in some way – but no, despite several apparent set-ups for this occurrence, Otani remained the whiney crybaby she always was. The lolicon writer probably thought her bursting into tears every two seconds was moé moé. It really wasn’t. And attempts to make proceedings somehow more legitimate and adult by showing a lot of alien creatures getting graphically butchered and (though I suppose this was an ends in and of itself) Barbie-doll nudity for one of the ten-year-old lolis only cheapened everything and made it gratuitous.

And this is the kind of stuff that gets dubbed and distributed in the West. No wonder the uninitiated regard Japanese animation as porno splatterfests. And it falls into the trap of setting much of its climax in the minds of its characters, too, trying to be freaky and unsettling but mostly just being cack.

I watched this along with Ergo Proxy, somehow under the impression they would compliment one another. Well, it does quite amuse me that I thought they might be similar when in almost every way they are polar opposites, in terms of art, budget, sophistication, target audience, scope…but the only reason I’ll ever watch this again is to laugh at it, or to illustrate how sexualised even the cutesiest lolicon anime can be without being parodies or ecchi comedies.

(originally written 15.1.08)

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

かしまし ~ガール・ミーツ・ガール~/Kashimashi: Girl Meets Girl

For all the adult nature of much of the anime business, and the easy availability of manga and anime with homosexual themes, if a show is going to have anything but clique success, same-sex love has to be hidden behind at least a veneer of orthodox heterosexuality. Thus, most anime with boys who act in a gay manner are comedies, as in Princess Princess, where the prettiest boys in a boarding school dress up as girls because the totally non-gay student population want to imagine them as females, or Ouran, where acting gay is a way to excite girls. Otherwise they’re pushed into a corner with Gravitation and Loveless and watched only by a very small subset of anime fans – more dominant in the West because of the high proportion of teenaged girls who love anime here, but certainly minor in Japan.

It’s fine, however, for mainstream shounen like Naruto and Hikaru no Go to have lots of hints at homosexuality, as long as it isn’t explicit. Strange roundabout way of thinking.

From this mindset comes the utterly stupid premise of Kashimashi: a shy, girlish boy is rejected by the girl he loves. He goes up a mountain to reflect, only to be taken by aliens and turned into a girl. Since he’s a boy REALLY, it’s fine to have him explore lesbian relationships. It’s a very bad premise.

But despite this, and despite some of the worst comedic characters I’ve ever seen (including a father who only wants to take dirty pictures of his son now that he’s become his daughter, an over-exaggeratedly dippy teacher and an alien duo consisting of one serious man in a silly yellow suit and a hyper girl who affixes ‘-puu!’ to every sentence), Kashimashi turned out to be a good anime – and a popular one, too.

You see, the story didn’t really concern itself much with the gender-switching, other than for some light humour. What the anime was really about was a love triangle. Hazumu, our newly-double-Xed protagonist, had his advances rejected by Yasuna, but also has feelings for Tonari, his tomboyish childhood friend and next-door neighbour. When it becomes clear that Yasuna rejected him not because she doesn’t like him but for reasons that will only slowly be unveiled, and Tonari begins to be more assertive in showing Hazumu she cares, tensions run high. It’s nothing that hasn’t been done before, but it’s done very well, and I really began to care which of the girls Hazumu would finally choose. And while the final decision wasn’t the one I would have liked to have seen, and there was a suggestion that a large part of what informed his choice was pity, there WAS more to it than that - and from the beginning he seemed to have a stronger inclination to sway in that direction, even if less rational reason. And whoever said love had to be rational? With that in mind, I was satisfied with the ending, and enjoyed the sadness of the rejection that was then inevitable for the bittersweet tragedy and display of braveness it was. Soap-opera melodrama, which probably would have been insufferably cheesy performed by live-action actresses, but very sweet.

Plus at 12 episodes, hardly a huge distraction.

Seems there’ll be an extra episode with the DVD releases. I’ll look forward to it.

(originally written 18.8.06)

Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland

The fact is that without the Ghibli connection, I would never even have heard of this rather minor Japanese-American production, intended to be a great landmark in the history of anime, but in fact one of its great disappointments.

There was so much potential here. The source material is great, a whimsical early 20th-century comic strip about a boy who goes off on various adventures when he falls asleep, usually waking up having fallen out of his bed to the sound of his parents telling him he shouldn’t have eaten various things late at night (raw onions with ice cream, for example). It’s a bizarre and beautiful little strip, startlingly modern (especially the way Flip talks to people) and hallucinogenic, with much in common with Alice in Wonderland.

The animated adaptation brought together some phenomenal talent. The big-hitters of Ghibli were involved in pre-production, Takahata and Miyazaki leaving because they wanted to tell a different story than the one that seemed to be developing. Yoshifumi Kondo, who directed Mimi-o Sumaseba, possibly my favourite of Ghibli’s movies, stayed long enough to helm a charming little test film with a very Ghibli secondary character and some stunning flight scenes. Renown Ashita no Joe/Rose of Versailles director Dezaki Osamu made a pilot that really does meld Japanese and Western animation styles in a very interesting way. Ultimately, animation was done by TMS, who produced Akira, Jarinko Chie and now do things like D.Gray-Man, which lends credence to the claim that Nemo should be classified as anime, except that they also worked on cartoons such as Inspector Gadget, Ghostbusters and Futurama.

The fact is that this could have been a superb film, but it became sanitised. It has the fingerprints of American boardrooms all over it. Yes, they got Ray Bradbury in at the beginning, but it was Chris Columbus who got screenplay credits. By the time Dezaki was doing his pilot, there was a comedy animal sidekick. Flip, who was superb in the comic because he was a sardonic, cynical wisecracker who does things like antagonise pirates to the point of execution before letting slip that his parents are powerful enough to vaporise them in an instant, becomes a jolly, grinning Mickey Rooney who may have a dark edge but is far too fun-loving.

Everything just became too safe. The story is simplistic and the animation never bravura. The characters are a bit irritating (though I did warm to the princess after her right straight punch!) and the music is bland. There’s nothing unsettling here, and it’s all sickly and wholesome and has comic relief and cute sidekick characters so dull that it would be much better without them. It’s also a bit overlong.

The designs could have been a bit less goofy. Nemo looks great in his coronation outfit but his face is far too inconsistent and too often off-model. The princess is bland and let’s face it, when she starts flirting with a child she’s just met it’s plain weird, and Flip’s characterisation grates, down to his physicality. Let’s not forget annoying ‘jester’ goblins and squirrels. The designs and colouring is just too simple for a late-80s animation. That said, I’d love to see a Bon Bon cosplayer – one of the designs that made it most intact from the original, even if I don’t think she had a name or any individuality in the strip.

I’m perhaps being a little harsh on the film. It has charming moments, cuteness that works, a functional story and a good pace. Some of the setpieces are amazing. It plays a bit with levels of reality in an effective way and the opening sometimes harks back to the test film in a good way. The acting is by and large very good, though the squirrel and the crow should’ve gone. Disappointing, but not disastrous.

(Originally written 8.8.08)

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

シャッフル! / Shuffle!

I suppose one could call it ‘the nipple factor’. With the exception of R.O.D. the TV, every show that has female nudity and actually includes nipples, rather than trying to be artistic and tasteful with the Barbie-doll factor or concealing crucial areas, has been catering to the lowest common denominator, ended up being trashy rubbish and actually removed rather than enhanced most of the attractiveness of the characters. Let’s face it: a drawing is a drawing, and dots for nipples aren't going to do it for most.

Anyway, Shuffle! got a fairly bad rep in the anime community. And a lot of it really is very bad. However, it actually manages to be better than expected, but only because the first and second halves of the series seem like completely different shows.

The first half is pretty awful. Rin, an ordinary sort of a boy, is surrounded by cute girls, including one who lives with him and acts virtually as a servant of her own free will. Not only this, but the world he lives in is populated not solely by humans but also by demons and gods, distinguished mostly by their kawaii~ pointy ears. Rin’s daily life is disturbed when two new girls transfer to his school and announce that not only are they both princesses (one of the gods, the other of the demons), but both want to take Rin as husband and make him ruler of an entire dimension.

The absurdity only increases. We have the normal harem nonsense of beach episodes and comedic mix-ups. We then get utterly trite angst with the channelling of dead twins and split personalities, and an overlong subplot about little engineered lolis who can only be saved by the power of love.

The second half, however, mostly ignores this sort of rubbish as Rin seems to be leaning towards another girl altogether, a long-time friend who is the least cliché of all the girls. This part actually begins to work, even when jealousy is taken a very long way, but then it all tumbles down again because of lazy writers falling back on magic.

In the end, Shuffle! isn’t dire, and at times it actually leans towards Kimi Ga Nozomu Eien in a rather appealing way, but ultimately it’s laden with too much crap to be considered anything like a good series.

However, it brings to anime the rather excellent term ミスターロリペドフィン!

(originally written 11.12.08)

舞-乙 / Mai-Otome

Well, since it’s been well over a year now since Mai-Otome: Sifr came to an end, and it looks like the planned follow-up has turned into Sora–o Kakeru Shoujo, the preliminary plot possibly going into the new Mai-HiME manga, so I felt it was finally time to watch the very last episode and lay out my impressions.

Mai-Otome is the follow-up to Sunrise’s highly successful Mai-HiME, which I enjoyed very much. Rather than the usual continuation of plots and new perils for the same characters, however, Sunrise took the unusual decision of total reinvention. The general idea is that hundreds of years have passed, present-day sci-fi transformed into a futuristic and very, very silly vision. Sunrise are all for embracing the silliest concepts they can and then taking them very seriously, filling their plots with melodrama. That’s the case here – a naïve but sprightly young girl called Yumemiya Arika, looking for clues about the life her mother lived, goes to a special school where they train otome (meaning ‘maidens’), young girls who for whatever reason can use old nanotechnology to fly, wield huge weapons and become incredibly resilient. So incredibly strong are these girls that they have becomes the primary way wars are fought, all the leaders of the world employing an otome. Arika not only gets tangled up with her future queen, but manages to enrol in the school and in spite of her natural haplessness, becomes rival and friend of the best student.

The link between this and Mai-HiME? Strange. One character is, it is inferred, the same as in the original series, but the rest just happen to look identical to older counterparts. Some are reimagined cleverly, like Mashiro, while there are surreal turns in other places, one or two characters returning as animals. Essentially, the link is tenuous and if anything, it comes over as a hollow attempt to cash in on a successful series despite offering something completely different. Oh the other hand, Otome was successful enough to spawn not only a second series but a rather confusing and lowbrow OVA prequel as well. The characters are fun, pretty and likeable, the daft premise soon becomes deeply enjoyable, and when things turn serious, it all works well. Arika is a great character, and so are Nina and Mashiro. Mai-HiME was nothing very sophisticated, although it did get surprisingly heavy and emotional, and Mai-Otome was considerably lighter yet, but for something to relax to and enjoy, few action series did it better.

(originally written 6.3.10)

Monday, 16 May 2011

賭博黙示録カイジ / Tobaku Mokushiroku Kaiji / Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji

Of the many remarkable things about Kaiji, the most immediately noticeable is, without doubt, the character design, which looks more like some wacky French comic or even a Westerner’s parody of anime than like the vast majority of other productions around it, especially from Madhouse. Faces are elongated, eyes are simple and bold, noses are as striking as any from Fantastic Children and, most crucially of all, the lines of the art are comparatively very thick indeed, which more than anything else gives Kaiji its stylised look. Other elements are certainly remarkable too, from the excessive reactions and hysterics of the characters in moments of great despair, the near-fetishistic brutality of its scenarios and the trademark ‘zawa’ sound effect, so prominent in the manga that it was not merely imitated when making an anime, but spoken and even written in the onscreen space.

Kaiji is a gambling anime about the unfortunate titular character, who through no fault of his own ends up in huge debt. Gangsters offer him the chance to win the money he needs, but at great risk, with the stakes ever-increasing. Kaiji has to figure out tricks to help him win, as well as discovering whether or not his opponents are playing fair. As stakes rise and so do histrionics, Kaiji gleefully flings itself into extremely over-the-top situations, accentuated by a very melodramatic presentation, but that is part of its charm.

The first arc, centred on the game ‘restricted janken’, was really quite ingenious, with clever strategies and tricks, and Kaiji believably growing from naivety to canniness. After that, though, the situations became increasingly absurd and while memorable, really weren’t very well-suited to a gambling anime. Sadly, towards the end of the series, when card games returned, the strategies and tricks were extremely simplistic and Kaiji is tricked by simple things (and comes up with failing strategies) that really he should see are much too obvious. The mini-arc grows into satisfying bluffs, double-bluffs, triple-bluffs…but that’s really where it ought to have started, getting cleverer from there. While the show pleasingly ends without huge fanfares of triumph, there’s the feeling that this is really only because there’ll be another season (at least; there’s plenty more manga), giving little closure.

Memorable, iconic, entertainingly overblown and very enjoyable, I nonetheless feel Kaiji should’ve been more.

(originally written 14.6.09)

ぺとぺとさん / Petopeto-san

Cute, wholesome and inoffensive, Petopeto-san was a throwaway anime that was fun to watch but hardly likely to change lives or produce hardcore fans. With soft, rounded character designs and one of the most insanely cute/grating intros in recent memory, it brought a smile to the face but seldom found itself at the top of the must-watch list.

The world of Petopeto-san is like modern-day Japan, except that all the spirits of folklore have become much more human-like and live alongside them. Some look quite normal – kappa look like everyone else even if their temperaments and abilities are still supernatural – and others less so, like the boy with no face and the girl who is nothing but a tiny brick with adorable little eyes and mouth, plus the ability to shape-shift temporarily.

Our main characters are a human boy, Shingo, and monster called Petoko. While superficially normal (but for her footfalls being cute squeezy noises), Petoko is biologically a seductive monster that clings to someone and never lets go. However, beneath her cheerful exterior lie many bad memories, which begin to cause problems as the two grow closer.

Amidst the cuteness of lil’-sis festivals and sticking-together misadventures, the usual trick of using a fantasy race to highlight real problems of prejudice comes out, and this light series also features many darker themes, though nothing that hasn’t been done countless times before. The traditional monsters, however, can do some spectacular tricks, and there are some moments that are really beautiful, and many more that are very sweet indeed.

Nothing overly special, but I don’t regret the way I spent the time I gave these 13 episodes one bit.

(originally written 6.9.06)

Sunday, 15 May 2011

The Magic Sword: The Quest for Camelot

I don’t really have a very good reason for watching lacklustre 90s animated features, but I got hold of a glut of them on a whim a few months ago. Today’s box office flop of choice was The Magic Sword: Quest for Camelot, which Warner Brothers released in the shadow of Disney’s more successful but still rather poor Mulan.

Managing to be both very much of-the-moment and also very formulaic, it takes familiar tropes of Arthurian legend but puts a feisty female protagonist at its centre. The plot centres on the need to return Excalibur to King Arthur in order to protect Camelot from the aggression of a traitorous knight. On paper, this may well have worked. The plot is simple but many of the best ones are, and the way the baddy is foist on his own pitar was satisfying; however, without characters to really care for and with way too many annoying comic relief characters, it falls flat.

The cast is stellar, featuring several big Hollywood names as well as a Python and a few lines from a bona-fide Shakespearean stage legend, not to mention singing voices provided by some very impressive names; however, those with serious roles sound bored with their insipid characters (Pierce Brosnan’s King Arthur is not only wet and ineffective but sounds like he’s falling asleep) while those with comedy roles get lame, shoehorned-in pop culture references that seem like they were included because some board deemed them fashionable rather than because, y’know, they were actually funny. There are far too many comedy roles here, all of them charmless and irritating. Gary Oldman’s campy eccentricities somehow work when he’s onscreen himself, but his disembodied voice was fey and pantomimic, making for a hopelessly ineffective bad guy. The music is sung well but composed lazily, the with the lyrics far too tied to the narrative, when if Disney have shown anything with their modern style, it’s that more general themes for songs work better.

Unsatisfying, cheap-looking and suffering from extremely bland characters, it’s one to miss. Oh well.

(originally written 13.1.09)

ブラッド・ザ・ラストバンパイヤ / Blood: the Last Vampire

This 45-minute theatrical feature animation managed to gain quite the reputation, but I found it difficult to see why; I can’t recommend it in the least. It has just one thing going for it: some above-average, albeit not stunning, animation sequences.

Released in 2000, Blood: the Last Vampire has spawned its own animation series, Blood+, as well as various video games. The plot is basic – vampires in an American military base situated in Japan must be hunted down by a kickass babe in schoolgirl’s clothes. Cue lots of bloodletting, lots of ugly, cheesy monsters and a fair few clichés that will have you burying your face in your hands. Not bad for three quarters of an hour.

If your idea of anime is stuck in the 80s, that is to say that you pick up a DVD from Manga Entertainment expecting a splatterfest of gore and maybe some idealised girls and explosions, but don’t care about plot, then just maybe this will be for you. If you like any semblance of plot or characterisation, look elsewhere, for our protagonist is a typical ice-maiden that it’s very hard to care about, and the sympathetic character at her side is even duller - although her character design (a dumpy middle-aged lady) is a welcome deviation from the rest of the clichés surrounding it. Much better action adventure anime can be found – just look at Princess Mononoke or Mai-HiME. Fans of vampire anime would do far better with Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust or Trinity Blood, which take their subject seriously but with strong characters and interesting storylines. There’s also the classic Hellsing, which is also cheesy in its way, but infinitely cooler than Blood: the Last Vampire because it revels in its schlockiness.

Perhaps the title was marketed heavily towards the English-language market because some half of its dialogue is in English. But this is to the detriment of the title, because the badly-written dialogue is made still worse by some stiff and lifeless English-language acting. And the way some of the black guys are drawn borders on offensive.

The integration of CG and hand-drawn animation is technically impressive, in the opening scene in particular, but that alone does not make Blood: the Last Vampire worth seeing. I also think it a little reprehensible that the running time is not supplied on the DVD case. I’m sure several people have bought this thinking they’re getting a full feature, only to have a piece of animation the length of a single TV special.

(originally written 11.9.07)

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Adventure Time (seasons 1&2)

The second season of Adventure Time just ended in a strange fashion – one episode was delayed, so ended up airing after the season finale. But with such an episodic series, it hardly matters, and anyone paying close enough attention to notice has probably heard about the situation and realises the episode wasn’t a continuation of the cliffhanger.

It’s been very interesting to watch Adventure Time transition from extremely silly and surreal Youtube hit, through popular new cult hit, and on to suffering a backlash as a cartoon only smug hipsters like, which has lost its way.

Thinking of the series like this, though, is to care too much about what other people think. It’s certainly changed in tone since that first little pilot, but really, it had to, and while remaining both extremely surreal and quite often the funniest thing on its network, it has also begun to finally show a little depth and sophistication, and towards the end of its second season started to bring to fore post-apocalyptic plot details foreshadowed from the very beginning but until recently only peripheral.

Finn may just be the last human left in his world, after the Great Mushroom War brought an end to civilisation as we know it. In the wake of the disaster, however, all manner of peculiar sapient beings have repopulated the world, including people made of sweets, vampires and flying unicorn-rainbow creatures. Finn’s best friend is a shape-shifting yellow dog called Jake, and together these two spend their days seeking adventure and going on silly quests.

Things certainly changed since the pilot. In changing from Penn (ie a representation of the younger self of creator Pendleton Ward) to Finn, the protagonist had a design change to look more stylised and shorter, his head seeming to grow into his body except in the rare instances he takes off his hat. The world, while still populated by very odd creatures, was more consistent, coherent and self-contained – no more visions of Abraham Lincoln or Jake dialing up to the Internet with his mind. Characters like the Ice King got developed by repeated appearances, and with a few notches less surrealism, there’s a few degrees more accessibility – although arguably you could call that less daring and originality. But of course the pilot still exists, and the two compliment each other well.

Adventure Time is supposed to look amateurish and psychedelic, and thrives on characters that can stretch, change and be drawn very quickly. It’s slapdash and silly – and the writing is intentionally subversive. Several highlights come at the ends of episodes, where something very odd and unresolved might happen moments before the credits roll, with a Pythonesque lack of a punchline.

I don’t care if much of its fanbase are abandoning Adventure Time because they perceive it as having got too mainstream or because they feel it has gotten too far from its roots. For me, it is the most consistently amusing kid-friendly animated comedy I can remember on American TV – even more so than Invader Zim or The Powerpuff Girls, and for that I will keep watching right until the end.

Season 3: link
Season 4: link
Season 5: link
Adventure Time (season 6)
Adventure Time (season 7)
Adventure Time (season 8)
Adventure Time: season 9
Adventure Time (season 10)

サイキックフォース / Psychic Force (OVA)

It’s been a long time now since I first watched the Psychic Force OVA, but since I rewatched it last night, I thought it about time to write my impressions.

Psychic Force started life as a little-known fighting game for the Playstation that I became addicted to back in 1997 simply because I saw images of the animated intro in a gaming magazine and loved the character designs. Indeed, the intro to the game remains one of the best opening sequences I’ve ever seen, with great music, extremely dynamic animation and those really great-looking characters. I became a great fan and sought out the rare Puzzle Taisen spin-off, released only in Japan, because it, too, had a great animated intro – although the song was very cheesy. I spent hours on a 56.6kb modem getting fanart, ordering doujinshi anthologies I couldn’t read, and of course playing the game. And at some point, I got hold of two versions of the OVA – a Hong Kong DVD with nice transfer but utterly impenetrable subtitles, and a fansub with VHS transfer and much better (though still poor by today’s standards) subs from the old tape-trading days.

The OVA takes its story from the game, which seems to be highly influenced by The X-Men. In 2010, more and more people are showing signs of having evolved further than the rest of the human race. Telekinesis, elemental control and, it would seem, a universal ability to fly mark these ‘Psychickers’, and so of course begins the subjugation of and experimentation on innocents by government authorities so ubiquitous in such stories. An organisation called NOA, led by a man with the decidedly unthreatening name Keith, begins to fight back, and commences a hostile takeover. But the more sinister Wong, with control over time itself, is the one really pulling the strings, and his ambitions go further than emancipation. The government is not alone in opposing NOA, as a group of young superpowered heroes led by Burn, a young man with control over fire, is leading the counterattack.

The OVA has a lot of story to fit into just one hour, and squanders most of it with a lengthy and highly unimaginative flashback to the friendship between Burn and Keith that blossomed several years earlier. Most minor characters, including my favourite, the vulnerable and terrified young Emilio, get only cameo roles, and poor Wendy’s story barely gets touched upon at all – but she fares better than Genma, who never even meets any of the other characters. The worst part is the ending, where Wong begins to feel threatened in a fight against Brad and Sonia, who he has previously been controlling with Keith’s help, and…blows everything up. Just like that. He gets some of his hair cut off…so he blows up the building. Way to wrap up the plot.

There’s a rich story and an impressive aesthetic to Psychic Force, even if both are really very derivative. But unfortunately only the simplest and least impressive parts make it to the anime adaptation, and the screenplay must be one of the laziest I’ve ever encountered. A disappointing adaptation of a favourite property.

(originally written 2.11.07)

Friday, 13 May 2011

愛してるぜ ベイベ★★ / Aishiteruze Baby ★★

Katakura Kippei is an ordinary teenaged boy – simple, good-hearted, popular with the girls and carefree. One day, however, he comes home to find that his aunt has disappeared, leaving behind her five-year-old daughter, and he's the only one who can look after her. So begins Kippei’s abrupt introduction to motherhood.

The series is unashamedly reliant on the charm of little Yuzuyu, an adorable little child who is nevertheless still believable – selfish, reliant and prone to the occasional tantrum, but with a strong sense of right and wrong and a touching cheerfulness and generosity.

But cuteness alone is not enough. Fortunately, Kippei is an engaging, thoroughly likeable character who always strives to make others happy. He is adored by most of the girls in his school, including one scary stalker (naturally, the only one who isn’t utterly beautiful), but because he is so simple and so kind-hearted, this doesn’t make him arrogant or vain. His struggles to understand a five-year-old girl, and the strange jealousy between her and his new girlfriend, make him entertaining, engaging but also admirable – Kippei genuinely is a good person, and always treats others with sympathy and generosity.

Aishiteruze Baby is very good, but falls a little short of being a classic. I can cope with the poor animation standards, because the story is conveyed just fine. The trouble comes when the anime veers off into more adult territory: an abusive parent, a child clinging to the things that remind her of her mama, a mother hiding from her own daughter…and while suicidal teenager Miki is actually very well-portrayed in such a short time, her story suffers the same problem as the others I just mentioned: the old anime cliché of everything stemming from one or two significant events earlier in a character’s life (that can be seen in flashbacks), solvable by a main character talking…very… earnestly…until…they…change…their…ways. Rushed side-stories like these brought nothing to the anime, and made everything that little bit more trite. This, and some very slow episodes towards the end mean Aishiteruze Baby is only good, not great. Nevertheless, with some excellent characters, wonderful humour and a good heart, it’s worth seeing.

(originally written 24.8.05)

チーズスイートホーム/ Chii’s Sweet Home

Kittens are cute, right? Well, here’s something that’s definitely cute – the life of a little kitten adopted by a nice family of mother, father and little preschool-age son, revolving around the little creature’s hapless exploration of her world.

Chii one day gets separated from her mother and the rest of the litter, eventually collapsing from exhaustion in a public park. Luckily, little Yohei happened to trip and fall in the same place, and the two end up face-to-face. Yohei’s parents can’t bear to leave the little mewling kitten alone, so take her home. There are rules against cats in their apartment complex, however, so they are at first unwilling to get attached. On the other hand, they soon find it's very difficult to get anyone to take a cat in, and once they give her a name – because she seems to answer to the word which means ‘pee’ – it becomes increasingly apparent they don’t want to give her away. The rest of the short three-minute episodes are devoted to Chii’s little adventures: house-training, getting into the food bag, wanting to go outside but not being allowed because the landlady might spot her, getting taken to the vet, making friends with the big fat cat that’s being kept upstairs. Everything is adorable.

Chii has all the hallmarks of a cat character – somewhat clueless, playful, easily distracted and rather self-centred and stubborn, but very sweet and affectionate. There are touches of the bittersweet when she is remembering – and forgetting – her mother, which give a touch of depth to a very frivolous series, but mostly this series is meant to be superficial, sweet and bring a smile to the face. And it could hardly do this better. I look forward to more of the same in Chii’s New Address.