Thursday, 30 June 2011

借りぐらしのアリエッティ/ Karigurashi no Arietti / The Borrower Arrietty

There are numerous ways in which The Borrower Arrietty is a departure for Ghibli, and all of them in a positive way. This is the first time since Yoshifumi Kondou’s Mimi-o Sumaseba that a film from one of the studio’s junior directors (ie not Miyazaki or Takahata) has looked as carefully, expensively or lovingly-realised as the flagship titles. It would be odd for someone who knows Ghibli well to mistake The Cat Returns or Tales from Earthsea for a film directed by Miyazaki – the backgrounds are nowhere near so well-realised, the colouring is much simpler and the tone tends to be less stately and artful. But, after years working as key animator on Miyazaki’s films (from Sen to Chihiro to Ponyo), as well as on notable non-Ghibli projects like Jin-Roh and Monster, Yonebayashi Hiromasu, better-known as Maro, is the latest Ghibli director. He may not yet have found his own unique voice, but as a starting place, the house style of Studio Ghibli is hard to better.

Arrietty sticks more closely to the plot of the original 50s Borrowers books than other recent adaptations, for example the slapstick 1997 film starring John Goodman and Jim Broadbent. Equally, there have been changes made to bring the story in line with more typical Ghibli aesthetics, the most obvious being the transition of the story from England to Japan, as well as a modernisation of sorts – to a very old-fashioned lifestyle in the present day. The boy is given the name Sho, and rather than being sent back home to the Colonies, he is to have an operation, giving a more melancholy sense of uncertainty to what will happen after the end of the film. Indeed, melancholy is the prevailing mood, and it works well.

The story is otherwise familiar: the little family unit of Borrowers live out of sight in a large household. Young Arrietty is an adventurous little girl, daughter of a skilled Borrower father and a loving, skittish mother. The Hollywood scriptwriters knew what they were doing when they rewrote Peagreen as a sibling for Arrietty: having a sibling in such an isolated family makes everything lighter and cheerier. While she has her loving parents, Arrietty is still far more lonesome as an only child, and that allows for a much more interesting dynamic with Sho, who is also isolated and bored because of his illness. Upon moving to the house to rehabilitate for a short time, he sees Arrietty, both in the garden and during the night, and so begins the central, small-scale crisis of the film: can he befriend the little Borrowers, or will they now have to move away?

When I heard Ghibli’s next film would be based on The Borrowers, I really wasn’t sure about the decision. The localisation made everything seem to chime better with the prevailing Ghibli mood, but I still had too much of the 1997 adaptation in mind, I suppose. I expected eccentricity and very English bumbling. But that not to be, and it soon becomes apparent why this was an excellent property to adapt.

Firstly, it has obvious appeal as a showcase of the animated craft. It’s a chance for the filmmakers to have some fun, from making little Sho appear huge from Arrietty’s point of view, to the wonderful detail of the background art when some location we normally imagine as tiny becomes cavernous to a borrower. It is the little sound effects made to seem on a far greater scale, and the little touches like water behaving totally differently when droplets are in relative terms the size of footballs, or postage stamps used as paintings on Borrower walls.

And secondly, it has a timeless, universal quality that fits with earlier Ghibli works like Omohide Poroporo and Totoro. Not much happens, but it is all gripping and emotionally charged. It is not about escaping exterminators or rallying miniature troopers, but about fundamentally different types of people trying to understand one another, and their being forced apart. I said before that the prevailing mood is melancholy, and this is right – there is sadness in Sho’s life, in the Borrowers’ situation, in the impossibility of a happy ending. There are moments of happiness, a great deal of sweetness, and even a moment or two of slapstick (the most obvious being a silly moment with a crow), but overall, this is a more mature, stately and elegant film than I expected, and its soft sadness really touched me. Exciting moments with homes invaded and little people put into jars are really only momentary changes of pace from a central discourse on a strange, personal relationship.

The only part I found misjudged was when Sho and Arrietty talk about how many of their respective species there are in the world. It comes from the original book, slightly altered because Spiller has been introduced (from the second book), but presumably in an effort to continue the bittersweet mood, Sho tells Arrietty her species is dying out, based really on nothing more than the fact he’s never seen any other Borrowers – whose culture largely revolves around staying hidden. It just seems presumptuous and downright rude, which clearly isn’t how it’s intended.

This is in every way a Ghibli film. It doesn’t have Miyazaki hallmarks like pigs or collapsing architecture or thrilling flight scenes (though Spiller at one point glides like a ninja), but I didn’t say it was a Miyazaki film: it has Ghibli’s aesthetic, whimsy, mood and likeability. And Miyazaki-style character design. Spiller even looks like a stocky grown-up Mei.

The upcoming television adaptation with Christopher Eccleston and Stephen Fry may prove to be the most faithful version yet, but I have an inkling that this will endure as my preferred interpretation. Ghibli’s next film is From Kokuriko Hill, Gorou’s second stab at being a worthy successor to o-tou-san, hopefully this time without the whiny blogging. Then come Takahata’s nursery tale and Miyazaki’s very first sequel. On the back of how much I enjoyed Arrietty, I shall probably start watching them as soon as possible again, rather than a year after release.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The Last Unicorn

The Last Unicorn wasn’t a film of my childhood, as it has been for many since its 1982 release. It is generally regarded as something of a classic of animation, and despite its dated aesthetic, the style of the dialogue is remarkably modern for its era and it certainly has captivating imagery. I only watched it for the first time on February 2nd, 2009, and was impressed by the ‘strange and fascinating little animation, very interesting in terms of animation history, extremely idiosyncratic, oddly paced and with some extremely good voice acting.’ I was keen on the ‘quirky, underacted, very Jewish humour’, and found that it was compelling, despite a fairly weak story.

A unicorn discovers from a random butterfly that she is the last of her kind, the rest run out of the world by a ‘red bull’. She is soon captured by an old witch, but escapes with the help of Schmendrick, a bumbling young wizard who mostly relies on simple tricks. Escaping together, the two of them eventually find their way to a castle where can finally find some answers.

The story, though, really isn’t the focus. It all gets wrapped up with a deus ex machina that really could have happened in the first five minutes if that had been how the film was written. The film is more concerned with personal responsibility, relationships between people of different classes and true natures. This makes for a film that always feels somewhat at arm’s length, but allows for some really interesting moments and high visual impact.

But the film is still somewhat seminal. It’s also interesting in that Rankin/Bass had Topcraft provide the animation: they had been collaborating since the early seventies, making mostly TV specials such as Tom Sawyer, as well as the version of The Hobbit now largely eclipsed by the Ralph Bakshi Lord of the Rings adaptation. They went on to make a less impressive follow-up, Return of the King and a further fantasy film, Flight of the Dragons, before Cagliostro and then Nausicäa changed Topcraft forever. The Last Unicorn is very probably the most important and well-known of the Rankin/Bass-Topcraft collaborations – although it’s worth remembering that the bulk of the Topcraft workers who did not go on to be part of Ghibli would work again with Rankin/Bass, this time as Pacific Animation Corporation, to make Thundercats.

Odd, unique and memorable, The Last Unicorn deserves its place as a minor classic that’s just a little too quirky to be part of the Disneyesque mainstream.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

ワンピース: カラクリ城のメカ巨兵/ One Piece movie 7: Giant Mecha Soldier of Karakuri Castle

I found the seventh One Piece movie disappointing in almost exactly the same way as the Naruto movie I had seen not long before, Bonds: it had a functional plot, although ultimately not a very interesting one because the stakes were so low and the bad guy’s motivation was so general and non-specific, plus it didn’t have the stylish art and animation of a Jump movie. One of the main draws of these big-screen versions is that they bring with them stunning visuals.

Then there were two other big rants: firstly, this was during the period that Chopper’s voice actress was off sick, so there’s someone else filling in with a rather different performance, which just seemed wrong. And secondly…there’s the little animators’ joke of making Nami’s boobs bounce at inappropriate times. It looks like there’s something seriously wrong with her and she’s twitching. It’s a joke taken too far, made so prominent it’s impossible not to notice, and it’s just awful.

Revolving around a throwaway plot involving a genius mechanic and the very unique island he lives on, it begins with an intriguing set-up and seems to hint at a clever reveal, but ultimately the antagonist’s ambitions don’t tally with his character and, let’s be honest, were never really going to work for him. This movie was not good enough for a filler episode of the main series, let alone a big-screen adaptation.

(slightly expanded from impressions, 13.8.09)

Monday, 27 June 2011

東のエデン 劇場版 I+II / Higashi no Eden Gekijouban I+II / Eden of the East movies I+II: The King of Eden + Paradise Lost

I loved the Eden of the East anime series, but with a proviso – that the unfinished story would reach a satisfying resolution with the two movies that followed. Unfortunately, these two feature film sequels have not provided closure, nor more depth to its characters, nor even a visual spectacle. The ultimate feeling has been of two protracted episodes of the anime that stalled and went nowhere.

The first movie, The King of Eden, follows on from the slightly difficult situation left behind by the series: trying to direct all suspicion against the NEETs who helped him onto himself, Takizawa has once again erased his memory. However, he has also become something of a celebrity, the image of him pointing at the missiles iconic, making him seem like something of a revolutionary. The first part of the film is devoted to Saki searching for Takizawa, some false drama is created by another Seleção targeting the couple, and then the enigmatic number 1 decides that the best way to attain his ever-changing goals is to destroy everybody else’s Juiz supercomputers. The somewhat throwaway temporary antagonist ‘Johnny Hunter’ from the series saves Takizawa’s computer, and the film ends with Takizawa about to go back to Japan with his plan to become the country’s king – something Juiz might just be able to accomplish.

If all this sounds like half a film, it feels very much that way. There’s a lot of prevarication and not much action. The whole thing could easily have been truncated to half an hour, but instead is spun out. There’s not even much in the way of character development for anyone beside Saki, and if the viewer isn’t attached to her from the series, they’re likely never going to be, so it doesn’t feel too necessary. But of course, there is another film to come, another chance at resolution.

In Paradise Lost, the odd set-up finally comes to a head. Takizawa goes back to Japan, where he is considered either revolutionary or terrorist. Juiz has been leaking information that suggests he’s the illegitimate son of the ex-prime minister, with the undertones of him being groomed as a successor – as close as the computer can get him to being a ‘prince’, and then a king. He is immediately whisked off to be confronted by the wife of the ex-prime minister and lightly interrogated, Surprisingly, this sparks not an action-adventure where Takizawa becomes centre of attention for the world, but a slow quest for Saki to uncover who Takizawa’s parents are. Systematically, the film removes all interesting plot strands without developing them in an interesting way. Takizawa’s memories soon creep back, and Saki spends most of the film away from him, so the interesting direction the romance might have taken goes nowhere. The mysterious other seleção can do nothing, and the two most interesting antagonists end up taken out of the picture in a very artificial way at the end. And Takizawa’s loose plan is never revealed to be something that will manage to work brilliantly in the end. The final resolution is the desperate gasp of a writing team who need an ending, and the muddle of threats, gifts and misdirected social commentary not only doesn’t ring true for a second, but with its aftermath totally trivialises the previous explorations of younger and older generations, the social fears of Japan’s disaffected twenty-somethings and concepts of hereditary privilege within capitalist societies. It could all have been so interesting, but it was presented in such a pat, simplistic way.

The dénouement leaves things open for a final story or two, but after this, my enthusiasm has waned so much. I thought that the story would have links and parallels to King Lear. In the end, if anything, the ideas of the older generation bequeathing their kingdoms to the young could have been the seed for a fantastic story here; the fact that we had nothing but a shadow of it at the end reduced this to one of the biggest disappointments of recent years.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

The Polar Express

Really, The Polar Express was released at the wrong time. It had the script of one of those timeless animations repeated over and over again at Christmastime. Tom Hanks in multiple roles genuinely seemed to care about his performance, often a rarity in animated films with film stars of his stature, and the imagery was iconic.

But the visuals just don’t match their ambition, and the result is the film I feel fairly sure is the most often-cited as an example of the ‘uncanny valley’ concept. The models simply end up looking dead-eyed and puppet-like. Presumably what the collective of studios producing this film for Warner Brothers thought was that realism would help them stand out beside Pixar – whose vastly superior The Incredibles was released in the same week as this – but with 2004’s technology: back then not even the best CG films could make convincing human beings. Certainly not for a full film.

Combined with a story that unfortunately doesn’t allow enough of a connection with its characters and some very odd Riefenstahl-like visuals towards the end, The Polar Express is sadly nowhere near what it could have been.

Friday, 24 June 2011

テガミバチ / Tegami Bachi / Letter Bee (season 1)

Tegami Bachi, originally a manga from Jump Square (which replaced Monthly Shounen Jump), is an unlikely hit, revolving as it does around postal workers. But these are postal workers in a magical, dangerous world of giant part-mechanical monsters and guns that can shoot fragments of the soul, so delivering letters becomes a challenging business. And besides, strange premises never held back good manga – just look at Hikaru no Go or Yakitate!! Japan.

The story begins with a little crybaby of a boy called Lag Seeing being treated as a parcel. His deliveryman, Gauche Suede, impresses him by his absolute devotion and his formidable strength, so the rest of Lag’s life is devoted to becoming a postman – or ‘letter bee’ – himself, complete with the power to kill giant insect ‘gaichuu’. Postman Pat this ain’t.

Lag becomes a bee, helped by a mysterious feral little girl called Niche ('Nitchi', not the English word) who was effectively a lost letter, and works diligently – but Gauche has vanished. His history is surrounded in mystery, and his own sister does not know where he has gone, though longs to see him. Lag pieces together clues he finds in between the other mysteries he encounters, but finding what he searches for only opens up a whole new mystery – and a cliffhanger for the season.

Tegami Bachi works because its ridiculous premise is taken seriously, and because Lag and Niche are not only adorable but a hilarious comic duo. Lag is a total crybaby, but headstrong and determined, while Niche is tough but utterly clueless. Where he is always polite, she has no idea of social norms. Where he is diffident, she has no fear of speaking her mind. And her devotion to him becomes both very sweet and at times quite funny.

A second season, Tegami Bachi Reverse, continues in much the same style, and of course the manga goes on too. Tegami Bachi is too daft and action-oriented to make a huge impact or be taken seriously, but it is always fun to watch. It looks nice, Studio Pierrot evidently making a lot more effort with this than with Naruto Shippuden, and the voice acting is one of the series’ strongest points. Not a must-watch, but certainly a small favourite and something to relax with.

おジャ魔女どれみ / Ojamajo Doremi / Magical Doremi (season 1)

Though it’s hardly the most well-known of the world’s anime, Ojamajo Doremi is both a big success in Japan and in many ways a real archetype of a series. There are a lot of magical girl series, but increasingly they’ve been in the Nanoha mould: aimed primarily at young men and just slightly creepy. Even Cardcaptor Sakura falls into this subcategory. But Ojamajo Doremi is actually a magical girl series meant for young girls – with a fanbase of young men, without doubt, but certainly not discernibly catering to them or slipping in fanservice. About the closest I’ve seen when it comes to relatively recent anime has been Demashita! Powerpuff Girls Z, but even that certainly wasn’t ashamed of slipping in the ecchi.

Ojamajo Doremi is the story of a daft, slightly bratty but adorably clumsy little girl called Doremi, who one day happens upon a witch. In the magical world of the story, when a witch is identified, she gets turned into a frog. The only way to reverse this is for the witch, Majo Rika, to take Doremi on as an apprentice. Over the course of the series, Doremi’s best friends, tomboyish Osaka native Aiko and bookish Hazuki join her as apprentice witches, along with Doremi’s little sister Pop. A rival later appears, the seemingly perfect preteen idol Onpu, but she has a dark streak and a careless attitude to magic that may just come back to haunt her.

For the most part, Doremi is a cute and whimsical little story, with lots of character-based comedy, a very sweet art style and lots of throwaway but often slightly touching episodes. The girls’ magic can often solve small problems experienced by their classmates, or when used incorrectly, get them into pickles they need one another’s help to get out of. Witching exams, the responsibility of working for a living and relationships with other family members are recurring themes, and of course there is a bittersweet end to the series that aims to be a cutesy tearjerker and ought to at least raise a smile.

The first season – of four – ran a full twelve years ago, now, but remains pleasant to watch, slickly written and likeable. Apparently there was a horrible-sounding localised dub, but it’s not something I’m interested in seeking out.

Season 2: link
Season 3: link

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Rec

Rec was the other half of Binchou-tan’s thirty-minute television slot. While in many ways the two are very different, there’s actually a fair bit they share.

For one thing, each in its own way, the two are cute. But while Binchou-tan is a cutesy super-deformed fantasy, Rec is a mostly realistic story about the relationship between a young aspiring voice actress called Onda and a salaryman who devises concepts for advertising campaigns called Matsumaru. The art is on the realistic side, and the target audience is mature: these two meet by chance and bond, and when Onda’s house burns down, they end up having a one night stand, and then later living together. This is certainly not something that could happen in Binchou-tan. Indeed, few romance animes ever go for such a mature angle.

The show works well because Onda is just so damn adorable. She wants to be Audrey Hepburn, and the artists have fun drawing her in several famous poses during the opening sequence. She reads subtitles aloud in the cinema, has typical girly hang-ups about not wanting a boy to use the bathroom right after her, gets easily embarrassed (especially when she has to voice a perverted game) and has a strong sense of morality. Yes, she ended up sleeping with a guy she had only just met, but you could understand them both being swept up in the moment, he had been a perfect gentleman earlier (despite temptation), and she soon shows she did not take the decision lightly or think nothing of it. In a genre where it often takes the whole series for a couple to kiss, and then offers up a happily-ever-after, it’s refreshing to see some realism in a romantic comedy. Sure, it’s rare for people to sleep together so quickly, but no-one can deny that it happens. Even though Matsumaru is yet another mildly annoying clueless lead male, Onda is in a lot of ways an ideal - including not being perfect. It’s very easy to care for her as she becomes a responsible adult. She makes mistakes, is young and naïve, but utterly passionate about what she does, can be selfish, and is unafraid to stand up for what she thinks is right – if, of course, she knows what that is. She’s adorable.

The animation is beautiful, the character designs are exceptionally cute, and the story is impressively memorable for just nine half-episodes and an OVA. Daring to raise moral questions and telling a romance in a different way from what is conventional, Shaft achieved a lot with this unusual piece.

(collated and expanded from impressions, 14.3.06 and 17.6.06)

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

びんちょうタン / Binchou-tan

Binchou-tan shared a half-hour broadcast slot with the very different but oddly complimentary REC, but of the two, Binchou-tan was the more naturally suited to the short format, being a winsome and gentle story of several little children in a melancholy fantasy world. The tone is the perfect mix of sweetness and poignancy, and there’s a real ‘classic’ feel and sense of timelessness to the narrative. Binchou-tan, a pun on the Japanese word for ‘charcoal’, is a small child, living alone in the woods in a leaky old shack after her grandmother passed away, making do with what little she has. Like the other children of the town, she is drawn in super-deformed style, with a head rather larger than her body and eyes that would need dinner plate-sized contact lenses. On occasion she goes to the town using a surreal bus system that involves giving acorns to birds to persuade them to take you on as a passenger, and looks for work that largely references the uses of charcoal. Taking home what rice she can buy, she keeps up her traditional Japanese home life – with the bow of her obi sash constantly crooked because she doesn’t have anyone to tie it for her so does it herself over her shoulder. She goes about her humble business in such an adorably quiet way that it’s almost unbearably cute.

Other characters are more boisterous, or more privileged, but their own typical anime personalities are also a joy to watch. It’s written like a fairy tale, evokes the childish, and revolves around children. Over time, Bin-tan meets new friends, from the hyper Chiku-tan to the lonely super-rich girl Kunugi-tan, so that by the end of 12 half-episodes, she is not alone any more. You’ll notice that the characters all have the honorific –tan, partly to make the pun on ‘binchoutan’ work, but also because –tan is a cutesy mispronunciation of ‘-chan’, and its use for mascot characters has become more and more commonplace since this series – see, for example, the popular OS-tan characters.

The anime isn’t supposed to be realistic, or, really, do anything much but make you go ‘Cuuuute!’ It’s the most stylised cutesy show I’ve seen since Bottle Fairy, and similar in many ways – not to mention that Binchou is voiced by Hororo’s seiyuu, in a fairly similar manner. Binchou-tan started out as the mascot character of Alchemist, a games company noted for porting and partly developing visual novels like Higurashi and KimiNozo. After a few manga aimed at the seinen crowd who love cutesy things (ie Dengeki Daioh’s audience), there came this anime adaptation, from knowing peddlers of cute Studio Deen. Drama CDs and even a PS2 game followed, but thus far, the anime remains as short and sweet as its subject.

While 12 episodes with about 10 minutes of story in each off them is very short for an anime, though, it’s worth remembering that’s as much screen time as most feature films get, so there was plenty of time to get to know Bin-tan, her world and the adorable bittersweet misadventures she has. Purposely nothing grandiose or high-impact, it was nonetheless a very appealing and likeable diversion.

(collated and expanded from impressions, 14.3.06 and 17.6.06)

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Bremen (manga)

It’s been a long time since I started to read Bremen. It was one of the first series I started reading when I discovered the joys of online fan scanslations, so it has a special place in my heart. There’s also the fact that it’s just good. Very silly indeed, but great fun. The scanslators fizzled out when their flagship series all got licensed or ended, leaving Bremen with three chapters remaining unreleased. Fortunately, I’ve finally gotten hold of the last ones from a different group and finished the story.

Bremen is a manga about a rock group of that name – indeed, I almost wish I’d thought of the name myself because it’s such a good name for a band, being a reference to the Aesop fable The Musicians of Bremen. Unlike, say, Beck, which tried to be realistic and thus looked ever more goofy as it got harder and harder to swallow the drama injected into the story, Bremen dispenses with realism from the off. Putting emphasis on rock spirit and ridiculous excess, it follows the Mohawk-toting guitarist and straight man Renji as he meets Romio, a wild teenager with ridiculous strength and total amnesia but a great singing voice. They set off to make the perfect rock band, soon joined by a convincing transsexual named Ryo on drums whose sideline in S&M helps develop the whipping action needed to play, and a bassist called Ran whose previous band won’t let him go so easily. Their names all beginning with ‘r’ is never commented upon.

The band have to fight their way out of all sorts of scrapes, be it the members’ pasts catching up with them or challenges from other bands with extreme philosophies, but usually end up getting in a big fight, then playing with such great energy and such amazing vocals that they win over even the people who wanted to kill them. They get more and more successful until the final chapters, where there’s a half-arsed and silly story arc about a hidden society that really drags the whole thing down a bit.

But when the manga is just having a lot of fun with big exaggerated fights and a celebration of the spirit of anarchy, fun and community inherent in rock, it really puts a smile on the face. Well worth a read, and if there’s ever an anime adaptation, I’ll be the first in line.

(originally written 29.9.06)

マリア様がみてる/ Maria-Sama ga Miteru (seasons 3&4)


MariMite, that most unlikely of cult hits about the meaningful relationships between earnest young girls in a Japanese Catholic unisex school, not only followed up its second season with no less than five OVA episodes, each the best part of an hour long, but then bucked the trend for series that end up with OVAs by returning to televisions for a fourth season. The story, as might be expected, continued to follow the light novels that are the series’ origins, following Yumi and her circle as the oldest ‘roses’ leave and they have to make the transition from sweet ‘petite souers’ to responsible, respected figures within the school’s structure – and look for younger girls to take under their wings themselves.

On the other hand, the maturity of the presentation took something of a dip as the story went on. What in the first seasons was elegant, melancholy and very sweet has become…somewhat obvious, even exploited, to the extent that it lost a great degree of its sweetness. What made Maria-sama work was its self-belief, its straightforwardness, the cluelessness of Yumi and the fact that it really took some digging under the surface to find out that this was not at all an ordinary shoujo series (as numerous English reviewers labelled it) but aimed at the seinen audience who follow magazines like Dengeki Daioh and collect figurines and body pillows. When that was all tacit, obscured and vaguely inappropriate, everything was presented perfectly. When we started to have nude Yumi and Touko with their lips inches apart and hands clasped as part of credits sequences…it’s all a bit obvious and vulgar, and that knocks the charm back a lot. Marimite doesn’t suit fanservice in its canon. Well, at least, not fanservice of that sort.

Speaking of credits sequences, the fourth has probably the most bizarre and misleading the show could have chosen short of all-out surrealism or some sort of epic battle sequence. It involves Yumi and co teleporting through magic portals all over the school. Certainly confusing for anyone who might randomly check out an episode as it aired – although I suppose that given you had to get hold of DVDs to be up-to-date with the story thus far, they expected that by this stage it was really a series for the fanbase.

With Eriko, Sei and Youko having graduated, the Yamayurikai are reduced to five: Yumi and Sachiko, Rei and Yoshino and Shimako alone as Rosa Gigantea. In her typical style, but not without some lovely drama about religious beliefs, Shimako finds her petite soeur Noriko without too much fuss. After all she struggled for independence at first, Yoshino is too close to Rei to consider a younger sister just yet. Meanwhile, Yumi is conflicted: she has gotten closer to the prickly but vulnerable Touko, but never knows quite where she stands with her, while the hilariously tall Kanako is a fan of Yumi and may share a similar personality to her beloved onee-sama.

The loss of subtlety is not purely in the opening and ending sequences. It creeps into the dialogue and character interactions too. The girls end up daydreaming about one another and getting giddy over ‘dates’ in a way that could have worked played just right, but get presented in a way not many steps above the poor imitation that is Strawberry Panic.

On the other hand, while these elements prevent the series living up to its first seasons, that is not to say the episodes are not highly enjoyable, or that I would not eagerly watch each of them. I may not have liked Touko much, even after her reasons were revealed (not sufficient excuses), and I thought the way Noriko was manipulated was horrible and not at all like the dignified Yamiyurikai of old, I accepted both storylines and the decisions made by the characters. And enjoyed all of it – I care what happens to Yumi and Yoshino, and where the relationships go. The gentleness of the relationships and the soft character-based humour (as well as the zany omake DVD extras) always made me smile, and the pacing, acting and art remained distinctive and enjoyable.

Not, perhaps, everything it could have been, but still part of a favourite series, and highly enjoyable to watch.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Naruto Movie 2: 大激突!幻の地底遺跡だってばよ / Daigekitotsu! Maboroshi no Chiteiiseki dattebayo / Great Clash! Illusionary Ruins at the Depths of the Earth ...

...dattebayo. Or to give it the official English title, Legend of the Stone of Gelel.

It must be said that with the regular series rapidly losing fans thanks to terribly-written filler episodes, the manga limping along with a predictable and clunky plot and big reveals that are milked way to much to provide anything but bathos, and the games fun to play but hung on repetitive and somewhat silly plots, Naruto is long past its heyday. However, this movie reminded me just how good the characters are, and just how gripping their world can be. It was almost a good movie. Almost.

Firstly, the movie is beautiful. Animation has priority over keeping the art totally on-model, but it works well, because the characters move with such fluidity and the art is still of a high enough quality that it looks fantastic. The background work in particular is superb, though some CG backdrops were a little jarring. Naruto as a series began with extremely beautiful animation in its first main arc, became a bit hit-and-miss thereafter (from the highs of the Lee-Gaara fight, still two of the most impressive episodes of any anime I’ve seen, to the lows of the Naruto-Kiba fight) and currently suffers from some of the cheapest and most basic animation since Pokémon. But the animation here was superb, recalling at times Miyazaki films (the little slice-of-life cuts in the gypsy camp; trees growing at an incredible rate), at times Akira (Kankuro’s face in the shadows; the way Gaara’s sand moved), and showed just how good the characters can look when animated properly. I assure you, that is very good indeed!

Kudos to the writers for creating something that serves both Naruto newbies, who would find little confusing (except a little Sasuke cameo and perhaps the lack of exposition for Gaara and Kankuro), and also hardcore fans. The scenario wasn’t written by Kishimoto (the manga's creator), but it’s clear that the scriptwriters knew their stuff, from accurate characterisation and catchphrases and good portrayals of characters’ fighting styles to typical plot tropes. There was even good use of genjutsu, which it sometimes feels like Kishimoto himself has abandoned or forgotten (Itachi’s special form of it aside). The only questionable part is that there are people in the fictional world who haven’t heard of Chakra or ninjutsu. This seems unlikely within Kishimoto’s universe, though it’s not impossible.

But the crux is the story. And it starts so well! Naruto, Sakura and Shikamaru’s simple mission becomes diverted when they are attacked (for reasons never fully explained) by a mysterious knight. Nice to see some varied cultures. The young knight is following a man who is promising to build a utopia where all are safe from war. But at what cost?

Very typical anime stuff, but well done. Surprisingly, what lets this movie down is the fights, especially troublesome since the big plot McGuffin means that 90% of the movie’s latter half is fighting. It’s not the animation – there’s little to fault in the opening scene, for example – but the writing. First, there are some daft One Piece moments (‘Your sand can’t compete with my lightning!’), except the film doesn’t have the tongue-in-cheek charm of that series to carry it off. But what’s really hard to take is the fact that the bad guys keep mutating into really stupid-looking mutant creatures. It just does not work. It takes the whole thing down a level and makes it laughable. If not for this major flaw, the contrived plot, cheesy ending and paper-thin big bad guy would have been palatable. But the monsters push this one step too far; it becomes irretrievably ridiculous. Shame – the first half really was exemplary.

(originally written 23.5.06)

東のエデン / Higashi no Eden / Eden of the East

Four noteworthy things ran through my head in the first minutes of Eden of the East. The first was, ‘Wow, this has to have the same character designer as Honey and Clover’. The second was, ‘Hey, great, finally anime studios are getting American voice actors to do the English parts – not to mention having a great opening song in English’. The third was, ‘Well, would you look at that, censoring a naked person’s rude bits with a white scribble – that’s new.’ But ultimately, the fourth was, ‘It looks like Production I.G. are finally doing something I’m going to like as much as Seirei no Moribito.’

These were pretty insightful things to have thought, if I may say so myself! Well, apart from the one about the rude bits. The character designs were indeed from Umino Chika, mangaka of HachiKuro, which suited Saki’s character extremely well. That song was actually Oasis’ most recent single, which shows the kind of budget involved here – and was in fact more interesting than anything else I’ve heard from the band in years, with a nice reference to Pope. And the director was Production I.G.’s leading light Kamiyama Kenji, who also helmed Seirei no Moribito.

There are two movies following the series, so it’s a consciously unfinished story, but also a fascinating one. Taking its cues from The Bourne Identity, the story opens with a sweet-natured young girl very confused by the appearance of a young, good-looking, thoroughly naked young man outside the White House. He has nothing but a gun and a phone, but gets her out of a scrape with the police after she decides to try and throw a lucky coin into the White House fountain. They manage to get away, and she gives him her coat – but forgets her passport is in the pocket. Managing to find him again, moments after he gets to an apartment listed on his phone with several passports and takes one on as his identity – the most explicit Bourne homage – she is wrapped up in an intrigue involving an organisation that can seemingly do anything, twelve people with ten billion yen each, and missile attacks on Japan.

With a very near-future setting (towers have been rebuilt on the World Trade Centre site, and programming technology has moved on just a little), the issues explored actually turn out to be closest to those of Welcome to the NHK, with which this shares much thematic ground. Saki is involved with a group of NEETs and hikikomori (shut-ins) who very nearly became successful with their revolutionary augmented reality software. However, somehow the disappearance of several thousand such shut-ins and some mysterious missile attacks on Tokyo that hit only uninhabited areas seem to be related – and have links with a strange, deadly game to save society (with a fun football theme to it). Of course, some of those trying to win such a game take extreme measures, and others end up having to use everything they have to stop them.

Eden of the East looks great, has superb pacing and likeable characters, and is full of good ideas. There are some elements that just don’t satisfy, though, especially towards the end: would anyone really think they could win the game as the antagonists do, and was it not anticipated that the Seleção would just waste money to cancel out one another’s plans? No matter how powerful, how does Juiz pull off some of her feats? Was it really necessary for our loveable seleçinho to erase his memory? Why the shipping to Dubai when the men could easily have dissipated unnoticed? And while much of the series’ humour comes from inappropriate nudity, by the end none of it is really explained. Why was he nude at the start? Why are the men that pour out of the crates unclothed and shaven-headed? But these are either minor quibbles or things that may yet be explained. Eden of the East is definitely one of the better recent anime, and I’m eager to watch the feature films.

Coraline

I was very impressed by Coraline. Stunning animation, witty character design, great humour and tension, some wonderfully creepy imagery and strong voice acting made for a great movie, and the 3D effects for once actually elevated the film they were applied to, rather than cheapening it.

There were some plot issues, but apparently they were the changes from Gaiman’s original: why, for example, take so long to raise the issue of the buttons, making it seem like they were all Coraline objected to, as well as making it confusing that the Beldam (a term I remember from studying Keats and having to differentiate from ‘Belle Dame’!) wanted to keep them hidden? Why lock Coraline in the place she’s bound to discover some ghosts if you are still hoping to convince her how pleasant her life can be?

Minor niggles aside, this was a great story, pure idiosyncratic Gaiman. I was also happy with the casting: Fanning was great, Hatcher perfect and French and Saunders were fun as ever!

Critically lauded and successful, I found Coraline's success to be gratifying.

(originally written 12.5.09)

劇場版 鋼の錬金術師 シャンバラを征く者 / Gekijouban Hagane no Renkinjutsushi: Shanbara-o Yuku Mono / Fullmetal Alchemist movie: The Conqueror of Shamballa

The concept set out at the end of the Fullmetal Alchemist series was not inherently a bad one: while I'm not usually keen on mixing a fantasy world with the real one (beyond Narnia-style framing narratives), particularly not so late in a series, the idea was not really explored in depth. Which isn’t to say it was anything more than a starting point for a distinctly average story.

This wasn't a bad movie tie-in, but didn't really fulfil its potential. A little too much mindless action, and not as much character exploration as I would have hoped. I feel the potential was a little wasted; the peripheral characters get so little screen time that I wished the movie was twice as long, with less of Nazis and dragon-Envy and more discussion of why things were happening as they were.

Still, there was a great scene with the two surviving (non-dragon) homonculi, Wrath and a rather different Gluttony. Alfons Heinrich was a good character, sweet yet selfish and a great contrast to Alphonse Elric. Some great little in-jokes with alternate versions of major characters made me smile, though why they're all German/gypsies while Ed is apparently British I'll never know, and I wasn't keen on the way Hughes was used.

Despite this, I found it all highly enjoyable, well-animated (with a bit of dodgy CG) and with great vocal performances and some very funny moments. And the Flame Alchemist kicked some serious butt. They don't really try to answer all the questions the fans have had, instead just having a new story to concentrate on: you know what happens to pretty much all the characters, but whether your question is 'Do Roy and Riza get together?' or 'Will Ed ever get back home?', you'll just have to keep watching, or go to the manga. They had a very open-ended final sequence. If you don't mind knowing that, read on...

Ed and Al end up staying in our world at the end, Al with his own body, leaving poor Winry behind. WWII is looming, of course, and we don't know what has happened to Envy (who was used to open the portal between the worlds), so there is definitely no resolution.

Personally, I don't particularly want to see the next movie being Ed and Al Battle The Nazis...Hess and Haushofer were quite enough for me.

Not the story or ending I would have chosen, but definitely a worthy next step in the Fullmetal Alchemist anime story.

(originally written 24.7.05. There was an earthquake while I was in the Tokyo cinema! This was the last story in the original series’ continuity, as the next Hagaren animated by Bones was the Brotherhood reboot)

Friday, 17 June 2011

ONE PIECE THE MOVIE デッドエンドの冒険 / One Piece the Movie: Deddo Endo no Bouken / One Piece movie 4: Dead End Adventure

The fourth One Piece movie was, I felt, far better than the third one.

The Straw Hat crew find themselves in desperate need of some cash. Luckily, there is a race with a big prize pot to enter. But of course, things aren't that simple.

While the plot centres on the race, the real story was grounded in typical One Piece themes: family reunions, traumatic childhoods leading to obsessions and passion, and lashings of drama alongside hyperactive action sequences. Considering it wasn’t written by Oda Eiichiro, the manga's creator, it was very much in the spirit of the series, and an extremely fun movie in its own right.

Gaspard is a nice proud antagonist, but perhaps could have been more compelling. There are also some liberties taken with what the Straw Hats can do, especially Robin, but it all works and it's not as though Devil Fruit powers are all that well-defined.

(originally written 5.6.05, slightly expanded)

鋼の錬金術師 / Hagane no Renkinjutsushi / Fullmetal Alchemist (Original series)

Hagane no Renkinjutsushi is one of those iconic anime that dominates the community for a while. It made a big impact as a manga, gained a large fanbase when its anime begun airing and reached its peak once it was licensed and (very badly) dubbed.

Like Shugo Chara, it’s an anime based on a monthly manga that ends up taking the ideas and characters of the manga and rewrites the story (unlike, say, Naruto or One Piece, which are mostly direct translations from page to screen, with throwaway ‘filler’ to waste time if material runs out). Also like Shugo Chara, it’s one of the rare series I feel works as a companion piece to a very different manga as an alternate timeline, rather than as a replacement.

Besides, since then, a new animated series has been made, going back to the manga faithfully.

The story is complex and very well constructed save for a few small issues. Two boys, the Elric Brothers, live in a world where alchemy exists – the ability to transmute one material into another, as long as there is ‘equivalent trade’: all the right materials in place to be rearranged. Something cannot be created from nothing. One day, these boys attempt to bring their mother back from the dead, using all the raw materials used in a human body – but they do not take into account the additional element of human life, and the alchemical reaction claims not only all the materials they provided, but one of Edward Elric’s legs and his little brother Alphonse’s entire body.

In something of a trance, little Ed manages to save Al’s soul in exchange for his own arm, but not his body, so the younger brother ends up a real ghost in a machine – or, more specifically, a suit of armour. Two years later, Ed’s arm and leg have been replaced by metal prosthetics, and the brothers get involved with the military in order to further their search for the Philosopher’s Stone, which will grant unlimited power to any alchemist who wields it, and get their bodies back.

Hagaren’s greatest strength is perfectly balancing the serious (with moving deaths, some shocking psychological traumas and issues of racial prejudice) and the comic (Ed’s ‘automail’ prosthetics have stunted his growth and given him a complex; Barry the Chopper has a great grasp of bathos; Alex Louis Armstrong the musclebound nobleman is about the funniest character I’ve ever seen). With some incredible action sequences, it is original, intelligent and immensely enjoyable. Though occasionally cheesy and sometimes a bit artificial in its portrayal of how people think, nonetheless it comes very highly recommended, and I genuinely would recommend watching the first series before the remake.

(Expanded from original impressions, 21.2.05. I originally wrote that Mai-HiME was a manga first, which is not true. Movie impressions here)

Thursday, 16 June 2011

冤罪/ Enzai / Falsely Accused

Well, I thought that having seen Boku no Pico, I was all done with shotacon hentai, but there was one more to see, - one that seemed to be in almost every way the opposite of Boku no Pico. Where Pico tries to be achingly cute, innocent and even wholesome, Enzai is dirty, gritty and disturbing. Pico is plotless fluff that leads to boys having sex. Enzai is a murder mystery with several scenes of prison rape. And while I can say without hesitation that the two-episode OVA would have been far better without the sex scenes, it’s also true that I probably would never have heard of the title without them.

So it goes like this. In a clearly Les Miserables-influenced revolutionary France, a young gamin named Guys is arrested for shoplifting, but is then accused of murder. Convinced by a corrupt official to admit to the crime, he is locked up and brutally raped by inmates and authority figures alike. However, working with the friends he makes behind bars, who happen to have the specialities he needs to link the clues at the murder scene together, he regains hope. In his clever and handsome lawyer, he eventually finds his path to freedom and, just to cheapen everything else, his true gay love.

Although its production values are far less impressive than Pico’s, it is a much more satisfying watch, for while its animation and much of its art is sub-par, actually having a half-decent plot makes it a far more appealing prospect.

But then comes the necessary remembrance that the rape scenes exist only to titillate, not to inspire sympathy for Guys and the others who get violated, but to turn the audience on, that these same rape fantasies recur wherever there are fujoshi (female otaku, literally rotten women), be it in Harry Potter fanfics or FMA doujinshi. I can laugh at the silly, soft-focus, exaggerated childishness of Boku no Pico and its sequel. But I stop short of rape. I definitely stop short of resultant bleeding. ‘Squick’ is the fandom term – it repels me and starts being deeply unpleasant.

Enzai could have been a very good anime if, like the majority of straight H-Game adaptations, the sex had been taken out to be replaced by a focus on the story, lots of sexual tension and suggestiveness. Porn just makes everything cheap and tacky.

I suppose Boku no Pico works better overall, having set out to be nothing more than straightforward plotless porn. Enzai is a much higher concept and made up of far better ingredients, but disappointing in that it could have been so much more.

And frankly, while the idea of anime boys having sex may have some appeal in principle, as does that of anime girls doing the same, in execution it always becomes a vulgar and ugly display, and deeply silly. Hentai, even fringe stuff like shotacon or lolicon, is just not for me.

(originally written 30.8.07. Impressions of the visual novel the animation was based on here)

チーズスイートホーム あたらしいおうち / Chii's Sweet Home: Atarashii o-uchi / Chii’s New Address (+ Chii’s Sweet Home OAD)

Chii’s New Address is very much a continuation of the first Chii’s Sweet Home series.

It picks up right where the first series ended, its format is unchanged and it was seemingly broadcast in the same early morning slot as its predecessor. The only notable difference is the new opening sequence, a silly soft-rock number that sounds like it might have been written by Detroit Metal City’s Tetrapod Melon Tea band which at first I disliked for supplanting the original’s adorable in-character song, but which grew on me for its fun rapid-fire sections that unfailingly make me smile.

And, indeed, there is a new address – after a few episodes. I, for one, spent much of the first season thinking that they ought to just move house, but not to the extent it annoyed me – after all, people get very attached to their homes, and moving house is no simple task. But the Yamadas eventually see the sense in it and move to a pet-friendly building, which means Chii can make new friends and get into a new set of scrapes. It’s more of the same, but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and there are few more enjoyable, cutesy things to watch in the world than the misadventures of little kitten Chii.

Unsurprisingly, the climactic few episodes change the mood to give a big final payoff – Chii gets very lost, just happens to meet the right cats where she ends up and, well, if you expect a tragic ending you’re probably not watching the right series. There’s a satisfying conclusion, and now? Well, now fans must wait to see if there’s enough manga for series 3.

But in the interim, a 13-minute special episode came out to accompany a manga release. The ‘OAD’, evidently a new term to replace ‘OAV’ and presumably replacing ‘Video’ with ‘DVD’ (I always assumed ‘video’ just meant the media in general, as opposed to a video cassette), is new material from after the end of the series - though it features Kuro without noting he’s travelled a long way from where he now lives. Chii meets a new kitten very different from her, then her family try to put a collar on her. Even at 13 minutes including opening and credits sequences, there’s not one self-contained story – but this is Chii’s Sweet Home, and that’s not really how things work.

Chii is predictable, repetitive and daft. But surely that’s exactly what it is supposed to be, and it never, ever bores.

D.C.S.S. ~ダ・カーポ セカンドシーズン~ / Da Capo Second Season

Let’s face it – Da Capo wasn’t a very good anime. Revolving around a magic cherry blossom tree that granted the subconscious wishes of the female inhabitants of an island, it featured some very silly ideas (like a robot replacement for a girl and a cat that had become a human) and put in terrible filler like lengthy songs for each girl and stupid side-stories about dreams. Despite this, there was an interesting love triangle at the heart of the show, and here, it succeeded.

The second season shows us what happened next: Jun’ichi and his sister continued their incestuous relationship (though they weren’t blood-related), but she left to study medicine, and Sakura (the third point of the triangle, who finally accepted the siblings’ love) disappeared. However, there is a new arrival on the island – a young, naïve mage called Aisia, who thinks Jun’ichi is a great magician. When she sees that the rest of Jun’ichi’s harem have been disappointed by his choice of lover (and since the show is based on an H-game, the harem is extensive!), she decides she’ll bring back everyone’s hope by restoring the magical tree. Plot devices ahoy!

The series pulls off the magical idea by presenting it in a realistic context. There’s magic, but the characters are all ordinary teenagers, living normal lives, and the magic is peripheral to their everyday existences. No more robots or cat-girls, making the whole thing rather easier to watch. It still has its faults – the plot meandered along for a long time in the middle, with too many extraneous plotlines that amounted to nothing, and too many characters who Jun’ichi could no doubt pursue in the game but were totally superfluous to the anime and existed only for the fans – overall, though, it was a much less frustrating experience than its predecessor, and Aisia and Sakura were both extremely adorable girls!

And hey, Nemu was quite a sweet person, even if the entire fandom seems to want to tear her limb from limb…I really don’t understand the people complaining because the show ends more or less as it began, without Jun’ichi deciding that actually, he loves someone else entirely. It was the journey that mattered, and the show IS called ‘Da Capo’!

(originally written 15.4.06)

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Kung Fu Panda - short impressions

I enjoyed watching Kung Fu Panda, pleased to see that beyond the very Tenacious D opening sequence, safely packaged as a dream, the film didn’t stray too close to being a knowing, postmodern parody. Instead, it was an affectionate homage to kung fu films, therefore able to take itself very seriously despite all the cutesy characters. The plot was nothing new, but that wasn’t the point of the animation – it was meant to be light entertainment with the irresistible visual twist of animal characters, and did not disappoint.

(Originally written 22.2.10. Kung Fu Panda 2 impressions here)

The Boondocks, seasons 1-3

The fourth season of The Boondocks has been announced now, but it really did seem for a long while that three seasons would be all the show would get. Even the fact that it’s struggling now and not a pop culture staple is, in my opinion, a great shame. The Boondocks fills a void left by The Simpsons starting to really limp painfully and South Park losing its satirical edge to become successful primarily with character-driven comedy. It certainly wipes the floor with Family Guy and even when it first aired at the tail end of 2005, I thought it was a shame Fox passed on it.

Based on a comic strip by Aaron McGruder, and primarily written by him, it is nonetheless a very different beast. The strip is neat, glib and sarcastic. Punchlines are often just a withering look from main character Huey Freeman, and work all the better for it. The animation tends to develop plotlines ad absurdum, which quite often makes for brilliance, but risks making a dull one-note episode. But when The Boondocks gets it right, it’s the best animated comedy around.

The Boondocks is about some black kids living in a (predominantly) white US suburb, commenting on what’s in the news and generally bemoaning the state of life for black people. Most of the strips are character-driven: Huey is politically active, always thinks life is unfair, and promotes black rights. His best friend, cut from the series, usually agrees with him, but takes an easy-going attitude to life. His little brother, by contrast, wants nothing more than to imitate his MTV gangsta idols and takes very little interest in the world around him. Then there’s the typical grumpy grandpa.

McGruder isn’t promoting separatism; he’s only showing the life that’s familiar to him, the way he perceives things. Black culture is, of course, different from white culture, in America more than ever. Whether or not that’s positive is a tricky point, certainly not to be decided by a commentator in the UK with oodles of white privilege, but that’s how life is. And Huey isn’t supposed to be a prophet. We don’t have to believe him unconditionally. He simply represents one viewpoint – and if the comic is read with that in mind, it no longer seems the hate-spewing polemical anti-white platform that some make it out to be. I found reports of McGruder snobbishly insulting campaigners for equality by saying they were useless for not insulting those who deserve insulting to their faces - as though that’s the way progress will happen - objectionable, but he’s a firebrand and an expert with publicity – and certainly knows what he’s talking about when it comes to black nationalism, even if he isn’t above mocking it and its most vocal exponents. He explores issues from different angles rather than preaching.

This is the point I made, interestingly enough, just before watching episode one: Huey isn’t supposed to be a prophet, I wrote. And the episode opens with him saying ‘I am not a prophet’. My impressions after that first episode show how strong the characterisation is, for the scene was set for the rest: as I wrote on 9.11.05, the series ‘started naturalistically, establishing the central characters’ different attitudes to whites - Grandpa wants to fit in, Huey resents the perceived “white supremacist hierarchy” and Riley just wants to be himself - through a visit from the wealthy local landowner. The family go to a garden party, and the idea of rich people’s apathy is suddenly presented in a very exaggerated way: Huey goes around telling what he believes to be incendiary truths: Jesus was black, Reagan was the devil because each of his names had six letters, etc. Riley, meanwhile, goes off with a caricatured idiot rich kid. Nearby, Uncle Ruckus, a black man who hates all black men, can only resent that Grandpa and the rich host get on so well. The lurch between naturalism and satire didn’t sit too well, but once accepted, it was immersive stuff, and by the sound of some future storylines (Martin Luther King comes back from the dead, and his teachings clash with the American mindset that has supported the ongoing war in Iraq so badly that he becomes a figure of national hate) sound like they could have come straight from South Park; satire’s undoubtedly here to stay. Like Stone and Parker, after all, McGruder is a Monty Python fan. While the animation lacks somewhat, the art is beautiful. Plus Riley is just so cute!’

Through three seasons of controversy, cleverness and brilliant celebrity performances, these observations have remained largely true. The Boondocks is something quite special, and has some of the best writing on TV. I just sense that the US is resistant to it, and White America feels it is not meant for them. But the humour is universal, and the strongest episodes are easily understood, most of them satirising black media culture rather than complex politics. I’m very glad more’s coming.

How to Train Your Dragon

I initially dismissed How to Train Your Dragon, unimpressed by the trailer, but exceptional word-of-mouth made me reconsider, and I'm very pleased that I did, because this is an excellent film. For once the 3D worked well for me, and the effects blew the obviously tacked-on post-production 3D of Clash of the Titans away. The water in particular looked magnificent. It was great to see an animated character acting in a naturalistic way, and I ended up very fond of Hiccup, as well as the adorably feline Toothless.

I don’t know why cartoon Vikings are always Scottish, except when they’re young and attractive, when they become Americans, but it worked. I loved the society, the different designs, the fun of it and the emotional ups and downs. Where I was willing Hiccup to make a grand gesture or come up with a story, only for him not to, it made perfect sense because of his character. And the ending was satisfying, though I hope it spawns a sequel, and find it great that it looked likely to be a failure, only to gradually pick up a wider and wider audience.

A simple story of an outcast of society choosing his own way and eventually winning over his detractors, with a little help from a dragon, it is one of the better animated films of recent years, and certainly my favourite from Dreamworks.

(originally written April 16, 2010. Two sequels have since been announced.)

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Kung Fu Panda 2

The first Kung Fu Panda was a fun send-up of Hong Kong kung fu films, with sharp but likeable humour and an unlikely cast of animals that made for a lot of visual gags.

The second manages to avoid most of the pitfalls of comedy sequels, while not being quite striking or memorable enough to really be essential viewing. It was, however, a very entertaining and compelling animation and full of great ideas, sight gags and likeable, interesting characters.

The first problem to overcome was the fact that the identifiable character from the first film, the big fat lazy panda who was pretty hopeless at everything, ended the story as a capable warrior and respected kung fu artist. Fortunately, the right balance is struck between him not having lost his skills and him being unfit and clumsy.

A new threat has arisen, and in typical kung fu fashion, it’s gunpowder vs hand-to-hand combat. A peacock prince (gleefully played by Gary Oldman hamming it up) has been banished for responding to a prophecy that he will be defeated by a black-and-white warrior by slaughtering all the pandas in China. Now he has his own army and a new, unstoppable weapon, and it will fall to the Dragon Warrior and his partners to stop him – but fortunately, somehow the peacock prince doesn’t know about the famous Dragon Warrior being a panda. He must be stopped before he takes his weapon to sea, and of course, during the conflict, Po will end up finding out what happened to his parents and how he came to be the only one of his kind in his village, perhaps in all of China.

Normally I object to stories driven by prophecies, which tend to be a lazy excuse for character motivation, but since the majority of the humour of Kung Fu Panda derives from a fresh and irreverent take on old clichés, that doesn’t apply here. The whole concept revolves around retelling a familiar story in a unique and silly way, not just with animals but with a knowing, modern angle delivered by the cynical yet also hapless main character. And this is what it does well – very well. With the fantastic animation and the inventive action scenes, and some nice changes in media, simulated in CG – shadow puppets and cel-style flash animation. Kung Fu Panda 2 is visually at the top of its game, Dreamworks now able to match Pixar with every picture. However, they still haven’t quite learned the lesson made How To Train Your Dragon so much more resonant than the likes of Shrek, and puts Pixar on the top of their game: everyman characters who can be identified with easily - which Po is not, being a clownish friend figure, but not a point of immediate contact. Two things could have improved Kung Fu Panda 2: more emotional clout and a stronger, more compelling story. But these are difficult things to build on the story of the first film, as well as keeping things as a light-hearted comedy.

It is worth remembering that this is the comedy sequel to a comedy film. Not every film has to be full of heart and warmth to work – and this one after all delivers more kicking of butt than the average.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

焼きたて!! ジャぱん / Yakitate!! Japan

Once in a while, from the thousands of manga titles out there, something so utterly bizarre and original comes along that stands out amongst generic and eccentric series alike. These things usually pique my interest: after all, my favourite anime of all time revolves around a traditional board game. But Yakitate!! Japan is so crazy, so bizarre, and so hilarious that I found it irresistible. There is, in fact, a whole genre of manga based around cookery: Cooking Papa, Cooking Master and others dramatise the lives of chefs. But none strike the same chord as Yakitate!! Japan.

Young Azuma Kazuma’s life changed forever when his sister forced him to try some bread as a child. The son of a rice farmer, he was devoted to Japan’s staple carbohydrate, but bread changed his life – he became a baker, helped by his naturally warm ‘solar’ hands, and set about trying to create a national loaf for his country, which he will call ‘Japan’ (‘pan’, from the Portuguese, is the Japanese word for bread, and of course isn’t the name for the country in Japanese).

It took some time for me to warm up to the anime, especially as a fan of the manga. The art and animation looked cheap and very ugly beside the very professional manga art, the voices didn’t match up to the ones I’d imagined (especially the woman who played Tetsunosuke in Peace Maker Kurogane as Azuma: far too brash, even for his country accent) and the comedy timing never seemed quite right. Until Yotsubato!, I considered Yakipan the funniest manga I’d ever read, and that was part of what made me keep watching: I was waiting for gags I’d found hilarious in the manga to be repeated, mostly still very funny in anime form, and anticipating gimmicks that were tailor-made for the manga (such as when it all becomes colour) to see how they would be adapted. But towards the end of the series, there was more than that to look forward to: the fillers increased, and new gags were added. The anime was braver with parodying current series, One Piece and Naruto both getting nods. The character voices never did feel quite right, but I got used to them, and started to look forward to new episodes.

The comedy of the series revolved around bread being so very delicious that those who have a sensitive palate cannot help but have a strange reaction to the flavour. This starts out with them seeing visions or their bodies involuntarily doing something slightly odd like forming a kanji character, but it grows through causing the tasting judge to relive their past romantic affairs, to sending them to the afterlife, and ends up even changing the course of time itself. It’s daft, insane, and many times totally brilliant.

The final episode was painfully hurried, bringing with it that usual unsatisfying feeling you usually get when an anime ends before the manga is even thinking about wrapping up. Well, at least it’s only a comedy anime about baking bread, so there aren’t many loose ends left untied – and in all fairness, the tournament setup tends to be a dull way to prolong a shounen manga. But despite that, I actually feel lucky to have experienced this strange and delightful story of competitions, comradeship, romance and bread.

(collated from impressions, 11.3.05 and 19.6.06)

Up

Up was, I think, a new triumph for Pixar. Now that they’ve moved on from making novel objects talk (toys, bugs, cars, fish, rats) and begun to focus their attentions on heartwarming stories, I think that they might enter a new era of sorts, which I, not yet tired of the house style, find an appealing prospect indeed.

The film centres on an old man who in order to fulfil a childhood dream decides to make his house fly, his life story told in an expository segment so that we are on his side from the start. His story is not exactly tragic, but he finds himself alone with strong links to the past, and so he takes action. The physics, fanciful contraptions and unlikely coincidences that follow as the old man meets new characters and strange creatures and gains a new sense of purpose, are not what is important beside the spectacle, the affectionate characterisation and the sheer fun of the scenario. There is much to make the audience laugh, make them sad, make them cheer and make them care. And the sheer beauty of the film, particularly when it comes to landscapes, is another layer of pleasure.

Not everything is perfect: I felt like there should have been more resolution for the family unit at the end of the film, less of a feeling that a father figure can simply sweep in, but generally everything I was unsure about, from talking dogs to men isolated for long decades failing to accomplish their goal, eventually turned out to be a positive aspect of the film and I was most impressed. It may not endure quite like Toy Story or Wall-E, but it was great stuff.

(originally written 15.10.09)

Saturday, 11 June 2011

りぜるまいん / Rizelmine

Rizelmine is one of the sillier animes I’ve ever seen, typical moé, but very cute and funny and compulsive watching. It’s an undeniably odd series about a teenaged boy who spends all day fantasising about his teacher, who comes home one day to find that three government agents have brought him a young girl who they announce is legally his wife.

Rizel is very cute, very innocent, looks about 8 and…well, despite the probable intention is a long way from sexy. Rizel adores her ‘danna-sama’ (respectful term for husband) and spends all day trying to make him love her as much as she loves him, until he calls her an idiot and she cries – and for some reason, her tears are made of nitro-glycerine, so everything blows up. Told you it was silly.

Aimed squarely at the lolicon fanbase, I don’t think it even hits that mark. Rizel is about as desirable a lover as a baby rabbit. But that doesn’t make it any less fun to watch – Rizelmine was always a safe go-to if I felt I needed cheering up, or wanted to relax. It was simplistic, daft and cutesy, but that was precisely its appeal.

In many ways, Rizelmine was deeply influential, or at least part of a general movement that defined anime in the years since it aired, back in 2002. Cutesy, silly moé anime was a guaranteed hit for years after this, and I feel sure that its success was a part of the decision to make that movement happen. Nothing clever, innovative or deep, but fun, memorable and very, very sweet.

(Expanded from impressions, 19.4.05)

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

劇場版 NARUTO−ナルト− 疾風伝 絆 / Gekijouban Naruto Shippuuden: Kizuna / Naruto Shippuuden movie 2: Bonds

My standards for Naruto theatrical films really aren’t very high. The previous movies have generally followed the same rough formula: introduce a random youngster for Naruto to introduce to the glories of shounen philosophy (be loyal and brave and help those in front of you with your fists! It will work out in the end because you have a character shield!), defeat a baddie with a little help from your friends, and strike lots of poses and make pat, adorable little speeches. Usually good, forgettable fun, with the added draw of having artwork and animation of a much higher quality than is possible in a weekly series.

Despite being the highest-grossing and possibly most heavily-marketed of the Naruto movies, Bonds is the one I have enjoyed the least, in large part because it simply doesn’t have the eye-candy appeal. It’s not nice to look at, and the animation standard looks barely any better than the average episode of the series, and certainly nowhere close to it at its best, let alone previous movies. Parts of this theatrical, mainstream release quite simply look bad, especially close-ups. The direction is horribly lazy and large parts of the budget have clearly gone on ugly, poorly-integrated CG.

The story is pretty poor, but that’s an allowance I make for Naruto movies – although there have certainly been better ones that this, even taking into account the numerous silly baddies of the other five films. It’s a flimsy plot involving a mysterious clan of airborne ninja out for revenge, an infamous doctor and his young disciple, a sweet young tomboy. To give the film a gimmick, Sasuke has appearances tacked on, which serves more or less only to drive home how separate from canon these stories are, as his interaction with Naruto and Hinata will of course be ignored in the rest of the series, and the poor random-youngster-of-the-film doesn’t even get a scene explaining where she’s going to vanish off to after the end.

On top of that, there’s a rather creepy message here, glorifying the somewhat erotic bond of a pupil hero-worshipping their teacher. The closer to obsession it is, the better, it would seem. Presumably the idea is to hark back to the Zabuza/Haku glory days, when Naruto was actually good, but here it just comes across as unsettling, and trying to shoehorn Naruto into having that attitude towards his mentors didn’t work at all. There’s a line between appreciating, admiring and relying on a teacher and worshipping and loving them…

A Naruto movie isn’t meant to be a great work of art, or clever, or innovative, but it’s at least supposed to present familiar characters in a way that’s nice on the eyes. Just that would be enough for this to pass. As it is…it’s not only careless and silly, but ugly too! Worst Naruto film of them all.

(Originally written 7.7.09)

ファンタジックチルドレン / Fantastic Children

Fantastic Children is something a bit different. Ignore the bad title, a misleading bit of Engrish – I’m sure it sounds cool to the Japanese, and I assure you that there are no super-babies in this show. This anime is actually a lyrical, mysterious and quite beautiful piece of work, with one of the most complicated and fragmented plots I’ve ever witnessed. The show is sometimes melodramatic, sometimes falls flat, sometimes becomes truly epic, but is always ambitious and bold.

With distinctive, old-fashioned character designs, which I see as part of the charm, this anime does not look how you might expect from the sophisticated and challenging plot. Several complex strands run simultaneously: a group of strange (yes, fantastic, if we ignore the campy connotations of the word) adolescents known as Befort’s Children appear at various points throughout history. They have an ethereal appearance – white hair and blue eyes – and unknown to the world, Conrad Röntgen (Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen is the historical figure) was one of their number. Röntgen allowed himself to grow up, forgot his past and pioneered his research into x-rays, which he seemed to know about intuitively. At the same time, a girl called Helga grows up in an orphanage with her friend Chitto. She is always drawing the same picture, a strange shape like a crescent moon behind a great tower, a picture that other solitary women have drawn at various points in history. When she runs away from the orphanage, she meets Thoma, a boy trained as a fighter, who immediately swears to protect her. There are still more plot strands: Dumas, known as Damien, a boy who looks like the Befort’s children yet is not one of them, is part of an agency searching for Helga. Dr Gherta is a leading scientist in this organisation, but why does she feel so drawn to the mysterious object that opens a path into another dimension, where it seems that dead souls go? Then there are the men and women who were used in experiments involving this zone, who have grown old before their time. Finally, there is the detective trying, like the audience, to draw together all these disparate strands and see how it is all linked together. It finally becomes clear that the answers lie in another galaxy altogether, where a princess’s spirit can only be saved by transferring it to Earth – but can it be retrieved? The strands eventually do intertwine, and a charming, elegant story results, ambitious and grandiose.

As you can no doubt tell, this was extremely convoluted for 26 episodes, and in all honesty, it needed to either move more quickly or have an extra three of four episodes towards the end, because everything was resolved far too quickly and expediently. Considering the story is supposed to work over several generations, it seems bizarre that all the coincidences happened at once, and in all honesty, the ‘Losing their memories once they pass 12’ plot device was rather an irritating contrivance. Plus the Gricia arc was too slow and tried so hard to be stately and impressive that it ended up looking very false. The first half of the series was almost entirely exposition, and it provided such intrigue that the answers, when they came, were rather a let-down.

But Fantastic Children really stands out in terms of style. It looks like old-school anime, being produced by Nippon Animation, harkening back to their World Masterpiece Theater series. As ever, their designs bear a resemblance to Osamu Tezuka’s simple style, as well as 3,000 Ri In Search Of Mother, which this pays homage to with a little simian cameo. Characters sometimes have very exaggerated noses or hair, but at the same time the animation is for the most part top-notch, albeit with one or two rather unnatural character motions, an annoying tendency to direct combat as one character hitting the camera, and then cutting to another bouncing away, and one obvious example of (gasp!) recycled animation (taboo!). However, for the most part it was excellent, and the impressive CG blended in well.

Despite the shortcomings of the story, there were a lot of wonderful ideas and well-drawn characters. Not a perfect series but nonetheless an extremely enjoyable and charming one that I will enjoy watching again someday.

(collated from impressions, 19.3.05 and 17.11.05)