Sunday, 31 July 2011

Toy Story 2

I went to see Toy Story 2 in the cinema back in the February of 2000. Seems quite bizarre now that it was so long ago – over a decade and only a few weeks into the millennium. The third in the trilogy was a long time coming!

I had started a diary not very long before, but all I jotted down on the 25th of that month was, ‘Saw Toy Story 2 today. It was REALLY good. Best committed to memory again.’

And commit it to memory I did. I haven’t seen it again since, but I still remember the plot pretty well – and I’ve moved past the days of avoiding writing down my thoughts because I can simply remember what happened. At a yard sale, Woody ends up accidentally put on display and is then stolen by a toy collector. He is, it transpires, a valuable collector’s item, and the collector can now sell a complete set of toys based on the TV show Woody’s Roundup for a handsome sum. But Woody is still Andy’s toy, and his friends are determined to rescue him – even if it must be at the last minute inside an airport.

In many ways, the expansion of the cast makes for scenes that write themselves. Woody the cowboy doll was a part of a TV show with other key members – a cowgirl, a horse and a sidekick. Buzz has a nemesis as well – but he is not rare and there are other version of Buzz Lightyear about, with the same mindset he had at the start of the first film. It’s a good way to develop a sequel to a film where there is an odd couple at the centre of the drama – reveal more of their worlds when they are separate from one another. The idea of toy collectors makes for not only obvious story progression but visual jokes (what happens to toys that are mint in the box if they come to life when nobody is looking?) and allows for some interesting questions about whether toys ought to be preserved when what they’re made for is to be played with.

The sequel wasn’t originally intended for a theatrical release. Disney sequels tend to go straight to video, courtesy of Disneytoon, and after all Pixar had never done a sequel before this. The story is that the design work was so impressive, and Tom Hanks and Tim Allen so vehement after signing on again for a small-scale video sequel, that Disney requested Pixar make it into a theatrical feature. Pixar had given the task to a secondary unit, but did not feel the work was of a quality they could be proud of, so reworked it, got Lasseter back as director and made something that was a resounding success.

It is the weakest of the three films, without the pioneering graphical quality and brilliant establishment of the concept the first film can boast, and nor does it have the penetrating emotional high notes of the third film’s theme of growing up and passing on childish things. But the fact that it cannot quite stand up to two such brilliant and successful films is no great slight, as it remains probably the best sequel to an original animated film there has ever been.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

ヴァンパイヤー戦争/ Vanpaiyaa Senzo / Vampire Wars

There’s something a bit upsetting about the fact that while Toei were animating Dragonball Z, they were also making this and the equally awful Psychic Wars. A 50-minute OVA, it layers several strands of bad storytelling on top of one another, none of them complimentary, until it is a garbled mess of uninteresting characters, clichéd setpieces and made-up powers. For the first half-hour there are no vampires and no sign of war. By forty minutes in there are not only vampires but aliens from outer space and we have found out that the war was intergalactic. This vaguely informs a contrived and unsatisfying ending.

A beefy, scarred mercenary type called Kuki gets tangled up in the abduction of a mysterious woman he has pledged to protect. Different factions seem to be after her, with their own reasons, and many of them end up dying very bloody deaths. But in the end, will Kuki be the protector or will he need protecting himself?

Art and animation is dated, and because they went for sober and realistic, it doesn’t have the charm of cutesy Toei – which includes Dragonball. The horror and sci-fi elements are if anything silly additions that get in the way of what could have been a functional crime story, but on the other hand may well be the only reasons this got an audience at all. The characters are hard to like, and the random sex and violence is all the kind of juvenile nonsense that made anime so awkward and puerile before its post-Eva renaissance. There are also some parts that just should have been excised in the planning stage, especially making the vampire character – a typically long-haired and elfin anime vamp – stand after having his neck broken and move about as though he were a cardboard cut-out on a stick. It was never going to look good.

Fans of the genre may find something to enjoy here, but most would be best-off avoiding.

闇の司法官ジャッジ / Yami no Shihosha Jadji / Magistrate of Darkness: Judge

It seems like the concept of the powerless being able to exact grisly revenge on people who think they have gotten away with their crimes is a rich source of Japanese horror manga – and the anime based upon it. Jigoku Shoujo in particular pivots on the idea. But Judge is considerably older, less concerned with elegant aesthetics and…well, sillier.

The plot of the 50-minute OVA is simple: an unassuming office worker has a secret – he is really the Judge of Darkness, damning those criminals who human justice has failed to pin down. Apparently mostly only the ones he happens to know. Luckily, he knows some really nasty pieces of work. One is dispatched easily, but the other gets some defence: a Christian priest with a bindi – or a mole that looks like one – who will defend anyone in the spirit world if they pay his price. After a magical confrontation the defendant gets taken to the spirit world to face ten huge Buddhist-style judges – and, yes, is judged.

Released in 1991, with animation from Animate, co-produced by a very young J.C. Staff, this was never going to be the pinnacle of beauty or sophistication, but I ended up surprised it was as good as it was. The start is slow, the main character uninteresting and the designs are goofy – the fish eyes of the main bad guy in particular were a constant source of amusement. But the clash between the judge and the priest, as well as the appearance of the ten true judges were genuinely fun to watch.

One thing the version we watched suffered from was the terrible translation and dubbing. The priest character could have been genuinely cool without the silly voice, the judges’ big reveal got undermined by lame acting and there were way too many unintentionally hilarious lines: ‘I’m good with love vibrations…’, (as an aside) ‘It’s made of human skin’, ‘Oh my God!’ It’s a pity, because it would be easier to take at least slightly more seriously with a better dub.

But even imagined well-translated and well-acted, this remains a frivolous, shallow story with little to engage an audience and some very silly aesthetics. It just isn’t as flatly terrible as it may at first seem. That, of course, doesn’t make it good.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

ストリートファイター II MOVIE / Street Fighter II Movie / Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie

It was time, today, to get my 1995 VHS of SFII: The Animated Movie out, mostly for the nostalgic laughs. It’s a very, very silly film made yet more comical by the silly, hammy dub, full of lines that were much-quoted in my youth: ‘You worthless pile of excrement!’ ‘My beautiful face is ruined! You bitch I’ll make you suffer!’

But for the time, given the other feature films being made at the time, and beside the terrible anime made for other fighting game series (like Tekken’s), this really isn’t bad. It’s actually pretty good-looking, well-paced and smoothly animated for an anime from the 90s – obviously not up there with Ghost in the Shell or Princess Mononoke, and with some rather odd facial expressions and funny muscle-men bodies, not to mention the silly soft porn meant for the teenaged male audience (bizarrely, the version we had kept a shot of Chun-li's breasts but not one of her rear), but still on the good side. It nicely sets up its premise and makes Bison more sinister than in any other media up to that point, it works in good solid flashbacks for Ryu and Ken and it finds space for all the SSFII characters to make at least a cameo, although most could do with a few more minutes’ screentime, and it does a good job of giving Ryu and Guile some time as point-of-view characters. It’s all very much to a formula and it’s hard to care that much about these super-powered strongmen with chests eight times the size of a normal person’s, but this probably remains to this day the best feature film to come from a fighting game.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Cars 2

So here it is, Pixar’s first flop. It always seemed a very odd decision to make sequels to Cars, by far the least critically acclaimed of Pixar’s films. Toy Story’s sequels had a difficult production story, the second film originally intended as direct-to-video and later got expanded and completely rewritten, causing something of a rift between the studio and Disney bosses. The Incredibles is in consideration for a sequel, but what I think makes a crucial difference is that Cars is John Lasseter’s baby, perhaps even more so than Toy Story. Lasseter continues to be the most recognisable of Pixar’s directors, but has acted as an executive producer to most of their feature films since the last Cars film, and only now has he returned to the helm.

I thought it would be a bad idea when I saw the trailer. I had seen the Cars Toons shorts, and thought that would be enough – especially as some of the ideas (like the Japanese setting) looked like they would be rehashed. I didn’t think much of the secret agent angle and the slapstick jokes did not seem funny at all.

So I was surprised and pleased to find that Cars II was actually enjoyable – and certainly better than I had expected. And while the film lacks the nice, wistful tone and yearning for an old, semi-mythical America that made the first film more than it could have been, it also has fewer moments where the racial stereotypes really get too close to offensive, fewer moments that could be called predictably mawkish, and rather more visual spectacle.

In the first film, Lightning McQueen had discovered the good hearts and great expertise that can be hidden in small communities. Our story opens with him returning to Radiator Springs after a successful racing season. His best friend Mater, the halfwit tow truck, hears cars on television mocking McQueen for not entering a grand prix designed to promote a new biofuel and calls in to argue, with the result that McQueen himself intervenes and ends up entering himself. With his team of friends from the little town, he goes to Japan for the first race. After some of the usual culture-shock comedy, the race takes part – but Mater has managed to get himself mixed up in a conspiracy and has been mistaken for an American undercover operative by British secret agents, and confusion over his radio communication leads McQueen to lose the first race.

After the two argue, Mater means to return home, but ends up bound up with the intrigues between agents, who remain convinced his is a brilliant act so that nobody will suspect him. There are two more races – in Italy and in England, but cars are starting to blow up during the races. Can Mater and his new friends get to the bottom of it before McQueen is targeted?

If it sounds a long way from the usual small-scale Pixar set-ups with a lot of heart and nostalgia, it is. But the film is still centred on the friendship between two unlikely buddies, and how they should believe in one another. The sight gags are still clever and the visuals are still superb – the streets of London in particular look like they could be live action rather than CG. And because of the pacing, simplicity and the fact that actually, Mater isn’t that annoying and is actually quite likeable, it works.

It’s no Wall-E or Up. It’s definitely one of the weaker of Pixar’s films. But as bad as it looked, and as bad as so many reviews have made it out to be? Certainly not.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Teen Titans

Teen Titans was probably the first cartoon I came into contact with that was tarred with the ‘anime rip-off’ brush, as I had steered clear of the hideous Totally Spies! and 80s cartoons after all are often a lot harder to distinguish from the other Japanese animations the same studios were creating. Teen Titans found itself in a middle ground that was often quite annoying: it didn’t really look like anime, even when directly imitating it. Its references were by and large extremely dated. And it was far, far better leaving that gimmick behind and presenting itself as a straightforward Western cartoon. Having finally seen the movie that marked the series’ swansong after its cancellation, it’s time to write down my impressions.

The basis of the story is, of course, deeply Western, drawn from the DC comics series of the same name that has run since the 60s, and a success story since the 80s, and sat well amongst the in-house shows on Cartoon Network. Probably wisely, the cartoon incarnation takes only one of the sidekick characters – Robin of Batman fame – and for the rest ignores the likes of Kid Flash and Superboy to fill the cast with the relatively obscure Titans who were the team’s first original additions in the comics – Starfire, Raven, Cyborg and Beast Boy, also known as Changeling, who was previously a member of the Doom Patrol.

These five, joined for a few episodes by Terra and with guest appearances from a secondary group, Titans East, as well as various ‘honorary Titans’, fight off various baddies from the comics with nefarious comic-book plots. Some of these are extremely annoying comic relief baddies, like the poor excuse to let animators play with psychedelia, Mad Mod – who not even Malcolm McDowell can make formidable – or the insipid Thunder and Lightning. On the other hand, there was some very rich tension in the comics to draw from, and plot arcs featuring Raven’s father, the downfall of Terra and Slade’s brilliant toying with Robin’s mind made for serious, clever and extremely compelling episodes.

This is why Teen Titans was good: when it got things right, it got them very right. It also did an excellent job of endearing characters to the audience, not just the main heroes, whose dynamics made for great comedy, but the minor players too: the likes of H.I.V.E. seemed pathetic when they appeared, but then through repeated appearances, humanisation and redemption became much more interesting.

The problem was that in between these came the unfunny comedy episodes, or the exaggerated semi-satirical, self-referential concepts that just seemed like the writers were trying much too hard and not managing to do what they were attempting. And the fact is that the anime influence was much to the detriment of everything beyond the cute character designs. The cutesy opening intro was fun and played very much into perceptions of Japanese music in the West, but sounds nothing like any anime intro I ever heard. The anime-style eyes sometimes didn’t look quite right on faces, especially Raven’s. But these were very minor beside the real problem: an attempt at anime styles of humour.

Teen Titans characters turn SD, appear at different sizes on the screen to play with ideas of space, get blown up slapstick-style and pull ridiculous simplified faces. But it just is not done right: it’s not so much the slightly-off art or the performances, it’s the pacing. Things happen at the wrong times, too fast or too slow, without the right transitions that make this sort of thing work so well in the likes of Azumanga Daioh. The only anime I’ve seen that paces things so oddly and jarringly was Fushigi Yuugi, where I think the creators got their cues from – and that fell flat too. Everything felt like it was trying to be an early 90s anime, and the most recent reference seemed to be Furi Kuri. Add to that the often borderline offensive Trouble in Tokyo movie, in which the Titans battle Astro Boy clones and catgirls while pursued by squealing schoolgirls, some of whom seem to have slitty eyes and big teeth, and you wonder how sincere this tribute to anime is. They also manage to write 楽wrong on signs and slip in a rather eye-roll-inducing tribute to Akira, another sign of how dated the frame of reference is.

Teen Titans was in many ways great for American cartoons. It had good characters and possibly the best voice acting I’ve heard on American TV, including the guy from Boy Hits Car, Scott Menville. It was on the serious side, and showed anime styles were viable in US cartoons, which may have paved the way for Avatar and was the one reason I’m grateful for the attempt. But the show would have been better without the SD and weird faces, the poor attempts at cutesy aesthetics. Or, more specifically, it would have been better doing them right.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

魔法少女リリカルなのは/ Mahou Shoujo Ririkaru Nanoha /Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha (season 1)

Nanoha is in several ways an archetypal series now. It’s become the prime example of a strange subgenre of anime – shows about an extremely cute little girl given amazing powers that take her on magical adventures…but made for an audience of lonely young men. These little girls are sexualised, given combat powers that tend to centre on large explosions, energy beams and exaggerated weapons. They are usually diffident and submissive despite their powers, and blush a lot in an ideal of innocence. They tend to have to suffer as the plot becomes darker in a way that inspires protective instincts, and win through on the strength of their good hearts and belief in what is right. And many, many figurines and posters are made for collectors who like to surround themselves with moé.

Of course, magical girl anime are far older than Nanoha’s 2004, and much of this was prefigured: Cardcaptor Sakura had much of the same appeal to male audiences, Princess Tutu was experimentally dark and multilayered and the likes of Sailor Moon and Cutie Honey had both sizable male fanbases and darker moments. Even mahou shoujo anime I see as very much aimed towards young girls like Ojamajo Doremi are widely watched by male anime otaku and have merchandise that caters for them. But the combination of all the elements, not to mention the casual nudity of transformation sequences featuring under-10s and the portrayal of the main character as hapless and in need of protection despite her strength have proven extremely influential: in the wake of Nanoha have come numerous lesser imitations (ie Saint October), comedic parodies (ie Moetan) and one rather clever knowing refiguring of the concept (Madoka).

I started watching Nanoha many years ago, stopped for a while, then was pleased I did because the rest was screened by my university anime club. I thought I’d leave impressions until after I was finished with A’s and StrikerS, the sequel series, but now after rewatching some and in the wake of Madoka, I want to do each on its own.

The story is one so familiar now it seems almost a joke. Nanoha, who first appeared in Triangle Hearts as one of the characters’ little sister, is given magical powers in order to help a little cutesy rodent collect 21 MacGuffins, here ‘jewel seeds’. The series’ tension is derived from a girl her age and with similar powers but with a much darker past and outlook, Fate Testarossa, also vying for the shards, collecting them for her abusive mother.

The setup is simple and most of the plot is given over to Nanoha fighting with Fate and then wondering why, slowly trying to win her over with her kind and gentle heart. Of course, though, both girls have powerful factions behind them, and they both must come to a head by the end.

Nanoha has very little special about it. It’s not sophisticated or visually very impressive. What it is, though, is cute. Very cute. Cute characters, cute situations, cute set-up, cute sidekicks – even cute boys to go with the cute girls. And strange as it is, there’s no denying cute kids struggling to fight to save everything they know is…well, moé.

Monday, 18 July 2011

バッカーノ! / Baccano!

I’m glad Baccano! became quite a hit upon its release in 2007, and continues to enjoy excellent word-of-mouth, especially when very loosely-connected follow-up series Durarara! not only became an even bigger hit, but sends people back to check out its precursor. That’s actually how I came to watch Baccano!, although I’d been intending to for a while before that: I enjoyed the first few episodes of Durarara! but decided I wanted to see the whole of Baccano! first.

It’s taken me a very long while to finish – I started watching around the same time as I was enjoying Paranoia Agent – especially because the three OVA episodes were hard to find in good quality, but now I’ve happily watched the whole lot, and I not only like Baccano! and its eccentricities, but I respect the daring and unorthodox approach that went into it.

Takahiro Omori has directed some unusual anime in his time, but usually their complexity comes from empty ambiguity, as in Jigoku Shoujo and Haibane Renmei, the latter of which he worked on as an episode director. He also isn’t averse to cutesiness: he adapted and directed the anime for Gakuen Alice. Somehow, though, Baccano! feels much more mature and idiosyncratic than those, and not purely because it isn’t centred on young girls. Ultimately, the sophistication here comes from the source material, though – a light novel series that I get the impression unfolded the story in a rather more obvious way than the series, which takes quite some time to reveal its supernatural elements.

One factor that marks out Baccano! as something different from the usual crop is its setting: at the centre of the sprawling plot is the Italian mafia based in prohibition-era New York. It is not a setting you see much in anime, and an attempt at a realistic presentation is a very long way from how the mafia is presented in the likes of Reborn!. Though some utterly ridiculous character names (the most obvious being ‘Jacuzzi Splot’) remind you that this is not a setting the author is wholly familiar with, the feel and the aesthetic work nicely, and there’s the great decision to have the majority of the real action of the series unfold on board a train.

The cast is huge and varied – rival gangsters and hired mercenaries, rich and poor, hitmen and small children. All have their own agendas, but get mixed up with one another’s intrigues and grudges during the journey on the Flying Pussyfoot. And through it all, capering like jesters, are the loveable comic relief duo Isaac and Miria, winsome and clueless and yet endearing themselves to almost all they meet.
A backstory involving a sinister patriarch soon comes to the fore, and it becomes apparent that many of the cast members are bound together by a long history. Beneath the turf wars and mafia hits is the rediscovery of an elixir that first surfaced in the early 18th century, and owes just a little to Highlander. Its effects give an added interesting dimension to Baccano!, as ideas of very old minds in young bodies and the limits of pain humans can cause one another get explored.

There were elements of Baccano! I did not like. There was a degree of the annoyance many felt towards Lost – it was soon apparent that novels were basically made up as the author went along, with no real overall structure and arbitrary pacing, and the closing scene where a man with a monocle lectures a small girl about how stories are most interesting when they are open-ended and can just go on forever was a total cop-out and annoyed me despite the man’s hilarious intonation. And while if you can accept magical elixirs, you really ought no to have complaints about other magical elements, I would rather everything was natural except for this one conceit: fun as it is to see guys fighting with ridiculous prowess and strength, it just didn’t feel right in the world of Baccano! and I would have rather seen everyone within human limits apart from the results of the magic potion. Claire was fun, but his supernatural skills just seemed out of place.

But overall, Baccano! does a lot that other anime do not, and does it well. It is not a perfect, polished work, but it is an incredibly fun one, with superb characters and compelling, multi-layered stories. Impressive and well worth watching.

Sunday, 17 July 2011


A few people came to Kyoto Animation through Full Metal Panic: The Second Raid, their first series as main animators. Many, many more discovered them when Haruhi Suzumiya made them perhaps the animation studio to watch in the last half-decade. For me, Air was my first encounter with KyoAni, the first of three adaptations of Key visual novels – followed by Kanon and Clannad. Air came first, though, and it was Air that introduced me to the incredible visuals the company could produce on weekly anime.

Key’s character designs are always a little odd, and the 2002 attempt at a Kanon anime showed how ugly they could be if not consummately animated, but Air manages to be beautiful despite faces occasionally looking somewhat malformed. The slow-paced, thoughtful anime centres on a boy called Yukito and his visual novel-based relationships with various girls he meets when he arrives in a new town.

At first, it seems that the anime will be entirely realistic (except for Yukito’s strange ability to make a little doll dance through means unknown), but it soon becomes clear that the girls each have their own problems, and their dreams have manifested themselves – but dreams are not reality, and each of them has much to overcome before they can return to normal life. And just who is the girl with wings who lives in the skies that Yukito’s mother told him about?

Towards the end, the anime gets extremely strange. The timeframe shifts back to the feudal era, where we learn the characters are reincarnated, and an ancient curse is still in effect. Yukito may have given his life, but he can still be close to his love in the form of a crow, who has always been there, another aspect of the same soul.

To put it plainly, it is very pretentious, convoluted and confusing. The reaction of most online seemed to be ‘lolwhut why is Yukito a crow?’, which in my view was quite reasonable. Air is the favourite of few Kyoto Animation fans, because it is so very strange, as well as being very slow and solemn, giving it an air – no pun intended – of annoying superiority.

The first few episodes had the right mixture of humour and sweetness, and the comic relief of the silly little mascot dog Potato didn’t hurt. I loved the ‘Gao Gao Stegosaurus’ logo and the characters’ relationships were intriguing. The trouble is that six years later, what sticks in the mind is struggling to understand the concept of the metamorphosis, and once it was explained, finding it absurd and irritating. While this is a shame, because it is a beautiful anime and heralded the rise of a superb animation studio, at the same time both Kanon and especially Clannad do the same thing better – so I don’t mourn Air.

(expanded from impressions, 22.2.05)

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Les Mystérieuses Cités d'or /太陽の子エステバン / Taiyou no Ko Esteban / The Mysterious Cities of Gold

Here is a series with a very interesting production story: what I watched was the Canadian dub, commissioned by British and American companies, of a Franco-Japanese coproduction with finance from Luxembourg written primarily by a Frenchman based loosely on an American novel about Spaniards in the New World, with an enduringly popular theme song written by a very talented Israeli musician living and working in France. The scripts were written by the French but storyboarded, it seems, mostly in Japan, under a French director who had moved there. So debate has long raged about whether or not this is anime. Well, I’d say no, on the grounds that Thundercats is not regarded as anime – after all, that was entirely animated in Japan, but the creative team were Western. The only difference is that Mysterious Cities of Gold was first released in Japan, with Japanese voice acting, as Taiyou no Ko Esuteban – or Esteban, Child of the Sun. But the project’s origins are Western.

The series was a collaboration between DiC, a French company whose name was ubiquitous in 80s cartoons and made me and my brother giggle even back then, and Studio Pierrot, now probably most well-known for churning out Naruto and Bleach but back then a fledgling studio with only three productions under their belt (though including the notable smash hit Urusei Yatsura). It was developed and produced in 1981, first ran in Japan in 1982, then the slightly edited French version was aired in 1983. The English version was not aired until 1986, in both the US and the UK. My own memories of the first run, or the repeat in 1989, are limited, and certainly I don’t have the fond childhood memories of it that I have for Ulysses 31 or M.A.S.K., but that theme tune is embedded in my psyche, as well as the image of the Golden Condor in flight.

In 16th-century Barcelona, little Esteban is treated as something of a miracle child, able to call out the sun, though he doesn’t believe it is magic of any sort himself. Because of a medallion he has worn since his rescue from a shipwreck as a baby, he is drawn into a voyage to search for the Mysterious Cities of Gold. Along the way he meets Zia, a little Incan girl with a medallion of her own and the ability to read ancient scripts, and eccentric Tao, the last of the Hiva people.

The first half of the series centres on interesting struggles between different political factions in the time of conquistadors, and remains remarkably sophisticated in terms of historical detail right up until the kids stumble upon ancient technology. The crumbling temples and even the incredible solar-powered flying machine the Golden Condor all work well, but as the series goes on, it goes a little too far with its fanciful science fiction, and many of the final episodes are given over to the Olmecs, an unconvincing group of pointy-eared goblin people with advanced technology and bioengineering skills. It just goes a little too far and they look too silly, with the result that everything gets a little trivialised. I would have much rather had closer ties to reality, because the same story could have been told without the daft sci-fi excesses.

Because the first half is brilliant. The characters are very interesting – the kind-hearted and innocent children are contrasted with the adults, be they greedy and oafish like Sandro and Pedro, or morally ambiguous like Mendoza, that detail according to the creators added by the Japanese. He has to be one of the most interesting and compelling supporting characters in any animation, by turns noble and conniving, always with an agenda of his own, even if it is simply to keep the children safe.

I made a point of tracking down at least the French and Japanese versions to compare with the English dub that coloured my childhood and so I stuck with. The French is on the commercial DVDs but the Japanese is remarkably hard to find. The English dub was actually meticulously and carefully done – the DVD extras reveal a laborious process of matching plosives and fricatives, and getting strong performances out of inexperienced children. The main problem with the English dub is how often it is an info-dump, with far too much dialogue crammed into too little time, resulting in the actors garbling out long lines in a very unnatural way. There is none of this in the Japanese version – the adults in particular are much stronger, giving measured and even performances, but the children’s voices are bad…Esteban sounds cocksure and is clearly an adult woman, and Zia’s whiny voice is like nails on a blackboard. And I just can’t get over Sandro and Pedro calling Mendoza ‘Aniki’! The theme song, with its English refrain of ‘Try my best!’ is also nothing to the adapted version’s, and twee in a very different, less impressive way – though it’s a shame some of the animation got hacked out for the Western release. The French dub preceded the English, and has kids performing the main roles as well, and Sancho sounds so much like his English counterpart I actually looked up the actors to see if they were the same person in both roles (not so), but there’s much less variety in the voices, Mendoza’s voice is a little too brazen for my tastes and there’s the same problem with rushing and incidental characters overacting. I’d put it on a par with the English version – though I must say I prefer the intro having a refrain of ‘Someday we will find the Cities of Gold’ to the rather awkward and silly ‘Esteban, Zia, Tao – Les Cités d’Or’.

As a major cult hit, lots of material has been made recently available for fans, including DVDs with several documentaries, dominated by the animation director who also played Mendoza (with the somewhat suspect story of being picked from four anonymous candidates by French producers to play the role after simply recording himself to fill an empty slot – not that I mind too much as he does an excellent job). The main thrust of these is that those who took part in the production are astonished how well the title has endured. And there is always talk of a revival – in 2007 it was feature films, and now it’s three new 26-episode seasons to premiere in 2012. Having ambition and quality in animation makes it last, and though it was cheaply animated and looks dated now, the story and characters have stayed with the audience, and I for one cannot wait to see the updated version.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Bokurano: manga

Uninstall, uninstall…

The same pattern occurred here as happened with Kitou Mohiro’s last manga, NaruTaru: I first encountered it as an anime, later picked up the manga, and ended up far, far more deeply emotionally invested in it than I had expected to be, and more deeply moved by what happens to these characters than those of almost any other manga, novel, book, play – any story in any media. As I said when I finished reading the penultimate volume, as someone who almost never cries, and never at all over fictional stories, I was astonished how often this manga took me close.

Just as with NaruTaru, Kitou starts a series with familiar clichés that the systematically get disassembled, examined and ultimately reimagined in the most harrowing and tragic ways that end up leaving very deep impressions. There, it was magical girl archetypes, while here it is that age-old fantasy of giant robots. If 20th Century Boys took the idea and showed audiences how it might look in reality, Bokurano examines the real psychological impact of giving that much power to emotionally unstable adolescents, exacerbated by a very real, immediate cost each has to pay.

And once again, while the anime skipped some of the most adult subject matter and ended prematurely, the manga is given freedom to really explore the ideas of death, self-sacrifice, revenge, family and the survival instinct. Sadly, while the anime’s ending gives some degree of relief, it rather betrays the principles established at the start, while the manga gets to take them to their conclusion, even if of course, each individual’s situation is unique.

Despite similarities in characters and circumstances, the dynamics are very different from those in NaruTaru. The sense of empowerment is completely different, and while no-one suffers or learns quite as much as Sheena, they better understand what is happening to them, which makes for a more reflective work with characters better able to embody ideals and, ultimately, a much tighter plot. I was probably even more emotionally invested in NaruTaru, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t feel a great deal for the characters of Bokurano, or very surprised at the pasts unfolded, the decisions made by these kids or the surprising way the series comes to an end.

A lot of licence has to be given in order to swallow the premise, the pseudo-science, the arbitrariness of appearance and facilities and the extremely reductive concept of infinite universes in infinite divisions of time, but really, to fixate on the mechanics is to miss the point – the emotional and philosophical place that the pilots find themselves in when they receive great responsibility and power at great personal cost.

The reason the manga is such a success is that it takes its concept very seriously and imagines how people face death and sacrifice, fear and love, while retaining the adrenal rush of mecha. Normally, giant robots don’t interest me, precisely because shows featuring them tend to come with shallow posturing and a total lack of real consequences, which is why Bokurano is so refreshing. If a show like Gurren Lagann will take the shallow aspects of a concept and make them ridiculously fun, a manga like Bokurano goes for depth, and produces exactly the opposite emotions. Sometimes, it is good to feel those, too, and tragedy has always been perceived as more worthy than comedy. Both have a valuable cultural place, but you can’t beat something genuinely powerful and moving, like this.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

げんしけん / Genshiken

When the first season ended, back in March 2005, I didn’t think all that much of Genshiken. It was culturally interesting, I said, and had some classic pieces of character-based comedy, but I didn’t really see myself in the characters and was more amused by the parody anime-within-an-anime Kujibiki Unbalance, fleshed out into three OVAs and later a full series. By the end of the second season, though, I had a real affection for the characters and their club, and care enough about them to snap up every new manga ‘Genshiken II’ chapter, still released sporadically after the title’s official end.

Genshiken, quite simply, is the story of a ‘visual culture’ club in a Japanese high school. Everyman Sasahara at first wants to come over as fairly normal, but the rest of the club soon get his true otaku nature out in the open. The rest of the series follows the various members of the club as they attend cons, put together a doujinshi comic of their own and struggle to justify the club’s existence alongside existing manga and gaming societies.

Turning the camera – or, perhaps, manga artist’s brush – onto its primary audience is nothing new, and in many ways Gainax’s Otaku no Video is the predecessor to this. Other recent series have heavily focused on anime fans and shut-ins, from Welcome to the NHK and Sayonara Zetsubou-sensei to Eden of the East. Of all these, though, Genshiken is the most accessible and consistent, not attempting to make an epic story or satirical statement, but focusing on strong characters and their relationships. And the characters are great.

At first, the other men in the club seem daft caricatures: Madarame is a lizard-like oddball with delusions of grandeur. Tanaka is scruffy and laid-back. Kugayama is drawn almost like he’s in a newspaper gag strip, overweight and stammering. Then there’s feminine, slightly overly-perfect Kousaka, who is the quintessential geek but with a very pretty face and nice clothes, making for some great juxtaposed comedy when his girlfriend Saki tries to fit in with him. Later on come cosplay obsessive Ohno and prickly Ogiue, as well as other funny, odd characters like Kuchiki and Suzie. The latest manga introduces a new set of first-years, who have yet to grow on me and are a little harder to believe in.

The simple set-up gets developed in really interesting ways, mostly in conventional soap opera directions. The otaku element is the delicacy that brings the customers in, but what keeps them returning is the twisty relationship drama that could be in almost any soap opera. But the spice of seeing the characters go to cons, being awkward in very typical otaku ways or poor Saki trying to participate in her boyfriend’s hobbies – these make me care, and as a result this ended up a favourite.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Aladdin (1992)

The Lion King was the Disney film that dominated my childhood, but right alongside it was its immediate predecessor, Aladdin. And because it was one I watched as a child, it was only later that it struck me how very bizarre a film this is. It’s unlike other Disney films, unlike other comedies of the period, unlike other musicals and visually extremely bold. And key to it all is Robin Williams and the free reign he was given to put his hyperactive brand of improvised comedy on tape.

Released in 1992, it came during a strong period for Disney, in the wake of success stories like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. This was also when I was a happy child consumer, so I not only had the video tape and the songbook, but the tricky SNES game and, when it came out, the slightly-above-average video sequel The Return of Jafar.

Aladdin was familiar to me through the pantomime interpretations of the Arabian Nights story: thus I felt a bit surprised when I first saw this. I expected a Chinese setting and a rather younger Aladdin. Indeed, early production had Aladdin in his early teens and a mother planned, even if she probably would have resembled Widow Twankey very little. I soon came to see the reinterpretation as I do now: a very wise and intelligent one. The fantasy Arabian setting is a defining point gives the film so much character, and let’s face it, Ala’ ad-Din never sounded very Chinese. Aladdin in the orphan tradition actually manages to be a role model as a loveable rogue, despite ‘gotta steal to eat, gotta eat to live’ not really being very excusable, and as an 18-year-old is much more believable as a romantic lead.

And of course, Robin Williams’ Genie character is what makes this such a bizarre and excellent animation. His freewheeling style is matched perfectly with animation that brings experimentalism back to Disney after a long absence. Having 90s pop culture references and innumerable anachronisms is braver than it might seem in hindsight and could have fallen flat. But it works brilliantly and makes the film unique and startling. I’d rather they hadn’t let Williams do his slightly dubious generic-Arab voice for the turbaned peddler at the start, though. I’ve never been quite comfortable with him.

The plot is simple, the romance mawkish despite excellent songs and the supporting characters obvious, but this film reminded the world Disney could take risks and produce some images with incredible visual flair.

ワーズ・ワース/ Words Worth

There are people who take animated porn seriously, it’s true. But even amongst them I doubt anybody genuinely thinks Words Worth anything but a joke. I can't even imagine most fans consider it erotic. Certainly the reason I saw it was as a joke between friends, and the horse-headed Stallion has become a bit of an internet meme with his memorable line ‘Your resistance only make my penis harder!’

While it mostly involves an idiotic central male character stumbling about and finding girls who are vulnerable, then having his way with them – often finding them in this state because someone else has just raped them – it is worth remarking that Words Worth at least attempts to elevate itself with an ambitious fantasy plot.

The story takes place in a high fantasy world where the Tribe of Light and the Tribe of Darkness are at war. The prince of the Tribe of Darkness, Astral, works hard to become a swordsman, and despite apparently being in a world where everyone is constantly raping everyone else, has never before had sex. Then in a few hours he has sexual encounters with two women – a prisoner who he rapes and his childhood friend. Going off to fight, he goes up against the king of the Tribe of Light, who is of course busy with some rape, but he is then hit by a spell from the woman he had previously raped. He is blasted away and loses his memory, returning twenty years later to the Tribe of Light, where they take him as one of their own. But what is his true lineage, and what will happen to his child, bourn by the childhood friend? And what of the Words Worth tablet, which when reassembled may reveal the words of God and put an end to centuries of conflict?

If this sounds like an epic tale, though, it’s really incidental. Because Words Worth is about putting fantasy elf-girls and cat-girls into positions where they can have sex. Mostly the girl is unwilling, which presumably for the sake of fantasies of dominance seems to be preferred in anime porn – because girls going ‘No, stop, I don’t want this!’ is apparently erotic. Ick. And if it sounds like Astral getting blasted away as revenge for the rape is supposed to be didactic and teach him a moral lesson – nope. He carries right on doing it, and the gaiden just has more of the same.

It’s all stupid masturbatory fantasy, and honestly extremely unpleasant to look at, with all sorts of nasty close-ups and a preference for making the women really subjugated by having them violated by increasingly disgusting men, so really, a viewer must either take it as hilarious or despair of it. Either way, this has become one of the most widely-known and widely-mocked pieces of animated porn, and for that has a cult following. It’s just definitely not my thing.

Monday, 11 July 2011

GoBots: Battle of the Rock Lords

Chances are that if you were born in the 90s, you know the Transformers well and have probably even seen the 80s animated movie. But you may not have heard of the GoBots, who time has not been so kind to. Back in 1986, though, The GoBots were a serious contender in the toy world, and this theatrical feature, released several months prior to the Transformers film, came on the back of a television series, Challenge of the GoBots. Personally, I think I had as many GoBot and Rock Lord toys as I did Transformers, and this VHS tape was as well-loved as Transformers the Movie’s.

Even if this was the Digimon to TranformersPokémon, though, that does not mean it ought to be dismissed. I still have an affection for this film, even if it was not a stellar success, meaning that by 1987, the Transformers’ company Hasbro absorbed the Tonka GoBots lines (certain of the characters later cropping up in Transformers comics) and only a few months later the distribution company was bust. Since then, the GoBots have largely been seen as a poor imitation of Transformers and vastly inferior – c’mon, the commander of the good guys is called ‘Leader-1’ – and it’s not hard to find some of the toys and still frames of this animation hilariously bad, but the distance isn’t so very huge as all that.

I am admittedly biased. Rewatching this for the first time since I was seven or eight, I could still remember lines before they came, plot twists and the scenes to come. I could still remember my dislike for Scooter, how brilliant Crasher’s laugh is and how I always felt Marble to be oddly effeminate. I remember my admiration for Cy-Kill seeing through Solitaire’s deception, and finding the idea of being executed in the Tumbler genuinely chilling. I even remembered how certain toys felt to hold and to transform just by looking at their onscreen counterparts. There is much to cringe at, including dreadful transformation sequences from a motorcycle being formed by the robot just sort of bending forward to rock lords who just squat; Scooter having his face visible even in vehicle mode; and, to be honest, the whole concept of humanoids transforming into rocks - and Hasbro definitely had better ideas of making things look cool. But I like this film.

The plot is simple, working only because it builds on an established cast: there are two factions of good guys and bad guys. A rock lord goes to request help from the GoBots with a war between the two factions, but the evil GoBots hear of it, kidnap the ambassador and go to offer their services – of course intending all along to seize the ultimate prize for themselves. The prize is a sceptre of power, rather confusingly supposed to require all the lesser sceptres but in the end being forged from all but one - and proves not to be much of a threat at all, really - but what the story is really about is the journey and cooperation.

With some celebrity voices – chiefly Roddy McDowall and the girl from Superman, along with the voices of both Optimus Prime and Megatron from Transformers, in roles very different from those – the acting is over the top but has its charm, and some performances are genuinely strong. The animation is classic Hanna-Barbera, and if the cast being mostly made up of robots designed in Japan obscures this slightly, close-ups of faces, explosions and that signature awkward way of having the background scrolling along when the imagined camera dollys with characters in motion soon betray the truth.

It’s in many ways awful. Lots of bad designs, silly dialogue, a flimsy plot and characters hard to empathise with. Its charm is certainly in part ironic. But this film is a whole lot of fun, very silly and an indelible part of my childhood. A cult classic.

Friday, 8 July 2011

The Incredibles

When I saw it back in 2005, I found The Incredibles quite brilliant. It was, I wrote, easy, silly fluff based on a great idea – after all, what’s more modern and ironic than a world where superheroes have been totally suppressed by lawyers? It was cute, visually stunning, had some classic moments and the kids were just adorable. I loved the fun, snappy storytelling that came with a grounded, ironic vein that I often don’t overly enjoy, but here found charming. The story clearly took its cues from Watchmen, with the idea of outlawed superheroes yearning for the old days. But it never felt like a rip-off, only like a tribute, and an exploration of the concept in a different direction.

This film is really Brad Bird’s baby – and he was definitely a great addition to Pixar, even if arguably he brought with him a short period where the studio’s popularity started to wane, until Wall-E brought it all back. The film is what brought him to Pixar, and broke the Pixar mould by centring on a cast of real humans. Well, superhumans, but still fundamentally human beings. The film had been destined to be an traditionally-animated feature for Warner Bros before their theatrical animation division shut down – and it was really thanks to the fact Bird had gone to college with John Lasseter, with a little help from the artistic merits of The Iron Giant, that the move to Pixar happened. Bird also provides the voice of the scene-stealing Edna Mode, one of the film’s best characters, and was very visible in the DVD extras, and for whatever reason I felt the need when I saw these to observe he looked extremely like a grown-up Haley Joel Osment.

Bird is a bit of wild card in the current Pixar. They’ve got their first critical disappointment on their hands with Cars 2, and Bird is busily making a live-action film about the 1906 earthquake that will be the biggest change in mode for Pixar yet. I’m not sure what Pixar’s future will be, but their place in history is assured and I’m eager to see Brave.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars

This film was pretty dreadful, really, but switch off your brain and you could enjoy it. It belongs on television, not on the big screen, and it felt like a bit of a swiz to be watching such an unimportant bit of Star Wars history in the cinema, the plot revolving around Anakin getting an annoying chirpy padawan and the two of them getting caught in a plot to frame the republic for the kidnapping of Jabba the Hutt’s son.

The stylised art seemed to have been made to look as though carved out of wood to directly reflect the dialogue, which was grimace-inducingly stilted and pompous. It was cut from the same part of the Star Wars cloth that makes you long for Han Solo’s scepticism and the grit and grime of the Millennium Falcon. The romance was of the fallen Empire, and the prequel universe still doesn’t seem to quite fit, the Empire having lasting such a shamefully short time, the idea of Yoda just going off and hiding in a swamp instead of allying himself with the rebels more than a little odd, and now we have to wonder why Jabba makes no reference to these events.

On the other hand, the film told a neat story, it had moments of cuteness, and even though the comic relief battle droids aren’t my favourite idea of Lucas’, their stupidity was quite amusing at times.

(originally written 24.8.08)

Thursday, 7 July 2011

The Adventures of Mark Twain

Reasons why I watched this. Well, there were several, in fact. First amongst them was that the trailer for the film used to play before some of the videos I had as a little child. I’m sure there were a great many of them, but the one I remember is this one, the weird hallucinogenic claymation visuals and the iconic imagery: steamboat-airship hybrids, a drama mask that shifts and changes, faces in the clouds…And then I was just looking through lists of animated films and there was the title, staring at me. Growing more interested in steampunk made me think of the imagery from that trailer, the way Mark Twain is often listed beside Jules Verne as the big influences on the playful little niche…

And I’m glad that I decided to watch it, all these years later, because it was an excellent little piece of animation. It’s a shame that it’s fated to obscurity because of an animation style that, Aardman aside (and this doesn’t look as slick and polished as Chicken Run, that’s for sure), has become ever more unfashionable, especially in the wake of CG (admittedly, I’d love to see a Pixar-standard remake, or even a live action version), because it is remarkable in many ways. Conceivably the 1985 film would have been a bigger hit if it had designed better-looking main children, and possibly if it had pulled some punches (a scene with little Morph-like clay people having their civilisation devastated is, remarkably and for me at least, very impressively harrowing in a surprisingly genuine way). That title smacks of a studio overruling the creative team, but this film can certainly appeal to adults.

And at the heart of this is Mark Twain, and the vast majority of the brilliance in the movie is the brilliance of Twain, with plenty of quotes of some of the man’s superb one-liners. The great writer takes to the skies in his riverboat-zeppelin, while his creations Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher stow away. Along the journey, through amazing contraptions and mysterious doors, various other of Twain’s creations are seen, showcasing both his superb sense of humour, as in the witty diaries of Adam and Eve, his darker side with a few well-observed indictments of mankind, we see the man himself swinging unpredictably from wise storyteller to authoritarian brooding madman playing a great moulding and remoulding pipe organ.

Symbolic, allegorical, clever and showcasing a variety of styles, both in animation terms and storytelling terms, it’s remarkably well done. It’ll be a shame if this is forgotten.

(originally written 1.9.08)

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

劇場版 NARUTO-ナルト-疾風伝 ザ・ロストタワー / Naruto Shippuden Movie 4: The Lost Tower

After the disappointing Bonds and the downright terrible Inheritors of the Will of Fire, I was uncertain that it was ever again going to be worth watching a Naruto feature film. They’ve never been good pieces of animated storytelling, the worst kind of cash-in to milk a popular franchise, but they were at one stage fun, being silly, straightforward stories that usually gave a chance to see the characters with superior art and animation. Lately the films have lacked even that much.

So I’m quite happy that The Lost Tower was a return to form, however much that may sound like damning with faint praise. It was not high art, or daring or a highlight for the few fans who are sticking with Naruto to the bitter end through dogged loyalty to the manga and original series, but it was entertaining, solid and had a few great ideas.

Naruto and the new Team 7 – that is, with Yamato and Sai – are tracking a rogue ninja to the ruins of a city that was once great, but only a couple of decades earlier had fallen to ruin. Their target, however, is in the midst of a plan to travel back to the glory days of the metropolis and make use of a great power source. Of course, Naruto gets pulled into the time vortex that is created and finds himself in the city twenty years before. The rogue ninja, Mukade, was sent back several years earlier than this, and has by now established himself as the political leader of the city, using the vulnerable young princess as a puppet. Naruto foils an assassination attempt on her life, and so gets pulled into the intrigues Mukade has set up, as well as finding himself in the company of other Konoha ninja from the past.

The story unfolds with a simplicity beyond even most Shounen Jump movies: before the halfway point, the major battle with the antagonist has begun and the exact aims of the characters are established. This leaves a lot of room for the rest of the film to be thrilling battles, rescues and inspirational speeches – the bread and butter of this sort of anime. While maybe a little more sophistication would not have gone amiss, there is much to be said for the direct option, and it works nicely.

And once again it looks great. Pierrot are capable of producing high-quality stuff when they work hard: let us not forget that their KumoKaze is often mistaken for a Ghibli production, and not just for the character design. This isn’t stunningly beautiful, but it certainly stands above the other recent Naruto films and the state of the weekly anime. There is some superb fluid animation here, in speech as much as in the action, the CG is nicely integrated and there are actually nice attempts at introducing Dutch angles and other less conventional mise-en-scene techniques to make the visuals interesting.

And dubious though I was at the start, the idea of going back in time twenty years provides some great moments. I loved that for some reason, Minato’s teammates on this mission were Chouji’s dad Chouza and Shino’s dad Shibi, as well as mini-Kakashi. It was great seeing them in action. The idea of having Naruto and Minato interacting provided some problems for continuity and some contrivance to work, but it turns out to be just about worth it, and while the inevitable closing scenes where the events get squeezed out of the canon continuity are a necessary evil but still grate somewhat.

But these are the pitfalls of making a Naruto film. And as they go, this one isn’t bad at all.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Le Roi et l'oiseau / The King and the Bird / The King and the Mockingbird

Le Roi et l'oiseau is widely considered a masterpiece of animation. Two things brought me to it. The first was reading about Norstein's The Overcoat, with its 20-year production time, which led to mentions of this film being in production from 1948-1980 - the project began when the studio Les Gémeaux was in a strong position, having been the only animation studio operating in occupied France during WWII, but stalled when they hit financial difficulties in 1950, with an unfinished version being released in 1952; a rights dispute ensued, stretching into the 70s, and then finally the film was finished from 1977 onwards. The second was, as with The Old Man and the Sea, the recommendations of Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki and Takahata having highly praised this animation as a great influence on them and released it in Japan as part of their Ghibli Museum Library collection.

It is a very strange, rather hallucinogenic film. It may be regarded as a classic, but there is a lot about it that is slapdash or defied explanation. On the other hand, there are also moments of great visual ingenuity, some genuinely hilarious humour and a very interesting meld of animation styles testament to the two very different periods in which it was made.

In the kingdom of Tachycardia, decadent King Charles (V+III=VIII)+VIII=XVI enjoys commissioning images in his likeness, while warring with a large bird who has his nest in the towers of his castle. The King managed to hunt and kill the bird’s wife, leaving him the single parent of four adorable chicks, but in return the sardonic bird torments him about his ugly cross-eyed face. One day the king commissions a new painting, dropping the unfortunate painter into a pit for making him cross-eyed and himself retouching it with nice normal eyes. For some reason, the works of art in the king’s bedroom come to life at night, including images of a chimneysweep and a shepherdess: here the story with its basis in Andersen comes to the fore, and these two paintings become the sympathetic lead characters of the film. They escape from their frames, but the painting of the king believes that the shepherdess ought to marry him so pursues them, on the way dropping the real king down one of his traps and taking his place. The couple evade capture for a time, with the help of the bird, until they descend to the lower city, right out of Metropolis. Here, apparently the king doesn’t care what damage he does, so he uses a giant robot to capture the heroes. The shepherdess is prepared for marriage while the sweep and the bird are forced into labour. Rebelling, they are thrown to the lions, but the bird and a blind organ-grinder from the lower city convince the lions to burst free and overcome the forces of the false king. All that remains is a climactic battle for the giant robot, and a final scene that may be quite an abrupt end to the film – but is one of its most iconic and memorable pieces of imagery.

Visually, the film recalls nothing so much as Disney and Fleischer shorts from the 20s and 30s. Many frames have been drawn, given great fluidity to every movement, but the characters move almost without weight, and their movements have odd, jerky timing or can be hard to interpret. The identical policemen in particular have expressions right out of black-and-white Mickey Mouse and those little chicks have more than a little of Snow White’s fauna in them. Meanwhile, the king’s strange, languid movements are superbly idiosyncratic, and the bird himself has some wonderful moments. It’s sometimes possible to notice the jump from 40s to 70s in a single cut, but overall the film is remarkably coherent.

There is much that will stay with me forever. Some brilliant visual gags are on display, mostly surreal: in one scene that really made me laugh, the King has to open a series of traps to catch out his chief of police, and then unexpectedly zips off when his throne is converted into a bumpercar. The appearance of the chimneysweep surprised me, an extremely feminine boy I wouldn’t think would meet any ideals as a romantic lead in either the 40s or the 70s. And one scene, in which what appears to be a concertina with eyes and feet comes along, does a dance, and then is ignored and forgotten. I really cannot make sense of that sequence at all. I can accept that the king and guards might just be persuaded not to investigate a statue made of birds even if it was awkward, but that concertina really bewilders me.

There are numerous little curios here. What do those allusions to Hitler really signify? Why gondolas? Should the concept of the painting replacing the real king not have been given more recognition? But ultimately this is a freewheeling, rather bizarre animated fantasy, and somehow it feels like it would be fruitless to question it.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

ドッグデイズ/ Dog Days

Dog Days, which just ended at 13 episodes, seemed oddly out-of-place in a 2011 season. Perhaps it’s just the lingering shadow of Madoka, or the fact that this was animated by Seven Arcs, who tried so very hard to make Nanoha darker than it looked, but I spent the whole thing expecting the cutesy series to take a dark, depressing turn.

It’s no bad thing that it did not. The story is not dissimilar to that of MÄR: a Japanese schoolboy is mysteriously transported to another world, where he finds himself a warrior hero and pretty popular with the ladies – while at the same time looking for a way back home again. Unlike Ginta, the protagonist here (シンク, variously transliterated by fansub groups as ‘Shinku’, ‘Cinque’ or even ‘Sink’) is a gifted athlete on Earth, too, and the world he finds himself in is not threatened by a malevolent overlord. In fact, two things define it: firstly, there are two nations at war, one of which has mostly feline characteristics while the other seems more canine – the latter having summoned Shinku and presumably given the anime its title – and secondly, a form of magic is in place which allows those who fall in battle to simply turn into a cutesy ball-with-a-face rather than dying. So with little real risk, warfare has evolved into what is essentially a huge gameshow.

The series hints at directions the plot might take, but none of them end up taking a darker turn. The areas outside the reach of magic are not explored – perhaps in a second season? The queen on the opposing side sees a dark prophecy, and tension comes from her acting on the premonition without explaining her actions, but nothing comes of it and a dramatic battle with a third party soon comes along to make the tearful apologies at the end flow more easily. Ultimately the last episodes revolve around the angst of saying goodbye, but it is all clearly a set-up for big smiles and an impression of ‘to be continued’.

But if Dog Days stays very superficial, it certainly suits it. Dog Days is the cutest action-adventure I’ve seen since…hmm, I don’t know, Mai-Otome? Its character design looks like characters from Haruhi Suzumiya redrawn by the mangaka of Bamboo Blade, and every character is adorable, from boyish, sensitive Shinku, who in that great tradition of half-Japanese, half-European anime characters is so blonde and blue-eyed Hitler would cringe, to the female captain of the guard who is voiced by the seiyuu who was Azusa in K-On and embodies the ‘tsundere’ concept better and more likeably than any other character I can think of. Then there is the sweet childlike princess Miruhi, who goes into adoring disciple mode when around the opposing army’s princess Leo, the bookish head researcher Rikotta, always trying her best, and the sweetly bratty cat-prince Gaul. Everything here comes from an already somewhat tired moé moé tradition, but is done with affection and sincerity, and works.

There’s not much to this show. It doesn’t even seem very well-conceived, starting off with an idea of warfare through athletics that is soon dropped, telling us things like Shinku is from Cornwall that never really gain relevance and hopping between mini-arcs in a desperate plea to keep the audience’s attention. But while it could perhaps have made a much greater impact, as a piece of fluff it was always fun to watch and enjoyable, and in 2011’s more cynical seasons, refreshing too.

Season two: here

Friday, 1 July 2011

だめっこどうぶつ / Damekko Doubutsu / Useless Animals

Damekko Doubutsu is a simple comedy of reversed expectations: it revolves around a forest full of anthropomorphised animals (generally made to look like humans wearing kigurumi pyjamas) who act totally contrary to how their animals are usually personified. At its centre is Uruno, a wolf who acts timid and childish, contrasted with Usahara, a brash, rough-talking bully of a rabbit. Similarly, the cheetah character is hopeless as running, the eagle is myopic and the unicorn enjoys cruel tricks. In a series of five-minute shorts, the concept is explored in a way that presumably wrote itself: it’s entertaining just watching the group of misfits interacting and ending up in silly situations.

An addictive rapid-fire opening song doesn’t hurt. Benkyou dame demo kakekko biri demo kokutte furaretemo *squdgiuu*

Animated by Magic Bus, a small studio generally known for doing additional in-between work and assistance, it’s a small-scale project based on a manga from a magazine that really doesn’t get many anime adaptations. But it’s funny, cute, likeable and silly, and does exactly what it should – in bite-sized chunks.