Thursday, 27 October 2011

Bleach: Pre-timeskip

I’ve done it for the other two Shounen Jump ‘Big Three’ titles, so now that the anime has come out of its latest extended filler arc and skipped ahead a year and a half to one of its most unpopular arcs, it’s time to give Bleach the same treatment.

It’s interesting to note that I didn’t get into any of the Big Three on a first attempt. One Piece’s Alvida episode seemed frivolous and unfunny and Naruto seemed like its main character was going to be too hard to like, let alone root for. But by the Haku/Zabuza arc, Naruto was a firm favourite and One Piece hooked me in as soon as Zoro was set free – though took another few months to rise up to my favourite Jump title besides Hikaru no Go. Bleach, on the other hand, was a long, long slog before it picked up and became not only watchable but compulsive viewing.

But – unlike the authors of The Anime Encyclopaedia, whose entry is clearly based on a cursory viewing of the first few episodes – I stuck with it, curious as to what all the fuss was about, and I ended up glad I did. For while the first forty or so episodes are rather dull and emotionally distant, once Ichigo travels to Soul Society and its major figures are introduced, a far more interesting world, with far more interesting characters, comes to the fore.

Bleach is about a teenager who can see ghosts. He has a reputation as something of a delinquent, especially because people jump to conclusions based on his hair colour – which supposedly is natural and not a result of bleach. This was for some time put forward as a wrangled reason for the series’ title, until mangaka Tite Kubo came up with a better one about wanting to refer obliquely to white. One day, he sees a female shinigami in battle with a ‘hollow’, a monstrous and predatory spirit looking to feed on the souls of the recently deceased. The shinigami, Rukia, ends up injured, and lends Ichigo some of her power to defeat the creature. However, he absorbs far more than expected, not only becoming powerful enough to defeat the hollow but rendering Rukia almost useless for a while. Thus, he has to take on her responsibilities and do battle with the creatures from the spirit world, who seem to have taken an interest in him and those around him.

As I mentioned, the story doesn’t really pick up until Ichigo travels to the Shinigami world of Soul Society to rescue Rukia, which means taking on warriors far more powerful and more experienced than he is – and becomes mixed up in a coup that just happens to erupt as he is there. This section has some irritating power-up moments for Ichigo, but introduces the shinigami captains, antagonists who later become sympathetic and even the best things about the series in a similar way to HunterXHunter’s genei ryodan. My favourite is the straightforward battle-freak Kenpachi, but the likes of the aloof Byakuya, the gruffly childlike Toushirou and the unhinged mad scientist character Kurotsuchi have great designs and dynamics.

Bleach was also quite innovative with its filler, original episodes not based on the manga aired in order to prevent anime catching up to Jump chapters. Initially, Studio Pierrot fell back on their Naruto filler tricks with inconsequential single episodes – including one about a ghost baker shamelessly ripped off from Kekkaishi – but later began to do long, extended story arcs, even introducing characters that come back for cameos in later non-filler episodes. These usually outstay their welcome and fall apart even if their original ideas were remarkably good, but they generally offer far more to keep an audience than long seasons of bitty, inconsequential single-episode stories.

In the end, Bleach is in a state of uncertainty. Many seem to think it would have been the ideal time for Bleach to end when the time-skip happened, and everything beyond that has been sub-par. And even before its timeskip, I wouldn’t call Bleach the best series. It’s often frustrating, its central character is remarkably uncharismatic for a Jump protagonist and there’s often an air of desperation about how its loose ends get tied up. But there are some battles here that ought to be a fix for any lover of shounen, and really, if you’re watching a long-runner from Jump, that oughtta be what you’re looking for.

Movie 3: link
Movie 4: link

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Ghibli Shorts – Night of Taneyamagahara, On Your Mark, Ghiblies, Sora-iro no Tane and CMs

(more to come when I get the extras with Ghibli ga Ippai)

種山ヶ原の夜 / Taneyamagahara no Yoru / The Night of Taneyamagahara
The honest truth is that if not for the fact that this was a Ghibli short film, directed by superb background artist Oga Kazuo, I would not have bothered. It’s a little folk story by Miyazawa Kenji, the mind behind the wonderful Gauche the Cellist and Night on the Galactic Railroad, but is only a tiny fragment of a story and barely animated.

Very much like cheap educational television animations and Jackanory-style storytelling programmes, it is less a piece of animation than a series of still images with the camera panning over them while a soft voice reads out a story. In this case, the plot is that when a man falls asleep in a group on the Taneyamagahara mountain, he dreams the grass and oak trees are talking to him, asking him to care for them when he buys the land, and not to cut too many trees down to make charcoal. Just as he is coming to an agreement, he steps on a young lightning god by accident and is punished. That’s about it. There’s a nice, wistful mood, yes, but very little to identify with or see progressing.

And honestly, while the art is lovely in terms of its backgrounds, they’re not the visual spectacle of Iblard Jikan and the human characters are clearly intended to seem ordinary and unglamorous, but end up not very appealing at all. Plus, perhaps unsurprisingly, when much of your screen time is devoted to talking leaves, things get a little dull and repetitive.

オン・ユア・マーク/ On Your Mark
Wow - the music video Studio Ghibli made for Japanese Rock duo Chage & Aska’s song ‘On Your Mark’ in 1995 is so unutterably beautiful that I was stunned. So much story, so many fascinating questions raised in such a short time that it’s got to be the best non-performance music video I’ve ever seen.

(originally written 1.9.06. Even now when I see clips of the short video appear in things like AMV Hell it takes me aback how high the quality is, particularly for a mid-90s piece of Japanese animation, and how ambitious it was)

ギブリーズ/ Ghiblies 1&2
It’s been a long while since I watched the Ghiblies shorts – about five years – but they still make me smile. Crude 4-koma-like art not so distant from that of Tonari no Yamada-kun or Sazae-san portrays the everyday lives of the Ghibli workers – albeit fictionalised into the ‘Giburi’ studio, based on the joke that the way ‘Ghibli’ is said in Japan (‘Jiburi’) is a misreading of the Italian word, which should have a hard ‘g’. With a great little bassline in the second short and some fun jumps into a more realistic style and CG experiments, it records what are clearly funny moments from the office.

Only a few minutes each, they’re well worth the watch for any fan, if perhaps a little baffling for the uninitiated.

そらいろのたね/ Sora-Iro no Tane / The Sky-Colored Seed + Nandarou
Funny, childish little animations for Nippon Terebi, these little animations are cute bits of nothing. Nandarou, meaning something along the lines of ‘Thingy’ or ‘wassat?’. In the TV spots created for their 40th anniversary in 1992, it variously shoots out mini versions of itself, reabsorbs them and eats some characters of the studio logo before turning into various other, similar-looking things. Oh, and one where it goes all huge and CG. These are just little bits of fun for a few seconds each.

Sora-Iro no Tane was created at the same time, directed by Miyazaki. A cute, colourful animation looking like a typical kids’ cartoon, it has a bit more substance than Nandarou, albeit still being somewhat hallucinogenic. A small boy trades his toy plane for a sky-coloured seed from an anthropomorphic fox. The seed sprouts into a house at first big enough only for a little chick. It keeps growing, until a cat can fit in, then the boy, and soon elephants and numerous other creatures want to be included. The fox decides the trade has been unfair so swaps again so that he can have the whole house to himself, but the edifice gets too close to the sun and pops, presumably teaching him his lesson. A minute and a half of innocent fun.

Various commercialsThe Nisshin Seifun commercial is probably the best thing Miyazaki Goro has yet worked on. Storyboarded by him and directed by Katsuya Kondo, it’s about a silly fat cat chasing a butterfly drawn in a nice line-art style. A fun bit of frivolity.

Miyazaki Hayao’s House co. commercials are probably the most richly animated snippets for TV the studio has made. The lovely little clips show 50s kids from the point of view of adults, delighting in catching sight of (presumably) their parents. Beautifully done and endlessly adorable, they’re indispensable viewing for fans. An odd, warbly song from a Ghibli seiyuu about the chicchana onna no ko called ‘Okaasan no Shashin’ (mother’s photo), though, which if anything I’d have changed.

Umacha, or ‘Delicious Tea’, were two short ads for an iced tea from Asahi. Oddly, it was made in tandem with a live-action version. It’s done in the Yamada-kun watercolour style, and essentially the idea is that the tea is very refreshing. Directed by Tanabe Osamu, they seem to me somewhat throwaway, perhaps reflecting a lack of input from studio writers.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Shrek the 3rd

While there are good things to be said for the third Shrek film, which I certainly enjoyed more than the first despite the relative dearth of original thinking, it really should have been the end of the franchise and may well be the weakest of the films. On the other hand, it was successful enough for the fourth film to be made, and we’re soon to get a Puss in Boots spin-off as well.

Shrek is horrified to hear that he is next in line to the throne. However, there is another heir he can persuade to rule, young Prince Arthur. However, Arthur has to be retrieved from his boarding school and kept safe, while other less worthy pretenders vie to capture the throne for themselves.

References to Rosemary’s Baby and Live or Let Die, as well as some amusingly over-the-top performances from two Pythons don’t disguise tired Disney gags and the fact that they’ve recycled a weak villain from the last film and introduced the blandest young hero ever seen. The second film had a much stronger plot and an excellent turn from Jennifer Saunders to keep it aloft, but here the plot is simply too weak to carry the comedy.

What results is a mess that lacks the spark that Shrek films need to work.

I’d sit through Shrek 2 again happily. Not sure about this one.

この醜くも美しい世界/ Kono Minikuku mo Utsukushii Sekai / This Ugly and Beautiful World

Both at the time and in retrospect, 2004’s KonoMini seemed to be something very significant in the anime world, even monumental. Gainax heralded it as their 20th anniversary series, alongside Diebuster as a 20th anniversary OVA. It was one of several coproductions with Shaft just as they were really finding their feet – their Tsukiyomi: Moon Phase also came out in the same year and a few months later Pani Poni Dash would truly establish the studio’s style. The character designs and production values were nice and it had a great opening theme from Takahashi Youko, far closer to the opening for Evangelion than, say, the songs she sang for Shakugan no Shana or Pumpkin Scissors.

But sadly, the end result was something unoriginal, uninspired and unmemorable. A typical everyman teenager called Takeru and his friend Ninomiya-kuuun see a strange glow in the woods. Investigating, they find – what else? – a gorgeous anime girl short on clothing but keen to profess her love for our main character. Another girl soon appears for the best friend, claiming Hikari is her sister, so they call her Akari. Drama comes, as ever, from a childhood friend (in this case, a cousin) getting threatened by the new cute girl going after her man – a cliché seen most recently in . On the other hand, here her lashing out in her jealously almost causes the end of the world.

The most interesting part of the series soon becomes the comic relief – a weird, predictably giant-breasted alcoholic scientist from America called Jennifer Portman who manages to muscle her way into living with Takeru to study the strange girls from the sky and the well-meaning robot creature Aionios, who Jennifer loves to confound.

KonoMini never really goes anywhere, or makes you care much for its characters, who never really distinguish themselves from stock characters seen in so many other anime yet usually given at least some unique distinctions. The drama is all overwrought and unconvincing, and the nice art ends up repetitive because everything seems to happen in the same places, with the same characters.

Not a terrible anime, but severely lacking anything to make it stand out beyond its infinitely hummable opening theme.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Ragnarök the Animation

This anime, a tie-in adaptation of the popular MMORPG, was perhaps my first introduction to typical by-the-numbers formulaic anime, back in 2004. Being derived from an MMORPG with a generic fantasy setting – and having little in common with the original Korean manhwa beyond the world it takes place in – it was never going to be shockingly original, but it has fun little quirks and a working plot.

Typical good-hearted swordsman Roan wants to be strong enough to protect those dear to him. He teams up with a cute acolyte, a mysterious mage, a taciturn assassin and a skilled but rather hapless huntress – as well as a funny little merchant girl with a snooty attitude and a pet poring – and they go off on a quest speckled with happiness and tragedy.

Everything about Ragnarök is safe, predictable and familiar from dozens of fantasy anime. Other MMORPG-based titles far outshine it – ½ Prince is cleverer and has far more memorable characters, and Master of Epic’s parodies are more entertaining than anything you find here. .Hack//Sign was less enjoyable to watch, perhaps, but was certainly more iconic, original and daring.

You’ll also find many of the same themes, concepts and general fantasy clichés in Gonzo’s feature-length Brave Story, but done rather better and with much more likeable and memorable characters. The studio does better there than here, I feel.

Ragnarök the Animation
was safe and ordinary, with cute art and likeable character types. But ultimately, there’s just not enough to hook an audience or make it stand out. One for curious fans of the game and people who lap up anything fantasy-based.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

銀幕ヘタリア Axis Powers Paint it, White(白くぬれ!)/ Ginmaku Hetalia: shiroku nure / Hetalia Movie – Paint it, White

Don’t expect any Rolling Stones references based on that comma in the title – it goes no further than that.

If I were writing the review I expected to, that would be a neat way to start a rant about a franchise that likes empty references to poorly-understood ideas. And c’mon, a plotline involving aliens wanting to turn everyone on Earth into a homogenous mass of white blobs so that there will be no more conflict or war, only for our loveable personified countries to fight back in order to prove it takes all sorts, variety is the spice of life, and the different national characteristics are what makes the world such a wonderful place? It sounds utterly terrible. And they don’t even have enough footage to fill the feature-length run-time, so they pad the film with scenes from the weekly series! Sounds horrible, right?

Well, guilty pleasure as it is, I actually liked this quite a lot. Almost everything I disliked about the Hetalia series derived from the annoyingly inaccurate or short-sighted historical snippets. It would be much better, I said, if the mangaka had dropped ideas of historical commentary and concentrated on national stereotyping.

And that’s what this movie is. The only grating times are times that had grated before, like the snippet about France’s offer to join the Commonwealth being reinterpreted as a marriage proposal from France to England (who is really ‘Britain’ but generally gets called England). Other segments that randomly made the cut were more welcome, like the scene where England – presumably because of all our fantasy literature seen as able to see ghosts and mythological creatures – meets with a kappa while in Japan, somehow breaking up the pacing of the climactic scenes just right.

The shoestring plot fitted the adaptation of silly comedy shorts to a long piece, lazy as it was. Aliens called Picts have decided Earth is a sad, underdeveloped place, so decide to whitewash it – and everybody in it. The flying saucers send out a beam that turns people into mindless white blobs and architecture into crude wobbly line drawings. The minor characters of Hetalia are given little cameos as they are transformed, like Poland and Greece, while as usual any country in the Southern Hemisphere is not worth bothering with. Switzerland and Liechtenstein, meanwhile, are protected from all the film’s events because their permanent neutrality also protects them from interstellar war. The nine members of the World 8 (China thrown into the G8 for whatever reason) who had met at the beginning of the film but failed to collaborate now reunite (minus useless Canada) to strike back. Donning Pict kigurumi, they sneak into the alien mothership and divide into unlikely teams (the old Axis Powers, France and England and then the rest – ie the symbols of Capitalism and Communism thrown together without comment). They are soon caught, but for a moment sway the aliens with displays of their different cultures (Russia coercing the countries he’s conquered into cross-dressing and doing ballet), until England ruins it all by giving them scones, which of course nobody in the universe could think tasted good.

They beat a hasty retreat, but to no avail, and all the countries but Italy are transformed. The spirit of the Roman Empire returns to be one of the most surreal dei ex machina I’ve ever seen, singing an off-key metal version of the old (wish I knew HOW old) ‘In Heaven, the cooks are French…’ joke and bequeathing Italy with a pen – which is all he needs to show the joy of individuality to the faceless aliens. Then everyone does a Bon dance, by far the least annoying song ever associated with Hetalia.

It’s a simple outline, but it trundles along and allows for the interaction between stereotypes without it getting bogged down with historical inaccuracies. Things like ‘France and England always fight but quite like each other really’ and ‘China likes to produce cheap knock-offs of what the other counties do’ are the sort of thing the series needed more of. They ring true and are generally just funny. Of course, Sealand – who I always found the funniest – gets a brief chance to shine, and him jumping aboard his ‘country’ like a ridiculous mecha pilot was the biggest laugh the whole film got from me.

I don’t know why I decided to watch this film just when I did, but I wanted something light. It wasn’t easy to find, though – English subbed versions seem to have the rehashed sequences cut out and horrible streamed quality, so I watched a Spanish fansub in DVD quality, and pieced together the meaning from the Japanese and the Spanish subs, going to the streams the once or twice I couldn’t understand at all. I could always have just waited for the official English DVD release next month, but…I was in the mood for Hetalia last night, and that’s not something I can say often.

As pleasant a surprise as The Disappearance of Suzumiya Haruhi, this was genuinely funny and didn’t annoy me at all.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

バンパイアハンターD / Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust

It wasn’t until 1999 that I saw the original Vampire Hunter D film, but for all its schlocky 80s-ness, I found myself rather enjoying it. So when I found out about Bloodlust through a (pretty awesome) teaser trailer sometime in 2001, I grew quite eager for its release, which as was the way of things here in the UK, didn’t happen until 2004.

What I eventually got my hands on was a slightly mixed product, much like its predecessor. Parts of it look so incredible it takes the breath away, while at other moments you wonder why Madhouse couldn’t have spent just a smidge of the budget making these characters’ heads move a little as they spoke. Thus, while the film contains what is easily one of my favourite pieces of animation in any anime – when Grove’s projection goes up against the Barbarois – it also remains just a little frustrating for not looking quite as good as it clearly could have done, and having somewhat dated designs even for a film released in Japan in 2000.

The plot is both simple and a little convoluted. D, being a vampire hunter, is sent to rescue fair maiden Charlotte from the dastardly vampire Meier Link. Only Link is not a typical vampire, and nor is the abduction quite what it seems on the surface. D also has competition in the rescue attempt, and Link has hired bodyguards to keep away pursuers. In the end, though, the real enemy is not only unexpected but an intriguing version of…double-undead. Somehow or other!

Despite the various ambiguous allegiances and motives, the story is not hard to follow and works well as a conventional horror story, allowing for the unique qualities of the Vampire Hunter D world to shine through. And it’s the quirky details that tend to work the best – hidden powers put on display, pledges made in quiet moments on the road, and of course, that parasite that occupies D’s hand for the sake of both comic relief and simple exposition. He doesn’t steal scenes to the extent he does in the first film, but he remains one of the interesting details that make D somehow more relatable than the similar characters in many franchises.

Bloodlust isn’t the perfect anime horror it’s sometimes made out to be. It’s certainly better than most, but I’ve never been able to shake the conviction that it could have been so much better. Perhaps it’s time for a new D film.

Monday, 10 October 2011

美鳥の日々/ Midori no Hibi / Midori’s Days / Midori Days

I was still fairly new to weekly anime and the fansubbing scene when I watched Midori no Hibi, back in 2004. Fresh from Azumanga Daioh and Excel Saga, I thought that in the grand scheme of things, the concept of Midori no Hibi wasn’t all that weird. But it is. I was in a little bubble of surreal anime, and I’m not sure anything has had such a weird basis since. Even OreTama has a more coherent thought pattern behind it. Midori no Hibi is truly weird, and only weirder because once it slaps you across the face with its premise, tries to be a very normal odd-couple drama.

But the lead girl has magically replaced the lead guy’s hand, and lives there, attached to the stump of his arm.

Yes, Midori no Hibi is a zany romantic comedy about what happens when you wake up with a cute girl instead of a right hand. Sweet-hearted little Kasugano Midori has long admired delinquent Sawamura Seiji from afar – he has a reputation as a mean fighter and bad company, but she knows most of his fights are to protect the weak, and generally he’s very much like Ichigo from Bleach, down to the hairstyle. After a mix-up with wishes coming true and Seiji thinking that his reputation will mean he will only ever have his right hand for a girlfriend, the two are brought together indelibly.

Midori no Hibi has some of the most bizarre fanservice you could imagine, and is a truly surreal romance, but somehow it powers though with such self-belief and conviction hat it manages to cohere. The result is something certainly unique but also familiar and very funny.

I remember the series being popular at the time mostly through the highly influential Snoopycool scanslation group, and though the manga had several new characters and a slightly more adult tone to it, the only things that the anime missed out on by leaving out the crazy American girl or the strange yankee girl who obsesses over the adorable shy boy who Seiji always ends up rescuing was a few laughs, and those are easily accessible through the manga anyway. Ultimately, the anime feels more like a tool for getting people to pick up the manga, but in and of itself it’s a fun, silly, satisfying story with a surprisingly good romance story and the ability to take its absurd premise to serious places beyond wacky comedy.

And somehow, there’s something hilarious and adorable about how poor little Kouta has to suffer so much.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

ウルフズレイン/ Wolf’s Rain

Stray! Stray!!

It’s quite easy to forget, eight years on, how frustrating it was to watch Wolf’s Rain when it was airing. Not only did the series slap its fans with no less than four back-to-back flashback episodes, retelling the events of the first half of the season from the point of view of each principal character, but it did not end properly, so that we had to wait six months for four final OVA episodes.

On the other hand, it was well worth the wait. Wolf’s Rain has endured very well over the years, and often gets recommended highly, picking up waves of new fans who don’t have to put up with the recaps and delays. Yoko Kanno’s music, riding on the wave of popularity Cowboy Bebop had brought her, was excellent – if not as good as Bebop’s OSTs – and another collaboration with Steve Conte brought a memorable and uplifting opening theme. The end song, with Sakamoto Maaya, is one of my favourite anime tracks of all time, at least in its short form. The production standards are mixed, some episodes looking far better than others and some seeming barely to move, but the overall aesthetic of the piece is excellent, with very interesting and instantly memorable character designs and great ideas about two images of the same person overlapping in ways that aren’t always clear yet never need to be overanalysed.

The concept is strong. In a grim future, wolves have learned to pass as humans in order to survive. Unlike humans, they can sense ‘Lunar Flowers’ and are compelled to seek out the ‘Flower Maiden’ who will lead them to a Paradise. With the end of the world approaching, though, there are humans who want to find their way to Paradise themselves, and some believe that it is the wolves’ blood that will open the way.

Central to the story are the wolves who come together at first unwillingly, but soon learn to rely upon one another. Kiba (‘Fang’) is our main character, determined but taciturn and standoffish. Hige (‘Whiskers’) is the comic relief, an easygoing and laid-back wolf who helps bring the others together. Tsume (‘Claw’), with his daft Village People leathers, is the cynical fighter, a little arrogant to disguise his loneliness. Then there is Toboe (‘Howling’), the adorable juvenile with a great desire for affection – especially from humans – and a diffident nature. They are later joined by Blue, the female wolf-dog with a past she is ashamed of, as well as Cheza the flower maiden, who they all consider a kind of mother figure. Pursuing them is fearsome masked Darcia, hoping to save the love of his life.

In the end, the story collapses under its own weight, even with the long-awaited OVAs. There’s an inevitable need for tragedy, but it all becomes rushed and artificial and relies on antagonists going insane in a rather unconvincing way. While the final scenes stop short of everyone coming back to life for a happy ending, it really isn’t far off, and rings false.

But other than a difficult ending and pacing issues, the series is incredibly enjoyable and revolves not around quests or fights or animal nature, but characters interacting and growing from lone wolves to a pack of mutually reliant comrades. In story terms, it was ultimately unsatisfying, but in terms of memorable ideas and great characters, it remains a favourite of mine and always will.


After reading some pretty poor reviews, including several from disappointed Pixar fans, I wasn’t expecting much from Cars. I was led to believe I would be seeing something cliché, irritating and preachy in its condemnation of the modern world. Happily, I was pleasantly surprised, and Lasseter has served up another winner.

Let’s face it, Pixar do not write original plots. That’s not their thing. Pixar’s style of writing is to take a very traditional, predictable story format full of wholesome themes of loyalty and redemption and then to put a twist on it, usually by placing it in an unusual setting – amongst bugs, monsters, toys…and now cars. They do something that’s tried-and-tested and even purposefully old-fashioned, and they do it very, very well, all the real beauty of the stories coming from the characters. It just works.

Pixar have created a world in which all living things – people, animals, insects – are cars. Simple as that. As with books for little kids, we don’t need to know the logistics involved; that’s just how it is, and it provides some funny visual gags. Equally, everything that is a vehicle in this alive.

Here, the star of the racing world is Lightning McQueen, a cocky, selfish rookie who doesn’t have a real friend in the world. His selfish actions indirectly lead to him ending up wrecking the road of a small town, and in the time it takes him to repair the damage, he learns important lessons about friendship, trust and what is really important in life. Told you it was wholesome.

Visually, we have here the pinnacle of CG animation. Beside some of the cheap, horrible animation in the trailers before the feature, Pixar’s supremacy in the field is evident. Don’t just look at the big bold surfaces of the cars’ eyes. Look at the skies, the clouds of dust and most of all, the astonishingly realistic reflections on the shiny surfaces of the cars. Breathtaking. At least, for me, a bit of a geek when it comes to CG. And the way the cars move works so well, considering how difficult it must be to make a machine like a car look and move in a way expressive enough to make people care.

Taking a tried-and-tested route also means bringing out the stock characters, and while I think the stereotypes here are harmless fun, I know plenty of people will be rolling their eyes at ‘The sassy black one’, ‘the slightly slimy Mexican one’ (played by poor old long-suffering Cheech Marin) and other broad stereotypes. At least the hillbilly was fleshed out a little and made likeable. I don’t know who ‘Larry the Cable Guy’ is, but I certainly don’t share the hatred for him most American reviewers seem possessed by, and found Mater didn’t grate like I had expected him to.

There’s much to be said for writing to a formula when it’s done well, and the emotions behind it are genuine. Cars won’t surprise you, nor change your outlook on life, even as the same happens to the protagonists. But it will lift your spirits, entertain you and make you laugh. That’s all I had hoped for.

(originally written 6.8.06. Cars 2 here)

Friday, 7 October 2011

The Lion King 3D – and random TLK trivia

There’s not a lot to say about The Lion King that I haven’t said before, so I won’t write another review. This is the fifth time I’ve seen the film on the big screen – three times on its original release (once as a school trip), once on the IMAX and now in 3D. The conversion was very nice, actually – the expected spectacular parts, like the opening shots of birds, the clouds coming together and Scar leaping out of the fire, were great in 3D, but there were more subtle parts, too: depth for Mufasa’s nose and muzzle; the steam in ‘Be Prepared’; foregrounded bones when Simba returned to the Pridelands. It suited 3D well enough for it to almost look like it was always meant to be that way.

I think certain parts have been cleaned up or added to, as well – the extreme close-up of Simba’s paw treading on the dead weed looked less fuzzy than it used to, though I’m not sure if that was also the case in the IMAX version. They certainly had the redrawn crocodiles, not the originals. On the other hand, I was pleased ‘The Morning Report’ was taken back out.

In lieu of anything much new to say, then, how about some trivia? Not things you can read everywhere, like dustcloud ‘SEX’, Sarafina’s name or nitpicking very convenient weather phenomena and ecosystem changes – just little personal observations.

• The last thing the young Simba says is ‘Slimy yet satisfying’. Adult Simba is introduced to us not with Matthew Broderick’s voice but by the guy hired just as the singing voice, Cam Clark (who would play him in the Timon and Pumbaa series and KH2). Broderick’s first dialogue begins with a belch, though whether he delivered it himself or not I cannot say.

• Scar carries on ‘I’ve Got A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts’ after Zazu stops: ‘Give ’em a twist/A flick of the wrist/That’s what the showman said.’

• When Simba and Nala step on either side of Zazu in a little stream during ‘I Just Can’t Wait to be King’, Nala puts her feet in the water. The next shot, they’re out of it again. It’s a trivial little continuity error I always notice.

• The hidden Mickeys are mostly very well-disguised in the film. The only one I always notice is on the red insect crawling away from Timon’s grasp when he puts his arm into the log.

• There’s a lot of hugging in this film. Adult lions mostly nuzzle, but characters with more obvious arms do a lot of embracing. Apart from more obvious ones like Timon and Pumbaa singing ‘If he falls in love tonight' or Rafiki’s hugs that bookend the film, Timon and Zazu hold one another in fear, as do Shenzi and Ed, and more devastatingly, Scar is quick to hug Simba as a cub – in his creepy-ironic way in their first scene together, and then to comfort him after his loss. That’s the part I find saddest of the entire scene, when Simba pushes his face against Scar’s leg for comfort. That’s just heartbreaking.

• Other than not just running when told to run (wanting to stick around for what? To be a pariah?), Scar’s biggest mistakes all come from his big mouth and need to gloat. Apart from his lie about the hyenas ultimately leading to his fate, twice he can just kill a vulnerable Simba, but twice he feels the need to talk – as a cub, just to mess with him and let others do his dirty work, and as an adult on the edge of the cliff, giving Simba the strength he needs to reverse the situation.

• Zazu appears to join in Timon and Pumbaa’s whooping just once, though it doesn’t sound like Atkinson made any noise.

• The last line of dialogue in the film is delivered by Mufasa. The two last lines are repeated from earlier in the film. Simba’s last line in the film is ‘And never return.’

• Beyond assumptions that may be made from the accents of the actors, which can include skin colour, religion and country of origin, we can tell the characters are aware of French accents, Bruce Lee films, drag and hulas, yoga-style meditation and genetics. And goose-stepping, of course. Typical 90s Disney humour that in my view works well.

There you have it, then. Just some facts and little observations I imagine most people will not have thought of.

And I was only going to write a few short notes too!

First Impressions: C³ / シーキューブ

I’m not sure why I expected this anime to be serious and ambitious. Judging by the first episode, it’s the lowest of lowbrow ecchi, with little going for it but cuteness and nice music-video visuals. I will probably keep watching it as something light and insignificant, and to see how Silver Link do in their second project after Baka to Testo, but if it’s going to take a turn for the dark and serious, as the very last minutes of the episode hinted it might, it’ll have to be a big change.

The plot reminded me of Rizelmine: a boy living alone named Haruaki receives a package from his collector father – a strange cube. When he’s alone, the cube transforms into a naked little loli. After giving him an eyeful, she puts on a little shirt so that she looks as well as acts very much like Angelia from Arcana Heart. She introduces herself as Fear and claims she is a device to collect the negative feelings of all around her. Of course soon after a childhood friend called Konoha who has always had a crush on Haruaki but doesn’t start making it obvious until there’s competition. Cue the same tired ‘flat chested’ vs ‘milk udders’ jibes from Kanokon and its ilk…and panty shots. In the second half of the episode, Fear goes to town and her tsun-tsun arrogance somehow endears her to everyone, presumably just because she looks cute and childish and unthreatening.

The only things I liked about the episode were the very end, where the characters were a little more serious and it became more obvious just how pretty their designs are, and the overly pretty art style, which is distinctive and nice to look at – especially as this is the first time I’ve had to set up 10-bit colour depth for my video programs. Otherwise, I’ll be expecting to trundle along with the same tired formula and anything better than that will be a pleasant surprise.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

ヒカルの碁/ Hikaru no Go

I find it more or less impossible to answer when someone asks me my favourite anime. There is too much diversity, I think. Too many great series and too much variety – how can you weigh Azumanga Daioh against Paranoia Agent or Spirited Away? And then I feel inconsistent, because I know full well what my favourite manga is, despite there being even more titles and even broader degrees of variation and experimentation. My favourite manga is Hikaru no Go.

My feelings for the series are simply too far in advance of those inspired by any other. Since the final chapter in 2003, I’ve periodically revisited my favourite volumes, and they still always have me hooked. The characters, the realism, the setting, the drama, and in particular the art – all are the very best of the shounen manga world. And while Obata’s art improved vastly during his run on this series, it was at its pinnacle by the end, and visually I prefer the balance he finds here to the shadowy look of Death Note or the stylisation of Bakuman.

Nothing else has ever excited, moved, tickled and warmed me quite so much.

But even if the manga is my favourite of all time, the anime is not quite up there. Another of Studio Pierrot’s Jump series (along with Naruto and Bleach), it ran for a respectable 75 episodes (plus a special), had superb voice acting and music, and didn’t look half bad, even if it could never quite match the lovely visuals of the manga. Yet…there was some spark missing. The timing of scenes often seemed off, or slightly off-model faces seemed to ruin scenes. The final arc never got animated, and as the ending disappointed so many, I don’t expect a HunterXHunter-style revival any time soon (though a year ago, I didn’t expect that one, either, so who knows?). But I would be so happy to see one, and it saddens me when it feels like Hikago is forgotten.

The story is simple: a normal, slightly rebellious young boy finds an old board for playing the complex traditional game go, or igo. Hearing strange voices, he passes out, and when he awakes, he is haunted by a ghost from the heian era called Sai. All Sai wants is to play go, and to see others play, although he does have a childlike wonder for the marvels of the modern world, like a TV screen showing footage of fish. Hikaru upsets a lot of people by letting Sai play through him, especially when he beats the passionate young Akira, a prodigy destined to be amongst the best in the go world – sparking something of an obsession. Before long, Hikaru develops a desire to excel on his own, not through another.

Those who don’t give it a chance miss out on a lot. I love how go is the perfect sports manga subject – physical sports too often require farcical superhuman talent (see Prince of Tennis) or are very raucous and manly (ie Slam Dunk), but go has a stately seriousness that makes it perfect for a realistic manga – and what’s clever is that Sai is the sole supernatural element of the series. I love how just about every minor character gets fleshed out. I love the fact that Hikaru wears such fashionable clothes while Akira has the most horrible dress sense. I love the way you can see the artist and writer evolve over the course of the series, and how a goofy little idea about a ghost and a board game becomes so serious and so moving. It’s just such a perfect scenario, such a great way to meld reality and fantasy, such a neat way to make fantastic drama right from the beginning.

Hikaru is just an everyman, albeit a very likeable one. It’s Touya’s passion and shattered confidence that drives the story from beginning to end. It’s the same heated rivalry and affection that drives Naruto and Kingdom Hearts, but female mangaka Hotta Yumi does it far better, and with far more believable, human, relatable reasons for the rifts that lead to drama. How strange that the best teen relationship drama I’ve ever read is between two boys in a Jump series – and while it’s easy to jump to conclusions, any shounen-ai undertones are actually kept as undertones.

Hikaru no Go
was a perfect balance of humour, drama, triumph and angst. I’ll always recommend the manga first, but the series is very much worth watching, and contains some of my favourite characters and twists of any anime.

(With elements originally blogged 12.4.06, 9.11.06 and 23.4.08)

Fire Candy (manga)

I think few people knew what they were in for when they started Fire Candy, the mangaka included – something that’s more or less admitted in the apologetic afterword. The concept is quite interesting – half-human half-animal teenagers in a future that seems quite heavily influenced by Akira cope with their status as pariahs by forming rollerblading gangs, inevitably ending up surrounded by the passions and tragedies of gang warfare.

This is a seinen manga, meant for older teenaged boys and young men, so everything is stepped up a notch, made adult in the same way that Western comics tend to be made adult. An emphasis falls on sexuality, with emotionally fraught sex scenes and rape. And then of course the violence becomes extreme, more extreme than I’ve seen in any manga as far as I remember. When reading the chapters about Ryoaki, our main character, being angsty and trying to replace one girl with her sister and having occasional scraps with other rollerblading delinquents, or some middle-aged man who looks like a little girl being sexually provocative, I most definitely did not think that we’d eventually end up seeing kids getting sexual kicks from decapitating their enemies and sticking their thumbs through the eyeballs of the severed head. It walks a fine line between shocking and just plain melodramatic, but somehow, making vicious murder sexual keeps it the right side of cheesy crap. Some stunningly good art doesn’t hurt, either. The plot is loose, meandering about with no encompassing story, but each mini storyline is fairly direct and carries the characters to interesting places.

But the real shocker is that this ultraviolent, testosterone-fuelled and gang-centred bloodbath is that its mangaka is female. There are telltale signs (using, of course, huge generalisations): the sexualised representation of the teenaged boys, the delight in flustering them with a headstrong older man who looks like a sexy young girl, the close relationship between Ryo and his close comrade Leo (a rare positive, attractive representation of a young black guy in a manga), but really, given the kind of things you see in Bleach and Naruto, those aren’t obvious indications of the creator's gender. In the end, it makes very little difference what gender the people writing manga are, but sometimes expectations are confounded.

A strange, subversive little manga I only read because it was scanslated by one of my favourite groups, it’s far from world-shaking, but I certainly enjoyed it.

(originally written 6.11.07)

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

BLEACH 地獄篇 / BLEACH Jigoku-Hen / Bleach Movie 4: The Hell Verse

This, really, is how one of the tie-in movies for the big Shounen Jump series should be. After a slew of disappointing efforts, I was pleased to find this feature-length side-story compelling, unorthodox and visually stunning.

The crucial difference is that the mangaka Tite Kubo was involved in the creative process. Normally, these films are overlong filler episodes, in which nothing of any consequence can ever happen in case it ends up getting in the way of something the original creator has planned for a future story arc. It’s only a shame that until now, it doesn’t seem like anyone thought of actually getting them in to discuss possibilities – or perhaps only now has it become practical.

The film starts with a recap of Ichigo’s battle with Ulquiorra, ostensibly to remind the audience of the uncontrollable power of our protagonist’s full-hollow mode, but in truth, probably more so that the animators can have fun with some very flashy animation. The plot that follows is simple and neat, another positive for this sort of tie-in: some powerful enemies have escaped from the Gates of Hell, and kidnap Ichigo’s little sister Yuzu. Ichigo, along with Rukia, Renji and Ishida, must follow them into Hell to rescue her – but the new ally who guides them through the strange world of the dead, where tortured souls die and die again until their spirits are crushed, may not be all that he seems.

Three things make this film work better than most Jump movies: firstly, the impression that Ichigo actually grows and learns something from this experience: he is dealt one of the most heavy emotional blows of any Bleach story, he battles against the berserk, uncontrollable part of himself and he gets a power-up that it makes perfect sense for us never to see again in the main series. Secondly, the fact that we learn more about a facet of the Bleach universe that we glimpsed but was largely mysterious: we see how things work beyond the impressive Gates of Hell. Thirdly, what I always look forward to in movie versions – the same basic composition of the series but with much more impressive visuals – actually exceeded my expectations here. The animators were having a great time playing with scale here, with absurd explosions and lumbering enemies hundreds of feet tall. A lot of the framing techniques here accentuate the sheer size of things when juxtaposed with the characters, and with nice fluid animation it all works extremely well.

There’s some contrivance in the ending – it relies on some sort of unseen conscious power running Hell making the right decisions for good to prevail and evil to be punished – but it works because, after all, it’s a fantasy world. There also aren’t too many of the wider Soul Society cast to see here, with only a handful of captains showing up for a line or two each, so some fans may miss their favourites. But for a satisfying story that actually feels significant and not throwaway, with great eye-candy and a good, solid story, this is probably the best Pierrot can offer. But Bleach always did have superior filler.

ハンター×ハンター/ HunterXHunter (2011) - first impressions

A small change in the way I write from today on – I keep writing reviews where I end up awkwardly quoting my first impressions of a series. Now I’m keeping a proper blog, it makes more sense to make an early entry, then expand upon them when I finish watching the show.

And today, something I’ve been quite looking forward to has appeared. The first episode of the new remake of what was once such a huge shounen show – HunterXHunter. And I really, really hope that it runs a long time, even if I doubt that because it’s not really Madhouse’s style. The first episode brought with it some disappointment and a whole lot of smiles, and I think it bodes well for reintroducing the series to an anime fandom that has largely forgotten it.

Madhouse seem to want to make the title light-hearted and almost retro, though. The opening song is very 90s and the art style chosen has the simplicity of Fairy Tail or MÄR rather than the more modern look I was hoping for, more along the lines of their work for Black Lagoon or Claymore. Still, character models are very cute, there was a lot of impressive movement – I loved Kurapika’s clothes blowing in the wind when he and Leorio faced off on the deck of the ship – and after all, the manga starts out light and Dragonball-ish, too, before it progresses to the very strange and brilliant places it soon gets to. On the other hand, they took out Gon’s moments of maturity from the first chapter: he sounded much too cheery talking about Gin.

I was disappointed for a moment when I heard that Takeuchi Junko was not returning to voice Gon – after all, she even appeared as him in the musical adaptations – but that quickly faded when I realised I actually liked the new seiyuu rather more. Puchiko as Kurapika will take a bit of getting used to, but works. I also had a big laugh over Hisoka ‘shining’ in the ED.

The original series lost fans early on with the rather gruelling running sequence that is yet to come. It will be interesting to see how Madhouse deals with that part. I hope the series gets big again, though - it deserves it.

And to think, only a few months ago I was writing off the manga as a mess and the anime as about to be forgotten!

Episodes 1-76: link

Monday, 3 October 2011

バカとテストと召喚獣/ Baka to Test to Shoukanjuu / Idiots, Tests and Summoned Beasts / Baka and Test (seasons 1&2)

Baka to Test has carved itself out a strange little niche. I never would have expected it to be one of the most successful comedy series of the last decade, but it’s struck a chord with an Internet audience, spawned a huge fandom and numerous derivative works and is likely to continue beyond these two seasons (+OVA). And really, it’s a great example of a series not having a great premise, but surviving and thriving on the strength of its cast.

In Fumizuki Academy, academic prowess is directly linked to rewards. Class A, the high achievers, live with all the amenities the school can lavish upon them, from free laptops to a complimentary snack bar, while Class F make do with cardboard boxes. It is possible to improve your class’s facilities by taking part in battles using virtual avatars, essentially cutesy holograms representing each student, their strength proportional to their prowess in their exams. Thus, while higher classes will have better scores in general, one who is in a low class but excels in one particular area may be very strong in battle.

It’s not an elegant set-up, nor is it particularly important, but it provides a hook to early episodes. The extremely intelligent and sweet-natured Himeji falls ill in her first exam, and thus gets placed in Class F. There, she meets the simpleminded Akihisa, a good-hearted but idiotic boy whose ‘summon’ has been chosen by the faculty to be unique in that it has a physical presence – but will transmit any physical sensation to Aki himself. Along with Aki’s friend Yuuji, a one-time prodigy, the perverted voyeur nicknamed Muttsuriini, the oddly androgynous Hideyoshi and the classic tsundere Minami, they set out to defeat Class A.

The set-up is convoluted, even more so than can be expected from an anime based on light novels, but it soon becomes apparent it’s only an excuse for fun character interaction. Aki is an idiot, but attracts those around him, and a shy love triangle soon forms when both Himeji and Minami develop feelings for him. This is overlaid by joke homoeroticism, as Aki and Yuuji often find themselves in situations that make them look like lovers, and every male openly finds Hideyoshi incredibly attractive, being what seems to be a perfect ‘trap’. Muttsuriini, meanwhile, can’t get enough of taking secret shots of girls undressing – and of the boys when they end up cross-dressing, which is remarkably often. Other minor characters help spice things up, from the tomboyish tease Kudou to the over-dramatic Kubo, a serious male student who develops a crush on Aki - from Yuuji’s psychotic ‘fiancée’ Shouko to Shimizu, the slightly terrifying drill-haired girl who worships Minami.

All these exist to make the character interactions fun and compelling, and all can carry their own storylines. The first season attempts to put the battle system centre-stage, but episodes mostly consisted of ways to have Aki in a lot of pain, either because he got on the wrong side of teachers or because he made one of his many admirers jealous. The second season, Ni! (meaning ‘two’ and nothing to do with any knights), starts out with what seem like very typical OVA plotlines (a beach episode; bathhouse episodes), but then focuses on relationship drama and some clever strategies to abuse the school’s combat system.

This seems to be studio Silver Link’s first stab at a full series of their own, but it has definitely been a success. The director, Ounuma Shin, came to the project having worked at Shaft, and there is much of their aesthetic here, including some brilliant repeated style changes and pastiches. I loved the experiments of the credits sequences, and the full-episode pastiche based on Yuuji and Shouko’s backstory was a real highlight.

The series may well be remembered for all the porn of Hideyoshi it spawned and for the cutesy little avatars, but there really is something here for just about any anime fan, and some extremely clever writing too. Well worth watching – and I hope there’s more to come, too.