Friday, 27 January 2012

마당을 나온 암탉 / Madangeul Naon Amtak / The Hen Leaves the Yard / Leafie: A Hen into the Wild

It seems a little counter-intuitive, but this kiddie-friendly animation about cute talking animals seems much more likely to prove to the world that Korea’s animation industry is becoming mature and able to make its own artistic statements than a sci-fi feature film like Wonderful Days. That’s because while Wonderful Days seemed derivative and fell short of what it aimed for, Leafie certainly has obvious influences but possesses a very unique style, voice and completeness.

While this is the story of a battery hen who escapes from the farm and then hatches and raises a little orphaned duckling, it also makes clear from the very start that it is not going to pull punches or sugarcoat the fact that battery hens and injured wildfowl don’t live very long. Our heroine Leafie (Ipssak) only escapes the farm by pretending to be dead and being dumped in a hole with a load of chicken corpses, and encounters with the one-eyed weasel are by turns violent, bloody and depressing. So despite some broad comedy and a couple of sections with an over-reliance on fart and poop jokes, this animals-on-a-farm story has a lot more in common with the markedly adult, harrowing Watership Down than with Disney’s Home on the Ranch.

Ipssak escapes the weasel with help from the proud, impressive Wanderer, and finds a place to live with the help of the fast-talking Mr Otter/Mayor (a Korean pun on the word ‘Dalsu’). Unfortunately, Wanderer’s mate succumbs to the weasel. Trying to help, Leafie keeps the duck egg safe, but sadly Wanderer, with an injured wing, cannot fight off the weasel forever. The duckling hatches, and believes Leafie to be his mama, and the two of them go to live by the waterfront. They are not easily accepted and it’s really no place for a hen, but little Greenie (Chorok) grows up to be a strong young duck like his father. However, he’s also very much an outsider, not understanding why he is so different from his mother and having to ask other local creatures to teach him how to fly. When the migrating ducks come to the area, though, he may just find his place.

It’s really the air of melancholy that gives the piece its mature feeling. Everyone but Leafie thinks creatures should know their place and never stray from them. Poor Chorok spends his youth a confused outsider. And of course, the final ending is as bitter as it is logical – though it makes me wonder how far a small kid would understand it.

It helps, of course, that the film is both visually beautiful and distinctive. Anime has heavily influenced Korean art and animation, and though it’s distant in a world of animals, it can be seen in some of the eyes, expressions and action scenes. Other more comic animals look like they’re from European comics, and the ducks whose names are the equivalent of Do Re Mi and Fa look like something from Wakfu. The one human character, the farmer, reminded me of the way the characters move in Avatar, which of course is also Korean-animated. The backgrounds are gorgeous, recalling children’s picture books, presumably like the one on which this story was based, and the animation is very impressive, both fluid and imaginative. This is the first full-length feature from Odoltogi Studios, but I very much hope it will not be the last.

(South) Korea has spent so long producing great quantities of animation for the rest of the world and being completely under-recognised for it. It’s time for the apprenticeship to end and the country to get a chance to make cultural statements of its own in the medium. And this feels like a big first step. I regret not seeing it when it was screened at the Korean Film Festival. Though the plot is simplistic and rather episodic, the characters’ individual journeys work extremely well, and while Chicken Run did it to some extent with roosters – in a comedic context – I never thought until this that I’d find a duck badass. .

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

シャイニング•ティアーズ•クロス•ウィンド/ Shainingu Teaazu Kurosu Windo / Shining Tears X Wind

It’s probably on the strength of watching the Tales of Symphonia animation and feeling it was all so truncated that it was unfair to the story of the game, but I feel it’s just a little unfair to judge this anime adaptation of not one but two Sega JRPGs without playing the games. On the other hand, I like neither the world nor the characters enough to feel any drive to play the games through, and only watched it for the sake of the cosplay group we had going.

From what I surmise, this is really the story of the second game, Shining Wind, but also serves as a sequel to Shining Tears, with the major cast of that game showing up, offering support and key items. In the usual Fushigi-Yuugi-cum-Dog-Days-type plot, a group of students find out about a mysterious fantasy world in a book and are soon teleported there, where they find they have amazing powers and become the centre of attention. Two of the boys, Souma and Kiriya, discover that they can use ‘soul blades’, swords pulled directly from the chests of the girls around them that reflect their hearts – and so decide to fight for good. However, the third boy, the more mature Saionji, with the same power, gets a bit power-mad and tries to take over the world. Of course, there is a bigger baddie, a demonic dark elf, and only the soul bladers’ true ‘holy grail’ swords can stop him.

It’s all very by-the-numbers and formulaic, to be honest. Deen do their usual middle-of-the-road job, providing nice character designs and pretty close-ups but keeping movement to a minimum, letting action scenes get clunky and overall making the whole thing look a bit lazy. Pretty as they are, none of the characters are very likeable or interesting, none have much in the way of memorable character quirks or strong motivation, and Souma is a singularly dull protagonist. I liked Zero, the protagonist of the first game turned into a kind of guardian angel, but he does very little. Towards the end the cast gets huge, with random royalty and interchangeable giant warrior characters everywhere, none of them at all developed, and the problems of trying to please fans of two games in 12 episodes comes to the fore. The final crisis is abrupt, and ends without very much difficulty, giving the impression of not much done at all, and since none of them seem to miss home at all during the adventure, it comes as a surprise that any of them want to return home at all.

The romance is all very awkward as well, and it’s problematic when the most believable relationship here is the creepy one between Saionji and Hiruda. I get the impression that there’s supposed to be a slightly naughty air of homoeroticism to the whole thing, but it just comes over as very awkward and forced, especially when Zero randomly gives Souma a sponge bath, especially as both characters are fairly obviously voiced by the same person. As for Souma finding out who will give him his true holy grail sword in that pseudo-sexual lying-back-with-eyes-closed-and-lips-parted way, well, all I can say is no wonder Mao was crying at the end. None of it is titillating and none of it really works.

What Shining Tears X Wind has going for it is fantastic character designs. They are along traditional fantasy lines, but varied, interesting and very much appealing. Faces look cute, outfits are awesome and weapons are impressive. But that’s really about it – in terms of the world, the characterisation, the story…sadly, Shining Tears X Wind falls well short.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

お金がないっ/ Okane ga Nai / No Money

Here it is, then. The worst piece of animation I have ever seen. Stephen Fry writes in his autobiography about the guilt he felt giving a book a bad review, but I feel no compunction calling this the worst anime I’ve ever seen: it’s not anyone’s personal baby but the mangaka’s, and after all, it’s the lowest sort of trashy porn so I seriously doubt she has any great attachment to it.

Yes, this is another review of a hentai – although I suppose it may be trying for shounen-ai rather than yaoi, featuring as it does ridiculous arty angles and shining lights rather than pixellated genitals. And yes, it’s another homoerotic one, although it’s actually been a while since I last watched anything like this, unless you count the tedious Junjou Romantica – which I suppose it has more in common with than, say, Words Worth.

You may point out that I always seem to give homoerotic anime a hard time. I didn’t like Papa to Kiss in the Dark, I stressed how much better Enzai would be without the porn and Boku no Pico remains more funny than anything else. Loveless and especially Gravitation really tried my patience, and Sensitive Pornograph was dire. So why keep watching them?

Well, the fact is that there are good stories along these lines out there. This show covers similar themes to many a CJ Michalski or Yamakami Riyu publication, only with everything that makes it unique also being everything that makes it utterly horrible. Why animation companies should choose to animate a manga like this and not something decent I don’t know. So I am not naturally predisposed to hate these shows – they are just very bad examples of their kind.

Okane ga Nai – and I sigh as I write this – is about a girly-boy university student who looks like a mutant little girl stretched out and given ten thousand eyelids around his terrifying eyes. He is voiced by the seiyuu who did characters I really like, like Riku in Onmyou Taisenki, Gauche in Tegami Bachi and Albert in Gankutsuou, which makes me strangely sad (and he was also Grell in Kuroshitsuji, which makes me mostly confused). Through no fault of his own (a reckless family member), he is in debt by millions of yen to a huge scary (but handsome) 'businessman' (One Piece’s Arlong and Naruto’s Asuma…). Unbeknownst to the boy, he once showed kindness to the man at his most vulnerable, so the man is actually in love with him. The man thus decides to express his love by saying that the boy can pay off his debt by moving in with him and becoming his whore.

Romantic as this may sound, it gets worse. Not only does the man keep his feelings hidden for some reason, making the boy feel he is being mercilessly raped, he has powerful enemies. Thus, the main crisis of the OVAs comes when the boy gets kidnapped, drugged and the bad guys strip him with intent to rape him on camera. The man comes sweeping in to save the day – too late to stop the boy being violated by a suppository and exposed to the camera, and with the great plan of bringing in one of the rapists’ daughter and threatening to slit her throat. And then just using brute force instead. To celebrate the boy being saved from almost being raped on camera, arrangements are made to make a nice sex tape of him, now that he’s found out the man actually genuinely has feelings for him. This is, of course, supposed to be hilarious.

I hate everything about this, except that it was only four episodes long. I hate the art, with the absurd giant seme and ridiculous stick-limbed uke. I hate their faces, one some sort of golem and the other with creepy eyes that look like an unkind anime parody – though the original manga seems to look less terrible. I hate the rape fantasies even more than I hate them in just about all erotic anime (as it’s sadly prevalent) – this time it’s even more of a nonsense because a few words would totally change the issue. I hate that the boy is supposed to shrug off the fact a whole room of men saw him abused and violated. I hate that he’s supposed to fall for his abuser. I hate that the characters are such distorted ideas of lovers.

This is really like banging my head against the wall. I’m aware that it’s like watching a live-action porno and complaining about how unbelievable the plumber’s character was and how the naughty nun’s lines didn’t ring true. But dammit, this sort of thing is a huge industry in Japan, and straight hentai is getting surprisingly good. Yaoi has its big names, and some of them are big because their art, story and characterisation is good. So why is rubbish like this still made?

Sunday, 22 January 2012

今日の5の2 / Kyou no Go no Ni / Today in Class 5-2: 2006 OVA series

First Impressions, 22.4.06: New anime: Kyou no go no ni (‘Today in [Class] 5-2’)

Heheheh! Ultimate pedo-bait anime! Perverted humour mostly involving a boy getting inadvertently put into seemingly sexual situations with various girls, then being found in compromising positions, is an old staple of anime humour, especially in the harem genre. But they’re not normally 11!

Funny little show. Could be quite entertaining, could be eye-roll-inducing fanservice for undiscerning lolicons. We’ll see. But I was amused enough to want to watch more. I feel somewhat dirty afterwards, though.

In all honesty, though, they could’ve made exactly the same anime and just SAID they were 18, so I don’t see why anyone should be too disturbed.

Final thoughts: 22.01.12
It was only in the last couple of weeks, when I decided to finally watch the five-minute special that capped off this OVA series, that I found out that Kyou no Go no Ni – or ‘Today in Class 5-2’ – was by Sakuraba Koharu, the mangaka behind Minami-ke. It was something of a surprise, much like when I read the manga of Ichigo Mashimaro and found that rather than a comedy about childish silliness, it was actually quite pervy. For though I had watched the Kyou no Go no Ni episodes more or less as they came out, they struck me as both not very memorable and pretty embarrassing.

You see, Kyou no Go no Ni is about a class of 5th Graders – mostly 11 years old. They have all sorts of mishaps, almost all of them involving one poor hapless boy innocently blundering into what look like sexual encounters and getting smacked for it. The truth is that it’s quite possible to tell this is from the same source as Minami-ke, really – there, too, a lot of the humour comes from people leaping to the wrong conclusions, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or misinterpreting what someone else is talking about, and indeed, most of my favourite characters there are the same age (and mostly in their own Class 5-2) and have similar – often rather androgynous – designs. Albeit with those strange mouths.

The trouble is that these OVAs were made by Shinkuukan, who are a porn animation production studio. And they produce this little mini-series about 11-year-olds more or less as porn. I don’t know how much of the manga is sexual-themed fanservice, in which the poor protagonist Ryouta is constantly seeing girls near-naked, falling and landing on top of them or even getting a kiss or two, but just about every joke in these OVAs is along these lines or leads in that direction. And the fact is that it’s much better when they’re not. Humour about Valentine’s chocolates or thinking your childhood friend is talking about an old memory of wanting to marry you when actually she’s talking about bedwetting are worth a thousand cheap skirt-flipping gags – and to be honest, those would be far funnier if they were played for the laughs you get from reactions (ie, the shot is arranged behind the girls having their skirts flipped up, showing nothing of what the boys see but their shocked expressions instead) rather than the uncomfortably blatant child erotica of close-ups of crotches.

After this, Xebec made a series of Kyou no Go no Ni in its own right – with its own OVA afterwards – and apparently they are much less squirm-inducing, and honestly the character designs look rather nicer. I expect the animation is less smooth and the colouring much simpler, but it doesn’t matter if it turns out this version looks far nicer: the fact is that so obviously eroticising the children makes them immeasurably less cute rather than making them more desirable, and takes the viewer’s thoughts not to the character but to the animators and their motives. Either make a cute comedy or make loli porn; don’t spoil a comedy about cute 11-year-olds with more awkward erotica than High School Girls and Rosario + Vampire combined. At least Moetan doesn’t feel like it could be something much better.

On the other hand, Kyou no Go no Ni does indeed have another chance – the Xebec series, which I shall watch. I don’t really remember much about the characters beyond the main boy, his childhood friend and the spacey blonde girl, there’s no plot to sink my teeth into and, well, I’ll always be wondering how much fanservice is in the manga (and perhaps I’ll find out at some point), but I’ll give it a chance. After all, I didn’t particularly care for Minami-ke after a few episodes but it grew on me and I’m very much looking forward to the upcoming fourth season.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

デ・ジ・キャラット/ Di Gi Charat – s1, OVAs and movie

First Impressions - 3.10.05

Tried some new anime – cutesy classic Di Gi Charat, designed by the same person who came up with Pita Ten, but it was extremely annoying and not at all cute, so I didn’t download any more of it.

Follow-up - 8.1.07

Fortunately, I’m not in bad spirits because Di Gi Charat turned out to be just what I wanted last night. I think I was put off by episode one because I was hoping for something like Pita Ten, and seeing the totally random humour, Dejiko’s annoying hyperactivity and the fact that most of the humans were drawn as fingers with faces, I was just irritated. Total randomness with bits of slapstick really doesn’t make me laugh – that’s why Furi Kuri grated on me. But when more characters are introduced into Di Gi Charat, their totally archetypal character quirks may not be fresh or new, but they at least give a warmth and humour to proceedings, and I’ve now watched all 16 original 3-minute episodes and think it’s actually quite a funny and cute series. Nothing near as good as Pita Ten or that other cute Kogo Donbo-designed series, Chicchana Yuki Tsukai Shugaa (A Little Snow Fairy Sugar), but much zanier and sillier and worth watching when the brain needs to be turned off.

Final Thoughts - 21.1.12

On the strength of those two old entries, Di Gi Charat would be an excellent example of a time I’ve had a bad first impression of an anime but then picked it up again – over a year later – and actually come to enjoy it. It’s happened a few times, including to greater and lesser extents all of Shounen Jump’s big three series. Like Tales of Symphonia’s OVAs, it’s also one I intended to write up full impressions of when I had seen everything, but in this case it’s a little more complicated: I was happily watching everything Di Gi Charat-related a couple of years back when there was a big computer failure and various things got transferred between various computers, and along with Sayonara Zetsubou-Sensei, this is one of the series that has suffered, because I’m not quite sure what episodes I do and don’t have floating about, or when I’m going to get back to watching them. So I’ve decided that I’ll give Nyo!, Panyo and Winter Garden separate entries later, and look at the (loosely continuous) rest here – the firstseries, the specials, the short movie and the Leave it to Piyoko! side-story OVAs.

The story, inasmuch as there is one, is that green-haired alien Dejiko arrives in Akihabara with her sidekick Puchiko and their weird floating mascot Gema. Dejiko wants to be an idol, but has no money and nowhere to live, so takes employment (and a room) in a Gamers store – which makes sense, given that the character was conceived by Koge-Donbo as a mascot for the chain. Dejiko soon clashes with local idol Rabi-en-Rose, and usually outdoes her, while various outlandish and surreal things happen. In the OVAs, the Black Gema Gema gang, along with little Piyoko, who is adorably useless at being evil, try to kidnap Dejiko in the name of interplanetary war, getting into various scuffles that usually end up with Dejiko using amazingly destructive eye beams, Piyoko using her mouth bazooka and poor Puchiko failing entirely to contribute.

Dejiko is a pretty annoying character, all things considered, but manages to just about be cute. The rest, though, are genuinely adorable, and I have a soft spot for the peripheral male characters like Coo, Murataku and overenthusiastic weeaboo Rodoyan. Really, the best thing about Di Gi Charat is how funny and even clever it is when it gets totally reimagined, though – something that would not work without a strong and distinctive base. And that’s exactly what this is. Not everyone’s cup of tea, not all that funny and not clever, it is still adorable, memorable and a great start to a franchise.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

テイルズ オブ シンフォニア & テセアラ編 / Tales of Symphonia & Tethe’alla-hen

First Impressions, 13.6.07
Heee, the Tales of Symphonia OVA makes me happy. The only thing I dislike about it is that at only four eps, there’s no way they’re gonna be able to go into the kind of depth they need to do the game justice. It was great hearing the Japanese seiyuu, whose performances are subtly different from their American counterparts’ (unusually good though the acting on the Western release of ToS was); Lloyd is less the confident leader, more a goofy kid, which suits him much better, while Collette is far less annoying and more sincere. Genius/Genis sounds adorable in whatever medium. That kid is so cute.
UFOTable’s animation standards have gone up, too – or at least, their budget has for this. And of course they got in their cute little claymation ED, which will no doubt baffle the uninitiated.
Anyway, watching this reminded me that I gave, what, 40 hours of my time to these characters? Even if I didn’t like the way the plot meandered towards the end of the game, I still have a great liking for those characters.
Final thoughts
I was intending to wait until after the end of the United World episodes to write impressions about the Symphonia OVAs, but its becoming increasingly apparent that I’m going to have too much to say, so I’m going to write about the first two parts now. At eight episodes of 45 minutes each (plus short gag omake episodes), there is after all as much running time here as there is many full series. Plus after the wonderful first United World episode, I feel the need to gush.

Symphonia feels like it came out longer ago than it did. It was really the only game I loved – indeed, particularly enjoyed – on my Gamecube. It came out at the tail end of 2004, and was my first experience with a Tales of… game. And while I have since played through Eternia (more on that when I write about its own anime series) and have made a start on Abyss, none have left the impression Symphonia did. But I’ve already written up my impressions of the game – suffice to say that for its faults, I loved it, and it was really the first time I’ve been actively impressed by the English dub of a J-RPG: after all, they got in big hitters from American cartoons for the dub like Tara Strong (Teen Titans, Drawn Together, My Little Pony), Jennifer Hale (Wolverine and the X-men) and Scott Menville (Teen Titans). I’ve only ever liked FFXII’s dub so much.

Since then, Symphonia has remained relevant in Japan. A poorly-received sequel came out for the Wii and Symphonia characters showed up in various crossovers. Namco runs little festivals just for Tales of properties. A licenced manga appeared with beautiful art by Hitoshi Ichimura – also noted for her Kingdom Hearts porn as ‘RaS’ or ‘Samwise’. And then of course there are these OVAs, released episode-by-episode. The first four appeared in 2007, with the Tethe’alla episodes appearing in 2010. United World’s first episode just crept into 2011, with the rest yet to come.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the experience of making Symphonia has transformed anime studio UFOtable. Prior to this they were a small, charming studio known for their silly claymation credits sequences, best seen in 2X2 ga Shinobuden. In 2007 they made Manabi Strait, which while in my eyes better than Lucky Star was also rather average and even derivative of Haruhi. Since then…well, they basically worked on Symphonia and the Kara no Kyoukai films with a few short pieces until all of a sudden they were back in 2011, making the jaw-droppingly good animation for Fate/Zero. What used to be a silly little studio making so-so animation is suddenly superb, and the transformation can be seen in these OVAs.

Symphonia retells the game’s story beautifully. The character designs I like so much made it intact, and the original voice cast give life to Lloyd, Geni(u)s, Presea and the rest. Though sometimes rather static, the OVAs are lovely to look at, and there are moments of beautiful fluidity – and the static parts are more than made up for by frequent character animations that go far beyond the bare minimum and look superb. The only part that looks rather bad is when the old lady turns into a big blob, but that’s really Namco’s fault.

If there’s a problem here, it’s with the pacing. This really isn’t a good way to experience the full story of the game, and I suppose a large part of the problem was that UFOtable didn’t really know how much money the project would make, and thus how much of the story can be animated. The first four OVAs in particular are rushed and choppy, with characters not properly introduced and complex concepts not elucidated with anything like the clarity needed. The abiding impression is that the adaptation is by the fans, for the fans, and seems rather like a movie adaptation of a series. On the other hand, Tethe’alla’s part, by which point UFOtable presumably know they aren’t going to cram the rest of the game into four episodes, is allowed more space to breathe, and United Worlds looks like it will be able to go ahead properly-paced to the climax, with all the twists as good cliffhangers.

It really remains to be seen with United Worlds whether this story will satisfy, but its first part will always be rushed, and that’s a shame. But let’s face it, it’s Symphonia in motion, well-acted, well-animated and remarkably well-drawn. I love it.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

も~っと!おジャ魔女どれみ/ Mo~tto! Ojamajo Doremi

Though I’ve been watching Doremi for years now, it’s only with this series that I’ve really started to love it. I suppose it’s quite telling that while it took me six months to watch Sharp, I watched the full fifty episodes (plus rather surreal short movie) of Mo~tto in under four weeks. It’s really the only series I’m watching just now that leaves me wanting more each time – and it’s a silly, playful comedy about little girls, for little girls. But at the same time, it’s very well-done.

After the climactic action of Sharp, the Ojamajos were again left without magical powers, having sacrificed their crystals to save Hana-chan from a deadly fever. But involved here is the fate of a very powerful witch destined to be the new queen, as well as the politics of bringing the witch and human worlds back together – and so the queen proclaims that the gang can be restored as Witch Apprentices, as long as they convince every member of the witch high council who opposes their restoration that they are worthy. For whatever reason, the way they are to convince these high witches of their worthiness is to bake cakes for them, which sometimes gets a bit Yakitate!!. To help them in this task, the Queen introduces them to Momoko, a blonde Japanese girl who moved to New York at a young age and forgot most of her Japanese, but there met a witch named Majo Monroe (who even has Marilyn’s beauty spot), and from her not only learned magic but how to be a pâtissière. Meanwhile, Hana does not cope well being taken away from her ‘mamas’ to be kept in a magical kindergarten, as is traditional in the magical world, a situation that comes to a head when the lingering spirit of the queen-before-last, responsible for the curse that turns witches whose cover is blown in the human world into frogs, takes notice of Hana and curses her to hate vegetables.

Thus, several plot strands run concurrently – the various dessert-making exams, more or less replacing the last season’s health tests; the heartache of missing the child you bonded with, which after a while turns into the attempt to make Hana like vegetables again by disguising them in different foods or changing the circumstances in which she is eating; and Momoko’s attempts to fit into Japanese society again when she is culturally very much American and doesn’t have a very good grasp of honne and tatemae. This last part spreads out to encompass the various other little stories of girls in Doremi’s class, including the other ojamajos, and is very much the backbone of the whole series, and its heart. It’s what makes the series much more interesting than the last ones, for while it covers similar ground to the ones in Sharp revolving around the young wizards (who I was quite sad to see were never mentioned again, even by Oyajide), they were much better. There’re some very touching little stories here, including ones revolving around classmates old and new: one girl is a hikkikomori who needs friends just like Doremi; another wants to be best friends with the writer girl who idolises Aiko. The SOS trio is split up, and one very cute boy wants to join in the terrible comedy action. A new smart boy is in Doremi’s class, who rather oddly is the second character voiced by Takeuchi Junko (or third if you count a female witch who happens to look just like her first character Kimitaka), which is a slightly strange choice given that her voice, best known as Naruto and the original Gon, is so distinctive. He comes into conflict with proud Tamaki, as does straightforward Momoko, but in reconciling some interesting ideas about racism, arrogance and tact get explored. These are the sort of episodes that really flesh out characters and make them interesting, and it’s these that make me so interested in what happens next.

Momoko’s seiyuu finally provides a strong link with Demashita! Powerpuff Girls Z, which always seemed to me a poor imitation of Ojamajo Doremi – previously other main Ojamajo girls played minor characters in PPGZ, Hazuki having been Miss Keane and Onpu having been rather oddly having been Sedusa, but Momoko was Bubbles herself. She’s an interesting voice actress, having learned English while at an international school at Austria, and thus being seen as a specialist in English. Her pronunciation is certainly far from natural, but it’s definitely a step up from a lot of supposed English-speakers in anime. She was previously on the cast – as the cool guy Masaru – but now she really gets to shine, and though it took a little while I soon warmed to her. Though she looked like she was…really designed to be a white girl but then it was decided that’d be too alien and turned into a blonde Japanese girl (in a world of natural blue and purple hair, mind), it allowed for some interesting things that aren’t often covered in anime, like xenophobia and tolerance.

A strange thought occurred to me when at one point I watched a new episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and it struck me that the two are really very similar. Several of the girls are much like those of the popular pony cartoon’s so-called ‘mane six’, there are similarities between the Magical World and Equestria, and the way stories are told when an individual main character causes problems when facets of their personality are exaggerated certainly has some crossover. Of course, Ojamajo Doremi isn’t as slick, as widely-lauded or as funny as MLP:FiM, but I have to say that nothing in the season and a half that show has produced so far has inspired the same sort of feelings I had when Aiko’s father lost his job and tried to drive his daughter away to have a better life with her mother.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

The Secret of NiMH 2: Timmy to the Rescue

A recurring comment I see about this film is that it was a ‘big screw you to the fans’ – albeit often in less charming language. That seems fair – I got it on VHS as someone who wasn’t a huge fan of the first film but one who had enjoyed it and wanted more of the same, and after all Fievel Goes West wasn’t an utter disgrace to An American Tail, so nothing prepared me for just how dire this was going to be. I had read the Mrs Frisby sequel and that had been quite palatable, too.

Well, this film had nothing to do with that sequel, or the books at all beyond the basic premise and characters. It also had nothing to do with Don Bluth or his studios. Instead, it was made by MGM 16 years after the original in one of their multiple attempts to revive their studio’s animation department long after the glory days of Tom and Jerry left them. They bought the rights to Don Bluth’s United Artists films and set about making sequels. I’ve yet to see All Dogs Go to Heaven 2, but I can’t imagine there was much of merit there.

The plot is that Timmy, the sick mouseling from the original, has (at some point) been the subject of one of Nicodemus’ prophecies. He will one day be a great hero and save the rats, etc. This horrible lazy storywriting not only kicks off the action of the film, as for no better reason than this prognostication, Timmy has to leave his family behind and go to the mouse colony, but drives the antagonist – big brother Martin spends his life full of resent that his brother has glory laid out before him but he doesn’t. Timmy, now grown into early manhood, meets Jenny, a young rat who reveals that her parents have been locked up by NiMH. As it turns out, though, the mastermind now is not Doctor Valentine, but Martin, who has a whole new personality and a plan to attack the colony that just happens to be scheduled for the day Timmy and co arrive.

Everything about this is incredibly sub-par. The prologue makes the bad mistake of showing some Bluth animation, which only highlights how deeply inferior this is. The only things that look good in the whole film are some backgrounds when Jeremy the crow is in flight. When it comes to the artwork, the models go all over the place and the colouring is so simple it makes everything look horrible and cheap. The animation is very poor, mostly just blocky and awkward, though with some sad attempts to closely match the actors’ lines, but done so clumsily and gracelessly that it’s perhaps the only time I’ve ever thought the character animation would have been better if the actors had read their lines after animation.

The performances are similarly poor. Ralph Macchio, the Karate Kid, by this point closer to 40 than to 30 and a long way off Timmy’s 17 rat years, is as wooden and stilted as it gets. Dom Deluise is the only significant returning cast member (I wouldn’t count the guy who plays Mr Ages), wisely cashing in on everything he could before his career stalled (unless it’s why his career stalled, but who can say?), but he’s given just about nothing funny to say and is paired up with a caterpillar with the most terrible design possible. Jenny was Hynden Walch’s first voice-over role, and if you ask me she’s incredibly lucky she got the chance to continue until she found roles where acting a bit wooden and vague came over as just right and even charmingly sweet rather than weird – Starfire in Teen Titans and Princess Bubblegum in Adventure Time. Getting Eric Idle in to be the bad guy may not have seemed such an odd idea – he proves remarkably versatile in Transformers the Movie, after all - but here, he’s just being himself, and it just makes no sense whatsoever that Martin goes a bit mad because of a mental experiment and starts speaking like an eccentric middle-aged Englishman.

Idle features in one of the worst songs in the piece, mostly just talking, but they’re all pretty even in the ‘horrible’ stakes. At least he isn’t as bad as Macchio, who badly needed a singing double – the poor guy tries hard, but when he pushes for big notes, he sounds unfortunately like Kermit the Frog.

Bad story, bad art, bad animation, bad music, bad direction, bad concept and bad for associating itself with what is after all an underappreciated classic, this is every bit as terrible as its reputation suggests.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

茄子 アンダルシアの夏 / Nasu: Andarushia no Natsu / Aubergine: Summer in Andalusia

With this artsy short film, Kousaka Kitarou managed the rather bizarre feat of becoming the new figure to watch – after already having had a remarkable career that meant he had a significant role in many of anime’s most important films. He started out in Oh! Production while Takahata was still working for the studio, and though he had no credited part in Takahata’s Gauche the Cellist, nor in the animation the studio produced for Miyazaki’s Cagliostro, by 1984 he had worked with both future Ghibli helmsmen through key animation in 1981’s Jarinko Chie (by Takahata for TMS) and 1984’s Nausicaa (for Topcraft), the latter as one of a long list: the role of a key animator is often integral to the story of the rise of a significant Japanese animator – especially when it comes to Miyazaki and his contributions to Horusu and Gulliver’s Space Travels. After that he strengthened ties with Miyazaki as animation director on Sherlock Hound, worked with Ghibli for Laputa and provided key animation for what most of the Ghibli associates had walked away from – the lengthy project that became the disappointing Little Nemo.

It was during this period that he left Oh! and branched out in remarkable ways. After Laputa, he was there to provide key animation in a number of landmark titles, all released within two years – Gainax’s first film Wings of Honneamise, the weird but interesting Mamoru Oshii half of Twilight Q (with Studio Deen), Takahata’s most well-known piece Grave of the Fireflies and Outomo’s seminal Akira. As if that were not already a remarkable enough resume, he followed it up by associating himself with episodes of Yawara!, which as well as being made by Madhouse as they moved into becoming a powerhouse studio able to make features was the first manga by Urasawa Naoki to become an anime (Kousaka also had a hand in Master Keaton and the superb Monster). He then worked for Rintaro on the early X2 anime, one of the first time Clamp’s work had been adapted for anime, a year after its predecessor Tokyo Babylon. He tried his hand as a director with the OVA A-Girl before returning to Ghibli for some of their best films, rising up through the ranks to become an animation director for Whisper of the Heart and then a supervising animation director for Princess Mononoke – my two favourite Ghibli works. His second work as a director saw him return to Clamp to adapt Clover, and then in 2001, he was not only a Ghibli supervisor again for Spirited Away, but also provided more key animation for Rintaro with his remarkable Tezuka adaptation Metropolis.

So yes, he was in a good position when it came to make this short film in 2003. I’m sure that’s the most I’ve ever written about a director’s history, but I just find it remarkable. Usually, it amuses me to find that someone in anime has a link or two to another significant figure, but Kousaka seems to have worked for almost every highly prominent figure in anime short of Kon Satoshi and Hosoda Mamoru, who probably nodded to him as their Madhouse sempai.

The story Kousaka decided to adapt was from the manga Nasu (‘aubergine’). One of the stories there was about a cycle race, and the story is that since they were both cycling fans, Miyazaki suggested Kousaka animate it. Kousaka asked Miyazaki if he wanted to collaborate, but it was during the period Miyazaki was saying he had burned out and was retiring, so Kousaka went off to Madhouse. Set, as the title suggests, in Andalusia, the film follows professional cyclist Pepe Benengeli as he takes on a difficult stage of the Vuelta a España. Not stylised and comical like the Tour de France in Les Triplettes de Belleville, this is a fond but realist take on the event, emphasising the strategies cyclists use on a field where so many are so equal, the politics of being sponsored and the difference it makes being supported by a home crowd. Pepe is an interesting main character for such a brief piece, rather prickly and unwilling to show his emotions even to loved ones, but they support him wholeheartedly anyway, because they know what he really feels underneath. The real human link here is his family watching him on television and later in person – especially his brother, who is newly married. There are lovely vignettes of local culture, especially the food (mmm, giant paella), but what’s most remarkable is how much is said in such a short time, with such sparse dialogue.

The art remains mostly realistic, and the influence of Ghibli on the character design is noticeable, especially when it comes to the wife, to the point that I’m sure if it were more well-known this would get mistaken for a Ghibli work as much as KumoKaze. At the end, though, in the final sprint, the sheer speed and exertion is expressed in looser art, scratchy lines and distorted faces – but it is done with such superb timing and taste that it manages everything that the race segment of The Animatrix fails to pull off.

It may not sound like there is much to this film, nor that it is a very interesting subject, but it is trying something different with animation and managing it extremely well, and will appeal to arthouse fans – indeed, it was the first anime ever to be shown at Cannes. A sequel exists, also much-lauded, though it sounds like its flavour may be somewhat less unique. On the strength of this, I will certainly be watching out for it – and everything else Kousaka does. Perhaps with a feature film or two he can fill the voids that Kon Satoshi and Yoshifumi Kondou so tragically left.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

少年猿飛佐助 / Shounen Sarutobi Sasuke / Boy Sarutobi Sasuke / Magic Boy

Released in Japan in the last few days of 1959, this is the oldest anime I have yet watched. It was Toei’s second animated feature film, after Hakujaden, and as far as I can tell only the third animated feature film Japan ever produced, the first being 1945’s black-and-white Momotarou, which today is looked at slightly askance for being made under a regime after all allied to Nazi Germany. This film and Hakujaden were released about three months apart from one another in the US, the first of a slew of Toei films to be released in the States, until 1966 and Gulliver’s Space Travels made it clear that the idea wasn’t working – so American kids missed the period where Toei’s films actually got really good, for example with Puss ‘n Boots.

I can see why the release of this film was unspectacular. Having to work from the (reasonable) premise that American kids in the 50s didn’t really know what ninjutsu was, MGM tried to make everything more universal – ninja arts became generic magic, the idea of ninjas isn’t raised at all and there’s no attempt to convey that Sarutobi Sasuke is a legendary figure in Japan not too far removed from Robin Hood in the English-speaking world, thus already familiar to the audience. What comes over – from what I’ve seen of the dub – is something quite awkward and unwieldy, like a drab Peter Pan vs a witch story.

And the fact is that this is a very, very difficult film to attempt to detach from its Japanese origins, because beyond the opening scenes – which are by far the worst thing about the film – it is very, very Japanese.

It’s the opening that gets the film its reputation as derivative of Disney. This is true, but not to the extent many critics would have you believe, especially as I suspect many of those watched the dub, which introduces more songs. Young Sarutobi Sasuke lives in the forest with his big sister, making friends with all the animals of the forest (who speak in annoying baby-talk) and – appropriately, given that his name means ‘Monkey Jump’ – swinging through trees with monkeys. Amongst these animal friends is Bambi…no wait, Eri, who is very much a Bambi rip-off. When Eri gets in trouble with a hawk and ends up in a lake, he is attacked by a mysterious salamander. Sarutobi and the little deer’s mother save him, but at the cost of the latter’s life, though there thankfully the Bambi derivations end. The salamander just then decides to reveal itself to be a powerful evil spirit, a hideous woman in the oni/yama-uba/hone-onna tradition. To fight her, Sasuke realises he must learn ninjutsu. After a rather confused encounter with some bandits and the demon, Sasuke stumbles across the sennin/hermit Tozawa Hakuun (Presumably a descendant of Tozawa Hakunsai) who can teach him the ways of the ninja. Along with his sister, their animal friends, a little girl the bandits almost didn’t have the heart to kill and historical feudal lord Sanada Yukimura (played by a young Nakamura Katsuo, who would have a distinguished acting career and return to voice acting after several decades for Steamboy), Sasuke returns after three years to put an end to the demon – who hasn’t honestly done very much harm in that time.

The main problems with this film are its mixed animation quality and its pacing. Sometimes there is such fluidity in the animation that it rivals the Disney it aspires to emulate – two scenes in particular are remarkable: one of the demon doing a geisha-style dance that’s very obviously traced from live-action in the Snow White tradition, but another where Sasuke climbs up a mountain that I’m not sure could have been done that way. This latter scene is the only time there’s believable weight behind the boy’s movements, and a lot of reason the animation looks poor near the start is that characters sort of float, and if they fall, they never seem heavy at all. The art is very mixed, the characters constantly going off-model and some jarring filtered photographs used for the backgrounds. But this was a studio in its infancy (including being Rintaro’s second anime job), and the weightlessness becomes acceptable once Sasuke can fly and shoot fireballs and walk on water.

Overall, a piece of animation history well worth seeing, with occasional bursts of charm, style and technical excellence, tempered by a lot of problems. I’d avoid the dub, too: it’s a liberal adaptation that freely changes names and even events – at the end of the film, for example, the dub and my subtitles both had Sasuke agreeing to enter Yukimura’s service, but what he actually says is that he’s just a kid, and goes skipping off. Not Toei’s best, nor genre-defining, but well worth the watch.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

蒼穹のファフナー / Soukyuu no Fafunaa / Fafner in the Azure

Of all the anime I’ve watched, including all those that are many years in the past now, Fafner has been by far the most forgettable. Even the likes of Ragnarök and Kono Minikuku mo Utsukushii Sekai, which I barely gave a thought to since I finished them, years ago, left much more of an imprint than this. Without prompting myself, I could remember little more than that it was a mecha series about kids living on a funny crescent-shaped island when most of the rest of the world had been destroyed, and that there was a satisfying final scene with a secondary character fulfilling a dream of being on TV.

The rest – main characters, antagonists, reasons for fighting – were largely gone. I couldn’t even remember the mechas themselves, and all I wrote when I finished the series at the end of March 2005 was a note to say I was ‘watching the final episodes of the angsty, occasionally moving but mostly bland Soukyuu no Fafner.’

Bland, I think, sums up my feelings on the series, another attempt at a new Evangelion that fell well short. Mecha in general is not my favourite, unless it’s funny, like Big O or Gurren Lagann, or does something subversive like Bokurano or, indeed, Eva. Giant robots tend to get in the way of plot development and have never struck me as very cool to watch, which I suppose is their whole purpose. I tolerate them in the likes of Eureka 7 and GunXSword, but when I think back without mecha specifically in mind, I tend to forget they were even there. Macross was another I found very forgettable. About the only time I thought of Fafner again was when I saw Gundam SEED and the protagonist looked so like Fafner’s (same designer).

The plot, as I have now reminded myself, is that the little island of Tatsumiya-jima managed to survive the onslaught of the monstrous Festum only by being cloaked, and the populace grew up in halcyon isolation. One day, though, they are discovered, and their only chance is to deploy their giant robot. Inevitably, the pilot is killed and it falls to a handsome teenager to defeat the enemy. He does, but this brings the island to the attention of both the Festum and the rest of humanity, who want to know why such a powerful weapon was hidden away.

The plot turns tragic quickly, and underpinning everything is melancholy – the children, previously so sheltered, must now fight and very possibly die. The only light relief comes from the aforementioned boy, Hiroto, who wants to be famous.

The main problem with Fafner is that it’s 26 episodes (and an OVA side-story, which I watched later), during which not a lot really happens, and generally the tension comes from people not wanting to take part in any action but stay safe and do nothing. This does not make for very compelling viewing, and perhaps is why I was left so indifferent.

Nevertheless, there is now a film and rumours of another series on the way. And perhaps when there is little else to do or watch, I shall spend a bit of time checking them out.