Thursday, 29 March 2012

Adventure Time season 3

Adventure Time season 2 ended with a cliffhanger – after the Ice King’s hilarious slip-up, Bubblegum ended up Finn’s age. The implications of this betrayed what has started to fuel Adventure Time into its third season: relationship drama. ‘Shipping’. The speculation about romantic relationships that is at the heart of most Internet fandoms, is often sneered at (especially when it causes ‘shipping wars’) and – big generalisation of course – tends to draw a lot of females to a fandom, where they tend to dominate those debates. It’s the fandoms that are big with girls that tend to have the most fevered shipping debates – Harry Potter was notorious for it, Twilight’s ‘teams’ are iconic, it scared quite a few fans away from the Avatar fandom and it’s basically all that drives Hetalia’s popularity. It’s even key to the success of The Hunger Games. It’s certainly there in male-dominated fandoms like Wakfu and (yes!) My Little Pony, but in general the fans there don’t seem to care very much, think their favourite would be cute with a whole lot of partners and don’t end up in fevered arguments with the supporters of different ‘pairings’.

I stress that this gender-based observation is very much based on trends and generalizations and there will be many exceptions in both genders.

I have to say, though, of all the cartoons I watch, Adventure Time was one of the last I would expect to have shipping debates and drama. But it has both, for there is that magic ingredient – a love triangle. Finn, that chubby-bellied, slow-witted 12-year-old adventurer, has a crush on Princess Bubblegum but is also intrigued and toyed with by the teen vampire girl Marceline. All, lest we forget, are basically blob-headed kids with dots for eyes, but that’s not really important.

Though there were plenty of episodes that show the old random silliness and brainless, colourful adventuring, with the likes of The Ice King and Treetrunks reliably being very funny, Finn has grown from being totally oblivious to being a teenaged boy for whom…y’know, the hormones are kicking in. His best friend Jake has a girlfriend, and the girls in his life are after all a bit older than him. And, perhaps after all the blushing in ‘Blood Under the Skin’, the writers seem to have realized he’s at his most compellingly watchable when he’s a bit embarrassed.

So the dominant episodes of the series have been about Finn’s first efforts to find love. He finds out more about Marceline, from flashbacks about an ex-boyfriend to sneaking into her house and seeing her about to have a bath – and tries awkwardly to express his crush on Bubblegum, only to be friendzoned because of the age difference, which was soon reinstated, quite possibly because any relationship with her younger version would seem a bit inappropriate (where for whatever reason, one with an older version does not). One that garnered some controversy involved the three of them forming a band, which not only put Finn between the two very different girls, but vaguely hinted the two of them had been in a lesbian relationship – which ended up causing some very unnecessary backlash.

There was also the episode of pure fanservice that was the genderswapped ‘Fionna and Cake’, at once an acknowledgement of fandom trends, a definite nod towards the possibilities of relationships between characters and, with its Ice King denoument, an affectionate swipe at fanfic writers. Even the season finale was the rather underwhelming introduction of a new girl that Finn can have a crush on – one that left viewers dangling only for a few weeks, especially those who knew where to look for leaked episodes online. Series 4 begins airing in a few days, less than two months since the end of S3.

I’ll keep watching. I do like the characters, the setting and the humour, despite it now reaching the difficult period in comedy writing. But I watch for the zany, random comedy in a fantasy setting – that’s what I want, fundamentally, and if it’s driven from the sides by a bit of relationship drama, no problem. But I don’t want it to entirely take over. 

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Avatar: The Legend of Korra (First impressions)

First impressions, 22.3.12

Well, the first episode of The Legend of Korra got ‘leaked’ a few days ago, and has become widely available, albeit only as a low-quality stream or slightly cleaned-up streamrips. I resisted for a little while, wanting to wait until the series had its proper premiere and I could watch it in decent definition, but in the end I was too weak! I’m a confirmed Avatar fan these days, and I have an inkling this leak wasn’t entirely accidental, but designed to gauge fan reaction.

And I was pleasantly surprised. I’ve been on the fence about the series since designs and early plot outlines were revealed: I was very happy we were getting new Avatar at all, but I wished it could have been about the ‘gaang’. I wasn’t sure about Korra, who seemed cocksure (my least favourite character trait ever since Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and not very interesting. I also wasn’t sure about the 20s-New-York-n-jazz theme, with mobsters in old motorcars, and worried that the series would lose its fantasy edge.

But having watched the episode, I’m pleasantly surprised. It all works. It may never quite reach the heights Avatar did, and I’m fairly sure Korra as an emotional core will never give me the same resonance Aang did, but I suspect it will also be more mature and more consistently good, rather than swinging between good and poor as Avatar did for so long.

The Legend of Korra, as fans have known for a long time, tells the story of the next Avatar after Aang. This means that by the time of the story, Aang is dead, and likely to appear only as a ghostly adult. More or less all the other characters are dead and gone, too, thus far only old Katara making an appearance, though the children of old cast members appear. There’s something a little unsettling about thinking of Aang and Katara having children, but there is a bearded airbender with kids of his own, driving the plot – he is the only one who can teach Korra to airbend, but since Aang passed the city he founded has been in turmoil, so his son cannot take the time away from the city needed to mentor the new avatar. Toph’s child is another major player, the head of the city’s police force of earthbenders capable of bending metal, and while she’s an awesome no-nonsense character, the idea of Toph having a child makes me a little sad. It’s unusual for stories that put kids at the centre to make us think of them growing up, marrying, having kids and dying of old age – and it’s very different from the way Dragonball Z sees Goku grow up - but that’s where Korra starts.

It takes some getting used to, but I think it’s all to the good. It’s sensible to make a whole new story rather than dragging the old one on. And the things I didn’t think I’d like, it turns out I did – Korra’s one line as a small child, in a nod to Buddhist traditions of searching for reincarnated masters, made her seem bratty and tomboyish, and certainly her character flaw is that she is all aggression and action-without-thinking, but she is also identifiably young, uncertain and repentant about the mistakes she makes. She’s a lot more Aang-like than I thought she’d be – though no Aang.

At the moment, it doesn’t look like we’ll have a core of youths as in the first story – though I have to say I’m glad there’s no Sokka figure as yet, as unlike much of fandom I never liked him, and he never had a boufbowl moment to win me over. Aang’s grandkids are too young, and the adults in Korra’s life seem like mentors rather than companions. I’m sure Korra will gain friends, possibly related to Zuko (in fact, the artwork above shows them), but it had better be soon. Beyond that, the tension seems to be very much in the comic book mould: a rising faction of the non-benders in Aang’s city feel they are oppressed and a league is being formed around a mysterious figure to fight back. Well, as long as they don’t make any Sentinels, that’s fine. I like that the plot is somewhat comic book-flavoured, just the same as I liked how the city is obviously meant to put us in mind of New York – the blend of East and West is part of what makes Avatar what it is, and it’s moving on in its own way.

It’s a little complex following what happened with the Korean animations studios behind Avatar, but to wrap up I’ll give an overview of how it worked as I understand it, based mostly on image board posts, side articles and what people who actually work for the studios have said on their DAs – the original pilot was made by Tin House, who made Wonderful Days. Tin House stopped being a studio in their own right, though, and some of the key workers went over to the Korean animation powerhouse Dr Movie for a while, before forming their own new studio JM Animation to finish work on Avatar (with some work farmed out to Moi). Now, though, a ‘core’ of JM staff are working in a new, separate company called Studio Mir, who will now be credited with Korra’s animation. It’s clearly the same people, though, and while some backgrounds are different, the same elasticity, propensity to make comedy expressions with the mouth down at the bottom of the chin and nice action scenes are there in abundance. The first shot of the big city is great, though some CG cars could blend in better.

Overall, I’m pleased with how Korra looks at first, and eager for more. After the new My Little Pony, though, and maybe Lucky Star, I’ve never known a show so influenced by its fanbase – the episode with the play at the end of the original series was full of nods to online debates, and here there was an explicit reference to them too, with the line about Zuko’s mother. These nods can be very amusing, but I hope they don’t go too far with them. They can get very, very jarring.

Additional notes having seen Korra ep 2: I must say I’d prefer to see Korra actually learn humility and peace rather than levelling up under pressure of battle like a Shounen Jump character. And I hope we don’t see too much pro-bending in future eps. But here are the two main companions, very much in the Sokka and Zuko vein, and I like them. I just wonder if this will lead to being stuck in a rut. Korra needs a more immediate quest.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Trigun: Badlands Rumble

2010’s Badlands Rumble came out twelve years after the original anime aired, and four years after I finished watching it - by then seen as a classic. The manga had continued to run until 2008, though, and with its enduring appeal, Trigun never seemed like it had faded away like so many 90s anime. It seemed a bit random to me when Madhouse announced the new feature-length adaptation, but I can’t say I was complaining, or anyone seemed to think it was a bad idea – new Trigun will always be welcome, there was plenty of source material to draw from and of course, the advances in Madhouse’s animation quality after their transition to one of the leading producers of anime cinematic features meant we were going to see Vash and co looking better than ever before in glorious widescreen.

To some, the plot here might seem simple to the point of being underwhelming: a renowned robber is attempting a great feat of thievery while also seeking to get revenge on former comrades who betrayed him 20 years ago and spoiled what he felt to be a beautiful bit of robbery. A female bounty hunter with a grudge is out to stop him, but Vash is there too, to get in the way and try to prevent loss of life, just as he had that fateful day 20 years ago. By coincidence, of course, Meryl and Milly are there on behalf of their insurance company, and Wolfwood has gotten himself involved as well. It’s a simple setpiece with nice straightforward clashes, and in many ways feels like a typical shounen tie-in movie in the vein of Naruto’s or Fullmetal Alchemist’s, where the emotions are fairly superficial and the plot leaves little lasting impression on its characters or its world, as opposed to the great emotional turmoil of the second half of the Trigun series, centred on Vash’s relationship with Knives. There’s inevitably a short section where there’s an attempt to pluck at the heartstrings, but it’s always clear this is never going to be a Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door or Seisouhen and that the tone will stay light overall. Still, through flashbacks and personal stories, also raises more subtle questions, not so distant from those of Monster – is saving lives always right? What if the one you saved goes on to cause more harm? What if the world would have been better-off if they had died? I love that sort of question in an action story, and it’s done deftly here, without any need for it to be hammered home.

And of course, there’s the usual mix of genuinely funny humour, silly character designs, absurdity and Wild West-style action. Vash’s design remains iconic and remains one of the best examples of the goofy-but-hiding-immense-power character type. The other recurring characters are as brilliant as ever, and the new ones are compelling too, as is the eccentric world – somehow, a giant lightbulb as a power plant just about works in the world of Trigun, rather than being an example of trying too hard to be quirky and random like the giant iron in FLCL.

Satisfying, uncomplicated and by now able to draw upon fond nostalgia, Badlands Rumble is a great watch for fans and would no doubt be a good introduction to the series, too.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

B型H系 / B-Type H-Style / B-Gata H-Kei

B-Gata H-Kei is another entry on the list of anime I’ve watched expecting something utterly dismal but actually finding it quite watchable and even enjoyable. It’s at the nadir of a sliding scale, though: The iDOLM@STER I expected to hate but actually loved and found to be remarkably high-quality, Rosario + Vampire was pretty awful but looked great and was always fun, while B-Gata H-Kei…well, it was a bad premise and there’s really not a whole lot that’s good to say about it…yet it still had moments that made individual episodes quite fun, and a cast that ended up being quite likeable.

It’s really the overall premise that earns the series the hatred I’ve seen for it in other places, sometimes without actually understanding the twist. The story is that Yamada is a pretty, popular, somewhat airheaded highschooler who is privately obsessed with sex and aspires to sleep with 100 men. She is inexperienced, though, and decides she needs to start somewhere easy, so fixes on a plain-looking, unremarkable boy called Takeshita to begin with, in order to then move on to bigger and better conquests. You can see how this would both seem like a plausible premise and rub people up the wrong way, right? On the surface, it seems like it’s a masturbatory fantasy – the audience is meant to feel like they are ordinary, unexceptional Takeshita, and that they ought to long for some hot girl to decide they want to have sex with them. You may think it’s all going to turn out a bit Futari Ecchi. And then you might feel that it’s insulting to the male intelligence and objectifies Yamada. But that is to get the series all wrong.

You see, the twist is that Yamada is actually a pure maiden utterly clueless about sex and rather terrified of it. And what begins as intending to use Takeshita and spit him out rapidly becomes just an eccentric way of getting her to spend time with him – and fall for him. Of course, the sex itself gets delayed and delayed, by mischance and because the two main characters are utterly hopeless at it, and thus we get a light comedy not about a slut and a doormat, but about two people being too sweet-natured, silly and adorable to ever have sex with each other. It’s more cute than depraved, despite there being uncensored versions that more or less turn the last episode into softcore porn. If it were actually about having lots of sex, the whole thing would fall apart, and it’s obvious almost from the start that Yamada’s ideas about sex are totally delusional and completely opposed to anything she could actually do, and she often makes a fool of herself doing stupid things to try to progress her relationship with Takeshita. Oddly enough, that makes the sex angle childlike and sweet, paradoxical as it sounds.

Not many anime driven by a romance can start with characters having sex – the only one I can think of that does is the rather remarkable Shaft production REC – and this series certainly couldn’t support it. Particularly as it’s based on an ongoing Young Jump manga, it has to be put off more and more. Unfortunately, the central relationship can’t quite drive the whole series either, so tension has to be injected with a rival, in this case a girl with a rather overwrought incestuous crush. It almost works in that it does bring some laughs to the series, but it takes everything in a surreal direction that doesn’t help overall.

Basically, B-Gata H-Kei manages to lift itself to something quite watchable and entertaining, which is surprising given its basic premise and the rather sloppy production from Hal, where the art is sometimes gorgeous but often gets downright ugly. It does a good job of twisting a dirty outline into a story about people being very pure, but that leaves it without much direction, and it’s a good thing the series is only 12 episodes, because the gags already got a bit stale by the end.

Essentially, I liked it more than I expected…but it’s telling that I finished it earlier than planned so it wouldn’t be the 400th post on my blog!

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Aardman are now established on the international animation circuit, where once they were a very British phenomenon. With Chicken Run, their appealing, wide-mouthed claymation style was introduced to a wider audience, most notably in America, while this film cemented their reputation, so that today the upcoming release of Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists is quite an event, and their 3D branch, while less of a stand-out, is a moderate success too, with Arthur Christmas and Flushed Away at least on the radar of most parents and animation fans. Every 3DS owner in the UK, and for all I know far beyond, is getting new 3D cartoons of Shaun the Sheep, Wallace and Gromit have been parodied on The Simpsons and Hayao Miyazaki has professed himself a fan and had an Aardman exhibit set up for a time in the Ghibli museum.

It was really this film that was the pivot: it had much to prove at the time. The quite brilliant The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave were still very much obscurities outside England, and Chicken Run had just made the world sit up and take notice. On the other hand, I’d hold this film up as an example of a studio in the right place being able to have a misfire but still garner much praise, as though they could do no wrong; much as I love Aardman and especially Wallace and Gromit, which has buckets more charm than Chicken Run or Arthur Christmas, I was disappointed when I saw this, back on Hallowe’en 2005.

After mentioning affectionately that my dear ole mum mixed up the name and called it ‘Grommarsh and Wurzel’, I wrote that the film ‘follows Wallace and his loyal, bizarrely sexualised canine life partner as they attempt to protect the town’s vegetables from a terrible furry menace. It was fun, but not quite as good as I’d hoped – not as witty or as affecting as Chicken Run, The Wrong Trousers or A Close Shave, and rather harder to swallow than any of them. Still, it made me smile throughout, and [was full of] funny references.’ I would probably have left out that part about Gromit being sexualised if I wrote today, despite the van scenes, as it’s an observation that lends itself to endless academic overanalysis and conjecture, as well as painting the duo in what may seem like a disparaging light when actually I adore them. The film has a great cast – Ralph Fiennes hamming it up, posh Helena Bonham Carter being extra-posh as ‘Totty’, and of course Peter Sallis providing Wallace’s wonderful Yorkshire accent. Like many light comedy animations, much of its humour comes from pastiche, with the title making it clear that the subject here would be horror, undermined by the fearsome creature being a bunny. A plethora of terrible rabbit-related puns ensue, the worst being ‘24-carrot bullets’, as well as the staples of the series: impressive action scenes with Gromit – one of the great mute characters of animation – having to work very hard, silly Rube Goldberg machines and a sweet obsession with silly things like cheese and vegetable competitions. It’s all delightfully English, daft and charming and pandering only very slightly to a wider audience. (Supposedly accents had to be toned down a little.)

My problem was not that it was bad – only that I had hoped it would be much better. It simply isn’t up there with the sheer brilliance of The Wrong Trousers, which remains the best outing for the characters. I wanted the concept to be on a grander scale (while of course retaining the tweeness), and there to be less viciousness about dispatching the baddie. Essentially, I think Wallace and Gromit would be much more widely-known had the film been a longer version of The Wrong Trousers. That said, I hope Nick Park gets another shot at a Wallace and Gromit feature. Indeed, many more shots – the more the better!

For all I may have felt it was underwhelming, though, it was critically lauded, and of course was an Oscar winner. I’ll leave you with what I wrote on 06.03.06, the morningafter the ceremony: Fond as I am of Wallace and Gromit, I don’t think Were-Rabbit should have won against Howl’s Moving Castle. Neither of them were my favourite films from their respective makers, but Howl was certainly the better film. Then again, Spirited Away won last time, and the Academy always seems averse to rewarding the same people consecutively.'

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Wakfu: Season 2

It’s been a pretty long time coming – the 26 episodes of this second season were spread over more than a year, with long gaps between its bursts of releases. But it was well worth the wait, and after all I hadn’t been waiting as long as many fans: I didn’t get into the first series until after the second had already begun to air, as it was the stunning S2 intro sequence that first piqued my interest. It displayed sequences I never thought were possible for Flash animators, great characters and of course, what is for me the best cartoon theme song of the last ten years at least, ‘Sur tes pas’.

So I entered the second season unashamedly a big fan. I remain one at the end of it, though there were disappointments on the way and I felt like where season two was going to make or break the show to a wider audience, it ultimately fell short and squandered its opportunity to swell its fanbase. I’m quite fortunate – I could pick up the show’s magazine while I was in Paris (not that it was easily found), and I snapped up a Yugo figurine when Ankama were in London for the MCM Expo (complete with hilarious broken English on the box) – but where I had hoped to see the title gain a popularity up there with the new My Little Pony, sadly it was never to be and if anything, enthusiasm died as season 2 looked to be meandering and lacking in direction or a strong antagonist. And those criticisms were, I have to say, pretty valid.

Season 1 – don’t read on if you don’t wish to be spoiled - left us with the show’s driving antagonist nothing more than a pile of dust. Tristepin was also dead, and nowhere to be seen in the intro sequence. The Eliacube, the item that had sent Nox into his madness, was in the heroes’ possession, which was a politically sensitive situation. When Yugo and Adamaï decide to interact with the cube, it releases Quilby, the only other member of the Eliotrope race – who tells them the rest of the race, or at least the children, are safe but sealed away in another dimension. He sends the Brotherhood on a quest to retrieve his ‘Dofus’ so that he may be reunited with his dragon half, a step towards freeing the Eliotrope children. But all is not as it seems with Quilby, and the heroes are too trusting. Meanwhile, the demon Rushu, lord of the Shushus, yearns to be unleashed.

The elements of a great second season are there, but sadly it doesn’t work quite as well as the first season, perhaps mirroring it too closely. There are two major problems, and the first is the procrastination. Though some of season 1’s weakest episodes were when the Brotherhood diverge from their quest to help people in need, that was okay because they needed character-building and allies. Here, a point is made of how the characters are uncomfortable they are wasting time, and it just makes the overall arc feel very weak: the brilliant last three episodes in particular could have been expanded to five or more, rather than more time being spent on boufbowl or ‘wabbits’. The second problem is the lack of a great antagonist. Nox made the first season brilliant: he was sinister, iconic and yet also sympathetic. He was not defeated, except by himself, and he was always there, a driving, menacing figure with an agenda. Here, Quilby’s deception is clever but means there is little impetus until the big climax, Rushu is mostly comical until the very end and has no defined goal to be directly stopped, and generally the season lacked the impression of time running out.

For all it is inferior in story terms to season 1, though, there is much here that is brilliant. New characters are really endearing – Eva’s sister Cléophée is a great addition; Remington Smisse, though underused at the end, is an extremely interesting cad of a man, and Quilby himself is until he goes all Espada brilliantly duplicitous. The Sufokians were great for so little screentime. Some of the incidental stories are superbly-crafted and I even liked Goultard (see the specials) showing up at the end to fight alongside his student: everything was going a bit Gurren Lagann so in my view it worked superbly.

I feel Ankama were wearing their influences on their sleeves more here. The Eliotrope plot felt very derivative of Dragonball Z, and Ankama let loose with the references to other media, from a whole episode pastiching video games (with Pinpin posing like Chun Li) to Easter egg cameos from numerous anime characters: Luffy, Naruto, Mei, Muten Roshi, Ichigo

The anime influence has always been there, of course, and it’s not as though Wakfu lost its unique flavour. And though some parts looked awkward or just lazily animated, other segments were masterful – witness all Quilby’s big fights, or the best of the boufbowl scenes. They also developed the mix of flash with traditional animation for dynamic zooms into a character, and there I felt a tingle down my spine: if this angle is developed, it could make a whole new, superb avenue of flash animation.

I’m sad that there may be no more Wakfu on the TV. Though Yugo’s arc is largely complete, there’s still so much more story to tell. Well, a Dofus feature is in the works, and purportedly one for Wakfu too. But if there’s a season 3, sign me up.

Because I can’t think of any other property that could nearly reduce me to tears by having a character take off his hat.

Bleach movie 1: Memories of Nobody

Not too long ago, it was announced that the Bleach anime is imminently coming to its close, at an awkward point not long after its timeskip. The last TV episode will air at the end of this month, with its replacement – perhaps rather gallingly – apparently being the Rock Lee SD spinoff that’s recently been making for a far more entertaining manga than its parent title.

It seems like a good time, and nothing stops OVAs and movies carrying on the story. Plus the fourth film, The Hell Verse, was for me something of an apogee for the animated version, which will leave me with fond memories of this derided Shounen Jump piece. I have to say, though, when Bleach really had everything going for it, it rather squandered its chance.

This, the first film, came out in Japan at the end of 2006, though I didn’t get a chance to watch it until the DVDs were released and fan-translated. My impressions on the 13th September ’07 were mixed: I loved the parts with Kenpachi, as I tend to across Bleach media, but I found the plotline generic and dull. Ichigo befriends a girl who looks like Rukia with a different hairstyle, helps stop a plot that will destroy the world and defends the girl when she turns out to have a similar issue to Haruka from Noein. There’s great self-sacrifice but of course the plot is very much standalone. Standard Bleach stuff.

For the first theatrical venture of a big anime title, this is not a terrible effort, but it falls well short of being anything special, and the slightly above-average visuals can’t make up for a seen-it-all-before plotline.