Saturday, 28 April 2012

俺の妹がこんなに可愛いわけがない/Ore no Imouto ga Konna ni Kawai Wake ga Nai! / My Little Sister Can’t Be This Cute!

OreImo manages, just by the skin of its teeth, to be more than the sum of its parts.

Because, honestly, it really shouldn’t be very good. It’s actually in the same line of succession as Rosario + Vampire and B-gata H-Kei, the latter of which has a character with a notable amount of similarities to Kirino, the girl at the centre of this anime. But while each of those I expected to be dreadful, only to find myself entertained and liking them whilst knowing that, actually, they were pretty crap, this one I expected to be mediocre, and found that it was mediocre…yet really, really enjoyed it.

At a basic level, this is harem anime with all the usual harem contrivances and awkward need to have the male protagonist not actually commit to any of the girls pursuing him, as that’s when the tension goes out of the story. There’s a veneer of cleverness overlaid in that eroge (the story-based erotic games that form the basis for many harem anime) are the subject of the plot, as referenced in things like choices for key decisions popping up on the screen and the alternate ending given in the OVAs being referred to as the ‘true route’, but that if anything counts against the show: at times it comes close to the smug ‘we’re above these clichés but we’ll use them anyway just to point out how silly they are and because we can’t actually think of anything else’ writing I dislike in shows like Buffy (see my Cabin in the Woods rant). But it’s the self-examining otaku-centric writing that also gives this title its charm.

Kirino is quite the perfect teenaged girl – she excels in academia and sports, has plenty of friends and is pretty enough to be a model. But her big brother Kyousuke knows her as the stroppy, arrogant girl who snubs him and constantly criticises him at home – until one day he discovers her secret. She likes anime and hentai games. A lot. And not the ones you might expect, but the ones known as the domain of the creepiest otaku – she likes moé-moé anime about little sister types, especially ones who get romantically involved with their big brothers. But not because she projects herself onto the little girl – no, no, she wants to be the big brother in the situation. Kirino is a pretty, clever, sporty, fashionable lolicon.

Upon discovering this, Kyousuke realises how lonely she has been and does his best to help her. He arranges for her to meet up with some other female otaku, and despite some difficulties she makes two entertaining friends – the hilarious clumsy, awkward old-fashioned otaku Saori, who gives her name as Saori Bajeena (both an absurd, funny-sounding name and a Gundam reference) and is secretly a refined ojou-sama type, and the acid-tongued, standoffish Kuroneko (a nickname meaning ‘black cat’) who is a loli in the other Japanese pop culture sense, ie a follower of Lolita fashion. She’s also a bit of a loli in the former sense – ie, looks like a little girl and is sexually appealing – though keeps everyone at arm’s length. So Kirino and Kuroneko are both tsundere in different ways: Kirino’s tsun side is all aggression, contempt and shouting, while her dere side is blushes and sharing, while Kuroneko is tsun with haughtiness and cruelty, then dere with softness, goofiness and…well, more blushes. And both soon show an interest in Kyousuke while trying to hide it from him, as do just about every other girl he comes in contact with – his spacey childhood friend, Kirino’s two model friends (a brat and a normal but very pretty girl who presses close to yandere) and even comic relief Saori.

Where the series succeeds is the otaku comedy. It’s nothing very new – most of it has been seen in Genshiken and Welcome to the NHK, even Otaku noVideo – but it’s very well-balanced over just a few episodes. Be it the reactions of disgust of the uninitiated seeing nudey transformation scenes a la Nanoha or Kuroneko revealing herself to be gaming goddess by easily beating a pro gamer (like I did today, kekeke…), be it pastiches of the kind of anime Kuroneko likes – the mesh of Code Geass and DNAngel that is Masquera (with a superb outro song made for it) or the obviously-named Rosen Jungfrau – or subtle inclusions of other incest-based anime like the DVDs of Da Capo on Kirino’s pile. More than most ecchi romances, it manages to actually be funny.

But it stumbles in its second half. A big part of this is the anime-only story that Kirino’s terrible fanfiction (which includes the emoticons she uses in online and phone chats) becomes published as a novel and enough of a smash hit that there was an anime adaptation, which leads to some scenes where Kyousuke is given the chance to stand up for his sister and look cool. The trouble is, it all seems like some wish-fulfilment fantasy that someone is going to wake from, or some bizarre Haruhi-like bit of supernatural reality-bending. It seems really jarring that Kirino could make this story, and inconsistent in the way it’s presented as simultaneously hilariously amateur and wildly popular. It all happens too quickly and with too little input from Kirino, and is all over and near-forgotten too soon – quite surprising given that they got premier anime writer Kurata Hideyuki (Uchuu Show-e Youkuso, Read or Die) for the script. It all basically felt tacked on so AIC could pat themselves on the back about fan-pleasing things like changing their intro every episode. And then soon after, it becomes apparent that her attitude isn’t changing. There’s a sweet ironic moment where Kirino finds a little sister character annoying because she’s too prickly and doesn’t show her cute side until much later (when Kirino of course does a U-turn), which she doesn’t see is a direct mirror of her own behaviour. But the trouble is that she’s just hard to like, it’s hard to swallow that her brother really doesn’t understand her actual feelings (which honestly seem unlikely for me for someone who likes little girls), and while I do like her, and enjoy watching her, she’s just not all that likeable and her character progression feels much too slow.

This is if anything highlighted by the OVAs, in which (following the original light novels’ plot) she leaves the country and Kuroneko goes to Kyousuke’s school. The two of them join the video games club and it all gets far more Genshiken as she clashes with a fujoshi and then the two of them work together on a game. The mini-arc is just far more enjoyable than the main anime, and Kuroneko is a rather more interesting central character, especially in a modern school setting rather than, say, as a loli detective in the 20s, Gosick-style. The fujoshi character is hilarious, and the Makabe-kun character I found utterly adorable, especially blushing wildly as he hears the horrible things Akagi the fujoshi has imagined him doing. I wonder what that hint about her brother despising him in the DVD extras was…

Indeed, the DVD extras deserve a mention – I thought ‘animated commentary’ would just be a waste of time, and the horrible basic animation of the SD chibis in the first episode almost bore that out, but ultimately it was less a dull commentary than a very interesting way to get characters discussing the anime from outside it – as well as having some really fun ideas like letting the characters from the anime-within-the-anime do some commentary and having the characters see things that happened in private. AIC Build at the very least know how to please fans with the trimmings.

My head says that I shouldn’t really like OreImo. Under all the self-referential humour, it’s still dumb harem, and its main character may be sweet but even with just twelve episodes it stretched credulity a little that she could be so blatant and yet Kyousuke remain oblivious. And yet I looked forward to every episode, I laughed at the jokes and the awkward situations, and though I preferred Kuroneko I was pleased when Kirino returned to the series. And I will definitely tune in for season 2

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

フルメタル•パニック!/ Full Metal Panic!

I finished watching FMP! some months ago, but for some reason never stopped to write down my thoughts as I always do. I just assumed I already had until I went looking for what I had written in my archives, only to find nothing!

Full Metal Panic! was a big hit when I was getting into the anime scene, and already had the feel of a bit of a classic, so often spoken of alongside the likes of Kenshin and Trigun that I still have trouble thinking of it as a 2002 anime, rather than late 90s. After Gonzo made this adaptation, Fumoffu? kick-started Kyoto Animation’s rise to their current dominance, and it was really for the sake of Fumoffu? I started watching this. After all, mecha isn’t really my thing and it failed for a long time to grip me. Despite this, however, I’ve yet to actually start Fumoffu?, never mind The Second Raid.

FMP! draws heavily from past mecha series for its bare bones – there’s plenty of Patlabor and Macross Plus here, and none of the heavy symbolism and angst of the post-Evangelion generation, though the heavy-drinking Melissa is more than a little reminiscent of Misato. What FMP! really brought to the fold, however, was the mix of action with giant robots and warships and the small-scale comedy of a high school drama that would later work so well for the likes of Mai-HiME and ROD the TV. Obviously there had been action-based series with light school scenes before, but FMP! made the contrast very stark while everything still remained unified.

The story is that the stoic, taciturn young covert military officer Sagara Sousuke comes crashing into the life of normal schoolgirl Chidori Kaname tasked with protecting her, which gives rise to the memorable first episode title, ‘The Guy I Kinda Like is a Sergeant’. Popular, brash Kaname soon finds Sousuke annoying, though, assuming he is just some military otaku who has decided to stalk her. However, Kaname of course has latent psychic powers and is targeted by terrorists, especially the thoroughly nasty Gauron, who of course has a history with Sousuke. Generally, the series swings between big fights in mecha and fun high school comedy, such as when Sousuke ineptly tries to pretend he is Kaname’s boyfriend. The format works well.

Sadly, though, for me that was about all that worked well. I found FMP! to be so dull as to be reprehensible. Sousuke is funny at first, and some of the glimpses into his past make him more likeable, but ultimately he is even duller than Heero Yuy, the Gundam Wing character upon whom he is clearly based. Kaname’s ‘picked up in America’ acerbic personality just makes her irritating, and Gauron, with all his talk of cutting up and raping everyone, is far too dull and obvious a bad guy to hook me in. I didn’t like Tessa, who was badly conceptualised as a superior officer and was an early indication of the negative pitfalls of what would soon become known as the moé girl stereotype. And the rest of the characters, mostly Sousuke’s military comrades, were left very much undeveloped over a slow-moving 24-episode series.

Indeed, I think the biggest problem is in the pacing during the serious episodes. Nothing at all will happen for protracted periods of time, mostly padded out with the juvenile images of the girls being naked while they use their powers, only for important events to happen far too quickly. The climax of the last episode is plain confusing, which is the last thing you want your series finale to be. It took me quite a while to figure out who was in the coffins and why Tessa was crying.

Oh well. It was well worth watching for its classic status, though I wouldn’t recommend it too highly. Now I can progress to Fumoffu! and see what the fuss was all about there. 

Sunday, 22 April 2012

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic season 2

And so unlikely but undeniable Internet hit My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic got through its second season. Not without those typical second-season bumps and hiccups - particularly as head creative honcho Lauren Faust took a back seat and served only in a supervisory role - but overall with enough of its idiosyncratic charm to entertain, amuse and guarantee itself another season, and probably several more. As well as keeping most of its bloated, bizarre fandom on-board.

And never have I seen a show so influenced by its fandom. Sure, Avatar had scenes and whole episodes noticeably affected by the writers discovering online fandom and shipping debates, and Lucky Star’s director even got dismissed as a result of fan pressure in Japan, but MLP has been a whole new level. The most obvious example is Derpy Hooves, a fan-character based on a cross-eyed animation error, actually getting a speaking role and characterisation in this season, but more than that, it was the way staff members actually involved with the production would respond directly to the fans – including one animator expressing disappointment that the fandom detested an episode he liked.

And with that sort of powerful fandom has come analysis just about no other cartoon comes up against. Each individual writer is given a great deal of attention: Meghan McCarthy and M.A. Larson emerged as favourites (something I’d agree with), while a new writer named Merriwether Williams – whose previous work had been on SpongeBob Squarepants and Angry Beavers – got totally savaged after one episode the fandom hated.

I didn’t think the hate was justified, but I fear my emotional response to My Little Pony isn’t as ardent as that of some fandom members (and I don’t mean that in a disparaging way); I was willing to imagine an off-camera scene that made the episode work, but which the writers really ought to have included. With the much-hated episode ‘The Mysterious Mare-Do-Well’, for example, most of the more vitriolic complaints could have been solved with one scene where the gang actually try to talk to Rainbow Dash about her going too far. Similarly, ‘MMMystery on the Friendship Express’ would be vastly improved with a single scene showing the Cakes were actually pleased with the outcome, because it felt like a significant omission, and while at least the falcon got a moment of acknowledgement in ‘May the Best Pet Win!’, I wouldn’t have minded a line showing why Rainbow Dash couldn’t have had two pets, after that much hard work.

But, despite what the fandom may wish for, this isn’t a show that cares much about continuity or consistency. Last season, trains were pulled by stallions; now they’re steam-powered. It’s not quite clear why ponies thought the Sonic Rainboom was a myth when it was seen by so many the first time it happened. Indeed, there’s an amusing image showing that every single story told by the main characters in the season 1 story ‘The Cutie Mark Chronicles’ contradicts something else established in another episode. Continuity is just not that important, and if a joke works on a reference to something in the real world that probably doesn’t exist in magical pony land – or if a reference to James Bond or I Love Lucy will be funny – they’ll include it. 

However, characterisation is. In this sort of sitcom – for it is indeed a cartoon sitcom – that is paramount. I don’t mean that characters ought not to have their foibles exaggerated: that’s to be expected, and very much in-keeping with the first season’s writing, in which the ponies tended to obsess over a problem to the point of having mental breakdowns. That continues very nicely here, most obviously in the hilarious ‘Lesson Zero’, in which Twilight wholly loses the plot and pulls some of the scariest faces you’re likely to see in a cutesy animation. But it’s the little issues that bugged me – and totally ruined the show for others. Would Fluttershy really go behind her friend’s back, ruin something another person worked hard on because it seemed tasty, then deceive her friend? Would Pinkie really bug a stranger who wants to be left alone so much that she is loathed, only able to fix the problem because she just so happened to know the right people? And while I can totally accept that Rainbow Dash could go on an ego trip that makes her lose touch with what’s important, that doesn’t mean she’s some kind of stroppy stereotyped jock: before, she was insensitive, even cruel, but it was balanced by gentleness, kindness and a desire to see her friends improve themselves. Here, most writers got it (see ‘Hurricane Fluttershy’), but Williams definitely didn’t. 

The two-part specials that bookended this season were highlights, although both felt a little disconnected from the larger season. The first two, centred on mischievous god Discord, voiced with aplomb by John de Lancie essentially repeating his role as Q in Star Trek, were very entertaining but with their randomness and fast-paced action seemed rather different from the usual character-based situations, while ‘A Canterlot Wedding’ suddenly introduced two very important characters to Twilight who it seemed ought to have been mentioned before. In itself, that is no bad thing, but for all its awesome payoffs and satisfying conclusion, it felt a bit poorly thought-through: trying to imagine the baddie’s plot makes her seem not to have thought through the best way to accomplish her aims at all.

On the other hand, the songs in those last two episodes were great, and indeed, songs have been a strong point this entire season. Though they moved away from the Sondheim reworkings of the first season and were generally simpler and more pop-based, they were also catchy, charming and adorable.
Season 2 has had its faults and difficulties, but it was still remarkably strong and it remains entirely comprehensible to me why so many adult males would without irony express love and admiration for this show.

Season 3: link

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Kid Icarus – 3DS animations

As part of the promotion for the upcoming release of Kid Icarus, Nintendo are releasing six shorts for the 3DS as part of the Nintendo Video program. I plan on writing thoughts of a few of the shorts on there, but mostly as part of their respective larger series. Kid Icarus doesn’t (yet) have one, though, and after all I’m quite excited abut the game overall, so they get their own entry – even if I have to update it over the course of six weeks, by the end of which I’ll have had the game a while. 

There are really three shorts here, each by a different studio. The first, Thanatos Rising from Production IG’s CGI wing, is a three-parter very much like a game cutscene in the Nintendo style, with bright colours, relatively simplistic textures and over-acting that I’m sure some will find very hard to bear. Obnoxious and overacted though Pit is, I find his voice pretty cute – though it goes too far in the second part with lines about blogs that presumably are an incredibly awkward translation of some Japanese pun and really don’t work in context. Basically, Medusa’s minion, the obvious showtune admirer Thanatos, turns the tables on an army coming to combat him by taking over a giant Trojan walker and attacking a town. Pit gets the gift of flight, as ever, and sets off to save the day. The main point is that Pit is adorable and looks cool, and if that’s all you’re looking for – and in a six-minute animation to promote a game, it should be – you will be satisfied here. Plus there’s something about gears that will always look awesome in 3D – and the 3D without glasses on the 3DS truly is the best kind.

The second, Medusa’s Revenge, is a single 3-minute short from Studio 4˚C, in more traditional anime style. For the first 40 seconds, it looks like 4˚C are going to be lazy and cop out with a whole lot of simple, barely moving animation made vaguely dynamic by camera movements – and Pit is drawn so stumpy and young-looking that he almost looks out of PoPoLoCrois. But while it’s very simple in terms of plotline – Palutena and Medusa exchange threats and Pit fights his way to her – somehow it makes the hairs on my neck stand up and comes across as very cool. I’d like it to be included in the game as an alternate intro, even. True, there’s quite a bit of laziness (a whole lot of those monsters are copied and pasted) and some of the 3D at the start is a bit overdone and flat, but I really liked this nugget. And somehow, perhaps because they were unused to the process and cranked it up too far, I actually got the best 3D effects from this film I have in any since the recent boom. It’s the first time in ages it’s seemed like anything is coming out of the screen at me. So kudos for that.

The third, Palutena’s Revolting Dinner is a two-parter from – of all people – Shaft. I was wrong to expect their trademark quirkiness, though: beyond the daft premise – Palutena accidentally brings some carrots to life and has problems with them – it’s really remarkably ordinary and predictable, which is frankly the opposite from what I’d expect from Shaft. They have anime on the more ordinary side of course – just look at REC – but they actually got Shinbou Akiyuki to helm this. The way the story builds to its chaotic ending felt quite Pani Poni Dash!, but otherwise it struck me as a pedestrian way to deal with the property.

That said, the art is really cute in it – though Pit looks a bit young – and it’s fun seeing Palutena uncomfortable, or with a big squash on her head. I just had hoped for something cleverer and a little less like any given anime for small children. 

Friday, 20 April 2012

バクマン/ Bakuman: manga impressions

With chapter 176, Bakuman came to an end – something I was very happy to see. If anything but ‘End’ had been written at the climax of that chapter, my reaction would have been ‘ugh’. A lot of the final chapters seemed to have a focus on it not being the right thing to do for mangaka to let a title drag on past its natural end, and thankfully this title stayed true to that – though from the start it made me wonder whether it was a way of the creators expressing regret for the way Death Note ended up continuing past where it ought to have ended, introducing new, vastly inferior antagonists.

Because this title was a follow-up to Death Note in several ways. And as I wrote in my Death Note impressions, that meant it was drawn by one of my favourite manga artists, Obata Takeshi, who provided the art for Hikaru no Go. Apart from Blue Dragon Ral Grado I’ve loved everything he’s done since, and though his art has become more stylised and – to me – less appealing since the brilliant latter chapters of Hikaru no Go, I still took a liking to Bakuman.

The hook of the piece is that it turns the imaginary camera around – this is a manga about the people who create manga, the kind of thing that is usually confined to funny little omake at the end of volumes. It revolves around two boys who despite seeming very different, decide to get together to create a manga, one writing the scripts while the other puts his artistic talents and the equipment left to him by his mangaka uncle to use. Driving the plot is the artist Mashiro’s personal life – his regrets about his deceased uncle never having found real happiness and his hilariously over-romantic relationship with class-mate and later seiyuu/idol Miho: they almost never talk, blush profusely in each other’s presences and yet promise one another that when their professional dreams are realised, they will marry.

Although the writer here was Ohba Tsugumi, who also wrote Death Note (and whose real identity is much speculated-upon), this actually feels closer Hotta Yumi’s writing for Hikaru no Go than to that title: much of the drama comes from the boys getting a rival very different in temperament from them, and the silly comedy characters on the periphery of the story often steal the show – Otters 11 and its creator are probably the best things to come out of this title.

The problem is that apart from a very few moments, this whole series felt at arm’s length. I never felt like I knew either Mashiro or Takagi, or cared much for them. Their accomplishments always rang hollow because they either came very easily (like their first successes) or they revolved around imagined manga that didn’t actually sound all that good. There’s fascinating insight into the world of manga, into pleasing the editorial team, into deadlines and assistants, into how hard the work can truly be (though where HunterXHunter fits into any of it I couldn’t tell you), but the novelty wore off after a few months and a tendency soon arose for very artificial drama to be inserted (the soulless writer who got an online team to come up with stories for him returned! This time with a whole team of employees!) and to be resolved within a few issues, so that the abiding impression from Bakuman was a fragmentary and not very engaging one.

Bakuman was memorably and occasionally genuinely gripping, but it never hit me in emotional terms, and in truth I’m not at all sad it’s over. On the other hand, I am keen to see what Obata does next. And willing to watch the anime version – possibly in a few months, when the story will seem fresh and new again. 

Thursday, 19 April 2012

茄子 スーツケースの渡り鳥 / Nasu: Suutsukeesu no Watari-dori/ Eggplant: Migratory Bird with Suitcase

As predicted in my impressions of the first Nasu film, this one is despite being along the same lines as its predecessor rather more conventional and less ‘artsy’. Those impressions were dominated by my long list of director Kousaka Kitarou’s previous work, as I was impressed by just how many of anime’s big names he had worked with – not many can boast having worked on Akira, Spirited Away, Metropolis and Grave of the Fireflies. This time, he brought in another interesting name from Ghibli – Yoshida Ken’ichi, key animator for many Ghibli films, including Mononoke-Hime and Mimi-o Sumaseba, but also working (very briefly) in that capacity for several favourite series of mine, including Evangelion, Scrapped Princess, Wolf’sRain and Dennou Coil, and providing the strong character designs for Eureka Seven and its successor Xam’d.

These two remarkable men, however, followed up a remarkable OVA with something rather bland. Suitcase is a direct follow-up to Summer in Andalusia, but without its intensity, demonstrable depth of knowledge or exotic setting – for a Japanese anime, at least. Again, it covers a bicycle race, but this time focusing on the team aspect of such races and with the Belgian team (which is seemingly full of Spaniards) taking part in the Japan Cup.

This means that Pepe and co get a cute Japanese assistant as well as the support of a funny little Japanese kid. Interestingly enough, given that with Yoshida on board you might expect them to look like something out of Eureka Seven, these two look about as much like Ghibli designs as it’s possible to get. The race is a difficult one – a torrential downpour starts, a formidable old vet has decided to race and a key member of the PaoPao team is under psychological stress because of the death of someone close to him. Various factors come into play, and apart from what happens with seemingly the slightly unhinged veteran, mostly the film is predictable but satisfying. The trouble is, the first film made me expect rather more.

Though the animation is smoother and more ambitious, Madhouse having come a long way between 2003 and 2007, it is also much less inventive. It’s remarkably effective how well the animations for cycling have been done here, the motions after all not being very typical ones for animators to encounter, but I really missed the stylish, exaggerated, desperate movements we see in the first film. There’s obvious exhaustion here, but it’s not an unfamiliar page in the lexicon of anime expressions. There’s also a somewhat clumsy use of cel-shaded CG, particularly for cyclists going around bends – it’s just not quite integrated well enough and looks awkward. Finally, the humour is strained – the last fart joke could possibly be passed off as just trying to be realistic, but the first, during the race, is just unneeded, and the little parts about Pepe’s clothes being damaged so that his bottom is visible and the Japanese girl getting all flustered definitely come over as childish.

There is much of merit here – the animation is superb, the voice acting is strong, the setting is still refreshingly different. But it just comes nowhere close to how impressive, different and clever the first film was. Perhaps it’s almost wholly down to the difference between adapting an ambitious manga and anime-makers devising their own story.

On the other hand, I vaguely appreciated the way an attempt was made to have ‘Nasu’ as the title make a degree of sense. Though the part about the suitcase…less so. 

Sunday, 15 April 2012

ネギま!? / Negima!?

First impressions - 11.10.06
This remake, more an Alternate Universe retelling, is called Negima!?, based on the same manga as last year’s Mahou Sensei Negima but in a different style. The manga’s fans insist that the original series, which I thought was a dumb but occasionally charming throwaway comedy with little substance and a lot of brainless fanservice, was a hideous slight to the masterpiece that is the original manga (but I’m doubtful anything based on the premise of a preteen magician teaching a class of risible harem-anime clichés, including ghosts, samurai and technological geniuses, can ever SERIOUSLY be good). The new version wasn’t a hit with me. The jokes, especially the big comedy reactions, were just lame and badly-timed, and the little references to other anime on the blackboard, while amusing, didn’t suit the tone of the scene, dragging the whole episode down. The art style also isn’t as cute as in the badly-animated but nice-looking original version. Ah well. 

Final thoughts - 15.04.12
Given that it was way back in the October of 2006 that I started to watch this, and I can only blame the fact that I lost a lot of episodes when an external hard drive died so far for it taking five and a half years to get through, I have to conclude that though Shaft’s version was more entertaining and far more sophisticated than the Xebec Mahou Sensei Negima, I actually found it quite boring. Not in a good way.

For whatever reason, when Shaft got hold of the Negima property and gave it to their leading light Shinbou Akiyuki, he decided to make it very much like his Pani Poni Dash!, which had ended a few months before. With Sayonara Zetsubou-sensei, it became rather his signature style, though now has reached the point where it has further evolved into something a bit less zany, making something more straightforward like Madoka have a unique aesthetic.

While it took it further from its roots, Negima wasn’t a bad thing to adapt in this way. It’s about one little magical boy and his immense harem of anime clichés – from robots to ghosts to ninja to acrobats to scientist girls who can make large mecha. If ever there were an anime that leant itself to abrupt style changes, exophoric references and pastiches, it’s this. And the parodies are laid on thick – Negima!?’s style happily parodies just about any anime subgenre you can think of, plenty of film ones and even has a South Park scene, which while not especially necessary or insightful at least seems more affectionate than FLCLs stab at the same. Add in a great opening track (‘1000% Sparkling’) that seemed to be a real hit in Japan (if remixes, stepmania/osu et al maps and Nico Douga medley spots are anything to judge by) and you seem to have great entertainment.

But it just…missed, for me, in a way Pani Poni Dash! just managed to avoid and Sayonara Zetsubou-sensei seemed to have outgrown – not that it didn’t have problems of its own. Here…I think the problem was with the story. With PPD you had plots where there was a problem to be resolved each episode, be it a bus teetering on the edge of a cliff or an alien trying to conquer the world: they were episodic and there were numerous tangents, but it went back to that at the end. Zetsubou-sensei similarly kept things episodic, usually focusing an episode on a particular issue facing society (or blown out of proportion by the media) and exploring it. But Negima!?...well, it tries to have more of a contiguous story, centred at first on the general concept of Negi and his pacts, then moving to a series of antagonists, with Evangeline, a ‘black rose baron’ and some family members providing adversity, but the snatches of plot progression there are largely buried under endless skits, some of which raise a smile, a few of which made me laugh aloud, but most of which just got in the way and failed to amuse – and not just because jokes were going over my head (though I’m sure that happened more than once).

Taken as a whole, I’d say I liked Negima!? and what Shaft did here. I liked the stupid new animal characters. I liked the useless mascot forms some of the girls took, and the cosplay cards. I liked the way the antagonists were by and large relatable and interesting. I liked the odd surrealism, pacing and switching. But I’ve never much liked the premise of 10-year-old-genius-teaches-class-and-makes-magical-pacts-by-kissing-them-and-making-them-transform-into-fanservice-friendly-outfits. I’ve never much cared about the characters beyond liking some of the peripheral ones, especially when they have manzai-like routines. And I will go on to watch the OVAs (eventually). But I would not dream of rewatching Negima!? from the start, and certainly wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who wasn’t already acquainted with the Shaft/Shinbou way of doing things and certain they liked it watch this. Too much confusion is seldom a good thing. 

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

今日の5の2 / Kyou no Go no Ni / Today in Class 5-2 (Xebec)

You may notice that the pic is familiar – that’s because I wanted it to directly echo the one for the original Kyou no Go no Ni OVA series (right-click and open the pic in a new tab/window to see it full-sized). When I mentioned this Xebec adaptation there, I expected it to be quite different – much cuter and less full of erotic situations featuring its 11-year-old cast. After all, that series was made by an anime studio that makes hentai – and I described it back in 2006 as ‘ultimate pedo-bait anime’. Xebec mostly make cute stuff like The Third and DNAngel, right? So they’re not going to make it that pervy. Even if they did also make Kanokon…? 

In fact, it was much the same, only without all the gratuitous panty-shots. Sure, not having panty-shots makes for a bit less squirming and eyebrow-raising, but to my surprise, the scripts were still centred on sex jokes, especially for the first half of the episodes. Ryouta is still forever walking in on the girls topless, accidentally falling on top of them and being caught in compromising positions that, for example, make it look like he’s receiving oral sex.

And again, it’s when the series moves away from this that it is at its best. With a full 13 episodes and its own season-based OVA, this version of Kyou no Go no Ni at least gets to develop its characters more. In particular, the boys are given more of a focus – in the old version, they were almost ignored, while here Kouji’s quick-wittedness and Tsubasa’s amusing innocent wisdom get fleshed out properly, and the girls similarly have more time onscreen and get more character development beyond being the archetypes of the tomboy, the childhood friend, the funny spacey one etc.

To my surprise, though, I actually preferred the art style of the original. I’d hoped it was going to look like Minami-Ke, which as I said in my review of the OVA is from the same mangaka, but in trying to move it towards the fad for cute moéblobs it actually ended up looking mostly cheap and clumsy. A lot of the art just looks ugly and off-model and the kids’ body shapes are often weird and malformed in motion. Ryouta looks much better than in the OVA, but other than that it definitely suffers for the comparison, and a more defined and slicker art style would make the characters more distinctive – I more than once mixed up the two short-haired girls Yuuki and Natsumi.

Overall, the series did show the improvements I had hoped for – but only when it had already repeated all the parts of the OVA that were a bit too far. Moéblob art only accentuates that these are 11-year-old kids who don’t suit the sexual-themed humour here – I would have much preferred they were aged up and drawn in a slightly more sophisticated way. I’m not usually one to preach against the sexualization of minors in anime, but this is one of the rare cases in which it seriously detracts from the piece overall, which only gains its charm once the steam goes out of the ecchi humour and more quirky character-based jokes or funny situations –like one with a duck – can come in. 

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Wallace and Gromit: A Grand Day Out / A Grand Day Out with Wallace and Gromit

I remember that my thoughts on A Grand Day Out were pretty negative when I first saw it. This was when The Wrong Trousers was all the rage, and this 1989 short was shown retrospectively. With Creature Comforts by then widely-known and being used for the Heat Electric adverts and Nick Park becoming ever more famous, The Wrong Trousers and then A Close Shave were big successes for Aardman. The likes of Chicken Run and the currently-running The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists owe their greenlighting to the popularity of 90s Aardman, and they built upon the success of this.

And it was a success. It was Oscar-nominated, and the short that it lost out to was actually Creature Comforts. It has that distinctive Wallace and Gromit charm and silliness with a feel-good factor, and some pretty ambitious shots for low-budget clay animation. So why was I less than enthused? Well, really because the two sequels set my expectations too high.

That’s the problem, really, with going back to the first film when you’ve seen the excellent sequels made with more funding and buoyed by the confidence success brings. This first effort just doesn’t look as good, nor does it tell as interesting and amusing a story. The models are notably less visually pleasing than their more developed versions from the other films – Wallace’s head is rather an unappealing shape, and Gromit looks…a bit dirty. The cooker is a funny little idea and brings along a good way to have a satisfying ending, but beside the antagonists of other Wallace and Gromit shorts rather pales in comparison. And I just didn’t feel like the moon actually being made of cheese fit into the later Wallace and Gromit world.

Rewatching it on this fine grey Easter Sunday, though, I found it much more charming than my cynical younger self had led me to remember. By the time I was watching, Wallace and Gromit were known to all, and I never appreciated the stroke of genius that is introducing your principle characters having them sat in a little living room wondering where to go on holiday and talking about having some cheese on crackers. That Yorkshire accent is instantly both likeable and a bit daft, and it’s interesting that one of the first things that happens is that Gromit makes some noise. The story, despite the enormous distance it covers, is charmingly small-scale and simple.

Undeniably both the technical side and the writing would improve very rapidly for The Wrong Trousers, but there’s still much to be said for A Grand Day Out, and it led to some excellent things. The world would certainly be a poorer place without Aardman’s work, and I hope that they will at some point soon make their feature film masterpiece.

And this film always makes me want to listen to Penguins on the Moon and hope one day it gets set to animation. 

Saturday, 7 April 2012

デュラララ!! / Durarara!!

I started watching Durarara!! when it began to air, back in the beginning of 2010, and was being hyped up as the next big thing – which, arguably, it was. After a few episodes, I stopped to watch Baccano! My reason for doing so stemmed from a misunderstanding, really – I read that Isaac and Miria from Baccano! were in the show, so I decided I didn’t want to see these characters without understanding their origin story, and only when I resumed Durarara!! did I realise that in fact they only had a momentary cameo in a single episode – but I’m glad that’s how I did things.

You see, it's not just that they are from the same author and are made by the same anime studio, with the same director. In many ways, Durarara!! leads on from and is informed by Baccano!, and I really feel I understood a lot more watching the series after having seen that great, stylish, stylised story.

It’s not hard to make direct comparisons: both have a large cast of characters, all of whom have their own stories. Both have supernatural elements, and a lot of fighting. Both are about the strange things that can be found beneath the surface, and both are more slices of larger, ongoing stories than complete beginning-middle-end narratives. In more direct terms, too, it’s quite useful to draw comparisons: Baccano! probably has the more original and compelling setting, but Durarara!! has a more tight-knit story. While Baccano! has a few characters who are likely more interesting than any in Durarara!!, the latter develops its full cast more completely. Durarara!! shows from the very start that it has a lot of supernatural happenstances, so there is no jarring appearance of magic potions or slight disappointment things aren’t kept more naturalistic, but the stakes in Baccano! are much higher and its timescale far broader. The truth, though, is that they really compliment one another, and really work best seen concurrently – and trust me when I say that the weirder elements of Durarara!! seem to make more sense after having seen Baccano!

An ordinary boy with the brilliantly fancy name of Ryuugamine Mikado (with which his incredibly ordinary online handle – Tanaka Tarou – is an amusing contrast) moves to Ikebukuro, a built-up part of Tokyo that not many English-speaking tourists go to, and which I know primarily as Mami’s stomping ground in Super Gals! and for having an affinity with owls (‘bukuro -> fukurou, which means ‘owl’). What seems at first a simple story about a naïve country boy moving to the big city, meeting his childhood friend and his funny friendship group gets more complicated as it becomes apparent Ikebukuro has some crazy personalities: a waiter who goes on rampages with his super strength, a dark-skinned Russian immigrant who enthusiastically sells sushi in broken Japanese but is about the only one who can stop such rampages, and most iconic of all, a biker clad all in black who is actually a female spirit from Ireland searching for her head – a dulluhan, the creatures that inspired the likes of The Headless Horseman. Beneath the surface are other factions – delinquent gangs, a demon sword who possesses all it slashes, a man who loves to toy with others’ minds and some very silly doctors for the criminal underworld.

Unlike Baccano!, conflicts between the characters will most likely lead to cartoon violence rather than anybody’s life actually being in danger, but if anything that makes the contrast between daily lives and the big, exaggerated second lives the characters lead more believable. As the spotlight is turned on each character in turn, I found myself liking just about all of them, and never being bored – especially as there’s enough of a plot that episodes flow into one another rather than coming across as repetitive or, indeed, episodic. The fact that the most likeable characters, other than the boys at the centre of it all, are the most outlandish ones – the dulluhan who can only communicate through typing, the gentle giant from Russia, the misunderstood ultra-strong guy who so often ends up throwing about enormous pieces of the scenery – is testament to some clever writing. It’s also funny, and I love the nods to other anime – not just Baccano! but things like Wolf and Spice and Shana.

Durarara!! isn’t constantly the best-looking anime, but it’s definitely nice on the eyes and some of the effects –like Celty’s powers – are spectacular. There are some fun character designs, like the daft gals, and you definitely see a lot of things you won’t see anywhere else, like men hurling vending machines at one another. Witty, strange and yet also a little more heartfelt than its predecessor, I’d recommend it highly – but it’s best enjoyed after having seen Baccano!

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

ロック・リーの青春フルパワー忍伝/Rock Lee no Seishun Full-power Ninden/Rock Lee’s Springtime of Youth Full-Power Ninja Training

First Impressions

So, episode 1 of Rock Lee’s Springtime of Youth aired in the now-vacated Bleach timeslot. So Studio Pierrot are now animating two different Naruto anime, with the voice actors featuring in both. And…I can’t say I find it a bad idea. Where the Naruto manga has long been a disappointing trudge of stupid twists and dull fights between giant blobby creatures, the SD comedy based on Rock Lee that emerged as the best of the comics in the Saikyou Jump spin-off to Shounen Jump was a breath of fresh air. Even as professional fanfic. And Tenten shone as she never shone before as the comedy straightman.

I was a little surprised it was to be a weekly anime – I had expected it to get truncated and appended to the end of Naruto Shippuden episodes like Bleach’s Shinigami Zukan, maybe getting half-hour specials for Jump Festas or DVD releases or some such. This way may actually be the better business decision, as it’s compulsively watchable – but I’m not sure if it will make for quite such a funny show.

This first episode was a bit of a mixed bag. It expanded the first part of the first chapter into a mini-plot about saving a girl from debt sharks, and while the new enemies were funnier than the throwaway one in the manga, the jokes about dog turds got very laboured very fast and the pacing just wasn’t as funny. The second half, on the other hand, was an improvement on the original, other than the timing and reactions to Lee’s attempts to do Sexy and Harem no Jutsus being off. Lee’s little play about having to raise his young daughters was a great addition and made me like the episode overall rather more: I was doubting the writers’ abilities to come up with gags as funny and sparky as those in the manga, but that made me think that they can riff on basic ideas well.

I doubt it will be as funny or clever as the manga, but I quite like that the strips are being expanded – having a joke repeated in anime form is never likely to offer much that’s new, but if Pierrot continue to put their own spin on Rock Lee’s Springtime of Youth, it could be a great companion piece to expand what’s in the manga rather than replacing or emulating.  

Monday, 2 April 2012

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists / The Pirates! Band of Misfits

While Aardman’s latest feature film is a definite hit and a good, solid film, it falls a little short of brilliance by lacking a little vital spark of warmth and heart. Really, though, these are problems not with Aardman but with the source material.

A lively but inept pirate crew love their captain. However, he’s destined for embarrassment when he sets his sights on the Pirate of the Year award, which is based on how much booty each captain brings in. However, a chance encounter with a young Charles Darwin reveals that not is all as it seems with the ship’s parrot, and a harebrained scheme to get rich on a scientific prize is formed. However, lurking in the shadows is the dastardly Queen Victoria – who loathes pirates.

Pirates are of course a firm favourite with kids and show up everywhere in animation, from old adaptations of Treasure Island to One Piece. Pirates of the Caribbean is one of the biggest movie successes of our times and there are ever more stories about space pirates, steampunk pirates and fantasy pirates. The themes are nice and broad, there will always be motivations for every character and yet the violence is always on the cartoonish side. You’re on safe ground with pirates.

And Aardman are nothing if not masters of the little touches. This film is a rapidfire succession of brilliant visual gags and jokes – in three successive shots, there’s a joke about the coin slots on pool tables (to get cannonballs out), a joke about bowling alleys (as the cannonballs appear) and a joke about when dogs put their heads out of car windows. There is lots of very British silliness (how many outside these fair lands recognise that Blue Peter badge?) and the dialogue and characterisation has the air of a pantomime. The plot is simple but funny, with Polly just skirting being called a MacGuffin, and the voice acting is superb – Hugh Grant and David Tennant play off one another expertly and without ever drawing attention to themselves as actors, so that it’s easy to forget they are not simply the clay characters on the screen. Cameos from Lenny Henry, Salma Hayek and especially Brian Blessed are a hoot, and the main crew have an excellent dynamic. Imelda Staunton’s voice couples with a simply brilliant model to make a perfect villain who can look both threatening and hilarious depending on the situation.

The main issues I have are very small, but build up to keep the pirates all at arm’s length. One is the book’s notion that the crew should all lack names. So we get The Pirate Captain, the Pirate with Gout, the Albino Pirate and the Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (who is of course in the Mary Read vein). It all gets a bit laboured and strained and reminds the audience constantly that these are cardboard figures, and awesome scenes about ham can only go so far to redress that. Then there is the way so much of the humour revolves around hurting random stranger by dropping anchors on them and suchlike. Plus making a plot point of ‘Mallet space’ (here, in a luxuriant beard), again preventing the audience forgetting they are watching animation. Finally, I just don’t think the monkey talking through cards in his hand works. It never raises more than a vague smile and isn’t worth the cost in believability. Obviously, these are all individually minor matters and I don’t think that what Pirates! really needed was to be terribly realistic – but the little niggles as I said prevented me from ever really relating to any of the crew, and thus about really caring about any of them. Even the most emotionally accessible member of the crew was known only as ‘Number 2’ or ‘The Pirate with a Scarf’.

This is not to say this isn’t an excellent animated film. It is. I just know Aardman can do much better, and want to see them make something that will touch people, not just tickle at their funny bones. 

Sunday, 1 April 2012

桃太郎 海の神兵/ Momotarou: Umi no Shinpei / Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors (1945)

Well, here it is, once thought lost forever and remembered by anime historians in a slightly tacit, embarrassed way despite its remarkable quality, deep influence on Tezuka’s work and historical significance. This 74-minute black-and-white film is the very first feature-length animated film Japan ever made, the first step on the path to what is now such a vast industry. Its animation is uneven but on average high-quality, full of the influence of the Golden Age, and it establishes many of the tropes of anime aesthetic long before Tezuka could do so and be so highly lauded for it – indeed, he was there in the audience for this film, purportedly moved to tears by it, and the AIUEO Mambo from Kimba is seen as a tribute.

So, if the animation is both of a good quality and historically significant, why is the film kept rather at arm’s length? Why has the low-quality print not been cleaned up, even lovingly coloured, for a modern update? Why are there no English subtitles available? It’s certainly better overall than what as far as I can tell is Japan’s next animated feature, Hakujaden, and it could be considered Japan’s Snow White, or at least be considered alongside Princess Iron Fan. Well, it’s simple – it’s because it was made in 1944 and released in 1945. That is to say, during WWII, when Japan were part of the Axis Alliance. In other words, those cute little bunnies and puppies are Hitler’s cutest widdle allies, and this is explicitly a war propaganda film, especially at the end. When the Japanese were engaged in such pursuits as (at least according to everyone in the world but them) the Rape of Nanking. And this film isn’t just cute animals training to go off to war: the last section actually takes place on the battlefield.

The conflict that the film centres on is actually one less well-known in the West: Japan’s invasion of the Dutch East Indies, now parts of Indonesia, in the name of liberating Asia for the Asians. Thus, perhaps adding another layer of awkwardness for a modern audience, the enemy are the hakujin – the white men. Who come in all the glory of the kind of caricatures you might expect from a war propaganda film. And in some shots are actually brutally killed (though seem to get better). Ironically, given that only in the last couple of years with the likes of Ika Musume and Edenof the East have weekly anime started to actually get fluent voice actors to do English lines rather than having extremely strained accents presented as perfect, the English here is delivered by someone with impeccable English. If they could find someone to do it when at full-scale war with just about the entire English-speaking world…why not in 2005? Then again, it makes you wonder just who that stuttering Englishman was…

Of course, what happened in the months after the film was that two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, forever altering the national consciousness, and Japan surrendered. That was not the end of the conflict in the area, though – in Europe we tend to consider 1945 the end, but in Indonesia there was a huge mess that took quite some time to clear up, and I don’t mean those famous Japanese soldiers dotted about the world who thought the war was still going on into the 70s. Indonesia was officially back under Dutch control, and the Japanese had to be turfed out. But the Dutch were not exactly in any position to reassert control, and under Japanese rule the seeds of Nationalism had become mass consensus, so Indonesia pushed for Independence. The bizarre situation arose wherein the Japanese, having surrendered, had to keep the terms of their surrender by assisting the allies, turning against the Indonesians they had formerly supported (though also arguably starved, robbed of resources and enslaved in the name of their own war effort). Indonesian independence was eventually established in 1949, but whatever fantasy of liberation and victory this film painted had fizzled away.

The plot is loose but straightforward: four cutesy animals are off to war, so spend some last days with their families. The big bear and the puppy play with their siblings, the pheasant sees his little chicks, and the chattering monkey regales all the local youth with his boasts, until his little brother runs off with his hat, falls in the river and has to be heroically rescued. (‘Wasshoi!’)

The four then go to help set up a naval camp, where for whatever reason a classroom is also made and the animals learn their alphabets in the AIUEO song, which I have to say is a great catchy number and a scene that does deserve to endure. Glorious general Momotarou then makes his appearance (Having previously bombed Pearl Habour in director Seo Mitsuyu’s short animation Momotarou no Umiwashi) and drawn in the traditional way the Momotarou figure usually is. Like the animals, he looks pretty cute unless they decide to draw his lips and teeth in a close-up, when he starts to look a bit terrifying. But hey, this was an art style at the beginning of its evolution. Momotarou leads the troops (all but him cute animals) on a heroic parachute invasion of Allied-occupied Celebes, they shoot, bayonet and grenade the huge-nosed and spaghetti-armed allies and accept their surrender. Victory! The film ends with a rather mysterious shot of the animals back home playing a game which makes it look like they are jumping into and stomping on a map of the US – though that may be my misinterpreting.

It’s probably obvious, but this is not the most comfortable subject manner. There’s much of interest in the artistic decisions, from the way the Japanese like to present themselves as cute little animals to the fact that the famous ^_^ expression so deeply associated with anime was already in place in 1944, but it’s hard to get past the white devils and propaganda message.

Seo, the director, was really only doing what he was told. A leftist, he had actually been arrested for work with ProKino, but the Navy funded him to make these propaganda films. Momotarou no Umiwashi, it would seem currently available only through the National Film Centre in Tokyo, was a hit, so this longer feature was commissioned. There is a great deal to admire in it, from smooth animation of shots from ambitious angles to lovely imagery such as dandelion seeds becoming paratroopers. It also shows how remarkably early Japanese popular art established its cute aesthetic. There is some interesting mixing of media – the historical section showing the Dutch to have basically been liars who threatened the happy, kindly sultans with piracy, mixes in the aesthetic of shadow puppetry, and there’s quite a bit of Disney-esque rotoscoping going on – just look closely at the hands of the bear family near the beginning for a good example. But of course, Seo made his film at a very specific time, and though he was able to make one more short – Ou-sama no Shippo – there was no longer a place for him in the world of anime and he would slip out of sight to write children’s books, likely believing his work destroyed for many years: the negative only resurfaced in 1986. Seo himself lived to be 99, dying in 2010 a reclusive legend of anime.