Thursday, 31 May 2012

けいおん! / Keion! / K-On! (season 1)

When I first entered the anime fandom, it was very popular to detest Dragonball Z. All those prolonged fight scenes and stupid cuts of characters just yelling at each other and powering up. Much better to watch this quirky little shounen about ninja called Naruto. Of course, the time for hatred for Naruto came along, and Dragonball was ever more associated with the halcyon days of childhood and is now well-loved and its deficiencies ironically celebrated. I expect the same to eventually happen with Naruto. The next trend was to ignore big shounen titles and to only watch late-night anime, which were often shows about young girls that were usually based on pervy visual novels – things like Da Capo and Kimi ga Nozomu Eien. This trend melded with the successes of cute, funny slice-of-life shows like Azumanga Daioh and Ichigo Mashimaro and suddenly, the moéblob trend was everywhere. It perhaps reached its pinnacle in the season when Lucky Star, Manabi Straight and Hidamari Sketch all came out at the same time, but the show that has become emblematic of the subgenre is K-On!

The life-cycle of a notable moé anime seems to follow this pattern: great immediate success where the pretty art and likeable characters endear themselves to almost everyone watching the newest anime; a swelling fanbase of more casual fans; a lot of the original audience realising that (a) the show is going to meander along and nothing interesting is going to happen and that (b) people they feel oh-so-superior to are now latching on to the same show; a backlash in which people get on their soapboxes – often the same ones who were so keen at the beginning – and decry the series as dull, inconsequential, annoying. Then after that comes a sudden and final drop in popularity, where the more fickle fans move on and the more vociferous ones pretend to never have liked the show in the first place, leaving only a hardcore who have fallen somewhat in love with one of the characters and the casual fans who occasionally get reminded of that show they watched a few months ago. This happened with Lucky Star. It happened with Kanon and Air, and to an extent with Haruhi. But emblematic of the concept of ‘moéblob’ – syrupy cuteness with a loose art style – is K-On!

You may notice that all of those shows are from Kyoto Animation. This is certainly true, and their shows have suffered severe backlash, but that’s more a result of their success than anything else – moé shows like Kyou no Go no Ni and C3 would get at least as much vitriol if they were as wildly popular to begin with, but because they’re more obscure, people care less and thus complain less. The iDOLM@STER got off lightly because by the time it came out people who disliked shows like K-On! knew to avoid it. Other shows like Ika Musume noticed that what allowed Azumanga Daioh to be cute, have very little happen and still be well-loved was a lot of quirkiness and a lot of laughs – something Kyoto have taken notice of with Nichijou. The moéblob fad is passing because frankly, its appeal was always limited and there are better alternatives already being mined that don’t mean the cute girls who look good on body pillows disappear.

To K-On!, then – explosively popular at first, now much-derided. I watched episode 1 when it aired in 2009, and then didn’t continue until about a month ago, three years later. The fact was that it didn’t hook me in. I knew what to expect, I more or less knew how it would be treated by its fanbase, and I didn’t particularly like the art style, which was far looser than Kyoto’s best. When I came to watch it, I knew very well that it was a show about cute girls doing cute things – and not a whole lot else. I had no complaints about that – after all, so are Azumanga Daioh and Ichigo Mashimaro. But K-On! makes two big mistakes – firstly, it ignores its gimmick, which is music. Music is the reason the five central girls get together and become friends, and one of Kyoto’s strong points – the concert scenes and dances in Lucky Star and Haruhi were highlights, and K-On! has great opening and ending themes. But other than short diversions to have band practices and a school concert, the music club does very little music-related and more time is spent on things like shopping, agonising over love letters and going to the beach. It’s not until the OVA that the focus turns to music performance, and it’s a real shame that this strong episode wasn’t in the series. But that’s rather the point – the music club is just an excuse to get the funny little girls together in one place and have them interact. But therein lies the second flaw – so little happens that it just doesn’t matter. Apart from possibly Ritsu when she wonders about her love letter, the girls never get any depth, keeping them always on the surface – Yui is the ditzy one with the adorably responsible little sister, Mio is the slightly stuffy one who is cute when she gets scared, Ritsu is tomboyish and irresponsible and Mugi is classy and elegant but with a cheeky side. Later, Azu-nyan is…just sort of there.

In Azumanga Daioh you get the heart-wrenching graduation and the hook of surrealism. In Ichigo Mashimaro Miu’s antics are extreme enough to be hilarious, but her vulnerability and loneliness make for a key scene. In Minami-Ke all the cuteness is broken up by potential romances. Even The iDOLM@STER knows to inject some healthy angst to give the series structure. K-On! stays true to the course set – cute girls do cute things – and ultimately feels utterly inconsequential, even boring.

I quite enjoyed the lightness of K-On!, the easy simplicity and the fact the brain does not need to be engaged whatsoever. But that was over 13 episodes and an OVA. Harsh as the backlash is, K-On! was still a major hit, spawning a 26-episode second season, another OVA and a feature film. I’m not too sure how much I’m looking forward to watching those, especially since the conceit of introducing a new character (usually a way to prolong interest into a second season) was used up before the 10 episode mark – but I will watch. Because, really, it’s simple and easy to do so, and it’s cute. 

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Superjail! (season 1)

There will always be room in American animation for shows like Superjail. Crude, ultraviolent, ugly and careful to present any cleverer ideas masked beneath a layer of intentional stupidity, it descends most directly from Beavis and Butthead and shares similarities in tone and humour with other cartoons airing on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim section such as Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Metalocalypse. On the other hand, Superjail! may be the bloodiest, most surreal and most morally reprehensible cartoon to make it onto a mainstream television channel. That said, in the Internet age there are more shocking things on every imageboard, on every flash cartoon site.

Superjail! is the story of an enormous and ridiculous jail. In every episode, a criminal is apprehended by an advanced robot called Jailbot and flown to Superjail past a series of fantastic scenes in a brilliant title sequence that is one of the season’s main hooks. Indeed, it is usually the same criminal, who has escaped somehow or other in the previous episode. The jail is run by another of the series’ main draws, The Warden, a winsome and idiotic master inventor with an effete manner and dress sense that draws comparisons with Willy Wonka. He is helped by officious, neurotic little Jared and amusingly masculine prison guard Alice, while havoc is wreaked by two identical twins with monotone voices I’m sure are an impression of somebody, though beyond Austin-Powers-doing-an-impression-of-Tim-Curry-in-Rocky-Horror, I can’t place it.

Most episodes involve the Warden deciding there is some problem with the jail or getting inspired to improve it somehow, which invariably goes wrong or is sabotaged by the twins and ends up causing a fiendishly inventive bloodbath. As the concepts were often clever or so silly they were very amusing (as when genderswapped versions of all the characters made an appearance), this did not become tiresome over the course of the series – but it was also after all only 11 episodes of 10 minutes each. Plus it was fun to speculate that it was all an illusion, a jail to contain the one criminal – The Warden.

I honestly thought Superjail! wasn’t going to be my thing. Too juvenile, I thought. Too obvious. The amusingly awful moment in the first episode’s intro where Jailbot tries to give the little girl some ice cream would be the only laugh I got from it. Yet there was enough humour, enough clever references and enough fascination in these horrible but compelling characters I found myself really enjoying the show, and happy to watch season 2 – and the upcoming season 3. 

Plus I have to say, slipping in visual nods to the mythological animations in Watership Down definitely didn’t do any harm. 

Thursday, 17 May 2012

The Nightmare Before Christmas / Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas

Some of the impressions I’ve been writing lately have been a long time coming because it’s taken me ages to finish watching things. This one is overdue just because I haven’t gotten around to it, deciding I wanted to wait for a repeat viewing – which is also the case for director Henry Selick’s James and the Giant Peach.

What’s that? Henry who? Wasn’t the director here Tim Burton? Well, as a matter of fact, no – it wasn’t. Yes, it has his trademark atmospherics, his cheerfully grim style, music from Danny Elfman (vocal performances too) and even says ‘Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas’ in the posters. But while he was the creative force behind the project’s inception, served as the producer and came up with the story (based on a poem he had written), he neither directed the piece nor wrote the screenplay. After all, he is a director of live-action films, not a creator of stop-motion – though he did go on to co-direct The Corpse Bride. The credit here, however, goes to Selick, later to gain more recognition as the director of Coraline and currently under the employ of Pixar and working on a new film before being lined up to adapt a Neil Gaiman novel.

This is not a case of either-or, however: both men deserve considerable credit for creating this very fine piece of work. Along with Aardman, this 1993 work sent new life coursing through stop-motion animation, which had been foundering since 1986’s creepy but iconic The Adventures of Mark Twain. Its brilliantly distinctive aesthetic showed that CG was not going to entirely replace this branch of the art form, and in every way – concept, characters, music, pacing, believable antagonist and even progression of its romance – it is a good, solid, memorable film. And while Burton has always come down heavily on talk of a direct sequel, the world has remained an attractive one, appearing, for example, in the Kingdom Hearts games. For while this was seen as a little too risky to be released as a Disney animation, it comes from the studio’s Touchstone imprint – which probably helped it at the time, for while Disney was making excellent films like The Lion King, they weren’t exactly associated with quirky, edgy, dark work at the time, and if anything the stigma of Disney being safe and cute could have lost Nightmare a chunk of its audience.

The story is based on one of the more popular modern takes on Christmas: someone who is not a typical Christmas figure intruding onto the joy and brightness of Christmas and ruining it. Unlike a Grinch or a rampaging South Park snowman, here Jack Skellington has mostly good intentions. He is The Pumpkin King, leading the horror-themed inhabitants of the gleefully German Expressionist Halloween Town, and once he glimpses the gaudy holiday happiness of Christmas Town, he is infatuated and wants to be able to do the same thing – even going so far as to kidnap Santa himself to take his place. Of course, things don’t go to plan and as it turns out, you can’t just usurp Father Christmas – especially with the chaotic madman Oogie Boogie setting his eyes on Santa and Jack’s love interest Sally. His motivation is ultimately a little dubious, but he’s so charismatic and visually striking that this can only be considered a minor quibble. He is cruel for the sake of cruelty, because that’s the sort of character he is.

Brilliant visually, clever in how it can make characters at one repulsive and appealing to look at, and delivered with great belief and a fantastic aesthetic, it’s no wonder it was such a hit – and has become a neatly alternative Christmas classic. 

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

ふしぎ遊戯 / Fushigi Yuugi / Mysterious Play

Oh my, I’ve neglected this blog recently. Apologies for that! On the plus side, a few days ago I passed 100,000 views, which is always nice! Anyway, to today’s impressions – which this time are of the classic series Fushigi Yuugi.

Like several other anime I’m writing about at the moment, it took me a long, long time to get to finishing this 1995 series and writing my thoughts. I think I started to watch it in 2006 or 2007, when the first thought I had of this story about two girl transported into a mysterious world by a magical book and ending up leading legendary warriors into battle was of how strange and jarring the rhythms of the humour were. When I saw Teen Titans, it struck me that the sudden goofy swings between realistic and silly SD styles that were meant to be tributes to anime were a little off – but Fushigi Yuugi showed me that I had simply not been watching the right shows, for the same odd, jerky, often ill-timed changes were here, too. But the story was a simple and effective one and I found the characters very interesting – Tamahome with his skilful fighting and that kanji character on his forehead; Chichiri with his mysterious powers, funny way of ending sentences with ‘-no da’ and awesome hidden face; cross-dressing, clownish badass Nuriko and, eventually, adorable little Chiriko. Miaka was a likeable enough protagonist and the rivalry at the centre of the story was compelling. The antagonists also had some good designs and some interesting stories, especially Amiboshi and the psychotic Nakago.

However, by 2010 I had tired of it, finding it quite embarrassing to watch anywhere but in the comfort of my own home: an episode I watched on a train on March 31st contained ‘attempted rape, girls restrained in underwear, twin boys kissing and lots of clothes getting ripped up’. This may have been a simplification, but it spoke to the reasons I became a little uncomfortable with Fushigi Yuugi and how it was written. I don’t mind the reverse-harem in shoujo action series, especially when the characters are as rich as these. I certainly don’t mind homoeroticism. But more and more, Fushigi Yuugi reminded me, of all things, of Twilight (though obviously predating it by years). The depiction of the female characters did not sit well with me – they were always damsels in distress, needing rescuing or getting abused. Again and again, the spectre of rape rears up – invariably as a horrible fate that is actually quite thrilling when narrowly escaped. Sex is treated as something very special and reserved for just one person, which I thought a positive message, but it is also presented as quite titillating to be treated as an object – if only for a while. Plus, while I liked Amiboshi and his story, the way identical twins were treated came over as very patronising and immature, making them seem at best like doppelgangers who sap the energy from one another, and at worst like sexual curios bound to be thought of as incestuous.

And, quite honestly, it all got rather dull towards the end, with it becoming increasingly apparent that the antagonists, the Seiryuu Seven, had no hope at all of prevailing, and that Yui was mostly just bonkers – again, rape or the impression of rape the rather cheap catalyst. The art was not terrible but the animation had dated very badly by the time I saw it, and while the voice acting was very strong, several of the voice actors still being very prominent today (Chichiri’s has been in everything from One Piece to Full Metal Panic to Lucky Star. Tamahome’s was Heero Yuy from Gundam Wing. And I find it hilarious that the voice actor for the emperor Hotohori went on to voice Excalibur in Soul Eater), the dialogue was often utter drivel with far too much of Miaka dramatically yelling out various names. It’s also painful when subs don’t get the nuances of ‘okama’ (here: the misleading ‘homo’). Still, I watched to the end happily, and there were tragic moments that were really very well done.

What delayed these thoughts by several years was having to watch the OVAs, which I really didn’t enjoy. The first batch were anime-original stories, and apart from some entertaining omake at the end of the episodes, they were very dull stories about Tamahome living in modern-day Japan and then mysteriously disappearing. Confusingly, the second batch went back to the stories from the light novels and this time, Tamahome is reborn as Taka, and must regain his memories of his old life. The final set of OVAs were a little better – by 2001-2, Studio Pierrot were able to make rather nicer animation, and these episodes, especially in the faces of (older) Chiriko, the young reincarnation of Hotohori and Hotohori’s little brother, reminded me of the character designs for their anime version of Hikaru no Go, no bad thing. The anime also had some rudimentary CGI which didn’t look bad considering the age of the anime (certainly not as jarring as the more recent MÄR adaptation, and not that far behind the gaichuu in Tegami Bachi) and was again based on the stories from the novels. There were episodes focusing on the backstories of particular characters, which were the highlights, but also a central story about gathering the reincarnated warriors to battle a bratty new priestess trying to replace Miaka. This part was rather more ill-judged, firstly because the antagonist girl was so over-the-top and so lacking in backstory she was absurd. And secondly because…well, the reincarnations apart from Nuriko’s were stupid, so we ended up getting a talking baby and a tiny little boy with a booming bass voice. It was all unintentionally hilarious, yet not to the extent it became entertaining.

Flashes of brilliance, strong characters and some very funny moments sadly don’t add up to something that warrants the ‘classic’ status this anime enjoys. 1995 actually isn’t that long ago, and there were much, much better anime out at the time – the most obvious choice being Rurouni Kenshin