Friday, 13 July 2012

Master of Epic: The Animation Age

With the current anime du jour being the extremely fun Sword Art Online, with a few vocal detractors whinnying about its similarities to .hack, I thought it was time I finally went to revisit Master of Epic, that other anime about life in an online world that was another of the victims of the great 2008 hard drive failure. At least, I think it was 2008.

Anyway, I’m certainly not one of the ones who thinks .hack has some kind of monopoly on fantasy stories set in the world (za warudo) of an MMORPG. Quite apart from .hack, SAO and this, there’s the Taiwanese manhua ½ Prince, which I very much enjoy, and then Ragnaroks anime and France’s Wakfu, though the latter two simply use the setting with a few oblique references to the origin rather than actively having the game as an explicit part of the narrative. The point is that .hack doesn’t have the monopoly on a setting within an MMORPG, and there’s also Master of Epic.

But Master of Epic is a bit different, because unlike those others, it’s a sketch comedy that pokes fun at MMORPGs in general. Master of Epic – or MoE (get it?) – is an actual MMORPG popular in Japan, with some very Japanese races: humans, elves, big beefy warrior types and of course little tiny cutesy lolis/shotas. The anime basically exists to send up the various silly elements familiar to MMORPG players – sitting down to recover health, setting up shops, forming parties with clueless people. There are also parts based on things that are probably exclusive to the game, like hair getting stinky and having flies circling it if you don’t wash it, but it’s easy for anyone who’s ever played any MMORPG to get the gist of these, and far more of it is universal. I particularly liked the short sequences where people in real life behaved as if in MMORPGs, which was hilarious.

Otherwise, we had things like the terrible beginner who keeps forming plans to beat enemies but rushes headlong into danger and gets destroyed, the big guy who has a crush on a cute little thing only for her to reveal her dark, monster-summoning streak, a little party who endlessly try to help their most useless member only for her to mess everything up, the craftsman who tries hard to impress a girl he likes even if she’s entirely indifferent, and a hilarious member of the big, butch race who had decided to wear a dress and help all other denizens of the MoE world with their fashion sense. Just about every episode is also bookended by a presenter duo who tend to segue into silly news reports that establish the loose theme of the episode, and at the end, a group of five colour-coordinated loli-race characters send up sentai shows in what starts as a quest for fame but ends up a battle against the show’s monstrous producer.

Though the animation is a mixed bag, with some sequences looking atrocious and episode 10 (I think it was) randomly looking better than all the rest, one thing MoE has going for it is the appealing art. The cute child-race, the pretty-boy humans and elves (adorable in SD form), the sexy women and the cuties, they are all drawn in a very attractive way that reminds me of Dog Days, which has just started its second season. Playing on the importance of image, some of the biggest laughs came from characters changing their looks, from masks that weren’t what moé fan Bukottsu expected to forced makeovers where flowing locks turn into Mohawks or a great big cross-dressing hulk picks out a new outfit for you. There’s even one poor female from the muscular race (who look Amazonian) who ends up forced into manba makeup!

Ultimately, MoE is of course throwaway. It’s sketch-based, light comedy with only 12 episodes, and today it’s already more or less forgotten. But if anyone wants a bit of an antidote to the seriousness of Sword Art Online, I won’t hesitate to recommend this bit of fun, for however inconsequential it may be, it is also undeniably funny. 

Saturday, 7 July 2012

東京マグニチュード8.0 / Tokyo Magnitude 8.0

I know I periodically say this about different series – I think the last was Ika Musume – but it’s still rare enough these days to be remarkable: Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 was the first anime in a while that had me deeply emotionally invested, always eager to start the next episode and getting surprised when an episode was over, because it seemed to rush past so soon.

Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 aired a few years back in the noitaminA slot, taking over from Higashi no Eden. I remember hearing very positive things about it, but I never really gave it a chance, in small part because I somehow thought I’d be annoyed ‘Magnitude 8’ was never going to be connected with a Final Fantasy VI reference. (In very small part, I should stress!) And then the disastrous tsunami hit Japan and watching what is after all entertainment that was based on similar incidences seemed…tasteless. But then a few weeks ago a friend reminded me of it, and the tsunami is not so fresh in the mind, and after all I did watch United 93, so I can understand how entertainment can also be a harrowing, respectful reflection of reality.

The premise is simple – as scientists have predicted there’s a 70% chance of an earthquake of 7.0 magnitude or higher hitting Tokyo within 30 years, this anime follows what happens to two ordinary kids during this sort of natural disaster.

The first episode deftly shows us the two siblings, 11- or 12-year-old Mirai and 8- or 9-year-old Yuuki. Mirai is on the cusp of adulthood, getting disillusioned with the world, especially as annoying little things seem to keep happening to her. Sweet-natured Yuuki treasures the memory of the whole family going to Odaiba, so asks to go and see a robot exhibition there, but his parents are too busy, so falls to Mirai to take him. Numerous small misfortunes befall her, and she gets annoyed at adults being rude or treating her like a child, so she wishes disaster on the world. In an echo of After the Quake (which I wondered if the theme of frogs was also alluding to), that’s when the tremors begin. Buildings collapse and bridges burst into flames. People are trapped and killed. Mirai doesn’t know where Yuuki is – but with the help of a concerned adult called Mari, they set off on the arduous journey back to their homes in Setagaya.

Where Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 really succeeded was in making me care. I cared about Mirai – her brattiness at the start was obviously going to lead to her reforming, but it actually did make me think of her as more of a rounded character. I cared about Yuuki, with his happy-go-lucky fascination for robots and his stoic way of putting on a brave face. I cared about Mari, who reminded me of Balsa from Seirei no Moribito, and wanted her family to be okay when she found them. The art was mostly simple, especially when it came to colouring, but it was effective and fluid and the designs were overall very appealing. The voice acting was excellent, especially when it came to Kobayashi Yumiko, who voiced Yuuki so well I had to check he wasn’t voiced by an actual young boy, and who sounded nothing like she did as Tetsunosuke, Azuma Kazuma or BlackStar – or, obviously, Excel. Everyone else plays their role superbly, from Mari in every episode to the grieving old man helping out in the shelter at the school whose method of dealing with loss was one of the most touching parts of the show.

Not everything was perfect, though. I had a real problem with the twist at the end: I’d figured out what was going to happen by episode 3 because – of all things – the last episode’s title made it so obvious to me. But the way it was presented – so that it was obvious certain things were only in one character’s head, but you weren’t sure it was meant to be obvious – made me keep wondering if the audience was supposed to know or if the makers were thinking they were subtle but just doing it badly, all of which just made me remember the artificial nature of what I was watching a put a big emotional block in the way. The moralising got a bit heavy-handed, the writers pushing the message of ‘you should appreciate your loved ones, because you never know when something might happen to them’ so much that it started to seem their message was actually that everyone needs to go through a horrifying disaster to make them into decent human beings. Also, very unusually and uniquely for a noitaminA show, I actually felt it would benefit from fewer episodes than its 11. There were some episodes – where Yuuki runs off towards Tokyo Tower, where there has to be a dramatic rescue of a boy trying to rescue a rescue robot – that felt like treading water to put off the inevitable ending a little longer.

In fact, what I’d really like to see would be Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 recut as a feature film, removing some of the extraneous parts, presenting the last episodes a little more carefully so that it’s either twist or tragic inevitability, not somewhere between the two, and moving at a brisk pace. Then I think the piece could get the international recognition it deserves (stressing it was made before the tsunami), and sit alongside what is in many ways a spiritual predecessor, Grave of the Fireflies

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Superjail! – season 2

I'm not sure what it is about Superjail! that keeps me coming back, but there is something.

Season 2, despite a change of animation studios (from Augenblick to Titmouse, the animation studio of Chris Prynoski, who won much acclaim for the fantastic hallucination sequence from Beavis and Butthead Do America), was more of the same. There were a few hints that the studio had changed – a bit more wildness in the Warden’s reality-bending, some sloppier art and some extra fluidity – but they were really very minor, and the style remained much like the first seasons. As did the jokes, the fetish for violence and the resolutely politically incorrect humour. 

Over the course of the scant ten episodes, The Warden and co have a Wacky Race, ruin a gay marriage, attempt to replace Jailbot and encounter various alien races. The twins suffer more than they did in the original run, we find out just how far along Alice is in her transitioning and it all ends on a cliffhanger, ready for this autumn’s season 3. 

Somehow, the limited premise never wears thin, the stupid ideas for weekly stories manage to get fresh spins on them and the characters remain oddly likeable despite being freakish stereotypes. I think a large part of it is the sheer exuberance of animation on display, which reminds me of old Golden Age morphology: if the storyboarders/ director decides that it would make sense for the Warden to change form several times over the course of a sentence, including into a chimney funnel, why not? It’s expressive, it’s strange and it gives everything a weird spark just not seen elsewhere.

Superjail! is successful because it doesn’t need to explain itself. It just does what it wants. It’s not for everyone, but rather to my surprise, it’s for me.