Saturday, 29 September 2012

ドッグデイズダッシュ/ Dog Days’/Dog Days Dash

Last year’s Dog Days was a funny, pretty little series that, perhaps because it followed Madoka so closely, everyone expected to take a darker turn. This didn’t happen, despite hints at darker elements, so that in the end it felt almost incongruous, how simple a moé series it was. A cute boy went to a cute kemonomimi world where there was no danger of dying in battle, became the hero of the country and won the hearts of all the girls, then had to go home amidst tears and promises of a swift return.

Well, that return came here. But while at the end of the first season I was surprised by the lightness of the tone throughout, here I ended up more disappointed. Rather than explore any of the hints from the original series about areas where the spell preventing death in battle doesn’t hold, or the origins of the world, Dog Days Dash is determined to have very little happen in a very cute way. It is inconsequential, superficial and adorable. But I wanted more.

Shinku returns to the world of Biscotti and Pastilage to again act as the hero of the dog-eared cuties against the cat-eared cuteys. But this time, he’s brought the girl who used to beat him in the Sasuke-esque challenges to serve as hero for the cats. And his best friend – a girl named Becky – is along for the ride. Of course, a third country – squirrels – gets involved and have Becky as their own underdog hero. And so the games resume.

That’s about it, really. They end up doing a variety of the usual things that fill moé series – bathe together, have awkward romantic moments where they fall on each other and accidentally kiss, magically swap bodies and go to visit each other for tea. About the most interesting thing they do is free an ancient evil – who of course turns out to be pretty harmless, does perverted things and then along with the ancient good who counters him, becomes something of a mentor.

The cast becomes rather too large – there are a lot of random knights and guardians who barely get any screentime, or who become interchangeable – and with only thirteen episodes some characters get rather more attention than they really ought to. The worst part, I thought, was the way poor Éclair was treated, especially since while Shinku would be cute in a couple with just about any of the girls interested in him, she was my favourite – she gets about the most dramatic relationship moment in the series, a bit of the fall-out from it, but then it never really gets fully addressed and she doesn’t even get a goodbye scene in the final episode of the series.

I get the feeling Dog Days is a hit in Japan. It got a second season, after all! But there was a real chance to be ambitious here, only for the fanservice option seemingly to be more appealing. I can only hope Dog Days gets a third chance, and this time takes a few risks instead of treading water. If not, though…well, I have to say I’ll keep watching, enjoying and feeling the brainless pleasure that comes from looking at irresistibly cute character designs in cute contexts.

And perhaps if there’s a third season, I’ll see more of London. I have to admit, I got a kick out of seeing Soho Square

Sunday, 23 September 2012


ParaNorman is just so much better than its goofy title and trailer made it sound. Marketing it like a zany comedy was a huge mistake – this stop-motion animation is less Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and more The Iron Giant. It’s quirky, it’s funny but it has a lot of heart, considerable scale and the vital spark of charm. The characters are much more visually appealing than they look in still images, the animation is the finest stop-motion has ever seen and the story is witty and fun.

Norman sees dead people – and I bet many, many reviews started with that sentence. As a result, he is considered a freak at school, stared at on the street and despaired of by his own family. However, when his crazy uncle dies, it transpires a ritual has been holding a dark force in place, and if Norman cannot take his uncle’s place, a witch’s curse will cause the dead to rise. When the inevitable happens, it falls to Norman, his airheaded new friend Neil Downe, their big siblings and the school bully to save the day, and Norman is unique in being able to not only see dead people but communicate with them no matter their form – but of course, Norman thinks he is better-off alone.

The story is not terribly original at its bare bones – the tragic underlying story owes much to the story of the Paisley Witches, or at least fictional descendents of that same history – but the way it is put forward is both unusual and compelling. The pacing becomes unconventional but the final act is so impressive – so like the climax of an RPG game, in fact – that every decision leading up to it seems cleverly-done. And the characters are very likeable – Norman himself is both vulnerable and strong, his family situation makes perfect sense and the characters who are meant to be funny actually are.

I was struck how the film was so explicitly of its time. Norman uses his phone screen to light a dark room. The bully tries to be street in a very up-to-the-moment way. The script gently pushes the envelope using the word ‘sex’ and having some racy jokes, and the moment some critics are making much of where a character reveals he is gay plays into modern sensibilities. In my view, the latter was the ideal way to have the first explicitly gay character in a children’s animation – funny because it is unexpected but not patronising, excitingly deviant for the young teens in the audience who giggled away and yet everyday and throwaway, as it should be. Neatly done in a film that contains some very clever dialogue, brilliant gross-out humour and genre subversions, most prominent when it turns out the zombies don’t want to kill or eat brains, but only to be helped.

I ended up really growing attached to Norman, with his big eyebrows (that perhaps are inherited from many generations ago…), uncombable hair (for that classic visual gag) and expressive face. Stick around until after the credits to see just how complex the puppets used have become – though there’s something slightly more admirable about Aardman’s pre-Pirates plasticine puppets that don’t use 3D printing, the sheer beauty of this film is a marvel, and those funny octagonal pupils in the puppets’ eyes could only be more expressive using the creepy effect in Madam Tutli-Putli, which would of course ruin the look!

With a cast that, John Goodman aside, is made up of actors most will recognise from somewhere but will have to look up (the dad character’s voice drove me crazy until I Wiki’d his work and saw he’s a Pixar stalwart), the performances are heartfelt and powerful, and the humour is delivered deftly. The emotional range here, and particularly the stunning final confrontation which surely contained a fair bit of CG, show that Laika did not suffer overly from Henry Selick’s post-Coraline departure.

Overall, a fantastic film, that left me with just one question – without the curse becoming real, without the undeniable proof of what he had been saying all along, what would have happened to Norman? Would he be accepted? Or just become his uncle?

魔法先生ネギま!〜白き翼 ALA ALBA〜/ Mahō Sensei Negima! ~Shiroki Tsubasa Ala Alba~ / Negima OVA: The White Wing

For those of us who have only watched the anime adaptations of Negima!, these OVAs rather drop you in at the deep end. The events don’t follow on from either anime, a different set of characters have formed pactios with Negi, and some characters just show up without explanation – including wolf-boy Kotarou-kun. Events that were never animated are referenced, and generally the backstory is entirely different. This is a pretty bizarre way to follow up a series, and it only really makes sense when you remember that these OVAs were actually freebies with manga volumes. Nonetheless, I can’t think of any other time this has happened, and frankly it continues to be a surprise to me how successful Negima! is, how much anime has resulted from it and how it’s managed to get OVA after OVA (this being far from the last) while something like Rozen Maiden stops.

The three OVAs here are almost unrelated. The first covers a fight with a character from Negi’s past and some action during a festival, the second has Negi’s childhood friend come to persuade him to go back to Wales and the silliness that follows, and the third is largely a selection of fan-pleasing little skits about the girls in the harem-class and their activities.

Though very true to the manga, these animations are chock-full of fanservice. Evangeline dresses as a goth loli, unleashes her power as a teacher and has various adorable versions of Chachamaru with her. The secret idol character goes to Komiket and the others tag along, leading to awkward moments with 18+ doujins. The two oldest-looking characters try to get the tickets they’re meant to at the cinema, where the lady doesn’t believe they’re 15.

SHAFT obviously didn’t have huge resources on hand here, but this was clearly a labour of love and they made it look nice. The magic, the combat and the festival kimono/yukata in particular are eye candy.
But this is decidedly fan-centric and as such, for those of us who’ve always found the concept of the 10-year-old boy surrounded by 15-year-old girls who want to seduce him and are without exception quite purposely drawn from anime stock a little tiresome and creepy, thus have no interest in picking up the manga, it’s very much throwaway. Still, it foreshadows the events of what will presumably be the next set of OVAs, with the characters heading towards Britain.

And I wonder if I’m the only one who found the scene with the fat girl, where almost nothing happens and she’s basically left on her own, deeply melancholy and almost upsetting? 

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

デ・ジ・キャラット ウィンターガーデン Di Gi Charat: Winter Garden/Winter Garden from Di Gi Charat

Note, 10.2.07 Ehhh? What is it with Di Gi Charat and King Crimson? First a reference to the inside cover of the first album, and now the front cover appears on the door of a ‘Prog Club’ in Puchiko’s school in the serious reimagining OVA Winter Garden

Initial Impressions, 25.4.07. Bizarre, seeing the bizarre made mundane. Entertaining, though. That final twist was obvious from the beginning of the episode. Nice to hear the girl who debuted as Takahashi in Bokura Ga Ita in another role

Final thoughts, 18.9.12. I have to say, I didn’t notice that ‘Prog Club’ from five years ago when I rewatched the Winter Garden OVAs. Maybe between broadcast and DVD release the sign got changed. It was the weirdest moment in the otherwise largely naturalistic adaptation (along with a twitchy cameo for a piece of ‘art’…!), with the sign changing every few moments, and I’d certainly have noticed such an iconic image. This time I just smiled at how Puchiko was joining the Keiongaku club – and imagining her in K-On.

Anyway, five years later the idea of a complete reimagining of a series isn’t such a new idea for me, and at least to my mind this strange little nugget of seriousness in a franchise known for its ultra-cutesiness and insanity strikes me as very funny. It’s less like Mai-HiME becoming the rather different Mai-Otome, and more like the skits in Rock Lee’s Springtime of Youth being spun out to whole episodes and played much straighter, which lends considerable subtlety. It’s more like imagined universes with the Vocaloid characters, or, I suppose, Xenoglossia with the girls from The iDOLM@STER. The studio even changed: from Madhouse to J.C.Staff.

Winter Garden is not funny, other than a few little moments, mostly with Puchiko being either blunt or a cutey, having brought more of her personality from the original than her sister did. It’s not zany. It’s actually a very, very typical love story, starting with lots of coincidental meetings, and then being given tension with a misunderstanding and the possibility of separation. What makes it funny is the very idea that it’s based on Di Gi Charat, that these sweet, ordinary girls are based on Dejiko and Puchiko – that Rabi-en-Rose is a recognisable but consistently dismissed minor celebrity. It’s just a funny concept, and the disappointment of viewers like me who didn’t get told the nature of the adaptation beforehand and expected more me-kara-beams and kuchi-kara-bazookas masked that.

Well, years have passed now, and while it’s sad that more Di Gi Charat doesn’t seem anywhere on the horizon, I consider this one a bit of gem overall and am happy it’s part of the DGC canon, confusing all who stumble upon it unprepared.

And, y’know, it’s adorable how Dejiko doesn’t even seem like herself until she gets to the verge of yelling, and the old Dejiko can just be heard in that voice. Only just! 

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Madame Tutli-Putli

The eyes are the windows to the soul. And it’s incredible what an effect putting live-action eyes into stop-motion puppetry can accomplish. Madame Tutli-Putli, the breakthrough work from Clyde Henry Productions – commissioned as a result with the expertly-crafted puppetry short Higglety Piggelty Pop! – is unforgettable in aesthetic terms. A real labour of love, it involved not only the laborious process of stop-motion animation, but live-action actors then matching the puppets’ movements so that their eyes could be digitally mapped to the models. And what an effect it has! Not only do the puppets gain an uncanny, unsettlingly realistic quality, but they are able to show emotions in an unprecedented way. A stunning experiment, it is no surprise that this short was nominated for an Oscar in the same year as another astonishing show of hard work, My Love by Aleksandr Petrov, though the winner that year was the Peter and the Wolf Prokofiev animation.

The story is both simple and open-ended: a character we assume is the eponymous Madame Tutli-Putli boards a train with what seems like all the baggage of her life. The other occupants of her compartment are strange – men in the luggage rack watching a chessboard as the movements of the train make the moves for them, a little boy with an adult face reading a book with an unsettling title, and a famous tennis player who makes obscene gestures at her. In the night, the train is boarded and a strange gas fills the air. The last thing our protagonist glimpses is a corpse-like face shushing her as the tennis player’s organs are harvested.

What follows is entirely open to interpretation – did she simply wake to an empty train? Did she die and run to the afterlife? Is the whole thing symbolic of leaving behind a sad life to embrace an exciting new one through metamorphosis, as symbolised by a moth? It is left to the individual – and while some enjoy that depth, my honest reaction was that it was a lazy and disappointing way to end the short, and I certainly wanted more definitive answers after such a beautifully-crafted beginning.  

Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life

 I didn’t know much about Maurice Sendak before the hipster-friendly Spike Jonze adaptation of his Where the Wild Things Are. It wasn’t part of my childhood and though I’d seen those iconic illustrations before – as well as Sendak’s weird In The Night Kitchen and his lovely old-fashioned drawings for Little Bear, the latter of course having a charming animated series – but the film was a memorable, brilliantly melancholy work. But it was not until his tragic passing that I heard of Higglety Pigglety Pop!, and the fact that it was his favourite of all his stories.

Written as an affectionate tribute to his recently-deceased dog as a way of coping with both that loss and, according to most reports, the loss of his mother, the story is a stream-of-consciousness-like flight of fancy in the Alice in Wonderland vein. Silly, selfish little doggie Jennie, despite having every whim taken care of, decides there must be more to life and runs away from home. She meets a pig advertising for a new leading lady for a theatrical troupe, but the position requires experience. From a feline milkman she learns of a vacant position for a nanny – which will, she is assured, be an experience. So after helping herself to most of the milkman’s deliveries, she becomes a nanny for Baby, only to find out that the nannies who fail to feed the querulous child get thrown to the huge lion in the basement. Will she be able to do it? And when push comes to shove, will she remain self-serving or grow up a little and learn to sacrifice herself for others?

Though the ‘animation’ here is minimal – Clyde Henry Productions were approached after the success of the stop-motion Madame Tutli-Putli but did not have time to create another such a short in the time they were given so opted for puppetry – the aesthetic is very in-keeping with animation and the human characters are the ones who look odd in the world. Still frames of this short look remarkably realistic and the cat costume in particular is a phenomenal piece of craftsmanship.

Included as an extra in the Blu-Ray of Where The Wild Things Are, this peculiar and entertaining little extra is well worth a watch, and perhaps more excitingly for me, led me to the other Clyde Henry Productions short, which I watched straight after. 

Saturday, 1 September 2012

ぱにょぱにょ デ・ジ・キャラット/ Panyo Panyo Di Gi Charat

Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 excepted, of late I’ve mostly been watching cute, lowbrow, generally very simple anime. I’ve been craving more serious things, and I’ve got a whole slew of heavy anime half-watched, but I’ve just felt more like relaxing and switching off my brain, and the only really serious anime in production I’m following seriously is Nippon Animation’s realistic and very possibly apologist holocaust anime about the Schindler-esque heroic actions of Sugihara Chiune in Lithuania – but six years after it was announced and four years after its supposed release date, things have gone very quiet on that front.

Which left me looking for more enjoyable, silly, comedic anime – and I was bored by K-On!! So I’ve gone back to a series I was watching in 2007 but stopped because the subbing group dropped it and because it was one of the series lost when an external hard drive had a death rattle – Di Gi Charat Nyo! My initial plan was to write impressions of Nyo!, Panyo Panyo and Winter Garden all together, but the more I get back into Nyo!, the more I think that they ought to be separate.

As I put in my review of the original series and its peripheral properties, one of its faults, and the reason I originally dismissed it, is that it’s too zany and random, which at times makes it painfully unfunny. Still, persevering with it, I began to really enjoy it, with its silly cute characters and some very funny jokes. Panyo Panyo is a spin-off prequel, and what’s clever about it is that it totally shifts in tone, becoming a much more typically structured, albeit still very silly, story about the young Dejiko and Puchiko. As the series is set before Dejiko came to Earth, there are a lot of familiar characters who don’t make it here, and instead we get two very typical shoujo characters to form lil’ Dejiko’s gang – the tomboyish Miké (or ‘Mee-K’), who of course I like a lot (my preferred character type) and the sweet-natured, feminine, rather spacey Rinna. The four of them, with Gema as ever in tow, try to spread happiness wherever they go while dressing as pirates, thieves and suchlike, with Piyoko and the nasty little Deji Devil causing mischief but mostly being so useless at it that the main gang don’t even notice before it all backfires. With short episodes, an ultra-cute aesthetic that takes the Koge-Donbo designs to even cuter places, and some very funny little plots, it’s a succession of short nuggets of guilty pleasure.

The first season and its associated properties didn’t quite get otaku-pleasing spot-on, despite the Akiba setting and the origins of the property. This more sincere, seemingly less knowing presentation is more of a delight, another instance of playing it straight working much better. That said, it works in addition to the original, and would probably just seem like a silly, babyish little nonsense series without the original clearly being aimed at an older crowd. I’m only sad we don’t get a chibi Black Gema Gema Gang, and that the new characters barely feature in Nyo! – though I’m happy they’re in it at all!

Ostensibly a reimagining of a franchise aimed at younger children, make no mistake – the core audience stays the same.