Monday, 30 December 2013

Monsters vs Aliens

Monsters vs Aliens was largely well-reviewed, made good money – primarily in North America – and ticked most of the boxes for a lighthearted animated comedy. On the other hand, it was one of the most instantly forgettable of the animated features of the first decade of the millennium, and is nobody’s favourite, largely because it does just what it says on the tin – it has monsters fighting aliens in a light-hearted comedy based on B-movie clichés, and for that reason it will likely entertain for the duration, but break no hearts, jerk no tears and lead to no calls for a sequel (though sure, why not a spin-off series?). Because while boxes get ticked, there’s no sense of human connection, and with the point being that the monsters are nice guys all along, you don’t get the same chance at growth and affection in the likes of Despicable Me.

I didn’t bother with Monsters vs Aliens at the cinema. At the time, I have to say that I largely ignored DreamWorks animated features. Antz I can hardly remember, the first Shrek I didn’t like, I missed Madagascar and found the trailers annoying, and though I liked the look of Kung-fu Panda, I didn’t see it until 2010, two years after its release and a year after this film. Soon after, of course, there was a bit of a turning-point for DreamWorks with the lovely How to Train Your Dragon, followed by the enjoyable follow-ups Kung-fu Panda 2 and Puss in Boots, then the strange hit-with-edgy-kids-despite-not-quite-being-on-the-wider-cultural-radar that is Rise of the Guardians, and even if The Croods and Turbo have taken DreamWorks back towards the goofy, somewhat superficial side that used to define them, they remain in a good place.

But for Monsters vs Aliens, my only contact with it was a random Happy Meal toy my friends and I found at a convention in 2009 and decided was our silly mascot, especially since its inexplicable gimmick function was, upon being wound up, to vibrate and travel slowly, jerkily backwards. We named him Stig after something some random junkie/drunkard passing by said, and Stig he has remained to me until today, when we spotted the film on iPlayer and decided to watch: his real name is Link.

The first thing that struck us about the animation here was that the humans are ugly. They are designed very weirdly in the face and their movements are clunky and ungainly, save perhaps for the main character, Susan. Thankfully, this is only a problem for the opening scenes, because Susan is really the only human who has significant screen-time except for the President of the United States – played with rather too much conviction of his own funniness by Steven Colbert – and much of that is in tandem with techniques to make her look huge. For after a meteor containing ‘quantonium’ crushes her on her wedding day, she grows huge, bursting out of a building with more gusto than Alice ever managed in Wonderland, until she is a 50-foot woman. Whisked away to Area 51, she joins the government’s other classified monsters – Link, first names ‘The Missing’, who is a strange amphibian convinced of his own strength but somewhat out of shape now and the most human and approachable of the bunch as essentially an airheaded jock; cackling mad scientist Dr Cockroach, who has merged his DNA with that of the eponymous creepy-crawly, voiced by Hugh Laurie at the height of his House fame; B.O.B. the amorphous blob who lacks a brain but is stretchy and indestructible; and Insectosaurus, a bestial but loyal monstrosity seven times as tall as Susan, who I think was developed when someone joked about what Mothra must have looked like before metamorphosis.

The arrival of the aliens is neatly tied to Susan’s developing powers, for their goal is the quantonium that was behind her transformation. When no force in America can answer the threat of the initial robot invasion from the hostile aliens, it’s left to the monsters to save the day, and things start to get fun – and Susan starts to realise that maybe the life she left behind wasn’t as great as she thought it was before this life-changing event.
And ultimately, the film is good, but only good. It has some horrible misfires – like the Presiden’t poop joke (‘Brown alert’) and a string of homages to the likes of Close Encounters and E.T. that just feel like someone ticking off boxes on a list – but the humorous quirks of the main cast keeps then funny and likeable, the computer’s thoughts on its countdown got a genuine belly laugh from me and it was quite refreshing to see the reversal of gender stereotypes in the Renée Zellweger cameo scene. Oh, and I loved the kid from the DreamWorks logo getting abducted. 

There’s good reason for me not to rush to see this. There’s good reason I wouldn’t have been sad to miss it altogether, and looking slightly dated now, I’m sure that in 20 years it will be very seldom-revisited. But if there’s a chance to give it the hour and a half it needs with little to no inconvenience, I wouldn’t hesitate to tell someone to go for it, because while it lacks real emotional punch or any human touch, it also does what it sets out to do well. And sometimes that’s enough. 

変態王子と笑わない猫 /Hentai Ouji to Warawanai Neko /Pervert Prince and Unsmiling Cat / The “Hentai” Prince and the Stony Cat

For some reason, I had totally the wrong idea of what HenNeko was all about. I was under the impression that despite the title, it was quite a peaceful, sweet and somewhat serious drama, which was quite possibly because some defective piece of my brain was mixing it up with Usagi Drop for no reason but that both have animal names in their titles.

So starting to watch it, I was slightly surprised that it was a very silly, cutesy romantic comedy about the problems that occur when wishes made only half-seriously are granted. In other words, be careful what you wish for, as you might just get it.

This is far from a new concept in anime, and the wishes here are nowhere near as bizarre as those from Midori no Hibi or Da Capo, but HenNeko certainly has plenty of its own character. A long way from a gentle and thought-provoking drama, it is in fact a cutesy fanservice piece that tries to be somewhere in the middle of the largely realistic romantic comedies like Toradora and Chuunibyou and the zany over-the-top jokey efforts like Sumomo-mo Momo-mo or – ever my go-to silly romantic comedy anime – Rizelmine. Unfortunately, this middle ground doesn’t quite work, and it ends up being unsuccessful at doing the things either extreme manages to pull off.

The story here is that up on a hill is a stone cat statue with a rather grim expression. People make offerings to it of things they don’t need, in order to have their desires come true. Our protagonist Yokodera Youto, a perverted high school student who likes peeking on the girls in swimsuits, makes a wish to have his inner self come out more clearly, as the front he puts up is ending up with him having inconvenient responsibilities put onto him.

Meanwhile, the wonderfully-named Tsutsukakushi Tsukiko wants to be seen as less childish by wishing for her face to stop giving away all of her emotions so easily, and when they both make their wish, the mischievous cat’s mouth twists into a smile and their wishes come true – twisted, of course, into an inconvenient form. Tsukiko can no longer show any expressions whatsoever, being the unsmiling cat of the title rather than the statue, and Yokodera-kun is so unable to stop himself blabbing about what he really thinks that he quickly earns a reputation as a ‘pervert prince’.

Though initially it seems that the series has some interesting things to say about the very Japanese concept of honne and tatemae, as Yokodera gets his tatemae – façade – taken away to reveal only his honne – or true feelings. Tsukiko had trouble with her tatemae, but gains an extreme one. They do not simply swap, though, as it turns out that it is another girl, popular beauty Azusa, who gains Yokodera’s façade, going so far as to construct a fake image of herself to keep others at arm’s length.

Predictably, this mix-up soon becomes a conventional harem series. Anything interesting that could have been said about Japanese society is soon hidden beneath slapstick comedy, far too much tsundere character writing and fanservice aplenty. Not only these two girls fall for Yokodera and start to have a rivalry over him, but other anime clichés join in – random loli whose outrageous frankness can’t be sustained so she is only in it for a couple of episodes; big sister with big boobies and violent tendencies but the most dere characteristics of all the tsunderes; even the apparent lesbian with the crush on the big sister whose rivalry with Yokodera soon becomes playfully erotic. It’s tired, overdone stuff, and very little depth is added when the characters go back in time to see the truth of the sisters’ relationship with their deceased mother and why Yokodera can’t remember his past. It’s all very derivative of Key, but even more blatant and superficial, and thus bland.  

But it’s also very, very easy to watch. It’s only 12 short episodes, and it is one of the cutest-looking anime I’ve seen for years. Nice production values and adorable character designs that look more like 12-14 year olds than high school students and make this the latest loli-show-masquerading-as-high-school-romance in a way only marginally less obvious than Moetan. On the other hand, not only the girls are cutesy, but the boys too – Yokodera, like Yuuto in Chuunibyou, is a cutey to match the girls, a shota amongst the lolis, which is slightly odd but a whole lot better than the millionth Kyon clone of the decade.

Thus, I found the series a guilty pleasure. I knew it was bad, and unoriginal, and the writing was all over the place, but I still enjoyed the parade of cuteness and easy romance. Just keep your expectations very low, and you will enjoy. 

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Le Jour des corneilles / The Day of the Crows

Here is an example of how sad it is that we in the English-speaking world are so closed off from the idea of films in foreign languages. Here is a remarkable Western animation project that cost seven million Euros, was funded with money from France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Canada, has a roaring performance from a big name like Jean Reno, and contains many very remarkable elements that simply don't make it into American feature-length animation or, indeed, Japanese anime. Films like TekkonKinkreet can come along that stand out remarkably, but they will have a very different, far less gentle quirkiness to them. For The Day of the Crows is characteristically, recognisably French, and benefits immeasurably from that.  

And for all it's ignored by English-speaking territories - for all, very possibly, it's purposely kept that way because the French have no interest in marketing outside the lands that speak French, rather pretending that all they have to offer is Code Lyoko and Totally Spies - the best French animation is in a good place. Though I long for Kerubim to end and Wakfu to return, Ankama remain the studio doing the best things in Flash (and yes, I include Ponies in that), the lazy A Cat in Paris actually did get marketed to the US to an extent after its Oscar nomination, and though I still wish they'd chosen another animation form, I continue to enjoy the second season of The Mysterious Cities of Gold

But Le Jour des corneilles stands apart from even those properties. Not necessarily better, but interesting in a very different way. It is less accessible, less obvious, less immediate. More challenging, more artful, and very much my sort of thing. And - perhaps reflecting that it is less obviously marketable - it is hard to find much information about, having only a French Wikipedia page (thankfully very easy to read with my lacklustre grip of the language). I must be grateful, then, for The Internet, that merry place where people can talk about properties others may not have heard of. It was following discussions of Wakfu and Mystérieuses Cités on Plus4chan that I found out about this - and where I had previously found out about Leafie, just so we're clear it's not all based on French-language works. 

I consider Le Jour des corneilles something of a gem. It thrusts you into a barely comprehensible world at first, where we are not sure what time period the piece takes place in, or what country, or what world. A scrawny, feral boy - never named - lives with his enormous brute of a father in the forest. The boy is not strong, but is quick and skilled, easily able to hunt and to help his father, who is a forest-dweller very capable of taking care of himself. Things become even weirder as we see that the boy also speaks with mute forest spirits, unsettling beings with human bodies but animal heads, wearing fairly modern clothes - of a hundred years ago, perhaps two. One of them he calls his mother, while others help him with his problems. One day, his father is badly injured while railing at a storm, and to help him, the animal spirits lead the boy out of the forest - the 'outre-monde' where his father says people disappear never to return. 

Outside the forest is a town, and it soon becomes apparent that this is not some post-apocalyptic world or fantasy, but that the father is simply a half-mad pariah from the nearby town, and the boy is more or less feral because of no contact with civilisation. He manages to find a doctor, who treats injured soldiers - perhaps giving a firm setting I'm afraid I couldn't definitively call - and drags his father in for treatment. Here, the boy has human contact for the first time, and when the doctor ropes in his daughter to keep the boy out of the way during an operation, an unlikely bond comes about - yet a rift between father and son is created. 

Though there are some stretches - one must accept the idea of the spirits of the dead lingering, and believe that a forest boy can establish a bond with a crow that extends to it doing him favours and even speaking rather like Pichu in Les Mystérieuses Cités D'Or - but this film thrives rather brilliantly on presenting fantastical, seemingly inexplicable things and then making them rational, and fitting them into what is essentially a realistic, even stark world view. The heart of this story isn't strange animals - though they do give a very, very beautiful climactic scene to this animation that wouldn't have worked in any other medium - but the story of lovers torn apart by disapproving parents, madness, bitterness and petty small-town politics. It is sophisticated and elegant in a way few animations are - which will also no doubt have critics claiming it has no audience. 

Admittedly, it is not made to be pretty. It is not meant to be - it is making a point about outcasts and the possibility of nobility in the ugly and base. But I did have problems with the design of the main, feral boy. He looks very much out of a French comic book, like Tommy Pickles from Rugrats redrawn by Astérix artist Albert Uderzo, but I think the film would have been a better commercial prospect and more immediately accessible if a design could be found that was still wild and feral-looking while also being a bit...well, cuter. With the adults so absolutely perfectly-designed, especially the father, the wicked old woman and the doctor, it's a shame that the fils just didn't quite seem right, and the same for the little girl he befriends. 

But at the heart of this film is its story, and that is done quite brilliantly. The pacing of the revelations is pitched exactly right and the lack of easy answers is refreshing. This is a film of mature animation, with challenging ideas, strange and unique visuals and no regard for conventions of comedy or action in animation. For that reason, it will go all but ignored worldwide, and that strikes me as real shame. 

Chicken Run

Ahhh, Chicken Run. The moment when the world outside England came to recognise the national treasure that is Aardman Animations – who had honed their craft on the brilliant Wallace and Gromit shorts (this being before The Curse of the Were-Rabbit) and the inspired Creature Comforts, netting a batch of short-form Oscars. With Chicken Run, they partnered with Dreamworks and were thus able to reach a much wider audience, and in the process reminded the world that clay animation was still feasible and didn’t have to be as clunky as Pingu or as outright creepy as Mark Twain. Helped along, of course, by the stop-motion success that was The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Sadly, the success of this and the Wallace and Gromit film led to Aardman then going into CG, which started with attempts to recapture their clay style with Flushed Away and then a more halfway measure in Arthur Christmas and The Pirates! before early work on The Croods, which ultimately ended up a very long way from signature Aardman. Since becoming just another CG studio, they have rather lost their charm, their financial opportunities and, well, their way. Sure, their Shaun the Sheep mini-episodes probably keep them well afloat, and every Christmas sees plentiful re-runs of all their films – which is why I’m rewatching Chicken Run for the first time since its 2000 release – and mostly things are very quiet on the Aardman front now, with the latest project being Peter Lord’s Kickstarter for new episodes of Morph that may not even fall under the Aardman banner, and just possibly a big comeback in 2015 with a Shaun the Sheep feature film.

Treading similar ground to Leafie but with a lot less melancholy seriousness and a lot more silly fun and escape-movie themes, Chicken Run is about battery hens who know that when they stop laying, they face the chopping block, so plot to escape. The possibility of getting away suddenly becomes real when into the coop flies a brash American rooster named Rocky – in a stroke of genius casting played by Mel Gibson – who has been promoted by a travelling circus as able to fly. His wing is injured, but a plot is hatched – so to speak – to get him to teach the rest of the chickens to fly so that they can get out. Unfortunately, the time of his arrival also coincides with the sinister farm owner Mrs Tweedy deciding that it’s time for her chickens to stop being egg-layers, and start being slaughtered en mass.

The thing Aardman used to get so right was their humour. What is brilliant about the writing of Chicken Run is that every single sympathetic character can be taken seriously or can be very funny. Main characters Ginger and Rocky are mostly the serious, smart ones on the cast, but their prickly relationship provides some great laughs, and behind Rocky’s façade he’s a guy that will fall into every pie. Wise-cracking rats played by Timothy Spall and Phil Daniels echoing the TV roles that made them famous are in the traditional annoying-comic-relief role, yet are just the right mixture of wise-cracking and ending up the butt of the joke that they are actually appealing. The chickens themselves are a great bunch, with broad stereotypes aplenty yet – again – the chance for the writers to make each of them serious. Jane Horrocks and Imelda Staunton obviously have a great time as two very silly chickens, and Mr Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, Benjamin Whitrow, is the moody old military rooster who when he shows his soft side gets one of the finest scenes in the film. And then there’s Miranda Richardson being deliciously evil as Mrs Tweedy, with another comic foil in the form of Mr Tweedy, very hard to write as non-annoying but who works thanks to the good joke of him constantly seeing the most outlandish things without anybody believing him.

So for all this praise, why have I not wanted to rewatch Chicken Run in over a decade, or consider it alongside The Wrong Trousers as amongst the best of Aardman? Well, the thing is…I think it’s just the chickens. They’re well-written, they’re likeable, they’re funny…but they’re still rather funny-looking plump chickens with teeth and silly googly eyes…and while I’m amused by them, that’s not the extent of the connection I make with most beloved animated characters – including, yes, Wallace and Gromit.

But on the rewatch, I think I’ve probably been mistaken. This is a film that does everything it can right, given the concept, and it’s such a very Aardman concept that I really don’t feel I can complain about that. Ultimately, the only real shame about Chicken Run is that the place it put Aardman doesn’t feel like where they belong. 

Saturday, 21 December 2013


For me, Frozen is unusual in the Disney canon in that in a reversal of what I so often feel, my head tells me I should like it but my instinct is one of mild dislike. 

It has a lot of overwhelmingly positive things - a good story that makes some political statements for Disney, excellent performances, the best songs since Mulan (though admittedly I have a soft spot for the ones from The Tigger Movie), genuinely funny comedy, likeable characters and another box ticked in the 'Disney adapts classic fairy tales' list. 

And yet...I felt like for all the achievements, there was always something pulling the film down, so that in the end, I have to say that except when it came to songs, I much preferred Tangled, to which despite the creators' insisting that the adjectival titles are not linked, this is really very much the spiritual successor. It felt like a whole package, whereas to me, Frozen didn't quite seem complete. 

Though I'm well-used to supporting Disney totally changing their source material, I felt like this adaptation of The Snow Queen was a bit of a missed opportunity. Apparently, the concept was in development hell for such a long time - discussed but shelved in the 40s, revived in the 90s, considered as a Pixar film in the early 2000s and then finally given to Disney long-timer (one of the numerous future big names on-board for The Fox and the Hound, as I listed in my review of that film, and later the director of Tarzan) Chris Buck to shape into Frozen. They had difficulties with the character of The Snow Queen being so sinister and remote - and, presumably, too White Witch-ish - but had a breakthrough when they made her sympathetic. There are strokes of genius in this, especially how nice it is that for all the film looks to be leading towards the girls needing to be saved by a man's love, when ultimately that's not the important thing at all, but...

Well, I miss Kay and Gerda and the Thief Girl, and the fact is that The Snow Queen is one of the only - perhaps the one and only - classic fairy story where the boy is the one who's the captive in distress and it's the girl who sets out on the epic quest to rescue him. Despite the step forward for female empowerment that comes from Jennifer Lee being a co-director here and the first woman to ever have that position in Disney, sticking to the original's format, I think, would be much more the political statement for Disney, as well as being a story I always like hearing. Oh well, there's always TMS's World Masterpiece Theater-style anime adaptation, which is rather closer to the source...but I haven't actually managed to finish watching in eight years and really need to start again from the beginning. 

All that remains of the original, though, is the fact that there's a queen with powers of ice and snow...and the idea of a shard in the heart. Well, and that there is a reindeer and there are trolls, I suppose, though the latter are nice ones whose aesthetic - Troll Dolls meet Rock Lords via Jim Henson - just about ends up working. Other than that, well, about the only other point of influence is the vague cold-parts-of-Europe setting, mostly Norwegian but with very Western Russian high society and the Danish hangovers from the original. 

Otherwise, this becomes a story of two princesses in the fictional kingdom of Arendelle (no, not Arundel), one of whom secretly has mutant powers. When she accidentally nearly kills her little sister, she and her parents decide to essentially lock her away and for her powers to be kept secret forever. Of course, this is not so simple, and when she comes of age and is crowned queen, a bit of drama brings out her dangerous side and she flees to make her own Superman palace and hide away. However, she has inadvertently brought out an eternal winter and must be stopped. 

Loose ends are neatly tied, ice effects are beautiful and despite the rather cringy non-rhymes that reminded me far too much of the joke that was Crazy Town's 'Revolving Door', the big belting lead song 'Let It Go' is a triumphant ear-worm that ought to be one of Disney's enduring tracks. I actually know next to nothing about Idina Menzel, having to be told that she is acclaimed for being the original and definitive Elphaba in Wicked (and not being able to stand Glee), but this song was clearly written for her and her impressive lungs, and works well - with some very modern sassy moments so that it doesn't feel derivative. Both her Elsa and Kristen Bell's Anna (most recognisable possible Norwegian names for Americans, methinks) are believable, likeable, flawed and sympathetic. Hans, while rather cardboard, fits the story well and Kristoff - though I wouldn't mind a better transition from his childhood to his apparently solitary adult life. 

Then there was Olaf. I really think that Olaf was very misjudged. He was excellently written, with a series of fantastic jokes - especially his song about his absurd dream - and the vocal performance got the annoying-likeable balance just right. But...the design really, really didn't. I couldn't stand the design for the snowman - buck-toothed, repulsive, goofy and seemingly derived from what an artist from the Beano might have thought looked funny in the seventies, I really, really thought the film (and extended trailer featuring a skit with him and the reindeer) would have been much more appealing had he looked...well, more like a snowman, and less hideous. 

So yes. There was a lot to celebrate here, and Disney's main CG studio is in a very strong position after Tangled and especially Wreck-It Ralph, but several factors held me back from wholeheartedly liking what I saw. 

Also worth mentioning, though, was the short that came before the main feature, Get a Horse!, which was a rather sweet attempt to recreate classic-era Mickey Mouse with a modern twist. Also directed by a woman - Simpsons and Avatar episode director Laura MacMullen - which makes her the first ever woman to direct a Disney film solo, it is a conscious attempt to be classic, featuring Mickey, Minnie, Pete, Clarabelle Cow and Horace the Horse - and even for one moment that made me fanboy for a moment, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Opening with a very passable imitation of the Golden Era (though with its smooth in-betweening, non-jerky rhythms and scale of characters on screen (as well as lack of random violence to animals) is easily identified as a modern imitation even before the gimmick - of bursting out through the cinema screen into CG and being able to manipulate the film to rescue Minnie, that is. They also quite charmingly decided to opt for sounds extracted from the archive of the early cast - including, of course, Walt himself - which is only slightly stilted and awkward. Generally, a fond nod to days past that I found quite charming. I really need to revisit the early cartoons more myself.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

映画けいおん! / K-On! The Movie

Well, much as my review of the second season of K-On! centred on getting tired of the girls, the slightly vain draw of seeing them in my hometown as tourists was irresistible. And yes, K-On! in London proved very entertaining, even with how obviously many of the backgrounds were essentially the research team's photographs drawn over. I even had a bit of a bizarre moment as my old workplace - above Harper's Café which the team obviously thought picturesque enough to snap on their trip to Borough Market - was pictured. I could see the very window where I used to sit! And it's not exactly a place one expects to see rendered. Then there was the scene in Baker Street, the visit to Denmark Street, where I'll be heading after work today, down the road from where I lived a few years ago, and all those familiar scenes from Camden Market, Kensington, The King's Road, Waterloo and Hyde's always going to be a pleasure to see your city from the point of view of outsiders, especially cute ones, and this was no exception. The Shard being half-built dates the film to a very specific time, but I suppose fashion, car styles and numerous other things more or less do that anyway. 

While in London, the girls are roped into an impromptu gig in Camden as well as an open-air performance in Waterloo, try rather adorably to speak English, and muck about in their hotels - the four graduating girls trying to secretly write a song for Azusa, which makes her suspicious. There's even one adorable yet fanservicey scene where she thinks Yui is making an inappropriate lesbian advance on her, which is really very sweet. The trip is bookended by a silly opening gag that includes the unlikely scenario of the girls miming along to a tape recording actually convincing Azusa that they're genuinely playing (a gag on dramatic changes of direction) and then at the end, the girls have a farewell gig in their classroom before school, which while not all that interesting was sweet and at least musical - indeed, it felt like the girls actually did a lot more related to music in this film than in the entire second season.

As a send-off, I enjoyed this. If I got tired of the girls in the series, having them in this novel new place, and knowing this was a real send-off - something the existence of this film denied the second season - made it more enjoyable than anything much since the beginning of the show. It wasn't just cute girls doing cute things, it was cute girls visiting a new country, playing gigs and writing songs. It was cute musicians doing cute things, and that's something the season rather lost. 

K-On's massive success is, I would say, somewhat unwarranted. But on a small scale, it's very cute and I don't regret the time I gave these girls. But waifus? None. Obsession? Not for me. More? I won't object, once I've had time for absence to make the heart grow fonder, but if that's all the K-On I ever get, I'm quite satisfied. 

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

聖☆おにいさん/ Saint☆Young Men / Saint Onii-San / Saint Big Brothers

It's a concept that is instantly going to catch the attention. Especially if you're a Westerner accustomed to shaking your head with a faint smile at the surreal things that always seem to be coming out of Japan. Saint Onii-san is a gentle, rather silly sitcom from the mangaka behind Arakawa Under the Bridge about two young foreigners learning to live comfortably in a Japanese apartment despite not quite fitting in culturally. Only the two young men are Jesus and Buddha. 

It's one of those ideas that are so bizarre and silly and yet so simple that they are quite inspired. It's also the kind of idea that only comes naturally to a society where the attitude to religion is rather more relaxed and the fear of deeply offending is less of a concern - meaning both that there's less inclination to tip-toe around possibly offending someone, and also less inclination to be edgy and subversive by setting out to be offensive. 

Instead, Saint Onii-san presents the son of God and the enlightened Siddhartha Gautama as rather naive but very pleasant guys who want to see the sights of Tokyo - including a rather sweet trip to a thinly-veiled Disney Sea - and occasionally get a holy glow when they do something virtuous and their halos 'come out'. They are slightly scared of the strict landlady and the neighbourhood kids who have decided Buddha is a 'Button alien' and have made it their mission to press the bindi on his forehead. Generally, however, they have a simple and low-key lifestyle of going to the local family mart or trying to shop for bargains, getting keen on Osamu Tezuka manga or going to the public bathhouses and Jesus accidentally convincing a local Yakuza that he is the son of a crime organisation's boss. 

This works because it is not an attempt to belittle or trivialise the religions named for the two lead characters. They are a bit hapless, and even Jesus doesn't know what the true meaning of Christmas is, but they are also very good-hearted and virtuous guys - Saint-like, even, to use the surname they decide to live under (the series title is based on the pop song 'Saint Oji-san' and I think managaka Nakamura Hikaru thinks that 'saint' generally denotes a transcendent holy person and thus would actually apply to Jesus). Much of the comedy comes from their true selves manifesting, be it animals flocking to the apartment seeking nirvana from Buddha or hoping to sacrifice themselves virtuously for the nourishment of the son of God (even bringing their own matches for the cooking), or the train they are on being raised to the heavens and surrounded by worshippers and angels, and the two of them trying to pass these miracles off as normal. They gain a reputation around town for their silly T-shirts with religious references on that Buddha likes to make and for their quirky oddities - Buddha's bizarre hair and Jesus actually wearing a crown of thorns at all times, which causes bleeding when he's distressed and bursts into roses when he's amused - and it's very sweet when they leave for a time and the local community grows to miss them. The brat who likes to bully Buddha as an alien becomes something of the emotional centre of the whole piece, showing his real emotional vulnerability and abandonment issues when things go a little too far, and the bond that grows up between the holy men and the seemingly unpleasant child is very sweet. 

If there's a downside to Saint Onii-san, it's that its gentle tone is just a little too gentle. The truth is that it's just not all that funny. There are some real laugh-out-loud moments, but once the original concept has passed there's a lot of dead space of the two just being generally pleasant. It's very sweet that Buddha wants to get Jesus a birthday cake, and that they love awful puns (like hotoke (Buddha) and hottoke (‘leave me alone’) the best being as simple as 'Jesu' sounding like 'Yes' in Japanese), but I feel like the pacing was much too slow getting from joke to joke.

Visually, this is quite a departure for A-1, certainly a long way from the cutesiness of Welcome to the Space ShowKuroshitsuji or Magi. Sticking closely to the style of Nakamura's manga, albeit making it slightly less ugly, the sketch-like quality that spans rather realistic faces for Jesus and Buddha to the kid with dots for eyes is less universal than most A-1, and closer to more abrasive comedies like Detroit Metal City. For me, it works perfectly as the right mix of quirky and everyday, but it won't be for everyone. 

And I can't help but feel that while there's a huge amount of philosophical ground that could be at least poked, it's rather the point of Saint Onii-san that it stays superficial. That's how its gentle humour can thrive. I just don't know where else the title can go beyond that, which is why it perhaps suits this format of a couple of OVAs and a feature film better than a series. I'm glad I watched it, and I'd welcome more - but if more comes, it will have to progress beyond what we've seen so far, or else the whole thing will just become stagnant. 

Saturday, 14 December 2013

けいおん!! / Keion!! / K-On!! (season 2)

I know that it's actually going to be quite difficult to write about the second season of K-On!, differentiated from the original by the extra exclamation mark. Where the first season managed to stay afloat of being boring by having just 13 episodes (and an OVA), the second is a full 26 episode (and an OVA), with the promise of a movie yet to come. 

And if the first season could be criticised for being nothing more than cute girls doing cute things, the second season takes great pains not to challenge the status quo. 

It established its cast with Azusa's joining the club in the latter half of the first season, and it doesn't change that - not a single new member gets recruited and we stick with the cast of airheaded Yui, shy and feminine Mio, energetic and free-spirited Ritsu and rich, slightly spacey Mugi. Azusa tends to regard her sempai as slightly bizarre, while they cheerily use her as their cute prop. 

And...they do cute things. Nothing more. Their band doesn't play much, and appositely, they have after-school tea a lot. Sometimes their teacher is sick and they decide to visit her, or their pet turtle needs a new tank, or the cultural festival is on and Ritsu and Mio get the fanservicey roles of Romeo and Juliet, though possibly not cast the way you initially expect. It's the same old school plot cliches, only with this particular cast, and a gentle, slow kind of humour. 

It's also the centre of the late-2010s backlash against moé that now sees, thankfully, more shows like Kill la Kill and Attack on Titan. There comes a point watching this sort of thing that you think, 'Yes, they're cute, and this is pleasant to watch, but is this really all there is to it?' As Yui does something ditzy for the millionth time and Ritsu makes Mio blush yet again, it starts to feel totally expendable and, indeed, like rather a waste of time. 

And that's as far as K-On!! can go - it pushed the concept too far and went on for too long, or at least, oversaturated the market. 

There's too much of this to support nothing happening and schoolgirls being cute for this long. Azumanga Daioh at least had its frenetic pacing, brilliantly-built-up comic setpieces and emotional conclusion to sustain it, but K-On!! does much less in considerably more time. The possibility of an emotional graduation comes, but is kind of neutered by the fact the girls are all going to the same university and there's more to see yet with the graduation trip to London

There's the movie still to come. I'll watch it because I'm curious about the girls' adventures in my homeland, with the outsiders' perspective they'll bring. 

But I'm rather glad to see the back of them. And for girls who are designed to be likeable, and indeed, who are likeable, that's probably the worst thing to have happened - for me to get bored of them and no longer want to know what they're up to. But that's the problem with too much of a sweet thing - eventually it gets sickly and unpleasant. 

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

おおかみこどもの雨と雪 / Ōkami Kodomo-no Ame to Yuki / Wolf Children Ame and Yuki / The Wolf Children’s Rain and Snow

Six years after The Girl Who Leapt Through Time transformed him from a director of Toei anime episodes and occasional feature-length tie-ins to an interesting new light in the world of anime auteurs, and three years after Summer Wars cemented his place there, Hosoda Mamoru's latest film is very characteristically his work yet subtly different. Honestly, I don't think it was the best choice of story if he wanted to take up the place left vacant by Kon Satoshi's tragic passing as an anime feature director second only to Miyazaki Hayao in being prolific, recognisable and internationally well-known, but I liked its quirkiness and the way it took its somewhat silly premise and put it through the filter of calm, day-to-day Ozu-like struggles with everyday life, aligning it much more closely to Takahata than to Miyazaki in the Ghibli sphere of reference. As a result, unlike his previous two films this one doesn't have a very conventional third act of action and triumph, but rather a steady progression and comparatively open-ended conclusion.

Ookami Kodomo follows the life of quiet but remarkably strong-willed Hana, who meets a strange, taciturn but ruggedly handsome young man attending her university lectures even though he isn't a student. Though he is initially gruff and unfriendly, she perseveres in helping him and their mutual desire to learn underpins a brief but convincing romance that in minutes was in my book much more convincing than the whole first Twilight book. Fittingly for that comparison, it turns out that the boy is in fact a werewolf, perhaps the last of his kind. The couple's romance progresses quickly and they soon have two children a year apart, who they look out of the window and imaginatively call 'Yuki' (snow) and 'Ame' (Rain). 

Sadly and perhaps inevitably, their father soon dies in an accident and the earnest human girl is left to raise two children who have both inherited their father's ability to turn into wolves. Here, the film takes its interesting turn away from the horror/supernatural romance that is so overdone in current media, and instead becomes about a mother raising two children alone who are very difficult for her to deal with. Eventually she decides she can't cope with living with such a secret in a dense urban area and moves to a secluded, run-down house in the countryside. This of course has its own hardships, until in a pleasant echo of Only Yesterday the city girl learns with the help of locals to work the land. Those seeking action may find this the dullest part of the film, but personally I found it the highlight, with a focus on the characters' humanity and a wonderful gruff patrician character. 

As time passes in this new life, the focus shifts to the kids. I very much liked the way that at first, they defied gender roles and then later, they defied what could have been expected of them from their temperaments as young children. Yuki is a boisterous tomboy who throws tantrums, delights in gathering disgusting things and has trouble hiding her wolfish side, while Ame is an adorably wet little boy who is constantly moaning, frightened of everything and seems likely to be the one who sublimates his wolf side. Yet going to school, Yuki starts wanting to fit in with her feminine peers and experiences an adorable puppy love - appropriately enough - that ties her to her human side, while a closer tie with animals and eventually a kind of mentorship from a wise old fox leads Ame to become the oddly detached, far more lupine one. 

The transition into maturity is marked with a gradual change in art - cutesy little wolf-kids with somewhat silly animal forms that retain their hairstyles grow less and less human. There's some drama with severe weather towards the end, but really it's something of an artificial attempt at a conclusion and the fact is the story just hints at the future rather than concluding strongly. If there's a flaw here, it's that the film doesn't have a storyline that hooks, only an intriguing concept played with gently. It's something very different in the werewolf genre, and could be interpreted as an allegory for mixed-race parenting (albeit would suit that very clumsily), and hints at a new maturity for Hosoda without quite finding the right balance just yet. 

That said, I loved the production - I very much liked the designs, the soft music, the restrained voice acting (though a scene where the siblings fight as wolves is a bit clumsy), the focus on gorgeous backgrounds with the characters generally occupying less space on screen than is typical in anime, and the characterisation. I was even somewhat unsettled that in the credit sequence, key snapshots from the story were disproportionately the same ones I'd chosen to take for my review quite without my knowledge. 

This is a step towards Hosoda becoming a more interesting, perhaps more cerebral filmmaker, and I'm interested to see where he goes with his new Studio Chizu - founded for this film but as yet more subsidiary of Madhouse than standalone studio, though that may already have come to an end by the time his next release comes out. Coming with him are key personnel like Sadamoto Yoshiyuki, the famed Evangelion character designer who also worked on The Girl who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars, and Hosoda’s usual screenplay collaborator now working on the live-action Kiki’s Delivery Service Okudera Satoko. There’s no faulting the calibre of this staff, but ultimately the film just felt unsatisfying. It needed either a stronger story or to fully take the plunge and leave behind anything that could be considered childish to go entirely for the arthouse angle, because the place it sits just now doesn't quite have the strengths of either. 

Friday, 29 November 2013

イナズマイレブン / Inazuma Eleven: season 1

I have to confess that I love anime like Inazuma Eleven. They are perfectly aware of how completely, utterly stupid they are, but they show no sign of that at all. There's no hip, ironic self-referencing, and no clever-clever signals that the writers are secretly above all this, but doing it anyway - the Joss Whedon disease. 

Yet, with complete sincerity, charming honesty and buckets of enthusiasm, Inazuma Eleven is incredibly, brilliantly stupid. In the tradition of many manly, manly sports series, from Slam Dunk to Rookies, it focuses on the competitive spirits of sportspeople as their rivalries and hardships push them to greater and greater feats. But, probably in part because it's based on a video game (by Level 5), Inazuma Eleven is about as silly and boyish as it gets, though coming just over a month after the release of the game, it's pretty clear the anime was developed in tandem with it rather than a later, derivative property. 

Inazuma Eleven shows us a world where football (soccer to those who don't want to listen to the people from the sport's birthplace) is not only played to an incredibly high level but full of ridiculous special moves. At first, we just have effects that could seem like they're symbolic, an expression of characters' inner feelings and powerful moves like the shoots that envelop the striker's foot in flames or have them surrounded by a dragon - but then later we end up with characters generating tsunami and solid walls from thin air, stopping time and launching penguins at one another. Yes, really. These kids have abilities that could solve the economic problems of the entire world, put an end to crime and end most military conflicts, but all they do with their superpowers is play football. In school leagues, no less. 

What's more, despite the supernatural adversaries they face, our heroes never, ever lose a match that matters. Not a single one! They go from no-hopers without even a full team to national champions against unprecedented opposition with absurd magical powers without once losing. If they concede goals, someone's strong feelings will come through in the end and win them the match in a montage of goal-scoring. For something based on sports, these anime really don't show the glorious ups and downs of close competition, but instead teach the Japanese youth that if you want it hard enough, and put yourself through enough stupid yet painful training, the sincerity of your emotions will overcome lack of talent or years' preparation - or, indeed, such dishonest measures as imitating others, over-analysing their skills rather than being intuitive and of course doping, because that's how sports really ought to be. Reality is sobering afterwards, but of course, reality doesn't have giant flaming pegasi rampaging across the sky because the goalkeeper and two close friends have rushed out past midfield. 

And it's the sheer absurdity that is so fun. Matching it is a cast of truly outlandish characters. The main team has its misfits - the giant lummox of a boy, the tiny little one with pin-eyes, the creepy one nobody notices and more than its share of very pretty ones - this is, I should probably mention, one of the great favourites of fujoshi at the moment who gleefully ship the young boys together - and their opposition match their silliness. The schools they face tend to be themed in the great tradition of enemies of the weak in most Japanese shows, with schools where all the kids are ninja, schools where they are all otaku and, ultimately, one where they are themed like Greco-Roman gods. 
On the way, generally the boys will come up against some personal hurdle, then have a match where they get crushed only for inspiration to strike and the hurdle to be overcome to win the match. It’d be irritating presented many other ways, but the conviction and lack of gall has a winsome charm and the appeal of the cute designs and bright colours are hard to resist. 

These 26 episodes, covering the 'football frontier' are but the opening chapters of an extremely long anime. From the looks of it, there will be a lot of turnover in the main team - already there are so many new members, from childhood friends to former rivals, that many of the characters are stuck on the subs bench (including clearly the best pretty-boy, young Handa), and I've seen plenty of advertising media with entirely different line-ups. It's something of a marvel to me that Takeuchi Junko not only has enough time to do all the work she has for Naruto, but as well as taking on the dubbing for Gumball, has the lead role here as Endou, too. I suppose with the end of Reborn! she had a little more time, but c'mon...Naruto alone ought to fill most schedules. She's prolific on a whole new level. 

Inazuma Eleven is easy, brainless watching, but that's a big part of its appeal. I enjoy its simplicity and straightforward silliness, and I like the designs and vague homoeroticism around the whole thing. I shall stick with it, and add it to the long list of incredibly long-running shows I watch...though very possibly it will stall just like all the others and I'll crawl through it over years and years!

Plus…it’s slightly strange, but I genuinely was wondering until I watched this what OLM were up to these days.