Tuesday, 30 April 2013

まりあ†ほりっく/ Maria†Holic (season 1)

For whatever reason, Catholic girls’ schools in Japan have a reputation for lesbianism. A certain very male-centric form of lesbianism. Nothing to do with Doc Martins, Dykes on Bikes or cute androgynous girls in saggy basketball tops with half their hair shaved off – nor, I suspect, any other stereotype that might come with the word ‘lesbianism’ in a Western mindset. In fact, the style has much more in common with books about English public schools where two boys become very close – a little too close to be good friends, and perhaps fittingly a lot of those books are in fact aimed at middle-aged women. The relationship between the girls at these Catholic schools is presented as utterly devotional, idealised, innocent and elevated. Typical associated clichés involve exchanging rosaries, referring to the older partner highly respectfully as ‘onee-sama’ and the adorably-old-fashioned greeting ‘gokigenyou’. Perhaps the most obvious example of this style is Maria-sama ga Miteru, which if it didn’t establish these tropes (probably found in novels and such before it) certainly brought them to a new audience, started a fashion and spawned unfortunate imitators like the execrable Strawberry Panic.

Maria†Holic, perhaps obviously given that it’s a Shaft anime, sets out to send up all these conventions and make a joke out of them. The creative aspect of this can’t be credited to them, given that this was a manga first and Shaft simply adapted it, but their signature fast-paced reference-filled style is immediately apparent and the artists clearly have a lot of fun taking every chance to mix up the art style, parodying absurd Yuri and Shoujo sparkly-eyed and spindly-limbed art, as well as stained glass windows and other Christian iconography.

Miyamae Kanako is an open lesbian whose aversion to men even has a physical manifestation – she breaks out in hives if a man so much as touches her. She is delighted to be transferring to the Catholic school Ame no Kisaki, where she hopes she will find her true love. Indeed, every girl in the school seems to be beautiful, and being a comic buffoon of a character, she will never be able to act on any of her crushes because when she gets excited, she gets a powerful nosebleed that usually leaves her unconscious – that typical anime sign of arousal that here becomes increasingly exaggerated, until Kanako is turning entire swimming pools red with blood and in the final episode, the planet, then the galaxy, then the universe gets the sanguine touch from her excitement.

Her life gets much more complicated as a result of Shidou Mariya, the grandchild of the school’s chairman, a beautiful angelic blond who also happens to be a boy in disguise. Kanako of course stumbles upon his secret, but this only leads to his true sadistic personality being discovered, and he and his laconic maid Matsurika set out to subjugate Kanako – which is not a particularly difficult feat. 

Add to this a cast of typical anime girls – the childish loli type, the strange and seemingly cold girl who seems to solve most of Kanako’s problems by declaring a love between them, the tall and glamorous archery star who has self-esteem issues…as well as, of course, an identical twin sister for Mariya who usually dresses up as a boy in the neighbouring school, and a truly bizarre ageless woman who looks like a small girl and serves as the terrifying dorm mistress. Oh, and in the last couple of episodes, a very silly male teacher/priest who tries to comfort Kanako in his own very strange but well-intentioned style, led astray by Mariya who makes up a story about a dead older brother he resembles.

Largely, it’s typical Shaft stuff, with typical Shaft shortcomings – the set-up is great, the humour is great, the acting is great (who would have thought Kanako had Dejiko’s seiyuu?), the references are brilliant and the pastiches are spot-on, but ultimately the problem is that…well, nothing really happens. I know it’s an episodic comedy, but after twelve episodes, when the season closes with the story of Kanako getting excited about the school’s swimming pool opening only to not get to partake in any of the lessons there, it feels anticlimactic. Yes, there’s a second season, and yes, this is really how most Shaft anime, from Pani Poni Dash! to Sayonara Zetsubou-sensei have worked, but the fact is that I would like some development to happen, some character arcs and some emotional involvement.  

Well, there’s a second season to come. I liked the scenario enough to be eager to watch. But I hope there’s a bit more to sink my teeth into, and not just the same repetition of lesbian-gets-nosebleed-over-cute-girls jokes.

Monday, 22 April 2013

ハンター×ハンター / HunterxHunter 2011: episodes 1-76

HunterxHunter has now reached the stage where it’s a long-runner, and I have to say it’s maintained its status as one I definitely want to watch as soon as it’s released each week. It hasn’t ended, but it has just entered the Chimera Ant arc – which means that we are now at last seeing material that has never before been animated. The previous adaptation ended after the Greed Island OVAs, so after 76 episodes Madhouse’s version has caught up.

And it looks as if much will change. With Togashi still not producing any more material and the anime moving at an impressive pace, it’s likely the Chimera Ant arc, which took so many years to tell in the manga because of ‘Hiatus x Hiatus’, will be quickly swallowed up by the anime, which may mean we get filler. Episode 76 saw the introduction of Kaito, who appears at the very beginning of the manga and the Nippon adaptation, and not only did that have a very different (and lesser) impact, but Madhouse also put in a filler backstory about his childhood. Does this mean we’ll be seeing more filler in the weeks to come? I can’t tell yet, but filler has done nothing buy harm for other big shounen series, especially Naruto – though as I often say as a proviso on this subject, some of my favourite One Piece anime moments have come from filler episodes. It may be that HunterxHunter does some good things with its material. Or it may mean the anime just ends again.

Either way, with the excitement of seeing the likes of Palm, Morau and Neferpitou animated for the first time in the intro, it seems a good time to break my impressions in two – not least because I’m going to have waaay too many screencaps.

Despite the Kaito situation and some odd changes to the first episode (as detailed in my first impressions), this version has largely been an attempt at a more accurate adaptation of the manga (albeit of course having to be somewhat less violent), with a faster pace, and as such does a better job of that NaruTaru-like trick of presenting a happy-go-lucky typical world and then increasingly adding depth and darkness to it, until it actually shocks. It doesn’t go as far as NaruTaru, of course, and certainly not as far as its manga, but it’s after all a Jump title, and it retains its action and adventure elements.

It’s in part just a change in the general aesthetics of popular anime, but Madhouse’s version manages to be a lot more cutesy. With simple lines, Gon and Killua in particular are made to look very baby-faced and I have to say, it oddly made me like Killua much more than I did before. Their somewhat homoerotic friendship is emphasised, especially in the little comedy skits at the end of each episode, but at the same time they seem more like innocent kids than in any other version, even knowing each of their pasts.

I’ve read a lot of people who seem to feel that you can only like one version. Manga readers hold the original supreme, fans of the original series criticise this one for rushing this or not placing enough emphasis on that, and then some newer fans tried the original but found it horribly dated, slow and uninteresting. But I’m yet again with that minority that sees each anime adaptation as a different spin that doesn’t replace the manga but brings its own little elements, and I love all three. Madhouse’s effort is beyond a doubt the most pleasant to look at, has main voice actors I prefer (even if some of the Ryodan’s original voices were much creepier and seemed to me to work better), plus tends to get the humour right far more.

Honestly, I have little but praise for this new effort. HunterXHunter is probably my favourite overall Jump manga, having a clever edge and an ever darker tone that I really enjoy, plus in the Ryodan probably the best group of antagonists of any show, the Bomb Devil seemingly an intentionally unimpressive follow-up act.

I’m not sure how the future will go for HunterxHunter. I’m very keen for the movie. But for the time being it’s going strong and I’m very much looking forward to the rest. I think it’s time for a new opening theme, though.

Chimera Ant arc: Link
Movie 1: Link

Thursday, 18 April 2013

四畳半神話大系/ Yojōhan Shinwa Taikei / 4 ½ Tatami Mythological Chronicles / The Tatami Galaxy

The artsy Noitamina time slot and arguably anime’s newest auteur, Yuasa Masaaki, suit one another well. Noitamina often offering the more experimental yet popular of today’s anime, it seemed a logical step from Kaiba for the director to work on another series for Madhouse, this time to air in the celebrated programming block. On the other hand, arguably Kemonozume would have been too odd for the context and Kaiba would not have been given nearly enough time to become what it deserved to be in only eleven episodes, so instead comes this, an adaptation of the rather strange novel called in English The Tatami Galaxy – only the second time Madhouse have done a series for Noitamina, the other being Paradise Kiss.
The plot is that a rather ordinary university student – never given a name – lives in a 4 ½-tatami room in Kyoto as he joins the different clubs his university offers, or takes up other extracurricular activities. Each time, usually through the interference of his strange-looking friend Ozu, and more often than not thanks to making bad decisions in his romantic affairs with various women – one of whom doesn’t really exist and another of who is someone else’s love doll – he ends up deeply regretting how he spent his university years, and wishes for the clock to be turned back so that he may do it all again differently. And again and again, he gets his wish, until eventually he begins to discover the myriad parallel lives he has lived from a strange place outside them, and begins trying to have an affect on them – often inadvertently setting into motion different events we say in previous episodes.

Oddly, while perhaps the most bizarre and transcendental of all the anime Yuasa has directed – save perhaps Mind Game – it is also the most immediate and accessible. The protagonist is recognisably just like a very large chunk of the target audience, being lonely, highly intelligent, essentially good-hearted though prone to being easily influenced, and crucially not unable to get feminine attention through some happy chance circumstances. Yet he also ends up in some desperately pitiable situations and there is a certain schadenfreude that comes from watching him be manipulated so easily and so cruelly by the Machiavellian Ozu.

The series was highly lauded – it was the first time a series rather than a feature won the Japan Media Arts Festival animation grand prize, for example. Its simple premise and repetition kept it just on the right side of utterly bizarre, and the now-familiar simplistic yet oddly sophisticated visual style of Yuasa anime again reached a wider audience. Certainly, I found it enjoyable – it was funny, it was clever, it was innovative and it no doubt played a considerable part in getting Yuasa’s 10-minute ‘Kick-Heart’ crowdfunded project for Production I.G. started (though I have no idea why Madhouse haven’t just got him working on another full series). I liked the bold visuals, with their Shaft-like shifts in style, the simplicity of the main characters, the stylisation of the secondary figures and the bizarre use of a cowboy as personification of the narrator’s libido – and genitals.

But…the fact is that what I was holding this up against was Kaiba, and I still have difficulty expressing just how highly I regarded that series. It looked so simplistic and babyish but there was so much under its surface and it was just so stunningly good – it was moving, it was intellectually challenging and it was quite brilliant in the way its visuals made the world so unique as it shifted and ebbed in a Protean mass of primary colours. The Tatami Galaxy, I am quite sure, shut out less of its potential audience at the beginning, with few likely to be put off by the visual style even if it’s relatively bold. But at the same time it just didn’t have the scope, the sincerity or the sheer emotional power. It feels much closer to Kemonozume than to Kaiba. Thus, I live in hope that – wrestler/nun short film aside – the next thing Yuasa works on will be more like Kaiba, and have that level of beauty.  

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic – fan animations

Today I want to talk about a very peculiar phenomenon that has come about from the very unusual combination of two  things: a huge fandom driven by creativity and one-upmanship, and the ease with which the vectors of a flash animation can be replicated even by amateurs. At first I hesitated, wondering whether fanworks based on My Little Pony are worth writing about on an animation blog – but the plain fact is that it’s very probable that the more prominent of these animations will be seen by far, far more people and very possibly take as much skill and dedication in animation as a good chunk of the shorts that get nominated for Academy Awards. Not to mention those that are made by reputable studios but don’t get to that level of recognition.

Any given fandom of decent size will have some animation produced for it, be it crude flash parody, redrawn anime openings or some little animated gif that becomes well-known amongst the community. The Japanese are very good at this, and medium-sized fandoms like those for Maria-sama ga Miteru or Rozen Maiden will produce a whole plethora of mini-animations. Fandom-driven Vocaloid has the companies behind it (and its spin-offs) producing some very impressive things, including live concerts with the animated singers. But as with so many things, the My Little Pony fandom takes it further.

Very easy to emulate but extremely difficult to get just right, from very early on there have been imitations of MLP’s distinctive colourful style. Original animations began to proliferate, especially to accompany the fandom’s more popular songs. These were at first largely very clunky, but still won admiration – witness for example the video to ‘Rainbow Factory’, which is little more advanced than the Assassin days on Newgrounds. Standards are somewhat higher now, and one awkward video to The Living Tombstone’s ‘Luna’ remix earned a lot of derision for being inexpertly-done.

The last few weeks have seen the game stepped up much further. Being in the Sonic fandom or the Naruto fandom, you might sometimes see a clever little mini-animation or a read a long fanfic or comic. MLP has its comics and its truly absurd several-novels-in-length fanfictions. But now the fans are beginning to produce full-length episodes. There’s even a feature-length musical on the horizon called Journey of the Spark. An episode-length animation in traditional hand-drawn cels is hopefully no too far off, and Jan Animations, who can probably emulate the show’s style best of anyone right now and provided the Flash for the Bronies documentary, looks set to start a sickly sweet set of shorts based on his slightly-creepy-because-he’s-Sweetie-Belle’s-Ask-TheCrusaders-boyfriend interpretation of background pony Button.

Because the first ‘full-length fan-made episode’ has now been released, here’s a run-down of some key animations currently in the fandom, not counting the likes of Friendship is Witchcraft, Turnabout Storm, The Mentally Advanced Series or its spin-off Rainbow Dash Presents, because those largely just use footage from the show or make extensive use of still images rather than offering original animation, which is after all the focus of this blog.

Double Rainboom: the episode that inspired this blog, released on March 31st and clocking in just shy of half an hour, it was a college project done large, it professed to have 100% show-accurate animation. It falls somewhat short of this because of its character animation, too often resorting to odd flailing, strange eyeball swells that don’t work like the show’s, and rather awkward direction. While long, it also has a lot of padding, and the clunky exposition lasts five minutes or more when it really needs about one. The attempts to fit all the ‘Mane 6’ in without having voice actresses for them all gets awkward, and unfortunately, it tries to do two things when it should have done one or the other – either give us a crossover parody or attempt a believable episode of the show. Doing both, neither feel like they quite work, though the latter part in which Rainbow Dash finds herself in another Faust world is far better. Everything else should’ve been covered in seconds, really, as it is really only drawn-out and inelegant. Dragging in references to everything from Avatar to Eva gets old, too.

Snowdrop: Released on March 21 with hints of a rivalry with Double Rainboom despite ostensible mutual support, there is really little need to compare the two. Snowdrop, too short to be called a full episode, is a cute background story about a little blind Pegasus filly who transcends the expectations of her cruel classmates to deeply impress the princesses. Set over a millennia before the main series, it is not an attempt at replicating the show’s style, but rather a melancholy, saccharine alternative. It is rather turgid, slow and mopes over its two-minute plot, but it is sweet, has an original concept and must be respected for doing what it does very seriously. Ultimately, it feels like a near-miss, but a very respectable one.

PONY.MOV Series: Yes, much as its maker may pour scorn on the fandom and biting though the humour is, the .mov films, which altogether run to well over half an hour, blazed a trail for fanmade-work in this fandom and the amount of effort that ought to go into them. Where ‘Epic Pony Time’ showed that show-accurate animation and good voice acting could have a huge impact, the .mov shorts showcased alternate, grotesque, Ren and Stimpy-style imagery and adult parody. Always aloof and disdainful, creator Hotdiggedydemon must be aware of the irony that his series created catchphrases like ‘Crush. Kill. Destroy. Swag.’ that are every bit as annoying as the widely-decried ‘20% cooler’. Personally, aside from being amused by the random irreverence of APPLE.MOV, I never got on with the series. They tried too hard to be funny, but weren’t. The jokes were too obvious and given too much time. People didn’t get the Fat Albert reference until it was shoved down their throats and then it was just seen-it-all-before ultraviolence. The best thing Max was doing was his Jappleack comic on the side, and then he went for unfunny bathos when she reentered the series, and the majority of watchers will never know that there was a much cleverer, much more sincere side-story going on in tandem with the animations. But even if I didn’t enjoy them, there is no denying the impact of the .MOV shorts or the skill behind them.

Re-enacted By Ponies series: also now covering more than half an hour largely thanks to a 15-minute Lord of the Rings parody, this series tries too hard in the other direction. It tries to reference all the awkward fandom memes, so expect lots of ‘20% cooler’, ‘Fluttershy is a tree’ and ‘Scootaloo is a flightless bird’. That said, the quality of animation is constantly improving, as is the voice acting, and though chock-full of such references, I barely cringed in the Pokémon episode. The creator may yet make something brilliant – if he learns a little subtlety.

Monday, 8 April 2013

ぷちます! -プチ・アイドルマスター- / Puchimasu! – Petit Idolm@aster –

As spin-offs go, this is one of the sillier ones. A little like Hetalia, this is a collection of sub-5-minute animations for the web that are so short they can’t exactly outstay their welcome, even when they’re not very good. I had much fewer fundamental problems with the property than I did with Hetalia, and indeed as I fell a little in love with some of the characters from The Idolm@ster, I was happy to see the characters return.

Yes, this is a cheapo flash spin-off gag series based on The Idolm@ster, based on a silly 4-koma comic from Dengeki Daiohs vidya-centric sister publication Dengeki Maoh, which largely revolves around the cute little idols finding cuter, littler, SD versions of themselves that speak in baby-talk versions of their catchphrases or names and have strange and stupid powers, from multiplying mogwai-style in water to being able to teleport when they hear loud noises.

I must say that it took a while for me to get interested, largely because my favourites didn’t appear until rather later than expected. But again, these episodes were so short that a bit of silliness is really all they need to satisfy. The animation was largely very linear and bouncy, in a similar style to the 2011 HunterxHunter skit segments after the credits, and in a bit of a departure from the main Idolm@ster series, the Producer is faceless again, like his game counterpart – though not because of a first-person perspective here. Instead, he just has a head that is a giant letter ‘P’.

Although by 64 mini-episodes (and an introductory ‘Waku waku’ special), we’ve seen quite a lot of the little petit idols, they’ve travelled the entire world and blown up the office on more than one occasion, this is light fluff and never feels like anything else. It does exactly what it promises and nothing more, giving fans another fill of their preferred idols but offering no surprises. I have no problems with that, but I must say it just makes me want another Idolm@ster season. Perhaps I should actually go and watch Xenoglossia. Meh. Sometime.

Additional - OVA

An OVA for Puchimasu! has been released for the DVDs, and unsurprisingly for such an inconsequential little spin-off series, it was inconsequential. The Producer sends the idols off to investigate some shrines to one of the little chibis, and about eight minutes of silliness ensue. I would kinda like to see these little characters in some epic, ridiculous situation, but this was fun too. 

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Princess Mononoke – Theatrical Adaptation from Whole Hog Theatre

Something of a canny move for what is evidently a small but enthusiastic troupe of young actors, this theatrical adaptation of Mononoke-hime was publicised by websites like Kotaku and now has a Kickstarter to fund a further run. Personally, I knew as soon as I heard of it that I had to go. This is the first time I’ve written a review of a stage production for this animation blog, but I’ve written about live-action adaptations before – like that of Grave of the Fireflies – and after all, Mononoke-hime is central to this blog. Without my personal mission to see pretty much everything the two principal directors of Ghibli ever did, this blog would probably not exist, and without my introduction to the studio via Princess Mononoke back when it was the latest release, who knows how much longer it would have taken me to see the classics?

I went in expecting something small-scale and gung-ho. There are certain signs that a theatrical adaptation is going to be a drama-student-y ‘intimate’ production and share little with, say, last week’s viewing pleasure The Book of Mormon in terms of production values, and the tight space of the New Diorama Theatre, the fact that the driving force was clearly a keen little theatrical company rather than a big business and the mentions of puppetry tipped me off that this was going to be the sort of thing found in a little Edinburgh fringe venue rather than The Dominion. Which is absolutely fair enough – this is after all a niche project despite how ubiquitous Ghibli seem at present, with Film 4 pushing the boundary of what is a ‘Ghibli film’ even further than Nausicaä by including Hols, and the Prince Charles Cinema ready to air double-bills of the studio’s films that I will be very keen to attend (Mononoke-hime included). Besides, a small, intimate setting and experimental staging has much to be said for it, particularly for such a beloved property.

Was it a success then? Largely, yes. There was a lot here that worked excellently, but a few things that emphatically did not. Overall, I felt it something of a near miss, but what it narrowly missed was not adequacy – it narrowly missed brilliance. It landed, then, on being a very good production with some notable setbacks.

We were ushered in while two puppeteers onstage manipulated little kodama – the funny little forest spirits that are so iconic, and were as instantly endearing here as they are in the film. Up above a stage dressed to resemble trees, a small band provided forest noises with bird whistles and woodblocks. This band was absolutely one of the best things about the production – with only a handful of members (I couldn’t see, but around 5-7), they quite brilliantly performed lovely arrangements of Joe Hisaishi’s celebrated soundtrack, including the famous vocal selections. I left humming ‘mononoke-tachi dake’ to myself and would have been quite happy to pay the price of admission to see the band play the soundtrack.

The action began with the attack of the boar god Nago, and I must say that it took a while for me to start to enjoy myself. The early scenes had rather too much theatricality, with messages passed along a line in a very self-consciously representative way, one of several instances in a production with excellent puppets where a bunch of people under a sheet just didn’t cut it (even with LED eyes) and…well, the fact is that there was a very odd casting divide that was more prominent in the early scenes. The female performers – San, Eboshi, Moro, Toki, even Kaya at the start there, were all excellent. They were committed to their parts and had gravitas, yet also understood subtlety. The guys…well, they all seemed miscast. It comes, I suppose, in part from having key members of a theatrical company rather than auditioning, but none of them quite got it right. Ashitaka in particular was wrong. It wasn’t that his appearance was very different from his animated counterpart (being a gangly, pointy-faced white guy) – after all, so was San’s but she was excellent – it was more that he didn’t have the qualities of noble determination, innocence or quiet strength of Ashitaka, and came over more like he should be in a quirky student comedy. This was particularly evident when he was with Jigo (Jiko in the original), who had a similar quality. Jigo, along with Gonza, could get away with being rather younger than the character is because they are fundamentally comic, and can be hammy. Similarly, clownish Kouroku can look like he should be in the Footlights without it jarring. The trouble is it seems like every male member of the cast was chosen as a suitable Kouroku, only for them then to fill all the other parts. In the end, the only male performer who truly impressed was the puppeteer for the elk Yakul.

This hangup very much got in the way of my overall enjoyment, but fortunately once the story got going and Ashitaka reached Iron Town and the surrounding forests, things markedly improved. Beside the strong performances from Eboshi and San, the puppets began to get truly impressive – Moro in particular is lovely, taking three people to form and taking up much of the stage – plus, surprisingly, having someone growling and grunting under someone else’s speech sounded remarkably good. When Lord Okkoto also appears alongside her on much the same scale – but even larger – plus smaller wolves and boars flanking them, it is a fantastic spectacle in such a small space, and the idea to use slowly-unravelling streams of tape as rivulets of blood is inspired. The Shishigami’s iconic design translates well to the stage, including in silhouette, and an almost direct adaptation of the script – with a few token additions about the ‘Mikado’ (not sure why they decided to use that old and never-actually-accurate bit of terminology here) and the history of the Emishi (of course, strongly stated by Miyazaki to be in the story at least distinct from the Ainu) – keeps things brisk.

There are contrived performance elements that I could have done without. Half-hearted dance movements taken from drama school creative movement classes I didn’t need. Awkward clunky fight scenes including a rather old-hat Matrix dodge while a strobe flashed were Brechtian in all the wrong ways. People under sheets, whether boar gods, groups of shadowy apes, streams or giant out-of-control blobs of death, never look very good, and with the latter there was a very unfortunate moment where one of the people making up the headless daidarabocchi kept going ‘Nyah’ like a very self-satisfied Japanese cat being transported along with the huge monster, which I assume was not the intended effect and made the scene absurd.

But ultimately, the quibbles I had were far outweighed by the excellent, inventive elements here, and in all honesty, I’m just delighted that some young people had the gumption, the means and the enthusiasm required to get the rights to the project, put the whole thing together and corner the market. All the best to them, and I hope they (and others) will revisit the idea again, perhaps with other films. I can imagine the right project having the impact of a His Dark Materials. We’ll see. 

Friday, 5 April 2013

The Croods

What a tangled production history The Croods went through. With its roots in an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Twits by John Cleese and the director of this picture Kirk DeMicco, it was announced way back in 2005 as Crood Awakening (which they should have stuck with) and was originally to be an Aardman clay animation project, which would have suited it rather well and probably have been better than The Pirates!

Cleese and DeMicco apparently wrote an early draft or two, chiselling out an odd-couple buddy movie script about two cavemen – an inventor and a luddite. The bare bones of that can be seen here, but the final result is rather different, with a family focus that takes that premise and makes it something quite different. Aardman’s association with Dreamworks came to an end, and Lilo & Stitch creator Chris Sanders, who joined as co-creator, wisely prioritised the brilliant How to Train Your Dragon, so production on The Croods slowed to a crawl and only now, in 2013, did the film finally surface.

It’s a little unfortunate, but the fact is that The Croods just gives an immediate impression of mediocrity, a bit like Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs did. It doesn’t look like its irreverence has a bit of an edge like Shrek, nor like it might just make you cry like Wall-E or Up. It feels too much like a painful attempt to make a very simple fable into an epic feature film as we join a family of cavemen who live by very strict rules that allow them to survive but never really live – until they are forced out into the open with a slightly unhinged young innovator who knows how to make fire and learn what it really is to push themselves. Its exaggerated but not very appealing designs also simply invite shrugs and indifference on a scale that seems set to be outdone only by the incredibly bland-looking Epic.

But that’s a shame, because The Croods is well worth the watch, and has a lot going for it under the surface. It’s all too polished, yes, and a bit manipulative, but it’s also smart, sweet, wholesome and has some wonderful visuals. It’s not brilliant, but it’s certainly a fair bit above average. It manages to have it all – silly slapstick, character-driven humour, teen romance that works, a positive family message, and even a rather brilliant scene of self-sacrifice that would have been an incredibly moving end to the movie, in a braver world where traumatising children didn’t matter. And so triumphant is what follows that the film gets away with having its cake and eating it.

It’s hard to pin down exactly what prevents the film really hitting the right emotional notes as a whole, but the fact is that it feels too small-scale despite being about characters who believe the end of the world is coming and see destruction that matches it. I thought at first it was that the effects only seem to be affecting so few people, but actually, I think that it’s that the story is so insular. There’s an impression that the feats of the Croods ought to at least bring them to another community, but they are their own little circle, and there is nothing more than that. Thus everything feels limited.

But this is not to say the film is not enjoyable, because it has a whole lot to commend it. Kind acts within a family sometimes are reward enough, and the imaginative creatures that populate the Croodacious period are wonderful – even if I suspect they would have somehow had more impact made of clay than of polygons.  

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

男子高校生の日常/ Danshi Koukousei no Nichijou / Daily Lives of High School Boys

 Despite the title containing ‘Nichijou’, this series has nothing to do with Nichijou – at least, directly. Nonetheless, it felt wrong of me to start Nichijou, then finish this first. Call it a strange mental block. So after a few episodes, I went back to finish Nichijou and put Danshi Koukousei no Nichijou on the back burner. A new job came along and a few other anime caught my interest, so I only just finished the series – plus the six short sketches that made it onto the blu-rays as extras (along with a segment undoing the strange decision to censor some creepy-crawlies, I’m guessing because while Moetan is okay to show on TV, sensitive dispositions might be offended by centipedes).

Daily Lives of High School Boys has its charm, but it is no Nichijou. The hook is similar – the title suggests ordinary lives, but actually there’s a lot of surreal comedy going on. In Nichijou it is genuinely surreal and outlandish, leading to talking cats, robot girls and many a destroyed shrine, whereas in the boyish equivalent it is largely more realistic. Occasionally some very unlikely props make their appearance, but the scale is certainly not to the same heights. Unfortunately, while in principal it sounds like this is something I would prefer, and certainly the likes of Azumanga Daioh didn’t have to get too out-and-out bizarre (beyond fantasy sequences) to be hilarious, the end result is that High School Boys’ 12 episodes turned out to be rather harder to get through than Nichijou’s 26, because they simply weren’t as funny, or as focused on a small and recognisable group.

The series essentially has three main characters – glasses-wearing Hidenori, who likes to mess with others; bleached-blond Yoshitake, who usually plays the dumb, susceptible role; and sweet-natured Tadakuni, who doesn’t tend to get the others’ jokes and quite often seems to be dressed up as a girl. One of the series’ running gags is that towards the end, despite at first being shown as the protagonist, Tadakuni hardly appears at all. Around these three are a whole variety of others – let’s see, there’s the one in the cap…the one with the face like a thug but a soft heart…the one who’s kinda dumb…the Fuku-kaichou…basically, the problem is that there’s a large ensemble cast who are more or less interchangeable and never really do anything that moves their superficial characterisation on. To compound this, there are also a number of girls, many of them drawn without eyes and characterised as cold-hearted thugs, including three who get a segment ‘High School Girls are Funky’. It’s all too much to cram into 12 episodes if the audience is to be able to care about any of the cast, and the result is that for such a short series, it really is boring – something that Sunrise-meets-Square-Enix really shouldn’t have to worry about.

The most memorable parts are ones that simply observe something amusing or silly about life, like the way girls can hurt a guy’s feelings by moving away from them on public transport as though disgusted, and how this gets reversed – or the clumsy guy who jumps into a river to save a cat only to find it was stuffed. The segment with the daft, clumsy girl who tries to meet boys on the riverbank to get them to speak lines appropriate to a novel, especially when juxtaposed with Hidenori’s cynical but panicked inner monologue, works great. Others are real misses, like most of the antics of the student council or the unlikeable ‘High School Girls are Funky’ counterparts – the latter only amused me once, at the end, when they playfully decide to have a fight to see which of them is the strongest and the quiet one subtly turns out to be the most terrifying.

The fact is that The Daily Lives of High School Boys will almost in its entirety be defined by its one most widely-shared skit, in which Tadakuni is tricked into wearing his sister’s clothes – and kinda likes it. The rest of the season, despite obviously having been made well in advance of airing, felt like a failed attempt to get away from that – like a band that has a hit single but hates it so tries so hard to step out from its shadow that everything goes awry. I’m quite glad that the series didn’t end up being a show about a sweet boy who kept ending up getting humiliated and feminised – it works in side-characters like Makoto in Minami-Ke, but a whole show based on that would not have worked. The trouble is that the show groped around for an alternative and never found it. The result of this was that The Daily Lives of High School Boys ended up every bit as indistinct as High School Girls – but luckily just about escapes the overall sexualisation of its subject.