Thursday, 29 August 2013

The Powerpuff Girls – season 4

Somewhat new territory for The Powepuff Girls’ fourth outing, as I mentioned in my thoughts on season 3 – where before, other than a few special double-length episodes, Powerpuff Girls episodes were roughly 9 minutes, so that two could air in a typically American ad-laden half-hour of television, here all but one episode is full-length. Only one episode goes into each half-hour slot (though of course, there are still the eleven billion commercial breaks Americans have to suffer through every couple of minutes), meaning each plotline has a lot more room to breathe, and there are rather fewer abrupt endings in the Python mould (which Adventure Time has since taken to new heights in kids’ animation).

Unfortunately, these episodes exhibit the same flaws that some of the thinner full-length episodes contained in the previous series – that is, not having quite enough meat to fill the full running time so filling the minutes with fluff. We get extended musical sequences with very little going on, repetition and some scenes where a point is made of mundane things being prolonged, which puts on the mask of being amusingly absurd and redundant, but is very easily seen for what it is – time-wasting. And not the amusing bathos of an episode like ‘Him Diddle Riddle’, where the waste of time is the whole point, but one that shows a lack of ideas.

And there’s evidence for that lack of ideas elsewhere in this season – the episode where Mojo goes back in time to prevent the Professor setting out on the path of science is, as its final joke references, something of a rehash of a previous episode where he tried to prevent the girls’ creation (though the 50s jokes and the chance to see the young Utonium were worth it!), and there are echoes of the Bunny episode ‘Twisted Sister’ in both ‘Stray Bullet’ and ‘Knock it Off’. For the second time, there is a Powerpuff spin on a very generic cartoon concept – in Season 2, we had the typical ‘character’s life is saved, so they pledge loyalty to the main characters, only to be so terrible as a servant that it becomes necessary to get rid of them’ with ‘Slave the Day’, and this time we get the ‘Kids try to set up two adults, and then despite the fact that they don’t care much for each other, something happens to make them fall in love, only for it to be so exaggerated that it causes the kids huge problems’ angle with half-episode ‘Keen on Keane’. Though both are very generic and by the time the episodes in question came about she was not the one coming up with the core stories, it’s worth mentioning that this season’s ‘Keen on Keane’ was the first episode to credit Lauren Faust as a director, and these typical cartoon ideas are both redone in episodes of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic

Faust also now frequently appears as a supervising director and on the writing committee, alongside several other future Pony collaborators – Amy Keating Rogers, Cindy Morrow and Chris Savino.

Oddly, the ‘season’, which may have been fairly arbitrarily demarcated later, aired over a period of very nearly two years, often with months between new episodes, and The Powerpuff Girls Movie was actually released in the middle of that, a mark of the series’ success. For all its success and consistently enjoyable writing, though, it certainly does feel like a series that’s been overstretched a little and is reaching the end of its conceptual strength. What trump cards were kept in reserve get used up, and are revealed generally to not have much thought behind them anyway – Buttercup at last has her unique talent (beyond being the toughest fighter) revealed, and it’s another example of the show’s simplistic bathos, and though I feel a little sorry for her (I liked Bubbles when I was small, but Buttercup’s been my favourite for years), her sheer exuberance and sense of triumph at the discovery won me over a little. The roster of villains remains largely fixed, with the only memorable new face the one-trick Whimsical Willy essentially occupying the same sort of role as Harold Smith as the unexpected and underwhelming villain, and another monster shown to be not so bad after all – and it’s undeniably hilarious to have Blossom’s ice powers and Bubbles’ linguistic gift illustrated by having a giant flaming gerbil that speaks Spanish.

I think we’re reaching a territory where the episodes are all-new to me. I’d only seen a handful of these before, and none of the episode titles for seasons 5 and 6 look familiar. We’ll see. Perhaps something will be unexpected and innovative, but I really feel like it’s time for The Powerpuff Girls to come to a dignified end. Two seasons more seems just about right. 

Friday, 23 August 2013

俺の妹がこんなに可愛いわけがない. / Ore no Imouto ga Konnani Kawaii Wake ga Nai. / My Little Sister Can’t be This Cute S2

The season itself ended a few weeks ago, but in the last few days we once again had a handful of OVAs to offer a ‘true end’, so I’ve been waiting to write this. This time, we didn’t get a superior alternative the series badly needed. This time they took the show to its logical conclusion, and I’m sure there can only be a small section of fandom, Eastern or Western, that liked it. 

I was quite happy to have more OreImo after rather enjoying the first series, despite knowing consciously it was uninspired stuff and having big problems with the premise. Season two switches animation studios to Kuroshitsuji and Sword Art Online fan-pleasers A-1 Pictures, and despite some much-needed development of minor characters, it ends up being rather painful to watch, as it seems determined to make all of Kyousuke’s potential lovers and make them all deeply unappealing. As if his harem isn’t absurd enough, we then have to go through the process of elimination, and unlike nonsense like Da Capo or a Key VN, we can’t have the characters turn into foxes or turn out to be ghosts in an ostensibly more realistic story, so they all just get made to act really stupidly.

There are still things that are done very right here – Kuroneko’s silly pretenses, the little gags revolving around Akihabara and the outspoken fujoshi in the club. But, as the series goes so far as to make reference to, the same things are being done by other shows, and done better – the adolescent delusion thing in Chuunibyou, the otaku world with yaoi humour in Genshiken, and the harem angle…well, everywhere.

What really puts nails into coffins, though, is the way that almost the entirety of Kyousuke’s ridiculous harem gets dismantled personality-wise. Where before they were flawed but ultimately likeable characters with enjoyable quirks and foibles, here they become severely difficult to like. Apart from Saori, who finally gets the inevitable funny-looking-girl-is-actually-sublime-beauty-when-she-takes-off-her-glasses treatment and a remarkable trivial backstory, most of the character development goes entirely the wrong way. Cute Kuroneko made her fanboys cheer by finally taking the initiative and dating Kyousuke, but immediately began a programme of manipulation and callousness that destroyed what was enjoyable about her behaviour, especially as her ultimate goal seemed to be to establish some weird relationship between herself and the two siblings that put her in a bizarre servant-like position. Borderline Yandere Ayase, who was clearly introduced primarily to put forward the reminder that a lot of people consider otaku habits disgusting, ended up being one of the several million girls who fall for Kyousuke for no better reason than that he is a wish-fulfilment avatar, and having a very awkward attitude that showed her obvious attraction while also constantly calling Kyousuke disgusting. Then there was loli idol Kanako, who was also introduced to make a statement – cutesy idols are not necessarily cute on the inside – but then got shoehorned into being Kyousuke-Lover #7297327, finally getting a ridiculous confession scene that would kill her career and was so awkwardly shoved into the script that it was obvious she just needed to be dealt with and ignored – fading into the background much as Ayase did post-confession.

Then of course comes Kirino, who continued to drop from likeably divided character to selfish, whiny, irritating brat. Her finest moments after tearfully coming home with Big Brother from the States to share her life with him include getting a fake boyfriend to make him jealous, mood-swinging like a broody mother gorilla whose baby has been replaced by a bunch of bananas and seeming to think the most important part of a relationship is being able to dump your stuff in your lovers’ room. The only one who has her head screwed on right is ‘plain’ Manami, who ends up having a fist-fight with Kirino, humiliated by stupid and patronising speeches that amounted to ‘we don’t care what others think, nyeh nyeh’, and if she has any self-esteem at all, completely cutting ties with those cruel siblings.

As for any male characters who might have been introduced…well, one or two seconds of screentime at the end really fails to convince anyone they had a meaningful place here.

It’s even more of a slap in the face when you are told that the decision that was made to seem so life-changing, that they potentially threw away all their other friendships for, was something they agreed to do for only a few weeks. Really? They treated Manami like that for a stupid temporary trial run? Horrible, horrible people.

And so ends Ore no Imouto ga Konna ni Kawaii Wake ga Nai. The full series, not just this second part, which is differentiated by the full stop after ‘Nai’. I can’t say I’m sad to see the back of it, even though I most assuredly had fun with it at the beginning and don’t regret the ride it took me on.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

MÄR -メルヘヴン- / MÄR: Mär Heaven

MÄR has been in my life a long time now. I wrote my thoughts on the manga in 2005, after having read it for a couple of years back in the days of SnoopyCool. And today, I finally finished the anime - so that’s probably a full decade of slowly consuming the media based on the adventures of Ginta and co from the creator of Flame of Recca. And maybe I’ll find some time soon to finish off MÄR Omega too.

By the makers’ standards, I suspect MÄR is considered a success. It ran for no less than 102 episodes, through four seasons, and being aimed squarely at kids, I have no doubt it had a decent TV slot – no late-night anime for adult otaku this. There were spin-off games and an American dub. That’s longer thanOnmyou Taisenki, longer than Hikaru no Go, and almost exactly the same as D.Gray-Man. They must have thought it was worth continuing for so long, too, because even when they ran out of manga material to adapt, they shoehorned in lengthy filler that apart from giving more screen time to Loco was almost entirely terrible.

But I suspect that a significant contributor to this was also what was really the main reason this adaptation was a disappointment. Small studio SynergySP, in their first solo animation project (after the group effort of Mermaid Melody Pichi Pichi Pitch) took all the tips from parent studio Toei to make a long-running season on the cheap. Like Yakitate!! Japan, this one was a real disappointment when it first came on, because I wanted to see the impressive world of the manga on the screen, and it looked dismal. Unlike Yakitate!! Japan, when it comes down to it the manga didn’t have much going for it other than the visuals, so reducing the extremely detailed fairy tale-inspired designs of the manga to the level ofPowerpuff Girls Z really, really damaged it.

You see, MÄR is about as generic as shounen manga can get. A schoolboy slips through a mysterious doorway to a magical world, where he discovers that the red sun…sorry, the reduced gravity gives him enhanced strength and agility. After getting himself a very special ‘ÄRM’ to fight with, our hero Ginta joins the struggle against the Chess – and the rest of the series is basically a tournament of one-on-one fights, so typical of Jump titles, though at least Naruto interrupted its one when it started to drag. I was very disappointed with the final chapters of MÄR because the much-vaunted knights’ battles were no more challenging than the rooks and bishops who had come before them. And then there’s an obvious little twist for the King and the series ended. The manga spins it out some more, with the King being more formidable and even killing off most of the cast before they inevitably come back through the power of friendship, but essentially it’s the same.

Which leads to the main problem of the visuals being so underwhelming. The very basic colouring and clunky animation only make the fairly neatly-done CG look more daft because of the contrast, and especially as the more outlandish characters appear, and this only leads to disappointment. 

First impressions, 16.04.2005: Episode one: not bad. Not great, but not bad, either.

The anime, like the Manga, should get a lot better once it gets into its stride. The first manga chapters were pretty awful (thank god we lost the talking rocks) - though I'm looking forward to seeing Chappu and Moku-sama in ep 2. The voice cast was good: fairly generic, but servicable. Ginta's voice was fine, though he didn't look runty enough in the beginning. Dorothy, Alvis and Babbo all sound great - not quite as I imagined, but great nonetheless. The only voice I didn't like was Ginta's schoolfriend's - and the OP was very unimaginitive and dull. Some of the CG looks great, some not so much. Still, I have high hopes!

Mär is never anything but generic shounen, but it becomes GREAT generic shounen when the main plot kicks in.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Powerpuff Girls – season 3

Well, as we previously established, season 2 was largely a very direct continuation of season 1 of The Powerpuff Girls. And with season 4, the show makes a notable transition – from almost full seasons of half-episodes to having more fleshed-out full-length episodes each time. So where does that leave season 3?

Well, while in a broad sense it’s undeniably more of the same, and once again there was only a gap of about a month between the last episode of the second season and the first of this one, there is certainly a little more experimentation – and long gaps between the first episodes suggest some development was going on. The girls moving to Citiesville for an episode, a full episode riffing on American cereal advert characters (which I’m sure I didn’t get the first time I saw it, and which again makes me wonder how this cartoon travelled to so many countries so well), an episode where the girls decide to emulate their favourite comic heroes (Blossom opting for DC, Bubbles for cutesy manga and Buttercup for Spawn) and of course, the brilliant ‘Meet the Beat-Alls’, chock full of Beatles references, allow some chances for stylistic experiments, which help the show get more complex. 

With the characters and formula firmly established, the writers also take the opportunity to give the girls a dark side, with them learning lessons after stepping deep into moral grey zones plentiful: when they discover the Professor is stealing toys for them in their sleep, they gleefully encourage him; when Princess makes crime legal, they turn criminal to show her how stupid that idea was; when Buttercup discovers that she can get money from the tooth fairy, she starts to purposely knock out others’ gnashers; and when they find out that they can get candy for beating Mojo, the girls strike a deal with him to keep busting him out of jail so that they can once again catch him and get their reward – even if it means great damage to Townsville.

It feels like the traces of Hanna-Barbera are being left behind, and the new identity of Cartoon Network is being firmly established, despite more mini Jetsons and Top Cat cameos, and even some familiar Flinstones faces (and on a tangent, Powerpuff Girls heavily featured Totoro long before everyone declared it oh-so-surprising in Toy Story 3). That said, dem terrible repeating crowds and backgrounds, plus a whole episode making a point of recycling animation from a season 1 episode recall the studio’s lowest points.

For the first time, the name Lauren Faust starts cropping up on storyboarding credits – starting with the stylish ‘Equal Fights’ episode. It becomes very clear the future My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic creator cut her teeth on what is after all very much the future bizarre hit’s spiritual predecessor – the formula of writing an episode by taking one of the characters and exaggerating one of their personality traits to make a silly story was very well-established here. There’s Buttercup’s teeth adventure, Bubbles’ love of animals going so far that she tries to keep a whale in her cupboard, and Blossom’s vanity is explored in an episode where her sisters give her a terrible haircut. Otherwise, most of the episodes take established characters and put them in fish-out-of-water situations – the professor becomes a fellow superhero but, being a dad, embarrasses his girls; the Mayor attempts to fight crime himself rather than relying on the girls; the Gangreen Gang also gain powers; and one of the fearsome monsters turns out to just be looking for his cat. The show is largely done with introducing new villains, with new antagonists really limited to some old people and a lazy cop turned bad, which are basically gimmicky one-off ideas that don’t lend themselves to any reappearances.

A few new steps in interesting directions make this series stand out a little – but really only because I’m watching in a way that specifically lends itself to looking out for developments. Syndicated, these episodes could easily fit in alongside any from the first couple of series. And going into series 4, I largely find myself wondering if we’ve seen the last of the Rowdyruff Boys. Was it just because of their prominence in the intro that I felt like they were in more than one ep? 

Monday, 12 August 2013

Soul Eater (manga)

It seems like a slew of manga I started reading a few years back have come to an end, though really it’s just this and Deadman Wonderland. I’ve been reading Soul Eater for longer, though, and in the end have certainly enjoyed it more, so I’m quite sad to see it come to an end.

When the anime adaptation ended with a rather rushed and dissatisfying final arc – though I did enjoy Crona’s central place – my main thought was that it was fine that it got botched together, because I could continue to read the manga for the true ending, and hey, maybe one day the rest would get animated in a special, a movie or a revival. And that’s remained my attitude as the series has faded from public view (as most manga do when their anime ends) and tied up its loose ends.

The final arcs have had problems – I found Noah’s final design very lazy and unappealing, the ‘I am your brother’ reveal (or close enough) is overdone and rang hollow for me, and both in the arc where the characters enter the ‘book of Eibon’ and have their genders reversed and in the painful first half of the very last chapter, which really ought to have been spent on better things, mangaka Oukubo Atsushi’s attempts at racy humour are without fail swings that miss. It actually stung that rather than giving more attention to my favourite character Crona’s grand and tragic gesture closing out the series, he wanted to do a series of bad boob jokes.

But still, Soul Eater was well worth the time I gave it. As I said, I adored Crona, completely gender-ambiguous, kooky and so vulnerable behind all that strength. Excalibur remains one of manga’s funniest creations, but his scenes with Shinigami at the end were judged so perfectly and his presence made the scene so much more poignant, which was deeply unexpected. Kid became far more interesting in his interactions with the witches (nyamu!), BlackStar became ever less of a cliché (though never main character material) and of course Maka remains one of the only effective shouen protagonists that is not only a girl, but a girl absolutely held peer by the fighting boys around her. That she is also not at all written so that her gender is an issue or even a focal point makes her remarkable, and she is quite simply a good character at the centre of it all, which ought not to be something strange, but absolutely is – in all action series, not just shounen, with her closest parallel in my mind being the eponymous main character of Avatar: Legend of Korra. Of the newer characters, I found Gopher to be hilarious, for even if he was somewhat one-note, the daft variations on that theme were fantastic.

There wasn’t really much in the manga that would surprise those who stopped at the end of the anime, but that just shows a consistent story arc throughout a work – and there was one thing I didn’t see coming, the highly distinctive sun and moon ended up being given a bit more attention in quite a brilliant little twist. But to really see the way the story ought to have ended, the manga definitely does what the anime didn’t manage, which is to satisfy.

Though if we were to have some more, and there is certainly scope for more about what happened at the very end, I would not complain. Until then, there’s always the fun little Soul Eater Not! 

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Monsters University – plus The Blue Umbrella

The main qualm I heard about Monsters University, the newest of the Pixar follow-ups, was that without being pinned down by the cuteness of a human little girl, it would lose its emotional centre and relatability. But honestly, I don’t quite see how one relates to Boo and if Pixar can make its audience identify with cars, rats and insects, it can certainly do the same with monsters, who after all were the audience’s focal point in the original with Boo arguably one of the studio’s most alien characters in many ways.

The film is Pixar’s first prequel, and and the one with the longest gap since its original at 12 years. As with the purportedly terrible potential Toy Story 3 about Buzz’s being recalled to his Taiwanese factory, originally the Monsters Inc. sequel was to have been taken out of Pixar’s hands, until the famous Steve Jobs-Michael Eisner row over whether Toy Story 2 counted as a contracted feature film or not blew over and everyone accepted that the people to make Pixar sequels were, well, Pixar.

Before the feature came, of course, one of Pixar’s shorts, a rather mawkish story about a world of anthropomorphic faces on inanimate objects (pareidolia is always popular on the Internet, too) observing and finally helping out in the love story between two umbrellas – and of course their shadowy owners. Rather like the envelope short that accompanied Cars 2, while as a narrative and a concept it was rather lacking – the kind of sweet but ineffectual idea Pixar seems to churn out – as a technical experiment it was very interesting. With a focus on replicating shallow depth-of-field effects, surfaces affected by rainwater and distant skies in dim twilight, it managed an absolutely astounding level of realism…but sadly enough the effort felt almost wasted to me, for I knew that most wouldn’t even notice the incredible feat and that the very same film could pretty much be made in live action with a bit of CG to edit the faces in the objects and the little cartoon eyes and mouths of the umbrellas.

The main event was everything a Pixar film ought to be – big-hearted, carefully paced but with a slow final act tying up the loose ends, beautiful to look at while stylised in a tasteful way, and at times bittersweet. Sure, the concept kinda contradicts how Mike says things that suggest he’s known Sulley since they were small kids, but for the sake of a good, solid story that’s worthwhile.

And a good, solid story we get – Mike, inspired by an eventful school trip, is very excited by the prospect of becoming a Scarer. So he goes to Monsters University, meeting brash, overconfident Sulley there – who is riding on his family name and falling back in his natural talents. Of course, hard work begins to match natural ability and the two develop a rivalry – but one that gets them into deep trouble with the fearsome Dean Hardscrabble and eventually leads to them having to team up with a hopeless fraternity in order to prove themselves capable scarers. But Mike is no scary monster – only a master strategist.

There are some very interesting decisions here. Sulley, so much the centre of the second film’s narrative, is presented as so unlikeable that it takes a lot for him to be redeemed – which the writers manage to pull off, but a little late for my tastes. It’s good that dishonesty is shown as being very severely punished, and taking an absurd risk even more so, but I had some issues with that oh-so-American idea that hard workers can enter a company in a very lowly position and rapidly rise up to become its stars – though arguably there’s an element of that in the career of newest Pixar director Dan Scanlon, who has been with Pixar over a decade after storyboard work for the likes of The Little Mermaid II. I also felt like there were notable omissions – what do Sulley’s highly-respected parents think all through the second half of the film? While the fraternity are used to being teased, was there really only that much fall-out when they were mocked on a very large scale?

Once again, the cast here may seem unlikely but provide fantastic spark and are clearly having a lot of fun – though I’m quite amazed they got Steve Buscemi in for about eight lines. Then again, him and Billy Crystal don’t exactly seem overworked just now. Helen Mirren also does what she does best and steals the show over and over, though nothing can quite match up to the return of Roz. New characters don’t come over as quite so instantly memorable as the original’s ensemble, but do the job.

It’s a companion piece to a better film, let’s be clear on that. But it is still very much worth the price of admission. 

And on a side-note, an even better explanation as to why kids not being toxic is set up in the original film was proffered to me: to stop the likes of Randall setting up mass plants to torture kids and harvest their screams. Now that’s a chilling thought. 

Thursday, 1 August 2013

The Powerpuff Girls: Season 2

A little like long-running Japanese shows like Ojamajo Doremi or Hitman Reborn!, it feels a little arbitrary to split up The Powerpuff Girls into seasons, given that episode one of this season aired less than a month after the big conclusion of season 1

And as I mentioned in my impressions of that season, it’s clear that at least the first few episodes were already under production at the very beginning, because the intro features Princess and Lenny Baxter, who are the villains of the first two half-episodes.

That said, while seasons 1 and 2 feel like very much two halves of a whole, season 3 begins to depart from the basis and experiment a little more. So really, what this second season serves to do is to really lay down the formula, and that’s what it does. Other than the two episodes featuring the Smiths and that belated introduction of Princess, season 2 doesn’t rely on establishing new recurring villains, and instead has great emphasis on getting its leading cast of antagonists firmly esconsed in the minds of its young viewers. Mojo appears in numerous episodes, the Gangreen Gang get to do their thing a few more times and even Sedusa gets a second outing. 

The series also does two rather clever things to get its baddies remembered – firstly, it puts different villains in the same episodes together to collaborate and play off each other, so that the Amoeba Boys might find one of Mojo’s dastardly plans, or Princess might decide to fund another of the baddies, all building to that season 3 classic ‘Meet the Beat-Alls’; and secondly, it has a lot of the characters do impressions of each other – so silly voices are imitated (especially the Mayor’s), more than once Him gets an imitation featuring a feather boa (as well as a great episode about time dilation at speeds approaching the speed of light), and a whole (brilliant) episode is given over to Bubbles thinking she has become Mojo. It’s remarkable how seeing a character impersonate another will highlight their most memorable features and as a result make them more familiar.

Which isn’t to say the recurring villains make this series. There are some neatly-done one-off characters, like the ‘imaginary friend’ Patches and the unforgettable fourth Powerpuff girl Bunny. The series takes a pop at box-ticking cartoons with a brilliant overly-Politically Correct alternative superhero group for a while, and takes pride in very grey moral areas like when broccoli aliens are dispatched by being eaten alive. 

There’s also some nice straightforward episodes that are purely character-driven, covering what happens when the girls just play at being the girls, and if Buttercup (the tomboys are always the best!) seemed to be given a relatively short shrift in development in the last series, here she conspicuously takes centre-stage for episodes covering her stubborn and insecure sides, with one about her refusing to take a bath and another about her relying on her comfort blanket.

Season 2 of Powerpuff Girls may be essentially more of the same, but that is actually quite a clever thing for it to be.