Saturday, 28 September 2013

フリー!/ / Free! / Free – Iwatobi Swim Club

Believe it was something quirky doing the rounds organically or believe it was all a cynical viral marketing ploy, the fact remains the same – KyoAni’s short promotional film about some boys showing off toned bodies as they swam did the rounds of the Internet anime fandom, Japanese and international, and a broad audience became somewhat ironically enamoured of it. Those who didn’t care for the rippling muscles found the absurdity of the premise and the distance from the moe-moe girls of previous KyoAni efforts very entertaining and soon there was quite the buzz about the possibility of a full ‘swimming anime’.

And of course, it came to pass, and ended up quite the hit. Fujoshi took to it for obvious reasons, churning out their pornographic fan-comics incredibly quickly, while straight male fans continued to watch because something so camp and silly made them laugh. Of course, there were some detractors, mainly people who didn’t see any irony and found the whole thing boring and girls with a slightly holier-than-thou attitude of having been into homoerotic anime long before one was a hit on this scale, so they couldn’t possibly deign to watch it, but Free! was marketed very well and got bigger and bigger.

I liked Free!, but I don’t think I was quite doing it right. I would certainly tick many of the boxes in any fudanshi test, but I didn’t watch Free! for the shipping – none of the pairings appealed to me, the muscles I found most unsightly (even cute shota Nagisa had a chiselled chest) and if I were forced to chose a ‘ship’ I would probably go for Nagisa and random-other-team-uke Aiichiro, which is definitely doing it wrong. They never even interact. I didn’t want to see these half-naked guys making out. And nor did I want to laugh at the stupidity here. I mean, it was stupid, and that’s what’s enjoyable about a lot of sports anime (just look at Prince of Tennis and Inazuma 11), but if that was all there was to it, I would only get to about episode 3 before growing to dislike it. Personally, I am actually a sucker for the classic embittered-rival-grows-passionate-about-surpassing-the-main-character storyline, which I associate most with Hikaru no Go but is everywhere from Code Geass to the movie Amadeus.  I didn’t like Rin, but I was very interested in his interactions with natural genius Haruka.

Not a lot happens in Free! – the boys decide to revive their school’s swimming club, struggle to recruit the fourth member who will allow them to compete, train hard and then go to the Nationals for the relay. Meanwhile, they have to struggle with the politics surrounding the presence of their rival Rin, who had been the final member of their dream team back when they were adorable shotas. Of course, athletic performance is directly linked to frame of mind, and when the boys are together they begin to see the most absurd symbolic elements like their spirit animals swimming ahead of them. But it is enough drama to sustain 13 episodes, and it’s no surprise that the final screen hints at more to come – after all, KyoAni are known for wringing every last drop out of a successful property…just look at K-On!.

Everything about Free! is obvious and superficial. The comedy is broad but occasionally inspired, from Nagisa’s penguin fixation to Rei simply sinking when he tries any stroke but the butterfly. The writing is obviously aware that fandom will pair off the guys and pushes certain ‘ships’, like ReixNagisa, which is probably the most annoying thing about the show. Emotions are broad and guys will grab each other and start swinging fists and rolling in the dirt together when they have a deeply-felt point to make. Kohais care deeply for their sempais and will come close to tears when they see them in a bad mood. It’s cute and dumb, but it’s meant to be, and it thrives on that.

I can’t say Free! is a great piece of anime writing, or that I’d watch it again. But it kept me amused and interested throughout, and I will tune in for more. Just don’t expect me to coo at the hot boys or to laugh at the stupidity. That’s not why I like Free! – I like it for its bare bones, not its gimmicks. 

Rozen Maiden: Zurückspulen (2013)

Rozen Maiden’s lauded revival, now with Studio Deen (in better form than usual) rather than the just-about-avoiding-being-defunct Studio Nomad, stumbled at the first step. They decided to devote the first of their mere 13 episodes to a lengthy flashback covering the original Rozen Maiden manga. It was so brief and rushed that newcomers would be utterly baffled, while established fans who found it unnecessary were I’m sure largely bored. It was nice seeing key scenes redrawn looking pretty, and the lack of Barasuishou heavily hinted that the Deen version was going to discard all the anime-original plots of the first seasons, but if the rumours that this season was relatively unsuccessful in Japan are true (though an upcoming Nendoroid of Shinkuu being promoted while we were there hints that there’s still plenty of interest in the property), this opening stumble may have quite a bit to do with it. In a strong season with lots to watch, I can see many outside the core fanbase being put off.  

And that’s a shame, because with episode 2, we saw that Deen were going back to the manga, where conveniently Peach-Pit had broken off their part one and dived into what they call Rozen Maiden II. The break allowed for a reset here as well. As so often happens to me – most notably with Fullmetal Alchemist  - I was a fan of Rozen Maiden’s original anime and kept up with the manga while it seemed the larger chunk of the fandom got bored and left, so was well-versed with II and delighted it was going to be animated. There are some wonderful moments and my favourite doll, Souseiseki, got great moments.

The second part of the manga focuses on an older Jun – a university student – whose life diverged from the protagonist of the original when he chose not to volunteer to wind Shinkuu’s key. This Jun continued in his lonely hikkikomori life, eventually dragging himself out to be a university student with a dead-end part-time job. As Kirakishou, the seventh doll without a body of her own, has set her rather unhinged plans into motion, Jun and Kanaria are trapped in an N-field and Shinkuu has to turn to the Jun of another timeline to help her.

Several fan-pleasing events can follow, although lovers of Hinaichigo are less fortunate than others. With a new antagonist, the ever-popular Suigintou can become a grudging ally, and her silly little squabbles with Shinkuu are adorable. When Kirakishou tricks Jun into giving her a body, Suiseiseki appears and her actions lead to the revival of her twin, which made me very happy. Kanaria finally gets to show a little more competence, and moved up in my personal order of preference to third place, after Souseiseki and Shinkuu. And Megu was given more depth, ahead of the events of the next arc.

But that’s the problem here, really – that Rozen Maiden was given just 13 new episodes, with only 12 having real content. That was enough to give Unwound World Jun his story arc (though it’s not the last we’ll see of him), including the satisfying ending where he realises how much his life has improved after opening up to others, working hard and making friends. But the part of Rozen Maiden II that’s really enjoyable is where it returns to the Wound World, and all we got of that was a cliffhanger that ended so abruptly it almost seemed a desperate bid to secure funding for a follow-up.

I firmly believe we’ll see more Rozen Maiden animated. It remains highly popular, even if the fandom has fizzled out somewhat, and not being the smash hit the original was doesn’t mean Zurückspulen (meaning ‘rewind’, by the way) is considered a failure. But I also am conscious this season hasn’t left the property in the best place. Unwound World Jun is compelling and sympathetic, but takes quite some time to grow on audiences, and it is having both parts of the equation that makes Rozen Maiden II so enjoyable, which is missing here. The story may have felt on a lesser scale than its predecessors, and Kirakishou is nothing like the villain Gin was. This would be a terrible time for the series to fizzle out, but there is certainly a possibility that will happen. Even more OVAs would be perfectly acceptable.

I hope there will be an outcry from the fans in Japan…and I’m certain there are things Deen will animate that will be less popular. So I am fully prepared to wait it out for another few years to see more Rozen Maiden. Because it remains something I love, and the new animation style – with funky wings for Gin, more doll-like proportions for the Rozen Maidens and cute, expressive faces – strikes just the right note with me. 

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Ghibli Museum Short – やどさがし / Yadosagashi / Searching for a Home (plus Film Guru-Guru)

Today at the Ghibli Museum, the screening was of Yadosagashi, Miyazaki’s 2006 short with all sound effects provided by the human voice. Waiting eagerly in the queue clutching our little reproduction-cel tickets, I tried to read the summary – happy-go-lucky girl Fuki sets out to find a new family home, with her big rucksack full of apples. Before I could give in and admit how few of those kanji I could actually read, though, the doors opened and in we went.

Yadosagashi is a pretty perfect film for the setting – light and fluffy, but clever and highly charming. Made, presumably, during the Ponyo production period, it reflects the same whimsicality and is drawn in a simple, unshaded, rather loose style that reminds me of Panda Kopanda. Miyazaki is still capable of making films like a newcomer, and that is an uncanny talent.

Fuki sets out away from the angry roars of the roadside to return to nature. It is lucky she has her apples, because whenever she comes across something a little scary, she offers it an apple, which tends to placate it, or at least distract it. Eventually, the rain starts to fall and she takes shelter in a little hut, at first disturbing the vast numbers of creepy-crawlies living there, but then later befriending them. Yes, this film does the great service of making cockroaches and centipedes adorable! Fuki’s parting gift of an apple to the forest spirit ensures her a safe journey onwards, back towards the man-made.

The visuals are very light and almost slapdash, but that gives a whimsical charm to proceedings. The sound is perhaps the real focus. Instead of realistic sound effects, everything is done with the human voice imitating the real world or speaking onomatopoeias. Yes, Akagi fans rejoice – even ‘Zawa’ makes it in. This can be a little goofy, but that’s okay, because it all comes over as charming and a little silly, which is just what is intended. It has also been noted as perfect for an international audience, because there is almost no dialogue and most of what is actually spoken is a little garbled. The story is perfectly intelligible and the only tiny point my friends could have missed was the forest spirit asking Fuki to come visit again some time.

Light, gentle and quite lovely, but not without some excellent humour, it was brilliant and has given me a thirst for more – but I’ll have to wait until my next visit to the museum for anything else, I suppose! Who knows how many years hence? I must resist camrips…the experience of sitting in that theatre was too wonderful to settle for a shaky version of Mei and the Kittenbus or the one about the little egg someone has sneakily filmed – not to mention against the artist’s intentions. But it’s hard!

Also showing in the lovely downstairs exhibition room, alongside a breathtaking wheel of models that a strobe light made to seem like was coming to life, was former museum animation Film Guru-Guru, which was a simple but lovely short about two creatures rapidly evolving in competition with each other – the highlight of course being dinosaurs – until one became a bird and the other a mammal, the latter eventually becoming human and going to find where the other had flown off to, only to find a girl for a little kiss. Sweet, simple, playful and perfectly-executed, I would love to see it on the big screen.

I’m sure the rest of the animations will eventually come out for home consumption. Very few Ghibli fans can afford to go to the museum enough times to see all the films. But for now, this will have to do! 

Saturday, 14 September 2013


Despite the killer cast, I didn’t catch Epic in the cinemas, and I didn’t regret that. The trailer, mixing FernGully with Honey I Shrunk the Kids while centring the piece on the oh-so-witty dialogue of the most plain-looking female protagonist I think I’ve ever seen in animation and a romantic lead that looked like the offspring of Robert Pattinson and an Easter Island head, did absolutely nothing for me, so I thought it should be one I leave until I see it on a plane. Which worked out quite well, because that’s what I did. On our trip to Japan, it was one of the (vaguely) new films on offer.

It was what I expected it to be – a bit clinical and charmless, but entertaining enough all the way through to be very watchable. Nothing that will have a big impact or take Fox into the truly big leagues of feature animation, but also not an embarrassment. So in-keeping with Chris Wedge’s other films.
A young woman who is feeling an emotional disconnection from her ‘stranger’ of a father because of his utter obsession with catching fairies becomes shrunk down and involved in an apparently epic confrontation between the ‘Leafmen’, who guard the queen of the forest, and the Boggans who wish to see everything rot. The queen has been gravely injured and is passing her power on through a pod, which young M.K., uptight Ronin and wildcard Nod have to protect. If it blooms in the moonlight of the solstice, the forest is saved, but if it blooms in darkness...

It’s predictable stuff, but spiced up by some lively performances – Colin Farrell doing his best noble Irish warrior, Christoph Waltz finally getting to do a full-out hammy bad guy yet still introducing nuance to the role, and Beyonce and Steven Tyler rocking up to steal their scenes. Then there’s a comic relief slug and snail duo, who manage to stay just on the right side of annoying, and also a crazy three-legged pug, which you can’t really go wrong with.

The trouble really was that perhaps excepting Colin Farrell, none of the major characters seemed to care very much what they were doing or believe in their lines. About the only character I rooted for, despite an initial distaste for the cutesy not-far-from-Alice-in-Wonderland personified flowers, was the young flower girl enamoured with the Queen, who despite having an important role in the grand scheme of things barely gets 5 lines – but does them with a real infectious enthusiasm.

It would be more interesting to see the film actually deal with the ideas of fathers wasting their lives and failing to be good parents, and with its multiple strands coming together rather better, but ultimately, it just about satisfied. 

Thursday, 12 September 2013

The Powerpuff Girls Movie – plus shorts and commercials

Midway through the fourth season of The Powerpuff Girls, where ideas were starting to run a bit low, the theatrical movie version came out. It may seem like an obvious cash-in now, but it was hardly common for Hanna Barbera at the time, this being in 2002 their first feature film since the lamentable Once Upon a Forest almost a decade earlier in 1993, and at the time the only extension of a Cartoon Network property to the big screen. 

Prior to this, their only film that could be called a cash-in on a current weekly series (as opposed to an adaptation of a decades-old favourite) was 1986’s Go-Bots: Battle of the Rock Lords, and until the constantly-in-production Samurai Jack film comes out, it remains the only instance of a big-screen version of a Cartoon Network property. If it seems like every series that makes it big gets a cinema version (just look at Equestria Girls!), as a matter of fact that doesn’t apply to Cartoon Network, and that in large part seems to be down to this film just not making money.

There’s no denying it – The Powerpuff Girls was a flop. Even with Treasure Planet competing against it, it was the lowest-grossing animated movie of 2002. On the other hand, quite fortunately it was done on a shoestring, so whereas Treasure Planet cost $140 million and made back about $111 million, this more modest effort cost just $11 million and ended up making $16.4 million, no huge loss but clearly no blockbuster.

Part of the problem is really that while the series seems clever, that doesn’t come over in its big-screen counterpart. Deciding on an origin story, essentially the film retells the story from the episode Mojo Jojo comes to understand he was in part responsible for the girls’ creation, then extends the plot to show how at first the girls are not understood by the wider public. They have a game of tag without knowing how to restrain their powers and tear the city apart. The Professor is arrested and the girls become pariahs – which becomes worse when Jojo manipulates the girls into building his observatory for him and facilitating his plot to empower all the zoo’s monkeys to take over the city. They have a moment of deep rejection on the moon before hearing the Professor’s cry for help and learning to use their power to save people – and mete out enormous violence on those deserving it.

Where it seems the series would deliver the twist that what the girls really learn is how to be incredibly violent and beat people up with a glib irony and a knowing wink, the film does none of that. And without its cleverness, surreal touch and knowing nods to an adult audience who knows that the clichés of kids’ TV are being subverted, the mood just doesn’t come over, to the extent that the adults who watch this without being stoners who already watched the show simply won’t get what made The Powerpuff Girls such a success. Couple with that the fact that it really doesn’t have much original thought put in, being an expansion of a story already established in the show, and I see why it flopped. There’s also the fact that while there’s a polish to the cheap, simple look of the show, it’s clearly not an animation from a leading studio – hence the tenth-of-Disney’s-budget thing, and it seems that while Cartoon Network were putting about big talk about their feature film, internally it had to be made clear that this was a small-scale project, reportedly with the voice actresses having to be talked down when they were a little deluded about the budget involved and went on strike because they didn’t get a big pay hike.

Watched as an adaptation of a TV show in the mode of South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut or Beavis and Butthead Do America, though, it makes sense. The show’s simple style is retained, with a nice sheen overlaid to make it prettier and the action more impressive. The Gangreen Gang in particular end up looking much more striking as a result. To lose that would be to lose much of the piece’s charm, and after all this is primarily for the established fanbase rather than new viewers. Taken in context, as a cheap extension with nicer animation, it is charming and does the job very well.
Just don’t expect too much – and, sadly, don’t expect the old smartness that made the series work in the beginning.

I also took the time to watch the DVD extras (fun seeing the actresses recording their lines, with the ‘deleted scenes’ basically more dialogue in the construction scene) as well as promotional animations for the show, and several other adverts and eyecatches made for the series. It’s a lot of fun seeing promo animations made with the characters interacting with other Cartoon Network figures, but best seeing different animation styles, including the kind of cereal advert that the series lampooned. It’s great to see an attempt to integrate the girls into live-action shots with heavy shading, and other animators rendering the girls in slightly more lanky form. A footnote, to be sure, but interesting and entertaining to watch. 

夏のあらし! 春夏冬中/ Natsu no Arashi! Akinai-chuu / Summer Storm! Open for Business (season 2)

Natsu no Arashi grew on me with time. I know it’s only a few weeks since I watched the first season, but the more I thought about it, the less I remembered how divided it was, how ugly that retro art style was, how crass the fanservice was and how a fair few of the jokes went over my head, and the more I remembered the likeable characters, the sweet love triangle with additional gender-bending comedy with reverse-trap Jun, and how flat-out entertaining it was.

Essentially, season 2 is more of the same. It could easily have been a continuation of the first part without a break. The opening is probably more fanservicey than anything else up to that point, and a bath house episode is racy enough that there was censorship on the TV version to be removed from the DVD release, but that’s not exactly what one would call grand progress.

Given the amount of episodes between the two seasons, though, the disjointed nature of Natsu no Arashi softens and eventually becomes a non-issue. Yes, it’s an anime about ghosts who can jump through time, and about a group of strange people working a summer job in a café, and about a rather confused girl who has dressed as a boy before falling in love with another boy and yet not wanting to reveal her true gender to him, even when it gets ridiculously inconvenient. You can also expect just about anything to happen, like when quite randomly Jun wakes up to find herself possessing the body of a mature woman. 

The disparate elements still don’t exactly sit well together, but the fact they’re all elements of the same show is more palatable. And I’ve grown to like the strange ghosts from the 40s more, now, even Arashi herself, and while I’ll never get used to their strangely-drawn faces, their personality quirks make me smile and I shall slightly miss that daft episode-closing conceit of having an old anime or mange described in an outlandishly grandiose style.

I have to say, I still wanted the whole anime to be about Jun. The idea got a bit exhausted, with the poor girl having to decide how it would be possible to pretend to be female in swimwear on a beach, sharing a room at the bath house with the boy she likes and even having him try to drag her naked into the hot springs, but it still provided the biggest laughs and was deeply adorable. I very much like Jun and her softness of character, lacking in the rest of the cast and, indeed, in anything from the mangaka’s previous work School Rumble

I wouldn’t mind seeing more of how her story unfolds, even though it’s quite odd how in just about any series with a degree of fanservice AND a trap/reverse-trap, they usually end up being subject of more perverted scenes than any other cast member, usually because the comedy of other characters simply not getting it is consistently funny.

Otherwise, there’s not a whole lot more to say about the series. Because Hajime only has eyes for Arashi, and the two newer cast members are more obsessed with one another than any boys, this doesn’t feel like a harem anime in spite of its opening sequence that heavily hints in that direction. Other males are largely incidental, despite the silly muscly guy with shades eventually also being able to travel through time. There’s another possible love interest of Arashi, but he primarily exists to spur Hajime into action.

It’s a tangled web, and the ‘ghosts disappear at the end of summer’ thing feels rather tacked-on for a bit of extra angst. Overall, though, the daily lives of these strange characters are interesting and I may eventually turn to the manga to see what becomes of them. 

I don’t suppose Shaft will return to the series for another season, though – after all, salt guy FINALLY got his salt, and if that doesn’t signal that a series is complete, I don’t know what does.

Bonus! Super-fanservicey DVD scenes!