Saturday, 18 January 2014

劇場版 HUNTER×HUNTER 緋色の幻影 -ファントム・ルージュ- / HunterXHunter movie: Phantom Rouge

Along with Magi, HunterxHunter is really the only series running just now that I really want to be able to watch as soon as it comes out. So it's perhaps a little strange that I didn't jump at the opportunity to watch the movie as soon as somebody translated it. I'm not sure why I kept putting it off - one day I was looking and finding no decent-quality video, and then all of a sudden it was months later and I could have seen this weeks and weeks ago. 

But it certainly gave me my fix. It wasn't quite what I hoped it would be, especially given Togashi's involvement and the rather cute tie-in chapter in Jump that remains the most recent thing he's released, but it was certainly something I enjoyed. I am somewhat disappointed that it wasn't largely a prequel, promotional materials showing a younger Genei Ryodan and of course the manga tie-in being set in Kurapika's childhood, but it was in other ways satisfying.

Like most of the best Jump tie-in movies, it takes something that is a bit of a question mark in the actual series and expands upon it. In fact, it covers two things - Kurapika's childhood, though I have to say it rather neuters the idea of the Kurta clan as fearsome warriors, and the previous member of the Ryodan that Hisoka defeated and replaced. 

Here, we find out that former member is named Omokage, and has a rather complicated ability - to see into the minds of his enemies and create puppets of the people they know, with a great degree of their abilities and fighting prowess. These puppets have no eyes, but can steal the eyes of other people, whereupon they become more or less completed and operate on their own. He can also absorb the puppets into himself and use their powers. The trouble with Omokage conceptually is that (a) his survival means that Hisoka didn't do his job - though claims to have known he was fighting a replacement puppet and enjoyed the idea of getting to fight him again, and (b) his motivations as antagonist here are unclear. He wants to get Kurapika's eyes because they're valuable, and new eyes for his beloved doll of his little sister Retz, and there's never any real explanation for why he chose to come out of hiding and execute his plans so conspicuously just at this point in the HunterxHunter timeline. 

He is also not very visually striking, especially compared with the others in the Ryodan. He has an indifferent design that looks like something rejected from Trinity Blood, and a typical driven-mad-by-loss raving personality. More interesting is his sister Retz, who presents herself as a boy in dungarees and is later dressed up very much like Shinku in Rozen Maiden, who befriends Gon - inspiring jealousy from Killua - and then later defies her nature. She is not the best-developed character in the world, but she certainly stands out from a lot of random kid characters in Jump movies. On the other hand, she somewhat highlights this film's tendency to over-exaggerate the homoerotic bonds between both Gon and Killua and Kurapika and Leorio, taking something that is enjoyably subtle and taking it into the realms of fanservice.

That said, it's in fanservice that this film really succeeds, especially for those of us who think that the York Shin saga was the highlight of the title so far. It has Leorio and Kurapika reappear - both completely absent for the totality of the Ant arc and Kurapika only having a single-frame cameo in the Election arc - but it also has appearances from all of the original Ryodan and even Uvogin, who of course has died in the main series. Nobunaga is made to really shine here, and Hisoka even gets a chance to fight Kuroro, even if only a puppet of him. 

I can probably categorise this one as a guilty pleasure. Objectively, it's really not great - the plot is confusing, the antagonist unconvincing and lacking motivation, and the main characters get little development beyond 'these two pairs are very, very close to one another' and 'Killua is being controlled by Illumi', which of course gets largely aborted with the discovery of a v-chip-like device during the Ant arc. 

But these are characters I really, really enjoy in the first really original offering the anime has been able to offer - and since the manga is back to HiatusxHiatus, I'll take what I'm given. And feeling just a little guilty about it, I'll love it. 

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Kingdom Hearts 1.5 HD Remix - Part 2: 358/2 Days

Of course, I don't normally have Playstation games on my animation blog, but here - since this extra is not really a game, and you are just watching computer-generated figures in an animation - I feel justified.

Of all the Kingdom Hearts games, 358/2 Days was my least favourite - yes, even including Re:Coded. An overlong game of the same thing over and over, with exceptionally easy hidden bosses, an irritating angst-fest of a story, characters I have never liked and one of those horribly annoying boss fights where you win, then in the cutscene afterwards you are immediately overpowered, making you wonder why you had to do the fight in the first place. 

But the HD remix was quite a different prospect. For one thing, it was the most dramatically-improved game graphically in this HD set - though the cutscenes in the original game looked impressive for the DS, that's still quite a significant qualifier. For another, with all-new voice acting, it was the part of the project that had the most new experiences attached. And honestly, not having to play through the whole damn game again - possibly even several times if they kept the same trophy structure - was a blessing. My original plan was to play this after Re:Chain of Memories, or perhaps to watch the cutscenes up to the point when the Organization members depart for Castle Oblivion and then play the game, returning for the rest of the cutscenes afterwards - probably the best chronology of the remastered trilogy - but then I discovered that there are cards I'm not going to get in CoM if I don't get through 358/2 Days first, so I prioritised this. 

My feelings haven't changed, exactly, but I felt a lot more charitable towards the characters and the game as a whole after experiencing the story a second time. Remove the frustrating player experience and one headache is taken away, which is a major plus point, but I also have a somewhat better understanding of the idea of Nobodies in the series - when I played, I thought the hints in this direction were just the characters being misled, where by now we have learnt that in fact, the central characters' proximity to the 'hero' actually has made them recover some aspect of a heart. I was annoyed before that Nobodies had been established as a kind of heartless, incapable of true feelings, and thus the variety of feelings on display here were illusory - which is no longer a possibility. Of course, this brings about a variety of complex implications to Sora's moral path, centred on the fact that he could have subdued and rehabilitated all but the most evil of the Nobodies and through just being near them returned them to a kind of humanity, and though he could not have known this, it will feel like a horrible oversight to me that he will likely never realise and come to feel deep remorse.

This is a story conceived entirely to be tragic - to build something pleasant to revel in tearing it down. Roxas, whose fate we already know when we begin the game, is already a miserable enough character even before the development of the Riku Replica storyline leads to Xion. The set-up has Roxas and Xion unable to coexist indefinitely, each causing the other misery - at first through insecurity as they don't understand the effect each has on the other, and then later through a pointless struggle against inevitable loss. The fact that the focus then shifts to the fact that they begin as friends - and the added factor of the necessity for Xion to be entirely forgotten for the plot to continue - results in the most angst-ridden of all Square Enix's recent angst-a-thons, to the order of The World Ends With You cubed.

Yet, partly because I now know they are indeed supposed to have developed genuine humanity rather than merely acting according to memories of genuine feelings - which was the set-up - I liked all the characters more this time. I still dislike Axel and first and foremost will remember his smug, swaggering character in Chain of Memories and, indeed, Kingdom Hearts II,  but his helplessness towards the end here is actually quite appealing, and the glimpses beneath the facade his diary entries afford show there is some depth to him - overlaid, at least, on what has been established prior to this game. His actions throughout the series remain the result of his stunted, selfish personality, and I don't look forward to how Kingdom Hearts 3 will portray the restored Lea (especially in relation to Ventus, who I really don't want to become a Roxas substitute), but when his plans finally go awry and he is adrift and helpless, I could begin to sympathise with him. With Xion, her imposition on the storyline still rankles somewhat, but she is a victim - one of the purest victims any video game I've played focuses on - and ultimately a plaything of cruel men, and I found myself feeling more protective than before. I prefer this voice actress than when Kairi's steps in, and the insubstantial quality to her feeble struggle is quite moving. I also noticed that the HD version seems to highlight her facial similarities to Sora more than to Kairi, which changes the dynamic very slightly, reminding me more immediately of the impossibility of her sustaining any kind of existence.

Then there's Roxas. Roxas, who I didn't want to have to deal with at all in Kingdom Hearts II, and less still here. I have never liked Roxas - making it perhaps bizarre that I love his doppelganger Ventus so much and would consider his showing up here to reflect Braig's odd obsession with one rather unremarkable moment in what is still one of the series' best moments of foreshadowing the highlight of this whole experience. But Roxas doesn't have as much of an attitude problem here as I recall him having - and perhaps I find the adolescent outbursts more ridiculous (and therefore cute) than before, like when he bothers to get his diary out to break off into a one-line all-caps mini-rant about how he won't put up with this treatment.

It is also probably the game where Riku is the most tolerable, as a harsh yet dependable sounding-board for Xion despite their conflicts (and another adorably adolescent diary entry, from her this time). He is in a place of repentance, here, but also put into a mentor position, authoritative, standoffish and ultimately self-sacrificing - it makes a big difference from the rash brat of the first game.

Ultimately, I still think that Organization XIII was a huge mistake for the writers of the series, especially how they have dominated every game since Chain of Memories except Birth by Sleep. In DDD we discover that the whole thing was a sham anyway. As characters, they are not a compelling bunch - I find only Xigbar to be enjoyable (and Braig, who is very much the same) - the idea of them completing and then using a recreated Kingdom Hearts never feels like enough of a threat for game 2 (especially in light of Master Xehanort eventually declaring them all failures and making a new Organization XIII out of various versions of himself) and the more they are developed, the worse it is for the character of Sora - who becomes an unfeeling psychopathic butcher if you make the characters too human...though of course it has since in one of the worst plot-wriggles of the series been revealed that defeating Nobodies and the heartless formed when they were created somehow brings Somebodies back to opposed to the hearts going to Xemnas' Kingdom Hearts like everyone else's. 

For all the convolution, this is a period of time the series needed to cover in some form - from Roxas' inception to his being captured and digitised by DiZ - and the sheer unrelenting tragedy is probably appropriate. The trouble is that it just seems so a way that, perhaps paradoxically, the cheerful adventures of Sora through Disney worlds does not.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

The Powerpuff Girls: Season V

By season 4, the Powerpuff Girls formula was wearing a little thin and getting a bit dull. I fully expected to see an episode in this season where I could go, ‘Yup, that’s where it jumped the shark’, but in fact the show-writers managed to rather exceed my expectations and as a matter of fact, I’d say that moment doesn’t come until the season 6 episode ‘A Made Up Story’, which given how close it was to the show’s end isn’t a bad stretch. Even the clips episode here is quickly subverted so that it’s quickly apparent that the flashbacks are actually all-new and often rather nonsensical snippets.

By this point, the bulk of the writers and episode directors on Powerpuff Girls are the people who will go on to write most of the episodes of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, though Amy Keating Rogers had yet to contribute. Lauren Faust is established enough to really be taking a back seat here, but Chris Savino has his first work in this season and helps define it, while Cindy Morrow also joins to put in some small-scale episodes in her recognisable style.

Two things, I feel, kept this season from becoming tired – one, the use of an ace long kept up a sleeve in that finally, after being in every intro sequence yet not actually having been in any episodes since their first appearance in the first ever full-length episode back in season 1, the Rowdyruff Boys make their return, coming back for a full-length episode and then later for two more half-episodes. They are an interesting counterpoint to the girls and their return is welcome, making for some very enjoyable episodes, especially when poor Bubbles has to pretend to be one of them.

The second strength is that the show falls back on its old successes of imitating other shows and styles, but picks some very unusual things to imitate. One full half-episode parodying Rocky and Bullwinkle is so-so at best, but there’s a really lovely episode that imitates both silent movies and that era’s cartoons at once, the excellent episode about judging by appearances ‘Substitute Creature’ has some brilliant pastiches of pulp comic panels, and Chris Savino makes up for the slight misfire of the Rocky and Bullwinkle episode with a cracking rock opera tribute, ‘See Me, Feel Me, Gnomey’. While of course taking its cues mostly from The Who, it also has hints of The Wall and War of the Worlds, and it is a rather bewildering and dark tale about the girls taking a wish from a sinister little gnome to rid the town of all its evil in exchange for their powers, only for the gnome to then assume the role of saviour and force have everyone suppressed and lacking individuality. The girls and their father/creator decide this is not real peace and rebel. It’s a story confusingly-told, morally ambivalent and even rather disturbing when the girls drive the little man from a branch and to his death, and never aired in the States – rumour has it because the story hinted too heavily at weighing up communism and democracy, though I find this dubious – but who cares when it has wonderful 70s synths and guitar solos and a full-on Jack Black impression from Wakko Warner voice actor Jess Harnell? It’s not quite ‘Meet the Beat-Alls’, but it’s bolder overall and another, lesser-known highlight.

Otherwise, things are largely unambitious, often just poking at the boundaries of cartoon humour without taking many risks. There’s an episode where Bubbles hears a naughty word and everyone is shocked to hear the girls saying it – so soon they fight a giant potty mouth. There’s a swipe at the far Left when the girls are prevented from stopping Mojo Jojo’s crimes because an animal protection lobby group get self-righteous and force them to stop. 

The Mayor’s stupidity is played upon – and he sounds more and more like the Ice King – with him taking over Monster Isle and being turned into a rampaging monster himself when Chemical X makes him huge. And Cindy Morrow turns in bland but entertaining episodes about bet-wetting, some adorable fluffy animals turning master criminals but nobody except the girls wanting to prosecute them on account of being so cute, and an annoying passive-aggressive dog being looked after by the girls as they try to protect him and persuade him to tell them about a crime he witnessed. The mixture of full-on weirdness, small-scale drama, repetition of old ideas and attempts to get the girls into different scenarios – including seeing caveman equivalents of them – retains the fun.

So yes, while I genuinely expected this to be quite the disappointment as a season, it actually turned out to be pretty good.