Monday, 17 March 2014

とある飛空士への追憶 / To Aru Hikuushi-e no Tsuioku / Recollections For a Certain Pilot / The Princess and the Pilot

I'm not entirely sure why I decided to get hold of The Princess and the Pilot a while back - it took a while to get around to watching it and I've forgotten whether I just wanted another interesting-looking Madhouse film to watch or if somehow, from the Japanese title, I thought it had something to do with the 'To Aru' series (Index, Railgun et al), which I am currently enjoying. Either way, I got it, forgot about it for a while, and then finally got around to watching it. 

The Princess and the Pilot is something a little different from the usual Madhouse film, which I suppose is to be respected. Most Madhouse standalone films have a certain everyday quality, a real-world grounding, even when concerning werewolf children or time-travelling teenagers. There's a remoteness to The Princess and the Pilot, an otherworldliness to its fantasy setting, even though its fantastical elements are rooted in reality and nothing magical or particularly outlandish happens. 

In the world of this film, which largely resembles our own in the early 20th Century, there is a war on between the Levamme Kingdom and the Amatsukami Empire. If that sounds vaguely European and heavily Japanese to you, respectively, I suspect that this is no coincidence. Levamme could be Imperial Russia or Britain or even the US, and we can extrapolate a few things from the names which are largely either British or Italian, and possibly even from the hatless American-style indoor salute, but when it comes down to it, this is a fantasy world and Levamme is a homogenised 'The West'. Levamme, meanwhile, is a slightly unsettling fantasy of Japanese empire. They are the 'bad guys', yes, but they are an established Empire with superior technology to all around them, honourable and highly skilled pilots and - in case you are unsure if this global empire is really Japan - a code of 'samurai' one-on-one duels. To make things worse, the two eponymous main characters are really the only likeable characters in the whole thing, save perhaps the pilot's one friend at the start and the captain at the end with the twinkle in his eye, and other than that everyone in Levamme seems to be a nasty piece of work who is deeply racist against 'bestados', not far from the Portuguese 'abestado' but more like 'bastard' - the racist term for half-Amatsukami kids who suffer a life of extreme prejudice. 

In this unpleasant world, one bestado has managed to rise up to become the flying ace of the Levamme Kingdom - our hero Charles, amusingly rendered 'Sharuru'. He is entrusted with an important mission - to take the kingdom's princess covertly through enemy lines to her Prince, that they may be married and troop morale bolstered. Of course, things don't go smoothly, the princess Fana is extremely good-natured but accident prone and the idiot prince has leaked the nature of the mission to the enemy, leading to many close calls. There is a nice moment where the mercenary Charles reveals that what he said about being incentivised by money was not actually true, and that really what he wants is to finally take on a mission to save someone rather than to kill, but largely their trip is a long, tedious one and the romance that springs up between them is strained and awkward, entirely lacking in chemistry largely because neither of them is very interesting. 

This is the central flaw of the film that all the high-octane aerial dogfights and near-drowning scenes can't make up for - it never makes its central characters interesting, and with almost no other characters getting significant screentime, that's a huge problem. It doesn't have the redemption, comedy or subtle romance of Porco Rosso,with which it shares much terrain, so to speak. It is all very sincere, but there's very little heart there, and the contrivance that the two had met in their childhoods is very strained and lacks credibility. 

Not a waste of time to see, but certainly not a favourite, or one I would recommend to any but the biggest fans of aerial combat. 

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

ソードアート・オンライン Extra Edition / Sword Art Online: Extra Edition

Not a whole lot to write about this 'special episode', but since it is, after all, movie-length, I thought it worth an entry. 

Extra Edition is a mishmash of throwaway extra episode - about an underwater quest that gives Kirito yet another chance to be the one who saves the day - a recap of the series and a whole lot of swimsuit fanservice of the main girls. None of them are particularly interesting, and it's quite odd to say that it was actually the part that usually so rankles - the flashbacks - that I enjoyed the most. Because it reminded me of what Sword Art Online looked like it was going to be back when it first aired. 

I don't think that the backlash against any popular season has been so universal and so harsh. Attack on Titan is beginning to have the customary backlash every popular series has, but it's still mostly small pockets of detractors against legions of fans. My personal dislike for Code Geass outweighs my dislike for Sword Art Online, but I was aware that was a minority view. With Sword Art Online, though, not only was the swing from it being a big hit to what seems like every anime fan in the world sneering at it more extreme than even what the likes of Naruto and Dragonball Z suffered, it happened before the initial two-season run had even finished. 

Which, of course, SAO did to itself. What the recaps reminded me was that the series began with great promise - a likeable, vulnerable adolescent protagonist adrift in a fantasy world, stuck yet given the tools to protect himself, even putting himself forward to be seen as a villain for the greater good. Only later did it devolve into the meanderings of a do-no-wrong sap and his bland harem overcoming the constraints of computer programs through the power of feelings. For a while, Sword Art Online looked like it was going to be very good. 

Which is why, I suppose, it got a big fandom, and why episodes like this could be made. But what follows is pretty embarrassing. The underwater adventure is sub-Digimon prattle, without a likeable crew to spice up the journey. And the swimsuit parts are the kind of brainless fanservice that people rolled their eyes at - yet bought - in the early 2000s. Everything about this feels regressive, well-trod and boring. I didn't even watch the whole thing in a single sitting, or even two - something very rare for me. 

Yet something keeps me coming back. This was bad, but I know that if another special were released tomorrow, I'd watch that too. I still like the art style, and Kirito's design - and want to see him become vulnerable and interesting again. I still like the concept and am curious about the other worlds I've seen on the covers of the light novels. I still feel like something clever might come out of the whole thing, despite all the evidence to the contrary. And if I'm a sucker for thinking so, oh well - it's not a whole lot of time to commit, and I will go on being suckered for as long as they pump this stuff out.