Sunday, 9 November 2014

ナルト/ Naruto (manga)

It finally ended. After fifteen years, and overstaying its welcome by at least eight, one of the pillars of anime and manga of the last few decades has come to an end. Shounen Jump has lost one of its more recognisable figureheads, and I no longer feel compelled to complain every week about a new chapter of rushed plotting or emotion-free battles between giant blob-creatures.

As I mentioned in my review of the pre-timeskip anime seriesNaruto is deeply unfashionable. But I will defend it to the ground. Of its fifteen years, I’ve been following it for twelve-ish. Twelve years of my life with these characters, at least once a week, and most times two. That’s pretty remarkable. A large chunk of the crowd at any anime crowd will have been learning to spell ‘cat’ when I started to read Naruto. So my perspective is a little different from the average, I guess.

That, I think, is why I’m keen to defend it. Or at least, what it was. Post-timeskip, Naruto was largely an emotionally flat, highly contrived, rather ugly series of battles between uninteresting men with an inflated sense of self-importance. But it wasn’t like that to begin with. Which is why, once again, I think that in a few years’ time it will be rehabilitated and remembered fondly – just as happened with Dragonball. When I first joined the anime fandom, Dragonball was hated for GT and the prolonged screaming matches of Dragonball Z. Now it’s largely adored, primarily on the strength of the first series and the early parts of Dragonball Z. I expect the same will happen with Naruto when its best parts come into focus again.

Because I maintain that early Naruto was genuinely good. It was about ninja kids who were weak but ingenious, and who had people ready to push them, challenge them and if need be, protect them. Back then, it was largely a school drama.

Naruto himself was an intentionally annoying brat, while Sasuke was uppity and smug. Yet both were likeable and oddly cute. What made Naruto huge was the quick succession of two story arcs that blended cuteness and silliness with genuine emotionally heavy-hitting moments: first, the battle against Zabuza and Haku, which brilliantly had the enemies be sympathetic thanks to their deep bond and also immediately pitted the kids against someone genuinely dangerous. Naruto had a lot to prove and did it well – even if it had to rely on the cheesy ‘he didn’t really die!’ moment. Kishimoto proved this wasn’t just a one-off by following up with the chuunin exam arc – first, with the compelling character of Gaara, who was tortured, antisocial and merciless. The idea that this was a world of incredibly powerful warriors was cemented, and Orochimaru was a genuine threat in the background. While there was a certain laziness to then going into a tournament arc, as so many series do, Kishimoto did these battles better than most, with almost all of the fights between low-level opponents being won thanks to some genuinely clever little trick. Itachi was an enigma, part of an organization that seemed genuinely threatening and cool (back then), and the summons of the sannin seemed like absurdly powerful, more or less exclusive talents.

It all fell apart around then. Big summons led to bigger and bigger ones, and then the use of tailed beast powers, ending up with dull fights between big blobs. There was a time skip and the characters were no longer underdogs. The tricks were no longer clever because the stakes had to constantly be upped. Naruto couldn’t get away with being annoying because he was adorable any more, and Sasuke just became annoying. Akatsuki were revealed to be largely ridiculous and could mostly be defeated by being made to realize their evil actions were – gasp! – evil. Itachi was given redemption, but not before being made to look completely ridiculous in what should have been a series highlight. The final battle with a very old man and some almost random summoned goddess woman was entirely without tension and the last clash of all, prefigured for fifteen years, was rushed into very unconvincingly, over very quickly and entirely without emotional weight.

Like so many shounen titles – particulary Dragonball and Reborn – as well as a fair number of Western kids’ stories (like Harry Potter), the big problem with Naruto is that it started fun, jokey and cute, then tried to take itself too seriously. It lost the balance and became largely tedious, and unable to have much emotional impact.

Thus, which the classic ‘see-them-as-adults-with-their-kids’ ending of Digimon and yes, Harry Potter had some small smiles in it, mostly for minor characters, I can’t say I’m sad to see this era come to a close. But I remember that Naruto was once great, and that’s the main thing I’ll always take from it.  

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

黒執事・サーカスの書/ Kuroshitsuji: Saakasu no Sho / Black Butler: Book of Circus

Well, at the end of the second season of Kuroshitsuji, which I really didn’t like, I considered the anime finished. There were the strange OVAs, but they were mostly gag side-stories. How could the anime continue? It showed us the inevitable end of the pact between a boy and a demon, and that was the best thing about it.

Meanwhile, the manga continued and got rather better. What a shame, I said, that the anime writers went off on their dreadful tangent about Alois rather than following the manga to its best arc, that revolving around the Noah’s Ark Circus.

Well, the property is still a hot one after all these years. That combination of pretty man/grumpy child paedophilia is still irresistible to the fujoshi and there is after all plenty of manga material yet – though I have to say that apart from Lizzy kicking butt in it, I can’t remember much at all about the arc that follows this one. So A-1 Pictures decided to just shrug off continuity and backstory and plunge into an adaptation of the arc as a stand-alone piece. We can just say that it took place at some point before the end of season 2, right? Honestly, that was probably the best thing they could have done.

I don’t really like Kuroshitsuji, but this arc is as good as it gets. A strong premise, what is effectively Ciel’s backstory finally made plain, and then a morally ambiguous ending where there really aren’t any good guys – this works well. The lack of a strong villain – the antagonist essentially being a crazy, feeble old man – creates a hole filled by the notion that the bad guy is, in fact, Ciel himself. With his demon sidekick, of course.

The set-up is a clever one for the kind of dress-up escapades that this sort of fanbase loves. Ciel, still the ‘Queen’s watchdog’ (despite her having so many incredibly strong people around her who should be able to take care of any business), is sent to investigate the disappearances of children near a circus. To gather information, Ciel and Sebastian pose as performers and thanks to Sebastian’s skills, manage to be accepted. Ciel, meanwhile, is pretty useless, and is very cute taken down a notch or two, teased by the others and striking up a friendship with his kind-hearted roommate. Nicknamed ‘Black’ and ‘Smile’, they get to know the rest of the peculiar cast – including ringmaster Joker, cross-dressing tightrope walker Doll, anachronistically-named trapeze artists Peter and Wendy and my favourite, animal tamer Snake, who has named his numerous serpents after prominent Victorian and pre-Victorian writers: Bronte, Keats, Wordsworth and both Oscar and Wilde. Quite pleasingly, Snake is also not involved in the main conspiracy – and so can appear again later.

‘Black’ strikes up a rivalry with ‘Suit’, a shinigami named William T. Spears who has also infiltrated the circus – indicating to Ciel and co that they’re on the right track – and after a while they find the clues they need to uncover the truth: the circus folk, while good-hearted, are eternally indebted to a rich old man who saved them from street life. However, they do his bidding, kidnapping children for his entertainment. Driven mad by having seen Ciel as a child, as well as his father (whose form Sebastian adopted when he manifested), and realizing he will never be as beautiful as they are, this crazy old man has children put through such suffering their minds break, then has them perform deadly circus tricks, dying horribly while he laughs. Because of his obsession with Ciel, he has also exactly replicated the room where Ciel first made his pact: an old operating theatre-style ritual chamber, with an altar where he was to be sacrificed by mysterious shady occultists, that favourite of Victorian books about demons. Incensed, Godzilla stomps on Bambi, and Ciel is merciless – even with the surviving children, who he considers broken beyond repair.

Meanwhile, the circus members storm the Phantomhive manor, intending to threaten Ciel so he will be easily controlled. However, the staff members are finally able to show how truly formidable – and frightening – they are. This is one of the highlights of the series, and I’d probably rather watch an anime about the exploits of those three than one about Ciel. The shinigami show up to mop up the mess, though their presence is largely extraneous and rather sillier than the rest of the arc, especially with one of them wielding a lawnmower. But I can overlook that, and the comic relief just about works.

As a narrative arc, it has its faults – mainly with the antagonist not really having been much of a threat and very little being at stake to Ciel himself – but overall it’s excellent as part of a larger narrative. It gives Ciel a huge amount more depth, showing him being hapless, being vulnerable, being authoritative and being tyrannical. It shows his dark past and the dark present that has resulted. It fleshes out his staff’s stories and makes them more formidable. But most crucially, it sets up a group of enemies who are very likeable – while they do things they can’t be forgiven for, they have been conditioned from a very young age and have very little choice in their actions. 

The anime will continue – first of all with two OVAs entitled ‘Book of Murder’. If they maintain this quality, I might actually start to like Kuroshitsuji.