Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Avatar: Legend of Korra – Book 4: Balance

Going into the fourth and final season of Korra, I had high hopes. I felt that the seasons got progressively better, and I was left feeling excited about a new mini-generation after Jinora got her tattoos and Kai looked to be a something of a new hero figure. The first episodes felt like they were fulfilling that promise – after a short timeskip, there was an established Airbender Corps of sorts, helping rebuild the Earth Kingdom, a ‘great unifier’ named Kuvira who is uniting the people – but with an iron fist – and Korra herself is missing, still suffering from her fight with Zaheer. It’s a great set-up, and there’s a lot in this season that goes very well. Sadly, it all rather falls apart towards the end, and especially for the ultimate finale of the series, it’s a disappointment. And yes, I’d still rather have the Gurihiru continuations of the original series animated.

I liked Korra’s quest to find herself, especially as she found a certain cranky old-timer from the original series to be her Yoda. I loved the little shopkeeper who had a ‘Wall of Avatars’ as well! I enjoyed the way Mako and Bolin were split up and their loyalties to one another tested, and the general idea behind Kuvira’s philosophy – as well as her personality – was excellent. Of course she had to push things way too far in order to be an unambiguous antagonist, and her being badass enough to take down Korra in Avatar State – even having mental issues – was pretty damn awesome.

But the need for a big bombastic climax rather ruined this season. If Jinora, Kai and co looked to be developed this season, they had to be cast aside to give enough time to the main four characters. The moral dilemma of stopping a strong leader from uniting the Earth Kingdom gets dropped when Kuvira reveals that she not only wants to unite the established territories, but also to reclaim the land that Aang annexed to make his Republic City. This makes her a conqueror ignoring what had been established by diplomacy, and unambiguously in the wrong – which is something of a shame.

There’s already a huge problem with this as the final ending to Korra’s chronicles. After the events in the second series seemed genuinely apocalyptic, this season needed to at least have a threat to the world, or destroy the spirit realm, or someone stealing all the spiritual energy in the entire world, or a war between all spirits and all mankind...something huge and apocalyptic. I thought that’s where things were headed when the spirit vines began to become hostile. Instead...well, what we got was Kuvira deciding to retake Republic City for the Earth Kingdom. So the threat was already just one city, and some pride. And how is the ante upped? Well, with a weapon of mass destruction, naturally.
Mounted on a frickin’ giant mecha.

Sure, certain series can pull of giant robots. Evangelion, Bokurano, Gurren Lagann...but in the Avatar world? The giant drill was the biggest mistake the original series ever made! Sure, there’s been a progression of technology in this season, but really? A giant robot? Controlled by bending levers? It really doesn’t work. And taking it down is far harder than it could feasibly be, the thing staying upright when its feet are bound, Kuvira is blinded and Bolin uses his goddamn newly-acquired lava bending to trap a foot. Kuvira’s plan to sort of stomp into town and smash things up rather than, y’know, imposing trade sanctions and blockading the ports, goes badly and the whole thing ends with a whimper. To my great surprise, Korra never even learns to connect with her past lives properly, because she doesn’t need to.

It’s an ending that sadly lets down everything that went before it. There were certainly interesting places this story arc could have gone, and I don’t think it pulled any of it off with the final direction of the plot.

Then there’s the mild controversy of the implied lesbian relationship between Korra and Asami with the final scenes. I like the idea, but I think it was poorly done. It would make sense that Korra and Asami end up falling for each other and try being together. But the show would need to have built that up, developed it and made it less ambiguous. I mean, the creators had to clarify what they intended – and nobody saw it coming. The result is that it just seems like something tacked on for a fashionable statement on what can be included in a children’s show. It’s a welcome statement...but I’d much rather it were done right, and not at the last minute for its own sake.

In a way, it encapsulates why I was disappointed with this last season. The ideas were good, but the execution just didn’t work for me.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

ソードアート・オンラインII / Sword Art Online II

By the time SAO’s first season ended, I had gone off it in a big way. At the start, pretty-faced Kirito was an underdog I rooted for, sweet-natured and ostracised in an unoriginal but interesting world. By the end, he was the undisputed master swordsman of all the universe, replete with powers that were his alone and not just a beautiful and adorable – if rather dull – girlfriend, but a whole harem of girls to suit any taste. Including those who like the idea of their sister having a crush on them. He was no longer in any way an underdog, the way situations resolved themselves were very contrived, and the cloying way everyone worshipped his every action – including pseudo-government types taking him on as a kind of consultant – became annoying. Kirito became far too like a male Bella Swan, who everyone also loves for no reason.

For all that, though, I was willing to give the second season a chance. There was a lot of talk about the later arcs being much better from fans of the books, and it was after all a cover of Kirito with a mysterious cute boy that drew me into the series in the first place...though the boy, Eugeo, has yet to appear. Guess I’ll have to see in season 3.

Sword Art Online’s big problem is Kirito, and this season doesn’t quite deal with that problem – though the second arc here finds an interim solution. Kirito is just not very likeable, nor identifiable as wish fulfilment. His skills continue to be a cut above, and he seems just a little smug about that, and more crucially the stakes are very low now. He’s in online games, not fighting for his life. Plus he is pretty enough that when his character gets long hair, people think he’s a girl. Perhaps that’s meant to make him the butt of a joke, but its effect is to make him seem yet more perfect and beautiful. And it’s annoying!

The reason he has a new avatar is that he’s sent into a new game to track down a killer. A mysterious figure seems to have the ability to shoot a gun in the game and kill someone in real life. Of course, Kirito is the one to be sent to sort this out. Though this is an American shooting game, Kirito of course not only adapts to it immediately but decides to use a lightsaber and charge down all the campers and duellists. Because he’s super special.

Of course, he finds a new girl whose deep mental issues he manages to solve with a few platitudes, so he can add one more to his harem. Sinon is a sniper and using the game as therapy. By sheer coincidence she has a personal connection with the bad guy in the picture, and super Kirito figures everything out.

After a brief and not very interesting side-quest wherein Kirito and the gang finish a quest that might have destroyed their whole world and of course rewards Kirito with Excalibur, Best Sword in the Game, the final arc begins – and yes, it’s the best arc since the first one. That’s largely because Kirito is taken out of the picture – a little like how the best part of the Suzumiya Haruhi franchise is when she disappears. Instead, Asuna is placed centre-stage when an incredibly good swordswoman takes an interest in her and recruits her into defeating a boss with just a small but elite party. Not only does Asuna figure out why the party had been failing until that point (they are being spied upon) and lead them to final victory, she comes to understand the swordswoman well. Yuuki and her friends have come together because they are all terminal patients with extremely weak bodies, eager to make a lasting impression at least on a virtual world, which will record their names. Some parts of the story I find rather weak and exploitative, with overwrought sexual tension between the two girls screaming fanservice rather than something sweet, and the set-up being blatantly contrived to have an attempted tear-jerker ending. As a result, I found it rang a bit false.

But overall, it was beyond a doubt a breath of fresh air. Asuna may not be a very interesting character, but she was given some new dimensions here. The scenes in the real world were quite delicate and sweet, especially when Asuna fixed it so that she could take Yuuki’s virtual presence with her for an ordinary day at school, and I’d quite like to know more about the other group members...especially the cute boy whose name – a little gratingly for me – was Jun. Perhaps they’ll crop up in future episodes.

The fact is, I’m fairly sure there’ll be more Sword Art Online, and that I’ll watch it. But I can’t say it will be with much enthusiasm. The series outstayed its welcome, and thus far not enough has been done to make it better. It’s one of the success stories of recent years, but really it’s a show that’s still trading on its strong opening episodes and cute designs...

That said, it surprises me that Kirito remains a very popular character. There’s still a very loyal fanbase to this series! I guess there are people who don’t want to root for the underdog – but want their avatar in a story a bit overly perfect. Which I suppose would also explain No Game No Life.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

イナズマイレブン 最強軍団オーガ襲来 / Inazuma 11 Saikyou Gundan Ouga Shuurai/Inazuma 11: Strongest Ogre Army Attacks!

The Inazuma 11 theatrical theatre animation is in many ways lazy, yet feels less so than many similar releases. Most of the film retells the series very quickly, albeit with the nice little addition of the year during which the football team was just Endou, Someoka and Handa, until it diverges at the end. A recap film is certainly a disappointment, but as there’s quite a large gulf between OLM’s cheap weakly animation and the slick but still charming work in films like Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva, it was quite a joy to see old scenes redone.

Plus threaded through all this was a very, very silly time travel story. As silliness is what Inazuma 11 does best, I had no objections. The framing device for all the recaps is that Endou is being watched from the future by a shadowy organization. At their head, Hibiki – apparently a descendent of the coach but far more sinister. In their time, football has apparently become regarded as amoral or socially undesirable. Welp...okay, fine. Either way, there’s an evil organization out to stop Endou through a time portal. To do this, they change history in the Football Frontier we saw in the first season of the anime, and which was the centre of the first game. After Zeus destroy Teikoku, instead of clashing with our heroes Raimon, Zeus are then themselves crushed by Ogre, sent back from the future and somehow entered into an interschool tournament.

Ogre are absurdly powerful and of course Raimon at this stage cannot compete. But throughout the film, a sweet little boy who looks a little like Toramaru but has a headband rather like Endou’s has been watching proceedings. He, of course, is also from the future, and shows up at a crucial moment – revealing himself to be Kanon, Endou’s great-grandson (and, I have to say, a character design I rather prefer to Endou’s). Kanon not only has formidable skills, but also brings Fubuki, Toramaru, Tobitaka, Hiroto and even Fidio to help. No Tachimukai, sadly – Endou is the only goalie needed, after all.

Ogre don’t object to these reinforcements, and everyone takes the utterly bizarre time-travel story in their strides. With a newly empowered team, the ability to chain shoots and Endou spontaneously acquiring his future skills, including the not-yet-seen-in-the-series Omega the Hand, Raimon pull through and history does not change. Endou of course can give his silly pep-talks in his Naruto voice and the bad guys see the errors of their ways.

This is strictly for the fans, incredibly silly and with its recap elements, decidedly lazy. But Inazuma 11 remains a guilty pleasure, and this was still a part of that. Including the ‘pleasure’ part.  

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

イナズマイレブン / Inazuma Eleven: seasons IV & V

I’ve come to realize that whoever labelled these ‘seasons’ of Inazuma 11 was going purely by the different opening sequences, labelling a new season each time the song and animation changed. That isn’t what makes a new anime season, but never mind – I’ve started this way, so I might as well finish. On the other hand, it didn’t seem worth doing just ‘season IV’ when the next one was very much a continuation of the same arc, so I’ve combined four and five. The sixth and final ‘season’ is still the same arc, but as we finally saw the back of Kabeyama here, it seems a good breaking-off point.

After defeating the meteor-powered kids masquerading as aliens, and the new adorably-unitarded dark team made up of former Raimon Eleven members, only one challenge awaits the team: to be the best in the world.

Luckily, the ‘Football Frontier International’ tournament is in place for them to compete for just that title. This is the first of its kind, with the best youth footballers of the world competing to stand on the highest possible level (bar real aliens appearing). First, our beloved characters must compete for a place on the team, which is by no means assured. A mysterious new coach selects the team not just from Raimon members, but from their old rivals too, making for some tensions within the ranks – all of which are resolved with lots of delicious melodrama. There are some new characters too, most notably one yankii kid with a hilarious pompadour who can’t play football at all (but has a mysterious nullifying power) and the adorable Toramaru. Toramaru is a lot like Gon from HunterxHunter in looks and personality, with great skills and an adorable boy-crush on Goenji – and hasn’t been seen before simply because he’s an elementary school student!
Once the team is finalized, they have to qualify in the regional tournament. Here come some small surprises, most notably that Aphrodi, of ‘God Knows’ fame, is not Japanese, nor Greek...but Korean. Well, why not?
The real fun begins after qualification. Hilariously, this football competition is such a big deal that an entire island has been converted so that each team and its supporters can stay in an area that looks like their home country. So riding the bus around the island, one goes from areas reminiscent of Japan to Italy to Argentina to England.
The first rounds of the competition are dramatic. England are particularly amusing, their team ‘Knights of Queen’ having some amusing techniques involving Excalibur and suchlike. On the other hand, perhaps fittingly given our usual World Cup performance, they are the first losers of the tournament. Inazuma Eleven lose to Argentina because of Kageyama’s machinations, but scrape through qualification thanks to the points system and securing a draw with Italy – who the audience sympathizes with because they were manipulated by Kabeyama, yet also manage to finally bring out his humanity. Just in time for him to be arrested and face justice.
There’s lots of nice personal drama too. The new coach, just like the last one, makes mysterious decisions that the team only understand when they gain a deeper understanding. The new female manager has amnesia thanks to a tragic past that Endou’s strong heart can save her from. Adorable Tachimukai must overcome being imitative and make his own techniques, which Endou himself also has to think about since his techniques come from his grandfather’s notes. Italy have their own issues, not just with Kageyama but with their absent captain, though cute and highly skilled second-in-command Fideo can bring the team together. Then there’s the American team, where of course prior teammates Ichinose and Domon are good enough to have made the team and can clash with their old nakama. Kabeyama finally upgrades THE WALL to THE MOUNTAIIIIN. Then there are the former female Raimon members: it isn’t actually mentioned at any point, but only male team members can participate, so the girls come as...yup, supporters to cheer from the sidelines. Oh well. In fairness this kind of tournament would have been gender-segregated.

The other plot strands that will be going into the final ‘season’ are the fact that Endou’s famous grandfather is still alive, and already met Endou when he was driving around with tire in his truck (though Endou of course didn’t realize who he was talking to), and that the organizers of the tournament are clearly shady types who have an evil ulterior motive. And then sadly that will be it for this particular team.

But the Inazuma Eleven saga doesn’t end there. We’ll have a little timeskip and continue with Inazuma Eleven Go! and a whole new main cast. Will I keep watching? Damn straight I will. I love the brainless enjoyment of this daft little show. When I’m done with it I’ll probably have to go on to Youkai Watch for the same kind of enjoyment. 

Friday, 12 December 2014

Une Vie de Chat / A Cat’s Life / A Cat in Paris

Une Vie de Chat is an Oscar-nominated French feature film. It was notable for being one of two foreign-language films nominated (alongside Chico and Rita) in the 2012 Academy Awards – which in my view was a very weak year for Best Animated Film. The main competitors were Puss in Boots and Kung Fu Panda 2, which while enjoyable were hardly typical Oscar candidates, and the winner was inexplicably Rango. Though I don’t know if they met the eligibility criteria (being released in US cinemas etc), I’d call Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha and Leafie: A Hen Into the Wild far more deserving of the gong than any of the nominated films. But hey, let us not forget who the Academy voters are.

In principle, Une Vie de Chat is the kind of film I should enjoy – though I’m confused by the French title, which doesn’t sound quite right to me (One Life of Cat? Not La Vie d’un Chat?). It uses story-book style visuals – a little ugly but distinctive and nostalgic – and tells a fun story. At night, a cat-burglar named Nico sneaks into museums and houses to steal jewels. He is accompanied on his nightly ventures by a rather ugly cat. But the cat does not belong to him. In fact, the cat’s owner is little Zoé, a sweet young girl who has been left dumb by the trauma of the murder of her father, a police officer. Zoé’s mother Jeanne is also a police officer, and hot on the trail of her husband’s killer – the dastardly gangster Victor Costa. When Zoé overhears her babysitter and Costa’s gang plotting to steal a priceless work of art, a deadly chase kicks off – and Zoé finds an unlikely ally in the thief Nico.

It’s a fun story and rolls along well. The only thing that I really felt was omitted was some recognition that while he was a thief with a heart of gold, Nico was still a criminal and no matter how much he helps a little girl and might just contribute to a happily-ever-after ending, he should have had to pay for his crimes. I also felt a little bad about how Jeanne seemed very quick to leave behind the memory of her late husband. But there’s a nice balance here between making the characters likeable and flawed. There’s actually something a bit more sinister about a gangster who’s a bit ridiculous than a cackling evil mastermind: it really does feel like there can be characters like Costa in the world, unhinged, petty and quick to violence whenever they look foolish.

But I have to say that I have problems with the ugliness of the film. There is charm to the story-book or comic strip designs. But everyone but Zoé is so hideous that over the term of a whole film it really starts to grate. I disliked the flickering colouring made to emulate on computer the style of hand-coloured animations like The Snowman – it looked affected and fake. This story is straightforward and offers very little that is unique to animation, so really needed beauty to distinguish it. While it had its own charm, I would not call that beauty. And that keeps me at an extra step of removal from this show. It looks like a 5-minute 70s animation spun out into a feature, and it does not benefit from it.

I like quite a lot about Une Vie de Chat. The tone, the concept, the setting. But I fell in love with nothing at all...and that is a real problem. Weirder, more experimental and far more beautiful animations like Le Jour des Corneilles have much more to offer. 

Saturday, 6 December 2014

夏目友人帳肆 / Natsume Yuujinchou Shi / Natsume’s Book of Friends season 4 (plus OVA)

It’s been two and a half years since the end of Natsume Yuujinchou season 4, which is the longest gap yet between seasons, with only the OVA about a weird snowman creature at the beginning of this year since, but I’m still hoping there’ll be more made yet, because I very much enjoy this world, these characters and the bittersweet atmosphere throughout.

As I made clear in my reviews of other seasons, this is actually where I began watching. I simply assumed the action started in medias res and until the appearance of Natori – clearly known to Natsume but lacking a proper introduction – I didn’t even realize I hadn’t started at the beginning.

So yes, the first and the last Natsume Yuujinchou I saw was from this season, but I don’t regret that. I saw some of the best episodes early on, because this is a good series and I’m glad I got hooked. The extreme cuteness of the opening sequence helped, too – because it, like much of this season, is focused on finally fleshing out some of Natsume’s past.

There are plenty of smaller-scale episodes: one with a little furball resembling a tribble, one where Natsume gets shrunk and put in a jar so Nyanko-sensei has to go to school looking like him. Then there’s a slightly more serious couple of episodes where he has to impersonate a god and take part in a contest to prevent an environmental disaster.

But the heart and soul of this season are links to Natsume’s past. Links through old friends and old mementos, but chiefly a visit to his old home, where he once lived with his late parents. It’s very sweet, really – this somewhat damaged young man who now has good friends thinking back over his difficult past. He was always ostracised for his strange behaviour when he was forced to interact with invisible spirits in front of other people. He made the other kids in his foster homes ostracise him and would often disappear. His coming-of-age story is particularly significant not just because he found a loving home – which is touching enough – but because he’s also at an age where he can have a degree of independence. He may well still behave oddly at times, but he doesn’t need to be protected so much.  

While this is progress, it still feels like there’s a whole lot of real story yet to be revealed. I know there’s a manga to read, and one day I may go seek it out. But I’d like to see more animated. Brain’s Base got progressively...gentler with how they animate this show. Things looked more and more clean, smooth and delicate and that made things just a little prettier with each season.

We still have more to learn about Natsume’s parents, about the guild of exorcists who have taken an interest in him, and of course – though we may never get there – whether or not Natsume will keep his end of the bargain up when it comes to giving Madara the book when the time comes. It would be a very sad epilogue if the series ended there, and I don’t think it would need to, but it could certainly be very affecting done well.

I grew to very much like this anime over its four seasons. I sincerely hope I get to enjoy more. Especially of the lil’ fox boy! GODDAMN HE’S TOO CUTE.