Sunday, 25 January 2015

とある魔術の禁書目録 / To Aru Majutsu no Indekkusu / A Certain Magical Index

The To Aru series has been enduringly popular, but I never felt much desire to pick them up. There was something old-fashioned about the designs – especially Touma, with his early-2000s spiky anime hair. But more and more things made me inclined to check it out. Probably the main one was a huge poster in Akihabara when I was there last year, with lots of much cuter characters than I expected to see. Another was the fact that I got into the mobile game Million Arthur, which had its scenario written by Kamachi Kazuma, the To Aru light novel creator.

I’m glad I gave the show a chance...but I have to say, overall I was disappointed.

One thing I can say clearly: Index is totally adorable. Probably the cutest female character in any anime I’ve picked up since The Idolm@ster. Her stubborn, childlike and impetuous personality is adorable and the fact that she’s a nun is hilarious. I could probably do without the show’s endless fanservice and how much she ends up whoops! naked again, but she manages to stay on the right side of annoying with her clinginess over Touma.

So, other than having a nun involved, what is the story here? Well, the series is set in a near-future world where both magic and advanced science live side-by-side. Magicians make use of magic, while Espers have impressive powers through either scientific experimentation or by impressive natural talent. 

In the university-oriented Academy City lives Touma, the boy with the old-fashioned spiky hair who also has a bit of a tedious power, the same that makes everyone think so highly of the central characters of Gakuen Alice and...well, Twilight

Touma can nullify all other powers, be they magical or scientific. His right hand, for whatever reason dubbed the Imagine Breaker, stops powers from working, reveals magical tricks and apparently also saps kinetic energy from anything magical that’s moving at speed – though I think that might just be for effect.

Into his life comes Index, a cute young girl and a nun who is essentially a tool for the Anglican church. With the power to memorize vast amounts of information – in a strange robotic mode – she has been implanted with over 100,000 mystical grimoires, which she carries in her mind. This makes her a valued commodity to the church as well as a target. Oh, and her clothes are magically enchanted, so if Touma’s Imagine Breaker touches them, they fall off. Oh my! Et al.

I like the concept, especially the elements related to the Church, even if that’s common in anime and manga – from Hellsing to D.Gray-Man. But To Aru does a whole lot wrong, which is partly why I got bored and took a very long time to finish watching. 

For one thing, it seems like the writer gets bored of Index, and for most of the second half of the show she’s stuck at home while Touma interacts with more interesting characters like Misaka, or ‘Railgun’, who has a long line of sacrificial clones designed to power up the extremely powerful Esper named Accelerator – until Touma intervenes. 

Rather than concentrating on even these two main girls, the plot bounces around – now Touma has to deal with a magic spell that swaps people’s appearances; now all the psychic energy in the city has coalesced into a big-boobed girl who Index has befriended; now we’re following Accelerator as he gains a human side through bonding with a cute loli version of Misaka. 

It’s too much, and other than some vague guff about Aleister Crowley floating upside-down in a giant tube orchestrating everything, there’s no sense of an overarching plot here. The result is that the tension is very low, and the usual tired setpieces of Touma having to pose as Misaka’s boyfriend or walking in on Index changing a million times gets old very fast.

There’s charm here and I probably will watch the rest. The first episodes remain very engaging and most of the storylines that involve the Church were enjoyable. Misaka’s story, especially with the moral question of her clones, has some brilliant moments, but I wish it could have been better-integrated into the existing plot or a completely separate anime. The problem here was that the series felt like it was a new spin-off with every new arc, rather than part of one coherent world, and that was why for all I found the eponymous character adorable and liked most of the other major players, I didn’t feel at all engaged by To Aru Majutsu no Index

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Big Hero 6

I’ve been waiting for Big Hero 6 since the early sneak previews of the art. Admittedly, there was little more to my eagerness than thinking the world looked great and that Hiro was an incredibly cute-looking character. This was also the first time a Marvel property went through the Disney filter, so I was curious to see how that turned out.

I was only familiar in passing with Big Hero 6...largely because someone online had asked why Hiro Hamada wasn’t included in Reed Richard’s Future Foundation – which I followed out of love for Alex Power. Not that he came out of his membership of that little team very well. Anyway, I read the comics, including the utterly terrible original run centred on the Silver Samurai and Sunspot, and while there were a few cringe-inducing elements to the depiction of Japanese people, I was glad the property at least existed. The subsequent mini-serials were rather better, but the main problem was that Hiro was simply not at all likeable.

Thus I was quite glad that Disney were clearly going in a completely different direction, essentially retaining only the names of major characters, plus Hiro being a child genius with a robotic manservant of sorts named Baymax. But Disney’s Baymax is a very, very different Baymax – and that is a blessing, and what makes this film.

The Disneyfied version is set in a hybrid world of Japano-American fantasy, with the city of ‘San Fransokyo’. It’s a little bit of a shame that they didn’t feel they could simply set the film in Tokyo, presumably because that would make it less commercially viable in their home territory. But there’s also a charm to the mixed aesthetic. In this technologically advanced city, young Hiro is a bit of a rebel. He has great skill with technology, but uses it to take part in illegal backstreet Robot Wars technological cock-fights. As these are shady affairs, he gets in trouble, and it’s up to his gentle, kind-hearted big brother Tadashi to save him. He gets some very abrupt character development when he sees his brother’s research lab – including the cute inflatable healthcare robot Baymax – and is inspired. He creates what are essentially the cliche of what nanobots can do in sci-fi, only on a macro scale, and impresses the scientific community.

However, at the event at which he is presenting these, there is a catastrophic explosion. His brother goes into the burning building to try to rescue his mentor, and doesn’t make it out. After a period of mourning, Hiro’s one remaining mini robot tries to reunite with all the others – leading him to realize that the explosion was no accident. It’s up to Hiro, along with Baymax and Tadashi’s old workmates, to investigate.

There’s a lot in common with How to Train YourDragon here – including the young boy bonding with a large, powerful, rather goofy non-human companion. And the film admirably manages to hit similar emotional notes. Hiro experiences loss, determination, the dark desire for revenge, and also the exhilaration of flight. The plot moves with just the right amount of exposition, character development, action and resolution.

I do have some plot-related problems. The fact is that the last thing Hiro should have learned from his brother is that someone has to help the needy. In fact, Tadashi should have trusted his mentor could look after himself rather than recklessly putting himself in danger. Then there’s the fact that even though his actions likely make his daughter hate him, the big winner is actually the bad guy – who without his dastardly plan would have never been able to get his loved one back. So while he ended up looking sad in the back of a police car, in fact crime paid for this villain – far beyond his wildest hopes, as all he had sought was petty revenge.

I also have to confess I felt a bit manipulated by the film’s emotional moments. Hiro is already a tragic orphan, but ends up losing his brother too, and then a sacrifice must be made at the end, too – even if perhaps not a lasting one. While Hiro is utterly adorable and I did enjoy seeing him go through a wide range of emotions, at times the losses didn’t ring true and it felt like artificial plucking of heart-strings. His transition from rebel who looks down on ‘nerds’ to science buff also seemed a bit hollow. Did he have no friends at all from his robot-fighting days? No links that lasted into his later life at all? Really?

The tech was a bit much – Hiro’s invention in particular should have revolutionised all science at once. It also rankled just a little that Hiro doesn’t even think to mass-produce Baymaxes as, y’know, the healthcare robot Tadashi intended him to be.

Ultimately, though, I loved the film – just not unreservedly. It was utterly beautiful, especially the animation for water and sky and various types of energy. Hiro was an endlessly loveable little guy, and Baymax’s non-threatening personality was hilarious put into the various perilous situations we saw. The twists were obvious but compelling, and the jokes were genuinely funny. Disney is still in a very good place, and this is one of their better films since embracing CG, very much worthy of Wreck-It Ralph (and the little background references to old Disney films, like the Stitch cushions, were a nice touch). Definitely one I’ll enjoy watching again.