Sunday, 23 December 2018

The Incredibles 2

While certainly one of the less outright iconic and emotionally affecting Pixar movies, I definitely think of the first Incredibles movie fondly. It's nice to see what happened next, even if after a frenetic opening with plenty of interesting character dynamics, we find out that not much has changed.
In an effort to get Supers legitimized again, Mr. and Mrs. Incredible team up with a telecommunications firm who essentially aim to improve their PR. Because Mr. Incredible is so destructive, they choose Mrs. Incredible - AKA Elastigirl - as their opening gambit, meaning Mr. Incredible is left to be a single dad for a while. That leads to some very funny and well-judged scenes of Mr. Incredible alternately struggling, seeking help and having genuinely sweet breakthroughs with his kids.

This is most likely the strongest portion of the movie. The rest of it suffers somewhat from not really seeming like anything special. Brad Bird's best movies are when there's really heavy emotional hits - The Iron Giant will likely always be his masterpiece - but there aren't really meaningful emotional stakes here. The bad guy was only ever going to be one of two possible new characters (or possibly both) so there's no weight to the reveal. Despite the fun set-up of Elastigirl getting the limelight and Mr. Incredible having to deal with his conceptions of his own superiority, that kind of gets left undeveloped when the battles kick off and everyone has to get involved. It also seems a bit weird that nobody reacts to the latest episode of the Supers causing massive damage because of a supervillain who basically exists only because Supers exist in the same way that they always did, too. Overall, the story felt too much like an episode of a spin-off TV show and honestly, it wasn't a whole lot different from Despicable Me 3

There were some great moments as usual. Edna has always been the best thing about The Incredibles and that remains true here. Baby Jack-Jack is adorable and a fun element of chaos in the mix. I loved the theme songs they made for the characters at the end, especially Frozone's funky one. And I liked Violet going from shrinking violet to stroppy teen. From the trailers I wasn't sure, but by the end I was won over by the new direction they took her, and her moment when her father apologises to her probably is the scene with the most heart. 

Obviously, the visuals and animation are top-notch as always, with elements like fire, ice, underwater scenes and midair battles all spectacular throughout. Wouldn't have minded a post-credits scene, though. 

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Miraculous, les aventures de Ladybug et Chat Noir / Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir / Miraculous Ladybug: saison 2

Something about the first season of Ladybug hooked me in. There were a lot of things I found fault with - I liked the character designs for the main characters and the antagonist, but a lot of the minor characters looked iffy and generally the show's movements are still in that floaty, clunky area so common in weekly computer animation. The villain-of-the-week plotting got tedious and the 'Lucky Charm' gimmick removed quite a bit of tension from the set-ups. Yet still I found myself wanting to watch more and more. And I spelled it out in my impressions of season 1 - what kept me coming back was the slow-burning but adorable romance where our heroine is in love with the boy in her class, but he is in love with her superhero form, and neither knows the other's secret identity. Marinette and Adrien are absolutely one of the cutest pairs I can ever remember being in Western animation, and I really do want to know how it all unfolds. 

So this was the problem the writers have for season 2 - people are coming back to look for developments in that relationship drama, which is absolutely the heart and soul of this show. But if they just outright jump forward to the pair finding out they're in love with one another in different forms, there's not much else to keep the show going. And goodness knows having that kind of drama actually play out often backfires - having Aang and Katara actually get together in Avatar or Yuugo confess to Amalia even though he's stuck in a body that never ages just ended up sloppy. And yes, this relationship drama is much more natural than those were and there can't be many fans of the show at this point hoping those two don't get together (even if I personally could totally buy both of them realizing they actually prefer their own gender in the end, in the Korra vein), but essentially the writers had two choices - bring the relationship drama to a head while setting up a more epic and all-consuming plotline that would keep people coming back for more no matter what the relationship is doing (the route the aforementioned shows took) or to slowly, slowly tease out more nuggets of intrigue in the relationship story while sticking with the villain-of-the-week format. 

They went for the latter route, and it just about works. Just about. But certainly at times things get stretched thin. A lot of the villains of the week are insipid, and it's only at the very end that Papillon mixes things up and almost wins after trying the same old nonsense way too many times. I couldn't bring myself to care about the heroes getting new powers like being able to operate underwater or on ice, nor about their friends getting to try out being superpowered for a while. 

The way every single minor character, from the rock musician's assistant to the brothers and sisters of tritagonists, has to get a villain form gets a bit silly, and I guess at some point we have to find out why the akumatisations happen only in the vicinity of the heroes, even in their supposedly hidden identities. The fact that the accidental transformation of a baby actually makes for one of the show's more memorable villains this season just speaks to how uninteresting most of them are. 

So the show lives and dies on the strength of that central relationship. Does it work? Just about. By the skin of the writer's teeth, there's enough for me to say this season was a success. But it really is just barely short of being too much filler with far too little killer. 

Yes, it’s worth sitting through an episode where the manservant becomes a teddy bear if there’s a slow dance between everyone’s OTP. Sure, it’s worth a battle with a stupid ice cream giant when you can have an adorable scene where Chat Noir prepares a candlelit dinner for Ladybug, gets stood up and then unloads to Marinette. An episode about the headmaster trying to be an owl-themed superhero becomes genuinely exciting when the two superheroes are forced to turn back into their regular selves right in front of one another, only their shared trust stopping them from finding out who their counterpart is. Sure, the monster of the week being the henchman turning into a King Kong type with a name that seems embarrassingly not to realise the name ‘Godzilla’ already came from the word ‘Gorilla’ (plus ‘Kujira’, whale), but look – Marinette and Adrien basically dating and watching a movie that’s super-important to Adrien! Plus Papillon’s idea that Adrien might be Chat Noir gets shut down.

Some episodes are just good concepts with good villains and fun relationship drama together, usually when the writers play with the formula a little. The season opener where Gabriel cleverly gets himself akumatized to throw the scent off him is both clever and humanising for the antagonist, whose somewhat Nox-like motivations are becoming clearer as the show goes on. While the villain of the week being a random TV host was a bit of a stretch, confronting the two heroes with scandalous pictures really ramped up the shipping drama for a very enjoyable episode. Similarly, Adrien and Marinette just happening to end up having to portray Chat Noir and Ladybug for a TV show was a whole lot of fun. The season finale, while perhaps not pushing things quite as far as I’d hoped, at least showed Papillon and his sidekick-assistant try something new when the same plan had failed several dozen times in a row. I also really liked the introduction of Marc, an adorable and very feminine boy (going by synopses, at least – the character could well be revealed not to identify as male) and how the show seems quite happy to have a gay couple and a lesbian couple in the school, even if it’s only in the background. It’s also fun that the show enjoys having its characters act contrary to their usual selves, be it evil Ladybug, scardey Chat Noir, weird horror movie twitching nightmare Adrien or sensitive, vulnerable Chloe. Oh, and, uh, if you wanna see Chat Noir tied up cruciform, blindfolded, scared and with a round object in his mouth for no reason at all (it could totally have been in his hand), yeaaah, the show has you covered there too.  

Typically, there’s also a love rival introduced for both characters. I didn’t much like Luka but I could see why Marinette would, and Kagami is a likeable character and it’s amusing they’re hinting at Adrien having yellow fever, but they’re both basically being set up to fail and their episodes weren’t the strongest, including when they were brought together for skating. It’s a nice touch of realism that the characters might have other possible love interests instead of only one true soulmate 4eva, but at least for now they just feel like plot elements rather than actual characters.

Once again, the show was released in a wild schedule all around the world. Fans found and posted the episodes where possible, but I don’t think the whole season has aired anywhere in the world yet. Some episodes came out first in France, others England, Canada, Spain, Switzerland, even Brazil! It’s a bit bizarre but I suppose it means we got episodes early, even if I had to watch some dubbed!

I am still hooked on this show and definitely want more. Preferably more episodes where there’s a solid plot and the monster just appears peripherally while proper plot development builds. I don’t need more sidekicks or superhero versions of classmates. I’d much prefer a sustained storyline where the emotional content can keep building. But in all honestly, I’ll lap up whatever I get. Well, weird dialogue-free chibi-style mini-episodes don’t count. So bring it on – in however many years it will take for the next season to come out.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

はたらく細胞 / Hataraku Saibou / Cells at Work

I’ve mentioned it a couple of times already, but the trend of having anime about personified versions of animals, machines and objects is having a comeback. A decade or two it was all the rage, and my personal favourite version was when operating systems became the OS-tans, but let us not forget I once watched a (super cute) anime about a personified piece of charcoal.

These days we have horse girls, sword boys, bullet train mecha and, yes, cells at work. And of all of them, I have to say I think it’s the cells that work the best. Not only is it an extremely easy idea to work with (cells as people) but it provides a perfect opportunity for that classic of anime writing – starting with a happy-go-lucky concept but then letting things go dark and semi-apocalyptic for the big finale. Which I’m a total sucker for.

One of the fun things about watching Cells at Work is that there’s a doctor on YouTube who also gives analysis of the concepts raised here. He’s currently on episode 3 but I’m looking forward to watching more. He also comments on House and had a little spat with a more famous doctor in the US who did the same idea for his own YouTube channel, and it made me remember how I used to watch that show and read the blog posts from a medical doctor. It’s fun to hear an expert’s opinion, especially on a pretty silly anime show.

And this definitely isn’t the first time cells have been personified. The doctor talks about French cartoon Once Upon a Time … Life and then there’s the thematically even more similar Osmosis Jones. Plus you could argue Inside Out and other personifications of mental processes are on similar lines. But Cells At Work is definitely its own unique take on the idea, perfectly balancing cuteness, humour, action and sentimentality.

We primarily follow a particularly hapless red blood cell, whose ahoge marks her somewhat airheaded character as she tries her best but keeps getting lost. She repeatedly gets saved by a white blood cell who got his hairstyling tips from Mushishi, and the two form an unlikely friendship. The first half of the show is actually more centred on the white blood cell, a neutrophil, as his different comrades in the immune system like macrophages and killer T cells are introduced. Then we shift back to the red blood cell as she gets more responsible and finally gets a neophyte of her own to train.

The joy of the world creation here comes from the inventive ways different cells are characterised. The helper T cell is a bookish commander, the dendritic cell lives in a tree and helps other cells to develop and the cancer cells are normal cells who have undergone a mutation and started to harm the tissue around them – with a clever few that blend in with the rest.

Plus the show goes VERY heavy on cuteness. Not only is the main character pretty cute as she is, we get a flashback to her and the white blood cell as kids – though they don’t remember each other. The naïve T cells are presented as adorably lacking in confidence, a story we actually get repeated, once fighting an infection and once in a flashback sequence. And then there’s the platelets, characterised as elementary school kids who work hard repairing damage and are just ridiculously cute.

First the story develops very much like a battle manga adaptation – admittedly I’m not sure how directly this comes from the original manga, which I haven’t read – with lots of bacterial invasions being like typical monstrous anime bad guys and viruses being more like zombifying parasites. With the cancer cell it becomes a bit more complex, with the ringleader character given a remarkably sympathetic character arc even though he is quite literally meant to be cancer.

And of course, if you make your story about blood as people, the question can be raised – what happens when there’s bleeding? Or injury? That allows for the depiction of big catastrophes and the effects on characters we’ve come to know and understand in calmer situations. It’s nothing new to see the main character who’s hitherto been a clutz getting a chance to show her grit and devotion when things get really taxing, but it’s still very sweet. And the idea of a blood transfusion bringing in a bunch of new characters with strong accents was very funny.

This anime felt refreshingly old-school. It didn’t try anything startlingly new or brave but relied on its concept with familiar set-ups and ideas. There were very classically anime-style fights against monsters, romantic tension that was only hinted at, big explosions and peril, and plenty of chances for more in future. At only 13 episodes, it doesn’t even come close to overstaying its welcome, and with strong voice acting, fun music (with a theme song that, again in somewhat old-school fashion, directly references the title) and solid but stylised animation from the JoJo studio, David Production, it was great fun from beginning to end.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

ハイスコアガール / High Score Girl

I was wary for a long time about these CG anime shows. CG crept into anime bit by bit – first vehicles in shows like Last Exile, then mecha, then cute girls strictly when singing and dancing, and now we’ve reached the stage where whole shows are made in CG. I’d still much rather see traditional animation, and CG animation on TV still usually looks awkward and stiff, but slowly these shows are winning me over. I really enjoy watching Koneko no Chii even after its transitionto CG, and Kemono Friends is undoubtedly cute even if the animation style is rough around the edges.

With High Score Girl, I wanted to watch no matter the medium. I love shows that bring in characters or references from all kinds of properties that you don’t often see together. Maybe the trend got a bit out of hand lately with Wreck-It Ralph and Ready Player One and all the rest of it, but the prospect of the show heavily referencing nostalgic video games really appealed to me. There was also a bit of interesting history here, with SNK having made a copyright claim against Square for use of their characters in the original manga, later settled out of court. The very premise of these characters sharing pages with dozens of other retro game characters really piqued my interest.

There isn’t actually much of the game characters in the series. Aside from Guile from Street Fighter, who acts as a kind of guardian angel, generally we just see games as the characters play them. A few others pop up from time to time, but this isn’t a story about video game characters or anything like that. It’s a story about a boy who plays games.

Partly, this show is fun to watch because of the nostalgia goggles. Obviously, I didn’t grow up in Japan, but I did grow up at a time when the arcade scene was thriving. It’s so fun to see someone getting excited over Mortal Kombat or Darkstalkers games, and remembering back when Tekken and Virtua Fighter were the new kids on the block.

At its core, this is a love story. A love triangle story, in fact. There’s a funny-looking kid obsessed with games called Yaguchi Haruo, and the only thing that’s important to him is playing video games, right when they’re emerging. Otherwise he’s a bit useless. Useless at sports, useless in school, useless with girls. Except that one day he comes across his elite, rich, ladylike classmate Oono playing Street Fighter 2. The two of them then become close and begin to bond over escaping the problems of their daily lives by playing games. Not only that but a few years later, another girl called Hidaka is drawn to Yaguchi’s passion and develops a crush on him.

Now, on a superficial level, this is some pretty awkward wish-fulfilment with a certain level of objectification that is uncomfortable. Despite being a scrawny, ugly kid who just loves to game, this boy gets not one beautiful girl but two falling for him. Pretty standard wish-fulfilment. To make it even more questionable, the idealised, universally-adored, wonderful love interest Oono has a defining characteristic – she never talks. The perfect girl that everyone loves is the one who doesn’t ever speak. Just blushes, relies on the boy she likes and occasionally gets angry and lashes out at him in slapstick style. The perfect girl doesn’t speak. Not because she can’t. She just doesn’t, or is never seen doing so onscreen.  

But y’know, strange as that is, Oono is very cute at the same time as being mute. I suppose there’s space to project onto her. And Yaguchi being so hapless yet having one all-consuming passion makes him very easy to identify with. He can be crude or neglectful at times, but it seems understandable, and he often gets the chance to demonstrate that he’s a good guy with a good heart. And that’s why I kept coming back to High Score Girl and will absolutely watch the OVA and any more they animate.

I don’t think this show will go down in history as one of the best, but it was absolutely a fun watch and satisfying from start to end. And the little appearances of some great games of the past definitely sweetened the deal.  

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

僕のヒーローアカデミア / Boku no Hero Academia / My Hero Academia season 3

The third season of BnHA just ended, and honestly it feels strange. In many ways, this show is a successor to the big Shounen Jump series of the past – Naruto, Bleach, HunterxHunter. As such, it doesn’t really suit coming out in seasons. The story isn’t designed that way and there’s no real hook to the season openers or the season finales. Plus we had to have much of the first episode taken up by recaps. I’d much rather the show could be continually produced every week like those other titles – as long as there wouldn’t be too great a dip in quality and we didn’t have to descend into filler hell. Maybe that’s just too much to ask for.    
Which is not to say that Boku no Hero Academia is lacking in quality. It’s a great shounen show full of interesting characters, inventive powers and some great humour. Yes, it’s still as derivative as it ever was, with training arcs, tournament arcs and more and more concepts we saw years ago in Naruto or decades ago in X-Men, but everything is done so well, and centred on such likeable characters, that it never feels tired or recycled.

This season follows our academy class through some pretty significant changes. The kids go to a training camp where they get attacked by the villains, acquitting themselves pretty well but ending up letting Bakugo get kidnapped. That leads to a rescue operation that intriguingly subverts some expectations for shounen manga and has Midoriya-kun learn the lesson that trying to play the hero and face up to your foes can often be totally self-destructive, whereas running away and letting your elders and betters take care of it tends to be the better strategy. 

This chain of events, though, leads to the most important part of the series, awkwardly in the middle of the run. All Might faces his nemesis and the puppetmaster of almost all the bad guys un the shown One for All, and in their showdown the big bad realizes that All Might has passed on One for All and is essentially running on fumes. It's a pivotal moment, especially as it unfolds with the world watching, and the final result is that All Might s revealed to have lost his powers and will no longer be the sole protector of the world. In a society with heroes at the very centre, this has vast repercussions as the populace loses their sense of security under a fittingly almighty protector. 

The rest of the season is essentially the fallout from that event. The kids enter another exam, to get their provisional hero licences, but there's a shift in the mood. This isn't just about the kids working their way up the ranks - there's a power vacuum now and people are uncertain and liable to lash out at the system that's supposed to protect them if they feel it's showing cracks. These kids won't just continue carefree student lives if they get these licences, they'll be on the front lines against villains out for blood. And then awkwardly appended on the end before they go off for new, more serious internships, they meet the top students at the academy, including some weird guy who looks like Lucas from Mother got buff.

So in the end, my biggest complaint here is that adapting an ongoing Jump show in seasons makes for unsatisfying pacing and weird cliffhangers, like introducing Overhaul but having no development at all for him. But that being the worst thing I can say about a show means there’s really not a lot to complain about here. BnHA does what it sets out to do fantastically, with a rich and varied cast, a likeable protagonist, great setpieces, an intriguing world, beautiful fluid animation and flawless voice acting. It’s not breaking any new ground, but that doesn’t stop it being one of the most fun things to watch right now – anime or otherwise.

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

映画 ハイ☆スピード!-Free! Starting Days- / High Speed! Free! the Movie: Starting Days

Honestly, watching more Free! wasn't a priority for me. My impressions of the second season were some of the worst-written on this site. I know the show is shipping trash, but my review sunk way too far into that. 

But since then, more and more Free! has been released. I was always a little interested in this prequel movie and honestly, while it's not something I'm desperate to see, I do want to watch the rest of the show at some point. So I decided to take the plunge (ohoho) and sit through Starting Days

To ease myself into it and to remind myself who the characters are, I watched the season 2 OVA that I'd never seen. It was indeed pure shipping trash, but hey, that's generally what OVAs are. The boys go to Rin's school for their culture festival, tease the first-years who have to dress as maids (fuel for that crack ship I said was my favourite in my trash review), have a fight with water pistols and generally follow tried-and-tested formulae for cute boys/girls doing cute things. 

I'm quite pleased to report that Starting Days is a much better prospect. In fact, it's probably my favourite entry into the canon so far. It's based on an official light novel spin-off, and there's a higher writing quality on display here. While it's a bit awkward that these events - before the main series but after the childhood flashbacks that drive the main drama with Rin - are never mentioned in the original, broadly speaking they work, fitting into a void in the storyline pretty well. 

And frankly, even though I couldn't get through the whole movie in one sitting, I was much more invested in these characters as young teens than I was with them as high schoolers. I never liked the condescending blank slate that is Haru, nor the hulking, slightly creepy teddy bear known as Makoto. I liked Makoto as a kid in the flashbacks, his personality making much more sense for a somewhat insecure little kid, but the flashback versions of the others were pretty annoying. Nagisa in particular, while the high schooler I liked the most, was portrayed as a very annoying little kid. He's still very annoying here, but as he's a year younger than the others, he hasn't graduated from elementary school so only appears in a few cameos. 

The story here is a classic school sports story. Haru and Makoto start middle school and are reluctant to join the swimming club. Haru doesn't think any relay can match up to what they accomplished with Rin and Nagisa, while Makoto is diffident, seemingly not wanting to make a decision until Haru does. But eventually they are persuaded to try, and join a relay with two other kids - brash dunderhead Asashi and prickly emo kid Ikyua.

We get the standard formula for these movies - at first they are a mess, each having some personal issue that prevents them from giving their all and working well as a team. By the end - spoiler warning for extremely predictable ending - they pull it together, bond as a team and win the big race! Happy feelings all around. But the test of such a predictable storyline is how well the characters are developed, and how well the emotional notes are hit. And this is what goes unexpectedly well with this story. 

Haru, essentially our protagonist, is much more likeable and sympathetic as a young adolescent than either a young teen or a kid, as seen in the main series. Being emotionally stunted, keeping others at arm's length and sometimes acting way too impulsively makes way more sense for a kid that age than for a young man, and I actually believe in this character much more than the main series' Haru. I believe he would get weirded out by a sudden change in his best friend and start avoiding him, even if it means eating only tinned mackarel and rice and ending up collapsing from hypoglycaemia. I can make allowances for his odd behaviour and the walls he puts up because of his age, where I find it difficult when he's pretty much a full-grown man. 

Makoto is also more interesting here than in the show, getting directly confronted with the question of what his character is when Haru is taken out of the equation. Does he even have his own identity without him? Does he like swimming or just like being with Haru? It was probably the least interesting dilemma but it was probably the most development this poor lapdog ever got. 

Then there's Asahi and Ikuya, the new characters. I loved their dynamic together and they were a pleasure to watch. They’re chalk and cheese but gel really well. It’s like throwing Naruto and Ciel Phantomhive together and watching what happens. I know these characters will show up in the newer seasons but I kind of don’t want to see them get messed up because they were hilarious here. And while Asahi’s personal problem was nothing that exciting, generally a confidence issue (though there’s a fun scene where a young Rei helps him out), Ikuya made his way to the heart of this movie, his conflicting feelings about his brother and his adorable overreaction putting him centre-stage and making him a catalyst for the final act.

The characters’ problems go away very easily, and it’s almost overly brief, watching the boys suddenly start gelling after a sleepover and a weird underwater sequence with Haru and Makoto that would never work in live action and only works here because the animators decide to totally ignore what water does to hair. But the core of the story wherein they struggle with them, with themselves and one another, makes for compelling viewing.

As usual, Kyoto Animation make beautiful, fluid, very cute character animation with pleasant backgrounds and generally nice water effects in spite of that one odd quasi-romantic sequence. They’re by now well established as a powerhouse of light-content but relaxing anime that’s always easy on the eyes. They tend not to know when to stop milking a series (see K-On) and I’m expecting to find the same problems with the Chuunibyou movie I’ve got lined up to watch next, but this was actually a pleasant surprise. Mostly KyoAni shows start well and get progressively worse. Free! might buck that trend, but I guess I’m mostly feeling that way because I don’t particularly like the main show. Now that I think about it, the same happened with Haruhi.

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Adventure Time (season 10)

And so Adventure Time comes to a close with a satisfying extended finale and the dangling possibility of spin-offs if ever there’s enough demand. And even though I’d say Adventure Time overstayed its welcome, having felt the premise was wearing thin as early as season 4 and largely losing interest by season 6, it's a little sad to say goodbye to the show after it being part of my life for over a decade. I’ve said it many times giving my thoughts on the various seasons, but Adventure Time strayed a long way from the exuberant, free-wheeling, surreal pilot that made me fall for the world in the first place. And even though audience numbers have dwindled from a peak of 2.5-3.5 million US viewers during seasons 3 through 6 to season 10 never even getting close to one million, interest in the show remains high and Finn and Jake will endure as amongst the most recognisable characters for an entire generation. That’s quite an accomplishment, and absolutely the show’s humour and ambitious scope have shaped what cartoons have been able to do on kids’ networks ever since.

Aside from the finale, the rest of season 10 was no better than the last few seasons have been, and the main set-up lacked the focus of previous sagas like the voyage to find Finn’s mother or the threat of the elementals. One thread that gets worked through the season is the impending threat of Gumbald, which ultimately was totally abortive and would probably have been better left out of the story altogether or resolved ahead of the finale instead of a dumb Minecraft advert serving as the last full episode before it. Then there’s what will become of Fern, a clone of Finn who brings up some interesting existential questions and whose story reaches a brief but ultimately satisfying conclusion.

Otherwise, a lot of episodes give characters a little more resolution. Jake learns some more about his background, Flame Princess deals with her father (in a pretty stupid rap battle episode) and Tree Trunks and Mr Pig work out some kinks in their complicated relationship. Then there are some relatively random episodes, like the Minecraft one and the story of Finn trying to get a joke published in a magazine. The 13 episodes – or 16 if you consider the finale 4 separate ones – were again aired over the course of a full year, making immersion and interest exponentially harder to maintain.

One sad thing about Adventure Time is how it lost its capacity to surprise me. In the beginning there were lots of very random and hilarious things that came as a surprise, especially how episodes ended. Then I was surprised by various revelations about the past in world-building terms, especially with Simon’s background. But it’s been a long while since I’ve found anything about Adventure Time very novel. In this season, well, I’m glad they confirmed a homosexual relationship within canon which they could have just skirted around and left vaguely ambiguous, as they had since it was heavily implied back in season 3. And it blindsided me when they said they were holding Finn’s 17th birthday party – I know the character has aged but I still saw the little blobby potato guy as about 14, maybe 15. He definitely doesn’t seem like a 17-year-old, even now. But those aren’t the kinds of surprises I was talking about. Things that made me laugh before were things like King Worm coming out of nowhere to hypnotise Finn and Jake, or Jake proudly announcing that he’s 28 in the pilot.

So it was with the finale. There were plenty of things I didn’t expect – the framework hinting at terrible things having happened to the main cast; the way Gumbald and co are basically shrugged off in favour of a bigger, better plot; Lemongrab and Lumpy Space Princess having an amusing end to their character arcs together – but none of it actively surprised me. It’s been a long time since I remember Adventure Time actually making me laugh. And to be honest, while of course one of its strengths was revealing a rich, often very dark backstory, there haven’t been any real revelations on that front for half a decade. We didn’t need to know more about Princess Bubblegum’s dark past. Simon’s story could have been neatly wrapped up at any time and the most delightful thing about it was that he had this backstory at all – which was teased in season 4 and revealed in season 5. This is all a long time ago now. It isn’t really Adventure Time’s style to go out with a real bang, and indeed it didn’t, hinting over and over again about a huge apocalyptic battle but never really having one and having the day saved by singing and the unconvincing soft-of-self-sacrifice of a very underdeveloped minor character, Betty. Perhaps worst of all, it didn't feel like Finn had much of a place in the finale, there was no sense of closure to his character development, and perhaps Penn Ward not being on the show for many years also meant Finn got left behind as a character. 

Even if this wasn’t an ideal finale, though, it was a solid end to a show that ran its course and accomplished a lot. Adventure Time was always a show with uneven quality but it’s probably made me laugh more than any other show in recent years aside from Gumball. And it managed to occasionally be deeply touching, too, with Simon’s backstory providing a show that revels in violence and slapstick with a real heart. I’m not sure I’d want to sit through the entire run again, or even recommend to someone that they need to watch every single episode like I did. But the first few seasons and certain key world-building episodes are true classics of animated television, and I will defend the show to the end against detractors who hate how popular it got. After 11 years, it's a little sad to say goodbye to Adventure Time. But it was also high time the show ended.

Friday, 27 July 2018

メアリと魔女の花 / Meari to Majo no Hana / Mary and the Witch’s Flower

It’s entirely by design that everybody looked at publicity materials for Mary and the Witch’s Flower and thought, ‘Oh, Studio Ghibli have a new film coming out?’ It looks just like a Ghibli film. And so it should, with Arrietty and Marnie director Yonebayashi Hiromasa at the helm and a number of his collaborators from those films present and correct. It’s also drawn in the Ghibli house style of art that, let’s face it, is Miyazaki’s style as developed from the Toei Animation aesthetic – but was unambiguously adopted as a house style by all the other directors including Miyazaki’s great and sadly departed senior, Takahata. But Ghibli this is not. It seems like the great animation house has given up trying to create a new figurehead director and is winding up feature animation production. So the young man who got to direct two of the most recent Ghibli films and who seemed to be such a good fit because he was meek and malleable, has actually gone off to a new studio. Ghibli producer Nishimura Yoshiaki has founded Studio Ponoc, and despite having to start everything from scratch – including trying to procure funding – they have produced a film that is everything a Ghibli film ought to be. Call it derivative if you like, but I call it a logical progression. And it’s wonderful to know that a new generation will be continuing the lineage of the studio and just might live up to or even surpass the accomplishments of their forebears.

And for all its imitative qualities, this felt like freedom for Yonebayashi. For the third time, he’s adapting an old, somewhat quaint British novel for his animation – but this time it’s not so peaceful and introverted. This time it’s about witches, magic, cataclysmic spells and soaring magical flight. His light, deft touch in the previous two films was appreciated, but I get the feeling he enjoys a larger and more spectacular stage, while retaining a lot of the cute, small-scale feeling.

The source material, The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, is not a book I’ve ever come across. I don’t think it’s been in print for many years. I’ve vaguely heard of her from her books The Crystal Cave, an Arthurian work beloved of hippies, and The Moon-Spinners, which Disney made into a live-action film, but I’ve never read anything she wrote. I don’t know how closely this adaptation matches the source material, but I suspect it’s pretty close. And it’s probably a good idea to use a decades-old book as your source when you’re expecting to battle accusations of unoriginality: not only did they have to get Mary well-separated from Kiki so that this wouldn’t seem overly slavish in its Ghibli imitations, but it would be all too easy for a story about a British kid going to a school for magic and proving to be a prodigy at magic and flying brooms thanks to something her family did in the past to be called imitative of Harry Potter. Instead it might just make a wider audience realise just how derivative – or, to put it more kindly, how connected with a rich legacy of similar British works – Rowling’s books really were.

While Mary and Kiki are very little alike, there are far more connections with the Ghibli tradition here than just the fact that Mary looks like Ponyo grew up to look a bit like Arrietty. Perhaps most obvious would be the echo of Miyazaki’s passion for flight. But there’s more than that. The matriarchal figure first seen formed from a huge gush of water is very Spirited Away, while the powerful, noble, unstable and dangerous force at the end bring Mononoke-hime to mind. Mary at times gets the determination of Nausicaa or the inner strength of Sheeta. The design of the school is a little bit Howl-ish in places, while the gardens have just a hint of the world of The Cat Returns. On that note, just like in Whisper of the Heart, the cats here totally steal the show. Tib the grumpy cat was hilarious.

As with the likes of Mahoutsukai no Yome, it’s fun to see England rendered through the fanciful lens of Japanese romanticism. Once again there’s a very odd take on British food, with what looked like breaded chicken, beans, dumplings and sliced tomatoes on a plate together. But at the same time they had very clearly come to England and used photos of real Shropshire houses for their backgrounds – you could even see that they had some Celebrations ready to eat! Having only ever adapted British children’s books centred on adolescent girls, I’ll be interested to see if Yonebayashi expands from there after this. Britain has always kind of been represented as an echo in Ghibli’s works, from the adaptations of British books that had their locales stripped away or changed to Japan to the scenery based on Welsh mining villages in Laputa. But it seems like Yonebayashi actually wants to set films based on British works in Britain. And that’s very entertaining for me to see.

I’ll be following his career and the developments of Studio Ponoc with interest. I hope they make many, many classic films and soon the world will say Yonebayashi in the same way they now say Miyazaki.

Monday, 23 July 2018

Kingdom Hearts χ Back Cover

After finally getting around to Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue as we build up to the long-awaited release of Kingdom Hearts 3, I sat down to watch Back Cover having heard pretty much only bad things. Nonsensical, boring, nothing to do with the Kingdom Hearts familiar to fans. And while yes, it has a lot of problems, I enjoyed this animation quite a bit. But I’m aware that it took very specific circumstances for me to enjoy it.

I really don’t think this would be enjoyable for someone who hasn’t played Kingdom Hearts χ or Kingdom Hearts Union χ, which is a remake of χ but removing its ending and continuing past that point (which is confusing enough as it is – I’ve only played Union χ so to get the full story so far had to go and look up the original ending). There was some suggestion that this animation would retell the story, making playing through Union χ unnecessary, but that’s not true at all. Without knowledge of the Union χ story I seriously doubt that anyone would have more than a vague idea of what’s going on here. This extended cutscene basically retells the story of the Master of Masters and his apprentices, which drives the action of Union χ but is absolutely not its story. I don’t see how anyone who only watches this would understand the Union χ storyline or have any idea who Ephemer is or what he does. It obviously doesn’t continue to the new story Union χ has continued to unfold, with the new Union leaders like Lauriam or Bl…Blay…dammit, ‘Brain’.  So basically, it’s a companion piece to Kingdom Hearts χ and it is still absolutely necessary to play it or Union χ through – or watch the cutscenes at least, to understand the Keyblade War and the beginning of the Kingdom Hearts story.

Which is not to say that this part of the story is actually good. It’s pretty poor storytelling, with the kind of annoying prophecy-spurs-action narrative that I really don’t like. The Master of Masters, who wears the cloak later associated with Organization XIII and who actually has a playful personality that is by far the most interesting writing choice in this part of the narrative, can see the future thanks to the eye he implanted in the keyblade ‘No Name’. He knows a great war is coming, so prepares his six apprentices for this cataclysm by giving them specific roles. And then of course it is their attempting to follow his guidance that leads to the war taking place. The storyline intentionally leaves open questions – who is the traitor? What’s in the box? Where did the Master of Masters go, and why did Luxu disappear too? These are interesting issues for those of us invested in this storyline, but not at all for fans who have only followed the main games, and probably mostly bewildering.

As I say, for a hardcore fan who already knew this story, and who is playing the clunky, money-grabbing browser/mobile game, this is great. We get to see in CG what was hitherto only in iffy cut-out animation. We can enjoy vocal performances and get the Foretellers with way more personality. Ava is so sweet, Gula both adorable and suspicious, Invi so much more virtuous than I read them in the game, and for me that really helps differentiate them. Ephemer is also infinitely more likeable and cute as he appears here – and of course it’s fun to see Chirithy nicely-rendered. As the first fully original animation, these impressions belong on my animation blog more than my thoughts on the movie versions of 358/2 Days or Re:Coded, even if part of a video game, and while perhaps everything is a bit overly glossy, with lots of perfectly-laundered unicorn outfits and shiny leather belts, this was a very nicely-made animation that I enjoyed watching.

Not even remotely explanatory for the uninitiated, absolutely not a replacement for playing or watching through the full story of the χ games and almost certainly just a bewildering mess to the uninitiated, for the people it was actually made for – those of us who actually play even the shoddiest spin-offs just to get the full story – this is a highly enjoyable vignette. But I absolutely understand why most people hated it.  


Just like the Studio Ghibli films, I’ve fallen behind with Pixar’s movies and can no longer say I’ve seen them all. Not only am I a year late seeing Coco, but there are the likes of Cars 3 and The Good Dinosaur that I have to catch up on at some point. Though I can’t say either of those fill me with enthusiasm.

But Coco I definitely wanted to see. Day of the Dead imagery is always fun, and I like the idea of promoting and supporting Mexican culture at a time where there’s a tendency to look at border controversies and dehumanise people. Which is not to say I support illegal border crossings. Disney also made a pig’s ear of trying to seem culturally sensitive when they attempted to trademark “Día de los Muertos”, which you’d think somebody would have realised was a bad idea before it went public. But Mexican culture is one I have only very superficial knowledge of, so it was nice to see more – even if it took an American studio to lead me there.

The set-up is neat and tidy, the kind of plot you know went through numerous writing rooms and was tightened up until it squealed. Young Miguel is the youngest in a line of shoemakers in a family where music is banned, because his great-great-grandfather abandoned the family to pursue his dreams of being an entertainer. But music is in his blood and Miguel secretly worships Ernesto de la Cruz, seemingly the greatest star Mexico has ever produced.

After a mishap in a mausoleum on the Day of the Dead, young Miguel is cursed and his corporeal form enters the realm of spirits. Only his deceased family’s blessing can take him back to the land of the living, and there’s a problem – his family want him to renounce music. Instead he sets off looking for his great-great-grandfather, and might just uncover some skeletons in the family closet on the way – figuratively speaking.

It’s a really fun adventure that’s given extra scale by the fantastical imagery possible in the afterlife. There’s the brightly-coloured Alebrije creatures, giving a fantastical touch to the world. There’s all the usual animated movie gags with skeletons being able to take off their skulls, independently move detached limbs and suchlike. There’s the piled-up colourful houses and a spectacular party, as well as a very odd but very funny take on Frida Kahlo’s artistic output – pitched perfectly to get in references to the kind of imagery Kahlo put out while still being kid-friendly. Just the right amount of obvious.

I’ll freely admit that a lot of the subtle things went over my head. I know many of the dead guests at the big party were famous in Mexico, but I don’t know who they were. But what’s fun about a film about another culture is that you learn. Now I know what an ofrenda is and something about xolo dogs. I have a new affection for the grito, which is a little different from the kind of grito I know from capoeira songs. Though I do wonder how these beliefs sit alongside Christianity, which is almost wholly absent from this story. Not that I expected a Pxar film to go there.

There were some elements that could have been improved, in my opinion. Miguel himself could have had a bit more of an interesting design, even if he was going to have his face painted for much of the film. The way modern Disney and Pixar films (see Frozen and Moana) tend to push one song with many refrains is usually rewarded with an Oscar – as was this film’s ‘Remember Me’ – but I thought ‘Un Poco Loco’ was a much more interesting and well-performed song. I feel something of a lack of closure not knowing what happened at the end of either music competition (though we at least know who won one of them, though possibly only because Miguel ‘withdrew’), and while wrapping things up with brevity made sense, I thought there might be a little more on just how the family managed to convince the world of the truth Miguel uncovers. And honestly, compared with more iconic films in the Pixar oeuvre, I don’t think this will stand out much more than the likes of Ratatouille or Inside Out.

Nonetheless, this was an expertly-crafted, beautiful, well-written, satisfying and sometimes moving story that does a good job of introducing to kids that sometimes following a dream and staying with a family can be at odds with one another. Very much worth a watch, if not rewatching over and over.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Isle of Dogs /犬ヶ島 / Inugashima

Wes Anderson's animations have developed their own very unique style. It's partly the ugliness of the stop-motion, but it's mostly the rhythms. The comic timing is the most charming thing about these films, established firmly in The Fantastic Mr. Fox. The deadpan humour is absolutely brilliant, delivered by a stellar cast including the likes of Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Tilda Swinton and Bryan Cranston. This may be the most entertaining thing Yoko Ono has ever done, beside perhaps interrupting John Lennon and Chuck Berry’s duet with her weird croaky noises. 

This film is a strange one. Japanese dogs are sent to a trash island after paranoia spreads about canine flu. However, one little Japanese boy, ward of the mayor who masterminded the doggy exile, sets out to rescue his dog. 

Oddly, there's a lot of hilarious Japanese in this film, which is probably funny only to Japanese speakers. I loved the little montage of the scientific analyses. On the other hand, the film is mostly a somewhat condescending free-wheeling depiction of Japan, all sumo wrestlers, yakuza and taiko drummers. I don't know why they didn't bother to ask for some Japanese names - the main boy is called 'Atari' for some reason, and there's a bunch of Rexes and Spots but not a Pochi in sight. A bit bizarre given these are meant to be Japanese dogs.

I absolutely loved the adventure of the boy and the five main dogs, with their deadpan storytelling interrupted by getting each other's ticks off or sneezing. Their tendency to look at the camera sometimes is marvellous, and dogs are just inherently funny. The exchange student with the big blonde afro is much less entertaining as a subplot. The ending is also random and confused, but it's not as though the plot was the main purpose of this film.

I can't see this being a big hit. Anderson fans will of course watch it and a few animation fans will be interested, but it's probably way too weird and ugly to get a new audience on board. At least Fantastic Mr. Fox had some degree of cuteness. Well, this one does have the most adorable little puppies, in fairness. And I guess some of the other doggies are cute. Probably all Anderson's animated films will eventually become cult classics in some circles. But whether they'll be able to recoup their costs enough that many more can be made I do not know.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

ソードアート・オンライン オルタナティブ ガンゲイル・オンライン / Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online

In a season of very silly, trashy anime - I'm looking at you, Uma Musume - a new Sword Art Online spin-off suggested it might aim to be taken a little more seriously. Well, that idea was soon put to rest when it became clear the central premise would be super-cute loli characters using guns. And that's really about the extent of it. 

It's actually quite a joyful and exuberant clash. The two central pillars of the anime are pleasingly contrasted - super-cute little girls with bunny-ear hats dressed all in pink, and gun otaku writing, preoccupied with military tactics, bullet calibres, magazine capacities and suchlike. It's kind of like Babymetal - contrasting the cutesiness and the aggressive manliness is inherently absurd and fun.
And the universe of Sword Art Online is a good one for this premise. There's an acceptable in-universe reason that we have a sweet lil' girl in a gun-totin' universe - our main character in the real world is a girl with a complex about her height. She's very tall and feels as though that means she's not cute. It hurts her self-confidence, so she seeks an escape in the full-immersion VR games of this universe. However, time after time she gets rendered as some hulking Valkyrie type, which only makes her feel worse. Only when she enters shooting game Gun Gale Online does she get rendered as a little cutie, so that’s what she sticks with. Makes sense. 

Later, of course, more loli contrivance comes about as her best friend also appears as a cute lil’ loli so that they can make a lil’ loli team, and a group of big beefy women she meets in the game of course have real life counterparts who are the most adorable little girls – who by coincidence our main character knows in real life. There’s further contrivance in the final reveal of who the antagonist is, which is about the most obvious twist possible and was clearly telegraphed a few episodes in.
For all that this is a very daft anime, though, and for all I wish they’d proceeded to finally animate the only Sword Art Online arc I’ve actually wanted to see since it became clear the main show was getting insufferable partway through season 1, I enjoyed this for what it was. I liked how rather than focusing too much on real military manoeuver tactics, this show explores how the game mechanics can be exploited. The main characters were also engaging, the little loli Llenn-chan being very sweet, the antagonist Pitohui entertainingly unhinged in a very Black Lagoon sort of a way, and stoic M-san actually giving the impression of being someone who cares about the game itself.

The attempts to make the stakes seem meaningful were questionable at best, and the overall story flow was kind of poor – introduction and then two rounds of a tournament back-to-back – but this fluff was at least cute, entertaining and occasionally a little clever within its own setting. Worth watching, if not revisiting. And I guess since this is a different studio, relatively new company 3Hz, it ought not to be delaying any other SAO production. 

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Miraculous, les aventures de Ladybug et Chat Noir / Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir / Miraculous Ladybug

What with celebrated movies like Persepolis and Les Triplettes de Belleville and weekly animation like Wakfu and the continuation of Les Mystérieuses Cités d'or, I’ve become quite a fan of French animation. Alongside the Belgians, they’ve always had a tradition of taking comics a little more seriously than Britain did, with the likes of Astérix having appeal to an older demographic way before that was fashionable worldwide. I absolutely love Wakfu and when I saw a lot of people raving about Ladybug, I thought I’d check it out.

It took a long time for me to get into. One big factor was that before it was on Netflix it was hard for me to find the French version with English subtitles, and while my French is decent enough to understand the basic gist, that’s not enough to enjoy the show. There are actually solid reasons to watch the show in other languages – by date of first airing, the Korean dub has priority; there’s quite a bit of focus on making it appeal to English audiences, including a lot of English on-screen text; and of course the creation, setting and lip-sync are centred on the French. Trying them all, it was instantly apparent that the French dub was the best-acted, matched the animation and of course made sense with the Parisian setting. So I had to make quite a bit of effort at that point to find it in French.

Moreover, at first I didn’t really get into the show. I had begun watching it in the American viewing order and they unfortunately kicked off the series with two of its weakest episodes, ‘Le Bulleur’ and ‘M. Pigeon’. I probably would have had an easier time getting into it if those particularly goofy episodes weren’t presented right from the off.

I also wasn’t that taken by the animation. This is a prevalent French style at the moment, as also seen in the recent adaptation of Le Petit Prince, in the Mystérieuses Cités sequel and in Un monstre à Paris, it’s CG animation done far cheaper than what you see from Pixar, and though individual frames tend to look great when you pause, it’s largely on the stiff, clunky, awkward-looking side in motion.

Yet I kept coming back to Ladybug, and finally binge-watched most of the first season and some of the second, and ultimately found myself fully won over by its charms. Actually, I can say quite specifically what made me go back and watch more, and it was a gif of Chat Noir looking stupidly cute talking about how black brings out the green in his eyes. The fact is what made me watch more of this than I otherwise would was the incredibly cute character designs, which are a very pleasant mixture of cool and goofy, which is a pretty tough balance to pull off. The attractiveness of the main cast is absolutely what got this show rolling and spread its influence far enough that some favourite Pixiv artists from Japan surprised me by drawing fanart of the characters.

In story terms, this is a very generic mix of classic American superhero clichés, with a healthy dash of magical girl anime, especially Shugo Chara. The kwami are little familiars very much like the shugo chara, and Adrien/Chat Noir is almost like a mash-up of the two boys from that show. The transformations of course bring to mind those of shows like Sailor Moon and the idea of people being manipulated by a magical force to turn evil was also done to way more goofy levels by Demashita! Powerpuff Girls Z. Yes, goofier than the pigeon fancier becoming a pigeon-based superhero. Thrown into this is the silly but often fun conceit that just putting on a little mask completely hides your identity so that even those close to you can’t possibly recognise you, and a luck-based superpower that basically functions like Batman’s infamous utility belt in the old days where it always held exactly what he needed to solve any problem.

A simple formula plays out over the course of the show – someone in Paris, usually happening to be in the immediate vicinity of our heroes (including every single one of their classmates) ends up in emotional distress. Sinister villain Le Papillon, who somehow is always ready to observe these events, sends out an ‘akuma’ butterfly to turn them into a supervillain, in hopes they can draw out superheroes Ladybug and Chat Noir and steal the artefacts that give them power. It never works. Towards the end, they try to get a little more creative with this, like having two separate villains as a kind of cause-and-effect, or having a villain who can summon and control the previous villains, but generally things are kept episodic. Interestingly, as a season finale (in France at least), the heroes’ origin stories are told, basically showing that normal teenager Marinette Dupain-Cheng and, well, relatively normal teenager Adrien Agreste are given their powers essentially as a reaction to the rise of Le Papillon.

There’s nothing special about the set-up or the storytelling, but what really works is the leaf taken from Shugo Chara’s book and making the show incredibly good shipping bait. It’s all about the relationships, and the cute set-up that Marinette is in love with Adrien (after, typically, a rocky start) and that Adrien is in love with Ladybug. While neither of course know that the other is the superhero they fight side-by-side with every time a new villain appears. Superficially Marinette and Adrien aren’t the most interesting characters. Marinette has the interest of being half-European and half-Chinese (like me!), but is largely an everywoman character whose main defining trait is that she’s a klutz who falls over a lot. Adrien is a super-attractive 13-year-old professional model who is an expert at fencing, languages, acting and video games which makes him pretty hard to identify with – though later we learn more about his painful past and that he’s largely so good at things because of an oppressive home life. But the role switch as superheroes is what works so well. Marinette as Ladybug becomes capable, confident and a natural leader. Chat Noir, meanwhile, is a total goofball, often the butt of jokes and constantly making terrible puns, as well as openly flirting with Ladybug and constantly getting rebuffed. It’s just so cute, and while at first I wasn’t convinced by the ship, it gets cuter and cuter and now it just seems perfect. There are various other minor characters it’s easy to ship, from canon pairings to two cute chalk-and-cheese best friends who could so easily be an adorable lesbian couple. I earnestly believe the romantic elements paired with super-attractive designs on the main duo are the key to why this show succeeded with a wider audience than I’m sure was initially anticipated. Sometimes the shipping moments are a bit overly ham-fisted, with Chat Noir constantly landing on top of Ladybug or the possibility of a relationship being constantly raised, but it’s cute enough that it doesn’t matter and it’s so sweet that the two don’t know that they’re actually in love with one another in different guises.

I’ve started the second season and they’re starting to play with the formula a bit, which is a good idea because it’s already in desperate need of innovation – though I resent them changing ‘Une ladybug!’ to ‘Miraculous!’ in the opening theme, which was almost as fun as the Wakfu opening to follow along with and taught me the term ‘porte-bonheur’. I also really liked how the show unveiled the identity of the villain neatly so that it was more and more obvious to the point that most people will have figured it out just before the show explicitly reveals it. I’m not too sure about the show turning more characters close to the main duo into superheroes, but we’ll see how things develop. The more they play with the concept, even if it’s in a goofy way, the better I think it goes. And yes, that includes all-singing evil Santa-themed Christmas specials.

Not wholly sure they should have a bunch of new superheroes in season 2, and I’m especially not so keen on Queen Bee because Chloé is amongst the most detestable characters ever created. But I’m happy to have more Alya if only because Fanny Bloc’s voice always makes me think of Yugo, even when she’s not acting as a boy.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

アグレッシブ烈子/ Aggressive Retsuko / Aggretsuko : Netflix series

When I finished the 100 episodes of the original Japanese run, I had no idea the 10 episodes of the Netflix reboot were already out. I thought there would be a long wait before they found a new venue for their charming little shorts, and was very surprised when I saw the promos for the Netflix version, marketed at the west.

On the surface, this reboot is more of the same. The designs are the same, the voice cast is the same, even the animator/director, who also supplies the metal growls, is the same. The animation is a little different, slightly more crisp and careful but actually to my eye rather less fluid and a little cheaper-looking. But with the format change to full episodes rather than little skits and a more overarching story, there’s actually quite a lot that’s different.

Perhaps surprisingly given that there’s a lot more time to develop these things, Retsuko’s working life is much less complex. This is the biggest change I disliked: in the original show, Retsuko is a very normal, very identifiable cog in the wheel. She works too hard and is taken advantage of, but there’s a feeling that a lot of others in her huge company (and in Japan Inc.) are in the same boat. She even gets a kouhai, a junior worker who answers to her, though he’s a bit useless and brings his own problems. In this new series, she’s right at the bottom. The chihuahua kohai and the random seal pup she teaches to use spreadsheets have been cut. The hierarchy is much starker and it often seems like it’s only Retsuko who is picked on, overworked and forced into too much overtime. Her only Kohai now seems to be Tsunoda the gazelle, who has figured out how to get treated better than Retsuko does. For me, that actually makes her seem less universal and less likeable, because if she’s the exceptional case there should be a way for her to get back to the norm. If everyone’s in the same boat, it’s more hopeless but more understandable.

Most of the cast is shaken up a bit. Fenneko has become a closer friend for Retsuko with impressive powers of deduction, though she’s introduced as pretty two-faced. Tsunoda gets some scenes where her cold, calculating inner self gets made clearer. Washimi and Gori are no longer regular coworkers who are a little glamorous but will hang around in your house way too long when you want them to go home, but instead are very senior workers who are a great transformative influence on Retsuko, encouraging her to take risks and embrace her true self. The pig boss is now no longer one of several roughly equal authority figures but the absolute unquestioned section manager with only the CEO to answer to – the Buffalo boss character who has a creepy crush on Retsuko barely appears as a random yes-man. The Meerkat is similarly altered to a total yes-man rather than just another annoying co-worker. That said, the pig boss has a bit of an interesting development here, essentially embodying the old guard in Japanese offices, mostly a deeply offensive chauvinist until he’s brought into line, then finally and grudgingly offering Retsuko some profound life lessons. Other characters have their roles greatly reduced or cut altogether, like the annoying Hippo co-worker Kabae, the spacey axolotl and the highfalutin cat. On the other hand, another cat, an old childhood friend, appears to give Retsuko a dream of something different from her regular job in a little character arc that really gets the audience on her side.

The biggest and most positive change, though, is to Haida-kun the hyena. He was barely relevant in the original series, doing things like arranging office parties and fixing Retsuko’s stuff (at length), but here he is a close friend to Retsuko who has a crush on her. His character arc is so sweet, having a crush on her, watching her get interested in the spaced-out Resasuke (given a character of sorts here but mostly being portrayed as totally unable to understand others’ feelings), going through some bad times but eventually working things out. He’s not a complicated character but he actually becomes the real heart of the show and by far its biggest point of improvement.

It’s also quite nice that here, Retsuko’s singing remains literal. Not an inner expression only Retsuko can take part in (with Fenneko occasionally on guitar). Now, each time she lets loose it really happens, usually in the karaoke bar or the office toilets, but sometimes in places like the office drinking party. It’s quite nice to have it more grounded.

There’s a lot that people who only watch this version will miss, including most of the funniest and sweetest moments. It’s a pity not to have the times Retsuko starts getting angry but realises she shouldn’t, or funny gags based on the actual nature of the animals like when they complain about Washimi not making a silly face only for her to say she doesn’t have the facial muscles for it. On the other hand, there’s also a lot here you don’t get in the shorts. I would absolutely recommend anyone who enjoys one watch the other, and I know I binge-watched both versions almost all at once, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. So if there’s more Retsuko to come, sign me up!

Oh, and I just want to say that the ‘Protein’ kangaroo reminds me of the bra skit from The World of Golden Eggs, and that always makes me giggle.