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.  

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Short notes – みなみけ 夏やすみ / Minami-ke: Natsuyasumi / Minami-ke Summer Holiday

Usually if an OVA comes out, I wait until a new season airs before writing anything about it. But this looks like it might actually be the last time we see the loveable cast of Minami-Ke in animated form. And sadly, it’s just a typical piece of fluff with the usual beach episode clichés. A group of the girls go to the beach and splash water at each other, except the quirky ones who give us some light character-based comedy. A couple of the girls have collected beetles, still an enduringly popular activity for kids in Japan, and of course they manage to get loose, causing not mayhem but some light tension between siblings. Over the short run-time of the episode, just about the whole cast is visited briefly, allowing for some nice pleasant scenes reminding us of their personalities before we finish on possibly the most perfect, ridiculous character to conclude an entire series with.

Chiaki gets the most screen time, struggling to complete an athletic task set as part of her summer homework. It’s a light, fun, cute thing to watch, her doing her best and failing a lot, but not exactly thrilling.

My favourite characters get very little to do. Touma gets to be girly for a change with the others at the beach, and has a funny little bit where she gives her beetle the same name as her brother, but there’s little more to it than that. Poor Mako-chan shows up to play and quickly gets turned away. The comedy based around these two characters defying gender norms was the reason I really enjoyed the show, but we didn’t get any of that.

Still, nice to check in with these characters again, and a little sad to think it might be the last time.