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.