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.