Berserk – 1 – An introduction to obsession

I’m just going to come right out and say it — Berserk is my favourite anime of all time. I became an anime fan because of Naruto, but Berserk and its alluring quantities of bloody violence, epic action and tragic friendship immediately captured my heart and held onto it ever since. I still remember having to contain my enthusiasm when first watching it, sometime in 2002 — I so desperately wanted to marathon through it all right there and then, but deep down knew I had to take time to savour it, to consider and enjoy every new episode; I knew that feeling wouldn’t last forever. That’s how much I enjoyed watching Berserk and now, as an on-going (and quite selfish) tribute, I intend to blog-review my way through the entire show. Please enjoy my thoroughly biased perspective.

Having said all that, the first episode very nearly killed my interest before it began. As is the style of Kentarou Miura’s fantastic manga, Berserk confusingly begins half way through the story; there are no proper introductions to the characters, there is no explanation as to what is happening; we are just thrown head first into Guts’ (only known in this episode as the "Black Swordsman") violent medieval world. He is a heartless bad ass, a mountain of muscle covered in armour; he has one arm and one eye, carries a giant sword (capable of cutting through horses) and fires an automatic cross bow — simply put, he is a one man war machine hell bent on revenge.

Guts shows no sign of humanity and no sympathy for his victims; all he desires is to hunt the cannibalistic demons that have presumably ruined his life. Nothing or no one else matters – the only time we see him smile; a hellish grin, is when he is firing arrow after arrow into the butchered face of said demon.

It’s established then that Guts is seriously pissed off about something; right at the end of the episode we flash back to Guts’ past and see him as an energetic younger man (teenager, no doubt). The rest of this anime is now dedicated to discovering the reasons behind Guts’ fall into such haunted monstrosity. And at this moment we are hooked.

D.Gray-man – 12 – Limitless sacrifice?

Like most of its Shonen Jump brethren, D.Gray-man is weakly balanced on a thin line between generic and fun. Just this evening I’ve caught up to episode 12 and feel torn by the somewhat superficial character development. Moody bishonen Kanda is a good example of how utterly archetypal some of these characters are – to put it bluntly, Kanda is a carbon copy of Sasuke from Naruto, right down to refusing to give up a fight until he has killed "that man"; no doubt an older brother much like Sasuke’s psychotic nii-san Itachi is to blame.

It’s lucky then that Allen Walker is an interesting, conflicted and likable main character. Much like Himura Kenshin, Allen is an idealistic pacifist in the wrong line of work. Having been cursed since a childhood, he slays akuma to free the human souls they enslave, but now that his enemies are human too, his job is about to get a whole lot more interesting. That Allen has a heart of gold makes D.Gray-man that little bit more unpredictable and involving, his decisions and sacrifices take on an added weight, knowing that he is suffering through conscience as well as body. All the other characters are basically window dressing, but D.Gray-man is worth watching if just for Allen’s struggle against himself. His face off against sadistic little girl Road Kamelot in episode 12 has been the best so far because this is the first time we really see his philosophy stretched to breaking point, there is even a quite surprising moment when he nearly smacks Lenalee out of frustration (with himself).

Another aspect I loved about episode 12 was Lenalee and Allen happily accepting their (potentially fatal) wounds to protect Miranda’s health; that they did this without a shred of doubt was reassuringly heart warming, and now that she has become an exorcist and all, I hope to see more of Miranda; her power must be both amazing and utterly frustrating — to have a gift to temporarily heal a mortally wounded person only to see them regress back into the throes of death moments later will inevitably lead to some massively dramatic decisons later on.

MP3 Spotlight: Highlights of Welcome to the NHK!

Looking back on 2006 we have seen a handful great series come and go, but even fewer great soundtracks have enlightened our senses. And when I say great, I mean music you can listen to at home, at work and on the bus.

Toshio Masuda’s beautifully sparse work on Mushishi was a relaxing and naturally magical listen, but my favourite right now is quite clearly the soundtrack for the recently concluded Welcome to the NHK. So far it’s been spread over two albums and three singles, and there are an escalating number of stand out tracks. My favourites (MP3 links at the bottom of the post) include:

  • The sugary sweet “Madokashii Sekai no Ue de” by Makino Yui (otherwise known as the voice of disturbed N.H.K. character Misaki) is an absurdly high pitched, gleaming example of perfectly manufactured JPOP with an ultra catchy tune; often repeated through out the show in various forms – including a quite beautiful piano-based rendition.

  • Puzzle by ROUND TABLE (featuring Nino) is the colourful and exhuberent opening theme of the show. Again featuring a stunningly spotless female vocal, what really makes this song so fun and energetic is trumpet in the background and a euphorically upbeat tone. No trace of cynisism here, just pure joy. Which is odd, considering the depressing nature of the anime it opens! Perhaps it’s meant to be ironic?
  • So far I’ve spotlighted the fluffy opening and ending themes, but Pearl Kyoudai’s – who contributes to the majority of this soundtrack – heart-felt insert song “Youkoso! Hitori Bocchi” leaves me in awe every time its grungy melancholy kicks in; its grim acoustic strumming and nostalgic chorus conjuring up memories, the feeling of a golden, warm autumn. This is the song that really defines Welcome to the NHK for me – a resigned look back on life; a reluctant urging to continue onwards.
  • If novelty tunes are your thing, Fushigi Purupuru Pururin Rin! by Shishido Rumi should be quickly scribbled on your list – a ridiculously cute song featuring angelic vocals and a head ache inducing chorus chant “Purupuru Pururin Rin, Purupuru Pururin Rin x 20” – this is intended as a parody of otaku flavoured anime anthems and it’s just about absurd enough to come off as a successfully odd, surreal and funny little number.

What is striking about this soundtrack is how well it blends sickly JPOP with grungy acoustic rock and psychedelic metal without sounding horribly uneven; it captures the dramatic themes and moods of Welcome to the NHK, but more than that, many of the songs stand on their own as dreamy, heart felt and imaginative pieces of music.

Soundtrack MP3 Downloads

Welcome to the NHK [END] – And so dies the NEET

It was cute to see NHK end with a role reversal between Misaki and Satou – there are big differences between a lazy hikkimori and having a genuinely mixed up life. In spite of his personal problems Satou was always a fairly normal person just in need of tough love. When his parents’ money dries up, for perhaps the first time in his life Satou loses his comfort zone and is finally forced to fend for himself and become independent. And so dies the NEET.

Misaki is a lot more interesting. We’ve gone through this show thinking she is doing Satou a favour by sticking around, but during these final couple of episodes it becomes fairly clear that she desperately needs him; having a dead (suicidal) mother and an abusive step-father, the self-loathing, unconfident and lonely Misaki has grown up surrounded by hate. Her problems are deeply seeded and psychological – she needs help and probably sees herself in Satou; the lectures, the exams and even the home-made lunches are as much (if not more) for her as him.

It all ends on a (notorious) cliff top with both characters ready to jump into oblivion. Both actually give up on life and jump, but both are saved. Misaki is caught by Satou, and Satou himself (amidst another surreal vision of gooey paranoia) is saved by a steal mesh especially placed there to catch suicidal fallers. Given their personal problems through out the show, it seems fitting that Misaki was finally saved by genuine friendship (not a stupid contract) and Satou by the society he so fears. At this point NHK could have flown into romantic territory, but despite these two obviously being in love, it ends with them as good friends having knowingly been through so much, and Satou lecturing Misaki on the park bench!

Undoubtedly this has been one of my favourite shows of the year; despite losing some momentum during the over-long MMORPG arc, Welcome to the NHK was ultimately a fine testament to the importance of friendship and independence. GONZO’s animation production was fairly unspectacular but Pearl Kyoudai’s grungy score, paired with a couple of totally uplifting and poppy opening and ending themes, more than made up for any visual shortcomings with its melancholy and chilled tone; surely a contender for best soundtrack of the year.

Welcome to the NHK is not a show for everyone – it can come across as overwhelmingly depressing and slow, sometimes too close to the bone and uncompromisingly geeky, but then I suppose that’s why I like it too. Within a few episodes I had totally fallen for these characters and desperately wanted to see them grow and find happiness. With this end – leaving the characters feeling optimistic but still somewhat scarred and timid, I’m more than content, knowing deep down they’ll be okay.

Again the fate of the world is in the hands of 14 kids (Bokurano)

Its been a while readers, 7 days to be precise, and as we all know, 7 days on internet may as well be a lifetime. I won’t labor you with the details, but suffice to say that this gradual slow down in blogging is sadly down to cliche reasons; I have found a new job that forces me awake by 6:30AM- an ungodly and surreal time to be conscious when to my horror even the moon is still mockingly pinned up in the night sky.

Being too tired to watch much anime I’ve still found the time to maintain a heathly staple of Enel-flavoured One Piece and even discover a brand spanking new manga series to read; Bokurano.

I’m not a regular manga reader by any means, but there were a few things that forced me into checking this out – an anime adaptation has just been announced and will be directed by Studio Ghibli’s up and coming Hiroyuki “The Cat Returns” Morita, further more it’s a story penned by Mohiro Kitoh; the man responsible for inflicting Shadow Star Narutaru on unsuspecting Pokemon fans – in Kitoh’s Narutaru, the Pokemon kill, are killed and torture their innocent trainers; in other words, the author is pretty twisted, unpredictable and has a real nasty streak. By now you should have picked up that I enjoy horror.

Bokurano continues his favoured trend of throwing kids into bizarre and horrific situations. The story is basically that 14 children, who think they are simply signing up for an elaborate video game, naievely agreeing to protect the Earth against a force of invading aliens. In these regards Bokurano is very similiar to Neon Genesis Evangelion; the aliens, who attack one by one, are giant monsters with extremely variable fighting styles. The kids fight in a giant robot.

Set against what they at first brush off as simply a game, the 14 children begin to die off either in battle or straight after. Then once the fighting is finished, they return to their every day lives to face up to devestation left behind; in one such city-centred clash, 40,000 civilians were killed (most likely squished) in the carnage.

Ultimately the kids are going into each battle knowing that one of them will die and that along the way thousands of innocents will perish too – if they refuse to fight, the world will end. As they say – no pain, no gain.

From the very first few pages I’ve been in love with Bokurano. At once a heart breaking drama and compelling sci-fi mystery, Mohiro Kitoh’s refusal to pull punches makes this a shocking and captivating read that gets better with every chapter. Indeed it is giant robot manga, but given its ultra realistic take on both the characters and the consequences of giant mecha combat, Bokurano feels fresh and exciting. It will be a massive hit as an anime series, so get in now on the ground floor and discover Kitoh’s twisted drama nice and early, I’m looking forward to be able to say “the manga is better”.

Observations of Everything: Bye-Bye November

Still hopelessly hooked on…

Black Lagoon (2nd Barrage)
Episode 19 and counting

The bog-standard Naruto fillers would be a lot more interesting if they managed to nab the creative bastards working on Black Lagoon. With that said the 2nd season has often flattered to deceive and appears to be more content to up the ante in terms of fire-power and “phat explosions” than provide any real character development. The end result is a darkly fun but superficial couple of action-packed story arcs. And something needs to be done about the painful Engrish – sorry Balalaika; you can’t be a bad-ass and talk like an idiot.

Code Geass
Episode 7 and counting

It feels wrong writing this but for what it’s worth I’m thoroughly enjoying Code Geass. I’m a sucker for colourful animation and this, mad haircuts and Victorian costumes abound, is so hideously over the top, melodramatic and knowingly fun that it’s become a ridiculous parody of everything that’s cliche within anime, from cloak wearing mecha to ditzy college days romance.

Death Note
Episode 9 and counting

Death Note isn’t an especially clever show but the suspenseful battle of wits and jaw-dropping brinkmanship between an increasingly unhinged Light and the quirky L has had me edging off my seat from the very first episode. I’m totally addicted to this show, and episode 8 contains the most dramatic opening of a packet of crisps e-v-e-r. What with all the Pizza Hut pimping in Code Geass, surely Walkers could have stumped up for some Shinigami flavoured chips?

One Piece
Episode 172 and counting

Well into the Skypiea arc now, but following on from the grandiose adventures of Alabasta, I must admit I’m finding it (“Save the country!”) all fairly predictable, same old music and same brand of narcissistic super villains’ ala Crocodile. Still though you can’t beat the smiling enthusiasm of Luffy and if I’m looking for something purely entertaining to stick on, One Piece has it all. That and Wiper is hella cool.

Welcome to the N.H.K
Episode 21 and counting

No Yamazaki, don’t gooooo! After the lull of the unengaging MMORPG arc, the last two episodes have shown Welcome to the N.H.K is back to its melancholy and border-line suicidal best. Yamazaki’s sad departure and Satou’s subsequently lonely realisation that he’s just lost his best mate rivalled Honey & Clover in its atmospheric reflection on the vital importance friendship. I can’t believe the end is so close now.

Stuck in backlog hell is…

  • 009-1 – Old school sci-fi anime revamped and I’ve read a lot of praise for this show.
  • Bakumatsu Kikansetsu Irohanihoheto – Traditional Japanese dialogue is extremely confusing
  • Bartender – Sounds massively boring but because of that, I’m desperate to give it a shot!
  • Red Garden – Stop crying god dammit! No, don’t sing about it either!
  • Tokyo Tribe 2 – The animation looks odd and creativity deserves attention. Also going in its favour is that it isn’t harem.