Claymore – Searching for humanity in a violent world

I’m really enjoying watching Claymore at the moment (as of episode 4), yet oddly, I’m finding it hard to pin down exactly what I like about it. It’s probably the setting; I just really like the European medieval period — a time when any person; strong in arm and sword in hand, could conquer and control his own patch of land. Everything from that era feels tangibly real; the swords, the armour, the clothes, even the architecture — it’s easy to imagine how life was, or felt, back in those days. I suppose that’s why I’m immediately attracted to Claymore; I understand the gravity and the colour of its environment. Indeed, I’m a part of that world rather than just observing it.

“If you stare into the Abyss long enough, the Abyss stares back at you.”
(Friedrich Nietzsche)

Nietzsche’s famous philosophical phrase must be carved into Clare’s heart. Half human and half demon, every time a Claymore dips into her power, the closer she lurches towards losing control; indeed, perhaps the most thrilling scenes so far have involved Clare wrestling against her demonic side, trying to retain her humanity despite an existence that’s so clearly lead devoid of whatever she is afraid of losing.

Does she willingly dye herself in blood and enjoy the thrill of the hunt? Kentaro Miura’s Berserk has obviously influenced Claymore; both stories are sprawling medieval adventures that effectively explore how one’s personality can be affected by one’s environment — just as Guts struggles against his destiny to avenge old friends, Clare struggles to retain her sane personality in a violent world, to hunt demons is to become a demon. Ambition bleeds into humanity, and like Guts has his love, Clare just needs a reason to hold on, an anchor for her spirit. That’s where Raki comes in.

Discovering Eureka Seven; subtext and pop culture

Unawares and unwilling, often the best anime passes me by. Deep down I think I always knew I would love Eureka Seven, but for whatever reason, like I said, it just passed me by. That is, until now. Maybe because it’s spring time; the grass is green and the leaves are greener, and I’m just looking for something fun to watch.
There is no denying it, I’m pulled to Eureka Seven simply because it looks like fun; surfing mecha, blue skies and open, swirling landscapes; a fantastic paradise for wind surfing hippies, and naturally, escapist otaku.

Actually, think again. I am writing this having seen up to episode 9; a particular instalment of this so-called "childrens anime" that involves ethnic cleansing. We see the main character, an innocent-enough young girl oddly known as Eureka, take part in the massacre of hundreds of harmless civilians (some of them kids) simply because those were her orders.
According to Dai Sato — chief writer — the story of Eureka Seven is intended to be a subtle allegory of Tibet, a country where the young people [12 to 16 year olds] have few choices — one of those few is to join the army. Since Eureka looks so nice, and yet, is capable of bringing down such horror, represents an interesting dilemma within herself, and a conflict within the viewer. Is she to blame for her actions, or rather, is it the fault of a system that is scraping kids off the streets and manufacturing mass murderers, because after all, Eureka is just a young girl doing what she is told. Does genuiene free will exist within the young? In many ways, these themes are very similar to the excellent "Now and Then, Here and There" (1999, dir. Akitaro Daichi), right down to how the previously emotion-less girl turned weapon-of-mass-destruction discovers a chink of hope in a plucky young hero; in this case, it’s Renton.

Often being brave is simply being optimistic, having the belief that tomorrow will be a better day. I really adore characters like Renton; you can’t help but admire his optimism, his blind hope and fumbling balance. Like everyone else, he has his doubts, but rather than curl up into a ball of crying emo, he’ll run head-on and jump off a cliff (quite literally). He is a punk rock kid; even named after the lead character from Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting. Amusingly, his father’s first name is Adrock (Beastie Boys) and grandfather’s Axel (Guns N’ Roses). Some funky family right there!

The pop-culture references don’t stop with the character names either — for example, every episode is named after a song, episode one is subtitled "Blue Monday" (famous song by New Order). I think that’s really cool, and it shows how much fun the writers are having with Eureka Seven, attempting to create a lasting resonnance with viewers young and old by referencing eras relevant to many generations.
I’ve talked about how Eureka Seven is a show with serious subtexts, but the bottom line is that this is first and foremost just a fun, colourful and vibrant mecha-surfing anime. Renton’s fallen in love with Eureka, and most of the time, he’s just trying to get on her good side. The rest is purely collateral!

Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann – “Listen to me, you fucking furry”

This episode confirms it; Gurren Lagan is made of all kinds of awesome. The first 10 minutes… I’ve been sitting here for 20 and I still can’t articulate everything that’s so good about it. I’m talking about the knife fight. The way the characters move, the way they talk, the art, the fluidity of animation, it’s all just perfect. A jaw-dropping and perfect distillation of everything that I love about shonen anime. The mecha battles too. They are grandiose in execution; the explosions from their missiles could almost be mini-nukes for way they cover the screen with violent, multi-coloured mushroom clouds.

Often I feel like there a knowing wink at the audience from Gainax, almost as if they know they are exploding the world with this show. The rock music in the background is a definite sign that they are just absolutely rocking out while animating this. Gurren Lagan is something to watch if you want a big smile slapped across your face for 24 minutes. This episode confirmed it for me; it’s the best show in a good season of anime by a long way. Now for some dialogue from this episode:

“Listen to me, you fucking furry”, “I’m the Gurren Brigade’s Lord Kamina, who’s name quiets crying children!” “Mens souls, uniting with passion”, “Who the fuck do you think I am?” and finally, “DABBU DABBU DABBU DABBU DA!!!”. Best. episode. ever. What a rush!

Big and dumb mecha show, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann

In a word, the 2007 spring season has been AWESOME. So much so, I’m already fearing the potential back-log of episodes. Of the 7+ new shows I’m following, my favourite right now is Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. It’s hard to know what to expect from Gainax these days, but I had great fun watching this. I love that it’s just a big and dumb mecha show, splattered with colour and full of life. Everything moving so fast and looking so exciting; especially the characters, who are hyperactive and without regret.

Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann is directed by Hiroyuki Imaishi and his “sugar rush” style is stamped all over the show. His directorial debut came with 2004’s seizure inducing Dead Leaves, but where that was extremely vulgar, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann is pervaded with a liberating, almost heart breaking, sense of discovery and freedom. My favourite moment from the series so far is in episode two when Simon and Kamina, having lived underground all their lives, are gazing upon the glimmering star-filled night sky. It’s a nostalgic scene, combined with the soundtrack, that really emphasizes the feelings of wonder and adventure surging through the characters upon seeing something so endless and beautiful for the first time in their lives.

Hataraki Man – Entering the hard boiled wonderland

While the spring season blossoms with new anime, I’m still frozen in winter wonderland with Hataraki Man. This is another show that, for whatever superficial reasoning, I had managed to avoid until this past weekend. Fate conspired to bring us together. These are my thoughts so far, but be warned, Hataraki Man is a (rather nutritious) slice of life anime; a genre that I’m well aware inspires as much boredom as it does admiration.

Adapted from an original manga by Moyoco Anno (wife of Gunbuster’s deranged genius Hideaki Anno), the main character is 28-year-old Matsukata, a sex-starved weekly-magazine editor who devotes 99.99999% of her life to slaving away on her next big feature. Between the long hours spent writing, interviewing ungrateful celebrities and hanging around with the office crowd, her social life and relationships have faded. The conflict central to Hataraki Man is Matsukata’s constant striving for a so called “normal” home life when she desperately craves success as a writer too. She could just take it easy, turn up at the office and work a regular joe 9 to 5 shift, but she wants to create something special; something to be remembered by.

Matsukata’s lofty ambitions are nothing new (especially to us Shonen Jump enthusiasts!), but to be a fiery female in modern day Japan (where the still-prevalent gender roles for a woman of her age dictate she should be a house-wife) gifts Hataraki Man a refreshing sense of gender role reversal. Indeed, even the title is an ironic twisting of words, given the “Hataraki Man” is actually a woman.

I’m making an issue of the sex politics, but the truth is that this is simply where Matsukata as a character is either coming from or fighting against, the show itself is tightly laced with the kind of sharp tongued and bitter sweet humour that wouldn’t feel out of place in your average sitcom.

Of course, there is more than one character — in fact, most episodes are scattered glimpses into the fractured lives of Matsukata’s colourful co-workers – take for example Fumiya Sugawara, a pissed off 30 something photographer who’s job it is to track down the dirt on celebrities and capture their scandals on camera. The man hates his job, is paranoid about people looking down on him and so, in his spare time, takes to snapping beautiful sun-lit landscapes. Despite his apparently shady and hectic job, that he still has the chance to capture something so calm, natural and endless is enough to keep him going.

Since it’s inception in 2005, the noitaminA anime block in Japan has set out to push the boundaries of TV anime beyond the teenage (boy) audience. As a twenty-something male, I can confirm they have succeeded. With the likes of Honey & Clover, Paradise Kiss and now Hataraki Man, noitaminA have more than proved themselves capable of deftly producing affecting adult drama that, while occasionally romantic, raises questions relevant in a young adult’s life. I think that’s why I’m enjoying Hataraki Man— being early 20s myself, anime is mostly a visual experience, I may enjoy something like Naruto because of the action, but when I find a show with characters I can empathise with on such a tangible level, it means that much more to me.