The aesthetic clause

For me, the aesthetic ruins the substance, does that mean, then, that the aesthetic is the substance? Are we really that superficial?

kaibamain.jpgAnyone that’s been reading this blog for long enough will remember my episodic ravings about 2006’s ‘Kemonozume’. Despite its bold originality and refreshing lack of convention, it was never a series that went down well with the majority of fans. Fact was, because it looked different, because it wasn’t pretty, it was ignored. Big surprise, anime fans like their anime to look like anime, and any serious deviation from this stock style is greeted with depressing indifference.
Two years on and another spring season fast approaches; while most will be predictably celebrating another onslaught of ‘Code Geass’, I want to point out that Kemonozume’s creative maestro Masaaki Yuasa has something new airing too; it’s called ‘Kaiba’ and, as expected, it’s looking thoroughly weird.

Iwa ni Hana describes Kaiba’s visual style as “gauntlets thrown into the face of the anime industry”. Of course, Yuasa and Madhouse could quite easily have pandered to the majority audience and designed their characters as if they’ve fallen off the generic moe\bishojo production line, but they don’t. Thankfully, their commitment to artistic intent takes precedence over cynical, easy money. It’s a reassuring feeling because, quite frankly, I wouldn’t be an anime fan if everything looked like ‘Clannad’.

51mbqfnrxql_sx220_.jpgFirst and foremost, anime is a visual medium; the way something looks, and more to the point, how that makes me feel is absolutely key to my enjoyment. Because I’ve never enjoyed the generic anime aesthetic, sitting down with, for example, a series as well liked as ‘True Tears’ is a real struggle for me. It sounds superficial, but before I’ve even seen an episode, I really need to feel like I’m going to be experiencing something fresh, new and exciting. That’s why I’m so attracted to anime like ‘One Piece’, ‘Gurren Lagann’ and ‘Dennou Coil’, series overflowing with a strong sense of design. To this day, I still remember the moment I decided to take a chance on ‘Honey & Clover’; it was after seeing this image on the now dead anime blog Cinnamon Ass – everything I needed to know, all that wistful, mature, romantic nostalgia, is encapsulated in that one frame.

For all our whispers of heart-felt beauty, the key factor, on a base personal level, is empathy; just looking at them, are you willing to care about certain characters? Some people are open minded enough to sit through everything, while others prefer to revel in their familiar aesthetics. Me? I get annoyed at the anime fans that can’t enjoy ‘Escaflowne’ because of Hitomi‘s big nose, but at the same time, I’m afflicted by an abhorrence to the moe/bishojo style. As much as I want to condemn people for ignoring ‘Tekkonkinkreet’ just because it looks ‘odd’, I’m finding myself in a similar situation with, to pull a name out of a very big hat, ‘Ef ~ a tale of memories’. For me, the aesthetic ruins the substance, does that mean, then, that the aesthetic is the substance? Are we really that superficial?

Time to champion Ookiku Furikabutte

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Living in ol’ Blightly, we aren’t taught the delights of baseball. For us, it’s either cricket or rounders, and the latter’s enjoyed mostly by girls anyway. So I sat down to watch Ookiku Furikabutte knowing basically zip all about the game, except that the Americans (especially Bobby De Niro) are mad about it. Why bother then? I love sports anime; the genre might be cliche, but for me, you can’t beat seeing an underdog battling against all the odds, trying their hardest to compete and eventually winning the respect of others through sheer guts and determination. For me, then, sports anime is a reaffirming and inspirational journey. A constant, heart-warming reminder that success and talent is always a curve-ball within our range; we just need practice and strength enough to know when its time to swing away.

Our journey, then, kicks-off when we meet high school new fish Ren Mihashi; though he’s unconfident and shy, Ren’s blood flows with an unlimited passion for baseball, and baseball alone. All he’s ever wanted to do is stand on that mound in the middle of the pitch and throw strike after strike to success. So, belying his timid nature, Ren dreams of being his team’s ace, their number one most important player, but he’s often struggling with his own (lack of) self belief as much as his opposition’s swing.
That’s really the basic outline of Ookiku Furikabutte, Ren starts the series by transferring schools and joining a newly formed team just in time for the summer competitions; we follow them, all strangers at first, from their early morning training sessions right through to the marathon matches themselves. Ren might be the main character, but several other strong personalities on his team shine through too; catcher Abe is a down-to-earth and tactically astute friend, Tajima is your typical hot-blooded shonen hero with immense natural talent and finally, their coach, Maria, is a no-nonsense, big breasted 23 year old woman with an absolutely wicked swing.

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Seeing it all come together in Ookiku Furikabutte is a joy to behold. With everyone fighting for a common goal, they bond together and battle as one. They believe in each other. If it ever looks like someone’s feeling down and out, a team-mate is there, almost instantly, to shoulder that pain. Writing this now, I know it must be sounding cliche, but when you’re seeing it on screen, and you’re so invested in these characters, it’s heart-warming to sense this comradery between friends. That, for example, Ren can smile when he’s pitching, considering he’s basically a broken-heart in the beginning is really quite moving. Just like its great when Ren’s female cousin calls him “Ren-Ren” in front of his team-mates and they all burst out laughing at him for having such a “cute” rapport with her.

If Ookiku Furikabutte ever does come close to losing my attention, it’s probably because there’s been a sudden burst of complex baseball tactics that went way over my head, but this sense of confusion is often tempered by some amusing scenes involving the shrieking mothers of the players, all of whom are huddled together at the back of the stands, positively beaming with pride watching their children on the field.
At this point, I should note that despite this being a 25 episode TV series, it contains only two actual baseball matches, both of which are multi-episode, tense epics of inner-strife, clever tactics and brinksmanship. Because things progress at such a slow pace, I’m left wishing for an as-yet-unannounced second season (I could quite happily watch another 100 episodes just like this) or will have to resort to reading the original manga instead, but regardless, I’ve loved watching this.

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It might be formulaic, but this is a story bubbling with positive energy and emotive characters. If you feel sad, in need of inspiration or just lacking a bit of self-confidence, don’t be afraid to have a swing at Ookiku Furikabutte. It’s ostensibly centred on Baseball, yes, but for all its sports-talk, it’s a true champion of friendship, team-work and fun.

Blame! Adventure-seeker Killy’s Cyber Dungeon animated

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If there’s one genre I’m always likely to love, it’s dark, heavy science fiction. As attested by the bitterly disappointing Ergo Proxy and Oshii’s philosophically-loaded Innocence, it’s a subset of anime that’s prone to artistic pretension of the highest order, but even still, when it works, as in the case of the viscerally despondent Texhnolyze, it’s impossible to ignore. The “Blame!” manga series is another example of such a beautifully drawn, deep science fiction story that’s just aching to be animated. Thankfully, the Japanese are beavering away on it right now and if these newly released clips (from which these snapshots have been taken) are anything to go by, we might just have another winner on our hands.

Though I’m not the biggest fan of CG anime, it’s perfectly suited to such a vastly-futuristic, almost-alien world like that which is at the heart of “Blame!”. “The City” is a megastructure (Dyson sphere) that’s long since grown beyond all human control; gigantic mechanical builders have been expanding its borders for hundreds of years, and now, even the moon is incorporated into the forever stretching landscape. By way of finding the last few humans born with Net Terminal Genes, Cyborg Killy’s mission is nothing less than to stop this constant building, but standing in his way are countless tribes of transhuman, twisted Silicon Creatures.

Though it sounds action-packed, so much of what’s so good about “Blame!” is simply in tagging along with Killy as he climbs through the empty, decaying levels of long-since deserted dystopia. It’s a skyless, desolate story constantly emphasizing the claustrophobic, limitless walls of metallic architecture and dotted with moments of organic, hopeless violence.

If the trailer is anything to go by, I can’t wait to see this animated.

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8-bit impressions

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Instead of spending hours writing about just one series, this week I’ve dragged myself in the opposite direction and reflected on four of my current favourites. There’s no real reason for the Tekkon Kinkreet image above, except to say that it’s one of the finest examples of fan-art I’ve clapped eyes on; tobiee is an amazing artist, but I digress, on with the show.

Gundam 00 – I’ve realised something shocking; I like Gundam 00. Similar to my time with Toward the Terra, it took a while to get under my skin, but by now, I’m watching new episodes as soon as they’ve aired. Boasting a plot dense with mystery and a number of conflicting ideas about war, philosophy and religion, I’m anxious to see whether or not the intervention of Celestial Being will result in the evolution, or destruction, of the modern world. At times, it’s breath-taking, especially the spine-tingling conclusion to episode 15, but the character designs (and therefore, the character’s themselves) are too contrived.

oofuri.jpgOokiku Furikabutte – I know nothing about baseball, but after a few pointers from my trusted colleagues, I started watching Ookiku Furikabutte last week, and already, I’m hooked. Like Fighting Spirit, regardless of game-specific quirks, it offers some quite heart-felt, relatable depictions of emotion, friendship and psychology. We’re granted profound insight into the thoughts of the players stepping out onto the hallowed turf, on the very brink of being consumed by worry and self-doubt. For example, protagonist pitcher Ren Mihashi begins as a Shinji Ikari-level introvert; annoyingly timid, but his transformation into a confident, happy butterfly will be an inspirational moment to behold.

shigurui.jpgShigurui – An early start to this past weekend saw me devour the last two installments of Shigurui and while I was prepared for its abrupt finish, I’m frustrated that I’ll never know the outcome of Irako’s final battle. Still, Kogan Iwamoto’s death was mightily rewarding. In a story where every character thinks nothing of inflicting cruelty and murder, the old-man was the most vile of them all; poor Irako (blind), Iku (one-nipple) and Mie (insane) deserved that bloody revenge. Indeed, alongside Rurouni Kenshin: Tsuiokuhen, this is one of the finest samurai anime I’ve seen. It’s violent, corrupt and without compromise.

Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji – What is there that’s left to say about Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji? Fact is, it’s awesome; everyone agrees; the end. In the most recent episode, our hero was shaken in despair and within millimeters of a mashed ear-drum, all courtesy of crusty old yakuza sporting healthy delusions of grandeur. It’s almost impossible for Kaiji to escape unscathed, and yet, even as I write this, I’m savoring his inevitable victory, the big fat red letters about to be scrawled over Tonegawa’s wrinkly forehead that read ‘o-w-n-e-d’. I mean, our hero can’t lose; if I have faith in anyone, it’s faith in Kaiji.

Music spotlight – Discovered at ‘Music For Robots‘ was this fun remix of the Mega Man 2 soundtrack by retro splicer Johan Agebjörn (the fantastic video was authored by Lichterloh). I mean, platform games, don’t they look great? It’s probably the nostalgia speaking, but there’s something about these 8-bit remixes I just absolutely, totally, completely adore, even listening to the first few seconds will recall a pang of feeling or emotion from an era long since past. Enjoy the echoes of memory!

Musical memories of Gurren Lagann, recalling a whimsical dystopia

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Not sure how I missed this, but the full soundtrack for Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann was released recently; that’s 51 tracks of epic, exciting, heavenly music, and even better, it contains the one song I’ve be longing to hear since late-July. I’m talking about track 13 on Disc no.2; the translated title is “The Days Become a Traveller of a Hundred Generations”. For such a haunting, ethereal tone, it’s heard only once in the anime itself, during the first half of episode 18, but this single sequence, just a mere few minutes in length (may as well be an eternity), and the awe-struck feelings it conjured inside me, have long since remained close to my heart.

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We begin around the 5:40 mark. Simon’s in the Gurren-Lagann, frantically searching for Nia. Before he can launch into the neon-lit sky-line of Kamina City, he’s curtailed by (the now-teenaged) Darry and Gimmy in their colourful Gulaparl mecha. They try to persuade Simon from needlessly worrying the citizens by flying around in the iconic Gurren-Lagann, its heroic image having come to represent the desperation of humanity’s recent past. In response, he just separates from the larger Gurren and brashly explodes into the clouds above, continuing his search for Nia regardless of their complaints.

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The atmospheric music really kicks in as Simon tours the sprawling Kamina City, its concrete streets and sky-scraping buildings bathed in the warm, comforting glow of electricity. The architecture is strange and fascinating, having been influenced by the Gunmen style of design, strange faces; giant and carved from stone, protrude from the buildings, expressions half concealed by shadow. The Spiral King’s huge fortress, the smiling Dekabutsu, overlooks the rapidly developing city below, as worried search-lights scythe through the starry night sky.

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The thing about this sequence and why it sticks in my memory isn’t anything to do with the characters or drama. It’s the clash of TTGL’s surreal reality with our conflicted, modern world. The way everything looks so familiar and yet, it’s dream-like too. The oppressive stature of the city, the huge stoney faces passing judgement on and manipulating the residents below. We immediately sense dystopia; a city that’s grown cold, twisted and without feeling. Suddenly, this is a world that’s alive with texture and detail. The song speaks of those feelings, a kind of knowing, regretful, beautiful sadness.

Basking in the inferno of Cloverfield, remembering Blue Gender

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Head-spinning, stomach-turning and mind-racing are a few of the adjectives I’d choose to describe how I felt when I stumbled out of the cinema last night, having just suffered through Cloverfield. To say I’d been looking forward to this film would be an understatement, and even though I’d only discovered its baffling trailer in early January, the anxious wait until February the 1st (its official UK release) was incredibly frustrating. I mean, considering its earlier premiere in the US and the relative secrecy surrounding the central “creature” itself, I just desperately wanted to see this film for myself, and now that I have, here I am.

I loved Cloverfield, motion sickness and all! Even before setting foot at the cinema, I knew I’d love it. Giant monsters, ambiguous origins, unfathomable means. It’s all good. The complete destruction of New York City, depicted in an ultra-realistic style; seeing the Big Apple’s sky-scrapers gradually tumble like a pack of dominos in an inferno of reverberating, twisted metal. Suffice to say, it’s an awesome spectacle, but I digress, this is an anime blog. Must talk about anime.

When one thinks of monster flicks, Godzilla, Japan’s bastion of pop culture, is a behemoth of the genre and yet, for every man-in-a-suit movie, there’s few traditional giant monster/disaster stories in anime. Sure, we have the likes of Evangelion, but even then, that’s much more of a character study than anything else. What I’m thinking of is a pulpy, survival-based story in which humanity is pushed to its very limits of endurance and forced to fend off the constant attacks of an unknown enemy. Having wracked my memory for hours, one TV series crawls to mind; 1999’s Blue Gender.

blue_gender_blog_2.jpgWhen Yuji Kaido, Blue Gender’s young protagonist, is diagnosed with a baffling new illness, he is shelved in cryogenic stasis for an indefinite period of time, comforted only by the promise that he’ll be woken the very moment doctors develop a cure, something that’s currently beyond medical science. Years, maybe even decades, later, Yuji stirs from his great long slumber, though the world he wakes in isn’t exactly the modern paradise he left behind. Earth’s been overrun with giant insect-like creatures called the “Blue”, and of course, they feed on humans. Any semblance of government and army has withdrawn to “Second Earth”; a large space station housing the last remnants of modern civilisation. The few people remaining on Earth, starving and hiding in the rubble of destroyed cities, are being picked off, one by one, by the man-eating monsters, as humanity formulates its last shot at survival.

Blue Gender, much like Cloverfield, doesn’t take prisoners. Life is cheap and of the dozen or so soldiers who come to rescue Yuji from his “forever dream”, only one survives to see him safely back to “Second Earth”. In this series, man’s absolutely lost his place at the top of the food chain and he’s left, like the rest of nature, to live in the constant fear of being hunted. One of the things I loved about the first half of Blue Gender was this strong sense of hopelessness clinging to the characters as they travel across barren wastelands and empty cities, not knowing how or when the next attack will commence. It makes for riveting viewing because, in this world, there is no sentiment, no rules about who dies or when, everyone is constantly haunted by the spectre of death, almost driven insane with fear, no doubt imaging just how it’ll be when their time comes. I first watched Blue Gender on the Sci-Fi channel around about 2001/2; I still remember how, every Thursday evening at mid-night, there it was, another episode to devour. We never missed an episode (much to lament of our father, who’d rather be watching fishing programs) and that’s a tribute to the quality of this series and indeed, some day, I’m hoping to see it again (preferably not dubbed this time). It’s most definitely horror in the vein of “Aliens“, but if you loved Cloverfield, I’m quite certain you’ll find yourself hooked on Blue Gender too. I mean, everyone loves an apocalypse every now and then, right?