On the context of dropping anime

One of the most difficult decisions an anime fan has to make is whether or not to ‘drop’ a series. For me, it’s often a snap decision; not really based on any objective criteria, rather, it depends on how I’m feeling at that specific moment. As a result, I’ll often make some impulsive mistakes; errors in judgement that might come back to haunt me a year or two down the line. Well, I have to admit, it was a mistake to drop Bokurano when I did, but the context is important too.

2007’s spring season was immense; Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, Dennou Coil, Toward the Terra, Seirei no Moribito, Code Geass, Darker Than Black and Claymore were all occupying my attention. Originally, I was trying to fit Bokurano into that line-up too, but it ended up being the odd one out. Why? I didn’t like what the director had to say about the source material, and that, combined with my generally cynical opinion of anime studio Gonzo, was all the ammunition I needed to drop something from the list. Looking back on that decision now, I can see I was being obtuse in the extreme, but for the sake of sanity, one can’t spend all his time watching anime, and hence, dropping Bokurano gave me a little breathing space.

One year on, things are slightly different. Late on Thursday evening, I found myself yearning for a story with an interesting premise. My thoughts immediately turned to Bokurano; the way I dropped it, the way my fellow bloggers really loved it and most of all, the way it’s such a fascinating idea for an anime series. Long story short, by now I’m 14 episodes in and hoping to finish the whole thing in time for a proper review next weekend. Indeed, I’m annoyed at myself for being so presumptuous as to even drop it in the first place, but I’m so glad to have had the opportunity to revise my opinion too.

I guess what I’m trying to say is something that’s obvious, but worth saying anyway, that opinions, good or bad, are as much about personal context, essentially, that specific moment in time in which they were formed, as they are about the actual anime in-question. So, for all of your seemingly water-tight judgement, something you might have dropped (or even ignored) in the past might not be as bad (or as good) as you remember it to be. Don’t be so arrogant as to presume your opinions are (and always will be) absolute. They expire just like everything else.

Linda Linda Linda; slice of life done good

While I’m fairly confident that I’ve built up some decent knowledge of anime over the past few years, I can’t say the same for Japanese live action. Sure, I’ve watched many of the cult classics; Audition, Azumi, Battle Royale, Ringu, to name but a few, and there’s no denying that they are cool movies (albeit enjoyed mostly for their superficial excesses), but what I’m looking out for are the understated dramas, the good movies that don’t have to rely on violence, ghosts or samurai to attract attention. Movies like Ping Pong, Blue Spring and Go. May be it’s just that I’m not looking in the right places, but so far, I’ve found it really hard to get good recommendations for these kind of films, yet I’ve adored what I’ve seen enough to know that I really want to see more, so when someone throws me a bone in this area, I’m happy to go chasing. And guess what? I’m so glad I did. Introducing Linda Linda Linda.

These days, we’re so saturated with media that it’s fairly rare to start a movie without having read even so much as a plot synopsis, yet so it was for my introduction to this movie; all I was going off of was a personal recommendation and a decent IMDB rating, everything else was irrelevant. Anyway, the film is best described as a very Japanese slice of life, focused on a quartet of school girls who create a rock band for their fast-approaching school festival. That’s it. The plot is undeniably thin on twists and turns, quite unspectacular and straight-forward, but this movie isn’t about story, it’s about characters, a group of friends hanging out together, practicing music, and looking out for each other. Its some parts funny, charming and heart-warming, others reflective, nostalgic and introspective. Some of my favourite scenes involve the girls just wandering through grassy fields and hanging out on empty roof-tops, laughing and joking and singing, doing nothing of note, just being together, being young. It’s a movie about friendship.

One character in particular is worthy of note. She’s a Korean exchange student (called ‘Son’, played by actress Bae Doona) who can’t speak (or even understand) Japanese well. Son doesn’t have any friends and spends most of her time bored, with no-one but a bilingual teacher for company. She falls into the band almost by mistake, yet finds herself at its very center – as the singer.
Because her grasp of the language is so basic, she has to practice alone, for hours, at the local karaoke bar, just to keep up with the others, and through all of that hard graft, her funny personality gradually blossoms. She goes from being the alienated foreigner, almost completely isolated, to having found some intimate friends, staying up all night and goofing off. You can see just how much it all means to her; her happiness is scrawled all over her beaming smile.

It’s a warmly nostalgic take on youth and, much like Honey & Clover, there’s a very clear sense that this is an ephemeral era, knowingly short-lived, passing-by too fast. Towards the end of the film, one of the girls (the drummer, played by Aki Maeda) carefully plans to confess her love to a long-held crush. Everything is right about the scene; it’s pouring with rain, they are all alone, the guy is shielding her with his umbrella, but when the moment of truth comes, the girl still can’t find the courage in her heart to explain her feelings, and so, nothing happens. Often times, that’s the way it goes. Besides, there is always tomorrow.

I’m one of his twenty faces too

When its first episode finished, I suspect a lot of people probably dropped their interest in The Daughter of Twenty Faces (a.k.a Nijuu Mensou no Musume) right there and then. Going off of first impressions, it’s not flashy at all. The colour palette is subdued, there’s no sensational fan-service and no eccentric personality winking at the camera, it was just a rather straight-up crime-caper that’s a lot like Lupin III. At that point in the series, I suppose I can understand why people might have said that it was dull, cheesy and nostalgic of an era that they have long since lost interest in. I felt much the same way, but something caught my eye (or should I say, my heart?); her name was Chiko, the titular daughter.

The first episode is merely the beginning of her journey. She’s vulnerable, fragile and sensitive, kind-hearted and eager to learn. At the end of that episode, I really felt happy for her, that she deserved this new family, this new adventure. That’s so important for me; nice animation is fine, blazing action is a bonus, but all I really need is that empathy, that desire to cheer on a character or two, and I found that in Chiko. Once you’ve formed that connection, the rest will often fall into place, and now, six episodes in, I’m about ready to say that The Daughter of Twenty Faces (along with Kaiba) is probably the best (and no doubt, most underrated) anime of the spring season.

For Chiko , it’s irrelevant that Twenty Faces is a world-famous thief, because she sees him, first and foremost, as a surrogate father and her savior. It’s a lot like how One Piece‘s Straw Hats are so bound together by Luffy’s charisma; he might be an idiot, but he cares deeply about his friends. Similarly, everything that Chiko’s beloved “comrades” do is for each other, and I can really understand that desire; that contentment shared by the closest of friends is so precious.

We reach an early crescendo in episode 6, as Chiko’s dream-like adventure ends as abruptly as it began, when the harsh reality of living as wanted criminals catches up with her merry band of brothers. It’s a stunning episode, so unpredictable and shocking. Having moments before been sharing their carefree adventures, we’re suddenly dealing with their mortality, watching people, Chiko’s family, die in front of us. As the action explodes within the elegantly painted compartments of a speeding train, the claustrophobia is palpable and I can’t help but think of Baccano!.

To their credit, Studio Bones have done a good job with the production side of things. They absolutely nail Chiko’s agility; her deft movements designed to have all the elegance and poety of a feather in the wind. Depictions of buildings, landscapes and weather are warmly realistic and evocative of a by-gone era; it’s a moody presentation that you can really dive into, almost taste.

Chiko begins the series as a naive 11 year old, innocent, optimistic, trying to grow up too fast. By the sixth episode, she is already 13, having developed into a thoughtful, confident girl with some exceptional physical skill. Seeing her transform into an adult, hampered by emotion, living for and chasing after her friends, is an undeniably compelling experience. She is a nice, convincing person and a character that I want to see smile.

One does not care to acknowledge the mistakes of one’s youth

Here is a fair warning; if you have issues with self-loathing, save yourself the agony and don’t watch Otaku no Video. It will depress you.

‘Mockumentary’ Otaku no Video is one of those anime that, even within the anime community itself, is fairly obscure, but every now and then, someone will reference it, often as a comparison to nu-otaku champion Genshiken; for example, the first time I heard about it was when Anime World Order posted a review back in 2006, and considering it was created by animation studio Gainax in 1991, that fans are still talking about it some 15+ years later is surely a good sign, right? Indeed. Here is a fair warning; if you have issues with self-loathing, save yourself the agony and don’t watch Otaku no Video. It will depress you.

As alluded to above, Otaku no Video is a mockumentary of otaku culture. Pasted inside a Genshiken-style anime about a bunch of geeks coming together through their passions for all things, well, geeky is a series of painfully realistic (live action) interviews with real Japanese otaku, all of whom are middle-aged men. Its Wikipedia article suggests that while the anime segment was intended to emphasize the more positive aspects of Japan’s geek fandom (like comradery and friendship), the live action interviews depict the otaku’s lonely reality; several of the interviewees were Gainax employees at the time (though, to protect their identities, their names and voices are changed, while their faces are either unseen or blurred), and because this whole production was helmed by Gainax themselves, their deft, autobiographical understanding of “the truth” cuts right to the bone, so much so this isn’t as much a satirical comedy as a scientific study of the otaku sub-species. They even interview an American anime fan. It’s all in good fun, but a touch evocative too.

One interview in-particular struck me as incredibly depressing; this otaku, sitting in a darkened room, specialises in pornography, and to work around the Japanese government’s censorship of genitalia (they pixelate those areas), he has adapted a pair of glasses to decode the image. It’s just shocking to see that this guy has such talent for electronics, yet uses it in pursuit of… masturbation. They actually show him ‘pulling one off’ by the way! Another interviewee is hunched over his small computer screen, drawing nude images of a character that looks a lot like Noriko from Gunbuster. Again, the art itself is technically brilliant, but it remains a self-fellating fantasy. They ask him “how do you take care of your sexual needs?” Otaku responds “Well, I like computer games.”

The anime itself is up-beat and fun in a style that’s very reminiscent of the likes of Genshiken. One scene I really liked involves fans queuing up for the late-night theatrical premiere of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. A drunk guy, probably just kicked out of a local bar, passes by them in the street and tries to work out why they are all so excited about seeing a “cartoon”, they respond that they aren’t waiting for a “cartoon”, but “animation” (Hayao Miyazaki‘s big break-through, no less). And I agree – there is totally a difference between cartoons and anime.

You know, Otaku no Video is surely worth watching, just don’t be expecting a romanticisation of otaku culture. It swings from pathetic to funny to nostalgic in a matter of minutes and as long as you’re prepared for some soul-destroying satire, it’s a really ‘interesting’ watch.