One Piece and why a man is only as good as his word

Brook: “He may think that we’ve betrayed him, but if he’s waiting even now, how miserable must he be? […] I can’t help but think that he’s believed in us all this time.

Luffy: “Your nakama may be dead, but from now on I’m your rival!

I love One Piece. I love how it can make me care, deeply, about such a rag-tag bag of bones and his long lost friend, a giant whale called Laboon. This is a complaint about One Piece that I’m used to reading, that the art-style is too cartoony to take seriously. While I can understand that opinion, isn’t it a tad superficial to rely quite so much on how a character looks in order to feel empathy for their plight? “He’s a man!!” says Franky, because Brook, despite everything that’s happened to him; dying, losing his body, even after having his shadow stolen, he’s a man because he’s still thinking about his dearest friend and the promise he made to him some 50 years ago. All that time has passed and he still cares. I could watch this anime forever. After all, skin or no skin, a man is only as good as his word (or his afro).

Soul Eater 11

If you mess with Tsubaki’s stage… I’ll kill you!

If you mess with Tsubaki’s stage…

I saw your trembling soul…

It has a nice scent.

Her brother fades.

This was the best episode of Soul Eater yet. An episode that’s sweeping, burning with feeling, with animation and character as a synthesis of the soul. Such anime is poetic, exciting and inspiring, such is Black Star and Tsubaki. I admire their loyalty, their affection for one another, that Black Star will take a beating for his friend, understands the strength of her spirit, and yet is close enough to know when to offer a hug. Tsubaki is shy; she isn’t often noticed and would rather take-on a little hardship to please another. That doesn’t mean she is arrogant or weak, but she needs someone around her to carry her along, to push her onto the stage, to support her. A friend, to support her trembling soul.

Though it’s something we’ve come to expect from Soul Eater, I have to say the animation in this episode was superb. Not simply in terms of the fluidity of movement, which ebbed and flowed in waves of animated bliss, but the art direction too. The use of colour, the gloomy clouds and rain overhead as Black Star is beaten to a pulp for his friend and anxiously awaits her return. The metaphysical battle against her brother, the dull landscape that transforms with her victory into a tranquil paradise of clear sky and sparkling blue sea. It’s absolutely evocative and vibrant, swings and shifts with the tone and mood of character. It’s lyrical anime, streamlined, perfect.

Batman: Gotham Knight isn’t as good as The Animatrix

Designed to replicate the success of 2003’s The Animatrix, Batman: Gotham Knight is another anime anthology riding on the crest of a trendy movie franchise that seems destined, by virtue of Hollywood’s dollar, to be seen by many more people than your average Planetes or Gungrave. Like it or not, it’s exactly this kind of release, along with Afro Samurai and its ilk, that represents the image of Japanese animation to the eyes of the unwashed masses, and for good or for bad, tends to influence their many opinions. In this case, it’s definitely for bad.

Batman: Gotham Knight isn’t a disaster, it’s just heartless, devoid of feeling and worst of all, boring. One fist-cracking action scene follows another and while most of them are beautifully animated, the stories themselves are merely adrenaline-fuelled and tiring. Studio 4C contributes the two most visually-arresting shorts, the first ‘Have I Got A Story For You‘ and the fifth ‘Working Through Pain‘. The former has a wonderfully fluid, urban-punk aesthetic which has clearly been traced from director Shojiro Nishimi‘s previous work, the sky-scraping and colourful Tekkonkinkreet. The latter, peppered with moody lighting and authentic landscape, dares to risk some character development in Bruce Wayne and, by its end, finds our hero lost in despair. The only other segment worth mentioning is the thoroughly grotesque ‘In Darkness Dwells‘ (animated by Madhouse and directed by Yasuhiro Aoki) because it looks so unconventional and strange, like a hybrid of Gurren Lagann‘s more extreme character design and the gritty cartoon adaptation of Spawn. All style and no substance just about sums it up then.

Though one could point to the meagre running-time of each short (around 10-12 minutes in length) to explain the lack of actual plot, anthology predecessor The Animatrix includes several episodes which are just as limited by time yet remain magnificent, not least of all ‘Beyond‘, ‘The Second Renaissance‘ and ‘Kid’s Story‘. The problem here is the lacklustre writing, which hardly dares stray from the half-baked villainy and cartoon dirge of Gotham City. The Animatrix‘s best effort was ‘Beyond‘, which it had nothing to do with Neo, Morpheus or Trinity, yet made the most of being animated, fun and limitless. I mean, with ‘She and Her Cat‘, Makoto Shinkai needed just 5 minutes to forge his entire career. Lack of time is not an excuse for poor storytelling.

Aside from the above, my biggest issue with Batman: Gotham Knight is the stereotype it inevitably reinforces – that all anime is either Pokemon kids-fare or Ninja Scroll-level cartoon violence. What I really loved about The Animatrix is that, alongside the more typical action fluff, it shone with elements of slice of life and drama; it was a great showcase for the diversity of anime as a medium, not only in terms of visuals, but in terms of storytelling too. Gotham Knight is a throw-back to that era when anime wasn’t expected to be anything other than stupid, violent and extreme. It’s worth seeing for the Studio 4C segments, but The Animatrix this is not.

Bokurano: … I really wish I could’ve died on the Earth I grew up on.

I finished Bokurano this weekend, just as planned. 24 episodes in 5 days isn’t bad at all, as I’ve never been one to enjoy marathoning through anime. After all, I ended up needing nearly 2 whole years to catch up with 300+ episodes of One Piece, so, starting and finishing Bokurano in a matter of days is something of a surprise to me, but also a credit to its quality, in that it managed to keep my interest piqued for hours on end.

As I mentioned last week, I think Bokurano is a fascinating story. 15 children are mysteriously tricked into piloting this giant robot (called ‘Zearth’) to fight off a string of ‘alien invaders’. If they choose not to fight, Earth will be destroyed. If they lose their fight, Earth will be destroyed, and after they win, the pilot selected for that one battle will die. It’s a rigged game with no winners and the children have no hope of escaping this fate, so inevitably, their lives take on a new meaning. Knowing full well their days are numbered, they are forced, perhaps for the first time in their young lives, to find something worth living for, or rather, something worth dying for.

These children are not your cliche anime characters with green hair and big eyes. They are normal, almost dull-looking teenagers. They have parents too. I’ve noticed that, for whatever reason, parents don’t often play a big role in anime. From Code Geass to Macross Frontier, there is always a convenient excuse contrived to explain away why parents are absent. I suppose teenage megalomania wouldn’t be quite as enthralling if our mini-Machiavellis had to be in bed by 10pm because it’s a school night. What I’m trying to say is that, in this way, so much anime is an adolescent fantasy of independence, far removed from reality, but Bokurano is a satire, an unflinching critique of modern life. It doesn’t pull punches.

One of the most memorable arcs is that of the unfortunate 7th grade girl, Chizuru Honda. She falls into a love affair with her handsome school teacher, who also happens to be a paedophile. He exploits her naivety and seduces her, sets-up hidden cameras in his apartment and posts pictures of them ‘doing it’ online. All this and he starts dating Chizuru’s older sister too. So, when it’s her turn to pilot Zearth, Chizuru guns straight for her school and the bad teacher, but just as she is about to stomp him into the ground, her sister jumps in. If killing the teacher means killing her sister, Chizuru can’t do it. That, ultimately, is her reason for fighting; when she wins, and therefore dies, it’s all for her family. Moments after her death, it’s revealed that Chizuru was pregnant.

It’s not a story that shies away from controversy or taboo, but not every character arc is as tragic or as dramatic as Chizuru’s was. Some are saccharine to the point of nauseam, others are uneventful, or mundane. Such is life; people have their own ways of finding value and beauty, often in obscurity. As much as Bokurano is rife with social commentary and attacks on commercialism, that these children find real reasons to live, and die, is important.

When they are first contracted as Zearth pilots, it’s worked so that their favourite chairs are placed in the cockpit. Each chair is unique to that pilot, built in a way that’s so personal and symbolic of its owner’s personality. Plastic, artificial and rigid, or small, soft and humble. Apparently, you can understand a lot about someone just by examining their favourite chair; it’s a quaint, lovely touch. Likewise, each child faces an alien mecha that’s designed to look more like a moving Rorschach inkblot; a visual interpretation of their innermost fears and anxiety. That, really, should say all that you need to know about Bokurano, it’s the kind of science fiction that works best as symbolism and morality, about trying to find worth in living, and dying, as a completely normal, insecure, fragile, imperfect person.