Autumn ’08 impressions: week 2

Another week and the last of my autumn anime impressions. Right now, it feels like this is an exciting time to be an anime fan. There is so much that’s actually worth watching at the moment that it really seems like every day I’m adding more and more to my back-log. Naturally, I’m already having a hard time just trying to keep up with it all, but it’s been refreshing all the same.

If you haven’t participated already, please vote in my “best of season” poll. It’s just a bit of fun, but I’m becoming fascinated by the results. Casshern Sins is on top right now and I really didn’t expect that, but then again, you people do read my blog, so you obviously have good taste! (Not that I’m biased or anything.)

Mediocre anime

8. Hokuto no Ken Raoh Gaiden: Ten no Haoh

As with anything related to Fist of the North Star, a certain quota must be filled. This includes exploding heads, muscle-bound vigilantes, blood-thirsty street punks and crazy martial arts that require the least amount of movement possible, which is handy, because the animation is just as static. In this first episode, apparently all Raoh need do is stare at someone. The rest is taken care of.

You probably know already whether or not you want to see this. Just like the recent Golgo 13 anime, it delivers exactly what you expect of Fist of the North Star, but I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not. It’s just more of the same. More manly action.

Consider this: the great Raoh will only walk in a straight line. Literally. Even if there is a building obstructing his path, he won’t walk around it. He just smashes his way through and keeps on going. Does that sound stupid? Certainly. Is it funny? Most definitely. But this is not a comedy.

I’ll admit that I have a soft spot for Fist of the North Star. Taken in small doses, it’s entertaining enough, but at the same time, if you wanted to say that this is terrible, I couldn’t exactly disagree either. A guilty pleasure for sure, but now that the original series has been completely fan subbed, I might just start watching that instead.

  • tags: exploding heads, martial arts, post-apocalyptic, manly, destruction

7. Kurogane no Line Barrel

It’s rare to find a main character as unlikable as the teenaged idiot at the centre of Kurogane no Line Barrel. Selfish, petty and horny, his pseudo-Light claims of justice are nothing more than a superficial smoke-screen, all to hide his innate insecurity and shattered masculinity. He is a coward, basically. A coward that, by a miracle of good luck, can somehow pilot an all-powerful mecha. I guess he is built-up like this on-purpose, we’re supposed to hate him so that we can welcome his inevitable demise with unabated glee. Everything else in this anime is so utterly generic that it is depressing, yet I want to see this guy crash and burn spectacularly.

Vitriol aside, the next few episodes will make or break Kurogane no Line Barrel. This could turn out to be a traumatic mecha series like Bokurano, with insane teenagers in-control of things they cannot even begin to understand, or it could be just another boring action anime from Studio Gonzo. For whatever reason, I suspect that there might be something more to this story, but it will have to deliver soon.

  • tags: mecha, teenager, wimp, idiot, annoying
Good anime

6. Chaos Head

I’m finding it hard to say much of anything about the first episode of Chaos Head. It has generic bishojo characters, all of whom are inexplicably attracted to a shed-dwelling, anti-social otaku. His name is Takumi and like many otaku, he has a sexy figurine collection, an ‘odd’ relationship with his sister and admits to hating ‘3D girls’. All the while, a gory mystery seems  vaguely related to them all.

This is a promising, yet baffling debut, and, despite pandering to the otaku fan base, I’m hesitant to draw any firm conclusions just yet.  Much of this episode is particularly reminiscent of Welcome to the NHK, especially that sense of self-delusion and rampant paranoia. The line between the real and unreal is blurred through-out, so much so, I’m not yet convinced that certain characters even exist outside of Takumi’s vivid imagination.

I’ll be watching more of this. I need some answers.

  • tags: otaku, mystery, culture, romance, bishojo

5. Skip Beat

I could binge away an entire weekend on Skip Beat.

This episode ends with such a moment of pathos that I could spend hours watching this character’s rise from obscurity, to battle for fame and success. Of course, I’m talking about Kyoko. A dumped girl hell-bent on the best possible revenge.

I nearly lost faith in this ‘brand’ of nineties-era shojo after a bad experience with Itazura na Kiss, which wasn’t as much a bad series as a frustrating one. Similar to my complaints about Toradora‘s Taiga, Itazura na Kiss has a (male) tsundere so consistently obnoxious that the love-struck girl lost all of my respect by willingly accepting his streams of abuse to accommodate her love. Thank god that Kyoko is different. When she over-hears her beloved ‘prince’ insulting her behind her back, she throws a hamburger in his face and tearfully swears to get revenge! Ah, that’s the spirit!

Skip Beat could almost be described as a Shonen Jump action story, ‘I will become the strongest celebrity!’ It’s certainly as compulsive as Naruto, but where the boys might spend countless days in training trying to power-up, Kyoko just changes her hair style and starts wearing some trendy new clothes! Seriously, it’s easy being a girl!

  • tags: shojo, attitude, comedy, romance, drama
Excellent anime

4. Tytania

Sitting down in-front of Tytania for the first time, I was worried. I’ve read my fair share of negative reviews of the first episode and the rather stiff animation used in the trailer didn’t exactly impress me either, but I am a fan of Legend of the Galactic Heroes and the last thing in the world I wanted to report was that ‘Tytania isn’t good.’ Luckily, I don’t have to do that.

I’ve criticized the new Hokuto no Ken anime series for being exactly what I expect it to be and Tytania is much in the same way, yet it is a superior series. This was expected to be another Legend of the Galactic Heroes and that is exactly what it is. The well-groomed, posh soldiers of the Empire versus the up-start rebel capitalists. In space. Both sides contain men of quality and they will clash, frequently, in battles of huge scale and importance. They represent not just themselves, but a political ideology too. Every move is calculated. This is what I expect from Tytania, and I find it fascinating. It is a space opera; a grand adventure. Each side has a different uniform, culture and unique technologies. Each side contains people of burning ambition, who stare fearlessly into the endless expanse of space and dare to dream of mastering man’s destiny. They drink tea too.

The animation was better than expected. This is a dialogue-heavy show with riveting speeches, so fluidity of movement isn’t as important as the ambience and the mood of the moment. Basically, the presentation of Tytania is perfectly fine, but then, I’m excited. I might be biased.

  • tags: space opera, tea, wine, bishonen, war

3. Kurozuka

Let’s get something straight. The Kurozuka manga never aspired to be anything more than stylish and action-packed. That is all well and good, and it does look incredibly cool, but substance was sorely lacking and it felt a tad disposable too. The manga was ripe for an anime adaptation precisely because those deficiencies were so obvious and the end result is that this opening episode that isn’t a particularly faithful adaptation of the source material, but is arguably much, much better.

Through-out this story, the one thing we must believe in, above all else, is that Kuro and Kuromitsu are deeply in-love. Most of this hinges on the seiyuu, so it is a relief that the cast includes the best voice actress in Japan, Romi Paku. In the role of Kuromitsu, she delivers a subtle and tortured performance that’s completely unlike anything I’ve heard from her in the past. Her voice is mature and restrained, a voice that understands the eternal pain of immortal life.

Ironically, so much that I like about Kurozuka has nothing to do with restrain. Bloody action, samurai, and vampires. This is a dangerous mixture of extremes and subtleties, yet what I am relishing most of all right now is that this is an adult story, with adult relationships. It is also dark, romantic and action-packed. I can’t ask for any more than that. It is everything I hoped for.

  • tags: horror, blood, romance, samurai, action

2. Michiko to Hatchin

Another beautifully animated first episode, but then, I always expected Michiko to Hatchin to look great; my questions concerned only the story, which was, at times, painful to endure. The little girl, Hana, is abused horribly by her adoptive family. Her situation is comically bad and very reminiscent of Harry Potter at the Dursleys’, but rather than Hagrid bursting in to save the day, it’s Michiko, Hana’s so-called mother; a sexy, gun-toting prison escapee who ‘don’t take no shit from no-one‘. Her moment of arrival is fantastic for obvious reasons, but even better is Hana’s own little stand, when she finally snaps and head-butts her violent sister. What a moment of relief.

I adore the blue skies, dusty roads and concrete walls of Michiko to Hatchin, where graffiti and dirt smudge across damaged buildings and poor old men sit out on the side of the street, feasting on their greasy snacks. The influence of the stunning Brazilian film Cidade de Deus (City of God) is obvious, not just in the soundtrack, which features a number of cool samba beats, but in the sun-stained, colourful clothes, the half-arsed, uncomfortable way the characters hold their pistols, the sense of energy, youth, corruption and lawlessness. In every sense, this is a liberating piece of work. A triumph of the human spirit. It is art, and it will be fun.

  • tags: gritty, urban, abuse, cool, animation
Masterpiece

1. Mouryou no Hako

In a weird, creepy kind of way, the first episode of Mouryou no Hako was a masterpiece. Understated and beautiful, dark and foreboding, the strangeness of the characters and the subtlety of their movement; I was mesmerised by this episode, utterly incapable of fathoming its direction, yet entranced by its sad progression into the beautiful weird. That it conveys no sense of logic is barely relevant, nightmares often dance their own baroque roads of thought. Simply conveying feeling is enough. Mouryou no Hako is animated, perfumed emotion, and it isn’t necessarily happy. If you value anime, allow yourself to be taken by this episode, to savour its romantic sting.

  • tags: horror, creepy, beautiful, artistic, moody

Autumn ’08 impressions: week 1

This past weekend was spent watching anime, lots and lots of anime, and below you can read my findings. Having come perilously close to losing my sanity at several points over the last few days, the scariest thing is that there is still so much I’m waiting to see, not least of all the majority of what was included in my autumn preview.

The mediocre anime

9. Kannagi

Listen up, otaku! Do you want a girlfriend, but struggle with the ladies? Perhaps you’re having trouble meeting that perfect girl? Yes? Well, here is my advice.

Make your own!

It’s really that simple! All you need is some wood and a chisel! Craft her image on the wood and plant it in the ground, wait a few minutes and that’s it! The rest should take care of itself! Added bonuses include that she doesn’t have parents, loves to watch anime and is really cute, so, no doubt you’ll be screaming ‘MOEEE!!!’ for the rest of the week. Of course, if you don’t like her, you can always plant another one and start collecting a harem instead!

Short review: Really nice animation ruined by a thinly-veiled, leering observation of the fairer sex.

  • Tags: wish fulfillment, moe, slice of life, school, comedy

8. Ga-Rei -Zero-

Despite ending with such an impressively bleak twist of fate, I must point out that the opening 20-odd minutes of Ga-Rei -Zero- were no more than a pale imitation of Blassreiter, totally bereft of enthusiasm and creativity. Most worryingly, for what is supposed to be an exciting action series, the fight choreography was particularly disappointing, with any number of cliche gun poses and faux-cool characters riding-in on their motorbikes to save the day. It came off as trying too hard to be cool, yet the episode’s conclusion is such a shock that I’m hesitant to completely write it off.

  • Tags: horror, science fiction, action, twist, military

7. Hyakko

A saccharine, light-hearted comedy about a quartet of young girls making their tentative first steps into Japanese high-school. They get lost in-between classes and meet each other wandering around empty buildings.

The first episode of Hyakko wasn’t particularly substantial, but the characters were engaging and pleasant, while the art style was bright and energetic. It’s a typical Japanese slice of life that seems happy to revel in being young and nostalgic. It may be a slightly bland take on fledgling friendship, but I found it easy to watch.

  • Tags: slice of life, nostalgia, friendship, light relief
The good anime

6. Gundam 00 S2

Ever since My-HiME, the much maligned ‘train-wreck’ tag has become synonymous with Sunrise, and though we might complain as if they produce some of the worst anime ever, we all seem to enjoy the fruits of their labour anyway.

It’s time we faced the truth. Sunrise is the Hollywood studio of the anime industry. Their work is fun and entertaining; probably a bit stupid and superficial too, but fun and entertaining none the less.

Gundam 00 is junk food for anime fans, the kind of well animated, colorful series we’ve all decided to love or loathe. Action, mecha, cute girls, pretty boys, politics. It’s an absolutely mass-market formula for success, albeit darker than Code Geass, with much more emphasis on the individual grunts of war, but obviously, that’s all fairly irrelevant in a show like this, where the terrorists have pink hair.

Basically, I’ll be on this train along with everyone else. It should be fun, whether it crashes or not.

  • Tags: mecha, trainwreck, action, eye candy

5. Toradora!

Comparisons to Honey & Clover seem valid, though if anything, Toradora! is much more like Nodame Cantabile, right down to how the lead boy RyÅ«ji finds himself being compelled, out of a mixture of fear and pity, to cook and clean for lead girl Taiga. She lives up to her tsundere reputation from the start and strikes me as infuriatingly rude. It was really frustrating watching RyÅ«ji suffer through her constant volleys of abuse without throwing anything back, and indeed, whether or not you can enjoy Toradora! much at all probably depends on your tolerance of her unchecked abrasiveness. All that said and I must admit that I really enjoyed this first episode. The characters felt authentic and heartfelt, and in such a potentially dramatic series, it’s really important to care about the characters. Obviously, I do, and that’s a good sign, I think.

  • Tags: tsundere, drama, comedy, slice of life, school
The great anime

4. Casshern Sins

The first episode of Casshern Sins was fantastic, and after Kaiba, yet another beautifully animated, stylish science fiction anime from Madhouse.

The story? Planet Earth is (apparently) devoid of natural life and now controlled by violent robots, who are themselves fast rusting away into nothingness. It sounds fairly basic, right?

The visuals are inspired, a refreshing synthesis of retro character design and contemporary production values. The dark, lifeless backgrounds are particularly detailed and immersive, decaying yet beautiful, while the story is a straight forward mystery, with some dynamically animated, brutal action scenes along the way.

The varying robots are themselves desperately alive and afraid of dying, trying to find some meaning in the time they have left; they are strikingly conflicted and sad creations, as is Casshern himself, the man blamed for this dire state of affairs.

My immediate comparisons are to Ergo Proxy and Battle Angel Alita. Casshern‘s hopeless concrete dystopia, combined with the optimistic robot girl, are very reminiscent of Rel and Vincent’s adventures outside of the dome, while the lumbering, blood-thirsty robots are the kind of unhinged opposition often faced by Alita.

  • Tags: science fiction, dystopian, robots, action, animation

3. Shikabane-hime

I’ve been feeling a little hesitant about Shikabane-hime, if just because the premise is a tad cliche, but this first episode was very impressive.

The Gainax touch is apparent almost immediately; the dark ambience is fascinating, the character design is as cool and colourful as ever, while the action is fluid and well drawn. Though I’m aware this might be sounding a tad superficial, let us not forget that anime is a visual medium and that Gainax, when on their game, are masters of the art. Everything from the way a character smiles to the way moon-light dances across a bedroom wall, suggests feeling, soul, and attitude. We don’t need incisive dialogue, or fabulous plot twists, because when anime looks this good, our imagination is set free, unbounded.

  • Tags: horror, action, style, attitude, animation

2. To Aru Majutsu no Index

To Aru Majutsu no Index was fun; good, solid, exciting and fun.

This was easily one of the most assured debuts of the autumn season and knows exactly what it wants to be, namely cute, magical and funny. It succeeds effortlessly, and won me over almost immediately. Straight from the off, I really liked the attitude of the characters; they are full of life, or rather, sarcasm, and the banter is tremendous, never feeling forced or manipulative, it’s merely dead-pan and funny. The assured direction is courtesy of Hiroshi Nishikiori, who has helmed two J.C. Staff anime series I’ve previously enjoyed, Azumanga Daioh and The Melody of Oblivion.

  • Tags: magic, action, cute, school, humor

1. Kuroshitsuji

So far this season, we’ve had the demon-hunting girl, the tsundere tiger and the dystopian science fiction. To my mind, it’s all very familiar and, as a result, all very predictable. I’m not to saying that these are bad stories, but when one finds himself being able to predict each plot twist as it comes, that undeniably takes away a lot of the excitement in watching anime in the first place.

Kuroshitsuji feels like something completely new. Such a feeling is as strange as it is exciting, and, with this being animated at A-1 Pictures, their dark realisation of Victorian-era England is sumptuous; even the tea looks delicious. Of course, it helps that the soundtrack is by far and away the best of the season too, and I was going to write that even before I found out that none other than Taku Iwasaki (Gurren Lagann, Soul Eater) was the man responsible.

To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much from Kuroshitsuji. The elaborate bishonen character designs seem to suggest cringe-worthy homoeroticism, yet this first episode was anything but; it’s positively dripping with malevolence. More please!

  • Tags: gothic, horror, butlers, culture, supernatural

Love will tear us apart

True Tears. I liked it. A lot.

Earlier this year, I made an agreement with Owen of Cruel Angel Theses. I promised I’d try to watch True Tears if he would step-up to one of my recent favorites too; none other than Shigurui. True to form, Owen came through on his side of the agreement almost instantly, and here I am, many months later, still lagging behind. So, it’s now or never, and about time I made good on my promise.

True Tears.

I liked it. A lot.

It’s regrettable that, ostensibly, True Tears doesn’t look particularly special; rather, it has all the hallmarks of just another generic harem anime. In other words, it looks like a formulaic, romantic fantasy where one boy is at the centre of this romantic tug-of-war between a group of doting girls. Of course, I know it picked up a lot of praise from the fan community, but I’m quite sensitive to the ways that many fans seem to confuse quality story-telling with quality fan-service. Was True Tears merely good harem, or good anime full-stop?

True Tears is good anime, and like all good anime, transcends its genre. Not by being flashy, or trying to do anything obviously different, but simply by exploring its cast, each episode digging a little deeper, beneath its familiar surface and into these warm, desperate people.

I don’t want to delve too deeply into the plot, but I do want to write something about love-sick Aiko, one of the three girls secretly chasing the affection of tortured artist Shinichirō. According to the status quo, Aiko has been a friend of Shinichirō for a long time, but she has quietly fallen in-love with him. So much so, she will even hook-up with his best friend; anything to be closer to him, even if that closeness is a lie. Alas, she was always destined to fail.

Because of all that, Aiko was my favorite character. I suppose she always knew her crush would be unrequited, but that she kept on clinging to that tiny shred of hope for so long is such a hopelessly human thing to do. In lesser anime, that rejection would be the last we see of her, as a broken, weeping heart, but as the series moves on, we see her recover some self-confidence.

Her life goes on, and her love that once seemed so vital just fades away. It’s a love story and a study of love itself, the ways that such a feeling can destroy people, suffocate them, and hurt them. These characters are literally battered and bruised by their feelings. You can almost hear the echoes of Joy Division.

“When love, love will tear us apart again.”

Thinking back to a dramatic crescendo or two, True Tears does often twist like a slightly cliche, soapy love story, but this existential willingness to look beyond superficial emotion, to find a sad, warm reason behind all the pain, lies and deceit of normal people, rapidly elevates its sense of poignancy and importance. This is a thoughtful, serious and compelling drama, and much better than expected.

A tribute to Soul Eater 18

It’s been a long time since my last foray into Soul Eater. Too long, really. And it’s easy to forget just how fun it is, how exciting, how damn awesome.

I mean, there are certain things that will always stick out, launch it above other series, and these two episodes were no different. Consider the dark, gothic architecture of Shibusen. The landscape has a palpable character, the shade and colour emphasizing a constant, lively feeling. An emotional container for these bizarre eccentrics, this is a world I can feel a part of, along with these characters and their adventures, so colourful and thrilling.

I suppose I’m really just in awe of this show, as the bright sparks fly and the awkwardly dressed kids dance. In that moment. Memories. These episodes, in particular, just really capture that feeling for me, that transient, simple, joyful sense of being young and stupid. If just for a dozen or so minutes, it’s fun, and happy, and perfect.

Then Medusa attacks.

Sometimes it’s easy to take Soul Eater for granted because every episode is so consistently and stylishly animated. But like I said above, I’ve been away from this series for too long. When I finished these two episodes, I really had the urge to just race through the rest right there and then. But you see, I want to savour it, this feeling, this excitement. It’s wonderful, and rare.