September 2011: What we’re watching

(dengar) Our monthly (more like quarterly or semi-annual) anime feature continues with an update on several current series we’ve reviewed previously.  Read on for a return look at Steins;Gate, Tiger & Bunny and Mawaru Penguindrum.

(bateszi) I hope you enjoy the lovely colours I’ve used to mark our names this time! …What was that you mumbled just there? Crimes against humanity you say? I’ll have you know I’m a professional! We know how websites should look!

Steins;Gate

(dengar) This was the most improved series of the Spring season. The show started slow and the story was difficult to follow, but over time the show explained the confusing scenes from earlier episodes. A few even become the basis for important plot points.  It really hit its stride beginning with about episode 12.  At that point the pace of the show improved considerably. It went from a show that I almost gave up on, into one that I couldn’t stop watching.  Although the end was disappointing and the last scene was awkward, overall I found the second half of the show engrossing.

As important as the plot was, the improvement in the characters was essential.  If you can’t relate emotionally to a show’s characters it’s difficult to care about the plot.  That was a huge hurdle in the beginning. For example, I had a hard time relating to one of the characters who was a stereotypical otaku who made creepy comments. Mid-way through the show did a good job of devoting episodes to fleshing out the characters and by the end I had enough of an emotional attachment that I could enjoy the plot.

(bateszi) I’ve still not seen the final episode of Steins;Gate, but it’s probably the most anime-esque series I watched over the last 6 months:  full of stereotypical “nyan” service, mad science and awkward romance. dengar’s already alluded to the strength of its characters, but I particularly want to highlight the chemistry between Okarin and Kurisu. Whilst the others can be reduced to a few “database” traits, between those two develops as cute and warm an anime romance as I can remember (right up there with Guts and Casca from Berserk.) They make Steins;Gate what it is: a fascinating and emotional thing to experience.

Tiger & Bunny

(bateszi) I had a tumultuous relationship with Tiger & Bunny. I dropped it half-way through, only to come back a few months later. Just this morning, I watched the final episode. For my first attempt, my expectations were probably wrong. Tiger & Bunny is not crafted like most other anime. I can’t say if it’s an old fashioned way of telling a story, or just a more Westernised one, but it has a different perspective on characters: less intimate, perhaps? Or just very archetypal? Whatever it is, it left me cold.

Bunny is the angsty one, Tiger the world-weary optimist. The first half is watching them bounce off of one another with little consequence until, at some point in the middle, everything begins to coalesce. Those previously rigid archetypes suddenly seem endearing; superficial fronts for a deeper sense of empathy; a homage to the mechanics of superheroism that are now fascinating enough to develop their own sense of mythology and history.

Perhaps my favourite story-thread concerned Tiger’s decline as a hero, looking on as a younger generation takes his place and forced to give up the one thing he’s always wanted to do. It’s such a rare thing to see in anime: a middle-aged man contemplating retirement and approaching the twilight of his life. I really felt for him, and as action-packed as it was, I’ll always remember Tiger & Bunny for moments like that.

(dengar) I’ve only watched the first two episodes, but I like the direction Tiger & Bunny is going in.  It’s not a traditional superhero story like Iron Man.  I haven’t seen any evil villains scheming in the shadows or an attractive young woman who eyes the hero dreamily.  Instead Tiger & Bunny seems to take after the Incredibles, with a superhero who is middle aged and vulnerable.  He’s also a walking corporate billboard.  I haven’t seen enough to judge the show overall but I’m interested to see how it addresses the potential conflict between saving the world and corporate profits.

Mawaru Penguindrum

(Celeste) As  I enter into my final(!) year of my much-extended undergrad degree, there’s a natural dropping off of the anime that I’m watching. Predictable as this might be for me, Mawaru Penguindrum is all I’m following right now.

I’d love to start this off by saying something along the lines of “For an Ikuhara series…” but when you cut away at his work on Sailor Moon (a non-original story) and the various OP/EDs that he’s directed, Ikuhara hasn’t done much aside from Utena, and, damnit, it’s just not fair to compare things to Utena. That said, I think it’s best to read Penguindrum as a second exploration into the same set of themes Utena opened: ideas about destiny, fate, ability, and the impotency of act that come with adolescence are as about in Mawaru Penguindrum as in Utena. The way in which Penguindrum feels more “mainstream”, in my opinion, just a way in which Ikuhara has grown as a director. He can now express the same ideas and reach a wider audience.

Penguindrum always seems to dance a fine line between rife for analysis and essay, and ham-fisted anime hijinks. There’s nothing wrong with this balance, and I think Penguindrum handles it better than, say, another one of its contemporaries (from another of Ikuhara’s Utena ilk), Star Driver. At ten episodes in, however, I’m going to call it: by the time we hit the end of the series, Ikuhara will be at full form, and this series will likely tilt more towards the “rife for analysis” side of the spectrum than the “ham-fisted hijinks” side.

(bateszi) In a way, I’ve come to loathe the comparisons to Utena. It’s not that they aren’t merited, but there comes a point when Penguindrum has to stand alone, and constantly seeing it through the Utena lens only seems to encourage a depth of analysis that I’m not sure it merits, particularly given the subjectivity of its symbolism. There are similarities here to the way people perceived Star Driver too, at first as lovably eccentric, but then that collective sense of disappointment as the realisation sinks in that it’s never going to make any damn sense. I’m enjoying Penguindrum, but I’m not spending a lot of time thinking about it, either. It’s completely farcical, designed to be fun and weird and animated. Like Utena, it has snatches of real empathy and depth, but don’t ruin it for yourself by trying to make sense of it all, just revel in its lovely madness.

8 thoughts on “September 2011: What we’re watching”

  1. If I can be so bold to say it, right now I am actually enjoying Mawaru Penguin Drum a lot more than I did Utena.

    I found Utena fascinating but I just wasn’t personally engaged in most of the characters (with a few exceptions like Nanami, she was awesome). Whereas with Penguin Drum I actually already love & care about the main cast so much more.

    I also like the surrealism of the humor (of course there was a lot of that in Utena as well) and all the literary references from Night on the Galactic Railroad to Super Frog Saves Tokyo. It’s very random but unique as well. The humor almost shadows the darker themes of the story. And I definitely expect Penguin Drum to get even darker.

    I don’t know how Penguin Drum will turn out (and I hope it will have as memorable of an ending as Utena did) but for now I am really enjoying the ride because I feel it engages both my brain and my heart.

    1. Utena is more to my liking because it’s a more serious story. Rightly or wrongly, I’m still waiting for Penguindrum to be serious like that, too.

      I’m enjoying it, it’s just more of a fun thing for me than deep right now. I love Ikuhara’s style and I have faith in what he’s trying to do. In a sense, I’m just enjoying how he’s completely in-control of what we’re thinking, like I can see his hands moving behind the curtain, contorting our expectations at every turn. Penguindrum’s exciting in that way… It’s just so unpredictable!

  2. I’ve had kind of an abusive relationship with Mawaru Penguindrum this past few months. On one hand, the show can be ABSOLUTELY INFURIATING–the heavy focus on Ringo, the wacky pacing, the occasionally oblique imagery. But then there’s at least a moment or two in each episode (even if it isn’t apparent at first) where you blink and suddenly realize that the creator has you in the palm of his hand. I mean, take the penguins! On one hand they serve to joke around in the background, sort of the penguin equivalent of Chu Chu. Then you go a layer deeper and realize that each one represents the inner psyche of the siblings, from #1 reading porn magazines to #3 trying on wigs and so on.

    Then you go deeper, deeper, and realize that each of the penguins are marked–#1 by a bandage (in the same place where Kanba would have been hit by the mirror had it not fallen on his father) and #3 by a ribbon (probably the same ribbon that indirectly toppled the mirror that would have hit Himari had it not fallen on her mother.) The siblings are literally carrying their sins–no wonder they continuously talk about punishment! Except for Shouma, of course. His penguin is totally unmarked. Does that mark him as the pure one surrounded by sinners, or as the most untrustworthy one of the bunch?

    Its questions like these (seemingly inconsequential, actually kind of terrifying when you think about them) that I think elevate Penguindrum from Utena 2.0 to something legitimately interesting. Then again, from the three episodes I’ve seen Steins;Gate is also pretty great! (although I’m debating whether to read the visual novel rather than watch the series, since the former is about to be translated, apparently)

    1. I’d actually recommend the Steins;Gate anime over the visual novel due to the involvement of director Hiroshi Hamazaki. He’s one of my favourite anime directors after seeing Shigurui and Texhnolyze, and he adds a lot of his stark visual/atmospheric idiosyncrasy to Steins;Gate, things that you just won’t get with the visual novel. The voice acting is mostly superb, too, apart from this one character that constantly adds “-nyan~” to every damn sentence (seriously, EVERY sentence! It’s so annoying!)

    2. Interesting. I was hoping that eventually they’d just release it in the US (how hard can it be to translate/sell the iOS app at the very least), but a fan release is a good alternative I guess. God knows how long we’ll have to wait for the movie once it comes out.

  3. Since this is a “what we’re watching now” post I’d like to bring up Hanasaku Iroha, which alas, is ending next week. That show, along with Steins;Gate and Tiger and Bunny, make three superb shows that started in the spring, after a winter season that had only two shows worth watching (Wandering Son, and of course, Madoka). All three work because of the characters. Okabe and Kotetsu are fully-rounded males, and I enjoyed watching them bicker and muse and consider their futures in slow moments as much as I did when there was plot to be taken care of. Hanasaku Iroha, on the other hand, is loaded with terrific female characters, Ohana, Sui, Takako, Minko, Tomoe, Nako, geez, just about everyone.

    As for Penguindrum, I understand that it’s not fair to compare it to Utena, but how can you not? Every time Ringo has one of her fantasies (and, yes, I’m a little tired of Ringo, too) I expect Yuri to do the classic Nanami laugh (which, frankly is the ONLY thing I liked about Nanami). That librarian guy could have been in any Utena episode, and the slingshot girl’s appearance makes me think of Juri. Okay, when I’m not reminded of Utena, I sit there, slack-jawed as the show bombards me with symbolism-ridden visuals among the “hamfisted anime hijinks,” to quote Celeste. I almost dread watching an episode, because it means more dazzling, confusing sights I have to digest.

    1. I’m actually liking Iroha, too. I’m not sure it’ll live long in the memory, but it’s pleasant and warm-hearted and reminds me a lot of live-action Japanese films like Linda Linda Linda. I really like how it’s set in a rural area of Japan, too.

  4. Oh but I see plenty of dark undertones in Mawaru Penguin Drum. The humor at the moment just masks that. Utena was also had tons of silly.surreal moments and didn’t get really serious until the final episodes.

    @Weendeego: I didn’t even notice that connection between the ribbon and bandage on the penguins. That’s really cool. But as for Shouma’s Penguin I think he doesn’t have any identifying features because Shouma is afraid to reveal himself (this becomes even clearer with Shouma’s inner thoughts in the novel). But make no mistake, there is more to Shouma than meets the eye.

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