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Memoirs of a Shounen Jump fan – Dragonball Z

Despite being both loved and loathed by an ever collecting legion of frothing fans, the various anime derived from Japan’s own Shounen Jump are undeniably the flag bearers of anime to our mainstream generation.

As much as I like to think of myself as a serious anime fan, I must now confess that I happen to enjoy the uniquely derivative delights of the SJ adaptation; indeed, my TV recorded VHS tapes of all 261 episodes of DragonballZ attest to this horrifying affliction- intending never to watch them again, I still keep them close by as a reminder of what once was.

Alas, as a means of clearing my heavy conscience, we reach the point at which I introduce this series of articles, my “memoirs of a shounen jump fan”, so join me brave reader as we sink ever deeper into the bowls of these forbidden anime series.

Dragonball Z – My confession

Back during the desolate days of the year 2002 I wasn’t an anime fan but being your typical lazy student and all, I still had a lot of spare time on my hands. One fated summer’s afternoon, I just happened to flick past Toonami on TV… and weeks later, I realized I was addicted to Dragonball Z. That’s literally how it happened, there wasn’t some moment of divine realization, rather I just woke up one morning and subconsciously decided to become a DBZ fan.

To my unfettered eyes, it offered something new. For a start, it was my first true serial story in animated form- I loved tuning in everyday and being able to watch the next part of an on-going story. The characters too were a big draw for me; we see Goku and Gohan grow up, develop and suffer in realistic ways, being affected by everything going on around them. It had just enough maturity to hold my interest, something I can’t say for the majority of teen-aimed American toons.

For that summer, I loved Dragonball Z. It got old for me around about my third time around the block; now it’s drawn out and boring, but for those precious 3 to 6 months, I really loved it- enough to sit through several whole day marathons!

Why people hate DBZ (and subsequently, why I love it!)

As popular as Dragonball Z still is, there’s no point in trying to convince anyone its high art. Its main problem is pacing; DBZ lasted 261 episodes for a reason, the story moves so slowly that (and this is a fact) that when we are told that a “planet will explode in two minutes”, the action is still stretched out over two episodes.

After around about 90 episodes, Dragonball Z has reached its zenith. Goku has completed his fated transformation into the legendary Super Saiyajin and Frieza meets his grizzly end. The series should end here, with everything tied up- but it doesn’t, for whatever reason it lasts for another 170 episodes. Basically, Akira Toriyama’s universe wasn’t built to last this long- and the cracks start to show.

The action, if we can call it that, consists of the now familiar SJ-style face-offs in which opponents spend more time trashing talking each other and trading “power levels” than actually fighting. Characters in battle take on the look of someone squatting with violent constipation, muscles bulge and hair colour changes.

Series highlights

  • At an emotional highpoint- Goku, mourning the death of his best buddy Krillin, goes Super Saiyajin for the first time and humiliates the previously untouchable pride of Frieza.
  • Gohan inheriting his father’s legacy by saving Earth from Cell.
  • Vegeta finally acknowledging Goku and his loved ones by sacrificing his life- blowing himself up- to halt the universal destruction expected of fat villain Majin Buu.

Final words

The most revered Shounen Jump anime ever, Dragonball Z set the standards for long running “fighting” anime. Despite being hopelessly stretched out over an amazing number of episodes, the story retains its power as a weird blend of science fiction and traditional martial arts. Time traveling, androids, space ships and exploding planets are but a few of the many delights DBZ offers and as much as it now looks like a blatantly tired old series, it will always have my respect!

One Piece – Adventure of a lifetime!

One Piece is a brilliant series. I’ve slowly come to realize this over the last few months and indeed, it’s my find of 2006. Void of the macho posturing that dogs it’s Shounen Jump brethren and brimming with such vibrant, colorful adventure- it’s a tragedy to see how it’s being handled outside of Japan by 4Kids. I know it’s beating a dead horse, but treated with the respect it so sorely deserves, One Piece could have achieved so much more.

I’m up to episode 64 now, and the Straw Hat crew have just entered the Grand Line, where muchos adventure awaits. I get the feeling this is when the real story begins, and yet, I’ve already enjoyed watching it so much; that’s 25 hours of pure One Piece goodness and funnily enough, the journey has only just begun.

By this point in a show, things should be getting a little repetitive. We should know what to expect from certain characters and be able to predict how their stories will unfold. This is not the case with One Piece, I daren’t even guess in what direction I’ll be carried next, and it’s this consistently unpredictable style that plays a massive part in dragging me back for more. Like-wise, the characters are wonderful to watch and original creator Eiichiro Oda, who I feel is becoming a story telling legend, clearly loves them too; by developing their personalities, always adding an extra layer of drama, he injects them with such unique dreams, humour, ambitions and talents that I find myself empathising and laughing with each and everyone of them.

Exciting, vibrant and full of life, enjoying One Piece is easy. I hope to blog this show, not episode by episode, but rather in batches; highlighting my favourite moments.

NANA – 2 – Make up the breakdown

An episode I enjoyed much more than the first, NANA episode 2 is a much needed dramatic and character-driven piece. I remarked after the first episode that Nana K is a ditz, implying that basically she is a superficial person with her head in clouds, in love with the idea of being in love.

With episode two, we begin to get under her skin; we see that her typically naive and innocent personality is slowly wearing her down, making her more and more self conscious, afraid of both being alone and getting hurt. Through a string of relationships, everyone of which she makes the earth-shattering claim of love, she evidently puts in so much effort and still- they still end with not an explosion of passion, rather a wet whimper. To say she is emotionally fragile is an understatement, in one particularly painful scene, a fun night out drinking with some new friends transforms into an emotional break down.

This was an important episode for Nana K and I’m pleased to say it is as dramatic as I had hoped NANA would be. Of course, the series is still as fun and quirky as you would expect of any slice of life show- but now we have the character drama to match too.

NANA – 1 – Sisters are doing it for themselves

Setting the scene
Nana has plans to move to Tokyo and live near her boyfriend. On the train journey there, she bumps into another woman called Nana; who also happens to be 20 and is planning to live in Tokyo too. Their fashions and personalities strike such a strong contrast, like night and day; Nana 1 is a sugary sweet and innocent girl, while Nana 2 is a brooding and well, gothic woman. These pronounced differences are no doubt why the two immediately bond and form a natural friendship.

Life’s not going to be easy for Nana 1 in Tokyo though; her boyfriend shows her little sympathy- so it’s either get a job and find your own apartment or go back home. And so life in the big city begins.

My impressions
Before viewing this episode, NANA was my most anticipated show of the spring season. The pre-production art struck me as an admirable attempt at originality and basically, the show looked sophisticated enough to set itself aside from the teen-angst brigade.

I tentatively enjoyed episode 1; clearly, this is a series aimed at young women and while I can appreciate the art and enjoy the super-deformed humour, there is only so much interest I can glean from what is basically a “sisters are doing it for themselves” kind of story. And that’s basically what NANA is right now, it’s about two young woman learning to rely on themselves. The atmosphere is fun, and kooky, and the melodrama is thick with earth shattering narration, though I really need to see more before I can grasp any true direction.

The artwork and animation is very reminiscent of Paradise Kiss, but it’s not as over the top and “camp”. Like-wise, the character designs are attractive and pretty; particularly the females, who all look very glamorous and caked with makeup.

NANA has started out in promising fashion, and has set the scene well for future adventures. It’s pure slice of life and gooey melodrama, and as long as it doesn’t descend into the realms of manicures and hair cuts, I’ll be watching!

Paranoia Agent – Happy Family Planning censored in the UK

For those who aren’t aware, I’m based in the UK. Being an anime fan in England isn’t so bad, though like every country, we have to put up with the occasional scandal; and this week one such scandal has been making waves in our anime community. Basically, the BBFC have decided to censor a section of episode 8 (“Happy Family Planning”) of Paranoia Agent- and it’s not a TV broadcast that’s been cut, it’s a DVD release.

As I have the uncut DVD version of this episode to hand, I figured I would blog it and try to analyze why BBFC feel it’s dangerous for the British public to see.

Now Happy Family Planning is probably the most unsettling episode of Paranoia Agent I’ve seen so far- because not only does it depict a young girl attempting to commit suicide, it also touches on a number of other issues that we Britains are trained to fear. For one- the little girl meets her suicidal compatriots in an internet chatroom (both grown men; one is gay and the other a depressed old fogey). The British media is usually full of stories about how young children are being exposed by old perverts over the ‘net and since this episode alludes to the internet as a means of planning a young girl’s suicide (let alone the other characters involved), it immediately treds on edgy territory- a cartoon making fun of such dangerous things is a parent’s nightmare.

The episode continues and by the time we reach the now infamous attempted hanging scene (this is the section cut by the BBFC), it’s clear that Happy Family Planning is a disturbing black comedy- yes, it features responsible adults who want to die, but still, it’s a satire; an albeit close to bone comedy that really pushes the boundaries concerning the worries of a middle-class modern society.

Happy Family Planning has all of the trademarks of a Satoshi Kon anime; it’s subversive, experimental and downright brilliant, all the way through to it’s sad conclusion. The way the character’s act- all smilie faces and skipping down streets is not in tone with what you would expect of people wanting to die; it’s actually an episode full of life and humour, chillingly so. And this is probably why the BBFC decided to cut out the attempted hanging; the animation genre in the West is still one that is synomonous with young people and a sickly sweet innocence. Seeing three cartoon characters, including one child, trying to hang themselves, and laughing and joking about dying, is just too much for Britain right now. And ironically, unless in the future the BBFC let their guards down concerning these kinds of issues, we’ll never be ready either.

Why am I running an anime blog?

This is a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately, and with the recent commentary posted over at “a fairy tale…”, I guess it’s time for me to revaluate the real reason why this place exists.

I’ve long admired anime blogs from afar, enjoyed reading their quick-fire reviews of my favourite shows and always wanted to run a blog just like these people- hence this place- but a quick look at BlogSuki reveals what is essentially a flood of others who feel the same way. I glance at my review of NANA below and feel embarrassed- not because it’s a bad post, but rather because it’s so damn generic. Everyone is watching this show, nearly everyone is blogging it, so what’s the point in me joining the crowd? Will it add anything new, of vital importance? I’ve conformed without even realizing it.

So I guess I’m selling out then; being an ambitious person, always looking at my hit counter and checking my mail for new comments, I want to attract people to this place. Sadly, this is a fruitless pursuit- and a newbie trap- a situation in which you inevitably end up droning on about shows you really couldn’t give two shits about. I’m not saying this is the case with NANA; I honestly did enjoy the first episode, but mere enjoyment is hardly the metal great blogs are made of.

For now, I’m going to try and forget about what other people may want to read here and just focus on what I want to read. I’m going to remove my hit counter and rely on “the force”, Skywalker-style, before self-destructing in a fit of referral statistics.

Fan service to the detriment of quality

I tend to avoid anime with an over-emphasis on fan service, I construe it as a weakness in story telling; a cynical way of appealling to a base number of fan-boys/girls. In other words, I hate being pandered to- and so inevitably, I’ve ended up missing out on some of the most otaku series of recent years; the HiME franchise for one, and just about anything else starring groups of school girls falling over each other.

The latest champion on this side of fandom is said to be The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. I try to check out a lot of what’s popular, if just to understand the hype, but a quick look at the various screen-caps scattered across the ‘net reveal that yet again, Haruhi is no doubt a fan favourite for certain physical reasons.

I know people get obsessed about these series, but has there ever been a great moe/loli series, or rather- is this shallow visual style a reflection of a distinct lack of story. Will fan-service always equal derrivative fanboy entertainment.

Pale Cocoon: Apathetic sci-fi short

Described in some parts as a spiritual follow-up to the much lauded sci-fi short Voices of a Distant Star, Yasuhiro Yoshiura’s Pale Cocoon is another 22 minute OVA that attempts to express a wistful charm by means of an isolated space setting.

The story is that (for some undefined reason) mankind has migrated to the moon and after years of being seperated from the mother planet (Earth), people are yearning for a return home. The main character, a distant young man called Ura, spends his days examining pictures of Earth’s beautiful landscapes and researching old human civilisions.

As we now expect from these kinds of short features, Pale Cocoon looks great and is as apathetic as serious science fiction comes. Like say Texhnolyze, there is an air of resignation about the characters, almost as if they have quit caring about anything and everything.
Due the running time, the story is understandably hard to take in on first viewing but given time to consider, I feel like I understand the point of what Yasuhiro Yoshiura is trying to convey. In a world where people are drowning in artificial light, the enclosed metal walls give off a strong feeling of claustrophobia and the characters yearn for the freedom to explore and expand their horizons- a reaction to being isolated by technolgy. For them, I suppose life has lost meaning, they have no future.

Pale Cocoon was worth watching just for the spectactular artwork but unfortunately, it lacks the sympathetic human drama that transformed Voices of a Distant Star into such a fan’s favourite. The story is not incomprehensible but relies too much on sheer visual impact, and while I admire Pale Cocoon for it’s philosophical pondering and sentimental environmentalism, I can’t say this is an OVA I will revisit on a regular basis.

Studio 4C’s Comedy – Medieval fable set in Ireland

Story so far
Set during Ireland’s War of Independence, a young Irish lass, besieged by the merciless English soldiers, seeks the help of a legendary swordsman who is rumoured to have supernatural powers.

My impressions
Studio 4C’s Comedy is a gripping 10 minute OAV from Kazuto Nakazawa; the main creative force behind Kill Bill’s ultra-violent anime sequence. This is a dark, gothic tale with no real historical significance, a vehicle for Nakazawa’s undoubted sense of style. His scratchy, sleek character designs are distinctive and attractive here, as is the hyper stylised violence. The compelling soundtrack is basically one song, but what a song; operatic classic Ave Maria.

It all adds up to be a really quite outstanding OAV, bleeding with moody landscapes and vivid characters no doubt inspired by an old European picture-book aesthetic. Comedy may only be 10 minutes long, but it works perfectly; both as a experiment in surreal atmospherics and an entertaining snapshot of Britain’s bloody history.

Kiba – 1 through 3 – Cliche shounen strikes again

Stating my desire for yet more shounen escapades, today I took in the first three episodes of Kiba.

Mediocre is the word that immediately comes to mind; neither bad nor outstanding, Kiba is a by the books fantasy adventure story packing just enough intrigue to maintain my interest from episode to episode. Disappointingly (especially considering the genre Kiba slots into) the monster-on-monster and light sabre-on-light sabre action is uninspired and lacking visual punch. The characters (including the cliche brooding lead, Zed) are mostly echoes of the established shounen stereotypes; important personalities include the humourless protagonist, gutsy female (potential love interest) and overly effeminate (probably gay) best friend.

You see I have this big list of complaints about Kiba, but I guess I have a weak spot for this kind of adventure story because despite all of these problems, I’m planning to continue watching- at least for another few episodes. The universe is well set up; a kind of edgy political\civilian rebellion appears to be brewing and Zed’s shrouded past is just that, shrouded and mysterious. The soundtrack is another big plus- the horrible music in Bleach pretty much killed whatever interest I had in that show, but Kiba sounds a lot more sophisticated and dramatic than it looks.

I guess you can call me a curious viewer for now, I see some promise in Kiba but it’s going to have to pull out some serious drama soon if I’m going to hang around for much longer. I was about this impressed with the first couple episodes of Full Metal Alchemist though, so there’s still some room here for Kiba improve.

Ergo Proxy – 5 – Revolution is in the air

We’ve had to sit through five episodes, but it’s only now starting to feel like Ergo Proxy is settling down into a proper flow of story-telling and I’m enjoying it a lot more; on a level beyond what previously amounted to a purely superficial attraction.

I suspect I preferred this episode to it’s predecessors because it’s basically set in the world outside of Romdeau. The character’s living in the wastelands are a lot more opinionated- and hence, interesting, and their indiscretions also add a neat sense of humour to an otherwise very serious narrative. Also, we are learning more about Proxy.

Inside Romdeau; Proxy is a villainous monster, but outside, he is the opposite; a fabled legend. Now I realize I’m jumping the gun on this next point, but I think it’s fair to assume that Vincent is indeed Proxy (who only emerges during times of great danger) and when the old man of the waste lands describes him as “Romdeau’s famous revolutionary”, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Vincent eventually leading a civilian uprising against the oppressive government of Romdeau. I’m still unsure about Lil’s place in all of this, though I doubt she will be fighting for the government for much longer; she doesn’t strike me as a particularly happy bunny in Romdeau and since she is presumably breaking the law by going outside of the city walls to bring back Vincent, I wonder whether even her powerfully connected grandfather will want her back?

Upon analyzing Ergo Proxy- the political commentary is particularly relevant to the viewer’s current social climate, though it’s neither forced nor particularly obvious. Episode 5 is full of good, solid story telling and ends poised on a knife edge- the robots of Romdeau have attacked the peasants, coldly killing a young boy in the process and Lil (escorting Vincent back to the city) ended up being attacked too. I’m looking forward to seeing where it all goes next; how the homeless vagrants react to this episode’s slaughter, whether or not Lil defects to the “terrorists” and if Vincent is indeed Proxy.

And I must add, I’m really loving the rousing opening sequence.

Early impressions of Ergo Proxy

As a means of grasping the story of Ergo Proxy, I decided to hold off on watching the first four episodes and marathoned my way through them earlier today; in terms of understanding the plot, I can’t say this approach ended up benefiting me. Ergo Proxy has a very fractured narrative flow, there are no handy sections of explanitory dialogue to be found here, and when something happens, it’s usually unexpected and bemusing. Basically, each episode is as weird as the last.

With that said, I can see myself really enjoying this show. As a science fiction fan I can’t help but fall in love with the premise; years into the future, humanity has been split into two distinct sections- the “priviledged few” live peacefully in an enclosed city where everything about their lives is monitored and controlled by the government, while outside the city there is nothing but a desolate wasteland; some people try to live out there though, because sometimes freedom is more important than having clean toilets. It’s an idea that breeds conspiracy, revolution and ultimately, the importance of being free.

The setting is wonderfully realised with snatches of dark post-apocalyptic animation (emphasis on dark) and a quick glace at the screencaps below will reveal that the character designs are about as stylish as they come. The heroine of Ergo Proxy; Lil, is as she looks, a strong-willed and firey female lead akin to Ghost in the Shell’s Kusangai. The other focus of the story seems to be Vincent- the man who makes the unenviable trip from utopian paradise to disease ridden hell hole.

At such an early stage, I’m hesistant to say whether or not Ergo Proxy is a clear winner, because although I really enjoyed the harsh nature of these early episodes, I wonder whether or not I’m simply over awed by the show’s more superficial elements. While it’s being directed in a fresh way, there is no denying that the plot is cliche science fiction and I’m struggling to empathise with any of the characters, but in terms of moody atmosphere, gothic charm and muddy sci-fi visuals Ergo Proxy has some interesting things to say, and as long as the character development steps up a gear, I can see myself becoming a real fan.

Yokohama Shopping Trip – 2

Despite clearly being the better of the original two Yokohama Shopping Trip OVAs, episode two serves up an unsettling mood of desolation and loneliness. During a five minute period in which Alpha simply brews a cup of coffee, there is no music, no dialogue, only the sounds of a creeky old house to keep her (and indeed, us) company. During this remarkably extended scene, outside the whispy white clouds shuffle and day becomes night- truely, I couldn’t tell whether Alpha was brewing her coffee for days rather than minutes, and with the way she seems to space out, I suspect that neither does she. This is perhaps the first solid piece of social commentary I’ve managed to construe from Yokohama Shopping Trip; I wonder if this scene is trying to convey the repetition of life- how we can happily stick to the same routines day in, day out irregardless of the time we waste doing so.

Aside from this period, most of episode 2 deals with Alpha learning to understand and express human emotion. It ends with a suitably attractive scene of Alpha and a friend looking out over the flooded cities of our present day, interestingly- the street lights still work, so when night approaches, the still rivers literally shine with a million neon lights. It’s a profound moment, subtely portraying the insignificant beauty of human life.