Jyu-Oh-Sei – 10 to 11 – Die, Die My Darling

By becoming the Jyu-Oh, Thor transcends the planet of Chimera in search of the bloody truth hidden beneath the bodies of his murdered parents; after years of waiting, he gets his answers, though it’s not the happy ending he had wished for, and with the thin veil of reality now utterly torn from his shattered grasp, he faces a hopeful future without heritage, without family.

I’m not sure what I expected from the finale of Jyu-Oh-Sei, but given the way this show has slowly fallen from grace, I suppose I was expecting to be under whelmed. That didn’t happen. Unlike other anime, Jyu-Oh-Sei is evidently unafraid of killing off its beloved cast of pretty men and sexy women; indeed, even I was shocked to see Third put a gun to his head and splatter suicide over a bunch of toothy plants.

The last episode was especially exciting and even shocking; as if Tiz romantically dying (for Zagi of all people!) wasn’t enough to throw me out of my comfort zone; I was just as shocked to see that Earth had been destroyed years previous by a giant asteroid. There are some nice concepts hidden within the bevy of bishounen fan-service, not least of all the idea of a planet defending itself against disaster.

As is the case with the rest of Jyu-Oh-Sei, the final curtain suffers from a pure and simple lack of characterization. Although I enjoyed this series, I couldn’t care less about Tiz or Third, and when they inevitably meet the grim reaper, my ambivalence was merely dulled by the fantastic animation; only now do I realize that honestly, I doubt I’ll watch Jyu-Oh-Sei again.

This was a series with such great potential, but its fractured time jumps and quick-fire melodramatic adventures appear to have robbed Jyu-Oh-Sei of any true compassion and impact. Rabid fan-girls should lap this up, but given the complexity of Chimera and the superlative animation from BONES, I can only mark down Jyu-Oh-Sei as superficial eye candy and ultimately, a missed opportunity.

Densha Otoko TV – If Looks Could Kill

Tsuyoshi Yamada is an otaku… a lonely otaku. He throws away his free time watching anime and surfing the net, dreaming of one day falling in love, but alas, he is merely an awkward, shy bloke who lives in his bedroom with nothing but dolls and figurines for company. One non-specific day, riding the train on his way back home, Yamada protects a beautiful woman (Saori Aoyama) from an abusive old drunk. Of all people, an otaku came to rescue of this damsel in distress. And so begins the romance of Densha Otoko (“Train Man”); advised by his message board buddies, the clumsy and unconfident Yamada (already in love with Saori) begins his quest for love.

Densha Otoko has been a phenomenal success in Japan; based loosely on a true-story of one otaku’s discovery of romance, it is a franchise that began life on an internet message board but went on to spawn a live-action TV series, a live-action movie and a manga series too. The subject of this review, the TV series, is quite fantastic- although some of the acting is atrocious (Mistake Itou’s Saori is as wooden and clueless a female lead as I have seen for a while), a lot of Densha Otoko is inspiring and touching; it gets right to the heart of a lonely otaku, chronicles his every fear of love and rejection, without degrading him as stupid or pitiful.

It’s an innovative story in the way that it depicts the internet; Densha often turns to an anime-themed message board in search of advice and we are regularly shown the people who respond, people from every profession, every walk of life, who are supporting, and are in turn being inspired by, Densha’s search for love. It’s the first time I’ve seen the internet depicted on such a human level.

This is a funny and touching story exploding with heart warming sentiment; an almost too-close-to-the-bone examination of otaku culture, Densha Otoko is an ultra modern romantic fairy tale.

Black Lagoon – 9 – T:1000, unstoppable maid edition

“You should have paid more attention to Rock’s joke, Benny-Boy.” Quips Dutch, a sweating shadow of his composed former self, having just seconds before been subjected to the vicious blood lust (and impossibly strong arms) of an ass-kicking maid from hell. “Imagine her as an invincible killer robot.”

The set up for this story arc is so simple and yet it works so well. Not since Spike crossed guns with Pierre Le Fou or Rock Lee went kung-fu on Gaara have I been so viscerally thrilled by an episode of anime. The fluidity of movement, the sense of an unstoppable power being unleashed, it’s all here, taken to school with a pumping electronic soundtrack, achingly cool aesthetics and the sheer absurdity of what is rapidly exploding infront of us.

This is all such a great fun because of the realistic ways in which the character’s react to their increasingly insane situations- it’s easy to see that Dutch and his crew are genuinely disturbed by the cute T-1000 (and her massive knife) chasing their moving car down the street, and as a viewer, this powerfully conveys the intense danger in which they find themselves.

Black Lagoon 9 is a jolting visceral experience, the kind of quirky action-packed genius Tarrentino would die to replicate, and as hard as I’ve tried, you can’t do justice to such a buzzing spectacle with mere words alone.

Tsutomu Nihei’s Abara – Moody, violent and atmospheric science fiction

In a dilapidated dystopian hell hole, gruesome mutants stalk the shadows of a hulking city, jumping from building to building, murdering and feeding on humans by the dozen. Amidst the hopeless terror of life in Abara, one man dares to avenge the weak.

Abara is one of Tsutomu Nihei’s newest stories; famed for his downcast, vast science fiction series Blame!, Nihei is a manga-ka with exceptional drawing talent. Although his gothic style won’t be for everyone, I don’t think I’ve ever read a manga series that even comes close to replicating his eye for vast, sky scrapping architecture and nightmarish science fiction. Nihei’s work isn’t particularly notable for its empathic characters or moving drama, but he clearly and enthusiastically expresses himself though the endless, gigantic artificial landscapes, in which his characters live, breathe and murder. The reader is soon immersed and gasping for breath in a claustrophobic world over flowing with terrifying monsters and endless levels of metallic, soulless rooms.

Of the three chapters I’ve read so far, Abara is shaping up nicely but perhaps retredding old ground for Nihei. Humans and technology have again collided in Abara, and again this gives rise to some gruesome, blood-thirsty villains. Between your cliche warring government factions (police versus the “special ops”) and uncensored human slaughter, the hero of Abara is a silent assassin, uttering no more than a few grunts before violently driving his ugly adversaries through high buildings and rooftops.

The artwork is, as you would expect from Nihei, the real selling point. Abara is not set in a sky less complex like Blame!, but its world is just as dirty, sprawling and artificial. The character designs are all unique and often capture a gruesome blend of twisted flesh and dark, bone-crunching technology.

The first three chapters of Abara are moody, violent and atmospheric, leaving little room for those weak of heart.

Jyu-Oh-Sei – 7 to 9 – Blinded from the truth

It’s taken a while, but I’m finally starting to twig that Jyu-Oh-Sei has an absolutely stellar voice cast. Young Thor was played by Minami Takayama, whose best work comes in the form of the insane, eccentric Dilandau of Escaflowne. Thor’s love interest Karin is handled by none other than Romi Paku- in other words, the show stealing voice of Edward Elric from Full Metal Alchemist, and even the heartless Zagi is brought to life by a household name; Kazuya Nakai- the brooding, strong presence behind the likes of Roronoa Zoro (One Piece) and Karasu (Noein). It’s the kind of ensemble cast stitched together only by the deep pockets of Hollywood, so for once, it’s nice to see an anime series with such a well matched, proven acting pedigree.

We’re now almost at the end of Jyu-Oh-Sei and for what it’s worth, I’ve really enjoyed it so far, even if it does feel like a guilty pleasure. There is something about it that is shallow and nonsensical; it’s probably Thor- I just can’t buy him as the “Jyu-Oh”, he doesn’t look tough, he is too trusting and appears to lack the commanding charisma needed to become a true leader. Zagi was a much more interesting personality (strong yet conflicted, passionate yet cold) but having just watched episode 9, I guess that’s him on the sidelines now. I’m getting bored of Third’s antics too, is it supposed to be obvious that he killed Karin? Third’s dark intentions have been clear since the first episode, so why bother with the mystery. A lot of Jyu-Oh-Sei is quite predictable and without the added depth of a few more character-driven episodes, the drama is always struggling against falling completely flat.

Along with the consistently attractive animation, Hajime Mizoguchi’s soundtrack is perhaps the reason why I enjoy watching each and every episode. I was a big fan of the compelling industrial, electronic ambience he contributed to Texhnolyze and here his music is just as immersive; driving the drama forward with heartful acoustics and overflowing strings.

Summer season preview: the good, the wet and the moe

Bokura ga Ita – Artland – Love-Romance, School Life

Artland were behind Mushishi. Mushishi is a masterpiece. If Artland can maintain these standards within the “slice of life” genre, we may just have a show to equal the melancholy, inspiring brilliance of Honey & Clover and the heart wrenching drama of Fruits Basket.

Kemono Zume – Madhouse Production – Fantasy, Love-Romance

The production art is so vivid, grotesque and weird. Madhouse specializes in creating sophisticated and compelling anime for adults (Black Lagoon, Monster and Paranoia Agent). Kemono Zume should be great.

Project Blue Earth SOS – Studio A.C.G.T.- Adventure, Science Fiction

The artwork is colourful, but the real reason Project Blue Earth SOS made the elite category is because it’s directed by the great Tensai Okamura. Mr. Okamura was the main creative driving force (director, screenplay, and storyboard) behind the tragic apocalyptic drama Wolf’s Rain and was also heavily involved in Cowboy Bebop, Neon Genesis Evangelion and RahXephon. The guy is basically a genius and if on form, Project Blue Earth SOS should be another classic anime series to add to his CV.

FLAG – Sunrise – Mecha

The artwork looks mature and sophisticated, the story sounds compelling but it’s Sunrise so I’m hesitant to really get behind FLAG, lest it turns out to be another merchandise driven mecha show that has everything but that most vital of ingredients, a soul of a story teller.

Honey & Clover II – J.C.STAFF – Drama, Love-Romance

I loved Honey & Clover; it really was one of the shining lights of last year and all this despite being yet another cutesy high-school drama. Now we have another 12 episodes to enjoy, but I was bothered by J.C.STAFF switching the director and now paranoid of a total shift in tone, I’m probably worried about nothing though; Honey & Clover II is surely the most anticipated new series this year and I hope it pulls through.

Le Chevalier D`Eon – Production I.G – Fantasy, Historical Settings

Looks dark and dramatic, but Production I.G. let me down with Blood+ and now I’m not sure what to think. Apparently about a cross dressing French revolutionary, so possibly one for the yuri fans too.

Coyote Ragtime Show – ufotable \ Kusanagi – Sci-Fi, Action

Oh, dear. Ripping a page from GunXSword’s book of generic Western appeal, this looks plastic and commercial. The animation is strikingly fluid and obviously expensive, but ultimately the trailer is clearly trying to pander to Western anime fans. Maids with guns though, for those of you who are “into” that.

Taiyo no Mokushiroku / A Spirit of the Sun – Drama

Japan has been cut to shreds by a series of devastating earthquakes and volcanoes and amidst the tragedy a young boy’s boundless optimism inspires those around him. Sounds cool, sounds though-provoking and the promo art looks wonderfully gritty and influential. “Above the clouds and ash, the sun still shines and the sky is still blue.”

NHK ni Youkoso! – Gonzo – Comedy, Novel

Like Genshiken, this is an anime series about anime fans. However, unlike Genshiken, it has a “moe” poster girl and appears to lack the ugly yet compelling insight into fandom that Genshiken so excelled in. It’s bound to inspire moe fans, but I’m not one, so I’m sceptical. Expect a religion to be formed around this series almost over-night, while many others scratch their heads wondering why.

Mardock Scramble – Gonzo

Since Last Exile, Range Murata has become quite possibly the hottest character designer in Japan. Mardock Scramble again sees him teamed up with Gonzo and provided the Gonzo behind Gankutsuou and the aforementioned van-ship epic turn up, this could well be another amazing series. Mardock Scramble looks like the finest realization of Murata’s stylish art yet.

Black Lagoon – 8 – Best.maid.ever

I write this post in lieu of discovering that Black Lagoon, surely the best anime airing in Japan at the moment, will only last a measly 12 episodes, and although I have heard rumblings that it should be continued in OVA form (no doubt adapting as yet unwritten manga chapters), 12 damn episodes just isn’t enough for a series as outright fun and exciting as Black Lagoon.

Now with that emotional outburst cleared from my system, it is with a reluctant joy that I can say that episode 8 is possibly the best yet. In terms of sheer climatic build up, the last 12 minutes were close to perfection. We’ve already had the absurdity of nuns with guns, so it seems worryingly natural that the newest character would be a military-trained South American house maid. It’s the way this character is introduced; the music is ripped straight from The Godfather as this cute-looking killer wanders from person to person, innocently inquiring about where to find the local Columbian mafia. Her young master narrates her journey, slowly building the powerful aura surrounding her and then you have the sunglasses, such a fucking cool look.

All this and we’ve yet to even see her in action. Just as she shoots her umbrella, the ending theme seeps in and that’s it. More next week. It’s one big tease, but damn, it’s really something.

One Piece – Pacifism and crocodiles don’t mix

Having marched across endless miles of desolate landscapes and lifeless desert, Luffy finally snaps at Vivi and in his own unique way, lets her know a few important home truths; while admirable, her selfless pacifism can not save lives. Villains like Crocodile care not for reason and act not out of compassion, but rather their own greedy ambition. Nothing Vivi can say will stop him from trying to destroy her kingdom and take Alabasta as his own paradise, so it’s down to the likes of Luffy to fight the good fight and Vivi to rely on her nakama. She alone cannot save her country.

It’s great how Luffy explains all of this and he takes quite a beating from the Princess in the process. I love how characters like Luffy and Naruto, who act like such mindless idiots most of the time, can flick a switch and suddenly embody such wise and intelligent philosophy.

A clear direction for the Alabasta arc is now firmly set; Luffy is to hunt down Crocodile and I assume Princess Vivi will continue on to meet with the rebel army in the hope of talking them down from going to all out war (I wait in anticipation of her inevitably draining reunion with childhood friend turned influential rebel Leader). At this point One Piece is a truly country-spanning adventure of vast and epic proportions. Between such massive distance, thought provoking politics and compelling drama, I find myself relishing each and every episode.

Dr Who inspired by Naruto, eh?

Now this is something quite bizarre but looking at the evidence (images above), a recent villain from (the staple of UK sci-fi) Dr Who could well have been inspired by Sasuke’s (from Naruto) “cursed seal” form.

It’s easy to dismiss this all as a mere coincidence, but you should note the red eyes (mirroring Sasuke’s sharingan) and the fact that both characters breathe fire, and we may just have a case here! It’s just cool to think that the writers at the BBC are watching Naruto, I wonder what they think of the Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya?

Thanks to Necromancer for the Dr. Who screen cap and Animated FatCat for fighting his case!

Naruto – 188 – Fear the piranhas of death

As much as I want to be surprised by these Naruto episodes, as much as I want to watch some gripping drama, desperate sacrifices and shocking deaths, it’s not going to happen. I know that, you know that. To complain any more would be a waste of time.

With your expectations so low, it is possible to still enjoy Naruto. This episode is a good example of how such a colourful, varied world and exciting premise can just about carry what amounts to a bunch of wafer-thin cardboard characters. The essence of what makes this such a fun series is still alive and kicking; the ninja. And try as they might, Studio Pierrot can’t make ninja boring.

Revenge, honour, tactics and technique are all brought into this story arc and while I’m hesitant to outright praise this ultimately generic effort (the disguised male peddler is actually a beautiful princess, didn’t ya know?), I will always enjoy watching supernatural ninja pound the crap out of each other. There is something so fun about Naruto getting trapped in a sphere of floating water infested with flesh-eating piranhas! Coolest-technique-ever!

I wouldn’t recommend watching these episodes one after the other (such superficial enjoyment barely stretches 22 minutes), but it’s a fun way to while away a hot, lazy June afternoon.

Black Lagoon – 7 – Personality clash

The ticking time bomb of Revy’s personality finally explodes in the face of Rock, though gratefully he also snaps back and unfurls a passionate rant all of his own. It’s easy to imagine Rock being your typical male doormat, but here he stands up for himself and proves he too has an unbreakable steely quality beneath his tentative nature.

Revy, who often uses Rock’s middle-class background as a reason to insult him, is firmly put in her place and suddenly they have a new-found respect for one another. Rock has proven to Revy that he is willing to risk it all for the Lagoon, even if it took a black-eye and a gun to the head.

Amidst all this, there is treasure chest of absurd humour and quirky gimmicks to found in a wily mob of arms-dealing, drugs-smuggling nuns; all headed up by a sweet old lady with a specific taste for quality tea. I love how Black Lagoon is set in such a dead-pan and colourful paradise for unconventional criminals of all shapes, scars and sizes!

Black Lagoon – 5 to 6 – Nonchalant massacre of Neo-Nazis

It’s clear by now that Black Lagoon will be Rock and Revy’s show; the action scenes in these episodes are as expected absolutely kick ass, though the majority of what Black Lagoon is driving at is Revy’s humanity (or lack there of). Having slaughtered dozens of Neo-Nazi bastards, she nonchalantly explains to Dutch that she can no longer work with Rock.

Revy’s super human killing instinct is borne from an absolute disdain for life (including her own); she can kill so many people because to her they are nothing. However since Rock turned up and started questioning her brutal ways, Revy has started doubting herself too, and it’s that split second of hesitation that can cost her life. Assassins can’t afford to have morals.

On a totally superficial level, it was great to see Dutch kicking some Nazi ass too; he is the cold, calculated hit man to Revy’s indiscriminate kill-everything-that-moves motto of death. The inevitable Nazi showdown was edgy in how it soundlessly depicted Revy just walking from room to room, shooting men by the dozen. There is such an exhilarating discard for life during these moments that you can’t help but love it.

Mushishi – 21 – Animalistic tragedy

Since the last few episodes of Mushishi left us in upbeat and melancholy moods, this was a timely reminder as to just how heartless a series it can be. I don’t mean heartless in a sadistic sense, rather how a mushi can cause such great tragedy to a couple of people who are quite clearly already at their lowest ebbs.

On its own child birth is hardly a pleasant spectacle, but to give birth to a glob of green goo would be utterly horrifying. Mushishi is filled with this kind of grotesque horror, but within the context of each episode (and as it is here) it’s usually a tragic, sad sight.

In many episodes previous we have seen that Ginko has an underlying passion for his patients; those usually stricken with life-threatening mushi, but here he is almost too clinical. When he tells a couple of budding parents that they will have to murder their mushi-infected kids, you can’t help but feel sorry for them, but Ginko comes across as a bit too detached from their peril and it’s no wonder that he ends up getting stabbed by “their” desperate mother.

Episode 21 of Mushishi is a sad, cautionary tale though this time there is no strong underlying moral. Instead we are again shown the darker side of Ginko’s travels and meet a animalistic mushi that will do anything to survive.

The Third – 1 to 3 – Far-reaching Fantasy

I’m not usually one to bother with such knowingly cute anime, but for whatever reason, I today found myself taking in the first three episodes of The Third. Of course, it turned out to be (much) better than expected.

In a world torn apart by war, our saviour would appear to be a talented young swords-woman called Honoka. There is nothing new to her personality that we haven’t seen before in countless other shows; she is an emotionally underdeveloped, uptight tomboy who is more befuddled by her emerging romantic feelings than the ugly hordes of giant insects it is her job to exterminate. Honoka makes for a likable lead character, who for all her fearsome sword wielding skills, is actually as unsure and vulnerable as any 17 year old girl. She also shares a fun relationship with her tank- yes; Honoka has a talking, thinking and sarcastic tank.

If I’m honest there is very little true originality to be found in The Third; it is simply teenaged pop-corn entertainment, highly polished yet set in a complex world of environmental devastation and social upheaval. The Third themselves are a race of people similar to what The Guild are to Last Exile; an over-looking and technologically advanced branch of man (or possibly aliens, we don’t know much about them yet) who appear beautiful and want to control everything and anything.

It’s the setting that engrosses me in this series; it is interesting and mysterious, dotted with just enough minor detail to really capture my imagination. It helps that it looks great too. The animation by Xebec shows some fierce potential for action and has some beautiful, nostalgic star gazing. The landscapes- the majority of which are parched deserts- are vast, desolate and dangerous; often teaming with giant ants and disgusting spiders.

For pure escapist entertainment, The Third was a pleasant surprise. It won’t impress those looking for sophistication, but its combination of attractive characters and far-reaching fantasy is nothing less than fun.

Ergo Proxy – 9 & 10 – Behemoth of confusion

Science fiction and confusion often go hand in hand, but Ergo Proxy is close to reaching the kinds of befuddling heights scaled only by behemoths like Mamoru Oshii. The dialogue, the action and even the damn visuals are so frustratingly cryptic and symbolic that only vaguely am I able to follow what is going on here – not that this is a bad thing, though certainly the viewer should be in the right (preferably coffee induced) frame of mind to get the most out of Ergo Proxy; just don’t expect answers, only more questions.

My real concern (no pun intended) is that this series severely lacks in compelling human qualities; the similarly bleak cyberpunk thriller Texhnolyze was hardly easy to follow, but at least it introduced us to a cast of interesting, dramatic human characters. Ergo Proxy has Real and that’s it- her predictable resurrection from murder is a godsend in that she is the only character in this show that I can empathise with, the rest are emotionless shells; proxies for Dai Sato’s high brow musings.

The truly great aspect of Ergo Proxy is its dark dystopian vision and pondering philosophy; I can see myself enjoying it much more once a few of the big questions have been answered and I’m able to just sit back and let the atmosphere wash over me. I love that this series has vastly decaying landscapes, a sophisticated and mature theme with proper adult characters and a really unique animation style that takes on bizarre, exciting feats of physical action when Proxies clash heads.

Naruto – 187 – Taste the Flower Ninpo

The problem with these Naruto fillers is that while they are not particularly good, they are not particularly bad either – they are just by-the-books action adventure. Over this past year Studio Pierrot have become the masters of just filling 22 minutes with the most inoffensive, straight forward ninja action you are ever likely to see.

This week’s instalment again sees us repeat that same old formula; Tsunade makes her token office appearance and jokingly briefs Naruto and his random team of the month (Hinata and Chouji) on another mission to do with protecting a bunch of weak villagers who find themselves under the thumb of a group of classic cliche villains. Naturally Naruto gets to do his Shadow Clone thing. It’s like being stuck in a time warp, repeating the same mission again and again; may be I’m trapped inside someone’s sadistic Mangekyou Sharingan?

As ever, episode 187 was a fun way to spend 22 minutes and the action regained the series’ trademark of slick fluidity and cutting motion but still, the complete lack of story progression and character development is hurting me something chronic. I hope and pray that Naruto is too good to rely on this overly familiar, mind numbing formula for too much longer.