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.