Mahou Shoujotai – Magical girl anime done good

Having stumbled across the passionate rants and pretty pictures over at the Star Crossed anime blog, I decided I’d take a chance on a magical girl anime called Mahou Shoujotai (also known as Tweeny Witches or Magic-Girl Squad – Alice).

Up until checking out Mahou Shoujotai, my only other experiences of the traditional magical girl anime had been Pretear (surprisingly watchable, if ever so gay) and Sailor Moon (something about a doom tree; I couldn’t get past two episodes without falling into the clutches of apathetic depression).

Despite my concerns that with this being a kid’s anime and all it would be laying on the morals a little thick, it turns out that Mahou Shoujotai is an enchanting fantasy adventure, conjuring up such an inventive, colourful feeling of excitement without ever pandering to the imposed squeaky clean innocence of Western children’s cartoons. Sometimes dark, but always fun and passionate, Mahou Shoujotai never loses its attractive sense of humour amidst a punky visual style and overwhelming fantastical adventure.

The story is- just like Alice in Wonderland- about a girl (called Alice, actually) who somehow falls into a world of magic where witches and warlocks are apparently at war. This is merely the beginning of the story (I’ve only seen up to episode 16 myself) but Alice’s journey, amidst much broom flying, odd creatures and magic spells- is an emotional rollercoaster of forming friendships and dealing with the reality of broken homes.

One of my favourite anime houses Studio 4°C is the primary driving force behind the look and feel of Mahou Shoujotai and their crazy, experimental style works perfectly within the boundless confines of Alice’s strange new world; truly everything looks weird and colourful and fun in ways rarely seen outside of anime produced by Studio Ghibli. It’s rare to find a children’s anime that evokes such a free wheeling, awe inspiring sense of adventure and fun. Mahou Shoujotai is magical in every way.

Black Lagoon – 10 – The unstoppable chambermaid

There are many ways to settle a score and none better than an old fashioned dust up; I think this qualifies as the first time I’ve ever seen two women literally beat the shit out of each other with their bare knuckles. None of this pulling hair and scratching with their nails nonsense; if Black Lagoon is going to have a face-off between the two toughest women in the world, you better expect more than a few pinches.

So episode 10 marks the end of the “Unstoppable Maid” arc; emotionally it added nothing to the series, but I’ll be damned if I come across another couple of anime episodes this year that look as red hot as this was. While firmly tongue in cheek and more than willing to poke fun at its own absurdity, I love that knowing wink Black Lagoon makes at the viewer. That and the slick homages to any number of classic Hollywood pop-corn movies- this time Terminator 2 being the obvious influence behind Ms. Roberta and her unstoppable quest.

Usually I can’t stand girls-with-guns anime, but Black Lagoon ditches any hint of dainty beauty and replaces it with a big fat “fuck you!”

Welcome to the NHK! – 2 – Crazy-otaku neighbour to the rescue

Sato meets with young Misaki to talk about her “how to take the hikomori out of Sato” project. Though with his trademark destructive hiko-nature, Sato immediately tries to deny his shut-in ways by proving to Misaki that he does have a part to play in society after all. In embarking on this mission, he ends up getting involved with his crazy-otaku neighbour and by the end of the episode; they are planning on developing, as a means of doing something (anything) with their lives, their very own porn game… It’s a start, I guess?!?

Despite lacking in the more surreal, vivid moments that so punctuated the first episode, NHK – 2 was still an impressive follow up with just enough self depreciating wicked humour and melancholy reflection on (missing) life to be entertaining without crossing the line into out right depressing. Sato has chosen the wrong neighbour to work with though- after all if you are looking for a helping hand in life, the last person you need advise from is a perverted otaku; I wonder if he has an anime blog?!

The rocky soundtrack is still one of my favourite aspects of this show. The opening five minutes were great just because they are backed by this acoustic band music- such refined sounds can add so much more impact to a scene and NHK! has got this important balance between emotional, sad and crazy music spot on.

The Alabasta Arc of One Piece

The Alabasta Arc of One Piece sees this fine series at the top of its game, juggling dynamic character drama, explosive political upheaval and some eccentric body twisting action. Despite falling into a few classic Shounen Jump cliches (not least of all a super villain in Crocodile who unwittingly reveals his devious plans to his then captured arch enemies) the sheer scale of the Alabasta rebellion unfolding before my eyes was a spine tingling, gut wrenching sight to behold.

There was a lot that I came to love about Alabasta; from the endless sand dunes of its harsh deserts to its mythological architecture. The final battle set in Alubarna combined this giant, compelling feeling of a country at war with such a beautiful collection of rocky, warm and timeless landscapes. The animation- and particularly Luffy’s final battle with Crocodile was earth shatteringly fluid, completely encapsulating a Devil’s Fruit battle with its gravity defying, unnatural sense of power and movement.

Ultimately though, it’s the characters that really made this arc. Be it through Pell’s heroic sacrifice or Vivi’s painful cries for peace, I often felt completely immersed in it all. The tragedy, the philosophy and essentially, the friendship that wins out in the end was touching and heavily emotional.

Neon Genesis Evangelion – Why is it classic anime?

Neon Genesis Evangelion is considered by many critics to be a “classic” anime series. Loved and loathed in equal measure, its polarising reputation for invoking a distinct reaction from its viewers endures (inside and outside fandom) even today- an impressive feat being as it is a decade on from its Japanese TV debut. But what defines “classic” anime? Why is Evangelion still as relevant today as it was back in 1995?

“Classic” art direction

Art direction and animation fluidity are two separate entities. Neon Genesis Evangelion never had a huge animation budget, but its unique visual style still strikes a profound chord with its viewers. Unique and iconic, the colour scheme is exciting and suits the raging mood perfectly, strange bio-mecha designs and (if albeit redundant) religious symbolism top off a visceral presentation that instantly burns itself into memory.

Emotive characterization, world-wide accessibility and relevance

People either empathise with or passionately denounce Evangelion’s main character, Shinji Ikari. He is the ultimate “average” kid from a broken home, frustratingly shy and painfully reluctant. He isn’t a hero, just an awkward geek. The other characters are all breaking down in their own personal ways; Asuka’s fear of rejection and Misato’s desperate loneliness. These are close to the bone universal human emotions, characterised in realistic, painful circumstances and directed with an almost sadistic lack of warmth, relevant to every generation.

Sophisticated, controversial story teller

Under a slicker director, Evangelion would be another RahXephon; efficient, exciting and romantic but ultimately lacking any true sparks of originality. Hideaki Anno put his heart and soul into these characters and placed them within the confines of a mysterious plot to end the world, refusing to compromise on showing the unpredictable uglier sides of human nature. We’ve all been unhappy with ourselves or others at some point in our lives and what if at this exact moment, you were given the chance to save the world. Would it be “OK! Let’s do it!” or “Why me? Feck off!”.

Conclusion

Although I don’t consider Neon Genesis Evangelion a personal favourite, I accept it as a classic anime series. It took the formulaic mecha genre and transformed itself into an extremely potent mix of visceral art, controversial drama and symbolic science fiction. From what I’ve learnt, a “classic” movie or TV series is defined by global accessibility, (current) relevance and sheer impact; Evangelion is as popular today as it was 11 years ago.

Mushishi – 23 – The Sound of Rust

In a village where humans are literally rusting away and being physically covered in (ever worsening) scabby brown marks, only this one girl (Shigure) appears to be immune from the disease. The bitter villagers blame Shigure for their ill-health, curse her existence and treat her as an outcast, and for her part, racked with the guilt of causing such misery, Shigure stopped speaking (to anyone) years ago. As ever, it’s down to Ginko to get the bottom of the mystery of the “Sound of Rust”.

Despite being a relatively straight forward episode by Mushishi’s standards, I still enjoyed the Sound of Rust for its typically emotive human drama. I liked how despite living years of her life in the shadows, ridiculed and insulted, Shigure wants for nothing but to attone for her vindictive neighbours suffering, granting them happiness and peace. It’s often the people who are constantly savaged by such strong hatred that turn out to be the thoroughly good hearted ones. I suppose when you have nothing left to lose, you have nothing left to cry about either.

Sound (as the title of this episode suggests) plays a big part here and Shigure’s voice; or more specifically- her multilayered scream, is suitably creepy and disquieting. Given this spooky sensation, the ending is almost too happy to believe; everything turns out okay (even the villagers are cured) and frankly I’m shocked by just how positively down-the-middle Ginko fixes it all. A refreshing change to get a traditional Hollywood ending for once! Unpredictable as ever, Mushishi.

The most influential people in your anime fandom

The ever reliable ICv2 recently posted up a list of the “ten most powerful people in the North American anime industry“. The run down makes for interesting (if a little predictable) reading and sitting at the top is Gonzo’s bestest buddy Gen Fukunaga (of FUNimation), who managed to visciously kill off any competition with his company’s swelling ranks of mediocre action anime to become “the one” (or should I say, Jyu-Oh).

This got me thinking about the people who have had the most influence on my development as an anime fan, or more specifically; which sick bastards transformed me into the hardened anime junkie I am today?

The list of shame

4. Yoko Kanno – Cowboy Bebop

Soundtracks play a great part in my love of anime and no one does it better than Yoko Kanno. I first heard her work in Cowboy Bebop and have since been totally and utterly defeated by her varied tunage and heart wrenching, nostalgic stylings.

3. Chika Umino – Honey & Clover

At a time when I was feeling seriously jaded about anime (I couldn’t even make it through the first 3 minutes of Gonzo’s Black Cat), along came a funny slice of life series called Honey & Clover that completely refreshed my enthusiasm for the genre. This was a geniuenly funny, life affirming drama with colorful, original animation and a wonderful soundtrack to boot. Chika Umino wrote this story, so deserves credit first and foremost, but irregardless of that, everything about Honey & Clover is brilliant.

2. Kentarou Miura – Berserk

Berserk was the first anime I fell head over heels in love with and Kentarou Miura is the genius behind it all. In combining though-provoking philosophy with an extremely violent, complex cast of characters, Miura will forever be the brilliant mind behind my favourite anime of all time.

1. Masashi Kishimoto – Naruto / Shonen Jump

Although it is with something of a guity conscience, I simply wouldn’t be watching anime today if it wasn’t for Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto. This was the first ever fansubbed series I got my mits on and to this very day I still remember the nerve-wracking, sweat-inducing climax of the Zabuza story arc. After sitting through around 50 episodes of Naruto, I realised I had to check out more anime. And furthermore, I realized subtitles should always be the way to go with foreign film and TV.

Welcome to the NHK! – 1 – Salvation lies within

I admit I was initially turned off by the pretty poster girl heavily pasted all over the promo art (much like Black Lagoon) and yet still, my interest in NHK has rapidly grown over the last 4-5 weeks. Being an anime fan it’s always fun seeing otaku culture lampooned by the big screen; but unlike say Genshiken or Densha Otoko where the so-called geeks actually come off as sub-urban heroes, the acclaimed NHK was said to depict a more detestable, depressing side of otaku life.

NHK goes beyond simply ripping it out of otaku though; I’d go so far to say that the main character (Tatsuhiro Sato) has a mental illness. Paranoid, unconfident, afraid, lazy, whatever; Tatsuhiro (young 20s, I guess) is an anime fan who never leaves his apartment – the Japanese word for this kind of person is ‘hikomori’. Basically he has spent the last few years doing nothing but watching anime, smoking and wanking, and until now, he has been too scared to even talk to his neighbours.

I see great potential in NHK; the soundtrack is outstanding, running non-stop through-out the first episode and featuring a wide selection of rocky and indie tunes. The animation and general mood is really damn surreal; being as he is isolated from society, Tatsuhiro spends a lot of his time sleeping and day dreaming. The viewer regularly slips in and out of his sometimes fun and exciting, sometimes leery fantasies, and it quickly becomes obvious that here is a boy entrenched firmly within his escapist hobbies.

The characterisation is vivid and pulls no punches, and yet Tatsuhiro comes off as neither a good nor bad person, rather just a completely flawed, worryingly paranoid young man in serious need of help. We can laugh at him floundering through conversations, but there is also a twinge of sympathy in there too. I believe (or is it that I hope?) that he can be saved, and feel strongly compelled to watch more.

Coyote Ragtime Show: Superficial entertainment primed for mass consumption

Coyote Ragtime Show is everything I expected it to be. This first episode is generic, “cute” and painfully uninspiring. I’m sick of seeing cute girls dressed up in colourful, frilly dresses jumping around wielding impossible strength. It’s so formulaic, cold and calculated; you can imagine the money men sitting around in their leather boardrooms, smoking cigars and laughing their asses off, after all, their global formula is so simple even an idiot could work it out.

If you enjoyed Gun X Sword, no doubt you’ll enjoy Coyote Ragtime Show. Fans of camp anime like Kiddy Grade, Burst Angel and even Madlax, this show is aimed at you. There is fun to be had, but honestly, I’ve already seen this anime 5 or 6 times and no longer do I have will the will to sit through such emotionally bereft, superficial entertainment. One for the masses, please enjoy your BigMac with extra helpings of killer-maid-lolis. Yawn.

Rurouni Kenshin: Trust & Betrayal – Jaded no more

I was suffering from anime burnout earlier this evening and rather than try to watch something new (and inevitably hate it with this jaded perspective), I decided I’d dip back into my ever-growing DVD collection, pull out a classic I knew I’d love and rediscover my passion for anime.

Rurouni Kenshin: Trust & Betrayal is a series of dark prequel OVAs set before the events of the TV series. It’s a story concerning the bloody history of Himura Kenshin and reveals the mystery behind his iconic cross-shaped facial scar.

There are many, many reasons why I love these OVAs. Being a fan of the original Rurouni Kenshin TV series it is like a dream come true to see the series depicted in such a serious, dramatic way. Gone is the slightly uncomfortable slapstick comedy, replaced with horrific violence and a sombre mood. I always enjoyed how Rurouni Kenshin would regularly reference Japanese history and legend (I’ve learnt so much about Japan thanks to anime) and the narrative backdrop for these OVAs is based on true events; the Japanese revolution of the Edo period (around 1866 to 1869) in which the Tokugawa shogunate is eventually overthrown. We get to see legendary (real life) personalities like the Shinsengumi’s feared captain Hajime Saitō in action fighting Kenshin. Their climatic meeting in Trust & Betrayal is a great moment for both fans of the TV series and history buffs a like.

The action, which purely consists of lighting fast, utterly brutal sword and ninja fights showcases some of the finest samurai choreography ever animated. Watching Kenshin taken down warrior after warrior is an absolutely stunning and harsh spectacle, an utterly visceral, backs against the wall feeling.

Of course this would all mean nothing if Trust & Betrayal had little of real value to say but thankfully, this is far more than simply fan service for pre-existing fans of the TV series. The story is self-contained and features an absolutely gripping love story; driven by a tragic romance, set against a world-changing revolution and animated with visceral brilliance, these 4 OVAs are rightly considered landmark productions and taken as a whole, are up there amongst my favourite anime of all time.

Mushishi – 22 – The essence of individuality

By following the mysterious legend of the Uminaoshi, Ginko finds himself on a secluded island. Here it is said that when people die, if they so wish it, they can be born again; in a certain part of the sea, where the light shines even at night, the Uminaoshi mushi lives.

What in essence defines the individuality of a person? Are we all destined to become the people we are today, or are our personalities shaped over time, chiselled and refined by life experience? In a fantasy world where the basic building blocks of life can be reincarnated- a dying mother is reborn within her young daughter- the characters of episode 22 are forced to ask themselves these questions. The resolution, at least as far as our protagonists are concerned, is that individuality is as much defined by memory as by sheer physicality, and hence a young woman eventually sees her offspring not as a living, breathing avatar of her dead mother, but as her true child.

Just like episode 21, the new OVA format of Mushishi appears to mean that the animation has gone up a notch, adding an even finer detail to an already magnificent production. The blood-red sunset shading and sombre colour scheme are wonderfully moody, and the new found rapid fluidity of movement generates an extra sense of electric excitement when the episode climax hits its supernatural crescendo.

Soundtracks that stand alone

Great music and great anime usually go hand in hand, but the sign of a great song is that anyone can enjoy it, irregardless of their love (or lack there of) for anime. I remember thoroughly enjoying the music used in Honey & Clover, but on its own it is a disappointing, minimal experience I often compare with the dull instrumentation of easy listening elevator tunes. Within the context of falling in love with the Honey & Clover anime, I imagined this soundtrack would mean so much more to me.

From back to front, there are few anime soundtracks that truly transcend the chains of being locked to their respective TV series. Without stating the obvious example of Mistress Yoko Kanno, I genuinely feel Toshio Masuda’s ethereal Mushishi score is a consistently lush and driving musical master class. I can play these songs at home, in the office at work and even to my damn family- everyone (relative to their undeniably bad taste) will love it.

Of course, as is their nature, soundtracks aren’t designed to be stand alone albums anyway but it’s certainly a bonus to know that in sixth months, hell…, six years down the line, I can still enjoy listening to some of this music without having to revisit the TV series first.

First look at: Legend of the Galactic Heroes

In a universe far, far away from Earth, an intergalactic war between two political systems has enveloped its peoples for centuries. The Free Planets Alliance (democratic) and the Galactic Empire (imperial) regularly clash in battles that claim millions of victims.
Leading the Galactic Empire ever onwards is Reinhard von Lohengramm, a relatively young admiral (20 years old) who has the brilliance and charisma of an experience war veteran. His only equal is the Free Planets Alliance’s Yang Wen-li, a talented tactician who is building a fearsome reputation as an unstoppable leader of men. On their young shoulders will rest the hopes and dreams of mankind.

Having been at a loss as to what to blog lately, I decided to dive into the murky depths of the AnimeSuki fansub archive. There is so much airing these days that it’s easy to overlook the older anime and 1988’s Legend of the Galactic Heroes is exactly that; numbering 110 episodes (it ended in 1997), this is an underrated space opera reminiscent of the earlier Mobile Suit Gundam TV series (minus the mecha).

As you would expect from a series called Legend of the Galactic Heroes, this is an impossibly epic story that covers mind boggling space and time. The two lead characters are admirable and involving, especially Reinhard von Lohengramm, who embodies such a classical ambition for power. The battles and overriding war theme will satisfy hardened military fans who enjoy an attention to detail and tactics- the first two episodes are almost entirely devoted to one gigantic battle; both a shocking melee of space combat and a tense tactical clash between Reinhard and Yang Wen-li. Just like MS Gundam, both sides have their own unique uniforms and power structures.

The animation despite beginning in 1988 isn’t bad at all. I really love the slender Victorian-esque character designs; there is a poetic rhythm to their cat-like movement and graceful expression.

Based on the first four episodes, I’m already hooked in by Legend of the Galactic Heroes. While it’s strong emphasis on political and military manoeuvring won’t be for everyone, this is a good old fashioned space opera set against the compelling lives of two star gazing, ambitious heroes.