One Piece – Being the weak one sucks, just ask Usopp

Being the weak one sucks, just ask Usopp – beaten within an inch of his life and robbed of a new found fortune; the money was for everyone; for his nakama. They relied on him to carry it and he lost it. They wouldn’t lose it, but he did, because he is Usopp – the weak one. The material money is actually irrelevant; it’s just that the thieves stole his pride too. Hanging around with Luffy, Zoro, Sanji and Chopper, this was bound to happen. He can’t keep crawling back to them for help, and so he goes alone to "Franky’s House", knowing full well he will take another thrashing; better to die trying than to live in shame, knowing deep down you’ll always be a burden to your friends.

When the Straw Hats find Usopp, he is lying unconscious on the stony beach; beaten, broken, no pride. Their loyalty to their friend surges forward and they utterly destroy Usopp’s spineless opponents; the house is levelled. They knew the money was long gone, but that was always irrelevant – they kept going to avenge their broken friend; Luffy says "Guys, don’t think we’ll leave any bones unbroken".

It’s not fair being weak, you can’t do anything. Episode 234 is an emotional, gut wrenching tribute that mirrors both Usopp’s insecurity and bravery, that it’s good to be able to look your mates in the eyes and show you did your best. The climax – the way the Straw Hats stick up for each other is the reason why I so adore this show.

Naruto Shippuuden – 1 to 2 – Well worth the wait, my fellow Narutards

I forgot how damn awesome Naruto is when it gets serious. These first two episodes are brilliant, the new soundtrack is wonderful too; dramatic, epic and even a little nostalgic. It just looks and sounds all grown up. After this and Mushishi, composer Toshio Masuda is fast becoming my favourite anime soundtrack-er.

There is an overwhelming sense of mythology and fate sweeping through the show now, for better or worse, the characters are growing up and fulfilling their potential – suddenly realizing Gaara had become the Kazekage of the Sand Village set against him striding a-top that building looking over his village was a great moment. The Sasuke meeting/Kyuubi scene was particularly good too, approaching theatrical levels of animation; you could cut the tension with a knife, while Naruto returning to Konoha and meeting with all his old buddies provided a massive injection of feel-good nostalgia and inane cuteness (Sakura is still borderline psychopathic).

Then there is the Akatsuki couple – especially the fat one, dragging himself across the sand, slowly walking through the desert, approaching the Sand Village; just two of them against an entire army – you know they are good; combined with the gigantic Star Wars influenced soundtrack building, swooning and chanting in the background, this scene was distilled, liquid awesome.

All in all, a more than welcome return to form. Riveting from start to finish. A big time pay off episode. And I just let off a lot of steam.

Standing on the brink of a new era, looking back at Naruto

Standing on the brink of a new era for Naruto, I’ve turned back the clock to look at my favourite moments from the series; fair warning – hyperbolic fanboyisms ahead. I started watching the show in 2003 with a cheap 15″ CRT monitor and two tinny sound blasters, at the time I wasn’t interested in anime and hated bloody subtitles. 4 years on and I find myself hooked up with a 24″ LCD flat-screen, 6.1 Dolby Surround Sound system and I’m writing on my own anime blog. What the hell happened?! Honestly, I blame Naruto.

— 5. Haku “killing” Sasuke

“What’s with that face, you total moron?” utters an impaled Sasuke, as the stunned Naruto wakes to discover his arch-rival has probably saved his live at the cost of his own. “Why did you save me?”, “How should I know… I hated you…”, “But… Why? Why me? I never asked for this!”, “I don’t know! My body just moved on its own… Idiot”.

I love that dialogue, it beautifully epitomises their begrudging respect and friendship without getting all sappy on us. When I first sat through this scene I was stunned, on the edge of my seat, completely captivated by the drama unfolding before me.

— 4. Gaara breaking Rock Lee’s spirit

To say this fight was awesome is probably the understatement of the decade. Amidst the sheer surprise of seeing Rock Lee go all out for the win and Gaara playing up to his sick, sadistic personality type, I was blown away by how exciting and unpredictable it all was. Tragically, it ends with Rock Lee losing. He is the Rocky Balboa of anime; mediocre talent but limitless determination and GUTS, and I mean a whole lot of GUTS. The match-up was perfectly balanced between Lee’s physical martial arts and Gaara’s long-range, supernatural control of sand; the ensuing carnage is a credit to the visceral brilliance and inventiveness of Naruto at its best.

— 3. Naruto becoming a hero

Up until the Invasion of Konoha arc, Naruto had been a bit of a punk, an adorable one, but still quite yappy and annoying. Fighting with Gaara he comes of age; fulfilling his obvious potential of becoming a true (super) hero.

Hated and ignored for most of his young life by school mates and neighbours alike, the outcast, without a moments hesitation, proudly lays his life on the line to protect them all. It’s a powerful and moving sentiment, a feeling that’s beautifully conveyed by the biggest action set-pieces seen in the series.

— Brief Interlude: Favourite Opening Theme

Opening Theme No. 5
Artist: Sambomaster
Song: Seishun Kyousoukyoku

Sasuke leaves Konoha in Orochimaru’s barrel-o-evil with “the five” ninja slash friends sent to retrieve him; looking back on it, the mission was never going to end well for our heroes; after all, it was Sasuke’s decision to leave. No, I’m still not over it. SASUKE YOU BASTARD1!!11!

I loved this OP within 5 seconds of glimpsing the moody artwork; the clear look of seriousness, regret and dejection reflected on the faces of Naruto and Sasuke as the shaky camera blurs in and out of focus on their silhouetted shapes. The next scene is “the five” standing a-top of cliff, all noticeably concentrated and composed, while the camera spins around their circle formation; it feels utterly cool. We hardly ever see Chouji without food, and here he’s not only empty handed, but running too. The fat dude is running.

— 2. Zabuza’s last stand

“Don’t look away; it’s the end of a man who lived desperately”.

The climax of Zabuza’s and Haku’s story is the strongest section of Naruto, that it comes so early in the series means that it’s often forgotten; this is an injustice. Episode 19 is especially heart breaking for the previously cool-as-ice Zabuza’s (knife in mouth) tearful breakdown and uncontrollable rage; he comes to a brutal, bitter sweet end, having been stabbed dozens of times in the back, the swords still hanging from his flesh, lamenting Haku’s sacrifice, regretting their parting of ways. In short, Zabuza was a fucking cool character, and this episode made me the anime fan I am today.

— 1. Sasuke defeats Naruto, the end

Looking back on it now, I feel stupid, but the truth is that I never expected “my hero” Naruto to lose against Sasuke. Yet again, Kishimoto dealt me a back hander; well done good Sir. I was majorly deflated by the outcome, a depressing feeling only amplified by the ensuing years of unrelenting filler beginning immediately afterwards.

To this day I’m still in awe of episode 133; its theatrical animation quality, explosive drama and most of all, fist pumping action choreography. If you’re yet to be convinced of what Naruto has to offer, this is the episode to watch; an all too short, flashy tour-de-force that is not only the dramatic peak of Naruto’s ever bubbling story, but also one of the single best episodes of pure action anime produced for a decade.

So then Naruto fan boys and girls, let’s get emotional; what are your favourite moments from Naruto? Your favourite opening or ending theme? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Nodame Cantabile – Big fluffy clouds and endless blue sky

Honey & Clover was a great show, and a cherished, personal favourite of mine. That was what first attracted me to Nodame Cantabile. They share the same animation studio, director and character designer; a.k.a winning formula. I’m trying to emphasize that expectations are a bitch, and this time the benchmark was set particularly high; so I’m happy to proclaim then that against all the odds, I’ve just finished the first four episodes of Nodame Cantabile and really enjoyed them.

I like that the main character, Shin’ichi Chiaki, is at once a heartless bastard and helpful friend. He furiously berates Nodame for her poor attention to hygiene, but he still cooks her dinner and cleans out her apartment. His life and personality are somewhat frustrated, caught between his heart and brain, he can be harsh and push people away, but still recognises when they need help.

“Nodame” Noda has no brain, just a big fluffy cloud and endless blue sky. Driven by instinct, ignoring rules and following her heart, Nodame is a polar opposite to Chiaki – she leads her life and plays piano as freely as a bird, unburdened by worry, while he is often lamenting the future; his dream is to one day be a world-class Orchestra conductor, I don’t imagine Nodame’s vacant mind extends beyond a few hours day dreaming.

Nodame Cantabile frequently slips into bouts of slapstick humour but I’m not watching it to laugh. The show can be funny and the music school is an refreshing setting, but this is undeniably a slice of life anime, looking at how people in creative environments deal with talent and ambition, how friendships, rivalry and admiration can inspire confidence and breathe new life into tired hearts.

MP3 Spotlight: Yoko Kanno – Kissing The Christmas Killer

For what seems like forever, I’ve been a hopeless follower of Yoko Kanno’s music. I adore almost every single one her soundtracks, from the jazzy Cowboy Bebop to the sweeping, epic sound of Vision of Escaflowne.

With a lot of anime composers, I tend to blow hot and cold – meaning I can love a soundtrack for a few weeks, but once the show has finished, my interest in the music gradually fades too; clearly an emotional attachment to the music, connecting it with certain dramatics, can cloud one’s objective judgment on the ultimate quality of sound. You could say I’ve picked up more glass shattering JPOP than I’d like to admit.

It’s different with Yoko Kanno though – I have songs from Macross Plus (“VOICES”, “MYUNG Theme”) stored on my portable MP3 player, I listen to these songs every day, and the last time I watched Macross Plus was three years ago. That’s the best tribute to her work I can offer – that it stands alone, divorced from anime, as simply great music, period.

Now I’m going to spotlight two of her songs. Since you’re reading this blog, I think it’s safe to assume you’ve already heard Yoko Kanno’s music in either Cowboy Bebop, Stand Alone Complex or Wolf’s Rain (if not, you are a broken person, go and get fixed). First up is “Kissing The Christmas Killer” from the “The Other Side of Midnight” soundtrack (a.k.a 23-ji no Ongaku: NHK Rensoku Dorama “Mayonaka wa Betsu no Kao”).

Kissing The Christmas Killer (4m 27secs) is an elegant, fragile ballad beautifully sung by one of Kanno’s long time vocalists Maaya Sakamoto (RahXephon OP, Vision of Escaflowne OP, Wolf’s Rain ED). Beginning with little but a sparsely played piano, Sakamoto’s angelic voice gradually ascends from the cold seasonal background; the song becomes a yearning, lyrical fairy tale perfectly at ease along side Kanno’s shimmering, magical sound.

Lyrics from “Kissing The Christmas Killer” (Anime Lyrics dot Com)

    I was heaven sent
    Traded for the words I swore that
    Every piece of me would still belong
    Forever and a day
    To someone who cared
    Whatever there may be
    Ever there may beYou came along
    Now I’m going all against the
    Promises that I made, and here I am
    Falling for your love
    Or am I lost in heaven
    I don’t know any more
    Don’t know any moreJudgement will be made
    On a Christmas day
    Hiding in the snow, he’s prying me”Toys if you’ve been good
    Knives if you have not”
    Better steal a kiss ‘fore I’ll be gone
    I’ll be gone

The intense “The man in the desert” (4m 15secs) is from her (1st and only) solo album “Song to fly” (1998). For this song Kanno worked with the world famous Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, fleshing out rising, grandiose themes with a sweeping, operatic sound. The result being a song that feels important and profound; at first rural, layered and confused by single instruments, yet driving ever onwards with a vital sense of hope, climaxing with the intense dueling of a choir and orchestra.

Rest assured, these two songs are but a small taste of Yoko Kanno’s rich back catalogue of diverse music. To sample it all is one of my missions in life!

MP3 & shop links

Hokuto no Ken: The Legend of Raoh – Demonic fist of the devil

Along with Ninja Scroll, I grew up watching the Fist of the North Star movie. I was attracted by the unapologetic gore but this was no mere action flick – set in a post apocalyptic world ravaged by nuclear holocaust, I felt in awe of the endlessly barren landscapes, the grandiose struggle for power between armies populated in their thousands and the colourful ways in which Kenshiro would inevitably dispatch his ever demented enemies; his battles were at once intensely personal crusades and vitally important victories for a shattered, weak civilisation. You can’t ask for much more than that.

Fist of the North Star (Hokuto no Ken) – The Legend of Raoh: Martyred Love Arc (Raoh Den Jun-ai no Shō) is a return to those days; unpretentious, violent, fun and absurdly operatic, I absolutely loved every moment of this movie – and understand, the presentation is amazing too – Hokuto no Ken has never looked as gigantic and over the top; pyramids touch the clouds and knives of lightning rip through the star lit night as the muscle-mountains Kenshiro and Souther duke it out for the future of mankind.

This film is the first in a "pentalogy" of upcoming Hokuto no Ken features — re-animating and re-telling the cult 80s TV series. "The Legend of Raoh: Martyred Love Arc" begins by introducing us to the Hokuto universe – showing Kenshiro (as a berserk young kid) fighting in the "Nanto Temple for a test of his worthiness". Ken must defeat 10 warriors or face execution, and being a kid and all, he eventually loses to a far superior fighter by the name of ShÅ«.

Recognising in Ken the potential of a great hero, ShÅ« (Man of Jin-sei (benevolence star)) elects to rip out his own eyes, essentially ending his life as a martial artist, to save the kid. That’s the kind of world this is, a culture where brave warriors would feel honoured to die for a worthy cause.

Ken and his brothers grow up; Raoh, the eldest, is apparently the subject of this movie. Raoh is a conquer on a quest to rid the world of violence by force — he sits atop a massive horse while his army sweeps through countries, destroying whatever stands in its way. He is a fearsome man, but in his own way, is trying to make things better for all. The movie charts his attempts to end the evil reign of emperor Souther, but as fate would have it, Kenshiro is still the undoubted hero of the piece.

There is no point in approaching Fist of the North Star if you are looking for a completely serious, dead pan action movie. It has always been so over the top, melodramatic and unashamedly macho. Imagine a bastard child spawned from the collective talents of Bruce Lee, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mad Max. If you spurn that pretension of sophistication, you will love this film; a beautifully stupid, deliciously melodramatic and action packed romp through war torn countries where the heroes are sometimes as bad as the villains.

Naruto – 219 – For the love of god, not long now

We join the “fun” just as Gaara corners the warrior from Takumi, and given his murderous ability, a simple win for the ultra-strong sand man is expected, but the warrior turns to confidently exclaim, as diabolical villains often do, that in fact, Gaara is now “the one cornered! Muhaha…” Naruto arrives on cue just in time to save a crest-fallen Gaara, who gets trapped in a chakra sucking machine designed to feed on his monstrous energy and resurrect Takumi’s long dead legend Seimei; this turns out to be a white haired inbred looking chap with a big phallic sword and impossibly manly voice. Just as Gaara is overwhelmed by his latent Shukaku possession, the episode ends. Damn.

It’s hard to remember a time when I actually enjoyed watching Naruto. While not terrible, this episode (and the detested fillers arcs in general) commit the far worse crime of being mediocre to the point of boredom; the animation is flat and the characters are stuck in a nonsensical narrative loop, repeating the same old moves and phrases time and time again. I’m watching this for one reason – Naruto: ShippÅ«den (Hurricane Chronicles) begins February 15, 2007. And the current OP is one of the best too; in place of the episodes it opens, this sequence so well illustrates the nostalgic and energetic value of Naruto.

For what it’s worth, I enjoyed seeing Gaara again – as ever, he proves an interesting character and his half- Shukaku transformation remains positively disgusting. Seeing this reminded me of the show at its jaw-dropping best; the epic sight of seeing him and Naruto fight it out atop two impossibly giant animals in Konoha forest, it seemed the world was at stake – Naruto eventually wins the day with a head-butt full of bravery, courage and friendship. I desperately hope Hurricane Chronicles can capture that same spirit.