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The anime-fication of Attack on Titan

This season, I’ve found myself in the fun position of having two of my favourite manga series adapted into anime. We already know how things went with Flowers of Evil, but there’s still the case of Attack on Titan (Shingeki no Kyojin) to consider. Produced at Wit Studio and directed by Tetsurō Araki (of Death Note and Kurozuka, amongst others,) it’s the adaptation I was hoping for back in 2011. So, is it any good? Going by this first episode: hell yes.

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The shrinking of Attack on Titan

Back in 2011, I wrote two posts about the manga series Attack on Titan (Shingeki no Kyojin) and since then, it’s only grown in popularity, and in addition to a live-action movie, now has an anime series starting in April, too. I can’t wait to see how it turns out, but in the meantime, I figured I’d catch up with the latest chapters, and, man, is it still good or what? But there’s something else I have to note too, in that by beginning to explain many of its mysteries, Attack on Titan is shrinking.

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Survive, you shit!

There’s no denying that I adore survivalist fiction. For example, I love Romero’s zombie films because they are all about surviving (and inevitably failing in) an impossible situation: a world overrun with violent madness. In terms of anime, I’ve often talked up Blue Gender, but there’s also Gantz, Infinite Ryvius and Highschool of the Dead: none of them perfect, but all four intense and absorbing. Recently, I blogged about Muv Luv Alternative: Total Eclipse. This I now regret because the series wasn’t good at all, but those first two episodes nailed that old weakness of mine all the same. What I’m trying to say is, I’m a slave to this genre and therefore, I’m a slave to Btooom!.

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A journey into Fate/stay night begins

Until Fate/Zero appeared, I’d never planned on watching Fate/stay night. At the time of its airing back in 2006, it’d always seemed a tad too pandering for my tastes. I knew nothing about it and was happy to keep it that way, but then, last year, I tried watching Fate/Zero and realised that I wanted to know more about its underlying story, that of the Holy Grail War. I’m a fan of shounen anime, after all, and one of the finer traditions of the genre has always been the tournament arc.

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A missed opportunity: Jormungand

I really wanted to like Jormungand. It’s a series about illegal arms dealers and child soldiers, which is not exactly typical fare for anime and sounds interesting. Comparisons to 2006’s fantastic Black Lagoon abound, then, but after 3 episodes, I’m giving up.

I realised I had to stop half-way through episode 3, when child soldier Jonah runs straight at a couple of renowned assassins without cover. Both sides fire at each other from point-blank range, yet manage to miss. Seconds later, the same assassins hit some generic snipers perched on the roof of a building. That’s the kind of thing I expect to see in a Bee Train anime; I could even take it in Black Lagoon, but for Jormungand, it was the final straw.

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We offer up our heart’s blood: Courage and spirit in Shingeki no Kyojin

Since writing my first post on the manga series Shingeki no Kyojin (the official English title is apparently Attack on Titan,) it’s been licensed for an English-language release by Kodansha USA, whilst a Japanese live-action movie has also been announced for 2013. With the inevitably small film-budget it’ll receive, I’m not convinced it’ll look good enough , but then again, it still sounds better than the forthcoming Akira film!

Last night I finally caught up to volume 5 of the series and, man, I just want to keep going. For those that haven’t read my first post on it, Shingeki no Kyojin is a large-scale survival-horror manga about a future-Earth dominated by man-eating giants (known in the series as Titans.) With humanity on the brink and walled up in one last city, the series begins as the Titans break through the city’s first line of defence.

Imagine any zombie film you’ve ever seen, and then replace the zombies with giants. Mankind’s fucked, right? It’s lucky then that the main character, Eren, can transform into a Titan, too!

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The eyes of a wolf: Ben-To’s awesome

There’s a few different tactics one can employ when approaching a new season of anime. You can either jump straight in during the first week or wait a while longer for the dust to settle; neither choice is perfect, but for this season at least, I decided to wait for 3 episodes to be released before getting my hands dirty with any new series.

If 3 episodes seems an arbitrary amount, that’s because it is. My only logic here is that since I want a decently informed opinion on anime, 3 episodes are better than 1. Any given episode of a series can be misleading, but 3 are more likely to betray a consistent sense of story-telling and quality. Alas, they also take more time to watch, but for the most part, I enjoy watching anime, so that’s not such a drag!

(I say for the most part because Guilty Crown proved so atrocious that I had to quit barely 5 minutes into the 3rd episode amidst a growing sense of vertigo. So, this is what passes for noitaminA now?)

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Good morning, angels.

In honor of Aniplex’s recent announcement of a new Read or Die (“ROD”) Blu-Ray box set I thought it was high time to review the television series.  The box set itself deserves a mention, all 26 episodes of the Read or Die TV, the 3 part OVA and a booklet, all supposedly identical to the Japanese Blu-Ray box version.  Then there is the price, $159.98 for pre-orders!  A few years ago I thought $80 for a series was horrendously expensive, but this is just ridiculous.  As another fan mentioned on Aniplex’s facebook page, “the year 2000 called and it wants its single season anime pricing back!”  So unless you own the Geneon DVD release (you’ll have to pry mine from my cold dead hands!) be prepared to order it on Netflix.  And order it you shall, because this is honestly one of the best anime out there.

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Childhood’s end: Naruto and Pain

I’m finally caught up with Naruto and not a moment too soon. Episode 175 closes not just Pain’s overwhelming story arc, but fulfils Uzumaki Naruto’s transcendence from annoying, mouthy kid to fully-fledged hero.

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Naruto & child soldiers / The thrilling tragedy of Kakashi Gaiden

Does Masashi Kishimoto think about how children are depicted in Naruto? Ninja are tools of war, after all, and Konoha trains its children to become ninja; isn’t that wrong? On a base, moral level? Of course, Naruto is intended as entertainment and, as such, there’s a certain amount of distance one feels between it and the real world, but to compare it to another boys-orientated action anime, like One Piece, reveals just how dark a world Kishimoto’s characters are born into, a place where children are trained to fight almost as soon as they can walk.

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Why didn’t you shoot? I meant to. – Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade

The thing is like a wolf.

The thing is a wolf.

Thus, it is a thing to be banished.

I’ve been an anime fan for a long time. At 22, the portion of my life in which I’ve been a fan is already half of that; and the period of time in which I’d been exposed to anime is closer to three-quarters that timespan. As such, good titles often fall by the wayside.Such was the case with Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade. Produced in 1998, it was relatively new when I was first getting regular access to anime. Needless to say, at 11, dubs of Sailor Moon and Pokemon were infinitely more interesting. And so, without ever making it onto so much as a To-watch list, Jin-Roh left my consciousness for the next nine years. And like all good things, it was not only worth the wait, but indeed, a wait I needed. I don’t think I could have appreciated the movie to the extent that I did even five years ago, let alone ten.

Though he had little to do besides write the screenplay, Mamoru Oshii‘s touch is evident throughout Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade. The movie continually threatens to pull the rug out from under your feet, all while providing a structure as organized as latticework. Directed by Oshii’s right-hand man and key animator, Hiroyuki Okiura (after he apparently kicked up a fuss about Oishii‘s handling of some scenes during Ghost in the Shell!) the film begins with a death: a “little red riding hood” delivering bombs to a resistance faction. What follows is a multifaceted account of a country, a man, and an organization. Jin-Roh is a dark film, but one continually punctuated by the light from molotov cocktails. Something’s better than nothing, I suppose.

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Horrible fun / Exhuming Ga-Rei -Zero-

If just because there’s something exciting about proving yourself wrong every now and then, I’m trying to watch a bunch of recent series that I’ve snubbed or otherwise ignored in past. This all started when, on a whim, I began watching the kendo anime Bamboo Blade and felt stupid for ignoring it for so long.

Ga-Rei -Zero- is another amongst those I’d passed over in recent years, and, well, it’s a violent story about monsters and stuff, too! If nothing else, I knew I’d get to see some weird creatures breathing fire and crushing people underfoot!

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Japanese apology? Maybe next year…

Senkou no Night Raid is at a glance a show with great potential, beginning with its unique setting: Shanghai, 1931.  Japanese occupied China showcases the height of Japan’s imperialist power and ambition.  However, the show cries out for an in-depth commentary on Japan as an imperialist power.  Such a narrative would provide a window into how people in Japan currently feel about the period.  The Japanese are clearly still very sensitive and defensive. Even 60 years after the end of WW2, whenever China or Korea reflects on an embarrassing colonial issue, like Korean “comfort women”, the Japanese forcefully deny official government involvement.

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The tide of violence

Thorfinn the Viking

I’ve read only 26 chapters of Vinland Saga so far but its quality is such that I have to admit it’s already one of my favourites.

Thorfinn is the main character, an Icelandic warrior joined with a band of Viking mercenaries sailing the seas of Europe and sacking the villages and cities of Norman France and England. His talent as a fighter is chilling, if just because he’s still just a small boy!

This had me hooked straight away. You have this kid (a rag-doll, really) fighting in a bunch of gruesome, heavy battles, cutting the throats of soldiers and decapitating their Captains for the rewards.

It doesn’t shy away from the violence or cruelty of the infamous era of the Vikings, but there’s more to it than just brutality.

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See You Chinese Electric Batman

This reminds me of Mouryou no Hako!

It’s interesting how Darker than Black never explained what has ‘sealed’ the Earth’s sky, caused Hell and Heaven’s Gate to appear and triggered the world’s first generation of contractors; and quite frankly, if it turns out to be aliens from the Moon, I’d rather not know, but my point is, ambiguity is exciting, and yet like everyone else watching Ryuusei no Gemini, I was confused by its last episode, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing either.

Immediately after seeing it, for the first time in years, I went looking for interpretations on every forum and blog I could find. Did the lack of a ‘conventional’ end ruin the series, or merely add to its mystique? Does the ambiguity equate to bad writing, or is it intentional?

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The snowy nights and racing trains of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

Scar and Kimbley face off

Choosing the best anime of 2009 is no contest for me, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood wins it hands down every time, but we’re past any stabs I could make at being objective about this, the show has everything I look for in anime, yet still manages to keep getting better, so much so that earlier today I even started comparing it to Legend of the Galactic Heroes! I mean, what the hell?! All this was again brought to the surface by episodes 32 and 33.

Firstly there is the unending expansion of mangaka Hiromu Arakawa‘s story into newer countries and climates. She achieves the sheer sense of distance usually exclusive to great fantasy, of creating a living, breathing world, which is why I’m now comparing it to Legend of the Galactic Heroes, because even though it’s now over half way through, FMA continues to introduce exciting new characters into the mix.

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Trying to get back into anime movies / Sword of the Stranger

Action from Sword of the Stranger

Writing this now is probably a bit old hat, but I finally got around to watching Sword of the Stranger at the weekend!

Why the delay? I’ve developed a strained relationship with anime movies; having become so used to watching anime in the 20-min TV format, the mere suggestion of watching anything even slightly longer than normal isn’t attractive at all! I might have been institutionalized by TV!

As such, I’ve avoided many of the most important releases of recent years. I still haven’t seen Mind Game, The Sky Crawlers and Howl’s Moving Castle, and I’m embarrassed to admit I still haven’t seen Paprika, either.

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Bee Train’s bullet ballet Phantom is really good

Welcome

Bee Train doesn’t exactly have the best of reputations, be it their bias for girls with guns or their notoriously poor production values, fact is their work polarises opinion and attracts its fair share of detractors.

I’ve seen neither Noir nor Madlax, was horrified by the low budget vibe I got from Blade of the Immortal and nearly quit watching anime altogether after sitting through the first episode of El Cazador de la Bruja. I know many others share these same ‘concerns’, so I’m going to write something now that may shock and appall many:

Bee Train‘s latest series, Phantom, is really good.

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A love letter to FMA: Brotherhood #19 and why I love anime

Lust's final curtain

I still read my fair share of blogs and forums, so I had something of an inkling that this episode of Brotherhood was going to be quite special, but even still, I loved it to pieces, and once the credits were finally rolling, all I could think is that this was the exact moment that Brotherhood finally stepped out from its predecessor’s shadow and became great anime in it’s own right.

Ah, it’s been a long road. Between the die-hard fans of the manga and lovers of the first series, Brotherhood was always going to face a long and hard battle to win over new admirers, but now there is absolutely no excuse to not be watching this series. I won’t accept it. Episode 19 was perfect.

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Soul and style: Toradora and Michiko e Hatchin

Cool afro

It’s the eve of the latest spring season, but I’m still playing catch up with a lot of last year’s finest. Last week it was Xam’d, and this week it’s Michiko e Hatchin and Toradora.

I’m only too aware that the anime community is driven by an insatiable desire for ‘newness’, and I’m really excited by some of this new anime too, but there has always been a feeling that a more considered, ‘concentrated’ and, dare I say it, slower viewing style is the ideal way to go. It’s true that sometimes a good series is impossible to resist, but I’m also thinking that there is so much more to gain from taking in only one series at a time.

Such is the way I’m approaching most anime these days. If nothing else, at least I’ll have the opportunity to write about something different each week, and this time, one of those things happens to be Michiko e Hatchin.

Hatchin

Since Shinichiro Watanabe was attached to it, this was one of my most anticipated anime of last year, but generally speaking, I would have watched it anyway, because, basically, Michiko e Hatchin looks really cool. It has a punk rock style, with a strong emphasis on things like fashion; the clothes are ever changing, the hair is messy and the voices are lazy. As if to suggest it couldn’t give two shits about whether you like it or not, it’s like the perpetually sneering, Johnny Rotten of anime.

If style was all that mattered, then this would be perfect, but to really admire something, I need characters to care about and a story to be fascinated by, too. Michiko e Hatchin has none of these things and as such, it ends up feeling ever so empty and aimless. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it, because I was able to watch all 22 episodes in one week, so, obviously, I found it entertaining and beautiful to look at, but reflecting on it now, it just feels like there is nothing left to say. The fusion of anime and South American culture is a cool idea, but may be too much emphasis was placed on recreating the visual style and tropes of, for example, Brazilian cinema, to the detriment of a good story.

Looks like FLCL?

Then we have Toradora. I watched the final four episodes this morning and not expecting much at all, I was surprised by the impact it wrought on me. I’ve been back and forth with my opinion of Toradora for a while now, but, undeniably, the finale was hugely involving. We had the soulful dreaming of characters like Ryuuji and Taiga, Minorin’s conflicted smile and Ami’s desperate loneliness, each of them contemplating the state of their lives, while searching for happiness in indirect and painful directions. I lost a lot of faith in the series when it descended into cheesy Christmas songs and illogical plot twists, but the finale won me back over. It may be a generic set-up, but, in the end, Toradora was an honest and heartfelt drama. I couldn’t ask for any more.

Free skies, and endless land

Akiyuki facing off against a Humanform hundreds of miles in the air

The problem with writing an anime blog for any length of time is that I’m prone to repeating myself. I’ve had this ache to write about something, anything, over the last month or so, but there are only so many times I can say “this is good, that is bad” without feeling as though I’m running in circles, writing about anime for the sake of being an anime blogger. I don’t want to go down that road, I want this to be like a natural impulse, something that I’m compelled to do by an honest desire to share my enthusiasm with you. Nothing else.

That is why this post exists. I haven’t stopped watching anime, or anything as dramatic as that, it’s just that my mind has been blank. I’ve been waiting for something to shake me out of that apathy, and it turns out that that something is Xam’d: Lost Memories.

Nakiami

It’s not just that the animation is superb, or that the soundtrack is evocative, or even that the characters are great. It’s everything. The world-building, the whimsical adventure, the sudden bursts of brutality. I adore it because it reminds me of Eureka Seven and Nausicaa, that it makes clear nods towards Miyazaki’s synthesis of nature and fantasy, the sweeping landscapes and complex technologies of a strange new world. It’s so nostalgic for me; a story I can’t help but treasure dearly.

I’ve spent this last week navigating my way through all 26 episodes, and even then, I must admit, it has been difficult to follow. Considering its strange terminologies and complex foreign cultures, this has to be the hardest fantasy anime I’ve seen since Seirei no Moribito, and without ever pausing for reflection, it forges ahead breathlessly with the story. There is little time wasted on explanation or flashback, we’re just dropped right in to the centre of a world war and expected to keep up. In its slower moments, characters dream of their past adventures, regret old battles and wistfully sigh over lost loves, but all we have to go on are painful scars, a name or a place. That’s the thing about Xam’d, really, almost as if it has invented its own language, it speaks in riddles and poetry, and like the best of fantasies, it feels deep. One might compare it to a glass of vintage wine, a subtle taste nurtured over years of careful fermentation. Xam’d is a story in a bottle, a history fermented over thousands of years, a bitter-sweet taste.

It’s bitter because there is no easy way to save the world. Things like religion get in the way. Racism, child soldiers and suicide bombings. All of these things lead to tragedy. There is no escaping the fact that a lot of people die in this show; they inflict horrible wounds on each other and die in gruesome ways, and for 26 episodes straight, there is no end to it. Friends become enemies for stupid, petty reasons. Resentment and hatred boil to the surface. There is no logical reason for it, and only chaos that follows it.

Yet, it’s sweet because there are still people around with the heart to smile. Against all the odds, Akiyuki and Haru fall in love and are reunited, while, time and time again, Nakiami throws herself in harms way so that others may live. This one particular scene is stunning; Akiyuki’s mother runs and runs down the street, scraping her bare feet on the pavement, desperate to catch one last glimpse of her departing son.

Akiyuki and Haru: a fairy tale

There’s so much hatred in Xam’d, but so much love too. It’s vibrant and full of life, just look at how it has been drawn, it’s beautiful. Pretty like a fairy tale.

Until I kill you, I’ll even eat mud to survive! Hokuto no Ken

Rei of Nanto Seiken.

When I finished watching Legend of the Galactic Heroes late last year, I felt like I’d had my fill of sprawling eighties anime series for a fair old time to come, but fate, it seems, has long been conspiring against me.

My destiny had seven scars on his chest. A mere swipe of his hand could (and invariably, will) render his enemies violently exploded! His name is Kenshiro, Fist of the North Star!

Firstly, I must admit, catching up with Hokuto no Ken has always been a secret ambition of mine. The 1986 “manga video” was a tangible part of my early years as an anime fan and exploring this whole, bloody story for the first time is akin to understanding that cliche feeling of a ‘child-like sense of wonder’.

Let’s face it, there’s no point in even trying to be objective about this, Hokuto no Ken is far, far, far from perfect. The story is predictable, the characters’ motivations are laughably ‘basic’ (‘without wit’ may be a better description) and the aesthetic is like some inbred, mutant offspring of Viking culture and Mad Max 2. So far, so flippin’ weird, but that’s why I love it, too!

People often forget anime; time always has the last word, but it seems many still remember Hokuto no Ken, which is ironic, as it’s probably the antithesis of what many fans would today describe as good anime; the manly ying to the moe yang, perhaps.

A subtle, beautiful and moving observation of life; Kenshiro’s journey is none of these things.

In 199X, the world is decimated by nuclear war. In-lieu of modern civilization, the strongest warriors have risen up to build vast armies of mohawked thugs and conquer the world. One of the few men brave enough to retain his honor and decency in this harsh new world (as evidenced by the fact that he wears denim jeans) is our hero Kenshiro, successor to the deadly martial arts style of Hokuto Shinken. He faces many fierce adversaries on his road to nowhere, including none other than his best friend, the blonde bombshell Shin.

Before abducting Ken’s fiancee Yuria, dragging her off to his castle and basically destroying Ken’s entire life up until that point, Shin was a good old boy, really. He just had some bad ideas about love, is all, but that will hardly stop Ken from sweeping across thousands of miles of broken cities and bitter deserts in search of delicious revenge.

The thing is, Kenshiro is a vigilante. He and his friends rarely live to fight another day; each battle is to the death and the so-called hero of this story could aptly be described as a mass-murderer too, which is, I think, why Hokuto no Ken has managed to retain its edge to this very day. It’s such an extreme and morally irresponsible show that one gets a giddy, visceral thrill from watching episode after episode of brutal, bloody death. That, and I think the art (particularly the character design) is great fun.

There are many square jawed, horse riding, really tall, massively fat and fundamentally odd-looking people in this. The facial expressions are often very funny and the voice acting is so melodramatic that I can’t help but be swept away by the sheer enthusiasm of it all. Logic be damned, then, I’m really enjoying Hokuto no Ken.

When eternal love goes wrong [Kurozuka]

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I had high hopes for Kurozuka, because it is a genre of anime I tend to enjoy, that being stylish, far-fetched, visually-intoxicating science fiction.

It is a beautifully drawn journey, in-which 1,000 years of vampiric romance sweeps across the Heian period of Japan to the bombing of Japanese cities during World War 2 to a post-apocalyptic future, but as the constant streams of action rush over the despairing atmosphere of the first half, it’s just a shame that the story’s poignancy seems to fade. That is not to say that Kurozuka isn’t good, because it is; it has some moments, and they are great.

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Particularly disquieting is the image of Kuromitsu’s naked body wrapped around her lover Kuro’s severed head. Tortured by his eternal life, he wants to die, but loathe to be alone, she won’t ever allow it. Kuro’s life has been utterly consumed by Kuromitsu; forever trapped within her serpentine embrace, subjected to her every whim. One can only conclude that if love is a scary thing, then eternal love is positively chilling.

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I also want to note that the first half has a particularly industrial and dystopian feel. Much like the quiet wanderings in Texhnolyze, Ergo Proxy and Blame!, Kuro’s many urban sojourns are quiet and contemplative affairs. The cities of the future have fallen into decay. Neon lights, concrete bricks and rusting steel grids scythe through murky buildings and even murkier corners. Their peoples are starved of hope, laying the streets, waiting to die. In such a scene, one can observe every tiny little detail of the city and sample the deep-fried life that courses through its veins.

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There is a style to Kurozuka, an unabashedly violent streak, a harsh, cold beauty, that I admire. Most of all, it is a visual experience, and there’s not much else to it than that, but I’ve always found it enough to see something beautiful, or something provocative, twisted and weird, and wonder.

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Casshern Sins: You looked as if you were dancing

It’s hard to explain how I feel about Casshern Sins. It’s way beyond anything else I’ve seen this year. More than just another good anime series, more than just entertainment, I find it is engaging, evocative and inspiring, perched somewhere in-between the surreal, fable-like quality of Kino’s Journey and the philosophical melancholy of Mushishi. After every episode, I’m excited, my mind is filled with possibilities and ideas, and I really feel like I’ve just seen something wonderful. I can only hope that I’m capable of relaying those feelings to you. For over two years I’ve been writing on this anime blog, all for anime like Casshern Sins.

Thoughts after: Episode 6

Venturing deeper into the dystopian, decaying depression of Casshern’s strange situation, those that surround him are petrified of dying, but without knowing death, can one ever feel truly alive? Just like how a flower so pretty can only be that way in comparison to an ugly weed, one can only grasp the value of his life after realizing that, some day, he will die. After all, without death, life has no meaning, thus, regardless of Luna’s end, and whether or not it was against her will at all, by dying, she has seemingly graced her people with a gift so precious, mortality. Suddenly, the immortal feel a thirst for life and a desperation to live, and this, I think, is the point of Casshern Sins. It can be so sombre and nostalgic, but it’s hard to deny that the end of the world has rarely looked as beautiful. Ironic, really.

Episode 7

Somewhere in-between this endless expanse of desert and open blue sky is a place without rules and purpose, it is where we find the woman of the tall tower. She wants to think that in this place, in this dying world, her aimless life is still worth living. She rings her bell, where the view is wonderful and the Earth is really pretty, and it resounds with her will to live, as if screaming, “Look at me! I am alive!” Like an artist, she has built this expression of her spirit on the horizon, it’s her tower, the proof of her existence for all to see, and it’s wonderful that people may finally understand that feeling, that this dying world is still beautiful.

Episode 8

When life is tough, to hope and dream can be the hardest thing, yet all it takes is a passage of writing, an episode of anime or a two-minute song; such a tiny moment in our lives, so fleeting, yet it can unleash such a potent feeling. Do we all have a reason to live? And a dream to follow? Like a theatrical performer, Casshern elegantly runs, jumps and dives through an army of hopeless fiends, inspired to protect someone precious, the singer Janis. People wait in the music hall to be inspired, for just a few minutes, to escape into imagination and to dream of an exciting future. Her performance is art at its most vital, more than mere entertainment, to be inspired is to find nothing less than a reason to live.

I’ll ruin you because I love you

Some times, you need not say anything. Merely the way you move, a seemingly insignificant, deft touch, can betray your heart, because context is everything; words have no meaning without it. Your context is your smile, those tears, that sky. It’s a visual thing. When all that you can see might provoke such a strong sensation, words are an almost tragic nuisance, forever contradicting the simplicity of the moment. Episode four of Casshern Sins is visual poetry; evocative; melancholy; beautiful. This is when words are insufficient, it simply must be seen. Like ballet or wuxia, as if on stage, these characters spin, twist and jump, towards and around each other, every movement an indirect, evocative step forward, like feathers carried by winds of fate, blown across red pools and rocky desolation, secretly dancing to the soundtrack, transfixed by an insatiable desire to understand the other. It is emotion in action, confused, joyful, elegant. Have you ever done something, yet felt the exact opposite? That is episode four of Casshern Sins, an animated, beautiful contradiction. Perfectly flawed, just the way I like it.

A tribute to Soul Eater 18

It’s been a long time since my last foray into Soul Eater. Too long, really. And it’s easy to forget just how fun it is, how exciting, how damn awesome.

I mean, there are certain things that will always stick out, launch it above other series, and these two episodes were no different. Consider the dark, gothic architecture of Shibusen. The landscape has a palpable character, the shade and colour emphasizing a constant, lively feeling. An emotional container for these bizarre eccentrics, this is a world I can feel a part of, along with these characters and their adventures, so colourful and thrilling.

I suppose I’m really just in awe of this show, as the bright sparks fly and the awkwardly dressed kids dance. In that moment. Memories. These episodes, in particular, just really capture that feeling for me, that transient, simple, joyful sense of being young and stupid. If just for a dozen or so minutes, it’s fun, and happy, and perfect.

Then Medusa attacks.

Sometimes it’s easy to take Soul Eater for granted because every episode is so consistently and stylishly animated. But like I said above, I’ve been away from this series for too long. When I finished these two episodes, I really had the urge to just race through the rest right there and then. But you see, I want to savour it, this feeling, this excitement. It’s wonderful, and rare.

One Piece and why a man is only as good as his word

Brook: “He may think that we’ve betrayed him, but if he’s waiting even now, how miserable must he be? […] I can’t help but think that he’s believed in us all this time.

Luffy: “Your nakama may be dead, but from now on I’m your rival!

I love One Piece. I love how it can make me care, deeply, about such a rag-tag bag of bones and his long lost friend, a giant whale called Laboon. This is a complaint about One Piece that I’m used to reading, that the art-style is too cartoony to take seriously. While I can understand that opinion, isn’t it a tad superficial to rely quite so much on how a character looks in order to feel empathy for their plight? “He’s a man!!” says Franky, because Brook, despite everything that’s happened to him; dying, losing his body, even after having his shadow stolen, he’s a man because he’s still thinking about his dearest friend and the promise he made to him some 50 years ago. All that time has passed and he still cares. I could watch this anime forever. After all, skin or no skin, a man is only as good as his word (or his afro).

Soul Eater 11

If you mess with Tsubaki’s stage…

I saw your trembling soul…

It has a nice scent.

Her brother fades.

This was the best episode of Soul Eater yet. An episode that’s sweeping, burning with feeling, with animation and character as a synthesis of the soul. Such anime is poetic, exciting and inspiring, such is Black Star and Tsubaki. I admire their loyalty, their affection for one another, that Black Star will take a beating for his friend, understands the strength of her spirit, and yet is close enough to know when to offer a hug. Tsubaki is shy; she isn’t often noticed and would rather take-on a little hardship to please another. That doesn’t mean she is arrogant or weak, but she needs someone around her to carry her along, to push her onto the stage, to support her. A friend, to support her trembling soul.

Though it’s something we’ve come to expect from Soul Eater, I have to say the animation in this episode was superb. Not simply in terms of the fluidity of movement, which ebbed and flowed in waves of animated bliss, but the art direction too. The use of colour, the gloomy clouds and rain overhead as Black Star is beaten to a pulp for his friend and anxiously awaits her return. The metaphysical battle against her brother, the dull landscape that transforms with her victory into a tranquil paradise of clear sky and sparkling blue sea. It’s absolutely evocative and vibrant, swings and shifts with the tone and mood of character. It’s lyrical anime, streamlined, perfect.

Batman: Gotham Knight isn’t as good as The Animatrix

Designed to replicate the success of 2003’s The Animatrix, Batman: Gotham Knight is another anime anthology riding on the crest of a trendy movie franchise that seems destined, by virtue of Hollywood’s dollar, to be seen by many more people than your average Planetes or Gungrave. Like it or not, it’s exactly this kind of release, along with Afro Samurai and its ilk, that represents the image of Japanese animation to the eyes of the unwashed masses, and for good or for bad, tends to influence their many opinions. In this case, it’s definitely for bad.

Batman: Gotham Knight isn’t a disaster, it’s just heartless, devoid of feeling and worst of all, boring. One fist-cracking action scene follows another and while most of them are beautifully animated, the stories themselves are merely adrenaline-fuelled and tiring. Studio 4C contributes the two most visually-arresting shorts, the first ‘Have I Got A Story For You‘ and the fifth ‘Working Through Pain‘. The former has a wonderfully fluid, urban-punk aesthetic which has clearly been traced from director Shojiro Nishimi‘s previous work, the sky-scraping and colourful Tekkonkinkreet. The latter, peppered with moody lighting and authentic landscape, dares to risk some character development in Bruce Wayne and, by its end, finds our hero lost in despair. The only other segment worth mentioning is the thoroughly grotesque ‘In Darkness Dwells‘ (animated by Madhouse and directed by Yasuhiro Aoki) because it looks so unconventional and strange, like a hybrid of Gurren Lagann‘s more extreme character design and the gritty cartoon adaptation of Spawn. All style and no substance just about sums it up then.

Though one could point to the meagre running-time of each short (around 10-12 minutes in length) to explain the lack of actual plot, anthology predecessor The Animatrix includes several episodes which are just as limited by time yet remain magnificent, not least of all ‘Beyond‘, ‘The Second Renaissance‘ and ‘Kid’s Story‘. The problem here is the lacklustre writing, which hardly dares stray from the half-baked villainy and cartoon dirge of Gotham City. The Animatrix‘s best effort was ‘Beyond‘, which it had nothing to do with Neo, Morpheus or Trinity, yet made the most of being animated, fun and limitless. I mean, with ‘She and Her Cat‘, Makoto Shinkai needed just 5 minutes to forge his entire career. Lack of time is not an excuse for poor storytelling.

Aside from the above, my biggest issue with Batman: Gotham Knight is the stereotype it inevitably reinforces – that all anime is either Pokemon kids-fare or Ninja Scroll-level cartoon violence. What I really loved about The Animatrix is that, alongside the more typical action fluff, it shone with elements of slice of life and drama; it was a great showcase for the diversity of anime as a medium, not only in terms of visuals, but in terms of storytelling too. Gotham Knight is a throw-back to that era when anime wasn’t expected to be anything other than stupid, violent and extreme. It’s worth seeing for the Studio 4C segments, but The Animatrix this is not.

I’m one of his twenty faces too

When its first episode finished, I suspect a lot of people probably dropped their interest in The Daughter of Twenty Faces (a.k.a Nijuu Mensou no Musume) right there and then. Going off of first impressions, it’s not flashy at all. The colour palette is subdued, there’s no sensational fan-service and no eccentric personality winking at the camera, it was just a rather straight-up crime-caper that’s a lot like Lupin III. At that point in the series, I suppose I can understand why people might have said that it was dull, cheesy and nostalgic of an era that they have long since lost interest in. I felt much the same way, but something caught my eye (or should I say, my heart?); her name was Chiko, the titular daughter.

The first episode is merely the beginning of her journey. She’s vulnerable, fragile and sensitive, kind-hearted and eager to learn. At the end of that episode, I really felt happy for her, that she deserved this new family, this new adventure. That’s so important for me; nice animation is fine, blazing action is a bonus, but all I really need is that empathy, that desire to cheer on a character or two, and I found that in Chiko. Once you’ve formed that connection, the rest will often fall into place, and now, six episodes in, I’m about ready to say that The Daughter of Twenty Faces (along with Kaiba) is probably the best (and no doubt, most underrated) anime of the spring season.

For Chiko , it’s irrelevant that Twenty Faces is a world-famous thief, because she sees him, first and foremost, as a surrogate father and her savior. It’s a lot like how One Piece‘s Straw Hats are so bound together by Luffy’s charisma; he might be an idiot, but he cares deeply about his friends. Similarly, everything that Chiko’s beloved “comrades” do is for each other, and I can really understand that desire; that contentment shared by the closest of friends is so precious.

We reach an early crescendo in episode 6, as Chiko’s dream-like adventure ends as abruptly as it began, when the harsh reality of living as wanted criminals catches up with her merry band of brothers. It’s a stunning episode, so unpredictable and shocking. Having moments before been sharing their carefree adventures, we’re suddenly dealing with their mortality, watching people, Chiko’s family, die in front of us. As the action explodes within the elegantly painted compartments of a speeding train, the claustrophobia is palpable and I can’t help but think of Baccano!.

To their credit, Studio Bones have done a good job with the production side of things. They absolutely nail Chiko’s agility; her deft movements designed to have all the elegance and poety of a feather in the wind. Depictions of buildings, landscapes and weather are warmly realistic and evocative of a by-gone era; it’s a moody presentation that you can really dive into, almost taste.

Chiko begins the series as a naive 11 year old, innocent, optimistic, trying to grow up too fast. By the sixth episode, she is already 13, having developed into a thoughtful, confident girl with some exceptional physical skill. Seeing her transform into an adult, hampered by emotion, living for and chasing after her friends, is an undeniably compelling experience. She is a nice, convincing person and a character that I want to see smile.

Ok! Let’s do this in a cool way! Soul Eater!

There is no denying it; for Soul Eater and me, it was love at first sight. Bursting with an adorable “look-at-me” style and eccentric attitude, it’s probably the coolest looking anime I’ve clapped eyes on since Gurren Lagann. 6 episodes in and every single one of them has been weird and wonderful, just one surreal trip after another, and naturally, being such a shameless action junkie and all, I’ll never tire of seeing such beautifully animated battles. Considering its over-the-top, scythe-swinging choreography and fun-loving attitude, there’s no denying I’m extracting some immensely good, hot-blooded entertainment from Soul Eater, but still, and it’s important to note (because I know this is a big issue for some), this series is (traditional) shonen fighting anime. There, I said it.

It may look unconventional, but if you can’t enjoy the likes of Naruto, Bleach, One Piece or D.Gray-man, you won’t last long with this either. Soul Eater could be construed, at least at first, as a parody of those other anime; Black Star is probably the most blatant joke; he is a complete rip-off of the original noisy ninja, Uzumaki Naruto. But it’s clearly a loving parody, like Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle, because as much as it is knowingly poking fun at the cliched ‘shonen fighting’ anime, it obviously wants to be taken seriously as ‘shonen fighting’ anime too. Interestingly, this is another point of comparison with Gurren Lagann, because, early on, it was just as self-aware and over-the-top, being so referential of the mecha (super/transforming robot) genre. Starting a story with these archetypal ‘raw materials’ is very much akin to planting flower seeds and waiting for them blossom, as with every passing episode, the archetype, by virtue of its own experiences, takes root and grows into a unique personality. Already, Black Star is Black Star.

Soul Eater is, in many ways, very superficial. At this point, it has been looking great, the jokes are quite funny and the characters are likable, but there has been no real conflict. What I really love about a lot of my favourite shonen anime, like One Piece, is the heart-warming, strong bond of friendship shared by the characters, and we see, time and time again, that they will sacrifice everything, or die trying, to protect that bond. I’ve been looking for signs like that in Soul Eater too, something that suggests these relationships between meister and weapon amount to more than just plot convenience, and indeed, when pushed to their limits, I think there is definitely that kind of sentiment between Maka and Soul. I’m reflecting on a certain moment in episode 5, when the defeated Soul senses danger and covers Maka’s body with his own, growling “I won’t let you lay a hand on my Technician!” It just goes to show that there are deeper feelings there; that Soul Eater isn’t just parody and action, but has something quite inspiring to say about comradery and sacrifice too. I think that’s important, or at least, it is for me.

Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie – A thoroughly unpretentious lesson in arse-kicking

Sometimes it’s hard to look at movies objectionably; I grew up in the 90s and during this exciting decade, Street Fighter II was the ultimate beat ’em up arcade game. Not only was it fun to play, it was a great source of competition too; anyone who put their money into the arcade version was potentially subject to a random challenge from a fellow gamer – and if you lose, you can wave goodbye to that £2 worth of credit you just pumped into the machine too. Inevitably, you do lose, ’cause the other guy is an "older kid" and knows all of M.Bison’s special moves! It wasn’t fair then, and it sure as hell don’t feel fair now either!

I first sat through Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie around about ’97. I still remember seeing a trailer for it on Channel 4’s The Big Breakfast. Suffice to say, it looked frickin’ cool, so my brothers and I clobbered together our meagre £5 pocket money (sometimes we join forces for the greater good) and bought the VHS tape that same day. I wasn’t an anime fan back then; but this movie was like a bolt of lightning for a trio of Street Fighter fans. Over the years since I must have sat through Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie 10 or even 20 times"¦ well, you get the picture; this one is tightly interwoven with my adolescence.

Coming from a video game like Street Fighter, this was never going to be Citizen Kane. The plot can be described in one sentence; M.Bison and his evil henchmen want to take over the world, standing in their way are martial arts masters (Japanese) Ryu and (American) Ken, along with a couple of other do-gooders (including Chun Li and Guile). That’s it, folks, not even James Bond is that simple. So, you must be wondering, what fills this 1hr and 35mins of running time? Isn’t it obvious – martial arts; a heck of a lot of martial arts, with all the fireballs, lightning kicks and pile-drivers you can wave your dusty SNES at.

Pick of the clashes (there are many) is surely Ryu vs. Fei Long and Chun Li vs. Vega.

Both are interesting due to their distinctive fighting styles – consider that Fei Long is Bruce Lee, basically, so his moves are fast, elegant and flashy technique driven martial arts topped off with high pitched battle cries. His one fight is a furious and clinical match-up that ends when he is knocked out cold by Ryu’s famous Hurricane Kick. You can feel the impact of each blow, this is one kinetic slugfest.

On the opposite end of the scale is Chun Li’s death match with the sadistic spaniard Vega. Doing away with the friendly vibe, this time the fight is a desperate and compelling spectacle that will end with death. What’s remarkable about this scene is that it all happens in a small apartment, so chairs and sofas are being thrown about in the chaos. Compared with the runaway train Vega, Chun Li is the petrified rabbit caught in the headlights – so in terms of brute strength, it’s a massive mismatch. I won’t spoil it for you, but what ensues is a creative and exciting action set piece that feels incredibly intense.

It’s worth noting that, for nostalgic reasons, I watched this dubbed into English. What is especially amusing is that Manga Ent. not only produced an English dub track, but also spliced in their own grunge and metal soundtrack too – so a lot of the action is set to head-banging anthems from the likes of Alice in Chains ("Them Bones"), Silverchair ("Israel’s Son") and Korn ("Blind"). It’s massively cheesy, but also quite fun. And that’s the point of this movie, really, we aren’t watching it for deep drama or poignant romance, it’s all about dragon punches, spinning bird kicks and sonic booms, and well"¦, it delivers some absolutely knock-out moments. Street Fighter fans – drop everything, this is a must see! After all, you get to see Chun Li naked in one of the most blatant fan-service scenes ever conceived!?

So, what if you’re not a Street Fighter fan? To be honest, this probably won’t win you over. If you love your martial arts, Dragonball Z or Naruto, you might want to give this a try, but at the same time, don’t expect much in terms of character introductions or plot exposition i.e. do yourself a favour and don’t try to work out why characters can use psychic powers or launch fireballs.

If you can accept Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie for what it is i.e. dumb guys constantly beating the crap out of each other in a number of creative ways, all set to classic 90s grunge tunes, you will enthusiastically mosh your way from start to finish. A masterpiece it might not be, but if you’re looking for a thoroughly unpretentious ass kicking, this is one movie worth picking a fight with.