Ghosts in their own ghost stories: Shokuzai

“If it cannot break out of its shell, the chick will die without ever being born. We are the chick-The world is our egg. If we don’t crack the world’s shell, we will die without ever truly being born. Smash the world’s shell. FOR THE REVOLUTION OF THE WORLD!”
–Revolutionary Girl Utena

Shokuzai (Penance) is a story of people dying without ever being born. Exposed to a tragedy at a young age, it’s like they were frozen in time and encased within a shell of adolescence as they grew into adulthood. They were five girls in their school’s playground when one of them was abducted right in front of their eyes and murdered. 15 years later, we return to their lives and find them still struggling to come to terms with what happened. Stunted, empty, cursed; they could never break out of their shells. Thus began the 5 episode series Shokuzai, a 2012 Japanese TV drama directed by the horror maestro Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Cure, Pulse, Tokyo Sonata.)

When I began investigating Japanese film in 2008, Kurosawa fast became a favourite of mine. Like a Japanese Tarkovsky, his style is calm and atmospheric, using background noise and image to convey a strong feeling of alienation and disquiet. If you’ve ever seen anything from the anime directors Ryutaro Nakamura (Serial Experiments Lain, Ghost Hound) or Hiroshi Hamasaki (Texhnolyze, Shigurui,) you’ll know what to expect. Kurosawa’s made a lot of horror, but in a genre renowned for its visceral qualities, his films are unusually meditative and artful nightmares that play with the strange and surreal to emphasise an ugly and desperate reality. When even Martin Scorsese is a fan (the excellent Shutter Island owes a lot to Kurosawa,) you realise this is a filmmaker worthy of note.

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Don’t give up: dying in pursuit of change and The Sky Crawlers

Mamoru Oshii doesn’t make forgettable anime. Be it Ghost in the Shell or Patlabor 2, the man injects so much personality into his films that it’s impossible not to recognise his touch. There is, of course, his famous basset hound, but there’s also a poetic side that transports this viewer into the ether. I can’t tell if it’s just that his films are ageing like fine wine, or if I’m now of an age where I’m better able to appreciate what he’s trying to say, but whatever the case, he’s now one of my favourite film directors.

I watched The Sky Crawlers for the first time last night. With Kenji Kawai and Production IG alongside him, it’s a film as thoughtful as it is beautiful. Set on an alternate Earth, the ageless Kildren (“kill-dolls”) are fighter pilots forever clashing amidst the clouds in a war that is at best extremely vague and at worst totally pointless. The story exists in a place that’s like Neverland gone bad, where the children’s only escape from the endless cycles of war is heavy drinking, sex and suicide: the sheer monotony of their lives is reflected in the film’s subdued colour palette, everything is so hazy and drained: an apt worldview for a doll. A doll isn’t alive. A doll doesn’t have memories. A doll is content with its place in the world because it knows no better.

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The flower bloomed

Before you decide to watch Flowers of Evil (Aku no Hana,) please ask yourself these questions: do I purely want bishounen, or bishoujo, characters in my anime? Am I always looking for attractive characters? Should anime always look the same? If you’ve answered in the affirmative to any of these questions, forget about Flowers of Evil and watch something else. The sheer amount of invective aimed at its first episode is evidence enough that many aren’t able to see this series as anything other than ugly. I didn’t realise there was an objective example of ugliness, but apparently, Flowers of Evil is it. Thanks, anime fans.

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My name is Squealer

The end of a season is a bittersweet time for anime fans, as the joy of seeing a series reach its climax is undercut by the knowledge that this is the last hurrah for a story we’ve grown attached to over time. Such is the case with Shin Sekai Yori (From the New World,) a series that had me under its spell from the first episode on. Unpredictable, challenging and artistic are but three ways to describe the experience of watching it. Indeed, it has all the things that critics like me love to see in anime, but more importantly, this isn’t merely a cold essay on human nature, it’s emotive, and ends beautifully, with a trademark mix of the horrifying and hopeful.

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The Flowers of Evil

First, imagine an alternate version of FLCL, where Naoto hooks up with the loose-canon Mamimi and revels in her pyromania, falling ever deeper into her psychosis, burning away their boring world together. This is The Flowers of Evil (Aku no Hana,) a manga series (and soon to be anime) that begins like any of the other thousands of stories written about teenagers. Bored, disillusioned and harbouring a secret crush, our main character is the whimpering Kasuga, the archetypal, spineless harem lead without a shred of pride. When he steals his crush’s gym clothes, a vortex opens through which the trouble-making Nakamura steps. She spied him stealing the clothes and blackmails him into becoming her slave.

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A distant light: Hyouka

Somewhere between its Autumn lights and shifting leaves, there’s a warmth in Hyouka. Warm is a good way of describing the series, emotional is another. Not emotional in a melodramatic sense, but rather, one feels a liveliness coursing through every table leg and dusty bookshelf in the series. It has the sense of a story lived in.

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Anime still has it: Space Brothers

For a while there, I stopped believing that the anime industry was capable of crafting shows like Space Brothers (Uchū Kyōdai.) When I seriously started getting into anime, there were series like Planetes, Gankutsuou, Monster and Mushishi all being released in and around the same time. These were series not influenced by other anime and not trying to pander to an existing fan-base. At the time, I seriously thought anime would take over the world.

At some point, though, the bubble burst, and suddenly the idea of a 74 episode murder mystery set not in a Japanese high school, but in mid-Nineties Germany with barely a teenager in sight, seems more like a joke. It’s all the more remarkable, then, that a series like Space Brothers is actually being made right now: the story of a bunch of middle-aged adults chasing their dreams of becoming astronauts.

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The girl who became a zombie

I’m utterly torn by Sankarea. It has beautiful art direction and some fascinating ideas, but it’s also about as exploitative as anime gets. There’s just so much to like about it though, starting with the girl who became a zombie.

Of course, to become a zombie, one must first die. Sanka commits suicide because her father is a massive creep (and, I would argue, a moe otaku,) so obsessed his daughter’s innocence that he’s stopping her from setting foot in the outside world.

There’s a twisted logic to the metaphors being spun here, where a decaying body and spilt guts is symbolic of a girl’s coming of age. She’s happy to be damaged and sew-up the gaping tear across her stomach if it means being able to live a normal life.

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Although I’ve been writing this anime blog for a long time now, over 6 years, in fact, I’m still not sure of the kind of blogger I am. I’m not disciplined enough to write every few days, nor do I enjoy deep analysis of anime. I don’t even really enjoy discussing it to any great lengths. But even still, here I am. This has become my home, and I don’t know why. An anime blog.

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Don’t forget the side characters

In alot of ways, what keeps a longer manga engaging isn’t its main characters, but the side characters. Though our initial emotional investments as readers are in the main characters, the supporting cast and their links with those main characters are what keeps the story fresh.

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Watching people destroy their happiness in NANA

One of the saddest things about NANA is that its creator Ai Yazawa (who has been fighting against an unspecified illness since 2009) hasn’t been able to finish it. NANA is a story of dreams and ambition, and the characters have struggled too hard and for too long to be left hanging. I hope Yazawa rediscovers her desire to finish it.

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Where Everybody Knows Your Name

The older I get, the more I start to wonder if the messages in anime are still relevant to my life.   I’ve even started getting self conscious about what I watch.  After all, what long term artistic value is there in something like To aru no Index Season 2?  Don’t get me wrong, Index is a fun show, but it’s generally not very thought provoking.  So when I hear about a more mature show like Bartender I get excited.  Finally, a show I can watch and still feel like an adult!  I was generally impressed with Bartender. However, I think the show erred by relying only on episodic stories instead of doing multi-episode arcs.

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Is it more painful to wait? Or to keep someone waiting?

Writing, even anime blogging, can be hard. We all have ideas about what makes good writing and that’s why, sometimes, I have trouble doing it for this blog. I want to write posts that are, in their own ways, perfect. I know that’s an unrealistic goal, but I try anyway, and this whole process gradually becomes a huge weight for me to carry. I’m insecure; I’m rarely happy with how any given post turns out, but I keep trying anyway, because I hold out the hope that you will want to read these words, flawed as they may be.

This was all dragged up by the Run, Melos! arc of Aoi Bungaku, two of the loveliest and most emotional episodes of anime I’ve seen.

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Farewell Satoshi Kon

It’s difficult to express the disappointment I felt when I learnt of Satoshi Kon‘s passing last week. Since then, many heart-felt tributes have been published and half-way through writing this, I started wondering whether it was worth posting at all. Alas, what is blogging if not personal? I liked his films and, at the risk of merely adding to the white noise, I just wanted to bid farewell to Satoshi Kon in my own way; on this blog.

As such, I humbly present these following, short impressions of his 5 films, written and screen-capped after I (re)watched them all last week.

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You’re gonna carry that weight

What is the ending of Cowboy Bebop trying to say? It feels like such a waste. Spike doesn’t have to face Vicious, he could just stay with Faye and Jet, leave Mars and fly away, but he doesn’t. Continue reading

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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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.


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.

Why I’m enjoying Toradora

I am enjoying Toradora, or rather, it’s something more like tainted enjoyment. The show is marked by several moments of evocative character insight, like eloquent sparks of light that flicker briefly across some hidden depths. They are such brief vignettes, beautiful, but they aren’t really enough for me to say that this is excellent anime. The characters spend the majority of every episode playing dumb, acting up to their generic archetypes, only to suddenly pull back, to reveal something different, a moment of insecurity, doubt or confusion. Then, just as rapidly, everything switches back to the same old stupid jokes and harem routine.

With this vague sense that something is desperately trying to break free, I keep on watching. Toradora could quite easily pass for harem anime, with the overriding emphasis on the female characters and their attachment to lead-boy Ryuuji, but it isn’t quite that generic. I suppose I like the characters, I like how they seem to be, on the one hand, so archetypal and monotone, but on the other, so clearly fraught with emotion. In that way, Toradora can be a really sweet story.

Saying something, but meaning the exact opposite, all to avoid being hurt. Minori and Ami are particularly interesting, since both go to such great lengths to conceal their true feelings. The former tries to avoid feeling anything at all by being so energetic and competitive, while the latter’s superficial facade is too nice and cute. Ami sits in-between the vending machines at her school, cramped and alone, but able to drop her facade for a precious few minutes. Gazing into the starry night, Minori tries to conceal the loneliness that forever tugs at her heart. Both seem to be struggling with life, insecure around others, just wanting to fit in, to live a normal life, have a normal love, but what is normal, anyway? Societal expectations can be a bitch.

I still feel like I can’t completely give myself to Toradora, but, in an emotional sense, I think I understand the characters. At times, they are funny and superficial, at others, serious and deep. I want them to be happy, to feel better about themselves. Their whole situation may be a little contrived, but that’s alright. I suppose every story is contrived anyway, all that should matter is empathy, and I get that from Toradora.

Love will tear us apart

Earlier this year, I made an agreement with Owen of Cruel Angel Theses. I promised I’d try to watch True Tears if he would step-up to one of my recent favorites too; none other than Shigurui. True to form, Owen came through on his side of the agreement almost instantly, and here I am, many months later, still lagging behind. So, it’s now or never, and about time I made good on my promise.

True Tears.

I liked it. A lot.

It’s regrettable that, ostensibly, True Tears doesn’t look particularly special; rather, it has all the hallmarks of just another generic harem anime. In other words, it looks like a formulaic, romantic fantasy where one boy is at the centre of this romantic tug-of-war between a group of doting girls. Of course, I know it picked up a lot of praise from the fan community, but I’m quite sensitive to the ways that many fans seem to confuse quality story-telling with quality fan-service. Was True Tears merely good harem, or good anime full-stop?

True Tears is good anime, and like all good anime, transcends its genre. Not by being flashy, or trying to do anything obviously different, but simply by exploring its cast, each episode digging a little deeper, beneath its familiar surface and into these warm, desperate people.

I don’t want to delve too deeply into the plot, but I do want to write something about love-sick Aiko, one of the three girls secretly chasing the affection of tortured artist Shinichirō. According to the status quo, Aiko has been a friend of Shinichirō for a long time, but she has quietly fallen in-love with him. So much so, she will even hook-up with his best friend; anything to be closer to him, even if that closeness is a lie. Alas, she was always destined to fail.

Because of all that, Aiko was my favorite character. I suppose she always knew her crush would be unrequited, but that she kept on clinging to that tiny shred of hope for so long is such a hopelessly human thing to do. In lesser anime, that rejection would be the last we see of her, as a broken, weeping heart, but as the series moves on, we see her recover some self-confidence.

Her life goes on, and her love that once seemed so vital just fades away. It’s a love story and a study of love itself, the ways that such a feeling can destroy people, suffocate them, and hurt them. These characters are literally battered and bruised by their feelings. You can almost hear the echoes of Joy Division.

“When love, love will tear us apart again.”

Thinking back to a dramatic crescendo or two, True Tears does often twist like a slightly cliche, soapy love story, but this existential willingness to look beyond superficial emotion, to find a sad, warm reason behind all the pain, lies and deceit of normal people, rapidly elevates its sense of poignancy and importance. This is a thoughtful, serious and compelling drama, and much better than expected.

Bitter sweet school days; All About Lily Chou-Chou

Back in June, I reviewed a Japanese live action film called Linda Linda Linda. It was a great movie, so great, in fact, that it encouraged me to dig deeply into the depths of Japanese cinema. Since then, I’ve been working my way through the recommendations in the comments of that post. It has been a joy to explore an area of film that, until a few months ago, I’d barely even scratched the surface of. It’s all so new and exciting, and confirms something about me that I’ve always suspected anyway, that, rather than being a fan of just anime, I’m a fan of Japanese cinema full stop. Be it the vivid style of filming, the use of music to accentuate emotion or the emphasis on character over plot, whatever it is, it’s an abstract, bitter sweet quality that really helps me escape into the “ether” of imagination.

On Tuesday night I watched a film called All About Lily Chou-Chou. Sometimes, if I can catch a good movie late at night, I’ll go to bed right after it finishes and find that even my dreams are trapped by its influence. On Wednesday morning, I woke up feeling groggy and restless, precisely because I couldn’t shake my thoughts from this film, so, I had to write about it, no choice, really.

Just going back to how I felt about Linda Linda Linda, it was a bright and romantic ode to youth, more akin to a dream than reality, in love with (the memory of) being young. Similarly, All About Lily Chou-Chou is about Japanese school life, but this isn’t a happy film, the kids are cruel, hopeless and sad, yet presented in such a way that is beautiful; lush green fields and bumpy concrete roads are fine company for despair.

At school and after, Hoshino and his gang pick on the shy Yuichi. They beat him up, take his money and embarrass him in public. During one particularly harrowing attack, they trash Yuichi’s bike and force him to strip naked and masturbate in-front of them as they throw stones and jeer. That is their reality, Hoshino the bully has lost faith in life and Yuichi the victim has no courage. Yet they both passionately admire a singer/song-writer called Lily Chou-Chou and hang-out on the same Lily Chou-Chou internet forum, often chatting online with each other anonymously, sharing their mutual passion for her music and explaining how it inspires them with such vivid and strong feeling. They become friends online. Spiritually, Hoshino and Yuichi are good friends, but when they meet in reality, with their true feelings concealed from one-another, they hate each other. It’s a contradiction of truth and a very sad, very human tragedy.

Another of Hoshino’s victims is a girl called Tsuda, he blackmails her into becoming a prostitute. We follow her on one of her ‘jobs’; a date with a middle-aged salary man. In the immediate aftermath, she doesn’t seem to be particularly effected, it’s only when she is almost home that she breaks down and loses control, literally stamping her pay into ground and soaking herself in a river near-by. That’s the kind of person that Tsuda is, she might portray herself as strong and streetwise, but it’s all just a mask. Deep down, she loathes herself for being so weak as to go along with Hoshino’s blackmail, yet pride prevents her from crying for help. She yearns to be free, desperately so, and in the most bitter sweet scene of the film, stumbles into a kite flying club, almost overcome with the euphoria of just watching them glide in the wind, so carefree and simple. “I wanna fly in the sky”, she said.

At two and a half hours, it’s a long movie, packed with intimate character vignettes and filmed in this very personal, modern style that is a feature of Japanese cinema, it’s very cool looking. It’s also slow building, sparse in dialogue and, at times, hard to follow, as the narrative jumps back and forth in time and names and faces come and go. Even still, it has an ethereal quality, an atmosphere that quietly fades in and envelopes us into this world of bitter sweet reality, I could almost describe it as an out of body experience. Anyway, All About Lily Chou-Chou isn’t a nasty film; it doesn’t delight in the suffering of its characters. It knows that life can be harsh, yet has moments of beauty too.

Bokurano: … I really wish I could’ve died on the Earth I grew up on.

I finished Bokurano this weekend, just as planned. 24 episodes in 5 days isn’t bad at all, as I’ve never been one to enjoy marathoning through anime. After all, I ended up needing nearly 2 whole years to catch up with 300+ episodes of One Piece, so, starting and finishing Bokurano in a matter of days is something of a surprise to me, but also a credit to its quality, in that it managed to keep my interest piqued for hours on end.

As I mentioned last week, I think Bokurano is a fascinating story. 15 children are mysteriously tricked into piloting this giant robot (called ‘Zearth’) to fight off a string of ‘alien invaders’. If they choose not to fight, Earth will be destroyed. If they lose their fight, Earth will be destroyed, and after they win, the pilot selected for that one battle will die. It’s a rigged game with no winners and the children have no hope of escaping this fate, so inevitably, their lives take on a new meaning. Knowing full well their days are numbered, they are forced, perhaps for the first time in their young lives, to find something worth living for, or rather, something worth dying for.

These children are not your cliche anime characters with green hair and big eyes. They are normal, almost dull-looking teenagers. They have parents too. I’ve noticed that, for whatever reason, parents don’t often play a big role in anime. From Code Geass to Macross Frontier, there is always a convenient excuse contrived to explain away why parents are absent. I suppose teenage megalomania wouldn’t be quite as enthralling if our mini-Machiavellis had to be in bed by 10pm because it’s a school night. What I’m trying to say is that, in this way, so much anime is an adolescent fantasy of independence, far removed from reality, but Bokurano is a satire, an unflinching critique of modern life. It doesn’t pull punches.

One of the most memorable arcs is that of the unfortunate 7th grade girl, Chizuru Honda. She falls into a love affair with her handsome school teacher, who also happens to be a paedophile. He exploits her naivety and seduces her, sets-up hidden cameras in his apartment and posts pictures of them ‘doing it’ online. All this and he starts dating Chizuru’s older sister too. So, when it’s her turn to pilot Zearth, Chizuru guns straight for her school and the bad teacher, but just as she is about to stomp him into the ground, her sister jumps in. If killing the teacher means killing her sister, Chizuru can’t do it. That, ultimately, is her reason for fighting; when she wins, and therefore dies, it’s all for her family. Moments after her death, it’s revealed that Chizuru was pregnant.

It’s not a story that shies away from controversy or taboo, but not every character arc is as tragic or as dramatic as Chizuru’s was. Some are saccharine to the point of nauseam, others are uneventful, or mundane. Such is life; people have their own ways of finding value and beauty, often in obscurity. As much as Bokurano is rife with social commentary and attacks on commercialism, that these children find real reasons to live, and die, is important.

When they are first contracted as Zearth pilots, it’s worked so that their favourite chairs are placed in the cockpit. Each chair is unique to that pilot, built in a way that’s so personal and symbolic of its owner’s personality. Plastic, artificial and rigid, or small, soft and humble. Apparently, you can understand a lot about someone just by examining their favourite chair; it’s a quaint, lovely touch. Likewise, each child faces an alien mecha that’s designed to look more like a moving Rorschach inkblot; a visual interpretation of their innermost fears and anxiety. That, really, should say all that you need to know about Bokurano, it’s the kind of science fiction that works best as symbolism and morality, about trying to find worth in living, and dying, as a completely normal, insecure, fragile, imperfect person.

Linda Linda Linda; slice of life done good

While I’m fairly confident that I’ve built up some decent knowledge of anime over the past few years, I can’t say the same for Japanese live action. Sure, I’ve watched many of the cult classics; Audition, Azumi, Battle Royale, Ringu, to name but a few, and there’s no denying that they are cool movies (albeit enjoyed mostly for their superficial excesses), but what I’m looking out for are the understated dramas, the good movies that don’t have to rely on violence, ghosts or samurai to attract attention. Movies like Ping Pong, Blue Spring and Go. May be it’s just that I’m not looking in the right places, but so far, I’ve found it really hard to get good recommendations for these kind of films, yet I’ve adored what I’ve seen enough to know that I really want to see more, so when someone throws me a bone in this area, I’m happy to go chasing. And guess what? I’m so glad I did. Introducing Linda Linda Linda.

These days, we’re so saturated with media that it’s fairly rare to start a movie without having read even so much as a plot synopsis, yet so it was for my introduction to this movie; all I was going off of was a personal recommendation and a decent IMDB rating, everything else was irrelevant. Anyway, the film is best described as a very Japanese slice of life, focused on a quartet of school girls who create a rock band for their fast-approaching school festival. That’s it. The plot is undeniably thin on twists and turns, quite unspectacular and straight-forward, but this movie isn’t about story, it’s about characters, a group of friends hanging out together, practicing music, and looking out for each other. Its some parts funny, charming and heart-warming, others reflective, nostalgic and introspective. Some of my favourite scenes involve the girls just wandering through grassy fields and hanging out on empty roof-tops, laughing and joking and singing, doing nothing of note, just being together, being young. It’s a movie about friendship.

One character in particular is worthy of note. She’s a Korean exchange student (called ‘Son’, played by actress Bae Doona) who can’t speak (or even understand) Japanese well. Son doesn’t have any friends and spends most of her time bored, with no-one but a bilingual teacher for company. She falls into the band almost by mistake, yet finds herself at its very center – as the singer.
Because her grasp of the language is so basic, she has to practice alone, for hours, at the local karaoke bar, just to keep up with the others, and through all of that hard graft, her funny personality gradually blossoms. She goes from being the alienated foreigner, almost completely isolated, to having found some intimate friends, staying up all night and goofing off. You can see just how much it all means to her; her happiness is scrawled all over her beaming smile.

It’s a warmly nostalgic take on youth and, much like Honey & Clover, there’s a very clear sense that this is an ephemeral era, knowingly short-lived, passing-by too fast. Towards the end of the film, one of the girls (the drummer, played by Aki Maeda) carefully plans to confess her love to a long-held crush. Everything is right about the scene; it’s pouring with rain, they are all alone, the guy is shielding her with his umbrella, but when the moment of truth comes, the girl still can’t find the courage in her heart to explain her feelings, and so, nothing happens. Often times, that’s the way it goes. Besides, there is always tomorrow.

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.

Impressions of Bokurano – It’s alright, ’cause there’s beauty in the breakdown

I’ve seen seven episodes, but I’m yet to pass much comment on the Bokurano anime. Given its rather controversial themes and notably downbeat tone, I’m not sure if it’s right to say I’m enjoying it. I don’t have fun watching Bokurano, it doesn’t inspire me to wax lyrical about it’s quality, in fact, I find it depressing and frustrating, and yet, here I am, anyway.

It’s a brave series that deserves attention for tackling so called social taboos in an ultra-realistic setting. It’s a series about children with real problems surrounded by adults who, by and large, are so self obsessed that they couldn’t give a shit about anyone else. As of episode seven, the latest pilot of giant robot Zearth is Chizuru Honda. On the face of it, she’s the next kid to die saving the world – nothing new about that, every mecha anime has its martyrs, but at home things are a little different. Chizuru is a victim of paedophilia; she is photographed and abused by her school teacher. How is that for motivation?

Bokurano resonates because it delivers shocking drama viscerally depicted within contemporary Japan. It feels like original creator Mohiro Kitoh is wondering whether or not civilisation is worth saving – these children, their personalities coloured by their environments, have all been burnt by society, so why keep on fighting? It’s notable that in the heat of their mecha battles, it doesn’t feel like they are fighting to protect anyone, instead they are unleashing their pent up rage and anger on a selected and faceless target, it’s almost a co-incidence that in doing so, they buy humanity another couple of days worth of existence.

It’s true that the animation could be better; it’s also true that the translation from the Bokurano manga to anime hasn’t been completely faithful. I don’t care, because this still feels like an important series that needs to be seen.

Past, present and future

To quote rubbish rockers Staind, it’s been a while. Of course I haven’t stopped watching anime, I just don’t have much to say. I could write boring episode reviews, but you know, that’s boring! More than anything I seem to rely on inspiration to write and the feeling now is that I’m either burnt out or just couldn’t care less.

Death Note was great, but it’s fast becoming a weak parody of itself; Light and L locked together – it’s like some stupid sitcom. Code Geass is superficially exciting and features some colourful animation, but it’s mostly just absurd, camp trash; a retooled Gundam for the motaku generation.

Red Garden is one of the few shining lights to emerge from the horrendous winter season. A novelty for TV anime these days; it has a story to tell, it has female characters with integrity and it doesn’t look like it was animated for pedophiles. Score!

Eyes then turn to the spring ’07 season and hope springs anew. I better not be the only one looking forward to Bokurano; imagine an alternate version of Evangelion where Shinji and his giant robot accidentally squish Father Ikari (and his car) underfoot, while Asuka’s a child prostitute and after every victorious mecha mash up, the pilot curls up and dies. As long as the production values are up to scratch (we’re depending on GONZO here, so it’s a flip of a coin really), Bokurano will stun, surprise and shock anime fans not prepared for such cold, hard brutality.

It’s nice to see a couple more TV shows from Studio BONES are gearing up for launch too. I do enjoy dark science fiction and as far as I can see, Studio BONES are up there with the best. “Darker than Black” (with a Yoko Kanno soundtrack!) and “The Skull Man” may sound corny, but coming from the brilliant animation house behind the likes of Wolf’s Rain and Kurau Phantom Memory, expectations are sky high.

Welcome to the NHK [END] – And so dies the NEET

It was cute to see NHK end with a role reversal between Misaki and Satou – there are big differences between a lazy hikkimori and having a genuinely mixed up life. In spite of his personal problems Satou was always a fairly normal person just in need of tough love. When his parents’ money dries up, for perhaps the first time in his life Satou loses his comfort zone and is finally forced to fend for himself and become independent. And so dies the NEET.

Misaki is a lot more interesting. We’ve gone through this show thinking she is doing Satou a favour by sticking around, but during these final couple of episodes it becomes fairly clear that she desperately needs him; having a dead (suicidal) mother and an abusive step-father, the self-loathing, unconfident and lonely Misaki has grown up surrounded by hate. Her problems are deeply seeded and psychological – she needs help and probably sees herself in Satou; the lectures, the exams and even the home-made lunches are as much (if not more) for her as him.

It all ends on a (notorious) cliff top with both characters ready to jump into oblivion. Both actually give up on life and jump, but both are saved. Misaki is caught by Satou, and Satou himself (amidst another surreal vision of gooey paranoia) is saved by a steal mesh especially placed there to catch suicidal fallers. Given their personal problems through out the show, it seems fitting that Misaki was finally saved by genuine friendship (not a stupid contract) and Satou by the society he so fears. At this point NHK could have flown into romantic territory, but despite these two obviously being in love, it ends with them as good friends having knowingly been through so much, and Satou lecturing Misaki on the park bench!

Undoubtedly this has been one of my favourite shows of the year; despite losing some momentum during the over-long MMORPG arc, Welcome to the NHK was ultimately a fine testament to the importance of friendship and independence. GONZO’s animation production was fairly unspectacular but Pearl Kyoudai’s grungy score, paired with a couple of totally uplifting and poppy opening and ending themes, more than made up for any visual shortcomings with its melancholy and chilled tone; surely a contender for best soundtrack of the year.

Welcome to the NHK is not a show for everyone – it can come across as overwhelmingly depressing and slow, sometimes too close to the bone and uncompromisingly geeky, but then I suppose that’s why I like it too. Within a few episodes I had totally fallen for these characters and desperately wanted to see them grow and find happiness. With this end – leaving the characters feeling optimistic but still somewhat scarred and timid, I’m more than content, knowing deep down they’ll be okay.

Again the fate of the world is in the hands of 14 kids (Bokurano)

Its been a while readers, 7 days to be precise, and as we all know, 7 days on internet may as well be a lifetime. I won’t labor you with the details, but suffice to say that this gradual slow down in blogging is sadly down to cliche reasons; I have found a new job that forces me awake by 6:30AM- an ungodly and surreal time to be conscious when to my horror even the moon is still mockingly pinned up in the night sky.

Being too tired to watch much anime I’ve still found the time to maintain a heathly staple of Enel-flavoured One Piece and even discover a brand spanking new manga series to read; Bokurano.

I’m not a regular manga reader by any means, but there were a few things that forced me into checking this out – an anime adaptation has just been announced and will be directed by Studio Ghibli’s up and coming Hiroyuki “The Cat Returns” Morita, further more it’s a story penned by Mohiro Kitoh; the man responsible for inflicting Shadow Star Narutaru on unsuspecting Pokemon fans – in Kitoh’s Narutaru, the Pokemon kill, are killed and torture their innocent trainers; in other words, the author is pretty twisted, unpredictable and has a real nasty streak. By now you should have picked up that I enjoy horror.

Bokurano continues his favoured trend of throwing kids into bizarre and horrific situations. The story is basically that 14 children, who think they are simply signing up for an elaborate video game, naievely agreeing to protect the Earth against a force of invading aliens. In these regards Bokurano is very similiar to Neon Genesis Evangelion; the aliens, who attack one by one, are giant monsters with extremely variable fighting styles. The kids fight in a giant robot.

Set against what they at first brush off as simply a game, the 14 children begin to die off either in battle or straight after. Then once the fighting is finished, they return to their every day lives to face up to devestation left behind; in one such city-centred clash, 40,000 civilians were killed (most likely squished) in the carnage.

Ultimately the kids are going into each battle knowing that one of them will die and that along the way thousands of innocents will perish too – if they refuse to fight, the world will end. As they say – no pain, no gain.

From the very first few pages I’ve been in love with Bokurano. At once a heart breaking drama and compelling sci-fi mystery, Mohiro Kitoh’s refusal to pull punches makes this a shocking and captivating read that gets better with every chapter. Indeed it is giant robot manga, but given its ultra realistic take on both the characters and the consequences of giant mecha combat, Bokurano feels fresh and exciting. It will be a massive hit as an anime series, so get in now on the ground floor and discover Kitoh’s twisted drama nice and early, I’m looking forward to be able to say “the manga is better”.

Welcome to the NHK! – (Never) Learning to Fly

Having just finished watching episode 19, this must be the first time I’ve left off Welcome to the NHK feeling happy! It was fantastic to see a smiling Torotoro-san biking around and about the streets of Tokyo; you can see in his grinning face that suddenly life is worth living again.

Despite Satou’s constant whining, I’m not convinced his mental condition is dire. He has friends to keep him company, hell – Misaki’s even cooking him dinner now – and having all this is so important. At the other end of the Hikkimori scale is Torotoro-san; a genuinely scary dead-beat with no friends and no Misaki; I can’t help but think his sad condition is closer to the real life of a hikkimori. He lives in the lonely perpetual hell of knowing his life sucks but being too afraid (and too paranoid) to do anything about it. People fear change and responsibility, and if given the choice will often take the easy way out.

Both Satou and Torotoro-san had one thing in common – they can rely on others to survive. Satou can afford to live like a hermit because his parents are funding his isolation, likewise Torotoro-san’s sister will do anything and everything for him. They are spoilt kids – never kicked out of the nest and taught to fly. Only when Torotoro-san’s sister disappears for a few days is the guy forced to decide whether to eat (and live) or starve (and die). Given NHK’s track record, I was expecting Torotoro-san’s suicide, but I guess the human spirit isn’t that ridiculous. My heart was ready to break. All it takes is a bit of tough love though – Satou’s parents take note.

As a side note the animation of episode 19 was a lot more fluid than usual. Despite sacrificing some facial detail and hair texture, for once I really enjoyed seeing the characters actually glide through a scene and physically convey their feelings – it helped the slapstick humour, and the interesting use of facial shadows meant this was a particularly good looking and stylish effort.

Welcome to the NHK! – 17 – The pyramid scheme of dreams

Just once I’d like to see Satou out smart someone. Now I know that he is a hikkimori with zero self confidence, but by the end of this episode – in which he is heartlessly conned out of precious rent money by an old school mate – it’s as though he has talked himself into being ripped off.

Satou must know that he is buying into a scam, so why do it? Subconsciously perhaps it’s an attempt to escape his bedroom life style; spending rent and food money to the point where you need to sign up for a financial loan will surely mean that his only option will be to go out and get a real job (and hopefully, rejoin normal society in the process). A hikkimori without money is a bum; he is forcing himself into situation where he will have to fight to survive.

So I suppose in this twisted way, the pyramid scheme Satou’s school mate sells really can change his life! I like how Welcome to the NHK will often parody modern societies nasty little problems; we’ve gone from porn games and MMORPGs to internet suicide clubs and now business pyramid scams, they are all easy targets but it makes for grotesque and exploitative viewing none the less. All these pursuits offer us is a fading superficial taste of success or belonging, like how the blinged-up old leader of this fraud owns an impressive “super car” but still operates out of a dingy, worn down old house – he wears and buys his happiness to hide his dingy, worn down life.

Welcome to the NHK! – 16 – The Ultimate NEET

There was always going to be a twist behind the real world identity of Mia. “She” was too perfect, Satou loved her too much, and NHK! isn’t about Satou being in love. I certainly didn’t see it being Yamazaki though – jeez, that was cruel of him. And then there is the flash-forward to Satou’s soon to be 50-year-old fat balding old man still leaching off his parents. Brutal and depressing – basically I’m glad this arc looks to be ending soon.

Satou’s melodramatic over reactions to the in-game chats are darkly funny; especially when he can hear the bishoujo Mia creeping towards his apartment, the dumbstruck “oh no! my hikkimori is revealed!” expression slapped across his face is priceless – but where is the series going with this MMORPG arc?

I suppose the problem is that I can’t really see what the story is building towards; we’re now over half way through and it would be a shame for it all to just suddenly end in one episode with Satou walking outside, smiling and ready to take on the world. For all this damn depressing mental torture, I demand payment in smiles and happiness! Obviously the manga is still on-going – so this is a real concern.

The animation was pretty bad too. NHK! is hardly ever good looking, more mediocre, but it bothers me when the character designs are clearly misshapen, rushed and lacking in essential detail – like faces. Come on Gonzo, I thought you were supposed to be good? Give poor Satou back his face.

Welcome to the NHK! – 14 to 15 – MMORPGs destroy lives… mmmk?

The relentless waves of depression continue unabated with these two episodes as Satou (hardly recovered from his suicidal exploits) stupidly falls foul to the life sucking world of MMORPGs. These highly addictive and never ending online games are undoubtedly one of the major forces behind what is becoming a worldwide epidemic of hikkimori, but what if, like Satou, you’re a hikkimori before even signing in? You already have no work and no responsibilities – so there is no reason for a break, you can just play the game all day and all night without a worry in the world.

The end of episode 15 was a harrowing and unhinged sight. Satou’s suicide attempts felt like melodramatic entertainment, as if he was looking for (and found) a reason to survive, but now he appears to be a lost cause, detached from reality and convinced he has somehow improved his life style. MMORPG’s offer a gradual yet hollow sense of achievement, making it seem as if going up a few power levels was worth the weeks of effort.
Like most entertainment mediums, MMORPG’s are an easy escape from reality, but where movies usually finish after 2 hours; these games can essentially run forever. For an amusing but ultimately just as depressing satire of MMORPGs, take a look at South Park episode 147.

Satou is lucky to have Misaki and even Yamazaki checking up on him. In reality a cute girl does not knock on the door of a hikkimori. Then again perhaps their concerned interference is harming his progress. If Satou is ever going to change, he has to want to do it. No matter how much Yamazaki bugs him about their gal-game or Misaki lectures him about recovering, Satou has to hit rock bottom to decide how he wants to live. Misaki, Yamazaki and even his parents are dragging him on, allowing him to quietly trudge through life, when all he needs is a bit of tough love.