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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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Pumpkin Scissors – 1 – Faith in humanity after all

I’m getting worried about the fall anime season; there is too much to watch. Putting aside the immediate favourites like Death Note and Black Lagoon (these two are unmissable in my eyes) the likes of Pumpkin Scissors and D.Gray-man have proved just as fun and action packed, so where does one (desperately trying to be a ‘casual’) anime fan draw the line? Because at this rate I’ll be signing pink papers down at the Akihabara mental asylum by the end of the month!

Paranoid rambling aside, Pumpkin Scissors cut an impressive debut. Set a few short years after a hard fought and debilitating war, civilisation is left in ruin. Law and order is spread thinly, and vicious soldiers turned sadistic bandits roam the land, exploiting the weak without a care in the world. Pumpkin Scissors follows the people willing to stand up and defend what good is left in their world.

Although I’m somewhat at odds with cliche teenage pretty boys and girls posing as our heroes, Pumpkin Scissors is evocatively set within a post-WW European landscape; crumbled buildings, muddy grass and depressed villagers fill the screen with their dank green hue. Running with this realistic tone, the brief skirmishes between soldiers and bandits are notable for their distinctly painful and violent aethetic.

Interactions between the characters are as interesting and natural as you would expect, there are no laugh out loud jokes but man mountain Randel Orlando has a face covered with scars and a chilling, excited look in his eyes when its time to take down a 3-manned tank; he is a bad ass. I’m interested to see how the budding relationship between he and the idealistic female lead (nick named Pumpkin Scissors no doubt due to her cute appearance) develops and whether they survive the mass of human darkness drowning them.

Sci-Fi Harry – Does exactly what it says on the tin

Uneducated and ignorant, my first taste of this most leafy of seasons is the earnestly dubbed “Sci-Fi Harry”. I knew absolutely nothing of this show before today and the only reason I figured I’d give it a try is because of the wonderfully unprentious name. It is literally what it says on the tin – a science fiction anime with a main character called Harry. Mirroring this complete lack of hype, there is nothing outright exciting or colourful about this show, between its typically bullied protagonist and a depressed colour scheme, this is an intentionally serious and down to earth stab at high school psychic horror.

I could describe Harry as frustrating and unpleasant – after all, he is a beaten, bullied and weak teenager and we take no pleasure in his treatment at the hands of his yobbish school mates. At the same time, he is an under dog worth supporting and provided he doesn’t collapse in a pool of [his own] piss, his development as a brave hero will rouse my heart.

Perhaps the best – or at least the most striking element of Sci-Fi Harry is its artistic approach. The surreal and completely unsettling opening theme aside (it truly is an abstract sight to behold), I was impressed by the angular facial features – the eyes are particularly detailed, beaming and jerking from side to side, and it’s been a while since I saw an anime character with a proper nose. No doubt imagining a view of life from the perspective of a jaded kid, Sci-Fi Harry evokes a lifeless and drab atmosphere just waiting to explode, and for this reason it won’t be for the excitable harem otaku.

Ultimately it’s hard to know which way this 20 episode series will eventually head – given the original manga series was scribed by the same author of Night Head Genesis, I’m half expecting an influx of gay bishounen, yet I can’t deny that this first episode of Sci-Fi Harry is striking and interesting, hardly chilling but edgy and moody, wollowing in dank modern suburbia with a curiously ambiguous and confused lead character.

Elfen Lied – 8 through 10 – Subverting the cute

Again Elfen Lied defies it’s pretty style and delivers a trio of episodes that are anything but. Subverting the look of its cute characters, it clearly delights in extreme mental and physical abuse — the disgusting bludgeoning of a helpless young puppy aptly symbolises how innocence and weakness is exploited in Elfen Lied, and that’s just the humans. Sometimes it’s hard to watch, but when young orphan Lucy is slowly corrupted by the hate and taunts that surround her, a sense of empathy forms between her and the viewer, or at least we understand that if a young kid is bullied into a corner and has no one to turn to, the inevitable result is tragedy. Lucy just happens to be a Diclonius.

What makes Elfen Lied stand out is the way it delves into characters, explores their relationships and personalities. I’ve already talked about Lucy but I’ll say again that through this flashback to her lonely past, we suddenly start feeling something for this so called monster. She is still dangerous, her power still utterly brutal, but behind the gore now lays sympathy. Lucy is a product of her upbringing — in other words, she is a product of human society, granted she had a particularly tough time at school (tougher than the average kid) but shunned and taunted for her looks, betrayed by her friends, it’s no wonder she grew up with such a hatred of mankind.

Before ending the review, there is something else worth noting. The artistic, evocative opening animation and accompanying prayer-like melody is darkly outstanding, it perfectly sets the sorrow-filled, forsaken mood and looks wonderful too. The art is so layered and detailed but expressive and full of meaning that its well worth watching on its own time and time again.

Night Head Genesis – Psychic bishounen, brotherly love

Psychic bishounen, brotherly love – Night Head Genesis is quite clearly aimed at the yaoi fan girls, yet an over abundance of melodrama and an almost laughably over the top collection of villains fails to render this completely unwatchable. It’s trashy, homo-erotic and somewhat dull, but for now I do intend to watch more of Night Head Genesis. At 24 episodes in length, something genuinely interesting must be set to happen, right?

There are a few things I quite enjoy about this. I complained above about the larger than life — often insane — bad guys, but it’s still quite fun seeing them kick ass and hop around acting totally evil (like being crazy enough to abduct and murder any girl wearing purple clothes) only to get their comeuppance in gruesome or disturbing ways. That’s right; I’m in it for the violence! Night Head Genesis sets a dark (sometimes extremely moody) tone and it can be impressively harsh – seeing these psysic powers used to cause damage is very enthralling and brings back better memories of Tetsuo going ape shit in AKIRA.

Unfortunately the two brothers and their whole melodramatic history (being abandoned by their parents and forced to live their younger years stuck in a special hospital for the mentally "enhanced) fails to illicit any kind of empathy from me — there is no subtlety to their characters; they lack personality and humour, share no rapore with one another (or anyone else for that matter). What does interest me about them is their purpose in the story — why are they important? I have many questions and to get answers I’m happy to sit through another couple of episodes before deciding whether or not Night Head Genesis is limited to merely offering trashy eye candy for the fan girls.

Mushishi – 21 – Animalistic tragedy

Since the last few episodes of Mushishi left us in upbeat and melancholy moods, this was a timely reminder as to just how heartless a series it can be. I don’t mean heartless in a sadistic sense, rather how a mushi can cause such great tragedy to a couple of people who are quite clearly already at their lowest ebbs.

On its own child birth is hardly a pleasant spectacle, but to give birth to a glob of green goo would be utterly horrifying. Mushishi is filled with this kind of grotesque horror, but within the context of each episode (and as it is here) it’s usually a tragic, sad sight.

In many episodes previous we have seen that Ginko has an underlying passion for his patients; those usually stricken with life-threatening mushi, but here he is almost too clinical. When he tells a couple of budding parents that they will have to murder their mushi-infected kids, you can’t help but feel sorry for them, but Ginko comes across as a bit too detached from their peril and it’s no wonder that he ends up getting stabbed by “their” desperate mother.

Episode 21 of Mushishi is a sad, cautionary tale though this time there is no strong underlying moral. Instead we are again shown the darker side of Ginko’s travels and meet a animalistic mushi that will do anything to survive.

Angel Cop – Repulsive, Uncomfortable, Anti-Semitic

Growing up as an impressionable teenager in the mid-90s meant that my first taste of anime came through Manga Entertainment’s infamous VHS releases; sex, violence and science fiction were the orders of the day and as cheap and nasty as this kind of anime often was, I must admit I still think back on that time of my life quite fondly.

Angel Cop is the epitome of everything Manga (at least in the UK) used to stand for; it’s sinister, bereft of moral fibre and overflowing with such uncompromising violence. And when I say violence, I’m not talking about your sweet Elfen Lied rag dolls. Here is a morbid attention to detail which often forces some quite repulsive and uncomfortable scenes of murder and mayhem. I can best describe it is truly visceral gore. The titular lead character is Angel; a harder, nastier version of Matoko Kunsagi with a hatred for terrorists so deep that she is willing to kill a young kid if it means taking down her unenviable target.

Reading up on Angel Cop shows that it caused quite the controversy when first released in the West due to (according to Anime News Network) “… a rather blatant anti-Semitic slant, however both the dub and the subtitles were altered to a certain degree to cover this”. I am yet to see anything approaching racism in these first couple of episodes, though such an offensive subtext would hardly surprise me given the director is Ichiro Itano, who has previously worked with such questionable content in Violence Jack and to a lesser extent, Gantz.

Based on these opening episodes, I must admit that I am quite enjoying my look back at Angel Cop. Nostalgia often has a way of making things seem better than they actually are (imagine my disappointment when I realized Transformers: The Movie actually wasn’t the greatest film of all time, for shame) but this is still holding up today, despite being produced as an OVA series way back in 1989. The action is fierce and shocking and the visuals are reassuringly striking, combining those wonderful (read: ugly, Brian May-esque) hair cuts from the 80s with an exciting science fiction plot involving special government agents fighting psychically-powered vigilantes and pumped up cyborgs. What more could an action junkie want?

Mushishi – 20

Looking back on Mushishi, I suspect that this episode (episode 20) will rank as one of my favourites. Every episode has had that unique air of mystisism; a beautiful sense of magic that I have come to love, but still, rarely have a felt so attached to the characters as I did in this episode.

It begins with Ginko paying a visit to an old friend called Tanyu; this young woman (who I guess is around the same age as Ginko) suffers from a curse brought down on her family by a particularly strong, and frankly evil sounding mushi. The curse means that from birth, her right leg is paralyzed and covered with a pitch black birthmark, and the only way she can lift the curse is by listening to and then writing down the tales of the various Mushishi that pass through her part of the world. By means of flashback, we discover this is how Tanyu first meets Ginko.

Despite being one of the slower episodes, the unsettling world of Mushishi is presented here in a striking and magical way; mirroring the first episode, here written words literally jump off pages and fly about rooms- essentially, we are overcome by the simple notion of taking something we all assume is a static, never changing medium and injecting it with life.

Stunning aethetics aside, I loved this episode because of the underplayed friendship between Ginko and Tanyu- and indeed, Tanyu herself. Far from getting down about her disability, she is a notably strong willed and good natured person who’s boundless optimism bounces off of Ginko’s sarcastic wit like sunshine. The way they interact and talk to each other shows us they have an undoubtedly warm friendship (and forgive me for getting ahead of myself here- potential romance) and rather than let themselves be overcome with sadness, the characters here are full of life and a joy to watch.

A lot of Mushishi is about conveying a moral, or an idea concerning as vast a subject as spirituality, but episode 20 deals not with such an overbearing sense of responsibly as the simple friendship between two friends. It was a great episode.

Mushishi – 19

Despite displaying none of the euphoric highs and gut wrenching lows of previous episodes, Mushishi 19 was an uplifting way to while away 23 minutes. The concept here is really quite profound- consider that without someone to love you, you disappear. Fuki, the lead character of this story, gets “infected” by a Mushi that will slowly but surely fade her into nothingness- romantically, she can only recover her physical self if she truely wants to remain human.

Amidst much soul searching, Fuki thankfully has a happy ending, though it’s here that Mushishi makes some interesting spiritual commentary; symbolically it is remarked that whether you see a person or not, your love will always keep them close; that although the body may die, such strong emotion will never fade. Of course in the romantic and magical world of Mushishi, love has the power resurrect- but how should we, the viewers, interpret this theme? I suppose we all have our own definitions of faith, understandings of what many call the “human soul” but no matter how I look at this episode, it still reenforces the nice, warm and fuzzy sentiment that emotion can transcend the physical plain.

I’m sorry if I’ve gone overly philosophical in the above paragraph, I’m not a particularly religious or spiritual person (consider me neutral for now, cop-out, I know), I just admire the way Mushishi gets these kinds of theological thoughts twisting through my mind.

Mushishi – 18

This episode is imediately notable for a distinct change of direction. Mushishi usually begins with Ginko wandering about beautiful landscapes, finding his next job and meeting new people, here the first 13 minutes are told as a flashback, in which tragedy inevitably occurs. The latter half of the episode is all about finding true emotional redemption.

Indeed this was hardly a typical Mushishi episode at all since the actual mushi creatures play what amounts to a very insignificant part (though as ever, it’s symbolic of the emotion felt by this week’s main character- a mushi that yearns for it’s homeland). That said, Mushishi’s strength lies in compelling human drama and yet again, it delivers with an emotional and heartfelt payoff. It wasn’t as flashy, or as shocking as this series has been in the past but still, the way this episode glided through such tricky issues as depression and guilt was nothing less than outstanding.

I know full well that I haven’t sufficiently provided you with a plot synopsis for this episode but frankly, it isn’t needed; just understand that this was a brilliant episode of anime and another series highpoint for me.

Mushishi – 17

Again dealing with the pain felt at the loss of a loved one, episode 17 at least concludes with a ray of hope after 20-odd minutes of forecasted gloom. I’m not saying it’s bad that Mushishi sometimes portrays hopeless situations, it’s just nice when someone’s dreams are fulfilled and we leave the show in an upbeat mood.

This episode features a pair of sisters who are seperated when bad fortune happens to see them stray into path of a dangerous mushi. One of the girls is vanished into thin air, and as legend has it, she can never again return to our plain of existence- essentially, she has entered the domain of the mushi, doomed to exile for what could well be eternity. Irregardless, for years on end her isolated sister continues to hope, to dream about their reunion.

There is a nice poetic flow to this story, it feels magical and myterious, and still the human emotions are as subdued and compelling as ever; Mushishi doesn’t do soapy melodrama. I wasn’t as emotionally shaken as this series has had me in the past, but still, this was a pleasant fairy tale resolved in as best a fashion as possible- the sisters are again reunited because they never let their relationship fade, their hope never dies.

Mushishi – 16

There is no skirting around the fact that episode 16 of Mushishi is a thoroughly depressing affair.

Every day a woman loses fragments of her memory, whether it be the definition of a sneeze or the identity of her sister, it’s a mysterious problem that only someone like Ginko can solve.

There are some things she never forgets though; the most profound things. Like her worried son, or how to cook, or to be sure to lay out a meal for her husband despite knowing full well that he will never return.

By now it should be clear that every episode of Mushishi begins and ends with a clear purpose, this one is a characterization of human despair. No matter how hard she tries to put her husband out of her mind, this broken wife has been cut deeply by her lover’s betrayal and even a mushi that eats memories can not erase her unwanted echoes of love. The saddest part is not so much how it affects the forgetful mum, more how it clearly depresses her gutted son. He has seen her go through it all and still, despite what his father has done, his mother still lays out a plate of food; a dinner never to be eaten, a broken memory of the saddest times.

Mushishi – 15

Having suffered through some heavy tragedy in the last few episodes of Mushishi, it was nice to see the show returning to it’s well established style of surreal, metaphorical story telling this time around.

Here we meet a chirpy young boy who like Ginko can not only see Mushi but takes an active interest in them too. Though upon talking with his older sister, it turns out that the kid is using some mushi magical powers to fall into hibernation every winter- he does this to releave the stress of back breaking house keeping on his only sister (their parents are long gone).

As is the case with most of Mushishi, this episode portrays a beautiful world. Snow flakes drop from blanket white skies and mountain tops punctuate the lonely background. Ginko discovers a hidden spring garden in the middle of a snow covered valley and it’s a wonderful sight- vibrant with butterflies, lush green grass and violet flowers.

Furthermore, this episode is notable for being one of the few that could possibly spark a Ginko romance. He pushes the woman’s advances aside with subtle grace, worried about her welfare given mushi have a tendancy to follow him around. Apparently, too many mushi in one place is never a good thing.

Of course, this is a fine episode, but not one that strikes me on such a compelling human level as the previous. Playing out more like a mythical piece of advice, we leave our snowy surroundings being told by our gravely narrator that in cold situations, warm shelter will always tempt us into quiting our journies. Naturally, Ginko keeps on walking. Mushishi is as philosophical ever. This was an episode about Ginko being tempted by love.

Mushishi – 14

It seems almost ridiculous to say, but every episode of Mushishi I see is my new favourite episode. Number 14 is an outstanding piece of story telling, possibly the most heart breaking yet and still, an ultimately uplifting and optimistic masterpiece.

Shades of green fill the screen as Ginko stumbles about a forrest. He bumps into a strange man who hasn’t been able to escape the forrest for years (possibly even decades). I won’t ruin anything for you, this episode is too good to let slip anything else but what transpires is both grotesque horror and a terrible tradegy, poetic in it’s hopeful conclusion.

Unlike episode 13, where romance is destoryed by mere accident, here it is a premeditated sacrifice in the name pure love that heart breakingly backfires thanks to some typically despicable human nature.

For those who have a sense for anime that tugs at our heart strings, Mushishi episode 14 is by far and away the most outstanding, understated love story I’ve come across this year. Recommended. If you aren’t watching this, you’re an idiot.

Mushishi – 13

As the is the norm for Mushishi, I left episode 13 with a mixture of emotion and intrigue. The two lead characters for this week are obviously in love but one of histories worst traditions, that of arranged marriages, again causes the kind of intense termoil that can only result in tragedy.

These kinds of episodes usually end optimistically. The soulless girl, having been possessed by a mushi, you expect would return to her usual self once vacated (ala The Exorcist). This doesn’t happen, but still her lover awaits her return for years in the blind hope that one day she will return as the girl he loves. When she dies, a part of him disappears too, perhaps he loses hope.

Needless to say, this was a darker than usual episode of Mushishi. I wasn’t gripped by the tragedy of it all; the murky atmosphere of this episode long seemed to suggest that bad things were lurking in the woods, but still- this is another comendable 23 minutes of Mushishi that look, sound and even feel as immersive as ever.