violence

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 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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Blood-C: one long descent into chaos

Series like Blood-C catch my eye. At some point during its airing, I got the impression it was bad: the weekly reviews at Sea Slugs and Moe Sucks say as much and more, but since finishing, I’ve also read takes at chaostangent and S01E01 that say the opposite. Having now seen it for myself over the last week, I agree more with the latter blogs. Like all series that seem to require a little patience, Blood-C has ended up being quite underrated.

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Black Lagoon II: Judgment Day

Black Lagoon’s original run impressed me. The  show was beautifully animated, included an interesting cast, and had enough violent gun battles to give a child nightmares.  I also think it had the best crew of any recent show.  What it lacked was length.  Its 24 original episodes, stretched over two seasons, were fun to watch but the ending of the series did not provide enough closure.  It felt more like a season finale than an episode meant to wrap up an entire series.  Luckily a new OVA (a straight to DVD released) named Roberta’s Blood Trail was released in 2010.  The OVA starts slow but if you liked Black Lagoon’s first run and can forgive the OVA’s lack of an interesting story you get a treat.

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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Eden in name only

Hiroki Endo calling his manga ‘Eden‘ is a hint. Eden is supposed to be a paradise on Earth, but Endo‘s version is more like Hell. It’s sarcasm on his part, I think, because this is a contrary and brutal series, where anything that’s good is crushed and anything that’s innocent is (often literally) raped. For the last few days I’ve hardly been able to believe my eyes whilst reading this; everyone keeps dying, and even those who do survive, do so minus their humanity, or, even worse, minus their eye-balls. Continue reading

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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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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Delighted with some devilishly delicious horror

Never one to refuse an opportunity to read some delicious horror manga, I’ve whiled away these last couple of weeks plunging my eyes into the many dark crevasses of the internet, hoping in vain to uncover another crawling Enigma of Japanese terror. Forget about all this torture porn nonsense, forget about reality, for me, Halloween is about monsters and ghosts; weird, gross, malevolent abominations of nature inconceivably twisted by a mysterious ill-intent. Until last night, this hunt was rapidly failing. I had resigned myself to a Halloween of ghastly nothingness, but alas, at this most hopeless of hours, my damned savoir and his demented smile lurked forth from the shadows. His name was none other than Go Nagai and his bloody offering was Devilman. And it was perfect. Perfectly and utterly disturbing.

I mean that. When I’d finally finished reading Devilman, I was left in a state of genuine unease. This 5 volume manga series begins in a relatively innocuous fashion when, much like Batman, our anti-hero Akira Fudo agrees to merge his body with a super-powered demon in order to prevent those very same beasts from feasting on the powerless herds of mankind. This half of the story is typically episodic, with him fighting off any number of ghoulish imps. It’s certainly not scary, but contains a strange charm; monsters aren’t supposed to have feelings, they aren’t supposed to love each other, and yet, in Devilman, they do, and for their mystical, twisted romances, they will sacrifice everything.

A brutal devil, a frightening devil. However, a form that should have been ugly and frightening, was beautiful to me. Unspeakably beautiful.

What happens next can only be described as Armageddon.

After being profoundly frightened by an invasion of horrible demons, the world’s human populace is sent crawling back into the dark ages. Fearful of the monsters hiding amongst them, cowardly, heartless people incite impromptu witch-hunts and the executions of those randomly suspected to be the enemy, including Devilman and his friends. In this purge, no-one is spared; women, children, even babies are slaughtered. Every time you expect someone to be saved, it doesn’t happen. Everyone dies.

Early into the last volume, this ever spiraling sense of hopelessness deeply affected me. There is no escape from such chilling logic and these last two volumes contain some of the most shocking horror I’ve ever read. Go Nagai refuses to compromise on any level and forges ahead, determined to capture man’s self-inflicted and shameful end.

After everything that has happened, after Devilman has lost all that was dear to him, he understandably realizes that the human race isn’t worth saving, but he fights Satan anyway. The outcome is sad but that is fine, for this is real horror. It has monsters, violence, mythology, and, just as important, it has a point, a blunt, painful, affecting stab to the heart.

Basking in the inferno of Cloverfield, remembering Blue Gender

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Head-spinning, stomach-turning and mind-racing are a few of the adjectives I’d choose to describe how I felt when I stumbled out of the cinema last night, having just suffered through Cloverfield. To say I’d been looking forward to this film would be an understatement, and even though I’d only discovered its baffling trailer in early January, the anxious wait until February the 1st (its official UK release) was incredibly frustrating. I mean, considering its earlier premiere in the US and the relative secrecy surrounding the central “creature” itself, I just desperately wanted to see this film for myself, and now that I have, here I am.

I loved Cloverfield, motion sickness and all! Even before setting foot at the cinema, I knew I’d love it. Giant monsters, ambiguous origins, unfathomable means. It’s all good. The complete destruction of New York City, depicted in an ultra-realistic style; seeing the Big Apple’s sky-scrapers gradually tumble like a pack of dominos in an inferno of reverberating, twisted metal. Suffice to say, it’s an awesome spectacle, but I digress, this is an anime blog. Must talk about anime.

When one thinks of monster flicks, Godzilla, Japan’s bastion of pop culture, is a behemoth of the genre and yet, for every man-in-a-suit movie, there’s few traditional giant monster/disaster stories in anime. Sure, we have the likes of Evangelion, but even then, that’s much more of a character study than anything else. What I’m thinking of is a pulpy, survival-based story in which humanity is pushed to its very limits of endurance and forced to fend off the constant attacks of an unknown enemy. Having wracked my memory for hours, one TV series crawls to mind; 1999’s Blue Gender.

blue_gender_blog_2.jpgWhen Yuji Kaido, Blue Gender’s young protagonist, is diagnosed with a baffling new illness, he is shelved in cryogenic stasis for an indefinite period of time, comforted only by the promise that he’ll be woken the very moment doctors develop a cure, something that’s currently beyond medical science. Years, maybe even decades, later, Yuji stirs from his great long slumber, though the world he wakes in isn’t exactly the modern paradise he left behind. Earth’s been overrun with giant insect-like creatures called the “Blue”, and of course, they feed on humans. Any semblance of government and army has withdrawn to “Second Earth”; a large space station housing the last remnants of modern civilisation. The few people remaining on Earth, starving and hiding in the rubble of destroyed cities, are being picked off, one by one, by the man-eating monsters, as humanity formulates its last shot at survival.

Blue Gender, much like Cloverfield, doesn’t take prisoners. Life is cheap and of the dozen or so soldiers who come to rescue Yuji from his “forever dream”, only one survives to see him safely back to “Second Earth”. In this series, man’s absolutely lost his place at the top of the food chain and he’s left, like the rest of nature, to live in the constant fear of being hunted. One of the things I loved about the first half of Blue Gender was this strong sense of hopelessness clinging to the characters as they travel across barren wastelands and empty cities, not knowing how or when the next attack will commence. It makes for riveting viewing because, in this world, there is no sentiment, no rules about who dies or when, everyone is constantly haunted by the spectre of death, almost driven insane with fear, no doubt imaging just how it’ll be when their time comes. I first watched Blue Gender on the Sci-Fi channel around about 2001/2; I still remember how, every Thursday evening at mid-night, there it was, another episode to devour. We never missed an episode (much to lament of our father, who’d rather be watching fishing programs) and that’s a tribute to the quality of this series and indeed, some day, I’m hoping to see it again (preferably not dubbed this time). It’s most definitely horror in the vein of “Aliens“, but if you loved Cloverfield, I’m quite certain you’ll find yourself hooked on Blue Gender too. I mean, everyone loves an apocalypse every now and then, right?

Immortals and non-Immortals both Enjoy Life Equally, so says Baccano!

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It bothers me to say I took a while to realize the quality of "Baccano!". Aside from boasting no less than 18 main characters, the Pulp Fiction-esque narrative would constantly fracture and leap back and forth in time. I didn’t like that I had to make an effort to constantly focus and be forced to remember so many names and faces; three episodes in, I was feeling frustrated and close to losing interest. Something needed to be done and in a last ditch attempt to salvage the series, it became clear I’d have to wait it out, build up the fansubs and spend a long weekend working my way through each episode; allowing time to fully immerse myself in the story. And now that weekend is past; the end result is? What the hell did you expect? Awesome!

Many desire immortality, yet the key to eternal life has forever eluded man. The story of "Baccano!" begins in 1711 when a group of sea-faring alchemists capture this most desired of gifts. Nearly all of them become immortal there and then, yet, as fate would have it; only one is granted the knowledge to recreate the potion. Of course, he quickly decides not to tell, wisely realising the folly in allowing such power to leak out into the public domain, but his brave decision quickly incites murder and ultimately, a struggle that’s raged for over 200 years. We join the story as it reaches its climax during prohibition-era North America; this was the absolute height of organised crime in the US, a violent and cruel time to live, or indeed, die.

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Despite its frequent lapses into light comedy, squeamish readers should be warned that this is a deceptively violent (and often, sadistic) series. Without going into too much detail, lets just say that bones break, arms get sliced, faces explode and children are tortured. Of course, this refreshing lack of moral compunction inevitably climaxes in some breath-taking and unpredictable action scenes, including several sequences of beautifully animated hand-to-hand combat, fought on the windy carriage-roofs of a moving train. Just so you know, it turns out that knives, guns, grenades and even flame-throwers aren’t much of a match for blood-thirsty gymnasts. "Baccano!" is a lot like "Black Lagoon"; it has that same delirious hunger for gruesome carnage.

On its own, the action wouldn’t be enough, but as I’ve already mentioned, this is hardly a conventional series. Aside from the fact that the narrative will regularly interchange years and events in a matter of seconds, many of the characters provoke empathy and romance despite having splattered the brains of an adversary all over the wall minutes earlier. I loved the playful dialogue, and the character interactions are remarkably fun and natural; you believe in their fear, sadness or anger. You can see a love affair unfolding and it’s almost heart-breaking. By the end I was completely riveted by the story, lost in the characters.

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There is so much to say about "Baccano!" but I’m afraid I’ll lose your concentration if I keep going. I’ve already had to completely scrap the first version of this review since it degenerated into a bloated rant. Obviously, I absolutely loved this series, and if I ever get around to writing a review of 2007, it will easily make my top 3 of the year. The best decision I made was to push through it over a quiet weekend; as expected, the jumbled jigsaw of a plot and all those unique characters are so much easier to remember this way. The only problem is that now I’m having trouble letting go, I’m still stuck in the world of immortals and trying to fathom out the few remaining mysteries. Hints are made at characters and storylines beyond the anime narrative and quite frankly, I’d die for a sequel. If you’re yet to watch "Baccano!"; I envy you.

Sex, violence and samurai; introducing Shigurui

Lately, I’ve been watching a lot of “fluffy” anime; series with heart-rending love stories and elegant ballet dancing. There’s nothing wrong with that, but from time to time, I like to taste the other extreme too; I mean a bit of the old “ultra violence”. It’s natural, then, that Shigurui fits the bill; the kind of anime many of us like to pretend doesn’t exist. So, before going any further, please note this post is heavy on images of an “adult nature”; though I understand many of you might be unsettled by such blunt depictions of sex and violence, the truth of Shigurui lies not in words alone, but its unrelenting presentation of old Japan’s institutional depravity. Basically, you’ve been warned. Continue reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Berserk – 3 – The Hawk that soars ever higher

The moustache twiddling decadence caused by extended aristocracy is an issue central to the narrative of Berserk. Regardless of social standing, we all like to dream that we are destined for greatness, to achieve something worthwhile. Aristocracy exists to elongate wealth and protect respect no matter what the cost, and that often includes suppressing the common mans talent to protect one’s position.

The beauty of Berserk, and especially the Band of the Hawk, is that these are classic underdogs who dare to have ideas above their stations, chasing their dreams, doing something important with their lives. The truth, as Berserk is clearly documenting, is that anyone can do anything with their lives provided the right amount of skill and desire. It’s such a romantic concept.

Griffith, the symbolic wings of the Band’s hawk, is talented and has an unquenchable desire to conquer. Despite his peasant roots, he is the future, he is brave enough to fight for his dreams, and others are attracted to that, feel inspired by it or fear it. Most are just content to jump on his back and enjoy the flight; the Hawk that soars ever higher, the view from up there is beautiful, but Guts is different, even now it’s clear that he is a punk, and like Griffith, can never be tamed.

Guts and Griffith are at once the same and totally different, they enjoy true social freedom and unerring self belief, but Guts is a blood thirsty warrior, only looking at what stands in front of his sword, while the elegant Griffith conducts his army like one would a game of chess, his mind calculating ten moves ahead. The early fight in episode 3 between these two is particularly revealing, especially in Guts case – he is completely direct, willing to throw mud, bite, kick and punch his way to victory. He refuses to give up, and in the end Griffith is forced to dislocate Guts shoulder to win the fight, Guts could have surrendered, but replies “Go to hell”. Win or bust.

Episode three marks the end of the beginning, Guts finally joins the Hawks and we are treated to their comradery. The Band of Hawk isn’t simply a group of mercenaries looking for a quick buck; they are friends fighting for each other, dreaming of a better future, this all comes across really well in episode three. As does Susumu Hirasawa’s excellent score, combining his surreal industrial style with authentic medieval instruments and chants – the tracks “Forces”, “Guts” and “Earth” are all used during the episode, and all are essentially brilliant tunes, ever complimenting the poignancy of experiencing the journey of a lifetime.

Berserk – 2 – Sparks fly as the wheels of fate spin

Episode two introduces us to the important characters that make up the “Band Of The Hawk” – in other words, the personalities that dominate the rest of Berserk. The dark-skinned Casca is an exceptionally talented swordsman who just so happens to be a woman. That she commands so much respect amongst her comrades suggests that her power is second to only one man. The white haired Griffith is the leader of the Hawks and a lethal warrior; his strength and ability with a sword matched only by his elegance and charisma. Men follow Griffith because they can see he is destined for greatness, he shines so brightly – the Hawk is a legend waiting to happen.

Between Casca, Griffith and Guts, you will discover the soul of Berserk, the way they talk to each other, the tense body language and variable facial expressions; it all makes for such riveting viewing. Even during this early episode, sparks are flying between Casca and Guts. I should point out that Casca is deeply in love, bordering on obsessed with Griffith – she cannot stand to see his attentions elsewhere, and every second Griffith spends talking with Guts is like another small tear ripping through her heart. She hates Guts because Griffith likes him; basically, she is jealous.

It’s obvious that Griffith is special. During his exchanges with Guts, he talks like an ageless poet. There is no doubt in his voice, no fear, just the unrelenting calm of a man who could be very well be cradling the fate of the world in his palms. Most people are in awe of Griffith, but Guts would happily spit in his face. That’s what fascinates Griffith and infuriates Casca. Guts is an enigma and uncontrollable, a man who only feels alive in the heat of battle. Nothing else matters to him. And as it turns out, nothing else matters to Griffith either, but in Guts he finds a kindred spirit.

I’ve harped on about character relationships in this post but I don’t want anyone to think Berserk is just some boring period soap opera. It can be extremely gory and exciting, as the amount of severed limbs will attest. My favourite berserk moment in this episode comes right at the beginning as the young warrior Guts stands facing a bear-like beast of a man called Basuzo, who is wielding an axe and boasting about having killed 30 people in one battle; Basuzo stands a few yards in front of Guts, mocking him about being young, small and weak. Guts simply straps on his helmet, puts his head down and smiles. It is the grin of a man filling with excitement, starring death in the face, and running head first straight into it. That is Guts and that is Berserk.

Berserk – 1 – An introduction to obsession

I’m just going to come right out and say it — Berserk is my favourite anime of all time. I became an anime fan because of Naruto, but Berserk and its alluring quantities of bloody violence, epic action and tragic friendship immediately captured my heart and held onto it ever since. I still remember having to contain my enthusiasm when first watching it, sometime in 2002 — I so desperately wanted to marathon through it all right there and then, but deep down knew I had to take time to savour it, to consider and enjoy every new episode; I knew that feeling wouldn’t last forever. That’s how much I enjoyed watching Berserk and now, as an on-going (and quite selfish) tribute, I intend to blog-review my way through the entire show. Please enjoy my thoroughly biased perspective.

Having said all that, the first episode very nearly killed my interest before it began. As is the style of Kentarou Miura’s fantastic manga, Berserk confusingly begins half way through the story; there are no proper introductions to the characters, there is no explanation as to what is happening; we are just thrown head first into Guts’ (only known in this episode as the "Black Swordsman") violent medieval world. He is a heartless bad ass, a mountain of muscle covered in armour; he has one arm and one eye, carries a giant sword (capable of cutting through horses) and fires an automatic cross bow — simply put, he is a one man war machine hell bent on revenge.

Guts shows no sign of humanity and no sympathy for his victims; all he desires is to hunt the cannibalistic demons that have presumably ruined his life. Nothing or no one else matters – the only time we see him smile; a hellish grin, is when he is firing arrow after arrow into the butchered face of said demon.

It’s established then that Guts is seriously pissed off about something; right at the end of the episode we flash back to Guts’ past and see him as an energetic younger man (teenager, no doubt). The rest of this anime is now dedicated to discovering the reasons behind Guts’ fall into such haunted monstrosity. And at this moment we are hooked.

Reflecting on Kemonozume – Too cool for otaku

It’s fair to say that the creative staff “working on” (more like playing with) Kemonozume must have had so much fun, from flying heads and sexed up monkeys to a perverted old man shoving a pair of severed female arms down his skanky speedos – this is a show that clearly had no pretension of sensibility and instead embraces insanity, playing out like a giddy reimaging of Neon Genesis Evangelion’s apocalypse. If there is an on-going theme, it is love; and the sad things that love can do to you! The end result is a spectacular if rather superficial show, it leaves us with no sense of tragedy or enlightenment, but one can’t help but be enthralled by such an enthusiastic and eccentric stab at animated story telling.

It’s important to note the word “animated” here. A lot of anime seems to revolve around depicting everyday cold, hard realism – so much so that we almost forget that this is actually animated. It’s a shame because the beautiful thing about animation is that anything is possible, why the need to ground us in reality when there are no limits? Actually that’s wrong, the only true limit is the artists imagination, and imagination is rare. Just look around – most anime looks the same, borrows the same boring old archetypes and sticks to tried and test formula. The industry is still looking for a new Miyazaki; an innovative and important new director able to speak to fans beyond the typical otaku crowd, but they struggle because for years they have been stuck recycling shounen, slice of life, harem and fan service anime for the masses.

In the sea of generic trash that largely makes up today’s anime and despite its somewhat limited popularity even within anime fandom, Kemonozume is one of the few shows unique enough to find a lasting audience. If there is hope for the future of anime, it’s to be found in a show like this or Mushishi, where whimsical and exciting animation takes precedence over easy money.

Kemonozume – 10 – Sex-starved monkeys and eating fish with giant detectives

Since we’re now hitting the final couple of episodes, Kemonozume is building up to an action packed climax. The villain, or “big boss”, has turned out to be the fat Ohba – I liken his bizarre appearance to that of a clown, and deep down, we’re all scared of clowns – their smiley made-up faces covering a deeply seeded malevolence. Just ask Stephen King! Ohba wields a double “Kemonozume” too; both his arms are transplanted claws ripped from innocent young flesh eaters – so no doubt, he will prove a fearsome opponent for Toshihiko. He is a vile and nasty piece of work.

As for Toshihiko, he’s off training with sex-starved monkeys and eating fish with giant detectives. When I’m watching Kemonozume, I hardly noticed how fucking strange this series is. Yuka has been abducted by Ohba, so he’ll need to power up if he’s going to get her back.

Artistic and mad is a word I’d use to describe Kemonozume’s typically staggering opening few seconds – this time, I imagine it could be a tripped out dream sequence seen through the warped perspective of an insane and drunk Adolf Hitler. It’s like watching a fragmented, dizzy replay of a drunken memory.

To honest there’s no easy way to sum up Kemonozume’s visual epilepsy. You really have to see it to understand how damn colourful it is; so do that. Go and watch Kemonozume.

Kemonozume – 9 – Old habits die hard

Still on the run from the Kifuuken, we join the love birds Yuka and Toshihiko aimlessly wandering down vast and empty roads when they are offered a lift by an old married couple. Their journey (squeezed inside a white van) is a chance for them to reflect on their young relationship, inspired by the beautiful and reflective scenery, and of course they can’t help but stare at the old couple still head-over-heals in love with each other after decades of marriage.

Later that evening, Yuka and Toshihiko take a walk down by a rocky beach but return to find tragedy; the old couple, having taken some strange medicine, have transformed into grotesque monsters and are biting chunks out of each other. Toshihiko tries to stop them, but Yuka is attacked and this in turn triggers her own transformation. The old couple end up dead, the medicine sold to them by the Kifuuken. Utterly horrified at having feasted on the old lady, Yuka leaves Toshihiko and runs crying into a near-by forest. Here she bumps into the frog like old man from the Kifuuken. He has a sick, greedy look on his face; grinning widely as if to suggest he has finally found his prey.

There is a lot of talk here about love and what it means to love someone regardless of their physicality. Subverting and repressing your nature, attempting to become something you’re not, this inevitably leads to heart break. Yuka is a flesh eater and she must accept this fact if she is ever to become happy.

This was another fine episode – noted for a particularly symbolic and beautiful scene where the characters find themselves walking on blue sky and fluffy clouds; a completely flat, shallow river that reflects the sky above. The novelty of a 60+ year old woman dreamily discussing sex not withstanding.

Kemonozume – 8 – Hard violence, hard sex, hard feelings

At the beginning of this episode a boy student is excitedly kissing his innocent girlfriend for the first time. They hold each other in an emotional embrace, it is a pivotal moment in their lives, “Ah the day has finally come, Takako-Chan’s warm, soft, slippery thing is in my mouth…”. But the boy gets too excited, “What’s this?” he wonders aloud, sensing something wet and sticky. He opens his eyes to realize he has accidentally bitten Takako-Chan in half. Whoops. Turns out he was a flesh eater, and along with a bucket load of her blood, the top half of Takako-Chan’s corpse dribbles from his fanged jaws. “What’s this?”

Kemonozume is the coolest show airing right now. It’s an adult anime, it has sex, it has attitude and it looks so completely different to everything else. With that said, it clearly isn’t for hard-line anime fans; the art is simply too eclectic and weird for most – fluid and evocative, it lacks the mundane and familiar beauty of typical anime, yet bursts with a free wheeling and fun loving spirit.

I have my doubts about the durability of the story – namely Romeo (Toshihiko – human) and Juliet (Yuka – flesh eating monster) are still on the run from their hunters – these characters, for all their swagger, feel as though they lack a compelling substance. I love that they are eccentric, passionate and unpredictable. All the characters in Kemonozume are fun to watch, but something still feels hollow; a gaping sense of empathy I’m still to locate.

Though these are just nagging doubts; so far Kemonozume has been a fiendishly successful experiment in dripping, post-noir style. Hard violence, hard sex, hard feelings. This is the bleeding edge of modern anime.

Black Lagoon – 13 – People call it spinal reflex

Madhouse Studios have an exceptional talent for adapting manga – BECK, Monster and now Black Lagoon, they clearly devote a lot of careful thought to developing a specific style for their works; almost inevitably, they craft absolutely unique anime. I feel safe in saying that Black Lagoon’s flair for attention grabbing will never fade, such is it’s commitment to ass kicking, it is a series willing to twist the boundaries of bad taste, adding layer after layer of extreme and unbelievable material, naturally showing a complete disregard of human life.

Consider incestuous, cannibalising, underage twins from Europe. They carry axes and have sweet little dolls tied to their massive machine guns. They are clearly insane. Cute, but insane. They commit depraved acts, but what is truly chilling is that they are simply kids – innocent by nature, they are none the less completely lost in and exploited by the darkness that surrounds them.

Balalaika and even Revy (as cool as they look) are obviously killers themselves, but would one consider them evil? They show an emotional restraint in their bloody and brutal work, but if they took on the same job as “the Twins”, of course they would eventually rub out their targets all the same. But because we have seen them with their feet up, drinking beer and joking with friends, we recognise a glint of their humanity, instinctively we know that deep down, they have feelings just like you and me. The twins offer no such empathy; show no emotion in context with their disgusting acts, so it’s them that are the monsters. Apparently. Body count is irrelevant.

Black Lagoon is still just as fun as ever – there is a loveable black humour and corny kitsch value to be found in such an over-top bunch of episodic villains, and despite the animation (particularly character designs) looking strangely inconsistent, you just can’t beat this show for a good ol’ fashioned shoot out.

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.

Kemonozume – 1 – Delicious gut-munching innovation

The moment I clapped eyes on its highly evocative promo art, I knew I’d love Kemonozume. It just looks so damn cool, completely in another league to the typical “doll face” anime style; here characters look and move like real people, the fluidity of movement and facial expression oddly fascinating. Forget following the narrative- simply watching Kemonozume in full flow is enough of an immersive experience, the animation is wonderful. Like Noein, where the sheer visceral speed of the moving characters somewhat deforms their cliche anime “beauty”, Kemonozume plays with some raw but undeniably vivid art to evoke a thick, gritty atmosphere, sparkling with gems of fleeting beauty amidst an other wise grimy, street-wise setting.

I’ve said a lot about the art of Kemonozume because it is that important. The story is interesting if a little predictable- a male demon hunter falls in love with his beautiful “prey” and they have passionate forbidden sex (yes, actual sex in modern anime, who would have thought it?!)- tragedy surely awaits them. I hope I’m not the only one to notice how similar the premise is to Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s erotic horror Wicked City. Masaaki Yuasa’s colourful, hyperactive and quirky directing style elevates Kemonozume above mere gothic territory and offers up some truly (monkey loving) zany moments, offsetting the grim horror with important touches of light (offbeat) humour.

Though its unique style won’t be for everyone, Kemonozume is an experimental horrific delight that completely shuns the contemporary anime style in favour of delicious gut-munching innovation.

Black Lagoon – 12 – BOOOOOM! HEAD SHOT!

So that’s it then, no more Black Lagoon for (at a guess) a couple of years. I really loved watching this series; after a hard day at work, when it’s a tough ask to even keep your eyes open let alone watch and read anime, Black Lagoon shone like a bloodied beacon of hope. I knew no matter how tired, or how jaded, I could enjoy watching this.

That’s what Black Lagoon meant to me. It didn’t carry much emotional weight, but it had episode titles like “Guerrillas in the Jungle” and “Rasta Blasta”. There is something so attractive about its zero pretension; it’s somewhat fun to see when a series is so honestly and passionately devoted to just thrilling the viewer from start till finish. It’s fan-service, but in a broader sense (not in the moe – killer loli – panty shot – harem sense) – taking it’s cues from the Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Van Damme era of 1980s action, Black Lagoon was a consistent, balls against the wall action series with little or no regard for human life. It’s great.

If I didn’t know a second season of Black Lagoon was coming, I would feel somewhat deflated by this final episode. Of course- it pays off with the now-expected-during-every-episode kick ass action; in particular, ninja woman throwing around her giant machete on a rope is a high point, but then it just ends. We don’t even get to see Dutch. Hints are made about the second season (American CIA agents talk to Revy as if she has trained with them in the past, the Japanese Guerrilla survives to fight another day), and basically it ends with the feeling of just another episode. So much so I waited for the next episode preview, but alas nothing appeared. My anticipation of the second season starts now.

I love a lot of anime and technically, so much of it is superior to Black Lagoon – but I just know that if I had to choose one anime series, over almost everything else I’ll happily watch Black Lagoon again and again. BOOOOOM! HEAD SHOT!

Black Lagoon – 11 – The prelude to carnage

After the previous couple of unrelenting maid bashing episodes, the eleventh instalment of Black Lagoon was always going to seem a tad watered down in comparison. And so it proves- the penultimate “Lock’n Load Revolution” has more talking than shooting, and is almost entirely aimed at building up an initially convoluted race between an ambitious group of idealistic terrorists, a somewhat traditional (testicle cracking) Chinese triad (in cooperation with the CIA!) and in the middle of it all is of course our Lagoon.

If I have a problem with Black Lagoon it is that the characterisation has taken a vacation. It’s now more like watching Hellsing (though a lot better) – wondering who or what monsters will be facing Revy next. As fun as it is to see some crazy Chinese mafia bloke kick a grenade into a group of hapless grunts, Black Lagoon somewhere along its war path has lost that underlying emotional catharsis and is vainly trying to cover itself with one too many trendy gimmicks. In short, it’s getting a wee bit episodic. Still fun, but lacks a human bite.

Black Lagoon – 10 – The unstoppable chambermaid

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

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

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

Rurouni Kenshin: Trust & Betrayal – Jaded no more

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

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

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

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

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

Black Lagoon – 9 – T:1000, unstoppable maid edition

“You should have paid more attention to Rock’s joke, Benny-Boy.” Quips Dutch, a sweating shadow of his composed former self, having just seconds before been subjected to the vicious blood lust (and impossibly strong arms) of an ass-kicking maid from hell. “Imagine her as an invincible killer robot.”

The set up for this story arc is so simple and yet it works so well. Not since Spike crossed guns with Pierre Le Fou or Rock Lee went kung-fu on Gaara have I been so viscerally thrilled by an episode of anime. The fluidity of movement, the sense of an unstoppable power being unleashed, it’s all here, taken to school with a pumping electronic soundtrack, achingly cool aesthetics and the sheer absurdity of what is rapidly exploding infront of us.

This is all such a great fun because of the realistic ways in which the character’s react to their increasingly insane situations- it’s easy to see that Dutch and his crew are genuinely disturbed by the cute T-1000 (and her massive knife) chasing their moving car down the street, and as a viewer, this powerfully conveys the intense danger in which they find themselves.

Black Lagoon 9 is a jolting visceral experience, the kind of quirky action-packed genius Tarrentino would die to replicate, and as hard as I’ve tried, you can’t do justice to such a buzzing spectacle with mere words alone.

Black Lagoon – 8 – Best.maid.ever

I write this post in lieu of discovering that Black Lagoon, surely the best anime airing in Japan at the moment, will only last a measly 12 episodes, and although I have heard rumblings that it should be continued in OVA form (no doubt adapting as yet unwritten manga chapters), 12 damn episodes just isn’t enough for a series as outright fun and exciting as Black Lagoon.

Now with that emotional outburst cleared from my system, it is with a reluctant joy that I can say that episode 8 is possibly the best yet. In terms of sheer climatic build up, the last 12 minutes were close to perfection. We’ve already had the absurdity of nuns with guns, so it seems worryingly natural that the newest character would be a military-trained South American house maid. It’s the way this character is introduced; the music is ripped straight from The Godfather as this cute-looking killer wanders from person to person, innocently inquiring about where to find the local Columbian mafia. Her young master narrates her journey, slowly building the powerful aura surrounding her and then you have the sunglasses, such a fucking cool look.

All this and we’ve yet to even see her in action. Just as she shoots her umbrella, the ending theme seeps in and that’s it. More next week. It’s one big tease, but damn, it’s really something.

Black Lagoon – 7 – Personality clash

The ticking time bomb of Revy’s personality finally explodes in the face of Rock, though gratefully he also snaps back and unfurls a passionate rant all of his own. It’s easy to imagine Rock being your typical male doormat, but here he stands up for himself and proves he too has an unbreakable steely quality beneath his tentative nature.

Revy, who often uses Rock’s middle-class background as a reason to insult him, is firmly put in her place and suddenly they have a new-found respect for one another. Rock has proven to Revy that he is willing to risk it all for the Lagoon, even if it took a black-eye and a gun to the head.

Amidst all this, there is treasure chest of absurd humour and quirky gimmicks to found in a wily mob of arms-dealing, drugs-smuggling nuns; all headed up by a sweet old lady with a specific taste for quality tea. I love how Black Lagoon is set in such a dead-pan and colourful paradise for unconventional criminals of all shapes, scars and sizes!

Black Lagoon – 5 to 6 – Nonchalant massacre of Neo-Nazis

It’s clear by now that Black Lagoon will be Rock and Revy’s show; the action scenes in these episodes are as expected absolutely kick ass, though the majority of what Black Lagoon is driving at is Revy’s humanity (or lack there of). Having slaughtered dozens of Neo-Nazi bastards, she nonchalantly explains to Dutch that she can no longer work with Rock.

Revy’s super human killing instinct is borne from an absolute disdain for life (including her own); she can kill so many people because to her they are nothing. However since Rock turned up and started questioning her brutal ways, Revy has started doubting herself too, and it’s that split second of hesitation that can cost her life. Assassins can’t afford to have morals.

On a totally superficial level, it was great to see Dutch kicking some Nazi ass too; he is the cold, calculated hit man to Revy’s indiscriminate kill-everything-that-moves motto of death. The inevitable Nazi showdown was edgy in how it soundlessly depicted Revy just walking from room to room, shooting men by the dozen. There is such an exhilarating discard for life during these moments that you can’t help but love it.