A compilation of anime/manga reviews since 2010.
- The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
- Neon Genesis Evangelion Concurrency Project
- Made in Abyss
- Mushishi Zoku Shou
- Ringing Bell
- Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
- Hellsing Ultimate
- Shin Sekai Yori
- Basilisk: Kouga Ninpou Chou
- Wolf Children
- Golden Kamuy
- The Dragon Dentist
- The Garden of Words
- Youjo Senki
- Expelled From Paradise
- Fate/stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works
- Genshiken Nidaime
- Tonari No Seki-kun
- Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun
- Space Dandy
- Little Witch Academia
- Children Who Chase Lost Voices
- The Wind Rises
- Monogatari Second Season
- Belladonna of Sadness
- 2010: A Punk Cat in Space
- Short Peace
- Arakawa Under The Bridge
- Mawaru Penguindrum
- Yurikuma Arashi
- Space Battleship Yamato
- Gyakkyou Burai Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor
- Fuse: Teppou Musume No Torimonochou
- Flip Flappers
- Mobile Suit Gundam
- Futakoi Alternative
- Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid
- From Up On Poppy Hill
- Mobile Suit Gundam: Char’s Counterattack
- Soul Eater
- Speed Grapher
- Blood Blockade Battlefront
- Hataraku Maou-sama!
- A Letter to Momo
- Chuunibyou Demo Koi Ga Shitai!
- Seto No Hanayome
- One-Punch Man
- Michiko to Hatchin
- Cat Shit One
- The SoulTaker
- Evangelion 3.0
- Majin Tantei Nougami Neuro
An alternative set of ratings: what anime tend to provoke the most thought?
Anime often rated as thought-provoking that I found less so: Fate/Stay Night (all adaptations, save Fate/Zero); Legend of the Galactic Heroes; The Wind Rises; Yurikuma Arashi (which largely confirmed my doubts from Mawaru Penguindrum); Katanagatari (I remain uncertain about Monogatari); Paprika; Ergo Proxy; Mirai Nikki; ChäoS;HEAd; Kara no Kyoukai.
A rewatch: I first watched Redline in October 2010, and rewatching it 9 years later (as part of my little project to gauge how often one should rewatch old favorites), it has lost none of its over-the-top bombast or power to impress.
One of the most amazing hand-animated films of all time, Redline is a blast from start to finish in showing dystopian SF racing: the threadbare plot (participating in a roving ultra-science-fiction rally race, Dakar Rally on steroids) is merely an excuse to cram as much hand-animation and stylization and racing into one movie as possible. I feel like Redline is it for racing movies, it’s done, they can’t do any more or go beyond it, and that that is a passing of an age of hand-drawn cel animation—the detail, the backgrounds and individuality, the exaggeration, the sheer overload of energy and action and movement… There will probably never again be an anime film like Redline now that the industry has full shifted to CGI-heavy workflows, and Redline itself barely made it out of development hell alive—too strange to make, but too weird to let die.
I look forward to next time, in a few years.
Takahata’s last will & testament. The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter is the best known Japanese fairy tale: a beautiful child, Kaguya, is found inside a bamboo plant; she is raised into a princess, attracting the attention of noble suitors, who fail the tasks she sets them, eventually the emperor himself takes an interest in her; finally, she returns to the Moon whence she came, having either been exiled for a crime or hidden on Earth during a lunar war for her safety (depending on version). What can Isao Takahata bring to it, his final film, one which took so many years to create, experiencing the most protracted development-hell of any Ghibli movie? Much, and it is worth rewatching. (I do not know if The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, is the best Ghibli film ever, but it is far superior to his kohai Miyazaki’s simultaneously-produced final film, The Wind Rises.)
Animation showcase. First, the animation is stunning. It is in a sort of hand-crafted moving watercolor painting, delving into other mediums like charcoal or computer graphics only as deemed necessary by exquisite taste. I am reminded of my reactions to watching Redline (and to a lesser extent, Ponyo): every scene leaves me rapt, feeling that nothing like this may ever be created again, as surely everyone involved knew. The labors that went into this movie show in every frame: no studio has as much money or prestige as Studio Ghibli (which is gradually ceasing animation) and the ability to see it through its development hell, the animation industry conversion to computerized processes is long over so no one knows how anymore, and should anyone want to or be able to it may never be possible to pay enough Japanese animators poorly enough to afford such luxuries in the future.
Dramatic critique. What did Takahata mean by it? Takahata himself is one of the enigmas of Ghibli: a Marxist while young, infinitely respected by his junior Miyazaki (who he also towers over physically, we see in The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness), but more obscure. We know the WWII memoir The Grave of Fireflies for its searing sorrow; the environmentalist Pompoko is considered a comedy despite the disturbing undercurrents of group suicide & the near-extinction of the tanuki protagonists; but why the tale of Princess Kaguya, written by the Heian nobility about themselves, which hardly seems like a promising topic for Studio Ghibli, much less Takahata? A close watch makes clear a cyclical pattern: built into the original story’s parody/criticism of the nobility, Takahata extends it into a deeper critique of the aristocracy & social striving, but also a critique of the nihilism of its apparent superior, Buddhism.1
After finding Kaguya, the bamboo wood cutter raises her with his aged wife as his own ordinary daughter. Kaguya is happy, growing up poor but beloved, playing in the woods with the peasant children, seeing the cycles of nature go round and round:
Round, round, go round, Waterwheel, go round
Go round, and call Mr. Sun
Go round, and call Mr. Sun
Birds, bugs, beasts, grass, trees, flowers
Bring spring and summer, fall and winter
Bring spring and summer, fall and winter
…Teach me how to feel
If I hear that you pine for me, I will return to you.
Or at least, she is happy until he discovers in the same woods gold & kimonos, apparently intended for her. Her father takes the heaven-sent gold and kimonos, and, well-intentioned, becomes convinced that Kaguya’s life must be uprooted and destroyed because Heaven intends she become a princess and live a more blessed life than the toil of a peasant. Moving to the capital of Kyoto, he sets up a mansion and Kaguya’s education as a proper young aristocrat, but, slowly forgetting his original goal (her happiness), he increasingly becomes obsessed with her social advancement & integration into high society. Moving to the capital, despite granting her access to high culture and beautiful clothes and gardens and parties, renders her miserable by coming with the distortions of rank and hierarchy and inbred court customs.
Kaguya initially delights in the beautiful kimonos & wardrobes she is given as part of her new life, and civilized refinements like burning perfumed incense into clothes; but they become a burden as she is forbidden to play or act like a child (or human), or have pets; she is taught to write and be educated, but forbidden from drawing or cartooning; she is forced to engage in eyebrow plucking and teeth blackening (the latter reputedly invented to hide an empress’s decayed teeth and then became tradition in the precedent & status-mad Heian aristocracy) to meet arbitrary social standards; her popularity renders her unable to go out to see cherry blossoms; the nobles who court her turn out to be incompetent buffoons, earnest fools, or lying knaves; a party supposedly in her honor shunts her off to a side room and turns out to be an occasion for the ‘noblemen’ to get drunk & exchange insults; all of this goes to feed the greed of the nobility for women they have hardly seen, and her ultimate reward for satisfying her father’s ambitions is to become subject to the emperor’s assumption he can rape any woman he pleases.2
At the party, in one of the most striking sequences, Kaguya flees in a rage through the monochrome night back to her old home which she pines for; the mountain and forest are dead, but a charcoal maker tells her that life will return; vanishing, the ragged Kaguya appears to collapse in the snow, alone—waking up back at the party. At the end, she meets her childhood friend, now a grown adult, and confesses her love to him, saying it’s too late for them to live happily together; together, they jump off a cliff and fly across the countryside, invisible, until Kaguya is pilled to the Moon by an inexorable force—but again she is back at the capital. What do these sequences imply? As so often in Takahata’s movies (Grave of the Fireflies, Pom-poko), suicide makes an appearance: these are two possible rejection reactions, disappearing and dying as a penniless beggar, and a love-suicide—both possible futures are, however, futile. In the first, leaving her role in human society renders her an outcast without any position, to die alone of exposure; and in the second, a death pact solves nothing, merely killing her friend/would-be lover and returning her to the Moon quicker. Finally, trapped, she resolves to commit suicide if she must become the Emperor’s woman.
People will have their miracles, their stories, their heroes and heroines and saints and martyrs and divinities to exercise their gifts of affection, admiration, wonder, and worship, and their Judases and devils to enable them to be angry and yet feel that they do well to be angry. Every one of these legends is the common heritage of the human race; and there is only one inexorable condition attached to their healthy enjoyment, which is that no one shall believe them literally. The reading of stories and delighting in them made Don Quixote a gentleman: the believing them literally made him a madman who slew lambs instead of feeding them.
Beautiful clothes should be something to rejoice in; parties should be occasions for fun and festivity; young children should be able to play freely and have pets; one should choose freely one’s husband; one should live a long life before dying; all of these things should be blessings, and not curses.
Antithesis. In the end, Kaguya feels only sorrow, and rejects her mortal life, and the Moon’s Buddha (in full Buddhist-Indian regalia & retinue, to make it impossible to miss the point) returns to take her back to the Moon; only then does she remember her life in the Moon and pining after mortal life’s joys & sorrows amidst the peace of the grave of the Moon. She had longed for life on Earth instead of the emptiness of celestial enlightenment, but she could remain on Earth only so long as she desired to, and mistakes were made—too late does she accept her life as a whole, too late does she yearn to remain, to live as an ordindary human being. (“You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.”)
That the pleasure arising to man
from contact with sensible objects,
is to be relinquished because accompanied by pain—
such is the reasoning of fools.
The kernels of the paddy, rich with finest white grains, What man, seeking his own true interest,
would fling them away
because of a covering of husk and dust?
Synthesis. The feeling one is left with is Fujiwara no Teika’s yūgen: a mysterious feeling of depth. Kaguya arrives in mystery, walks in beauty, and departs in sorrow. Was it a war, or poetic punishment? Takahata avoids ever explicitly choosing, leaving the viewer in doubt and uncertainty—but, perhaps, renewed. In the end, there is only silence; in the end, there is only the sublime; in the end, there is only life, passing through spring, summer, fall, winter, with the birds, bugs, beasts, grass, trees, flowers…
One of the longest-standing debates in NGE fandom is the relationship between the famously-rushed ending of NGE TV (EoTV) and the theatrical followup, End of Evangelion (EoE). EoE seems much more explicit in the message and more easily interpreted, but has an even more puzzling ending, while NGE TV seems to have a reasonably comprehensible ending but the rest of the final 2 episodes are more puzzling; does their combination fill in the gaps? Fans can agree that they start from reasonably similar places, as EoTV shows brief static shots of characters in the ‘real world’ whose fate corresponds to what we see unfold in its entirety in EoE, like Misato or Ritsuko Akagi being shot to death, but then there appear to be at least some divergences in the plot, like Gendo’s role in triggering Instrumentality in EoTV but not EoE. Are these relatively minor differences, retcons, and just large omissions, as expected of a production as fluid as NGE TV (which engaged in much larger revisions & retcons throughout its production and the “Director’s Cuts”), or signal that the two endings take entirely different paths and have different means and perhaps, visual novel-like, represent ‘Good End’ and ‘Bad Ends’? The “Concurrency” position is that EoTV & EoE are essentially the same, and EoE is a larger-scale version of what EoTV would have been had time permitted (and Anno not procrastinated so badly); EoTV, then, depicts the ‘inner’ psychodrama of Instrumentality, dropping all the action and exposition as far too time intensive (legend has it that Mahiro Maeda did what animation there was almost single-handedly), and stopping at Shinji gaining the will to live, while EoE is able to cover the action at lavish movie-levels of animation and carries the plot a little further to Shinji re-emerging into the world. I have always been a weak Concurrency proponent: aside from the extensive overlap and echoes, and pointedly overlapping ‘real-world’ outcomes, it doesn’t make sense—from a purely out-of-universe production perspective—that Anno & Gainax would abruptly decide to make EoE tell a radically different story from EoTV, when work began almost immediately on EoE following the (compromised & controversial) EoTV.
Comments from Gainaxers like Hideaki Anno on the relationship between the two endings have been ambiguous (I’ve collated many relevant statements in my NGE source anthology), and they have declined to either clearly endorse or reject Concurrency. But if Concurrency is right, then there is one way to test it: merge EoTV into EoE, and show that it makes sense. If they are indeed ‘concurrent’ works, the composite should work—even work better than either one alone. A number of fan edits have risen to the implicit challenge, and I watched a 2013 effort coordinated on the EvaGeeks Forum. There are later edits which use better video sources (NGE TV has still not received a true BD release, although EoE has, so the visual jump can be quite jarring even in the best case scenarios), which may be worth a try.
From a purely artistic perspective, Concurrency edits are a hard sell because they make the ‘movie’ much longer and interfere with pacing and have not a little bit of redundancy, but from the analysis perspective, it’s a success. Watching Neon Genesis Evangelion Concurrency Project convinces me further that Concurrency is correct: EoE and EoTV are far more alike than unlike. The first time I watched EoE, I was baffled, but watching Concurrency, so much of it lines up. For example, how did it never occur to me that the school-life snippet in EoTV is exactly analogous to the cut live-action sequence in EoE, in showing Shinji an alternate life which doesn’t involve Eva piloting? Or that Rei’s betrayal in EoE makes sense from her EoTV segments? Even the Asuka strangling makes more sense this time around, once you’ve been reminded of the Asuka-Shinji interactions in EoTV which are omitted in EoE to focus on Shinji (EoTV’s integration into EoE is also helpful in making Asuka’s revival less of a deus ex machina). It all just made far more sense, even though I have not watched either NGE TV or EoE in a decade. I recommend this to all NGE fans—certainly it’s way more gratifying to watch than 3.0!
I suffer from the curse of expertise in watching Concurrency edits, as I know too much. But I wonder what people new to NGE would think of the series as a whole if they skipped EoTV/EoE and went straight to a Concurrency edit? That might be the best test of all.
Made in Abyss (2017)
One of the hit anime of 2017 & highly recommended by people like Geoff Greer, I added MiA to my list a while ago. Though it’s only a 1-cours show of barely 13 episodes and the next installment won’t be out until at least January 2020, unusually, the Made in Abyss compilation movies are receiving limited US theatrical releases; curious as to whether I might want to watch them in a proper theater, I broke my usual rule against in-progress shows and watched MiA.
I’d describe MiA as “Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky meets S.T.A.L.K.E.R.” The premise is not that complex, but the reward is in the execution. It offers a compelling adventure in a reasonably well-thought-through post-apocalyptic world rich with details (like the ‘vertical’ seats in the orphanage classroom—climbing, of course), descent through gorgeous backgrounds & environments (of the sort I can still barely believe is possible on a TV anime’s budget), a beautifully-matching soundtrack (recorded in a deliberately oversize soundstage for a more epic feel), increasingly sinister secrets hinted at of the From the New World-style sufficiently-advanced-technology-indistinguishable-from-magic type as the power & danger of the Abyss increases with every layer, distinct characters (Nanachi is the funnest tsundere I’ve seen in ages) & deliciously creepy monsters (like the “corpse-weepers”), while respecting the world & viewer enough to not pull punches—one might say that in MiA, ‘man is wolf to man, but so are the wolves’.
I’m not even annoyed how short it is or how fast the episodes go as MiA pulls off an excellent pair of ending episodes, with one of the most elegant ending sequences since Cowboy Bebop & Gunslinger Girl. The rest may disappoint, but the first season will always be worth watching.
While not flawless (Ozen was, aside from taking up too many episodes, written & voiced too over the top; some of the shonen tropes used like the titles for the ‘White Whistles’ are best forgotten; the mercifully-few penis jokes are both unfunny & out of place3), I suspect Made in Abyss will be the best anime I watched in 2019, and perhaps 2020 too.
One of the best anime (2005) received its long-deserved second season in 2014. Rather than declining, the second season is better than the first.
The basics remain the same: in a quasi-medieval Japan, biology meets dreamy folklore in the form of mushi, not quite bacteria or animals but not quite spirits either, and a wandering man solves problems relating to them. But where the first season focused more on individuals and their relationships to the mushi (and modifications by, sufferings due to, etc), season two examines a variety of relationships between humans, particularly families. Despite the episodic structure, the drama is still intelligent and moving—a son seeks to surpass his father; a man punishes himself and his daughter, a brother cannot forgive himself for a past omission; a mother sacrifices and slowly becomes the milk her baby needs; a family passes on a grim obsession through the generation at the expense of outsiders; a woman with the disastrous power to bring rain travels to villages in need, postponing getting married until the rain ceases, while another boy endures lightning strikes for the mother who does not love him; a neglected and despised son nearly kills his pseudo-family, but ultimately lets his anger disperse and can move on; a clan devotes itself to fighting an existential risk, even at the cost of its childrens’ souls; a man and his wife, to live together and save each other, become time-travellers who choose to become trapped in loops; an ancient tree sacrifices all for the villagers it nurtured.
The endings are not always happy nor predictable; some are deeply tragic (“Mud Grass” and “Tree of Eternity”) or just creepy (“The Hand That Caresses the Night”, “Floral Delusion”, “Path of Thorns”). Very few episodes are failures (Out of the 21 episodes, I could indict only “Mirror Lake” and “Hidden Cove” as being boringly bland, and “Thread of Light” as being mediocre.) The world expands as Ginko travels to locales beyond the stereotypical thick forest of season 1, and we gain glimpses of the network of mushishi Ginko is one of (and his own notoriety in that small circle) and of the mountain lords. The plots as well enlarge and additional elements of fantasy and SF are mixed in (particularly in “Path of Thorns” again, “Fragrant Darkness”, and “Lingering Crimson”), particularly Japanese folklore (“Azure Waters” implies the kappa are an exaggeration of a particular mushi infection, and “Lightning’s End” refers to the raijū).
The backgrounds are no longer quite so impressive as they were back during the original Mushishi and the animation has some visible flaws (you’ll notice a lot of blank undrawn faces), but the mushi seem to benefit from CGI upgrades since 2005. The music is appropriate, and Ally Kerr supplies a very appropriate OP song.
Easily the best new anime I’ve watched in 2015.
The most Nietzschean of anime. A short (47m) but striking old children’s anime movie from 1978, Chirin no Suzu is remembered for an unusually serious anti-Disneyfied plot like that of Grave of the Fireflies or The Dog of Flanders. I watched this on the recommendation of Justin Sevakis’s Buried Treasures column, and it did not disappoint.
I used the dub which is the only version I could find online as a torrent. The dub is a little overwrought and the music inappropriate (although some reviewers think the over-cutesiness of the sound effects & young-Chirin’s voice actor makes the contrast all the more striking), and I suspect the Japanese version is preferable. The animation is low-resolution and dated since Sanrio/Madhouse could not compete with Bambi in terms of animation extravagance, but still watchable due to the attention lavished on movement, especially as the colors and landscape transition to match the thematic changes.
It starts off Bambi-style, with our bubbly lamb protagonist bouncing around the meadow encountering all his animal friends and mother, who warns him to never leave the farm lest the Wolf on the mountain devour him. As one can guess, she will be the first to die. Chirin is a good kid and never does leave the farm (the opposite of what one might guess). One dark and stormy night, the Wolf descends, and the Wolf bursts into the fold, defeating the guard dogs, and enters the barn, a wolf among sheep, who can only cower in terror, because as always, ‘the strong do what they will, and the weak suffer what they must’. Chirin’s mother throws herself on the half-asleep lamb to save him from the Wolf, who kills her. Shattered by grief, he rages. What reason was there for his mother to die? None. What can he do about it? Nothing. What response can the others offer? Silence. If that is how the world is, then better to be a wolf than a lamb! He follows the Wolf, swearing revenge, but unable to affect the Wolf, who brushes him away with his tail. Chirin continues to follow the Wolf around but is hardpressed to keep up, and realizes the gap between him and the Wolf. The Wolf refuses to train Chirin to be a wolf.
While ineptly hunting one day, he sees a snake attacking a mother bird guarding her nest, and lunges in to hunt (but really protect) the snake, and while succeeding in driving off the snake by biting it, the bird is dead and all her eggs shatter. This second blow also shatters Chirin. I am reminded of the Talmudic story of the Other One, the great Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah, who one day witnesses a boy steal a bird’s eggs but also kill her without any punishment as promised by Deuteronomy, and witnesses a second boy spare the mother bird but immediately fall and break his neck without receiving the specific reward promised by Deuteronomy; and became a heretic devoted to breaking every law of God—which may sound extreme, but how much evil is required to pose the Problem of Evil? The Wolf preaches to Chirin: all living things live at the expense of other living beings; there is only strength and survival and whether one will choose them or not. There is no god, no celestial judges, no karma, no rights to survival, no law and no nature but red in tooth and claw; the race is not to the swift nor the contest to the strong but time and chance happeneth to them all; one man launches his tech startup and goes bankrupt, another launches it six months later and becomes a billionaire; one man gets a lucky set of genes with 10 extra good variants and lives a happy life while another gets 10 extra bad ones and rots in jail; no amount of exercise can guarantee one will not die of a heart attack, and many contract lung cancer who have never smoked a single cigarette; there are only atoms and the void in the desert of the real. Chirin is converted.
Chirin becomes the Wolf’s pupil, practicing tree-shattering headbutting and combat, and—montage—grows into a gruff billy goat with the eyes of a killer. This world is hell, the Wolf says, and Chirin replies that he now thinks of the Wolf as his father and will live in that hell. The final lesson: an attack on the original farm on a dark night. Chirin defeats the guard dogs easily and bursts into the barn, where the sheep cower before him, and prepares to kill—but stops helplessly as another lamb is sheltered by its mother. The transformation into a wolf is incomplete. The Wolf naturally tries to finish the job, but Chirin is forced to fight him and, the student having become the master, kills him. His revenge, such as it is, has been gained, and the Wolf dies content: the weak must yield to the strong. Chirin tries to be re-accepted among the sheep, but he is too different and they cannot imagine he was ever once like them, and he returns to the mountain, never again to be seen by the sheep—but free.4 There, alone, among the rocks where they sparred, he mourns his father. Not truly a wolf, nor yet a sheep, but, he tells his father’s memory—he still survives! And in the mountains, the Buddhist bell sounds, reminding men of the impermanence of the world (“Chirin, I hear the sound of your bell, and it reminds me of quiet crying, the sound of all the world’s sorrow”).
There are not many anime from the 1970s which could be said to be as worth watching now as the day they were made, but Chirin no Suzu manages to be one of them for its unflinching honesty. The plot is surprising and the ending gripping, reminding me of The End of Evangelion in its similar starkness, honesty, refusal to take a cheap easy way out, and sense of despair yet determination. Like Shinji, Chirin has taken a path far from the common herd and cannot return to how things were, and his relatives are dead at his own hands; yet he still exists!5
Continuing the theme of the deadly sins from my Breaking Bad watch, I revisited the classic franchise’s update. The second anime version is longer, benefits from the manga having been completed, and has an additional decade of progress in animation to draw on. The series is overall good and it’s satisfying that it has the full plot to draw on, but it’s held back by the first few episodes being badly-paced shonen-cliche infodumps which damage any sense of connection to key characters (particularly Major Hughes) since it violates the core formula of comedy seguing into drama/tragedy, and though it may be the nostalgia talking, I feel in some ways the first series was better in focusing on the theme of “equivalent exchange” and providing much more compelling backstories for the homunculi. On balance, it’s probably better, but you can’t step in the same river twice.
Hellsing Ultimate is defined by its style and the Rule of Cool. It’s brilliantly action-packed and gory, and when you take it this way, it’s incredibly enjoyable brainless fun. Best watched on full moon nights so you can go outside and stare at the reddish moon while decompressing from a long episode.
The OVA adaptation does everything it’s supposed to, and IMO obsoletes the TV anime and the manga—when it comes to showing action and fights, manga simply isn’t the right medium to use. (The OVA doesn’t quite outperform when it comes to the comedic sections used for breaks from the dire action; manga does comedy very well.)
When we point to the OVA’s strong points, we can refer to the animation in fights and explosive scenes. Most are done well, and with enough diversity in angles, weapons, and effects that one could conceivably marathon Hellsing Ultimate without growing disgusted and bored. Even when it differs from the manga’s visual approaches, it’s not necessarily inferior. (For example, in the final London sequences, I recall the manga showing Alucard’s ‘fortress’ in some extremely striking static black-and-white compositions; the OVA does nothing similar, but we do get CGI’d blood-rivers with zombiefied soldiers which are disgusting and striking in their own right.)
The music is no slough either, with many pieces that set the mood and further help the style with tons of random shallow Christianity references.
All in all, a very satisfactory OVA indeed.
You’ll notice what I didn’t mention: the plot, the characters, or the worldbuilding. I didn’t mention them because fundamentally they’re irrelevant to why Hellsing Ultimate is so great: what counts is what’s awesome-cool, not whether the world makes a lick of sense or whether the plot conveys any message or whether any characters feel real.
But I might as well say something about those parts…
The worldbuilding is completely broken and doesn’t make a bit of sense, and there are constant aspects that make one go “huh?”—Alucard turning into delicious loli, the Crusaders dressing up like Ku Klux Klanners, Alucard’s original defeat (how was it possible when he can single-handedly eat London?), how one becomes a vampire (licking some blood on the ground is no mythos I’ve ever heard of), where random characters’ powers come from like Anderson (why does the Vatican have only one ‘Regenerator’? What is a Regenerator anyway, Alucard regenerates because he’s eaten lives but that doesn’t work for Anderson, and while we’re at it what the deuce is Walter supposed to be/do‽), lack of use of suicide explosives (Iscariot’s commonsensical use of them merely raises the question why they aren’t a standard precaution when fighting hordes of the dead), Major’s gibberish speeches (quick, can you explain the difference between a ‘dog’, a ‘human’, and a ‘monster’?), Walter’s completely unmotivated betrayal (he had the hots for girl-Alucard? I don’t even), the lord’s failure to notice Walter’s failure to protect Integra (hey, if you warned the butler Walter to protect Integrate, wouldn’t it strike you as a little odd that she got shot?), why other vampires never have servants or voices in their head despite sucking tons of people’s blood (?), the last-minute info dump on Mina Harkner (where did that come from? why did the mangaka feel the need to dump that in there?), the Schrodinger deus ex machina (it’s not good plotting when the climax is completely and utterly unpredictable an episode before it happens, or heck, the minute before it happens and the Major explains the plan), how can Integra claim to be a human who kills monsters when her monster servants kill 99.9% of the other monsters… These are just the parts I remember, I’m sure one could come up with dozens more if one took notes while watching the series. I will admit that there are some nice touches tying in Vlad Tepes, the Turks, impalement, and the plot of Bram’s Dracula particularly with the derelict ship.
The characters are cardboard. Alucard doesn’t change, Integra just chomps cigars (the first time Alucard tests Integra’s resolve and is told “search and destroy!”, it’s cool and feels like you learned something about Integra; the fifth time, not so much), Seras changes a little bit in learning to drink blood and kill (not that she seems much different in the epilogue), characters are not given any kind of real background (the asspull involving Walter has been mentioned, but what about the werewolf? the Major? Anderson?), Maxwell descends into cackling idiocy with no better explanation than ‘he’s drunk on power’, etc.
The plot is bizarre. So a bunch of vampires led by a mechanical-clockwork man flee to South America to plan their assault on England in the service of defeating one particular vampire, succeed in doing so via some techno-gibberish named Schrodinger, and it fails and the vampire survives to return 30 years later. Uh, OK… What was the point of all that, exactly? Heck if I know. I paid close attention to the Major’s constant speechifying, trying to glean the ideas being espoused by this obvious authorial mouthpiece, but failed entirely. Something about monsters wanting to die and humans killing them out of duty, or something.
One of the most unusual fictional treatments of Minamoto no Yoshitsune & Benkei to date, and a further unusual integration of Noh drama & twisting of the Kurozuka legend into a vampire story. The animation is nice, something of a throwback to Basilisk and Ninja Scroll and ’80s–’90s OVA styles. The repetition of the rather MacGuffin-esque plot is unfortunate but necessary for the viewer to identify with the protagonist and experience the full horror—I would definitely say this benefits from lack of spoilers, so the suspicions can gradually dawn on one and one can enjoy the deliciously weird sequences. Some reviewers are confused by the end, but I think it’s clear enough what is going on, who is the mastermind, what their ‘twisted love’ is about, and how Kurozuka falls into the immortality/time-dilation subgenre of horror.
Shigurui is about power. Seizing power, developing power, sabotaging power. We see power exercised in casual assassinations, marauding groups of murderers, offhand executions of random ronin, the social power of giving bad etiquette advice, the confinement of a demon warrior within a rigid hierarchy, the seductive power of beautiful women… It’s not so much that Shigurui is an extended demonstration of the amorality of power, but it demonstrates the corrupting effects of power, the immorality of power. Power once had will be abused, and we will see it done so for every reason: bloodlust, sexual lust, entertainment, pride, advertising, money, “reasons of state”, and so on.
There is almost no male character we can describe as good: as much as we identify with the “heroic” protagonist, we have to remember he is a blood-daubed murderer who repeatedly murders for trivial reasons such as anger or being ordered by his master and our nose is rubbed in this by the time we reach the end. We might identify with Seigen due to his egalitarianism and how we spend most of the time watching him be persecuted and take his revenge—except he is introduced with cruelty, is ultimately undone by his own hubris, manipulates and lies beatifically, and kills his first master. (I say male characters, because the women are disempowered chess pieces who are subjected rather than subjects.) The beauty of the martial arts displayed is outweighed by the horror of what they are for, and it is all wrapped in a trenchant critique of the politics which allow and encourage all of this to happen. This is not a romantic depiction of bushido or what unswerving loyalty means; it is a depiction of the intrinsic failure modes, and the inevitable lord who is unworthy of loyalty of any kind but cannot be quietly executed or tortured to death as he deserves.
The sustained effect is depressing. There are no meaningful ideals. Attempts to teach martial arts merely produce living weapons. Everyone uses each other. All men die, and if they defeat their foes, they are defeated by old age and descend into their dotage. Men themselves are a fragile conglomeration of muscles and guts, which when spilled all look alike. The strongest warrior can be undone by an accidental trip or one stroke of a blade, and all their achievements negated. I read it over 3 days and felt unusually nihilistic and materialistic by the end.
The art is uniformly excellent, almost lavish, with commendable shading and detail: towards the end, I found myself just pausing and admiring the depiction of wood grain and the castle.
Some narrative tricks work well in a manga setting, like showing (without any comment or visual distinction) possible scenarios or outcomes and abruptly snapping back to the present—one sees characters die a dozen deaths before they actually die (“The Way of the Samurai is found in death. Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily.”)
Manga abruptly ends, with zero resolution of the toad-man and futanari arc, and the pacifist Rurouni Kenshin-style swordsman character unexplored despite repeatedly showing up in minor roles. It ends within a few pages: Seigen is killed, he stumbles back to his corner victorious and rewarded with a position, and finds the maiden Mei dead. Then we flip to a scene of them walking together in civvies. The End. I’m still not sure what this is supposed to mean: logically, he’d then commit suicide since he has nothing left to live for and has carried out the vengeance order on Seigen, but nothing we’re shown confirms this theory and I’m not sure the first volume’s foreshadowing established that either. Oh well.
Summary: atmospheric quasi-hard SF dystopia; good production values plus a mostly-sensible & fairly unique plot make for a memorable experience.
I liked SSY from the start: you are pitched into an apparently utopian futuristic-Japanese-Scandinavian rural farming village (shades of Higurashi!) along with young protagonist Saki & her friends, but immediately you start to suspect that a horrible truth is lurking, that this is a Brave New World designed to produce… what? What’s the horrible reality? Why are her parents so worried? Children are disappearing, to what end? Casually introduced is a species of intelligent slave-rats (by what right?) Clues are regularly foreshadowed, daring the view to try to predict, not always successfully.
Our main characters walk a knife edge between ignorance and incurring the ultimate sanction by prying too much, hiding from the adults even as they are unsure they have anything to fear, and in keeping with the paranoia, the atmospherics & stellar soundtrack are tuned by the director to veer from idyllic to horror within instants, until finally the truth is broken in a big data dump. The system of the world is unveiled: they are walking weapons of mass destruction which destroyed ancient civilization, and the entire system is geared toward suppressing any homicidal tendencies through brainwashing, genetic manipulation, and ruthless murder of any children who might become the slightest threat. The future plot seems clear: this is something of a “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”-situation, and being an anime, I can easily predict what will happen next—the kind-hearted heroine will lead a rebellion against the odious (if well-intentioned) regime, topple it, and install some fairer less-filicidal system. Surprised in the data dump, they luck out when the watchdog is killed and get involved in the slave-rat politics, further demonstrating the cruelty and manipulation of their society. From then on, shit gets real: politics outside the barrier is just as brutal as life inside the barrier under the scrutiny of murderous teachers—ambushes, poison arrows, armies, deception, enslaving baby rat-slaves, nothing is off limits. After wading through a sea of blood, they think they’ve escaped.
But nope! The adults were onto them all along, and the obvious is completely subverted. They return to normal life (albeit with some hilarious swings, like the episode where all of a sudden everyone is gay), and one of the protagonists suffers the long-forecast breakdown, taking out a whole village with him. Things look a bit different and the system starts to look better: what’s the alternative?
In post-dystopian societies, there’s two major kinds of plot: rebellion, and attack. The latter focuses on a society that has failed to keep growing or developing, that has chosen stasis and passivity. But this is a dangerous choice, as the world may keep changing: “He that will not apply new remedies must expect new evils; for time is the greatest innovator.” (Consider Sowell’s “tragic vision” vs “utopian vision” or Scott Alexander’s “survive” vs “thrive”; apocalypses and dystopias embody morality plays from the tragic/survive paradigm where people forget the crawling chaos that underlies everyday life, where they forget that civilization was forged in blood and that fundamentally homo homini lupus est.)
Instead, we start to see worrying signs of progress among the rat-slaves: concrete? Brainwashing of their formerly dominant queens? Representative democracy? Yet the villages themselves seem to lack any of these: construction is fragile wood and they don’t even know who rules them (the committees work in secrecy). And they are actively decaying: there are repeated mentions of electricity rationing and limits, the education of children seems to ignore any real science and technology, military considerations begin and end with psychic powers, villagers are conditioned to be fearful of the world, new mutations/animals/monsters keep springing up outside the barrier (and predictably so due to Cantus leakage) with little note taken of them inside, they have no military to speak of and indeed all their efforts are effectively bent towards crippling any ability to self-police (the world-building seems seriously flawed, since who would choose to make every human unable to kill another human when the whole point was to stop Fiends who apparently have no problem shaking off their conditioning‽), the arrogant eschewing any use of fortification despite the value of them against slave-rats & other mutants & the utility of fortified shelter for even psychers (safe place to attack from), and the population is apparently on the decline given the failure to repopulate the village Shun destroyed. Society had grown complacent, self-satisfied, indolent, and weak by shutting itself off from the world. The message is even less subtle in the first episode of Attack on Titan where characters refer to the king ordering people not to go beyond the walls, and where salvation seems to lie in stealing the power of the outsiders who break through the walls—can there be any doubt that this is in part a criticism of Japan’s years closed off from the world under the sakoku policy? (At least, if it isn’t, it’s a bit eery how well AoT works as a metaphor, and it’s difficult to explain the inclusion of a character based on Akiyama Yoshifuru otherwise.)
The stage is set for disaster. And disaster there is: a multi-pronged attack by subterfuge, indirect sabotage, poison, the use of new mutants and rediscovered technologies, and use of the blatant fatal flaw in the system, another human without inhibitions, a Fiend, whose origin makes a complete mockery of an earlier plot event the viewer took as a victory for the protagonists, undermining it and leaving a bitter taste.
After this point the plot starts getting weaker. They pursue a MacGuffin to defeat the Fiend, some mushy-headedness undermines it, the plot & director hint heavily at their assistant planning to betray them (which would have been a great twist: the whole MacGuffin was planned by the villain to obtain an anti-psycher weapon and cement his victory) but ultimately decides against it, a clever loophole is found, they win, and the status quo is restored after most (but not all) of the slave-rats have been genocided. The protagonists then discover the slave-rats were engineered by their ancestors into slaves who could be casually slaughtered, and decide to… do nothing. We close with some further sentimentality about improving society. Somehow. What? When Satoru plays with Tainted Kittens (whose purpose we recall clearly) and Saki spares some slave-rats, it’s hard not to wonder what exactly we’re supposed to take away here; her apparent act of mercy for Squealer is offset by the nostalgia and suspicion she’s doing it for her own sake. I found myself wondering if this was intended to be a 1984 sort of twist, showing how the protagonists have become completely and totally co-opted by the system.
The story strives to be hard SF, with good explanations for everything (even offering a little speculation on what runs psychic powers, since clearly the user is spending nowhere near enough energy to accomplish the feats), and is so good I cannot resist taking it seriously and noticing flaws rather than simply suspending belief and turning off my brain. And the plot does has a number of issues: some Chekhov’s guns are simply dropped without further comment: the leader who has lived for centuries never teaches Saki her secrets, indeed, that is never mentioned afterwards; the protagonists apparently had another member in their group who they’ve lost memories of, but this is also dropped without any additional memory; how exactly Maria and Mamoru could’ve had a child in the time before they are killed by the rat-slaves is not explained. Other problems include: the final gambit is mindbendingly risky (what if the Fiend had simply burned Kiroumaru alive like almost every other victim?), the overall structure of society makes only partial sense and is fragile to even one Fiend yet apparently everyone is holding an Idiot Ball and focuses purely on prevention and never on dealing with the inevitable Fiend; there are no reforms after the attacks exposed multiple flaws in their security; the ambivalence on Squealer (the most interesting of characters in the entire series) seems as much a product of poor writing as intended thought-provoking moral ambiguity; parts of the claimed world-building are not carried through (so, the scientists based things on bonobo troops and free love… which is why everyone is monogamous‽ where are the orgies and one-night stands, where are the polyamorous assortments of lovers?) or are implausible (brain surgery does not work that way, even in slave-rats-human-hybrids).
Ninja battle to the death royale in the spirit and ’90s-esque visual appearance of Ninja Scroll (despite its 2005 production).
What makes Basilisk special is that it resists the trend towards dilution of the ‘ninja’ concept into just super-powered samurais throwing chi-balls and shuriken in the vein of Naruto (although there are still plenty of bizarre powers and characters such as the snake-like Jimushi Jubei) but takes a much more brutal and yakuza-film-like approach: “all warfare is deception”.
Basilisk plays with deception, information, and vision to an extent I can’t remember seeing in any other series. For example, based on the first episode, one expects a quick descent into all-out warfare, and the tragic Romeo & Juliet ending of our two protagonists blatantly foreshadowed and my own reaction was to wonder how this plotline could possibly take up a full 2 cours/24 full episodes and whether I had perhaps made a mistake—and episode 2 totally confounds my expectations by one side stealing the announcement while the other side remains totally unaware that there is even a war on! This provides tremendous dramatic tension as they must balance the reward of ambushes and surprise attacks against the risk of alerting the others that they are no longer at peace.
The issue of knowledge remains a theme throughout with shapeshifter Saemon’s many appearances, particularly in impersonating a dead ninja and fooling his girlfriend Hotarubi; cruel as that was, the knife is twisted even further in one of the most memorable deaths in Basilisk. The protagonists are too good and pure to be at all sympathetic or interesting, but thankfully they only occasionally take center stage and the other characters get ample time on screen, the better to enjoy the twists and well-animated violence. (While many ninja shows set the action at night almost to a fault, Basilisk fairly evenly allocates day/night scenes.)
Overall, definitely one of the best ninja anime I’ve seen.
The movie starts off quite unprepossessing at a soporific pace, with a completely ordinary and somewhat pitiful protagonist. She works hard, but is lonely and a bit nerdy. She meets a ‘bad boy’, and like the plot is on rails, they fall for each other and she predictably gets pregnant, with the pregnancy clichés of vomiting and eating stuff while the ‘husband’ worries about her. Also, he reveals his wolf form, not that it makes any apparent difference to him or Hana. It’s all done completely without drama or interest, and 20 minutes in I begin to regret starting it and wondering if I should skip forward. Fortunately, not long after the second kid is born, he gets himself killed in an accident while chasing birds in his wolf form. While you might think the movie’s heart begins to beat here, that’s not the case, and his death is as dull as the foregoing. Hana drops out of college permanently and discovers that temperamental kids who can transform into wolves are a serious problem to rear in the city, where she fears exposure any moment and the gossip of other women. (Here I begin to wonder if we’re supposed to be seeing this story as perhaps a commentary or metaphor for something, like biracial kids, where the Japanese mother might want to cover up any foreignness of appearance or foreign language capability to avoid the bullying and ostracism that might happen if it becomes known.) Logically, she decides to pack up for the country side.
Interestingly, since Wolf Children is realist in style and set in the very recent past (feels like the ’90s, roughly), we get to see a rural Japan we don’t usually see in your standard nostalgic movie like Ghibli: we see a rural Japan which has depopulated, been abandoned by young people, rents collapsed to zero even for what are practically mansions, a countryside which has only some old people and their dependents who engage in comically-inefficient agriculture which can only survive due to trade barriers and substantial government subsidies (which we notice, whether or not we want to, by noticing how well-maintained the roads are even on a remote mountain where no one is, how buses travel even with only one or two children or adults aboard, and how a government official personally escorts Hana around while looking for a house).
Here the story really begins as Hana fixes up the mansion, builds ties with her neighbors, learns how to farm by hand (again note the inefficiency), and Ame and Yuki start becoming people. Since it reminds us so much of My Neighbor Totoro, we keep expecting some sort of supernatural entity to appear—this is their father’s homeland from before he moved to Tokyo, surely a pack of wolves or tanuki or something will show up soon—but instead, they just keep growing up on screen, with some small but meaningful conflicts: Ame refuses to go to school, Yuki hurts a boy who keeps harassing her, a record storm puts them in danger.
And gradually it dawns on one that Ame and Yuki aren’t really the main characters but that Hana was the main character all along: this isn’t a story about being a half-human monster struggling to reconcile one’s parts, or about a war between humans and the supernatural, or a war between humans and the environment. This is a movie about the sacrifices Hana made to become a mother and start a family, and the challenges she braved to find a place for her children to grow up, and the pain of watching their struggles. At the end, when Hana rushes out into the torrential rain to look for Ame, our initial impulse—to mock her foolishness and failure to understand that she is in far more danger from the storm than Ame, that he has spent infinitely more time on the mountain than Hana and knows what he is doing—is immediately tempered by the understanding that this is part of what it means to be a mother: the desire to help and protect, no matter how little, and no matter how little the child reciprocates. (A quick exercise: in the last third of the movie, does either child ever express any love or gratitude? Ame in particular comes off as a cold-hearted bastard.) In the final moments, as Ame vanishes into the mountains, we understand Hana when she asks/begs aloud “I still haven’t done a single thing for you! I still haven’t…”
Animation: mostly mediocre and closer to one’s TV expectations than movie-quality. Characters are rendered in as abstractly and little detailed a fashion as possible. Movements are not generally not that fluid, and while some of the backgrounds are pretty nice (especially after the move to the northern countryside), they don’t rise to the routine expectations of a Miyazaki movie or a Shinkai production or the more atmospheric series like Mushishi. The exceptions are a handful of wolf-sequences: the romp in the snow is fantastic and moving, and Ame following his fox master up the mountain is also good.
Music: Takagi Masakatsu’s score is mostly unobtrusive and quiet, matching the general tempo and mood of the film and its setting. That said, I must single out the ending theme “オヨステ・アイナ” for conveying the overarching theme of motherhood very well through its lyrics & sound for anyone who didn’t get what the story was about, and “おかあさんの唄” for just being a great instrumental/classical piece.
An entertainingly eccentric action-historical romp in the spirit of Baccano!, exploring an unusual time and place: post-Russo-Japanese War on Hokkaido in the last gasp of the Ainu. Golden Kamuy suffers a little from its constant digressions into Ainu cuisine/religion and from often-boring animation in the first season which takes place among the deep snows of winter, but the former is interesting in its own right as I’d never read up on the Ainu and the latter improves in season two which progresses to spring (albeit continues to fail to do it justice).
The writing and plotting is rarely boring or insulting to the viewer with relatively few idiotballs, the horror/action of some episodes are quite interesting (eg. the serial killer with the erotic fascination with being killed & eaten, the hilariously homoerotic episode justified by Ainu superstitions about otter as aphrodisiacs or the anachronistic human echolocation episode), and its considerations on themes of survival & war are not inconsiderable.
Anime about the making of anime, following in the occasional footsteps of other anime such as Otaku no Video and Animation Runner Kuromi and to a lesser extent shows about doujinshi like Genshiken or Comic Party; a 2-cours anime, each cours focuses on, naturally enough, the making of a 1-cours show by the show’s anime studio (mostly a stand-in for Studio Gainax, I thought, given how the in-show anime Jiggly Heaven is said to have fallen to late storyboards by the director, like Evangelion, and the poor animation provoked a firestorm of Internet criticism, which happened with Tengen Toppen Gurren Lagann; but others argue it’s more akin to the producing studio itself, P. A. Works, due to the problems with their previous anime, Girls und Panzer, which if true would make the second half much more trenchant and the whole anime that much more meta).
Shirobako is not a documentary so much as a brightly-colored love-letter to an idealized image of the anime world, sanding off the rough edges like the starvation wages of animators or the outsourcing of much work to other countries (China and South Korea do not exist in the world of Shirobako), in which everyone is attractive & well-dressed, no one lives down to their stereotypes, plucky wannabes can succeed if they work hard, and the assholes work outside the studio or are just traumatized by past experiences, but still focusing on all the steps that go into producing a single anime episode and the large cast that tames the chaos. (Ironically, I say that it’s an idealized image, but the anime industry still comes off as sometimes quite vicious nevertheless…) Shonen-style (or given that anime are made by teams, perhaps that should be sports-manga style?), our protagonists will follow their dreams and tackle the obstacles as they pop up. Like in Animation Runner Kuromi, the lead protagonist becomes the Production Desk, in charge of coordinating all the disparate stages and having their fingers in everyone’s pies. The plot twists are a bit telegraphed (was anyone surprised when the author caused problems a second time?) or have occasional holes (how exactly was Hiraoka cured of being an embittered slacker, anyway? and I always assumed that the old guy Sugie was working on their current show, so that he was the solution to their animal-animation crisis came as a total surprise to me and not in a good way), and the anime references & allusions are surprisingly sparse—I particularly enjoyed the Initial D homage in episode 1, the very appropriate use of the themes of Space Runaway Ideon in episode 5 to reconcile two feuding studio members, and the homage to the final scene of Cowboy Bebop in episode 23. Apparently every other character is a roman a clef, but I must admit I only caught Hideaki Anno’s unusually serious appearance and Itano (of the Itano Circus), and certainly none of the voice actors or their agencies. (The parodies of light novel-based series are self-explanatory.) And naturally in an anime about producing anime, the backgrounding and design is excellently realistic (“In making the handle of an axe by cutting wood with an axe, the model is indeed near at hand.”) Overall, a great watch for anyone interested in the making of anime.
One of the more unique anime to come out in recent years, this sank largely without a trace. Originally a short online animation, this then got turned into a two-long-episode quasi-movie. I thought I was getting a Miyazaki-esque romp with the Pern-like concept of ‘dentists’ riding their dragons/fighters into battle after cleaning their teeth; instead, I got something much stranger: a more Anno/Tomino-esque meditation on how war is hell and on fate & free will & predestination through the route of ancient nigh-invincible aircraft-carrier dragons manipulated by, and manipulating humans, while apparently devouring human souls—‘dentists’ are selected to serve the dragon, candidates given a vision of when they will die fighting the dental corruption on a destined day, and applicants reticent to embrace their foretold death disappear to fates unknown. The protagonist is resurrected by the dragon for equally unknown purposes after being killed by his fellow-soldiers, becoming a dentist. His war continues as his former nation launches a cunning plan to disable his dragon. After many scenes that Miyazaki would never dare—as cute as the hijackers’ plane is, I don’t think the interior would ever be painted red quite the same way in Porco Rosso or Castle in the Sky—it escalates into the most End of Evangelion-like scenario I’ve seen since Kill la Kill. The question of free will is ultimately punted a bit: the dragon seems unable to foresee the betrayal of one dentist who allies with the cavities, and the protagonist’s purpose appears to be to stop the mastermind, a soldier who apparently defies probability, because guns fail when aimed at him & he casually walks through showers of bullets missed by every single one. One has the sense that the creator knew he would never have a second shot at making The Dragon Dentist and it was a miracle it even got the two-episode adaptation it did, and is frantically stuffing 15kg of plot & worldbuilding into a 5kg rucksack. Of Shinkai’s Voices, I noted that that film in the end left me wanting much more of its worldbuilding and much less of the plot or characters, which overstayed their welcome; Dragon Dentist was, if nothing else, a good guest which left me wanting more of all of it.
The opening is fascinating to watch (even if the ‘music’ is terrible), the closing also good and a bit catchy. Izumi Kitta delivers an excellent performance, ranging from low sarcasm to deep despair to girly glee. The many faces of Kuroki and the animation mean that despite being almost a 12-episode long monologue, we don’t get bored watching. That aside.
Watamote is one of the most painful anime I have ever watched, up there with End of Evangelion. I was expecting something not so much in the vein of the lighthearted Genshiken or Tatami Galaxy, but the fairly dark Welcome to the N.H.K.! and I got that, in spades, without the slightest hope of redemption, turned up to the max.
Anxiety about social interactions is common. And it’s amusing—lots of great gags are based on misunderstandings, overthinking things, worries which turn out to be groundless, and revelations of things better kept secret. Watamote has all that, in every episode. And it has plenty of irony: I particularly enjoyed, when I was still watching episode 1 and didn’t realize what I was in for, Kuroki’s bookstore line “The people here are all way worse than me. Feels good to be here.” Yeah, that really sums up a lot of nerds’ feelings sometimes at safe places like conventions, doesn’t it? It’s amusing for being ironic on Kuroki as it’s immediately subverted, but the viewer probably can recognize that the line and irony apply to themselves a little bit as well.
The problem is… it all goes too far. Not too long ago, I was corresponding with what I now suspect to have been a mentally ill person, and I deliberately mocked their claims and led them on to see what they’d say; it occurred to me partway that they might be mentally ill, but I dismissed it as my usual arrogance, until a vaguely increasing sense of unease and sense of guilt led me to tone things down. In retrospect, I did not handle the incident too well. I began to feel the same way in episode 3: that I was enjoying myself at the expense of someone who I should not be enjoying myself at the expense of, that I was being shown the humiliation and mockery of someone deeply disabled and mentally ill. In fact, look up the DSM-5’s criteria for ‘social anxiety disorder’: A-G match perfectly except perhaps C (“The person recognizes that this fear is unreasonable or excessive.”). You wouldn’t watch a film about mocking the blind, or the deaf, or playing pranks on paraplegics, or about tying cans to a cat’s tail; you wouldn’t enjoy an anime focused on the wacky doings of a mentally retarded person—you’d feel bad about yourself. I feel bad about watching Watamote. Kimochi warui, dudes. I felt mental pain watching many episodes. I had to pause scenes, or just stop episodes for that day, or play them on 2× to force my way through the chagrin and embarrassment.
Kuroki is, besides a sick character who you want to see get treatment, not a nice person, to put it mildly. She has a serious sadistic streak, massively projects negative traits, is self-centered and entitled, abusive of others, and resents the slightest justified demand on her. It’s not pleasant watching her, at all. A character without redeeming aspects is a hard sell as a protagonist, and I’d probably appreciate such a non-moe female character if I could get over everything else. But actually, it’s probably better for the viewer’s peace of mind to not sympathize with Kuroki (although it’s hard given that we spend the entire series inside her head, and we all remember similar embarrassing experiences as those Kuroki endures, even if ours were much tamer).
Worse are the people around her. It seems initially cute when her mother walks in on her doing something extremely awkward and pretends it doesn’t exist, or when her father finds her asleep having apparently masturbated and just calmly puts her to bed. It gets a lot less cute when you begin to notice that Kuroki’s social anxiety is pathological, long-standing, and notice that almost the only time Kuroki’s mother disciplines her is when Kuroki threatens her image when her sister is coming over with Kuroki’s cousin, and when she needs some work done. My mental image of the mother as tolerating Kuroki’s phase and giving her space to work out her issues without pressuring her suddenly flips into a different concern: Japanese society is, I am told, not very good at dealing with mental illness and puts a stigma and taboo on acknowledging any issues or seeking treatment. Watamote is generally a very realistic show (eg. all the references I noticed were to real stuff: a ton of Haruhi references, Detective Conan, Another, K-On!, Nico Nico Douga, Nadia, McDonald’s, etc), including no fantastical materials, minimal coincidences, an unattractive protagonist who isn’t Hollywood Homely… What ever shows that Kuroki’s parents care much about her at all, and aren’t just protecting their social image and reputation and doing their best to pretend Kuroki has no problems? For that matter, what about her classmates? The show seems to go out of its way to depict all her classmates as good nice people who even are bothered by killing a cockroach, and certainly are not bullying or mistreating Kuroki… yet, she never speaks to anyone. Isn’t that going a little beyond their description “Kuroki-san is quiet”? Quiet, certainly, but never talking to anyone, never eating lunch with anyone, never participating in anything… It’s not like they don’t have plenty of opportunity to notice. The council president starts to suspect the problem after just 2 or 3 brief encounters with Kuroki, and her cousin strongly suspects after a day or two. The class could know if it wants to. We might initially place our hope in the teachers, since the homeroom teacher interacts a little bit with Kuroki early on, but it never goes beyond that. Why only ever tell her to be careful on the way home? You can try talking about more than that! And her best friend Yuu? Completely oblivious. (Or is she? Given that she seems to be consciously playing a role, one wonders.)
So. The parents are apparently trying to cover everything up. The classmates and teacher feel they’re doing enough. The brother takes the brunt of Kuroki’s abuse and warped cries for help, but it’s a little much to expect him to handle it all by himself and he does his fair share. Her only friend doesn’t realize there’s any problem. Kuroki can’t help herself; she tries, but it all fails. She tries repeatedly, and it fails, and even her final effort in the last episode to reach the council president fails (and depressingly, she seems to realize there’s a problem but to think Kuroki is working hard, which is true but sounds like an excuse to forget about the matter, and given the whole overall thrust of Watamote, it’s hopeless to expect anything good to come out of their interactions).
Everyone is clueless, disengaged, or covering it up. No one will help, and those who want to, can’t. There is no sign that Kuroki will ever get better. That things will ever improve. She will forever be trapped in her room, trapped in her fantasies and a sad little girl outside them, unable to develop into anything or have real friends. The pervading sense is a harsh bitter hopelessness. Being resigned to despair is still a form of despair.
Overall, I think the ANN review by Theron Martin does a good job reviewing the series, but I have to disagree with the summation that the tragedy is sufficiently balanced by comedy and that “occasionally feel like it is just dumping misfortune on Tomoko, but it never goes far enough with this to negate how Tomoko creating her own misfortune makes the series’ title incredibly ironic”.
Or the series tags… ‘Comedy’? ‘Slice of life’? ‘Morbidly funny’ This is supposed to be funny? I’m supposed to laugh? You must be shitting me. If this was not intended by the creators to be a pitch-black psychological horror work (at which it succeeds nauseatingly well) almost unrelieved by any humor but that which indicts the viewer for finding it funny—they have much to answer for.
The series doesn’t even try to justify it. To enjoy this the way Watamote wants you to enjoy it, you have to be a sadist—the sort of person who would enjoy shining a magnifying glass on ants to see if they can burn. I don’t demand that my entertainment elevate me, entertainment can just be enjoyable; but I do expect that my entertainment not degrade me, that it not make me a worse person for watching it, that it not try to undo what little progress I have made in becoming a kinder, more empathetic soul, the sort of person who would delight in Tomoko’s suffering or unjustifiedly despise everyone around them with elaborate and baseless rationalizations.
Somebody remarked: ‘I can tell by my own reaction to it that this book is harmful.’ But let him only wait and perhaps one day he will admit to himself that this same book has done him a great service by bringing out the hidden sickness of his heart and making it visible.
For a 46-minute film, The Garden of Words succeeds in sketching out a very Shinkai world, characters, and plot. I’ve seen many anime do far less in far more time than it, and I have to admit, Shinkai seems to be improving as a director.
The plot has problems. Student-teacher relationships are a cringe-worthy anime cliche best avoided these days. The origin of the protagonist Takao’s interest in shoe-making is given heavy-handed symbolism as connected to his mother (why can’t he just be obsessed with shoes? why does everyone’s life-purpose have to have some deep meaning or memory to it?). Yukari is a very weak heroine who runs from school to hide out in the park and has as little purpose as Takao has much purpose, and in some respects seems parasitic or selfish; I waffled on whether she is a good character and eventually came down on the side of yes. The final resolution was a pleasant surprise: rather than take the Hollywood ending, Shinkai went for a more realistic one, where the relationship fails in the immature puppy love sense, but succeeds in perhaps spurring personal growth. Thank goodness! That’s a much better ending than what often happens in the setup…
(I was amused to read ANN’s interview with Shinkai and see “when I first showed my original plan of the story to the other workers they mentioned that the main female character Yuki seemed rather selfish, which I didn’t really intend.”)
As usual with Shinkai, most of the praise is for the animation and visual design. In GoW, the approach is so realistic, and is about such an ordinary situation devoid of SF, I found myself wondering why bother making it anime at all? All of it could’ve been done as live-action (I’d guess that a live version would both have a larger audience and have been much cheaper to make). A little further in, it occurred to me that there is an excellent reason to do it as animation: much of the movie is set in the lush green garden while it is raining. I personally enjoy going to gardens and green spaces when it is raining in the summer to, and the reason is that when you go during the day and it’s raining and you’re in the right place, not only does it smell nice and the rain makes soothing noises and you feel safely isolated, but the greenery simply ‘pops’ in a hard to describe way and all the grass and branches look unusually vivid and alive. It’s impossible to catch with photographs (at least, with my crummy cameras), and I wonder if it’s possible for even professionals to film it (timing alone would make it hard), but Shinkai is able to arrange the animation to exaggerate the colors and lighting and in general be hyperrealistic. I have to say, in previous Shinkai works, I found the hyperrealism maybe a bit of a turnoff since it seemed to be there largely to show off and impress and distract from story and characters that maybe couldn’t really bear too much scrutiny, but in GoW, the hyperrealism seems perfectly justified, as if Shinkai is saying: “this is what these gardens really look like in rain, let me impress it on you with enough vividness to compensate for the screen’s weaknesses”.
Amusing and fun with an interesting premise, but largely one-note aerial action anime which somewhat underperforms my expectations; the premise is largely wasted as there is no examination of the protagonist dealing with doubts, being turned into a little girl, contending with God, exploiting his quasi-knowledge of the future, job skills from being an economics expert & salaryman, etc, and the world-building is narrowly confined to a magical alt history of a sympathetically-portrayed Imperial Germany merging WWI/WWII. Thus, it is mostly Tanya being promoted to General Staff only to be sent into the thick of things when God engineers a war to kill her: she spends the rest of the anime flying around, blowing things up, and getting close ups of her giant blue (or are they green sometimes?) eyes and Nazi-lolicon sociopath shtick. It’s somewhat like Death Note in having more normal characters dealt with the amorality of Tanya/Light, but DN had a good deal more depth to it than this anime adaptation shows—although as usual, the original light novels might have more depth & characterization than can fit in between a 1-cours anime’s action scenes.
Trigun meets Ghost in the Shell when a transhumanist space society dispatches a special agent to the post-apocalyptic desert Earth to locate and deal with a hacker that keeps annoying their citizens with a broadcast about space colonization. The agent discovers life as a computer upload leaves her unequipped to deal with the drawbacks of flesh but eventually she and her partner find the hacker and discover his true mission. The first plot twist I did not expect, and while the second was immediately predictable from the first, it was still fun to watch play out.
Much better than expected; the fanservice is more limited than feared, the end sequence with the mecha battle is one of the funner mecha battles I’ve seen in a while, and it’s hard to not like a story in which the ‘evil AI’ wins and the film’s critique of a transhumanist society actually makes sense and is valid (rather than being one of the endlessly predictable tropes along the lines of “Caveman Science Fiction”). And it’s not at all a downer like one might expect from a project involving Urobuchi Gen, rather it’s a fairly uplifting classic SF space tale which reminded be a bit of Wings of Honneamise and more recently, Gravity or The Martian.
It also ties into the Fermi Paradox. Deva government’s actions makes sense in terms of control: limiting resources limits the number of free agents and potential random events, as does letting Earth continue to disintegrate. This resource scarcity, controlled by an apparently absolutely totalitarian government, produces predictably pernicious social dynamics and destroys Deva’s claims to superiority in any way but brute force. Resource scarcity also predictably explains why Frontier Setter is an existential threat and they cannot simply peacefully negotiate a deal like ‘starship supplies in exchange for a full security audit of the Deva computer security’—since, as an autonomous AI which can indefinitely reproduce itself, it will spread exponentially through the galaxy within a million years, gaining resources beyond calculation, not to mention possible encounters with aliens (which might lead to backlash onto the origin, Earth). Logically, to maintain its security, Deva must either destroy Frontier Setter and also ensure that no such escape is possible ever again, or embark on its own exploration/colonization program. From this perspective, Expelled from Paradise is offering a refutation of possibly the most common ‘explanation’ for the Fermi paradox: many alien civilizations exist, but all of them are, independently, too lazy/oppressive/uninterested in space colonization. Unfortunately, this explanation is totally innumerate and implausible: it requires only one expansionist entity, not necessarily even a plurality of a particular civilization (possibly even a single idiosyncratic AI, depending on how intelligent it is and how many resources it can accumulate), to kick off colonization, and if it’s implausible that more than a single-digit number of civilizations would decide this, it’s even more implausible that this failure to colonize would be successfully maintained over possibly millions of years (no biological or computer system has ever had that kind of track record!).
The ending is a bit unconvincing, since Dingo’s political/resource concern is addressed by colonization (they can create many Devas in neighboring solar systems) and there’s no particular reason for Angela to choose to be trapped on one planet rather than have the opportunity to explore many (especially since she would maintain her high-tech upload lifestyle in between solar systems).
Flawed elements here would include the CGI (good overall but what we see the most of is hair, particularly Angela’s, which looks atrocious; it doesn’t have to be Frozen or Brave levels of hair rendering but it should at least not look ‘chunky’ and much worse than the rest of the animation), an unfortunate reliance on some anime tropes (Angela’s appearance/character-design is standard somewhat-loli twin-tail tsundere/princess fanservice & archetype, which while not nearly as excessive as I feared from the promotional materials, still unfortunately will limit its appeal outside the usual anime demographics, and does a disservice to the character and also to Kugumiya Rie, who presumably is talented enough to voice a less common archetype), and a general absence of world-building (while often gorgeous, surely the whole planet can’t be empty desert, deserted city ruins, and one town?). The music is decent but unlike some of the other reviewers, the core song didn’t work for me.
Well… it’s a FSN anime, you know what you’re getting: a great action anime with a lunatic setting, cast, and plot. The Nasuverse and plot haven’t changed. It remains as chuunibyou as ever.
What stood out for me about watching UBW was:
- continued awe at how high-budget animated series these days can show almost anything in extraordinary fluidness or detail, to the point where any episode of UBW—a TV series—exceeds probably any animated movie produced before 1995 or so, including blockbuster pinnacles of the medium such as Akira or Wings of Honneamise;
- continued influence from Fate/Zero6, including not just callbacks or allusions, but a noticeably colder and less moe-infused directorial approach, of which the most striking example is probably the brutal & clinical sequence in which Ilyasviel is killed;
- its considerable length allowing for, finally, a decent explanation of the Archer/Shirou/heroism dynamic explaining what their relationship is supposed to be, a theme which got such short shrift in earlier anime adaptations that it was incomprehensible and extremely frustrating to me; I am still not that impressed by the ideas or resolution, but at least I understand it now rather than all the dialogue coming off as Markov chain output with random insertions of phrases about “being a hero of justice” or “people die if you kill them”;
- more of an emphasis on Rin Tohsaka, and less forcing her into a tsundere mold by focusing solely on Shirou as protagonist.
Overall, much better than the previous movie adaptation.
By this point, one knows what to expect from a Genshiken and whether one likes it: the clubroom will be stuffed full of figurines and posters from real anime which the viewer can enjoy trying to identify; Ohno will be cosplaying all the time and try to get others to cosplay; Sasahara will be mild and helpful; Kousaka will be pretty and not do anything; Ogiue will draw yaoi manga while looking like a paint brush; Madarame will be cadaverously thin and live in his head (but be much more subdued and less of a delightful eristic); Sue will be very blond and very blue-eyed as she occasionally quotes some anime; and Kuchiki will be an asshole, who serves to remind us, as we reminisce about our anime club days, how there was always that one guy who was irritating & obnoxious; the club will attend summer Comiket, buying & selling stuff; someone will worry about graduation and going into the real world (Anno: “I wonder if a person over the age of twenty who likes robots is really happy?”); etc.
Having mostly graduated, the club faces its usual recruitment crisis and Ogiue’s drawing of a guy from the Japanese civil wars reels in a few more yaoi fans: a genki girl, a trap, and a fat girl. Genki is a decent supporting character, and I found the fat girl interesting: anime in general do not seem to include very many fat women as characters, much less sympathetic ones, and usually plays them for cheap laughs as grotesqueries (the most recent one I’ve seen being in Hataraku Maou-sama!). The trap character, unfortunately, is played pretty much as one expects: a cheap source of laughs and ambiguously-sexual tension with one of the few remaining male characters, Madarame. The trap has almost the same back story as Ogiue and the ultimate resolution is odd. I don’t mind the yaoi material, in fact, I appreciate it as symmetrical to the earlier seasons which focused on a mostly-male cast and their corresponding interests and as some coverage of a subculture I know little about with their correspondingly nerdy arguments (even if I have no freaking clue who are the generals they are arguing about), but the trap is just a waste.
Episode 11 was the main highlight of the series for me (especially since I am older than when I first watched Genshiken season 1 all the way back in 2006 or so): it finished the Saki/Madarame plot thread, the main outstanding issue from the ‘first generation’. Shut up together in the clubroom, with figures and posters of Kujibiki Unbalance (and particularly the Saki-stand-in character) prominent in the background, both finally speak aloud what everyone knows: Madarame has a crush on Saki. And Saki turns him down. As expected, as is realistic. Their connection is cut, unfinished business resolved. To their surprise, the release of the tension, even after being rejected & rejecting, is far better than the rejection. Madarame sadly, wistfully, smiles one last time (and here I’m reminded of Anno’s comment on Rei Ayanami: ‘At the end Rei says “I don’t know what to do,” and Shinji says, “I think you should smile,” and Rei smiles…Afterwards, when I thought about it, I cursed. In short, if she and Shinji completely “communicated” there, then isn’t she over with? At that moment, Rei, for me, was finished. When she smiled, she was already finished, this character.’) and comments “It really was fun. It really was… fun.” And we flash to an empty clubroom (from the earlier seasons, I think).
And with that, Madarame’s story is over. We can look back and see the whole arc, beginning to end; to quote Gene Wolfe’s critical essay “Nor the Summers as Golden: Writing Multivolume Works”:
The ending of the final volume should leave the reader with the feeling that he has gone through the defining circumstances of Main Character’s life. The leading character in a series can wander off into another book and a new adventure better even than this one. Main Character cannot, at the end of your multivolume work. (Or at least, it should seem so.) His life may continue, and in most cases it will. He may or may not live happily ever after. But the problems he will face in the future will not be as important to him or to us, nor the summers as golden.
And even more with that, the world of the original Genshiken is gone. Each generation is its own world, and the members begin separating. Saki and Kousaka are inseparable; Ohno & Tanaka are going into cosplay business and marrying; Sasahara & Ogiue are on the first rungs of the manga world; Kuchiki is (as we’re told repeatedly) going into finance; Madarame’s destiny is not yet fixed but is away from the university; like the original President, they surely still exist and will go on to other things, but the viewer has a definite sense: they may (or may not) live happily ever after, may or may not become famous mangaka or powerful editors or prestigious businessmen or wealthy bankers. But they will keep their memories of the Society for the Study of Visual Culture, and the summer Comikets will never be as golden.
For those who like the new cast, this is fine. Out with the old, in with the new. For those who identified much more with the old cast than the new, Genshiken Nidaime may be the end of the road.
Your opinion of Gosick will depend heavily on your tolerance for tsundere lolita characters and for a mystery-of-the-week format featuring mysteries which are lame & primarily for gradual worldbuilding. The payoff is a series which gradually increases in quality over its 24 episodes, showing the growth of the two star-crossed lovers against the backdrop of an alternate-history France in which they struggle to avoid becoming pawns of an occult conspiracy to launch WWII. Stylistic quirks like the resolutely French setting & art nouveau designs, somewhat unusual in anime, and repeated use of folk tale/urban legends to structure mysteries, lend it flair, and as the pieces started to come together, I warmed up to Gosick. It is still rather melodramatic, but overall, I’d say: it’s better than it sounds.
3-part anthology; skip the truly wretched first part, watch the second if you have time for a mildly-interesting metafictional kabuki play, and enjoy the third part which started Mononoke.
Mononoke is fascinating and bizarre. The plot and symbology of the first two episodes dealing with a monster spawned of abortions is fascinating and hard to interpret (the girl is depicted as stereotypically foreign, but with one ambiguous exception, not the slightest reference or explanation is made to that), but that art style…! It’s not too great in motion, but the backgrounds are beautiful. In general, it’s as if Gankutsuou and Mushishi had a bastard love-child. Didn’t think much of the fox arc, and the ghost cat storyline isn’t impressing me, but the nue/incense story was pretty nifty. And now both story arcs feature birth body-horror! What the heck. o.0 Mononoke was pretty excellent, but never quite made it to a 9 or 10, I think.
See Kamo no Chōmei’s “Hōjōki” (WP); not terribly amusing or fun, with a mostly uninteresting premise, School-Live! exceeded my expectations by going beyond the one-note gag of moe blob dramatic-irony/horror; the ending, while somewhat pulling punches, is not a deus ex machina resolution because the resolution was repeatedly hinted at throughout the series and is satisfying both as a strategy and on the emotional level.
The theme of nostalgia is moving and appropriate for the end of the world although… like Tonari no Seki-kun, doesn’t it ultimately ring false? If indeed one looked forward every morning to school, if one tended the garden and chased their cat or dog around, if one spent that time with friends in meaningful activities, even of life-and-death importance, if every day at school was to be treasured, if it taught critical lessons that one will treasure as one goes out into the world, if it was full of formative experiences, surely School-Live!’s nostalgia would be right and true.
But the nostalgia is a lie. That sort of “rose-colored” vision is not how school is, and never has been. The reality of school, particularly in Japan, is one of grinding tedium and drudgery punctuated by occasional escapes and brief segments where one can actually do something fun. Such a false nostalgia, by highlighting how far from acceptable schools are. If we remember otherwise, by selective editing and being unable to remember the experience of boredom, or by the peak-end rule because the end of schooling wasn’t so bad, this is the lie of nostalgia we tell ourselves.
Situational comedy: the straight (wo)man tries to avoid the distraction of her seat-mate but often winds up in trouble or missing lesson information, although other times she becomes drawn in and scores moral victories. Simple yet entertaining—the gags are varied and it’s a fun light watch, especially since each episode is like 8 minutes so the premises don’t wear themselves out.
To the extent there is any larger meaning of Tonari no Seki-kun, it struck me around episode 20 that the mute Seki-kun is something of a gifted child, trapped in a worthless conventional classroom learning stuff which no one cares about and all the students will forget as soon as possible, and that only Seki-kun is awake, as he works on his self-directed projects and learns far more than any school would teach him.
(Random notes: whoever animated the cat episode clearly is not a cat owner; Seki-kun pulled off the magic trick by having another ace and crumpling a spare card to replace the original crumpled ace.)
Romantic-comedy, heavier on the comedy; runs through the standard shoujo tropes like an extraordinarily dense love-interest and a school ‘prince’ and crossdressing, but is saved from mediocrity by giving ample time to the other characters, and its quasi-meta device of the love-interest himself being a shoujo mangaka which allows subversion of and commenting on the cliches in question. In particular, protagonist Sakura Chiyo is a great character: ridiculously cute designs and faces (good since as protagonist you’ll be seeing a lot of her), new seiyuu Ari Ozawa turns in possibly the best sarcastic narrator since Haruhi’s Kyon, and Sakura reminds us that it is possible to be kind and feminine without being dumb or a doormat.
Comic space opera in which a trio of protagonists bounces through a series of loosely connected adventures on alien planets; as a protagonist, Dandy is not that easy to like, and the decision to open up the anime to many guest directors means unevenness—many episodes come off as lazy on the part of everyone but the dub voice actors and animators, the latter of which do an especially good job of doubling down on colors and action sakuga. (Both aspects are apparent as early as episode 1: totally lame plot and characters, great animation.) Some episodes are failures (I was particularly disappointed by episode 25, which seemed like it might be developing into a cool mystery, only for it turn out out to be multiple deus ex machinas.)
Still, some episodes are well worth watching, perhaps more than once, with a noticeable improvement in season 2: episode 2, “The Search for the Phantom Space Ramen”; episode 4, “Sometimes You Can’t Live with Dying” (an amusing zombie utopia); episode 9, “Plants Are Living Things, Too” (extremely questionable ethics aside); episode 10, “There’s Always Tomorrow” (Meow, surprisingly, winds up being the best characterized person in the whole series); episode 16, “Slow and Steady Wins the Race” (existential risk); episode 18, “The Big Fish is Huge” (Ghibli-esque); episode 21, “A World with No Sadness” (meditative death dream sequence with surreal Italian Renaissance-esque worldbuilding set to progressive rock pieces by OGRE YOU ASSHOLE); and episode 24, “An Other-Dimensional Tale” (Flatland, and the secret of FTL travel in a multiverse).
Good clean brainless fun. There are much worse ways to spend a half hour. The spunky protagonist yearning to emulate her heroine and show up the arrogant rival naturally succeeds in doing so by the end of the episode, no surprise there. But it does so in a quick-paced clean nifty style: a Western-inflected animation style, with affectionate homages to Harry Potter & Bruegel’s The Tower of Babel & Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. Who could be against that?
Slice-of-life bildungsroman about a young-adult calligrapher rusticated for hot-headedness to a southern Japanese island (not Okinawa, feels more like one of the smaller Ryukyu Islands) where he learns Important Life Lessons™ taught to him by the locals and particularly an elementary-age girl a la Yotsuba&!.
Animated in the current clean standard style, with some effort on the backgrounds. Calligraphy as the topic is a definite change of pace and earns Barakamon pluses in my book, though most of the calligraphy merely looks messy to my untutored eyes and is hard to appreciate (the exception being the hoshi/“star” calligraphy of episode 9, a black-white figure-ground inversion writing which would be gimmicky if it didn’t so perfectly make the pictorial & semantic aspects mirror each other). A good watch but I find it hard to love because it’s heavy-handed in showing the protagonist learning his Life Lessons and relies too heavily on the cheerful child trope.
A girl and a man travel into the center of the earth to find a god who will revive a deceased loved one for them, and succeed–but of course at a terrible cost, and return wiser albeit sadder. Overall a strange departure for Shinkai from his usual films, this one ladles heavily on the lore, combining Hollow Earth mythology with Western occultism with all the ‘descent into underworld’ stories like Orpheus, and veritably plagiarizes from Miyazaki (specifically, Castle in the Sky, Nausicaa, and perhaps some from Anno’s Nadia as well, with a Gendo Ikari character to boot) in its extensive worldbuilding.
The theme and message of accepting death is all Shinkai & a classic children’s animation theme, but the film felt peculiarly long for all of its action. I wanted to like it, and the ideas are good and many aspects like the Quetzalcoatl intriguing, so why was I so bored watching it? Despite often respectful reviews, I’ve seen few references to Children since its release, so I am hardly alone in being left cold. For Shinkai, it seems, less is more.
A biopic following airplane designer Jiro Horikoshi from youth to the death of his wife and end of WWII, skipping the rest of his life. TWR is heavily fictionalized to the point where ‘biopic’ is questionable, which raises the question: if the point is not to depict Jiro Horikoshi’s life, by adding an entirely fictional romance and death from tuberculosis, and entirely skipping over the last 37 years of his life, then what was the point, and why did Miyazaki choose animator & director (but not voice actor) Hideaki Anno to voice the protagonist?
A good hint comes from the title of the excellent accompanying documentary of the process of making TWR and Studio Ghibli’s other film-in-progress, The Princess Kaguya: The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. Indeed, TWR is more about dreams than planes or war: it starts in a dream, ends in a dream, and the fast cuts without any dissolves or other signals or markers of time produce a dream-like effect where one never knows when a scene is set or when in the future the movie has jumped to or if one is in one of the several dreams and what in the dream is real or not. (For example, the dream with Caproni features an absurd looking multi-story multi-winged flying boat passenger plane which probably most viewers assumed was some sort of 1920s-esque parody, but the prototype of the Caproni Ca.60 was very real.)
The documentary, to some extent, focuses on the human cost of making anime: it is a notoriously brutal career path which burns out animators, requires endless hours of painstaking labor from hundreds of people, and destroys any kind of family life. Stories abound of animators making sub minimum wage or sleeping 4 hours a day, and Miyazaki’s son has written of his anger with his father for putting his anime career above his family and hardly being a father at all. (Although Goro Miyazaki comes off as a bit of an ass in the documentary himself.) All to produce some stories and entertainment, mostly for children, of dubious social value.
It is no surprise that Miyazaki and Anno have often expressed doubts about the value of their careers: why do they make anime? Then again, did they ever really have a choice? However much Miyazaki might vow after completing a movie to never undergo the insane ordeal again or to retire, he winds up making anime again. (As indeed, he predictably has after vowing TWR would be his last, and is working on an anime, Boro the Caterpillar, even now.) They can’t stop, won’t stop. In the lottery of fascinations, they drew a cursed ticket. In the same way, Jiro (and it’s interesting that the other ‘Jiro’ that instantly comes to mind is from Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which likewise examines the question of a normal life vs the demands of an obsession leading to greatness) ‘simply wanted to make a beautiful plane’; but in that era, and even now, there is little civilian market for a fast maneuverable single-person plane—only the military needs such a thing. It was easy to make the scientist/engineer’s Faustian bargain with the military: you can get the funding you need for what you want… as long as it has military applications, and you don’t mind selling your soul or having to witness the consequences. (Admittedly, most who make that bargain don’t see it backfire as quickly and spectacularly as the Japanese did.)
The intended conclusion, presumably (given the bizarrely abrupt non-ending), is that expressed by Baron Caproni, when he analogizes war-making planes to the pyramids of Egypt: as terrible as the human cost to build them was, their greatness and immortality were worth it, and the world is the better for them. One can quibble about the facts there (archaeologists apparently regard the pyramids as built by a largely voluntary labor force in the Nile’s off-season where agriculture was not possible, which given Malthusian conditions might not’ve affected standards of living) but the analogy falls flat: I don’t wind up convinced that there was anything particularly beautiful about the Zero, much less any enduring eternal beauty which could justify contributing to so many unjustified wars. Jiro and the other should have, like the proverbial Chinese scholars, declined to serve an evil emperor and retreated to the hills to await a better regime to serve while they tended their gardens. Even after two watches, the rationale comes off as weak despite all the soap opera histrionics. And while the use of Anno as a voice-actor is an intriguing art-mirroring-life choice, ultimately Anno is something of a disappointment in going through the movie in a pleasant monotone. (You can also listen to Anno voice-acting in the Evangelion Addition audio-drama, and to interviews of him like Hideaki Anno Talks To Kids to confirm that he voices Jiro as himself, essentially; I’m always surprised how high-pitched Anno’s voice is for such a relatively big guy.) Indeed, the plot and pacing overall are deeply unsatisfactory, and I think I liked the movie considerably less after rewatching it, as all the flaws became much more obvious on a rewatch: frankly, it’s kind of boring! Actually, I would have to say that the documentary about TWR, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, was much more interesting than the movie itself…
So the message falls flat. What was good about it then? I would say: the opening dream-flying sequence is indeed lovely in the same way as Ponyo’s ship & water animations; the earthquake sequence, though brief, is also good; there are occasional parts of interest in the plane designs and the Caproni dream sequences. Overall, I would rank this as above From Up On Poppy Hill (with its egregiously awful plot twist) or On Your Mark or Only Yesterday (and maybe The Cat Returns) but well below the Miyazaki classics like Castle of Cagliostro or Whisper of the Heart or Ponyo etc.
Monogatari Second Season: Nekomonogatari+Kabukimongatari+Otorimonogatari+Onimonogatari+Koimonogatari
The long-awaited real followup to Bakemonogatari; the original sequel anime, Nisemonogatari, was more than a little disappointing in focusing too much on fanservice, fanservice which aside from the famous toothbrush scene was mostly a waste of time.
Second Season, on the other hand, begins with followups on each of the main characters whose problems were solved in Bakemonogatari, but it turns out their problems were really only postponed to a more final reckoning. Beginning with Hanekawa, each sub-arc follows a fresh character’s crisis while slowly shedding light on the larger story they are part of, a lengthy war between a mysteriously destructive interloper and a clairvoyant self-proclaimed to know everything in which they successively manipulate the main characters to create and resolve crises, respectively, with each arc getting closer and closer to involving Kanbaru Suruga in some way.
The return of Senjougahara & her dialogue in Nekomonogatari is most welcome to this long-time viewer, and the final Koimonogatari likewise returns the fan favorite con-man Kaiki Deshuu to not just appearances but as protagonist for several episodes, which I especially enjoyed as an antidote to Araragi.
I wouldn’t say that it’s better than Bakemonogatari, if only because I don’t think any episode in Second Season has the same impact as episode 12, the overall plot can’t be fairly judged just on the basis of Second Season as it ends right before the Kanbaru arc which seems to be the final arc, and I find the character Nadeko Sengoku impossible to understand or sympathize with in the least so the Otorimonogatari arc was a pain to sit through.
Belladonna: Ambitious artistic failure. A relatively-recently rediscovered anime movie, this is Art™. The overall impression it gives is someone watched Disney’s Fantasia and decided that what was necessary was to increase the psychedelia rate by 1000%, and increase the nipple rate by ∞% while moving towards a heavily Art Nouveau/Klimt-like aesthetic (“Art Nouveau on acid”?).
But, unfortunately, their budget was wildly inadequate to the vision, and so a bunch of students from the local art school were hired to animate segments, given vague instructions, and told to come back with 20s of finished animation or else. So the film lurches from slow static pans to brief (often repetitive) animated segments of every kind. Also, the writer had a bad LSD trip and disappeared before the script was finished, so the plot hardly makes sense. (Something about oppression of peasantry leading the titular Jeanne—who may or may not have anything to do with Joan of Arc?—to make a deal with the Devil and then many sex scenes and orgies later, somehow, the French Revolution is involved…?)
The ANN reviewer is generous in interpreting this mishmash as a coherent feminist manifesto, and probably wrong in interpreting the Devil as a good guy. Both Jeanne and the Devil have too inconsistent motivation to be interpreted meaningfully: why, for example, does a powerful witch allow herself to be burned if she really wanted to rule the world?
Belladonna is ambitious, and the art is sometimes great, but its failures severely try the viewer’s patience. Like HELLS or 2010: A Punk Cat in Space, I can recommend it to those willing to put up with severe flaws for the sake of seeing something rather different from the norm.
Movie similar to Dead Leaves or Redline, energetically animated but difficult to describe otherwise; a parodic highschool anime take on… the Cain & Abel myth? all jammed together in a fast-paced plot which damages the character development it depends on to glue the madness & non sequiturs together. Nevertheless, I have to give Hells props for being so different.
I learned of Tamala from Anime Year by Year’s 2002 in anime entry, which describes the work thus:
Unbeknownst to her, she is genetically engineered to remain eternally young by the conglomerate Catty & Co., formerly the clandestine cult of Minerva, so that she can be used for advertising purposes. Even after she is killed mid-film by a pedophilic dog police officer, she remains ‘immortal’ with her face plastered over all of Meguro Ward, Tokyo in ads for cigarettes, matchboxes, and other consumables. One of her flings, a cat named Michelangelo (calling himself Professor Nominos later in the film), views the logographic Tamala in the same way Oedipa Maas does the muted post horn in Lot 49 and starts giving lectures on her hidden significance. To anyone who enjoys Pynchon’s novels, this winding and nonsensical plotline won’t be a deterrent. Tamala does a great job at capturing the essential elements of his art: conspiracy theories that go nowhere, riffing on the emptiness of semiotics (Tamala represents anything and everything to her observers a la the post horn in Lot 49), postmodern obsession with holocaust and atrocity (Tamala’s only wish is to return to her home planet of Orion, origin of the massacre). Moreover, the cyclical structure common in the postmodern novel is contained in Minerva’s belief that Tamala is their god Tatla: “Why can’t Tamala die?” The reason is now visible. Tamala must live forever, the everlasting cycle of Destruction and Rebirth with Tamala as the centerless center—the icon of Death and Resurrection—must be retained so that Catty & Co. may continue to expand its network of conspiracy and worldwide capitalism…I also appreciated the unconventional B&W coloration and 1960’s OST, and the use of Flash, far from being distracting, fits with irreverent attitude of the film’s protagonist; naturally, a true punk anime shouldn’t use the normal means of production. Many adaptations lazily copy the text of the original work. Tamala distinguishes itself by reproducing the spirit of Pynchon’s work while grounding it in a fundamentally different context. Though the film alienated many of its viewers (the lengthy monologue towards the end is usually cited as a sticking point), I found Tamala to be a complete success thematically and an ideal example of avant-garde animation.
Intrigued, I checked it out. My impression was less favorable.
I started off favorably inclined, as the artwork beckoned back towards the forgotten era of hyper-kinetic deformed black-white animation, before Disney’s hegemony, and any revival gets kudos from me. The Pynchon paranoid mood also was OK with a number of creepy elements buried in the urban background (the giant robotic advertisements being a good example). Slowly, the artwork begins to wear as the sheer repetitiveness and minimalism and slow pans and static camera and unimaginative gray-scale coloring shows it’s not some East Asian/Kubrickian esthetic, it’s just low-budget cheapness. (I may like Flash animation well enough for short, but 92 minutes of it?)
The paranoid mood in fiction is exhausting, and to a great extent, depends on the payoff because you’re setting up a mystery: what is really going on, or is the protagonist just crazy? Tamala suffers from dwelling on a topic of little interest to us: the slow decay into riots of the random city (heavily reminiscent of Taxi Driver’s NYC—lots of casual violence, prostitutes, etc) she wanders into. Other choices alienated me (what was the point of the mouse sex-slave?) or irritated me as much as the art (Tamala only speaks in an immature monotone, no matter what she is describing or saying). We ultimately do get the whole framework laid out, in a single gigantic infodump at the end, as AYY alludes to. Infodumps usually indicate a failure of writing, and Tamala’s infodump is no exception: it comes too late for me to care, and when laid out baldly like that, my reaction is more “huh?” The plot… I don’t even… well, I can’t say I’ve seen that in worldbuilding before, so it definitely has novelty.
The work ends abruptly after the monologue and from Wikipedia, it seems they had intended to complete the return of Tamala to Orion and come up with a real ending, but that has not happened and so (given it’s an obscure work from 12 years ago now) the viewer will be perpetually in suspense as to the rest of Tamala’s story. I’m willing to put up with weak entries in a series if the rest delivers, but unfortunately Tamala has to be judged on its own.
So, definitely unusual, definitely avant-garde and experimental, but not much of a success. I don’t regret watching it but it’s probably best for those who want novelty and have run through most of the usual suspects in anime.
Anthology of 4 short anime:
- the first is a curious folk-tale-esque story of a wandering peddler who is almost improbably skilled at repair and his overnight labors at a shrine devoted to & haunted by the animist spirits of old inanimate objects—“tsukogami”. The 3D CGI is interesting but also somewhat offputting.
- The second takes a ukiyo-e inspired form of animation, in its initially tedious exploration of a doomed romance in Tokugawa-era Edo; this is merely the prologue to the unhappy bridge knocking over a lantern and starting a city-wide fire—one of many, historically, given that fireproofness was not one of the virtues of traditional Japanese architecture—at which point the animation kicks into high gear with some truly impressive animations of fire. Western viewers will probably be irritated by how the short assumes that one knows how city fires were fought in the pre-modern era: by empowering firefighters not with water pumps, which hardly existed, but construction equipment and large brigades of laborers given unlimited power to tear down large connected sections of buildings to form “fire-breaks”.
- The third story is the most bizarre and troubling: an enormous and grotesque ogre preys on the countryside, demanding tribute of young girls to rape and eat, and when he goes after nobility, a wild bear attacks it at its home, which is not a cave but a crashed flying saucer or rocket (‽). The scenario makes little sense, and the unmistakable saucer invites an allegorical reading—perhaps the bear as Russia, the ogre as America, and the raped & murdered girls as Japan? Odd.
- The final short film, the eponymous “Short Peace”, is the best: an engaging exploration of near-future warfare using networked soldier squads assisted by drones and robotic suits fighting an autonomous military robot, which extrapolates existing trends in the American military as being prototyped in Iraq & Afghanistan. After watching twice, I still don’t quite get some aspects of the worldbuilding like why there is apparently an ICBM underneath Tokyo or why the protagonists would try to launch it, but the action itself is memorable and worth watching.
Straight sequel to Arakawa: continues the slice-of-life+tsukkomi/boke humor with a bit of plot in moving forward the protagonist’s relationship. This second season promises to resolve or at least significantly advance the Nino subplot with the first & third episodes but then largely drops it. In between the usual gags, it introduces two new characters, and concludes without much more development.
The OP/ED are visually clever and interesting, and a number of scenes capture the classic Arakawa humor: episode 9’s wabi-sabi tea ceremony was hilarious, the shonen & Kinnikuman parodies in ep 10 were amusing, and ep12/13 answer the burning question of which of the characters would win in a fight while demonstrating how to use societal ills to herd sheep. On the downside, many plot threads from season 1 are almost completely dropped (Chief’s machinations in the background to protect the riverbank, the protagonist’s father’s disapproval, the debt allergy) and others progress much less than justified by the time spent on them (going to Venus) which feels like a bit of a betrayal, and the 2 new characters are deeply unfunny wastes of time (Amazoness and Captain mean that ep2/5/8/11, a third of the season!, are a chore to sit through). On net, I wound up not enjoying it nearly as much as I had season 1 where all the gags and characters were fresh and which avoided the missteps of season 2.
Initial impressions: Visually, the colors are impressive and the geometric style of Utena has been toned way down. It’s clearly an Ikuhara work, with some pretty obvious copying/allusions/similarities. Ikuhara hasn’t lost his troll sensibilities, killing off and then reviving the sick-imouto. The plot initially makes no sense (heck, it doesn’t make any sense 3 episodes in, as we try to make sense of stalker girl as much as we approve of her), but again, that’s Ikuhara for you. I was very interested to see how it goes—MP looks like it’s making no concessions to beginners, with in the first few minutes a pretty challenging allusion to Midnight on the Galaxy Railway—and I was glad to see Jury-senpai back from Utena, but 6 episodes in, I began to worry and started to get a little antsy. Even Steins;gate had clearly started the main arc by this point!
It wound up taking until episode 09 to finally bring in the heavy symbolism and surrealism, with a nod to the Utena Black Rose arc’s elevators, and the Rose of Versailles allusions in 07 and 08 couldn’t be more blatant, but then we still had no real idea what on earth was going on, despite the flashbacks.
I was ultimately left with mixed feelings; I seem to have understood more than most watchers (eg. many missed the Kenji reference in the first episode but not the last, though you can’t understand the last without reference to the first), but I’m still not hugely impressed. It was good, yes, and an interesting take on Aum Shinrikyo and other themes, but I was hoping to be electrified by Ikuhara’s return to serious anime after so many years!
Lessons I have learned from watching Mawaru Penguindrum: it’s morally OK for there to be no repercussions when you try to rape someone and then cause a near-fatal accident—as long as you’re a woman.
Another peculiar Ikuhara production.
It carries over much of his style in coloring and background and inscrutable symbolism from Revolutionary Girl Utena & Mawaru Penguindrum. YA is far more inscrutable through to episode 5, where finally enlightenment begins; then everything is explained to an extent unusual for Ikuhara.
Stated baldly, his thesis of ‘true love saving the world’ is not nearly as interesting as the fancy garments he cloaks it in, and the sheer schematic-ness of it—the way every character and event is mechanically an allegory—is alienating, and contaminates one’s memories of other Ikuhara works like Penguindrum. (Were they all really the same thing, just reskinned?) Combined with the irritatingly flat characters, I suspect this may partially account for why YA was unsatisfying & unpopular.
Space Battleship Yamato (1974)
Finishing Macross and going back still further to its influences, we arrive at one of the wellsprings of SF anime: Space Battleship Yamato. Still ongoing in perennial remakes, Yamato is one of the most famous and respected anime (at least in Japan—its appeal overseas seems much more limited), and has been famously cited by Hideaki Anno in 1991 as his favorite anime of all time.7
Yamato is an almost obligatory mention in academic writing about anime, but the perfunctory canned description of it as being ‘about a space battleship which tries to save the Earth by fighting its way to a distant planet to retrieve a MacGuffin and return in time, alluding to WWII’ gives the impression that none of the writers involved has seen Yamato, much less had any insight into what made it so compelling. Why did it succeed with this rather goofy-sounding premise, when written by a neophyte author, embodied in a truncated series, and shorn of its most compelling character? How could this inspire Hideaki Anno to be an animator?
Yamato has several virtues: it is surprisingly well animated for the time, the plot moves along rapidly, and the episodes are well-formed A/B parallel plots with occasional cleverness and entertaining space opera shenanigans like using the Yamato’s anchor to swing around a moon. A particularly striking otaku-bait aspect is the heavy emphasis put on chronology, obsessively tracking how many days have passed, where the Yamato is now located, how many days are left, and how far behind schedule they are; great for trivia contests. (The restored edition I watched delights in providing commentary in the credits pointing out all of the errors and changes in it, many relating to the chronology.) Watching Yamato is a series of shocks as one realizes just how much it influenced: the odd nationalist undertones in many SF anime (particularly Gainax ones), or how Yamato keeps popping up in strange places, of course—but Yamato is also the trope-definer for the taciturn bearded captain (Macross, Evangelion, Nadesico), the harried vessel with the super-powerful weapon (Space Runaway Ideon), the alien delta-wing bombers painted white circling a crippled vessel (End of Evangelion), the hotshot pilot on a salvaged vessel fighting aliens (Macross again), the not-nuclear-bombs and mushroom clouds (DAICON, Evangelion), the use of advanced alien technology to create a “red earth” inimitable to human life but suitable for alien life where the few surviving crew activate the deus ex machina (End of Evangelion), over-ambition leading to budget cuts and problems with satisfying endings but its huge success & cult following enabling film remakes (Evangelion again). Outside anime, Aum Shinrikyo infamously invoked Yamato & the Cosmo Cleaner as a narrative of how it’d cleanse post-WWII Japan.
There are sins, of course: the chronology of 1 year was originally designed to play out over 52 rather than 26 episodes, so airing once per week, the viewer at home would have been watching the series in realtime (!) as if it were dispatches from the frontlines in a real war, but the constant budget cuts ruins this clever scheme, and forces much of the series to be pared away, like what would have been the first appearance of Captain Harlock. (This leads to some truly hilarious shortcuts: for example, the leader of the enemy is alive up until about 3 minutes before the end of the final episode; his last ship pops out from hiding and blasts the Yamato at point-blank range, dooming it… Until the Yamato activates its mirror-armor, reflects the lasers back, killing him. Wait, what mirror-armor‽ Everyone on the Yamato’s bridge looks at the engineer. Oh, he explains, I built it after episode 8, and just never mentioned it until now. Or the aliens simply change skin color from normal human skin color to green after a few episodes with no explanation. Similarly, Yamato has many female crewmembers… all but one of which are ‘put into cryosleep’ after a few episodes and never heard from again.) The premise is never less than fanciful, and the apparently hard SF approach that the chronology & detailed astronomy promises is selectively applied, at best. The character designs are largely uninspired (the 2 comic-relief characters are Jar Jar Binks tier), and the music forgettable. Overall, I would put it into the “influential but not worth watching” category.
Which leaves the question unanswered: why is it influential?
What it provides is a WWII that Japanese children can feel proud of. It simply reverses reality to provide a fantasy alternate history transferring the sins of the Japanese Empire to the enemy.
The Empire conquered for little more reason than lebensraum, attacking countries uninterested or unable to attack it back, casually slaughtering civilian populations in massacres like Shanghai or Okinawa, building grandiose monuments to militarism like the largest battleship in the world, powered by a war economy benefiting from slave-labor & looting of conquered natives, crippling the American fleet in an apparently brilliant surprise attack, but achieving in the end only futility (especially the Yamato, which, obsolete in the new aircraft carrier & submarine paradigm, achieved little of military importance, and killed 3000 crew) in a war fought to the death long past the slightest possibility of a victory, wiping out an entire generation of young men and bringing historic levels of destruction to the homeland & civilians they ostensibly fought for (including the only use of atomic bombs). In Yamato, all this is reversed: it is Earth which is attacked with not-atomic-bombs by rapacious invaders seeking to colonize it, and the Yamato is vital to the salvation of their country (humanity), led by its heroic officers, who are humbled by the power of the Yamato’s main guns and agonize over any mistreatment of indigenous aliens (and sometimes free them from forced-labor under the invaders), fighting only when regrettably forced by a relentless enemy, winning despite the initial destruction of Earth’s fleet, creating a tragically desolate peace by the total defeat of an enemy which prefers glorious kamikaze attacks to surrender, and bringing back the Cosmo Cleaner to heal the Earth of radiation.
The reversal is quite literal. The Yamato, of course, is specified in-universe as being the Yamato (as absurd as that sounds), and there are connections to other Japanese WWII media: Toshio Masuda of Tora! Tora! Tora! would direct the Yamato films after he was unable to direct the series, and 1971 Battle of Okinawa appears to directly inspire several scenes (I was particularly shocked by the scene toward the end where the armored aliens launch a raid inside the Yamato, casually executing all personnel in their path, because that would be borrowed for the same purpose by Anno in End of Evangelion—the analogy actually goes even further, as the top female officer & love interest dies during the assault, galvanizing the protagonist into action). The ‘aliens’ turn out to effectively be human, and to bear distinctly Caucasian appearances and names such as “Dessler” or “Domel” (compared to the classic Yamato-race mokusei of the protagonists, with names like “Okita” or “Kodai”); and the battles can be matched up one by one to WWII battles (Maginot Line, Battle of Britain, the Balkans, Rommel in Egypt, Battle of the Bulge).
The ‘Pacific War’ is a difficult thing for a child to be proud of; the adults disliked discussing it, and the details did not reward discussion. A visit to that topic (or Nazi esthetics) is like a visit to Yasukuni: there is an elephant in the room with you, and inadequate ventilation for the both. 29 years later, there was little closure, particularly for the creators (Leiji Matsumoto was 7 years old in 1945, and 36 in 1974). But a young boy watching Yamato can be proud of how a Japanese battleship and its heroic officers saved humanity.
It’s not ‘wrong’ about WWII, because it’s a fictional anime; it doesn’t require revisionism so much as sidestepping the issue entirely. While never saying so, such an imagined future which is a re-imagined past further justifies an imagined future of a revitalized & re-militarized Japan; one can see how this leads Anno to works like Gunbuster or Evangelion, but it remains open to other imaginations: Macross is particularly interesting in subverting that read, by (like Otaku no Video) being a celebration of fandom, consumerism, J-pop idols, and the ‘80s bubble, firmly grounded in anti-imperialism—the post-war 7/11 culture (or, ’Culture’) is in fact superior to the grim reality that militarism is not ennobling (‘that old lie’) but grinds away all that is good about life, and the nation’s ‘defeat’ in the Pacific War is the people’s victory.
As long as this shadow lies—“legends never die”.
The sibling franchise to Akagi. Kaiji follows a fairly standardized beat: Kaiji lazes around until catastrophe befalls him; to get out of it, he participates in a gambling game, is naive & trusting, plunges further into disaster, wakes up and (often with the trust & assistance of some even bigger losers than him) comes up with an ingenious trick or stratagem to win back all his losses and then some; and then he falls right back asleep and since he’s a gambling addict/loser, he’ll eventually lose most or all of it again, to repeat the cycle… Structurally, it’s the opposite of Akagi (even though there are some Akagi references in it), because Akagi is the inscrutable gambler par excellance, who coldly weighs every odd and plans every move on multiple levels—like the ‘security mindset’ of a good hacker, this is not something one turns off, and we cannot imagine Akagi ever co-signing a loan nor lazing around nor cheating nor can we imagine him ever falling for, say, a ‘friendly’ game of cee-lo without taking gambler’s ruin into account nor could he be said to be addicted, because he’s always in control; but also Akagi only ever plays one game, mahjong, while Kaiji plays a different game every time.
Not being a mahjong player, Akagi was almost entirely lost on me, while the games in Kaiji are clearly explained and often simple. Some of his invented games are quite interesting: Restricted Rock-Paper-Scissors layers a mini-economy onto rock-paper-scissors to produce complexities I’d love to see investigated more deeply, while E-Card is simple yet exemplifies what game designer Sirlin calls “yomi”.
The art is about the same as far as I can recall: no women anywhere (which makes one wonder if that’s misogynistic or not: does he think that women don’t matter, are too sensible to fall into these traps, or that men will always sacrifice themselves?), and characters with heavily stylized faces and noses so sharp that a losing character could commit seppuku with them; I can’t decide if I love or hate it. The narrator, once you get used to the purple prose, is hilarious (at one point I noted that the narration could be used in a pornographic film with little or no editing.)
The music takes a punk rock approach, echoing one of the major themes: that society is structurally unfair, filled with traps and deceptions and false promises of rewards to encourage people to trample on each other and throw away their time/lives to win position & wealth from the meritocracy, becoming ‘slaves to those above, and tyrants to those below’ only to eventually be fed into the maw of the system by their successor and discarded when their usefulness is over; those who win are not those who are lucky but those who have seen through the lies fed to the ordinary people and realized that you must cheat, deceive, and steal your way to the top—when the Chairman talks about a “king’s luck”, it is merely an euphemism for cheating (so in other words, ‘kings’ make their own ‘luck’), and those who refuse to cheat but entrust their hopes to chance or God will eventually lose and will deserve to have lost, and indeed, failure to understand this is Kaiji’s ultimate undoing at the end of season 1. (The critique is generically Marxist, complete with obese capitalist plutocrats savoring the suffering of the lumpen-proletariat.)
So that’s the stew of ingredients which is Kaiji: a loser with a heart of gold and occasional flashes of genius who is too weak-willed and soft-hearted to escape his permanent cycle of debt-hell and is plunged into exotic games for the amusement of the wealthy where he must scheme & cheat for his salvation.
Is it successful? I would say no. The character himself is too implausible to take seriously (again, we may not like Akagi or see any depth to his character, but he is like a shark: his eyes are flat and reveal no consciousness inside but he is perfectly adapted to his environment). The art remains a problem since we’re going to be staring at Kaiji’s face for a very long time. Solutions to the gambles are not always satisfactory, as Fukamoto is better at inventing games than solving them, so the resolutions often involve some overly convenient devices like some valuable jewels just feet away Kaiji can grab to save himself or cheating. (Season 2 in particular is a huge letdown in this respect.) Some of the twists make no sense: how is a man blown to his death from a window opening on the 22nd story? That is… not actually all that high up! And at the end of season 1, how can we possibly believe that it could end that way when one of the 3 special rules was very visibly broken and so Kaiji didn’t actually lose? (Since the folding of the ballot was clearly depicted in the animation, and folding was explicitly forbidden by the Chairman as a rule, I was convinced that Kaiji would point this out and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, leading to my single greatest surprise in watching Kaiji.) The cheating in E-card made no sense: if a billionaire wants to cheat at his own card game at a time & place of his own choosing with his own custom cards in his own custom game room, there are approximately an infinite number of ways to cheat which don’t involve elaborate electronic gadgets attached to someone, and heck, the cheating wasn’t even necessary, since the entire arc would have worked just fine if Toneagawa had good tell-reading skills and Kaiji had to use desperate measures to defeat the reading! (Tonegawa was probably my favorite character, and I was disappointed to see him made to resort to such clumsy cheating.)
The pacing of both seasons is atrocious, as episodes are grossly stretched out: season 1’s Restricted Rock-Paper-Scissors was too long, the Human Derby & death bridge were much too long, and the E-card / lottery games were somewhat too long; while season 2, with only 2 games in it (cee-lo and the pachinko machine) should have been done as maybe 9 episodes at the most (with zero loss) and I strongly advise watching at 300% speed if you watch season 2. (I wonder if the manga suffers from the pacing problem? I suspect probably not.) The pachinko machine arc is—let’s not mince words here—pretty stupid, especially when you start season 2 with the understandable expectation that Kaiji has learned his lesson and will meet the Chairman again in an even more epic duel. (He hasn’t, and won’t.)
Ultimately, some fun games & hilariously over the top narration and an initially very promising first arc can’t rescue a series with a flawed protagonist, ugly art, repetitive plot, simplistic social commentary, and direly slow pacing.
Fuse is an odd duck. Overall, I endorse Theron Martin’s ANN review of it.
The main appeal of the movie is its gorgeous depiction of Tokugawa Edo: the vast city with its teeming throngs and characters, lovingly depicted from the spear carriers of daimyo to the firefighting bridges and their tactics of pulling down buildings to halt fires to the popularity of woodblock prints to grandstanding actors playing to their crowds even to less pleasant aspects like teeth-blackening (which is often omitted because let’s face it who wants to see pretty actresses with black teeth?). There are many little touches I enjoyed a great deal, like the cat looking in astonishment at Hamaji walking on a fence like a cat or the conversation between Hamaji and her friend while a craftsman makes colorful banners. This is a movie you’d enjoy watching and rewatching with a commentary & Wikipedia at hand.
The character designs are effective and Ghibli-esque; Hamaji could hang out with Nausicaa and Princess Kushana without skipping a beat, and the director clearly worked with Studio Ghibli in the past. This means the characters are not conventionally attractive, but they are memorable and fulfill their roles, and by verging on caricature, one can’t deny—the old boat man certainly does look like a shriveled old man, the shogunate does look like a feeble young man, etc. (One dishonorable exception is the Fuse courtesan who is simply bizarre and looks for all the world like a parody of American greasers from the 1950s or something with what literally looks like a blonde mohawk.)
The plot… is a bit of a mess. The Fuse hunt initially seems to be the main plot, but is it trying to justify fuses or humanize them? Except it does a bad job of that (they are pretty heavily implied to have not limited their hunting to self-defense, and is it really self-defense when they’re after you for previous murders? and almost all of the Fuse are dead before the story even starts) and it wanders in focus from the hunt to other topics like Hamaji’s ne’er-do-well brother (who one wonders how much he actually likes her given he only calls her to Edo to use her in hunting Fuse) or the shogun (whose own subplot makes no sense even by the end, as we never find out how he’s an imitation, what his connection to the Fuse is, or how he apparently channels the grandfather of the Fuse) or Bakin’s writing of the Hakkenden (another issue, there’s clearly supposed to be some sort of meaningful connection between the Hakkenden and the ‘real’ story of the Fuse but we never understand what Bakin was trying to do as the story of the Hakkenden could hardly justify or spin the Fuse’s murders). The courtesan Fuse’s character hinges on her son, who is never seen and his death is mentioned almost as an afterthought. As well, Hamaji seems to be often dumb as a box of rocks: she never seems to think ‘oh, that strange white-haired guy who murdered a bunch of people in front of me and transformed and jumped around is one of those Fuse my brother is trying to kill’ and has to ask Shino’s name though I’m pretty sure he was named twice before in her presence, and the final pairing of Hamaji & Shino hardly makes sense either. And what does any of this have to do with dogs, anyway? By the end, I was left nonplussed.
Enjoyable and worth watching, but the story is too peculiar for Fuse to become more than the sum of its parts and be classed along with the best anime movies.
A colorful take on yuri-esque mahou shoujo, Flip Flappers starts off with a strong visual imagination and fun animation, but the pieces never gel. If I had watched only episode 6, an unusually hard-hitting depiction of senile dementia, and episode 8, a colorful and fun ’80s cyberpunk Tron-esque confection homaging classic robot anime, I would have thought Flip Flappers was an excellent anime; but—alas!—I had to watch the others too.
The various worlds never form as interesting a commentary as the witch-domains in Madoka did and come off as largely random, and the ‘fetch of the week’ format fails to make the two protagonists interesting or convincing friends: Cocona remains a boring stick-in-the-mud while Papika never rises above ‘manic pixie dream girl’ stereotypes.
The backstory is dumped at the end, and I have never seen a more shameless, comprehensive, or boringly unoriginal ripoff of Nadia/Neon Genesis Evangelion/End of Evangelion—I did think Kill la Kill went a bit far in homaging EoE, but that brought a lot to the table & was still its own anime.
The predictable fighting-means-friendship ending is based on too much sketchy nonsense for me to even bother trying to understand it or appreciate its half-hearted gestures at having an emotional impact. The price you pay for cribbing everything from Nadia/EoE, and not speaking from your heart, is that your work is splashy but in the end can never hope to have any heart.
Mobile Suit Gundam is groundbreaking and historic as the founder of the Gundam franchise, so I felt obliged to watch it at some point. The animation is not as bad as I expected, and actually a lot of bits of the universe seem remarkably well thought out—from the sliding rails to the pink bubblegum filling breaches to the ring handholds. Scattered observations:
- I’m truly shocked that Mirai, Fraw Bow, Kai, and Hayato all survived. If you had asked me at episode 5 what were the odds of that, I would have said less than 15% or so.
- Series would have been better plotted if it had been 5–10 episodes shorter.
- Ditto if the Newtype stuff had been developed or brought in earlier.
- The kids being on board the White Base is still idiotic and a huge breaker of suspension of disbelief.
- Poor Sayla—such a butt monkey. I think I’ve figured out her role: she’s there to make Amuro seem more like a hero. (The casual sexism in MSG is getting kind of amusing: first we have Amuro’s comment about how he hates to take orders from a woman, then we have an entire episode devoted to Sayla trying to prove a woman can fight—and failing completely. Even though somehow Amuro’s amateur fights turn out alright…)
- I got very tired of how the previews for the next episode seem bent on spoiling it as much as possible—gee, Matilda dies? Just want I wanted to know. That big assault we’ve been waiting 10 episodes for succeeds? Swell. You bastards. Why are you doing this to me‽
- With episode 10, I applaud Char’s betrayal of Garma. You tried many times, and finally succeeded beautifully. Well done, you scarlet scum, well done indeed.
Overall, a very good series which has aged surprisingly well, and so I can well understand why it was so influential—it must’ve come as a thunderous clap to watchers of the time, a vision of how mecha anime could be.
Futakoi Alternative_ pairs two plots: a screwball action-comedy (a loser detective and his cute assistants saving the world from a Nazi-zaibatsu secret society of squid) and the sort of tragic dating-sim story Key made famous (two twins fall in love with a detective before a forced-marriage tears the trio apart); the abrupt switches between the parallel plots (crudely brought together at the end) account for its reputation of mood-swings.
I really wanted to like this show: it has claymation eyecatches and EDs! How can any anime which uses claymation be bad? And it quotes His and Her Circumstances, the last episodes heavily homages End of Evangelion & Castle of Cagliostro, there are clever touches like Rentaro’s hair gradually growing and looking more like his fathers, there’s interesting background artwork, the cinematography is often great and felt like I was watching a film or at least a much better show, the twin characters are much better than one might expect and genuinely likable (not something VN adaptations always manage). After watching the first episode, which was a very fun action-comedy episode (think shows like Excel Saga), I thought that all it had to do was keep that up and FA would rank as an unjustly forgotten show.
But there are too many drawbacks. Character design is a bit formulaic. The romance plot is slow and mopey, with endless foreshadowing. Some episodes make no sense, like the one with the twin teachers (what on earth was that about). There’s definite fetishization of being a twin, and undertones of twincest. It gets worse when the foreshadowing materializes, as Rentaro keeps asking himself whether having sex with both of the twins before one left would have been a solution, which is a view of sex and virginity that is… more than a little problematic. The plot twist is epicly bad; it’s the forced-marriage trope except the man forcing the marriage doesn’t care which completely defeats the point and destroys any pathos because even if the premise (a will) were granted, they could simply do a sham marriage, not ‘leave the man they love and cut off ties forever’. The action plot may be worse; at first I thought it was supposed to be some sort of hyper-dramatic fantasy rendering of some minor detective incidents because there was no overlap between the two plots and the world-building seemed competent, but then I realized no, it was serious, the strange super-powered squid was actually the action plot and then the plots merge upon ludicrous fiat. The problem is that the realistic romance plot seriously stumbled, and then was compromised further by connecting to the action plot, which is ultimately not dynamic or funny enough to work: protagonists hopping in a biplane to Germany is not cool, it is stupid. (This is the problem with Rule of Cool: are events or characters or items cool or funny enough to excuse how stupid/unrealistic they are? If it is, you get successes like Hellsing or Kill La Kill or Tengen Toppen Gurren Lagann; if it isn’t…)
One of the most popular anime that season, it drew interest for its low-key lesbian romance/slice-of-life/fantasy mashup; I found it considerably overrated. The same-sex aspect is almost entirely irrelevant and, forgetting that admitting a fault is not fixing that fault, lampshaded numerous times; the pacing was badly timed and early on highly demanding of emotional engagement which it had not remotely earned; the grim-dark fantasy counterpoint to the slice-of-life was too cursory to provide a real contrast or motivation for the eponymous dragon maid; the side characters were one-note and unimaginative caricatures (although the Genshiken-esque pair of side characters might have worked if the series had tried a lot harder), indeed, eventually thoroughly obnoxious. The animation, aside from the care lavished on Tohru’s striking dragon eyes, was serviceable. There are a few nice touches: I was amused to note that the protagonist programs in Python—of course! although Ruby would’ve been almost as appropriate. Overall, boring.
A puzzling entry in the oft-puzzling Monogatari series: the tables are turned as Koyomi must investigate someone afflicted by an oddity: himself, although he doesn’t realize it, as he investigates a seriously mentally-ill classmate, Sodachi, who turns out to have an extensive history with him that he is amnesiac about. This is interesting and Sodachi gets some great lines, but it’s unclear why this interlude exists.
Owari fills in a great deal of backstory on Koyomi, like his love of mathematics—except who knew any of this backstory needed filling in? Certainly I don’t recall wanting an explanation for that, or indeed that he had any deep love for mathematics… I took a look at some fan discussions but found little about Sodachi or whether she becomes important later on, so maybe she doesn’t ever.
Owari awkwardly transitions to the ongoing Shinobu arc stemming from Onimonogatari, covering the other half of the story from Nekomonogatari Black/White, and info-dumping even more, explaining why Koyomi encounters all these oddities in the first place. At this point, the whole Monogatari universe has become complicated enough I feel I need to restart from the beginning because I’m not sure what any of this means!8
The keyword for From Up on Poppy Hill is “nostalgic”. Like Only Yesterday, it’s another Ghibli visit to a bygone Japan: in this case, post-WWII Japan where the boom has erased most of the damage, but there’s still plenty of pre-war buildings around and occasional bits of fallout.
So, to start with the positives: PH has excellent painterly landscapes/backgrounds. The hillside and side-roads offer scope for Ghibli’s work to shine. We can extend this to the crowd scenes showing all the citizens in their costumery set against the simultaneously modernizing & still traditional towns. In particular, I loved all the sequences & scenes set in the Latin Quarter, stuffed with all sorts of props & people in the background, making the clubhouse a character in its own right—in the dense detail, it is reminiscent of Paprika, Honneamise, Tekkonkinkreet, & Ghost in the Shell 2. (Since I remember my own high school & college club days very fondly, these triggered my own nostalgia & recognition in a way that the general setting couldn’t possibly.)
The soundtrack has some well-chosen period pieces, but this is not a Ghibli production whose music will be long remembered like The Borrowers Arrietty, Castle in the Sky, Whisper of the Heart etc. It’s not bad, just nothing in it is that good.
The real bad news for From Up on Poppy Hill is that the plot is bad. The movie is a failure because the story it tells is a disjointed mess, similar to Earthsea (although to be fair to director Goro Miyazaki, he’s not the only Ghibli newbie to underperform in that respect—Ghibli newbie Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s The Borrowers Arrietty also struggles with telling a good story as opposed to simply having beautiful animation & Cécile Corbel’s music). I can’t agree with the fanboys gurgling with praise about how it depicts ‘family’ and ‘love’.
The save-the-Latin-Quarter subplot is put on the backburner and long after we’ve forgotten about it, trivially resolved just by cleaning it, asking the boss nicely to come & see it, and he approves (one wonders just how realistic such a sequence is); it completely lacks any drama or tension, and takes up far less of the movie than one might expect. Instead, we are given a meandering subplot about the protagonist’s budding love (fine; Whisper of the Heart was fantastic, no reason the same story won’t work twice) which is wildly derailed by a sudden revelation of siblinghood which comes from out of nowhere (and no, some portentous glances at a photograph do not meaningfully incorporate the twist into the story or motivate it), followed by the characters being disturbingly willing to engage in incest, followed by yet another bizarre revelation (apparently in the ’40s and ’50s, the Japanese swapped babies like baseball cards; it’s all presented so casually I can’t help but feel it’s a little disrespectful to the actual orphans & children involved). It all adds up to a jumble of scenes which goes nowhere, feels random, and lack any sort of unifying theme. I had the same feeling as when watching The Borrowers Arrietty: like I was suffering from some literary version of Capgras delusion where the real Poppy Hill plot had been replaced by an inferior crude substitute and this impostor had only a garbled memory of the original plot.
What went wrong? It’s hard to tell, but also hard to not notice that Goro was involved here too. One of the key roles of the director is working on the plot and making sure everything comes together. The artists certainly did their job with the backgrounds and animation, but what about the rest? That was Goro’s job. This makes 2 failures for Goro, and I have to wonder if Hayao is really going to let his son do a third movie just because Goro is his son: wouldn’t anyone else have been fired or at least eased out of consideration for directing by now?9 How are they going to take this nepotism and how many times must Goro fail? I wonder if this is the future of Ghibli, especially now that Hayao has announced his retirement from feature-filmmaking in favor of smaller works for the Ghibli Museum etc.
Oh well. At least I can still look forward to watching his The Wind Rises.
A retread of the original MSG series, attempting a generational replay/“the sins of the fathers are visited on the sons”, but it is so aggressively in media res that even fans will be confused, and the overall structure comes off as confused and ill-written—for example, the new female Newtype Quess, who replaces the one who dies at the peak of MSG, comes off as a Mary Sue who ruins every scene she is in and yet everyone indulges her; apparently, consulting TVTropes for an explanation of why the plot is so messed up, this was supposed to reflect her Newtype powers.
TVTropes further explains why the movie as a whole is so unsatisfactory, as its production is a comedy of errors:
Originally, director Yoshiyuki Tomino was going to wrap up Amuro and Char’s storyline in Gundam ZZ, but mid-way through production he was given the go-ahead to make a movie, forcing the plot of ZZ to be rewritten…In the meantime Tomino wrote the novel Hi-Streamer, but when Sunrise gave him the green light, he went back and wrote a second novel, Beltorchika’s Children, which he specifically wrote to be adapted into a movie. However, Sunrise instead chose to use Hi-Streamer, with the final film being a pretty straightforward adaptation of its second half.
Oy vey. What an ignominious end for Char & Amuro…
Generic shonen anime along the lines of more popular ones like Naruto. (In fact, the similarities between SE and Naruto—whose manga started several years before SE’s manga and was a big success by that point—are glaring enough as to straddle the line between legitimate borrowing and plagiarism, from the visual design of the iconic ninja vests & headband to the eccentric powerful but dark white-haired mentor to the immensely powerful ancient city leader being trapped in a magical field while an epic battle rages.)
SE’s best aspects are its visual style. Some scenes and designs are memorable: the moon, whether it’s grinning or dripping blood, is regularly disturbing in a Tim Burton-esque fashion, the little demon in Soul is an interesting take on the Devil and suits (and the hand-biting an excellently disturbing mannerism), and the revival of the Kishin is fantastic, whether it’s the extremely creepy hallucinations afflicting characters before the revival or the animation of the body reconstructing himself and learning how to move again, or Medusa’s ‘vector’ weapons. Character designs are also sufficiently memorable that one is unlikely to confuse anyone, and are colorful enough that one rarely gets bored of watching the main characters (although I wish Maka Albarn’s face & eyes were less of a cipher, Kid Death makes up for it with his wardrobe and peculiar martial arts). I must of course mention Excalibur, who is both visually striking (what is he, anyway? an anteater?) but also quite funny. The OPs and EDs are likewise excellent pairings of visuals and music.
The characters are decent (once their shticks stop being run into the ground), but the plot is even weaker. Reviewing the overall plot, it feels like the SE anime almost made a point of failing to explore intriguing possibilities and leaving Chekhov guns unfired.
The first time we see the Kishin’s face, it is a shock as he is instantly recognizable as looking like Kid Death, down to the white hair highlights; one assumes that Asura is actually Death’s son and Kid’s brother, and this will be extremely important—but nothing is ever made of this and Asura is implied to be human.
The series drove me nuts by name-dropping Maka’s mother constantly, but never once showing a photo of her or her on screen or giving any information whatsoever about her—surely once we finally learn in episode 39 or 40 that she’s still alive and traveling the world and has an unique powerful magical ability, she will turn out to be critical to the war against the Kishin and has been engaged in extremely important work for the DWMA and will be a major character? Nope; all we learn is that she’s fat.
The danger of the Kishin’s madness infecting the world is emphasized again and again, and the danger shown in one of the most memorable scenes during the escape of the Kishin; surely once he escapes, the series tempo will speed up dramatically as the world begins to fall apart, everyone from Death on down begins to go insane, and tough choices will be made, showing that SE can pull off the classic escalation formula of starting as comedy and turning into dark action-drama that made other series like Fullmetal Alchemist so memorable? Nope: Stein is literally the only character to go mad, and the series tempo slows down, if anything, and the striking visions are totally abandoned even in the final battle face to face with the Kishin inside his bubble.
Speaking of Stein, since he’s the only one who goes mad and this is a major plot point over dozens of episodes and a core part of Medusa’s schemes, surely the consequences of his insanity will be equally major and core to her plan? Nope and nope. Well, what about the hints that Death is not such a pure and noble defender of order and has a sinister background scheme going on which may betray the efforts of the protagonists and justify the criticisms of the ‘evil’ characters, in a subversion that leads to meaningful conflict and weighing difficult moral choices? Hah, nope! Nope, Death really is a great guy, you were just being paranoid. How about all the witches who would awaken, under the leadership of the ‘Old Witch’? Nope nope. Or what about Black Star, the most mentally unstable and dangerous of the 3 protagonists, who you keep expecting to go off the reservation? Definitely nope. How about Excalibur, who gets an entire episode demonstrating how he is the most powerful weapon in the world and is a Chekhov’s gun among Chekhov guns—I will eat my hat if he doesn’t even fight by the end! Nope nope nope. (It’s a good thing I didn’t make any bets about that one since hats take a long time to cut up and eat.)
So weirdly, while it certainly feels that SE could fill up 51 episodes without any problem, it winds up being surprisingly empty and full of MacGuffins and unimportant one-shot episodes. (Reading the WP summary, the finished manga plot is quite different. I wonder how many of these problems stem from the adaptation challenge where the anime studio tries to avoid making changes or anticipating the manga?)
SE’s aversion to ever killing off a character, no matter how minor or merited, removes any sense of weight or impact from plot twists. It doesn’t matter if Soul sacrifices himself—you know he’ll be fine no matter what. Or Medusa. I simply sighed when I saw the epilogue implying she had survived. Again. I thought Medusa surviving once was a bad decision as it took the accomplishment away from Stein and meant his ‘fall’ was less a lingering legacy of Medusa than some more of her scheming and so less due to Stein himself (a fall because of internal character conflicts is far more interesting and tragic than a fall due to the machinations of a tempter), but surviving twice is just in bad taste. How can any victory ever feel satisfying or any defeat tragic when the series refuses to let there be real consequences?
Often plot twists or endings come off as feeling deeply cheap and unearned and by authorial fiat. The Black Star / Tsubaki episodes tend to be particularly flawed: when Tsubaki defeats her brother, how exactly did she resolve her brother’s problems? You can’t tell me because the episode jumps straight from his festering resentment of her to her killing him somehow. Or consider Black Star’s final duel with Mifune: Mifune quite reasonably thinks Black Star is a mad dog who needs to be put down before he becomes a demon like his father, and Black Star declares that this will not be a problem… because he’ll simply be better than that, somehow, and cuts down Mifune. To say that this is an inadequate resolution of the problem is to dignify the episode by implying it had any resolution, and a particular pity because Black Star had the most genuine character growth over the series
What the ‘meaning’ of the whole series is supposed to be aside from the usual shonen tropes is unclear. Asura is clearly intended to be some form of Buddhism, as his name references the class of both benevolent & malevolent warring gods a level up from humans that Buddhism adopts from Hinduism, his weapon is a vajra (the double-ended dagger symbolically associated with Buddhas and enlightenment), vajras symbolize an entire branch of Buddhism (Vajrayana, as opposed to Hinayana or Mahayana), I think the triple-eye motif may be drawn from somewhere in Buddhism as well, Asura’s appearance of rags closely resembles a mendicant priest, his third eye opening is another Hindu/Buddhist trope, he makes mystical mudra gestures (also associated with esoteric Buddhism), and his talk about killing his imagination to avoid fear could be very vaguely considered akin to Buddhism’s goal of eliminating craving and hence suffering; but what does it all amount to?
And what was the role of the black blood? I thought it was supposed to reflect the Kishin’s madness in some way but it never winds up being given any particular importance (quite aside from the cheap and easy way that the black blood madness infection keeps being resolved).
Overall, was this worth 51 episodes? No, not really. (Feel free to watch on 2× speed.)
Speed Grapher starts off very interesting: in a plutocratic dystopia where the elite gather for bacchanalian celebration defying the laws of god and man alike, a lone honest investigative reporter stumbles across a lead to blow it all apart.
The animation is fine, the score appropriate, the character designs perfectly relatable & easy on the eyes, and the concept seems like a winner, even when some supernatural powers get thrown into the mix: so the guy gets weaponized cameras—so he literally shoots people? Well, OK, I guess I wasn’t expecting a gritty film noir and a hilariously bad pun like that is fine with me, but surely the end product will be good since the first few episodes are quite intriguing. One is naturally inclined to watch SG further and enjoy the payoffs.
Nope. The first hint that things are going wrong in SG is how the fights take on a suspiciously monster-of-the-week format where the photographer shoots a plutocrat or their agents to death, inside a boring ‘flee with the girl from baddies’. This too-long plot finally breaks down into an even more bizarre plot involving the big bad, which I give props for at least not being nearly as boring and predictable as the chase arc (even if I kept wondering, “wouldn’t this all work much better if toned down, rewritten by someone reasonably intelligent, and set in the GitS: Stand Alone Complex universe?”).
All in all, unsatisfactory. One of those incomplete series like Chaos;head, where you can see some quality ingredients and what the intended end-product might’ve been like and why some people thoroughly enjoy it, but where it ultimately falls apart.
One of the most highly praised anime of the past season and based on Trigun creator Yasuhiro Nightow’s second manga, this was described as great action in media res; the first part is somewhat true, and the second is entirely false because ‘media res’ implies any of it will make sense after a while, but the 12 episodes of BBF never add up to anything with elements and MacGuffins dropped in constantly and immediately dropped entirely.
From the nonsensical frame story of the protagonist handwriting a letter to his blind sister to the supersonic monkey to an episode whose climax is the discovery of hundreds of vampires who are never mentioned again to an entire episode devoted to a pseudo-chess game—set to “Ode to Joy”, no less!—which has no consequences whatsoever (and whose objective is also never mentioned again) to a new character showing up just a few episodes from the final episode while never mattering to final episode itself whose sekai-kei meaning is, shall we say, left as an interpretation for the viewer… It’s almost an accomplishment to see how all of it resolutely avoids connecting up in any way.
The premise of the world-building sounds intriguing in providing a Men in Black-ish mashup of classic Western supernatural tropes with b-list horror/SF movies and all movies/TV series set in NYC, and drawing on a jazz esthetic a bit like The Big O’s drawing on Art Deco with ambitions of an ensemble cast evoking Americana like Baccano!, but unfortunately the series distinctly fails to remember love for NYC (as a comparison to, say, the success of Aria in evoking Venice would make clear) and the supernatural-made-mundane NYC citizens, with the honorable exception of the mushroom-man episode (probably the only good episode) serve solely as background scenery.
Given that it’s Nightow, and that there are a lot of intriguing details & characters, I’m willing to believe that the manga does something with all of this and will justify it all, and with a second season announced, even that the second season might be able to recover from the first season’s disastrous choices, but season 1 is a mess and does not stand on its own.
A disappointment. The premise sounds good, and like it could lend itself to a Swiftian satire of modern society, provide interesting contrasts between the poverty and inequity of the stock fantasy medieval setting and the world now, do fish-out-of-water and lowered-status gags, but instead, it’s an inept package. The worldbuilding is nonexistent; the lead character completely implausible (there’s not even a scene where he decides to become a hardworking peasant, much less a scrap of justification for abandoning world conquest for the joys of McDonald’s) and adapts instantly & unamusingly to his new world (‘gift of tongues’, please), and the tsundere Hero is little better (he killed your family for no good reason, handing you an umbrella is not a reason to fall for him!); it indulges in the excuse of ‘oops used up all my power repairing stuff’ what, 3 or 4 times? which is 2 or 3 times more than it should’ve; the ‘dialogue’ is moronic (so, the final member of the harem is reproached for being an assassin for whom the end justifies the means just like for the demon? yes, yes, how very accurate—wait a second, when the deuce were we told the demons had any ends beyond bestial lust/greed/ambition?); and finally and worse of all: the comedy is bad. How many times is it funny to have Ashiya puke or talk about coupons, or have Lucifer order something online? Apparently 3 episodes’ worth—except the series has 13 episodes.
If you just want the fantasy highschool romcom, stick to Shakugan no Shana. For fish-out-of-water, Full Metal Panic! The Second Raid comes to mind as much funnier. For action… well, pretty much any series will do better. For world conquest by a misunderstood villain, _Maoyuu Maou Yuusha_sounds like it’s at least thought-out. For economics, Spice and Wolf. For business lessons, Moshidora. Hataraku Maou-sama! does nothing well.
An attempt at an all-ages family film dealing with childhood traumas (in this case, the loss of a parent) with fantasy/supernatural entities as a coping mechanism; very Ghibli-esque, particularly similar to My Neighbor Totoro in using the device of a move to the remote countryside (an island) to live in an old-fashioned building and encountering folkoric creatures. Sounds promising, yet I was disappointed.
The basic trouble with Momo is that it executes well on none of these aspects. Momo herself is an ultra-bland character who cannot stand any comparison with Ghibli heroines like Sen or Shizuku. The island setting is woefully underused throughout the movie (except for the pig-chasing scene). The architecture and backgrounds are accurate but again, bland. The music is unmemorable and cannot be commented on. The trio of supernatural characters are more irritating than they are ever interesting or endearing and I wished that almost all of their scenes didn’t exist as the humor is nonexistent. The animation is adequate but again bland, except for whoever worked on the pig-chasing scene and the pulsating spirits at the shrine (who stand out as the most visually interesting aspect of the movie, and give the later bridge scene its interest). And the plot…
The plot has a truly outrageous reliance on cliches—from the guilt of Momo telling her father to leave right before his accidental death to her mother conveniently developing Anime Coughing Sickness (yes, really! they really had the chutzpah to use that cliche!) to endlessly predictable scenes (serious question: in the mirror-breaking scene, is there anyone who from the first cut didn’t know that that mirror was going to break?) to scenes so illogical that the movie can’t even depict the events (why on earth would a doctor agree to cross the bridge at the end in the middle of a typhoon…? don’t ask Momo, it just cuts straight from getting across to the happily-ever-after). It compounds these scenes with a lack of imagination (no use of the “Night Parade of One Hundred Demons” is just criminal) and in the ending where it commits the greatest of sins for this kind of movie by forcing a heavy-handed conclusion and collapsing the border of reality/imagination. It has the bad taste of, like pornography, insisting on showing you everything. I could have maybe tolerated all the rest of it and considered it mediocre but still watchable far down the list after the Ghibli movies, Wolf Children, etc, but that choice of ending is a final kick in the nuts and insult to everyone who watches it.
A broken little girl drags into her fantasy/shonen delusions a nebbish who apparently had similar delusions; he helps fix her as he falls in love with her and learns life lessons. Standard enough summary for a highschool romance-comedy: it sounds like a storyline that could’ve come out of a Key production like Clannad or Kanon without much modification.
The animation is pleasant enough in the standard KyoAni template; the sound is entirely forgettable.
Character highlights for me included the protagonist Yuuta not being a blank slate dating sim protagonist but having his own delusive past and acting appropriately; the beautiful but two-faced Nibutani (an archetype one may remember from Toradora’s Ami or Haruhi’s Asakura); the protagonist buddy being actually a decent guy and not a knave or buffoon; the sidekick is a prodigy rich girl, a type we don’t see that often (only example that comes to mind is in Azumanga Daioh); and in particular, Rikka’s older sister Touka is great, a strong female character with her own career who is unafraid to blackmail Yuuta with some interesting moves of her own, and I found particularly hilarious the running gag of Touka & Yumeha playing a ‘realistic’ game of house.
The plot moves forward on predictable rails (the first meeting, forming a club, gathering the members) to the climax of coming to grips with Rikka’s issues and then the declarations of love (‘first girl always wins’, as the saying goes), and is good as far as it goes, especially in painfully evoking the ridiculousness of the play-acting—I never did anything like that but still winced in pain at some points. (After a while, I did wish that the battle animations would be more varied. Talk about recycling! It’s only 12 episodes, guys…)
My beef is more with the ending: after convincing Rikka to give up the chuunibyou and dissolve the club, the plot takes the tragically obvious route of Nibutani pointing out that a lot of things can be seen as chuunibyou, Yuuta then realizing how that renunciation was a horrible mistake and how delusions make life worth living etc, and having realized his mistake, he then goes to rescue Rikka with the assistance of the club members. Good End.
I disagree, completely. A question Hideaki Anno asked once comes up again:
I wonder if a person over the age of twenty who likes robot anime is really happy? He could find greater happiness elsewhere. Regrettably, I have my doubts about his happiness.
Nibutani points out that the acting club’s president could be seen as suffering chuunibyou. Yes, if you define chuunibyou as simply a passionate interest, many highschoolers or adults suffer it. But this definition ‘has all the advantages of theft over honest toil’: people do not see chuunibyou as the same as a passion or interest. Why? Because passions are directed toward a real object, they aim at real ends, one can grow, there is objective subject matter to master, and they give genuine rewards and satisfaction. A chuunibyou like Rikka’s offers none of these: the subject matter is made up on whim, is artistically impoverished and repetitive, is not transferable to others (everyone has their own chuunibyou or variants on another’s, even Dekomori differs from Rikka, via her Mabinogion), has no depth that the person has not put in themselves, can mutate on the spur of the moment, and is fundamentally unsatisfactory—even as a psychological defense mechanism, it is no substitute for genuinely dealing with the issues.
Yuuta et al say that it’s fine to not be too self-conscious and to pursue one’s dreams and passions. I agree. Not having a dream or passion is a terrible thing: a sense of meaning can make even the unhappiest life worth living. And so I don’t mind Yuuta seeking to give Rikka a dream after destroying her pale chuunibyou dreams. But while the solution to bad dreams is clearly not no dreams at all, it also is not more bad dreams! It is better dreams. It is a dream like the dream of the acting club’s president: a real dream, one that could be attained, that can lead one to more goals and growth, and to surmount additional obstacles.
Life affords no higher pleasure than that of surmounting difficulties, passing from one step of success to another, forming new wishes and seeing them gratified.
What Chuunibyou should have shown us is Rikka developing a new dream: perhaps acting, perhaps fencing, perhaps fiction-writing… Many possibilities. Instead, we got a revival of her old crap, whose only saving grace is that we can choose to interpret it as a mix of romantic and a final resolution of her psychological problems which uses the vocabulary of her chuunibyou.
An echo of this false dichotomy, this failure to come up with the genuinely healthy outcome, appears in the final beach scene. Rikka, still dreamless, says that the lights are merely electrical lights. This is apparently supposed to indicate the depths of her despair: mere electrical headlights! A stellar example of failing to take joy in the merely real.
Just some electrical lights? No, they’re not ‘just’ some lights! They’re the legacy of a man who night after night in the darkness labored because he knew the world could be better one day; they’re the greatest accomplishment of a man who had discovered a thousand ways to not build a light bulb; they’re a sign of a new world, a world so busy that it cannot stop simply because the sun has set; they’re a technology that has spread everywhere that humans have spread and clustered in their hives of light, so closely tied to Enlightenment that you can mark the extent of suffering and misery by simply at night looking where electrical lights are not (by satellite—and are not satellites themselves something far absurder and more extraordinary than anything you have read in a novel? something which keeps falling yet stays up; even novels try to avoid self-contradiction); they’re a symbol of what Japan was missing out on as it slept away the centuries under the Tokugawa; they’re the expression of human cooperation and building, an intricate network of components built across the world, powered by a country’s nervous system that at every millisecond, faster than human thought, is being finetuned by distant workers to serve you (and save on men wearily going from gaslight to gaslight, lighting them and dousing them every night and day); they’re part of what makes cities work at all, hindering the work of thieves and assisting the police; they’re the new reality that reading need no longer be snatched in tiny increments in the daylight in between work in the fields, but absorbed at leisure when necessary, so ordinary people can learn things that our ancestors could never dream of, Horatio; they’re why we know so much about so many things, but not how to make a smoky indoors fire so we can see just a little by at night (and poison our lungs, and poison our children). The electric lights are economic wealth, the lights are knowledge, the lights are safety.
I am reminded, oddly enough, of a bit from a Haruhi fanfiction I read a while ago:
Of late, the teachers are really starting to drill us for entrance exams, and that’s fine. That’s expected, even, but it feels like it’s not enough. I don’t want to keep a list of the top ten facts about the Meiji Restoration on the back of my hand. Tell me that it was something big and important—that when Tokugawa stepped down and ended the shogunate for good, it was a sign. Japan would never be the same again. Japan would never be able to keep to itself again. It changed the way we live, and you can see that every day. Whenever you buy a pair of headphones that say Sony on the side or a car with a three-diamond ornament on the front, you see something that goes back to that time, that wouldn’t exist without that change in how we live our lives. I’ve watched all our classmates scribble down notes furiously. I wonder sometimes if they ever thought to do more than just copy, copy, and copy some more.
In comparison to reality, stories about Dark Flame Masters or Tyrant’s Eyes come off as exactly what they seem: shallow, childish, ignorant, and unsatisfying. That Rikka or the author cannot see this unseen world all around her is the real tragedy.
Overall: mediocre school rom-com whose decent cast and occasional bursts of comedy/parody don’t save it from overall drudgery.
Seto no Hanayome stars the generic harem comedy male lead whose main characteristics are mysteriously attracting female attention, remarkable physical endurance, and the devil’s own luck. This scenario features him being saved by a mermaid who then has to marry him to prevent him from being executed for knowing about mermaids; subsequently, he ‘enjoys’ the attention of her unhappy relatives & yakuza loyalists, admirers, and rivals, who all accurately enough observe that she’s too good for him, but of course it turns out to be true love anyway. (A time-honored formula going back at least to Urusei Yatsura.)
The plot is heavy on cliche. Each character has their shtick and boy do they ever stick to it (don’t expect characters like Gozaburo Seto to change through the many episodes; Shark-san will continue to try to eat the lead, the mother will swoon over Masa, etc etc).
What rescues SnH from the delete-immediately category is its willingness to take the ‘secret mermaid society’ conceit and run with it (the mermaids’ inborn fear of cats; San’s fear of her policewoman classmate Mawari; the Seto Special Squad brothers; the Seto TV shopping channel with tail-enhancing prosthetics; Nakajima constantly being an octopus without it being remarked, and octopus kebabs showing up suspiciously often), and to engage in over the top parodies (the two-episode war between San & Luna loyalists, chockful of Fist of the North Star references & shonen parody; the similar OVA 1; episode 24 where Kai is dying; the Masa mini-episodes slyly mimicking the ‘bar scenes’ in yakuza/crime dramas, where the game is to guess which character he’s talking to before the punchline; Lunar’s Papa’s Terminator episode and then later allusions; Saru’s ero-hermit; episode 19’s jidaigeki setting & equation of man-mermaid pairings as a threat to the existing order akin to pro-Imperial revolutionaries in Tokugawa Japan; ep22’s depiction of San’s ideal delinquent boyfriend). The more ‘serious’ romantic arc like ep02 and ep25–26 are also good enough to not leave a bad taste.
What stops SnH from being better than the watch category is its many wasted opportunities. For example, the tail-changing-in-water mechanic might be considered to be the prelude to constant hijinks; as we saw with Ranma 1⁄2, a water-change mechanism can be exploited in countless ways. SnH uses it a few times and forgets it. Or, the first time San does her ‘chivalry is spelled the same way as mermaid’ shtick, you might infer that this will be ripe for comedy as irrelevant coincidences of kanji lead a headstrong San into considerable silliness. Nope. The yakuza/Mawari angle is weirdly downplayed. And SnH has entire misfiring episodes: episodes 12 & 13 would’ve been better combined; episode 14 seems a bit thin as a standalone episode (an entire episode on mermaid fear of cats?) and like it would have worked much better as a subplot in another episode; episode 15 is a complete waste, as is episode 21 (both focused on the president character, who should’ve been mercilessly cut); episode 20 is just uncomfortable and not nearly as funny as the creators apparently think; episode 23 tries to resolve the Masa character but just leaves him in a weird limbo state vis-a-vis his sister which makes one wonder why ep23 even existed when Masa was fine on his own as a ‘cool gangster’/mentor character. 26 episodes is a lot of time to work with, but if you want a good comedy, you can’t leave so much slack & worthless material. (A similar problem sabotaged Nichijou: too much space to fill, not enough top material.)
So you couldn’t really compare it to better comedies like FMP: Fumoffu or Azumanga Daioh or better dramas like Toradora.
Waste of time. Interesting concept which doesn’t go anywhere, on top of which the fights are repetitive and unimaginative (if you’ve seen one you’ve seen all, as they are all lazy battle-royales and punches which could be, and probably were, clip-arts), they are entertaining neither as realistic nor shonen-superpowered nor parodies, and the series winds up spending most of its time, apparently, on mean-spirited mockery of fujoshi, yuri fanservice, and twincest. Only 2 positive aspects come to mind: the character Sen Yarizui is not, surprisingly, yet another Rei/Yuki-doll-knockoff character; and the final arc is a little more insightful about the nature of competition than expected.
One of the most popular anime of that season. After marathoning it in a day, I had to conclude that it’s seriously overrated. The premise, in the hands of any decent author, offers plenty of scope, but goes criminally underused each episode in the service of a nearly non-existent plot; sold as a comedic show, it’s actually… not… that… funny. At all. The music and characters are likewise forgettable, leaving as One-Punch Man’s only selling point its kinetic animation during fights. This one should probably be left to sakuga fans.
M&H is an adventure anime featuring a young orphaned girl Hatchin who is kidnapped from her foster parents by an escaped felon to look for her father, Hiroshi McGuffin. They travel from town to town in a quasi Mexico-Brazil, searching for him while evading the police; invariably, they discover the princess is in another castle and must leave town under hot pursuit. Every episode, someone beats Hatchin, scams her, tries to sell her, kill her, abduct her, or lie to her, while no plot happens. This goes on for 22 episodes.
To be blunt, M&H is an astonishingly mediocre anime. The plot is astoundingly boring as Michiko and Hatchin kill time in random cities until something bad happens and they have to leave. The initial plot, finding Hiroshi, seems like it will be resolved within a few episodes and the series will get serious and deal with the incipient gang warfare, except, that turns out to be the entire series, dragging out endlessly as they miss Hiroshi skipping out on them like 4 times. Characters are brought in only to never play any particularly meaningful role (what was all that stuff with Satoshi Batista? it never went anywhere until he’s casually killed off at the end). More time is spent ogling Michiko’s breasts and stomach than trying any world-building so most of the time we’re stuck watching the same Martian desert hellscape we’ve been watching for 15 episodes before. There is no dramatic suspense as we know that no matter how much Michiko screws up and no matter how many cops are after her, she will never be hit by their bullets and will somehow jump over all their cars in her motorcycle in sequences that have approximately 1.2% as much excitement or interest as a Lupin the Third escape sequence. Did I mention that Hatchin is just treated absurdly badly by everyone in the whole series (including Michiko, and excluding the Chinese singer, who as far as I can tell is literally the only person in the series who actually treats Hatchin well—because even her ‘friend’ Rita somehow neglects to mention that the circus will sell her off).
The series is produced by Shinichirō Watanabe and created by Manglobe (Ergo Proxy, Samurai Champloo), but while I kind of guessed as much since I was getting a Cowboy Bebop vibe, M&H highlights by contrast just how great Cowboy Bebop is: CB was regularly punctuated by unforgettable music and scenes, from “Green Bird” to the finale; M&H has totally forgettable themes except for the mildly interesting animation of the OP; CB had a hallucination episode which, aside from being amusing, deepened the characterization of the main characters and added foreshadowing, while M&H’s hallucination episode was just some wacky images; CB had semi-realistic combat scenes and Jeet Kune Do inspired martial arts, while M&H just leaves us eyes rolling at a woman in high heels yet again beating up some burly men; CB had a spaceship which bled and suffered with the main cast, while M&H has a motorcycle which keeps breaking yet mysteriously keeps showing up; CB had a thought-out yakuza backstory driving the central conflict, while M&H has some random stuff in the early episodes which turns out to not even matter once Satoshi gets killed off; CB had distinct locations and worlds, from Mars to Earth to Ganymede, while M&H has just two locations, ‘seaside town’ and ‘dusty baked-dry slum’.
M&H just comes off as bizarrely half-baked, as if some notes were taken on a possible anime but then the anime studio had to turn them into an anime overnight without any time to research locations or come up with interesting places to go or things to do. Whether it’s bizarre Japanisms like ear-cleaning (I am pretty sure girlfriends in Mexico do not clean their boyfriends’ ears with giant fluffy q-tips) or the lack of any understanding of racial politics or identities in Latin America/Brazil (no matter the color, everyone interacts the same) or rendering pointless character arcs (the cop Atsuko, Michiko’s masochist lesbian friend, who is hunting Michiko but keeps assisting her and letting her escape, finally definitively breaks with her at the end, declaring Michiko dead to her, in one of the few moving scenes: ‘the next time we meet, it’ll be as strangers’. So of course in the final episode, Atsuko will go and free her again!) (Satoshi, the gang boss, seems to have some sort of goal or grudge, although he remains mostly a cipher despite enormous amounts of screentime, but of course he is killed before meeting Hiroshi) or bring out sudden swerves in plots (in a brief timeskip at the end, we find Hatchin living and working on her own… as a single mother. Despite Hatchin having been the only sensible character who worked hard or planned ahead in the series! Can we believe this? No, we cannot. Nor can we believe that Michiko somehow escapes from jail without anyone noticing and spends weeks refinding Hatchin, who is then going to go on wild road-trips with Michiko and her baby.) or are just pointless (Hiroshi, far from being some sort of Jay Gatsby figure, turns out to just be a loser who keeps scamming people and disappears as soon as they find him) (if Michiko isn’t Hatchin’s mother, who is? No answer is ever given and hardly anyone even asks) (what was up with those tomatoes anyway?).
The only two episodes which were any good was the bull-fighting episode, and the aforementioned Chinatown episode where the ‘actress’ rescues Michiko for Hatchin. (I was surprised to learn there were Chinatowns in Latin America. I hadn’t known there was significant Chinese emigration to any of those countries.)
So: the plot is boring and nonsensical; most of the characters uninteresting or undermined; the art would be OK if it ever changed; the music totally forgettable. It is a waste of an anime and worse than season 2 of Kaiji or Majin Tantei Nougami Neuro.
Cat Shit One begins in media res: two bunnies kitted out like US marines in an Iraq-like desert surveil some Middle Eastern terrorists (you know they’re Middle Eastern terrorists because they’re camels wearing turban-masks, carrying kalashnikovs, and not speaking Japanese) abuse 3 captive bunnies and kill one; they call in backup but naturally it will come too late and they must rescue the hostages single-handedly; one goes on, the other keeps overlook as sniper, they kill every camel they see and rescue the hostages, march them off to the helicopter meeting point, only for more trucks of camels to come and trap them in a desperate firefight, from which they are rescued by the helicopter shooting up the place. The End. The plot is that simple and the focus is on action, not world or character-building. We dunno anything about any character or why they’re fighting. The computer animation is almost eerily reminiscent of more-realistic FPSes over the past decade to the point where I suspect one could create a pretty decent version of Cat Shit One as a Call of Duty machinima given a little modding—such a hostage-rescue scenario would fit well inside the game as a submission, down to the helicopter-perspective with the machine gun. (And given the existence of such FPSes, I sort of have to wonder why anyone felt it necessary to essentially animate a playthrough of a CoD mission.) The animal character design, while initial amusing, doesn’t go anywhere: OK, they’re ‘usagis’ or ‘USA GIs’ har har har, and the terrorists are camels, how appropriate. What else? After some tail-twitching in the opening, there’s no visual or plot allusions or use of the animalization of the story, so it feels gimmicky and pointless. Overall, it’s fairly interesting over its short length but nothing beyond that.
Prompted by a pretty positive review in Anime Year By Year, I decided to check out a very early Akiyuki Shinbo work I hadn’t heard of before. One could tell from the first few seconds that it was definitely a Shinbo work, as his visual tricks and cuts are unmistakable, and the characters even are eerily like Bakemonogatari (main character = main character, Shiro = Meme Oshino, Maya = Senjougahara, Hospital defector Komugi Nakahara = Mayoi Hachikuji), possibly due to character designer Akio Watanabe. Indeed, it made me wonder how much Shinbo could’ve grown as a director since 2001 if it was so instantly recognizable?
But anyway, I wound up being disappointed. The visual effects are jerky, action disjointed and impossible to follow, layouts of settings nonexistent, and clearly half the stylistic stuff is there to cover up the cheap budget, with every scene set at night, in fog, or other murkiness to save on animation & background labor; a number seem loosely borrowed from Neon Genesis Evangelion (not the only borrowings: there’s also the shallow Christian allusions/iconography; the techno-buildings; the underground city in ep5; soul lyrics in ep4; a character named ‘Yui’ who looks like Ritsuko Akagi; the protagonist’s father transforms into Unit-01 etc). The characters are deeply unmemorable and flat, to the point where calling these characters cardboard would be an insult to everyone who’s ever painted a sign on cardboard.
The plot hardly makes a lick of sense or even tries (if one were feeling very charitable, one might call it ‘surreal’ or ‘dreamlike’), and the powers, far from being imaginative or curious, are dull: oh hey, a bunch of people shoot lasers, and another shoots sound waves, how pedestrian and formulaic… (I feel this dullness particularly acutely since I just finished the novel/series Worm, whose overwhelming virtue is that almost every superpower is interesting and used in diverse ways.) In short, there’s nothing here but for the Shinbo scholar, or completionist who has already watched the *-gataris, Le Portrait de Petit Cossette, Tsukuyomi: Moon Phase, Nanoha, Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, Arakawa Under the Bridge, etc.
Review of the third Rebuild film: negative. The long-delayed tetralogy, which now stretches over a decade of production, shows a lack of artistic vision or interest by anyone at Studio Khara, particularly director Hideaki Anno. It appears now to be a naked cash grab for launching a new studio with a guaranteed moneymaker. 3.0, the last chance for Rebuild to redeem itself and deliver a satisfying whole, wastes its time with irrelevancies and fails to deliver on anything promised by Anno and Khara, lazily embracing the worst parts of the Evangelion style while destroying much of what was good about characters like Kaworu. It is the worst Evangelion film made, and so bad that it has largely destroyed my interest in the franchise.
A successful author is equally in danger of the diminution of his fame, whether he continues or ceases to write. The regard of the publick is not to be kept but by tribute, and the remembrance of past service will quickly languish, unless successive performances frequently revive it. Yet in every new attempt there is new hazard, and there are few who do not at some unlucky time, injure their own characters by attempting to enlarge them.
Rebuild of Evangelion has earned the dubious distinction of become one of the most troubled and long-delayed anime movie series ever. At current projections of 4.0’s release in June 2020, a child conceived when Rebuild was announced in 2007 would be just about old enough to pilot an Evangelion by the time the series finishes. Hideaki Anno announced it with grand plans to revitalize anime and again revolutionize the industry, but 1.0 and 2.0 then turned out to be almost beat for beat remakes of the original TV series. (A NYT reviewer understandably initially thought, until corrected, that they actually reused the original cel artwork.)
More troublingly, the behind-the-scenes material, particularly the 2.0 CRC interviews & drafts, suggested a production which was creatively lost at sea, with no sense of what it meant to ‘rebuild’ Evangelion, struggles to integrate a character foisted on the series for merchandising purposes (Mari Makinami), wildly divergent proposals for changes (even by the standards of drafts & screenwriting in general or previous Evangelion work specifically), many mysteries set up with few answered and the buck passed to later films, and a Hideaki Anno who appears thoroughly bored and completely uninterested in his own project and barely present much less coming up with wild new ideas nourished over 2 decades.
This impression was only hammered in by the extraordinary delays (3.0 came out fully 3 years after 2.0, and 4.0 will, optimistically, arrive 8 years after that—for a remake, by a fully-funded special-purpose studio, working on what was planned to be a tetralogy from the start!), and by Anno’s own numerous projects outside of Rebuild, ranging from producing a movie about a porn director or Ultraman to creating a kaiju monster museum to launching an animation festival to directing the Shin Godzilla (which was enormously successful & doubtless fulfilled a life dream for Anno, but did not help 4.0 get done) or even voice-acting the leading character in a Ghibli movie (‽) as documented in The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness.
Halfway through Rebuild, it is an artistic failure (however much money it may have made). Characterization, as the staff frequently notes in the 2.0 CRC, has been sacrificed on the altar of running time, forcing a ruthless sacrifice of all scenes focusing on anyone other than Shinji Ikari, in order to fit in the necessary action. After 2.0, despite a dramatic twist and finally a major divergence from the original TV series, Rebuild is left in a precarious position: half the series had now been used up, and every second is precious. The remaining 2 films must accomplish the near-impossible: deliver the missing characterization, pay off all the IOUs the first 2 movies incurred, have a meaningful ending, and incidentally, comment on and surpass the meaning of NGE TV/EoE to show artistic & personal growth on the part of Hideaki Anno & the anime industry.
So 3.0 was a do-or-die movie for Rebuild. There is simply no time left if 3.0 screws up. One movie alone cannot possibly deliver on even 2 of those goals while still working as an Evangelion movie. If 3.0 can’t deliver characterization and introspection but devolves into just more action, then it’s over for Rebuild. Anno will have turned his back on what made him interesting and ceased caring about being more than entertainment & fanservice. Some of his interviews have been more than a little disturbing in this respect, but 3.0 will be the proof. If there is anything great to Rebuild, 3.0 is where it will show up by jumping off from 2.0’s twist ending, and even if it is merely good, there will still be hope for Rebuild pulling it off in the end. 2.0 raised our hopes that our patience would be rewarded & Rebuild would work out: what now, Anno, we have been wondering?
But… 3.0 is a terrible movie. It fails as a movie and it fails as the third film in Rebuild. It is filled with irrelevant meaningless changes, visuals for the sake of visuals, and casually tosses on even more mysteries, with the attitude that fans are morons for caring and they should be screwed over like the fans of Lost, and if you pay attention to anything or cared, that just makes you a sucker. 3.0 is a movie which disrespects its viewers at every turn, and I have rarely been more glad to have pirated a movie because it would be a crime to pay the creators of this. I can’t even praise the visuals or animation because they are often so poorly executed (seriously, what is with the chins?), with painfully cliche (the montages) or outright ugly CGI—astonishing for a well-funded blockbuster film which was in production for so many years. One can only conclude that the 2.0 CRC was right: no one at Khara, much less Anno, has any vision for Rebuild, and are just slapping together random scraps of ideas heedless of any artistic unity or the fact that they are issuing IOUs they cannot pay off; I have to imagine an intern at Khara being assigned to complete the screenplay and desperately filling out all the blank pages with their yaoi circle’s last fanfic, because nothing else can explain the way the movie lolls through the endless Kaworu segments. (It’s amazing to think that the original NGE TV Kaworu does more in ~10 minutes of screentime than 3.0 Kaworu does in several times that.)
It doesn’t just fail to provide characterization or depth, it actively destroys with gimmicks what depth characters had left over from the original series & first two Rebuilds. A whole new pack of characters is introduced for no reason. The 2.0 trailer scenes are dropped without a word. New Reis show up. Old characters like Misato or Ritsuko are warped and left flat as hairdos & hats replace heroines & hope. Everyone except the Kaworu fans are unhappy with 3.0, even though the Kaworu fans should be the most incandescent with rage because 3.0 makes his death completely meaningless, futile, irrelevant, and pointless since there was no need to put on the DSS explosive collar whatsoever and no reason he would expect to die—compared to his death in NGE TV where his death was both necessary and voluntary. But I guess the fujoshi were thrown enough fanservice and piano-playing to make them overlook oh-so-minor issues like “s—ing all over the thematic value of Kaworu’s death” (so maybe 3.0’s contempt for fans is justified after all). Or consider Mari Makinami: 2 movies now, and her character remains completely worthless. So much for her character being the key to “destroying Eva”.
Rebuild started with a promise to abandon the secrets & mysteries as exhausted & “12 years old”, yet piled them on with nary a care, from Mari to the Key of Nebuchadnezzar to the flash shots of the ‘Adams’ to the coffins on the moon to SEELE’s activities and so on and so forth. It started as a promise to revolutionize the stagnant anime industry again, yet Anno proceeded to bankroll Studio Khara/1.0 entirely by himself (“100%” he says in 2011) and by taking on this incredible financial risk, produced a completely conservative money maker that was shot-by-shot in some cases. We thought it was going to move beyond otaku and fanservice as part of its general appeal, and it gave us the ‘slutsuit’ in 2.0, and then 3.0 provided even more fujoshi fanservice than they had ever hoped for. We were promised something that couldn’t “be understood just by spacing out and watching it”, something that will “will be better than the last series”. We thought it would revitalize the old character drama, and show us new depth as just desserts for our patience, when it is determined to drain all the water, leaving only barren sandy desert. And so on and so forth. All these promises have been broken. Rebuild has not accomplished a single thing it planned to do, and no one at Khara seems to care. Evangelion fans are trapped on a ghost ship headed straight for the rocks.
Watching 3.0 was a terrible shock to me. So disappointing was it that I have put off writing this review for 6 years. It was not just realizing that Rebuild was doomed, and all these years waiting were wasted. (Rebuild is one of several reasons why I now insist on watching only complete series.) It was the shock of seeing that Hideaki Anno hasn’t grown at all. He has nothing to say in Rebuild. He has grown older, but not better, nor wiser. Rebuild is nothing but a betrayal of NGE TV & EoE, one which contaminates their accomplishments. It seems he doesn’t even understand what he did, as he can (not) redo it anymore, and worse, he doesn’t give a damn about any of it. Rebuild is just a lucrative cash cow to build up Studio Khara and fund his pet projects, much the same way that George Lucas cared little about Star Wars when he made Return of the Jedi and was more concerned about how to save ILM/Skywalker Ranch post-divorce (see Secret History of Star Wars) and unsurprisingly Lucas ultimately sold off the Star Wars franchise entirely to owners who have been even poorer custodians than he was.
It would not be going too far to say that watching 3.0 killed my interest in Evangelion. Literally overnight I stopped my Evangelion research. How could I bring myself to care about the development of Evangelion when Rebuild is such shameless garbage and Anno treats Evangelion with such contempt? It is one thing to document how the mysteries & allusions are superficial at best, since Evangelion fans know that stuff like Kabbalah is merely stage-setting trimmings for the psychological drama, but another thing to see the creators trash precisely that in favor of more worthless trimmings. I still follow Evangelion news a little, and I’ll probably watch 4.0 to see how the trainwreck ends, but I can’t call myself an Evangelion fan anymore. The spell has been broken.
The sole bright spot is Shiro Sagisu’s soundtrack, which while not working all that well with the movie (probably because 3.0 stinks), does work nicely on its own. So far Sagisu’s Rebuild OSTs have shown an inverse correlation with the movies: the worse they are, the better he gets. I look forward to the 4.0 OST, if not 4.0 itself.
Supernatural mystery. In the episodic format, demon Neuro Nougami drags a highschool girl from murder mystery to murder mystery, solving it easily (often with a deus ex machina from the ‘777 Tools’—thankfully, there are not actually 777 mysteries in the series) and puppeting the girl to accuse the murderer, who supernaturally transforms into the symbol of their motive and attacks Neuro, who defeats them and ‘consumes their mystery’ by draining them of life force. The approach is similar to the earlier Night Walker and the later UN-GO.
The animation & art are unremarkable and somewhat offputting: very dull flat color palette, blurry washed out animation (despite being from 2007, which is not that long ago).
Worse, for a mystery anime, the mysteries are absolutely abysmal. The first episode sets the tone—the instant the assistant chef was pointed out masked by steam, I thought to myself, ‘I hope that it’s not as trivial as the assistant has been murdered already by the head chef and that’s his body propped up to provide an alibi’. It was. The denouement of episode 1 was even more bizarre, as the motive was the head chef was selling drug-laced soup (‽) to perfect ‘Doping Consomme Soup’ which transforms him into a muscular red giant (‽‽‽). If you don’t take it seriously, it was actually somewhat funny, so I wondered if MTNN was going to go for an over the top comedy, but no. The following episodes are the same. The mysteries tend to be rubbish, and to not play fair with the watcher, leading to episodes which are either trivial and can be guessed long before the resolution, or impossible and of little interest, either way, of zero rewatch value. (I don’t know why people compare this to Case Closed when all the CC episodes I happen to’ve watched on Cartoon Network occasionally struck me as much better mysteries than pretty much any MTNN mystery, who has an unfortunate fondness for ropes and frozen things as a mechanism.) Motivations are cursory and implausible, to say the least, and the examination of ‘heart’ is ill done—it is simply impossible to believe most of these mysteries rather than roll one’s eyes.
This might be OK if there was any real chemistry between the characters, but there isn’t. Yako eats a lot and gets insulted by Neuro while Akane wiggles on her cellphone. Yeah, we get it.
As dire as the first few episodes are, and I would not blame anyone who watched episode 1 and dropped the series like a hot potato, it does get slightly better. The deus ex machinas don’t get used as much and Yako takes on more of a role. There are a few nice touches like Yako having nightmares (most detective series neglect that the protagonist is human and would be affected by their work). The mysteries improve slightly, and we see that some of the changes are deliberate and intended to show Neuro becoming weaker and more human, and even some weaknesses get justifications—for example, the attempt to rescue all the mysteries’ total motive implausibility by appeal to an ‘electronic virus’ as the first major arc. This first arc did not strike me as satisfactory as it turns into an action-adventure-SF anime but without enough time to develop it or work in any mysteries, and then right after that, the long awaited resolution of the Phantom Thief Sai arc turns out to be… a fight inside a pyramid. We have watched for 25 episodes expecting to find out the mystery of who killed Yako’s father, how and why, and at the end we find out… it was Sai somehow (LOL) and it was because his house reminded Sai of his birthplace (‽), oh, and of course Sai escapes. That’s it? That’s our payoff after 25 episodes of foreshadowing? Talk about a total gyp.
So overall, while it improves over its horrible first few episodes, MTNN never reaches the point where it’s worth watching.
Typical Nihei: gorgeous if extremely repetitive black-and-white art (in contrast, the few color illustrations come off as childishly garish and ugly) typically showing explosions and combat (rarely varied or exhibiting any imagination—if I had a nickel for every time Zouichi busts into a room and instantaneously shoots everyone in the head, I could probably afford to buy the entire printed manga), Nihei’s obsessions like improbably powerful guns, borrowing of fantasy tropes that are wildly inappropriate (eg. swordsmen and duels), a story that verges on gibberish (can anyone explain how the bear’s wish could possibly lead to transforming the Earth into a megastructure?).
It’s difficult to see why Biomega exists when Blame! does almost everything it does. Literally: the zombies are effectively the same, the biotech/body-horror pushes all the same buttons like the skull-mask-faces, the art is the same, most characters could be swapped with their counterparts with no loss, the fetishization of young women and the protagonist’s inexplicable attachment to them is present in full force, some elements like “Toha Heavy Industries” are identical, and in particular, the protagonist and setting and AI companion are so exactly identical that all the way up to the ending I assumed the big twist was going to be that Biomega is actually the prequel for Blame! explaining where Killey and The City come from (there are some differences like the gun’s phlebotinum being ‘brainwaves’ rather than ‘gravitational beams’ but nothing that a good writer couldn’t retcon or handwave away).
To some extent, Blame! is better: at least, the conception of The City megastructure is, like Niven’s Ring, a resonant idea, and the greater obscurity of Blame!’s story means you can at least fool yourself that it is deeper than it looks. But on the other hand, this leavens the ridiculous body count and numbness that a reading of Blame! produces and—Biomega has a bear.
19MB manga, ~200pg; free official English version on .mil is dead and not in the IA so I got a torrent off of BakaBT.
This is notable as one of few manga released by the US government; in this case, released in 2008 as a goodwill/PR exercise for the titular aircraft carrier. I was more interested in the biracial main character, Jack O’Hara, and how the authors would deal with the sexual & national politics. The plot is simple: a young Japanese-American navy sailor shows up for his first cruise on an aircraft carrier to Japan, where he encounters some of the idiosyncrasies of carriers (narrow corridors, stairs everywhere, hotbunking) as he learns to handle damage control, puts out a fire during a drill, saves a crewmate from walking into a propeller on the flight deck, enjoys a big party on the flight deck, makes a few friends, and eventually meets his grandparents in Japan who, naturally, welcome him wholeheartedly. It’s a didactic primer on life on an aircraft carrier with a bit of slice-of-life flavor to it, done in a very ’80s manga style. The controversies over nuclear power, American military actions, and the fallout from big military bases (such as crime or intermarriage) in Japan are all essentially elided (unsurprisingly). What’s left is not bad, but harmless and fairly boring. Middle-schoolers might like it, but I think most people or kids interested in aircraft carriers would learn much more from one of those big fold-out schematic books. There’s not much reason for anyone to read this.
One of the most gorgeous hand-animated films of all time, featuring striking sequences playing with geometry & color, or what would have been, had it not been undermined by development hell & perfectionism.
I used the ‘recobbled’ edit version 4 which I got somewhere years ago (perhaps the Internet Archive?). The quality is not good—the image resolution is barely DVD-grade, there is noise, the recobbled edits splice in animatics where the film was not finished, or even just storyboard sketches, and there are nasty yellow hardcoded Spanish subtitles for some reason. I probably could’ve done better.
The experience of watching is intended to be comedic but is inevitably also a melancholy one. Unlike Redline, where the development hell finally yielded a finished polished product, every few minutes of The Thief and the Cobbler bears ‘the indelible stamp of its lowly origins’ as a rushed hackjob of in-progress materials and not a completed vision. The story jumps abruptly, luxuriating in gorgeous but inconsequentially long sequences—like a lengthy polo match in which the Thief is ever more improbably abused by the heedless players & steeds—while key scenes like the cobbler & princess falling in love are sometimes not even animated. The Thief influenced animators who worked on or saw it in samizdat (just consider the existence of Aladdin), but it was ultimately released decades after its moment had passed, and in sorry shape; animation had moved on, and what would have been stunning sequences in the 1970s or 1980s with backbreaking hand-drawn 3D movements now look almost ordinary in the CGI era.
Considering the length of the film and how much was apparently cut & unable to be added back into the Recobbled edits, it seems likely to me that the core problem with The Thief and the Cobbler is not a lack of budget for animation per se, but a lack of the right animation—that is, in an example of “real artists ship”, much of the effort was misguided, priorities were not set, resources were squandered chasing peoples’ beautiful fancies instead of working on what the film actually needed (despite funding thanks to success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit), and like Evangelion, scheduling was not done right.
Blame for this must ultimately be laid at Williams’s door. As the Thackeray line goes, “to think on him is to think on the ruin of a great empire.”
Why doesn’t development hell work? Creative works or vaporware that survive ‘development hell’ often disappoint those waiting for them, and often are among the worst things their creators ever make. Duke Nukem Forever, the Star Wars prequel trilogy, Hard To Be A God, Dau, Shenmue III, The Last Dangerous Visions, Rebuild of Evangelion, Juneteenth—these have not rewarded those who waited years or decades for them as they gradually become punchlines. (The jury is still out on DAU.) More broadly, there seems to be relatively little correlation between the amount of time & effort lavished on a work and the resulting quality (the ‘equal-odds rule’10); as great as a film-maker as Stanley Kubrick was, looking into his working process as recounted by collaborators, it is hard to come away with any conviction that the endless churn of script revision and bizarre random fixations on changes that are reversed the next day yields any net gain rather than delay and expense. Instead of being refined to perfection, they are trapped, or outright degenerate in later revisions.
The resource curse. Why do creative works age like fine milk rather than fine wine? It is not for lack of time, or, often, for resources (especially the pet projects of auteurs). Indeed, ample resources may be something of a curse, allowing a zombie project to linger on long past where any objective third-party would have killed it. (Intellectual property is monopoly, and that means that no one can take away the Star Wars prequels from George Lucas and make a better one, no matter how awful his version may be.)
Development hell is not universal. And it’s not intrinsic to creative work period, as we can contrast it with other areas like STEM. Everyone can name examples of development hell blighting fiction or games, but it’s much harder to name a scientific or technical or mathematical work which clearly suffered from a ‘development hell’; a software program might launch late and be beaten to a punch (Project Xanadu being an exception that prove the rule), and a mathematical proof might be unnecessarily delayed when it would have been adequate published beforehand (there are countless examples of interesting and publishable results in Gauss or Euler or Ramanujan’s notebooks, to give 3 famous examples of posthumous publications, which simply didn’t meet theirs, but others’, standards). A web browser or operating system given 5 years of development time may just barely be adequate; the same program after 10 years will be much better (modulo issues like bitrot/bitcreep). Likewise, if Andrew Wiles proves Fermat’s Last Theorem after a decade or two of hard solitary work on it, there will always be parts of it which could be presented more clearly, cleaned up, or extended to other problems if he had spent another decade or two on it (and indeed, other mathematicians had to do a lot of work on it, leading to some uncomfortable academic disputes); but we would be surprised if he did so and somehow completely bollixed a working proof. But with a novel or a movie, if we hear that an author spent 5 years creating it, it seemed excellent, and then spent another 5 years revising it, and the end result was now rubbish, we would be disappointed but not actually surprised. Authors are routinely cautioned against over-revising works and knowing when to let good enough alone. In the Tao Teh Ching’s analogy, creating “is like cooking a small fish” (ie. if you poke it or move it much, the delicate meat will fall apart into mush).
Some reasons that come to mind:
Loss of novelty: many works are products of their time; what was interesting and exciting at the outset is long since obsolete a decade or two later. This can be cultural, or it can be technical. (Duke Nukem Forever is an example of this: because FPS computer games were advancing so rapidly in graphics, by the time one version would have finished development, it’d be graphically obsolete, so they would need to start over on a new engine, setting them back more years! The development of Shenmue—itself a perfect example of how too much funding & creative license can be a curse, with lavish spending leading to perversely inferior, rather than superior, results—likewise exhibited this as the ‘open environment’ that it provided was soon done better by other games who moved on rapidly while the Shenmue sequels languished.)
- Particularly perversely, development hell may cause a loss of novelty by leakage: by the time something is finally shoved out the door, it may be that the novelty is gone because as people move on, taking ideas and inspirations with them into works that get released quicker. By the time the originator is formally published, everyone may have seen the imitations first! If Jodorowsky’s Dune were ever produced, it would look much less striking than the original in part because the production materials and sketches were so widely influential.
Loss of vision: ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’. A strong consistent esthetic vision and purpose characterizes the best works; it cannot be a bunch of short films made by different people and rammed together to take up 90 minutes. The more time that passes, the harder it is to coordinate each involved person as they come and go, and every change makes it more of a patchwork. This can kill projects before they begin, as Hollywood is notorious for delays as everyone procrastinates, making starting projects like ‘herding katz’, but also kill them by not ending. The average of many good ideas may be a bad idea. After long enough, whatever was good about the original has been watered down or buried under a mountain of irrelevancies and mediocrities.
- A loss of novelty may also induce the creator’s loss of vision. Too much time spent on a project blinds ones to its virtues and vices. One loses perspective or the ability to see it afresh; a ‘curse of expertise’ and the ‘illusion of transparency’ begin to set in, and the creative impulse degenerates into l’art pour l’art.
Loss of interest: closely related to the loss of vision is the need to ‘strike while the iron is hot’. A creative project thrives on a ferment of activity and interest from its creators, and the more collaborative it is, the more it depends on a little community. Films and games in particular are dependent on this: behind every auteur, there is a group of skilled collaborators freely playing with ideas and tricks and proposals, working 16-hours a day to make a vision a reality, with the auteur riding herd and selecting out the best. Many a perfect proposal has started off as an inside joke, or technical experiment, or random comment by a janitor, only to take over. When no one involved cares, when the leader takes every opportunity to go off to work on other projects, when people are punching the clock 9–5PM, the work may be professional, but it will never be perfect. Mere money and time cannot replace love or esprit de corps.
For a creative work, it is vital to execute a surgical strike: get in and get out, before the energy and enthusiasm has expired, and one’s judgment becomes increasingly impaired.
Loss of opportunities: The opportunity cost of such projects is substantial. The cost of a zombie project occupying one’s time for a decade is not the financial budget, but the other projects which could have been done in the wasted time. A perfectionist dragging out a project for decades could at a more normal tempo have created several other works in the same timespan; even if, contrary to all the other problems, the project improved, it almost certainly didn’t improve enough. If a director could have filmed 5 other films in the same time as 1 delayed film, what are the odds that the 1 delayed film is better than each of the other 5, or all 5 put together?
The equal odds rule strongly suggests that this will rarely be the case.
Loss of feedback: or the ‘mushroom problem’ (being kept in the dark and fed horseshit). Great new things can’t be created by focus-testing the masses, as the masses just ‘want a faster horse’ if you ask them; but the whims of a single person is too idiosyncratic. Creators do not and cannot know what is good or what will unexpected appeal to other people; what succeeds often surprises the original creators most of all. (They are not necessarily pleased by this, as they feel something else was their greatest work which is why posterity should remember them.) Because of this, development hell may simply let a creator go off on a wild goose chase indefinitely.
One of the key parts of a successful collaboration is getting feedback from a few good people with shared interests and tastes. These let a hypothesis or feeling be explored deeply, until a finished work produced; the final work can then be shown to the target audience, who may then discover what they never realized they wanted. Or, it will fail, and someone else, perhaps with better ideas, can take up the baton. Both are better outcomes than continuing to labor. Periodic feedback at all levels is important.
Confounding from selection effects: we shouldn’t forget that development hell may simply select for bad projects. The very fact of being in development hell suggests that something is not good enough to convince people to release it. People typically don’t sit on great things for no reason: they want feedback, fame, and fortune.
- Another way for development hell being a selection effect would be regression to the mean. Regression should never be neglected, and it seems like at least some of this may be just regression to the mean; as development hell is rarely possible with first works (who have no reputation nor money from earlier successes), if someone makes an extremely successful film and becomes overnight famous, their second film should be expected to be considerably worse; a second film entering development hell may simply reflect everyone’s awareness that it’s just not good yet, and a way of delaying the reckoning or hoping to pull it off.
Of these reasons, I think #5, loss of feedback, and #2, loss of vision, are the key ones leading to development hell being so much worse in creative fiction/arts than in more technical STEM-like areas.
Intellectual rot can be kept in check by reality. In STEM areas, while there are still problems where ‘too many cooks spoils the broth’ applies (leading to observations like the second-system effect), one is heavily constrained by Nature. When there are real world consequences, hard requirements, demanding users, or formal rigor, unproductive navel-gazing and architecture astronauting are less likely. It is much harder to gradually degenerate when the problem itself continually provides feedback: changes to such a thing either do or do not work to a much greater extent than rewatching one’s edits to the rushes of a horror film for the one hundredth time clearly does or does not work. Whereas the more abstract a pursuit, the greater the danger of development hell yielding a bloated monstrosity, of interest only as a freak and failure; I am reminded of von Neumann’s warning about mathematics being particularly prone to this.11 As the feedback becomes increasingly delayed and the work unmoored from the world, the proxy measures like ‘taste’ increasingly risk going haywire. Further, Nature tends to be inexhaustible: no problem is ever fully solved, no theory is ever truly complete, no proof ever perfectly expressed from God’s book. (There are more things on heaven and earth, Horatio, than dreamt of in any writer’s room.) There is always something more to be said, some additional angle to follow up on. Creative premises, on the other hand, seem to easily ‘run out’; the fish, cooked for another hour, doesn’t get any tastier—just mushier.
If STEM-like areas are mostly fine as they are, how can fiction or artistic areas balance the need to explore unique visions with exploiting existing visions while avoiding development hell?
Explore vs exploit: create wildly, and gradually invest more. The metaphor I find attractive is that of ‘plazas and warrens’, which can perhaps be formalized as “super-amplifiers”: the ideal is a lot of small frugal niches in which a few like-minded creators can bounce ideas off each other, based on their own idiosyncratic attitudes and goals, who periodically feed into a smaller number of larger super-niches, which themselves feed into larger ones and so on, like a tree; many of these niches will be failures, producing uninteresting or ugly or even revolting works, but some will create promising new trends, which can percolate upwards into successively larger audiences, and eventually some will become universally available. Many creative ecosystems naturally follow this pattern already: small in-person socially-connected groups which create and discard many works, feeding into larger groups of strangers such as festivals, eventually being picked up by big commercial entities to go global. In Hollywood, “nobody knows anything”, so one has to throw lots of things at the wall to see what sticks—and then feed the ones which do. From this perspective, the problem of development hell is a violation of the natural tree architecture: they are bulges of resources, where a node grows cancerously, all out of disproportion to its current (if not forecastable) success.
Dev hell is too much, too long, for too few. Redistribute! The cure, then, is chemotherapy and surgery to excise and shrink the cancerous and pre-cancerous lesions. Concrete ideas that come to mind: set limits in advance; increase FLOSS media and open development processes to enable more feedback, and also forks, or allow third parties to legally take over12; address imbalances in an ecosystem by encouraging more terminal nodes of small indie creators or subcultures… Development hell is not inevitable.
One of the great classics which remains a joy to watch. The narrative by Boris Karloff is always amusing, and both Dr Seuss’s story and language and animation/images are endlessly inventive and playful (consider “roast beast” or the visual gag of the Grinch’s heart swelling to burst the metaphorical magnifying glass), demonstrating, despite the apparent simplicity, the versatility of the animated medium. The Grinch himself is a clever, skillful, and inventive villain who can lie at the drop of a hat, yet his conversion to goodness comes off as genuine and comprehensible rather than cheap or forced.
The best and most enjoyable superhero movie I’ve seen in a long time, and definitely the best Spider-Man movie—unlike all the others, I remember it the day after.
I loved the comics & graffiti-inspired art style and animation devices, the good blend of drama/humor while not being as deadly boringly serious as most superhero movies these days (sorry guys, the mythic well can be tapped only a few times before it runs dry, and you drained it years ago), the crossovers, and the way the 3D aspects work perfectly with the highly mobile Spider-Man style of action.
And the post-credits bonus homage to the two-Spider-Man meme—of course!—left me & my sibling in stitches.
An ostentatiously gorgeous clay stop-animation film. Even knowing that backgrounds and other parts are CGI, I still have trouble believing it was stop-motion—it is simply too luxuriously animated and beautiful on my new 4K monitor. Takes the format of a Japanese fairy tale loosely drawing on the moon aspect of “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” (albeit not as interesting as Ghibli’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya) with miscellaneous influence from jidaigeki for the instrument and Korea for the horse-hair hats of two characters.
For season 9:
A satisfying finale—good but not great. Season 9 is the final season of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic; while it never regained the online buzz it had early on in 2013 or so, the series kept on trucking, and racked up 222 episodes & a movie, in addition to the various spinoffs. It’s not quite over—instead of the expected full reboot with a new cast, Hasbro appears to launching a new series Pony Life which will keep the Mane Six but go all-comedy in a chibi style, & although details are scarce I doubt I’ll bother—but the main mane thing is over, so to speak. So how does it cap the series? It’s… fine. Like most of the later seasons, it’s good but not great. There’s a relative dearth of catchy songs, and many episodes are disconnected from a more ambitious plot. A few loose ends are tidied up which didn’t really need it (did we really need another Daring Do episode, fun as they are, instead of dealing with Applejack’s parents?) but more are left dangling. The occasional callbacks of characters like Quibble Pants or Weird Al’s Cheese Sandwich can’t hide the lack of inspiration in most episodes. The climax is fun as the villains demonstrate the power of evil friendships, but then the resolution is the same tired laser-beams deus ex machina: could the writers really not think of any way to have their evil friendship collapse naturally, thereby demonstrating its flaws compared to true friendship? That disappointment is partially offset by the final episode including the best song of the season, and a flashforward epilogue to answer various questions while illustrating Twilight Sparkle’s character development in a huge nostalgia trip. It would be difficult for any fan to come away too angry about the ending. It could have been much worse. Good episodes: “Sparkle’s Seven”, “Between Dark and Dawn”, “The Last Laugh”, “Daring Doubt”, “The Big Mac Question”, “The Last Problem”.
Pokémon Detective Pikachu (2019)
I went to see Pokemon made real via CGI, and for a cynical sarcastic Pikachu, with any plot or character development being strictly tertiary, and I was not disappointed—it is amazing what can be done with CGI fur now!
It’s no Into the Spider-Verse, but I think anyone who played Pokemon Red/Blue & watched the anime as a kid would enjoy it. As a Pokemon adaptation, I was intrigued by its staunch refusal to bring in more than the subtlest references to the pre-existing Pokemon universes (eg. I don’t think Ash Ketchum or Professor Oak get even cameos) with an exquisite exception made for the anime theme song, and instead going for almost cyberpunk-esque worldbuilding and taking the attitude that Pokemon are simply intelligent animals and normal as anything else. It is also sometimes quite funny: we all agreed that the Mr. Mime torture/interrogation scene was hilarious. The plot itself is debatable: my sibling, who was watching it for the second time, argued that the many dead ends or Chekhov-gun-equivalents in the investigation merely made it that much more realistic an investigation and more in the film noir spirit.
A nice use of a different cultural afterlife and as so often for Pixar, the experimentation in animation alone makes it worth watching; ultimately, I was left somewhat unsatisfied by the heavy-handed emotional manipulation and how Coco carries over Pixar’s troubling hostility & constant denigration of aspiration from the The Incredibles movies—in this case, rather than being a global supervillain, the man who wants to be a famous musician is ‘merely’ a murderer and tries to kill a child, which I suppose is an improvement.
A Pixar failure. I’ve always had difficulty explaining why I didn’t think it was that great, but a rewatch helps me clarify the issues with the movie. The animation is fantastic, and the hair leaves me stunned; the soundtrack is as good as any Pixar’s film; the Scottish-kitsch setting is fun and colorful, and the slapstick good; and the premise is the instantly-recognizable and classic explore/exploit conflict of a non-adult trying to follow their own dreams to the neglect of their responsibilities/societal role which causes conflict with their parents, which thesis-antithesis one expects to ultimately resolve in a synthesis in which the child learns important lessons while succeeding in striking out on their own.
It’s great, bordering on flawless… right up until the queen turns into a bear. The whole thing falls apart after that.
Leaving aside the idiot-ball part where the witch makes an incomprehensible mistake and the protagonist abets it by not explaining anything or asking any questions, the problem is that the mom is 100% right and the daughter 100% wrong. Typically, with this kind of bildungsroman/children’s-movie, the junior protagonist has some sort of genuine talent or dream they want to follow, and the senior antagonists are not wrong about it being a risk compared to conventional paths but are wrong about the opportunity cost or probability of success; both have valid points. But the protagonist has no particular dream or talent and as the father so cruelly but accurately parodies her, wants nothing more than to be a wastrel who spends her time running around with her hair down and “firing arrows into the sunset”. It’s hard to see what she could possibly mean by “changing her fate” when apparently this means nothing more than “ensure my life of hedonism continues unchanged by any kind of work or responsibility”, and when her mother talks about her responsibilities and the need to be a princess and the importance of the princess/queen’s role as a peace-weaver (to borrow the excellent Anglo-Saxon term), the mother is talking sense. This failure to establish any kind of validity to the protagonist’s views or desires undercuts all the events; how are we supposed to sympathize with her or see any merit to her thesis when the plot and world-building so one-sidedly establishes her as a thoughtless little chit whose selfishness directly leads to civil war? The only time the movie really gestures towards trying to create any case for her is when she exhibits her mad warrior-princess skills by… shooting some salmon. Which can be caught bare-handed because they’re jumping out of the water. Wow, so impressive. Much thesis, such conflict. So, having entirely failed at constructing a meaningful narrative and undercutting any thoughtful viewer’s suspension of disbelief & absorption, Brave continues to the synthesis where the protagonist learns her lesson from observing the imminent civil war and the parallel legend of the ancient kingdom falling to internal strife & selfishness and in the film’s climax, femininely weaves peace by not shooting people with her bow but by successfully delivering a speech of unity as her mother watches. Some aspects are unsatisfying (the declarations of free love come out of nowhere, but I suppose we couldn’t actually expect any endorsement of arranged marriages in a Hollywood movie, no matter how historically justifiable or necessary or demanded by the plot) but nevertheless, the climax is fairly satisfying in delivering synthesis. The End?
Psych! Did you think the movie ended there simply because that is the only sane place to end the movie? No, the movie actually goes on another half hour. So once the civil war has ended, we are treated to a truly bizarre continuation of the movie where the mother (still a bear despite the breach having been mended!) is chased around the castle and hunted down to the ancient mystical ruins and a throwaway symbol from earlier, a torn tapestry, suddenly assumes central position because of a lame pun, and the movie drags it out with some more action scenes until mother and daughter are tearfully reunited (although it’s unclear what exactly they still have to bond over, since the daughter has realized her mistake & made amends already, and the mother was never estranged in the first place). Then thankfully, the movie finally ends. This extension of the story is thoroughly baffling; it is as if Return of the Jedi didn’t end with the Darth Vader’s death but instead Luke escapes the Death Star and spends the next 20 minutes engaging in speeder bike chases on the moon of Endor again. If it was done deliberately as a subversion or parody, like a shaggy dog joke where the joke is the comedian deliberately stretching out a joke far too long and making everyone uncomfortable, then it would make sense albeit is hard to pull off well. But here it seems like the director just didn’t get it, just didn’t understand the basic narrative arc or rhythm of the movie. The movie would be so much better if it effectively ended after the hall speech and they had left the rest on the cutting-room floor—but alas, they kept it all.
If Brave’s flaw had just been the first one, one could try to gloss over or ignore it, similar to Frozen’s problems; perhaps it was just too hard to write a good set of grievances for the protagonist or fit it in the running time they had. But the second problem is entirely unforced and has no such excuse as it represents a not inconsiderable chunk of the movie & resources. It reminded me not a little of (the much better) Spirited Away, where there is such a large shift towards the end that it leaves viewers a little confused, and which is likely due to major cuts being made during development; unsurprisingly, it turns out that the original Brave director, Brenda Chapman, was replaced, which may explain the half-baked nature of the characters and the dramatic directorial failure of the end.
14 years later—has it really been that long? yes, it has—Pixar returns to the 2004 The Incredibles. It hews close to the first one’s plot, instead inverting the protagonist roles: now Helen is the working mom hired by a shadowy employer for her powers, and Bob the house-husband. As promised by The Incredibles, the dangerously omni-talented family baby Jack-Jack is brought into the thick of things, serving to lighten the action with some slapstick humor. The action itself is sturdy but the only scene I think I will remember in years to come is the Elastigirl train sequence. The surprise twist of the villain is surprising mostly for being surprising at all, which highlights in a way the Hollywood political monoculture and likely confirmed many people’s interpretation of the first movie. Not having watched it in a long time, much less side by side, I can’t assess how the graphics might have changed but I assume 2 has much better CGI than #1, benefiting as it does from 14 years of Pixar R&D, and it feels like it aimed for a more realistic and subdued esthetic. Overall, it felt reasonably enjoyable but lacked the snap and punch of #1: the villain is not nearly as fun to watch as Syndrome, the super-suit scene was not nearly as interesting as the snarky first scene with the critique of capes, and so on. Pixar claimed they’d revisit it only when they felt they had something to say which would justify a sequel, but I am left wondering what Pixar saw in this. It is fine, but it has nowhere near as much impact as #1 did—I can’t imagine in a few years anyone quoting a line from it the way that “when everyone is incredible, no one will be” went viral last time.
I had never sat down and watched the famous Peanuts Christmas special in its entirety, and I was surprised to discover how wretched it is, especially watching it back to back with How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The animation is kindergarten-level, which unmistakably loops, and the special is watchable only because the Peanuts style is so minimal (verging on ugly) that it can pretend its extraordinarily low quality is just the Peanuts style at work; the musical theme would be excellent, were it not repeated ad nauseam despite the shortness of the special; characters do not speak in anything but a monotone, and are so poorly characterized it’s hard to imagine non-Peanuts fans understanding much of anything about it. And finally, the beloved story itself…
It struck me, while watching it, that I am not sure I have ever seen a simpler or clearer demonstration of why Nietzsche calls Christianity a slave morality and a transvaluation of earlier master moralities: the message of the special is that Christianity everything which is good, is bad, and all that is bad is good.
Charlie Brown is a loser who fails at everything he does in the special: he is unable to enjoy the season, he passive-aggressively is hostile towards Violet (a tactic that in its ill grace & resentment only emphasizes the depth of his loserdom), he fails to either recognize the opportunity of the contest or decorate his house better than his dog can, he is a failure at directing the play and kicked out (rather than made an actor or musician, since of course he would fail at that too), only to fail further at finding a tree. Charlie Brown is a natural-born slave and his inadequacy is manifest to everyone who knows him even slightly; he is not fast, he is not strong, he is not good, he is not smart, he has no special talents—indeed, he cannot even be kind. He is the sort of nebbish who, when he goes bankrupt and shoots some people at his office, his few friends and acquaintances tell the reporters that they’re not surprised so much that he did something bad but that he had the guts to do anything at all.
This part of the story is where the slave morality enters in: a reading from the Christian gospel inspires him—he may be a failure at everything, he may be a loser, but he has faith in Jesus and his understanding of the true spirit of Christmas as a celebration of Jesus’s birth will doubtless be rewarded in the next world, and this faith shores up his psyche and fortifies his denial, to the point where the rest of the children, impressed by his obstinacy and of course their dormant Christian faith, cluster around him to engage in a choral singing of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” with Charlie Brown as their leader.
“Hark!” is an appropriate choice of Christmas carol, as unlike many of the popular Christmas songs these days like “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” or “The 12 Days of Christmas”, “Hark!” is focused single-mindedly on the birth of Jesus: it’s “peace on earth and mercy mild” because Jesus (the Christ/“new-born king”/“everlasting lord”/“the Godhead”/“incarnate deity”/“Prince of Peace” etc) is born and now ruling the world, and little to do with that being intrinsically good. With individual identity submerged in a group identity subservient to their god, the revaluation of moral values from a modern secular ethos to the Christian slave morality is complete: by supplication to Heaven, the weak have won what they could never have on their own—the last is now first, the low is now high. The End.
Battle Angel Alita (2019)
Entertaining cyberpunk action, Alita is one of the rare adaptations that is better than its source.
I am shocked to be reviewing this movie, much less that it was good. Movies or video games which spend decades in development hell are known for coming out much the worse for the wear, budgets & artistic coherency ravaged by time. Battle Angel Alita was one of those jokes, like Duke Nukem Forever, doomed to never come out—yet, here they are.
In Alita, a flying city of elites hovers over a sprawling lawless favela of poverty and cyborgs. In the dump, a local doctor discovers a still-living cyborg head, and rescues it. The revived amnesiac Alita explores her new world, falling in love, conflicting with local criminals, and, while participating in the local bloodsport (which resemble Rollerball), hones her talent for combat, the legacy of her past as an invader from a democratic Mars centuries ago, aiming to bring down the tyranny of the flying cities (a war which the Martians lost). The flying city learns of her revival and begins conspiring to kill her, succeeding only in killing her boyfriend. After overcoming her immediate enemies, Alita vows vengeance on it.
Because of the mixed reviews I was inclined to give it a pass, but a trans acquaintance mentioned that the original cyberpunk manga was one of their favorites, and indeed, they thought it a favorite in general among trans along with, of course, The Matrix. The Matrix’s connection is easy enough to understand, as the Wachowski Brothers famously transitioned a number of years ago and are now just the Wachowskis, and the Red Pill looks exactly like a particular ’90s brand of estrogen pills, and of course the overall gnostic theme is appropriate in a trans context, so I was curious as to what would make Alita more relevant than, say, other much-better-known cyberpunk manga/anime like Ghost in the Shell. After watching it… I can sort of see it. Alita wakes up in an unfamiliar body, not of her choosing; unlike Ghost in the Shell which infamously exploits fanservice nudity and hypersexualized robots, Alita’s body is almost boy-like, and her face looks not unlike that of an effeminate boy who has grown his hair long. She chafes at the limits of her body, worries about her boyfriend–and society—discovering what she really is, and eventually obtains a far superior one of her own choosing which better matches her self-image as a warrior & looks better too. I doubt such an interpretation was intended like The Matrix’s, but it’s understandable. In any case, the movie must stand on its own.
As an action movie, it is entertaining. The much-debated CGI effects, particularly Alita’s face which heavily modified with CGI into a stretched anime or doll-like appearance, eventually normalize as you watch. I think it ultimately doesn’t add anything and was a bad idea, but not as bad as one would think. In any case, there is always so much to look at on the screen, with the assorted scum & villainy of the Scrapyard passing by, that one doesn’t have to watch Alita all the time. If there’s one thing you can count on a Hollywood production to do right, it’s excellent production values and loving attention to visual detail like costumes & backgrounds. Which brings us to what Hollywood usually doesn’t do right, which is the plotting. The pacing is awkward, as stuff just sorta keeps happening, and one lacks any clear sense of a plot arc or understanding of where everything is going. The plot is actually fairly well thought out, borrowing heavily from Rollerball and considerably increasing the importance of the bloodsport, but it’s confusing anyway.
After watching it, I began reading the original manga, and I gained a new appreciation for the movie, which draws on the first 4 volumes or so. The original manga is… not that great? In many details it fails to live up to the movie. (Alita is named after a dead cat, not the doctor’s dead daughter; the new body is simply hanging around the basement, not found in a crashed spaceship; the backgrounds are nonexistent or repetitive, only so many brains-in-jars you can draw before it gets boring etc.) Many of the incidents in the movie are also in the manga, but unconnected and merely short action vignettes, and the rollerball bloodsport is merely a local sport rather than the key to revolution, and in the manga, serves largely as an extended boxing/martial-arts-style interlude, right before Alita leaves the slums and becomes a special agent of the flying city. There is a distinct lack of depth, with some pro forma ‘society made me evil’ backstories. On the other hand, the movie adaptation does a skillful job weaving it all together into a single overarching plot. Changes like Alita being named after a dead daughter or the Chiren character are just plain better.
Recommended samurai movies. Less a trilogy than a movie + duology sequel, this live-action adaptation of the popular Rurouni Kenshin manga/anime, familiar to many Americans from its years as an Adult Swim staple; as Kenshin is so anime, I postponed watching it, fearing it would adapt badly and exhibit the worst tendencies of Japanese live-action movies—bombastic over-acting, sketchy SFX, fish-out-of-water J-pop singers & implausibly effeminate male leads plagiarized from Final Fantasy, that sort of thing. (One would rarely accuse Hollywood movies of being subtle and sophisticated, but in comparison to many Japanese movies…) The first movie is the weakest, with cartoonish villains and an unconvincing casting of Sanosuke Sagara (although to be fair, the casting of Saitō Hajime is great). But the duology is much more striking: with Shishio as a proper antagonist, the fights come to life and live-action permits a heightened sense of realism & horror which offsets the ‘animeness’ of the source material—the opening sequence of Kyoto Inferno truly dramatizes Shishio’s ideology that this world is a hell where the strong eat the weak, and scenes like that offset the threats to suspension of disbelief that the (toned down but still improbable) swordplay present. The production values are high, and scenes often elegant; the fight scenes are of high caliber as well. Worth watching for non-fans, as long as you enjoy action movies, although if you are pressed for time, you might skip the first one: you can probably infer everything you need to know from context or skimming Wikipedia.
2014 Ghibli documentary about, mostly, production of The Wind Rises, which follows Miyazaki about his daily life for months, showing many inside-Ghibli aspects, with long meditative shots of scenery and poking fun at some parts of Miyazaki like his constant doomsaying; it also shows how on earth Hideaki Anno came to be involved as a voice actor, and some of Anno’s voice-acting in it.
Shin Godzilla (2016)
Anno must have fulfilled one of his life dreams when he was tapped to direct the next Godzilla movie while procrastinating on Evangelion 4.0: now he has been Ultraman, founded two animation studios, has voiced the lead character in a Miyazaki movie, and directed his own movie in the granddaddy of all kaiju franchises. The result bears such an Anno style and is so reminiscent of Evangelion as to border on parody: the final frozen Godzilla looks of course like the petrified Evangelions at the end of the manga & End of Evangelion, there are more trains and power-lines than one could shake a stick at, the battles in Tokyo echo those in Tokyo-3 against Angels (going beyond the mere fact that the Angels are just a kind of kaiju themselves and so bear a resemblance), a plucky unconventional government team is held back by a stodgy central government, Godzilla’s beam breath looks like the famous Nausicaa God-Warrior beam attack that Anno animated, the final attack on Godzilla resembles Operation Yashima and so on.
A Godzilla movie will, of course, feature Godzilla wrecking a metropolis. What Shin Godzilla notably adds is returning to the roots of the original, adding in social commentary rather than pure action & SFX. I enjoyed the original, but the much-remarked-on politics of Shin Godzilla connecting it to Fukushima & the tsunami are, I think, not actually that interesting or good. So Anno criticizes the Japanese central government as hidebound, inefficient, prizing bureaucratic procedure over effectiveness, while portraying the JSDF as super-competent saints—wow, so novel, so daring, so brave! Surely no one has ever criticized governments as inefficient before, or fantasized that militaries were superior.
What one should remember is to not give Anno too much credit or read too much into this all: Anno isn’t an intellectual or political junkie or philosopher or psychologist—he is a hyper-visual thinker. He doesn’t have deeply-researched beliefs or knowledge about topics outside of anime. Instead, the question is how stuff looks on screen. (A mistake made, and still made, by legions of Evangelion interpreters, who chase after allusions literally plucked from dictionaries or the Japanese equivalent of Idiot’s Guides, while they should instead be poring over screenshots to understand how Anno says everything through cinematography & color.)
If Godzilla repeatedly evolves while politicians dither & hope it goes away & disbelieve it can get worse, that says more about the fun of having not just one Godzilla to direct but 3 or 4 Godzillas than it does about parallels to Fukushima. If the JSDF is treated with kid gloves and can do no wrong in Shin Godzilla, that probably says less about any conditions that the JSDF imposed in exchange for assisting filming (a universal practice of the American military in cooperating with Hollywood) or Prime Minister Abe or amending the Japanese constitution than about the fact that Anno is a military hardware fanboy and thinks military hardware is really cool—indeed, one of Anno’s most obscure works is a 1999 documentary film about the JSDF navy. And if Gainaxers are described as having right-wing nationalistic politics with imperialist dog-whistles13, the impression I’ve always gotten in compiling NGE-related material like the The Notenki Memoirs or “The Conscience of the Otaking” or Anno talking about his love of the movie The Battle of Okinawa is that this greatly oversells the depth of their convictions: really, it is just that such topics and the imperial military esthetic allow for lots of battles and look really cool. While Anno indulges in some of the casual anti-Americanism which he also displays in works like his interviews with high school kids (research for His and Her Circumstances), Shin is not that harsh, for who has cooler toys than the US military?
The cardinal sin of a successful Don Quijote liberal democracy is that it is so boring, a boredom only occasionally relieved by a natural disaster. This is a perennial problem with the Nazis too: they look too cool, but while liking the Nazis too much is dangerous in the West where they have become the definition of evil, post-war Japan never rejected pre-war Japan (a failure of reckoning assisted by creating a cult of victimhood around the atomic bombings—particularly relevant given that we’re talking about Godzilla here…), so it works fine for Gainax. As it happens, this casual mix of populist anti-Americanism & victimhood appears particularly appealing to the Japanese public now, both in 2016 and in the ongoing bizarrely self-destructive feud between the South Korean & Japanese governments where mutual narratives of victimhood have resurged at a bad time (truly, tertius gaudens). You might wonder how the Japanese could feel victimized by South Korea, given the relevant history, but they’ll manage it anyway. This, I think, accounts for why Shin Godzilla was such a success in Japan, but has met a lukewarm reception overseas. (If so, Shin Godzilla’s reputation will fade over time as Fukushima & the tsunami fade.)
My own reception is lukewarm as well. Hideaki Anno is, on paper, the perfect director. Yet, if you don’t eat up the politics, Shin Godzilla… isn’t all that entertaining? The Godzilla scenes are good as far as they go, but make up a surprisingly small fraction of the movie. Most of it is just about paper-shuffling and following some bureaucrats around. For an apocalypse, there is a surprising lack of gravity: for an existential threat to Tokyo and Japan, and eventually the entire world, there are no vivid repercussions or illustrations of the many consequences of a true natural disaster or a society strained to the limit or a government on the verge of loss of legitimacy and about to collapse. Even the extras milling around Tokyo do not appear panicked (much less existentially terrified), so much as slightly irritated. The result is a surprisingly bland Godzilla movie, and a disappointment.
Live-action Japanese TV series, 11 half-hour episodes: quasi-autobiographical account of the manga artist Kazuhiko Shimamoto’s university years as he flailed around, drew manga, and finally got a break in a magazine’s contest. The mangaka himself isn’t particularly notable—he did the Blazing Transfer Student manga and apparently the Anime Tenchou commercials, which are “hot blooded youth” bombastic fun heavy on sketchy art to convey intensity & drama & speed, but I had to look up his WP entry to realize that he was involved in those.
The series is heavy on exaggerated emotion and facial reactions as the protagonist lurches from extremes of high and low, and draws on cringe-humor—you’re laughing at the follies of his youth, not laughing with him. Tastes will vary for this kind of humor. Personally, I find some bathos is fine, but sustained over a series is a bit too much. The romantic subplots are also a misstep as they wind up being irrelevant, and inflicting a character on us whose voice is best described as a nasal whine.
The real interest of Blue Blazes is in the otaku culture depicted; it is stuffed with cameos (Hiroyuki Yamaga is the bartender in the scene about him forgetting to breathe; Toshio Okada plays Osamu Tezuka after Daicon; several manga editors have small parts), allusions and in-jokes, many of which I didn’t even get (the episode intros are based on kyodai hero poses from Ultraman & other franchises, but I’ve never seen enough of them to recognize them) but some of which were hysterical (to me)—the manga club character dominates every scene he is in, eg. after crushing the protagonist’s dreams by critiquing his draft, remarks “One does not care to recollect the mistakes of youth!” and rides away on his pink bicycle, declaring, “it’s three times as fast!” (Char Aznable/Mobile Suit Gundam). In particular, I was surprised to learn that he had gone to the same university at the same time with some of the founders of Gainax, and it is depicting Hideaki Anno, Hiroyuki Yamaga, and the run-up to the DAICON films where it shines for me as it gives another perspective on early Gainax beyond The Notenki Memoirs. He apparently competed with them but was crushed; eg. ep3 has Anno doing the Gendo pose after crushing everyone in animation (as expected from the master!). The character sketches are dead-on: when a room-mate’s sister visits and Anno learns she has not seen Mobile Suit Gundam and shows his hospitality by marathoning 12 episodes with her, one senses this is something that really happened and which his friends have never let him live it down. Other incidents are interestingly reflective of the times: getting a new VCR to allow stepping through home-videos of animated series frame by frame, to better understand them; visiting an animation supply shop just to watch a loop of anime series intros on their TV; passing out slowly and dramatically, imitating a tokusatsu; re-enacting a sea fight in the baths. The student films shown seem to either be the originals or shot-by-shot remakes. Other aspects are… odd. If episode 8 is remotely accurate, Toshio Okada was crazier than a bag of honey-roasted peanuts and his nouveau-riche family (with terrible decorating taste) made their money off blatantly counterfeiting money, which undermines my generally positive impression of him.
Overall: a must-watch for anyone interested in Gainax; probably a good watch for anyone who liked Bakuman or Genshiken; maybe a watch for anime fans; probably better skipped by anyone else.
Anime in the 1980s–1990s was famous for its diversity and edgy content like sex & violence, enabling the early careers of famous directors. I summarize what made this possible: a change in anime business models from being captive to established censorious media interests, to ‘direct-to-home’ video sales of ‘original video animation’ or OVAs—a misnomer, as it involved rental stores as much or more than individual consumers.
The rise of home videotape players but high prices of videotapes meant that video rental stores were the preferred method to acquire videotapes, and decentralized rental stores could collectively pay, on an episode by episode basis, for all sorts of strange sketchy OVA productions that would be ignored or censored. Successful OVAs would serve as proof-of-concept and bankroll followups.
But the economics & technological circumstances that enabled this breakout from the standard media model would not last, and standard media interests would both loosen their censorship and flood the market with cheap videotapes, rendering rental stores & the OVA model obsolete, and relegating ‘original video animations’ to just ‘video animations’ as a way to further monetize existing franchises by selling minor productions directly to fans.
The ’80s–’90s OVA boom is a remarkable example of how business models & incentives can matter far more to art than any technology, individual, or trend. The Wikipedia history is a little confusing & muddled (was it ‘individuals’ buying VHS tapes, or ‘rental stores’? what did speculators have to do with anything?), but this is how I understand it.
Anime has always been a difficult business economically for animators & anime studios, even as anime has been extraordinarily lucrative for many entities around anime. It can be very good to be a licensor making merchandise, or the owner of the copyright in an anime adaptation, or the publisher of the original light novel/manga; but the animator who drew the key scene, or the anime studio which nearly imploded making the adaptation? Not so much. No matter how successful an anime is, there are no billionaire animators or anime directors (not even the most commercially successful anime directors of all time like Hayao Miyazaki or Hideaki Anno hit the billionaire mark, AFAICT), and anime studios infamously come & go; individuals working in anime are either cynical, lucky, or not long for the field (and are generally treated as disposable and having plenty of eager young replacements).
Why? The basic answer is the usual media/telecom/oligopoly answer (and in Japan, oligopolies are especially oligopolistic): it is better to be the gatekeeper than the gatekept, anything video requires a lot of capital upfront, it is a hit-driven business so it is hard to accumulate capital of one’s own, and anime for a long time was forced through the bottleneck of TV broadcasters like the NHK or TV Tokyo (to name two relevant to Evangelion). These are uninclined to leave anime studios any more profit than necessary to keep them alive, and then a little less than that to keep them lean & not leave any yen on the table. The studio may be paid upfront for the rights, just enough to make it, and then left to recoup anything it can later on; the studio may even have to pay the broadcaster, to get ‘exposure’ for selling the VHS/DVD/BD afterwards. (An anime fan may be surprised to learn that many anime studios, like Gainax, were really game-writing or figurine-designing or pachinko-licensing business judged by the numbers, and made anime as a hobby or advertising—no Princess Maker or strip mahjong computer game series churning out installments, no Evangelion anime! No Ghibli merchandise like Totoro catbus backpacks, no Princess Mononoke, etc.) Movies represent an even more extreme situation: relatively few theater chains in Japan, staggering upfront costs in time & labor & money, utter ruin if the movie is not a hit—Studio Ghibli’s success is all the more remarkable in this light. Anime studios could do nothing about this equilibrium: you have to go where the customers are, and the customers were controlled by the TV stations/chains. The media oligopolists didn’t ever need to ‘commoditize their complement’ of anime studios or anime production, because shows to fill up airtime were already commoditized naturally.
This changed in animators’ favor. When videotapes were invented and home video became a real alternative to movie theaters & broadcast/cable television, there were three possible equilibria: “free, expensive, cheap”. First, free: that’s broadcast TV and already existed. The second, default, was an equilibrium in which videotapes (still highly expensive to make) were legally restricted, taxed & controlled, blank tapes the equivalent of ‘the Boston Strangler to a woman home alone’, and tapes sold only by copyright holders at a high price, such as >$100 each, because a single tape might be watched by many people and thereby cannibalize many high-margin ticket & ad sales, and so tapes would tend to be bought by rental stores (presumably safely after any theatrical release or broadcast) who would then recoup it by renting it to many consumers until the tape wore out, or by the occasional wealthy or fanatical person who intended to watch it many times or simply had to have it, price no object, or as a splurge to share it.14 In the final equilibrium, the goal was to sell as many tapes as possible to home viewers, so cheap that people could buy tapes speculatively or to watch relatively few times, and accept that people would be recording shows at home & bootlegging but that the ‘pie’ would be so much larger that everyone was better off regardless.
The third equilibrium won eventually15, but early on, the second equilibrium of few expensive rentals was dominant. The paradigmatic example was porn rental stores: men greatly prefer porn in the privacy of their own home to going to seedy disreputable undeniable porno theaters (used to be a thing, young readers—Times Square was infamous for them), video rental stores could segregate them from regular videos to make renting them deniable (who’s to say which kind of video you went in for?), and variety is the spice of life, while compiling a large collection too expensive even without copyright margins. So, you didn’t buy porn, you rented it.
The side effect of this was that rental store owners became, collectively, almost venture-capital funders of new porn: they kickstarted speculative pornographic enterprises, particularly when it came to series, or new actresses or genres. They were atomized, disparate, privately-contactable, profit-maximizing individuals with little market or bargaining power; it was possible for anyone with access to film-making & tape-dubbing equipment to film a porno and sell individual copies by mail, and if it hit a niche, sell some more to the same owners (because a popular tape could only be checked out by one person at a time, and might wear out), quickly making back their costs to reinvest in another tape. A porn company was a rental store’s way of making more rentals. An earlier dynamic had contributed to the American Golden Age of Porn starting about a decade earlier—you can make the still-infamous _Deep Throat for all of $224255.94147097878$500001972, which when distributed to several hundred porno theaters charging by the head, could explode to anywhere up to $448.51188294195754$1001972m in gross revenue (and triggering countless imitations).
Anime OVAs exploited ‘sex and gore’ for the same reason. You could never get NHK to air, much less bankroll, ultraviolent/pornographic OVAs like Legend of the Overfiend; and as a government-enforced monopoly, they cannot be bypassed. It can’t be aired, period. What you could do, however, was to convince someone to put up the money and animators to put in the sweat to make the OVA anyway, and sell it to rental stores & fans. It is risky, but potentially highly lucrative, and your risk is limited to what you invest, particularly if you know otaku animators willing to work for next to nothing.
If you want to do it, you can: there are no gatekeepers there. You can put just about any videotape up for sale with some ads in anime magazines or mail-order catalogues—and people did. All sorts of wacky OVAs (like the influential Megazone 23) got started by selling an episode or two (not always getting finished), and relying on sales to fund more episodes; and if things went well, they could be stapled together into a ‘movie’, or justify a full-scale TV series. If nothing else, the staff now had something on their resume showing off their skills: a particular sakuga, or a particular episode. This led to a blossoming of anime in volume and variance, helped launch the career of directors like Hideaki Anno (Gunbuster) or Mamoru Oshii (Dallos) and helped create anime’s early reputation for sex, violence, and just all sorts of strange experiments you’d never see on American TV at that time. (Note that the ‘golden age of TV’ substantially postdates the wave of anime into America in the 1990s. I’m not claiming that competition from anime caused the golden age compared to bigger business-model changes like the success of premium HBO subscriptions, but at a minimum, many people grew up aware that TV series could be so much more than the episodic dreck they saw every night on the Big Three—scrubbed of continuity & complexity in the interests of catering to the all-important syndication packages.)
So if OVAs were so great, why have they long since ceased to mean much of anything to an anime fan, and they now talk more about things like web-animations or shorts or the ‘NoitaminA block’ or Netflix specials? For the same reason that they came into existence: economic & technological change continued, and the business model ceased to be such a win.
The ‘bubble decades’ surely played a role in all the money sloshing around Japan, available to be speculatively invested in anime, and that would abruptly end forever by the mid-1990s. Even if Japan had not entered its lost decades, however, the OVA period was doomed. When was the last time you entered a video rental store? If it was ever, it was a long time ago. (I’m not sure if I set foot in a Blockbuster this side of 2000 AD.) VHSes, and then DVDs, became ‘too cheap to rent’. There was an explosion of DVD boxsets delivering everything to the comfort of your home—no late fees ever. (The Blockbuster late fees were truly extortionate.) When the high-price equilibrium collapsed, movies and anime started being broadcast regularly; broadcasters had to expand their tolerance far beyond anything permitted before. Why would you go out of your way to rent from your local video store if you can watch it on TV? The customers returned to the comfy & no-longer-so-stifling embrace of the oligopolies, and purchasing completed series.
All logical and following their incentives, but the consequence was the gradual fadeout of the OVA model in favor of making safe anime to sell to existing fans in known numbers: hence all the one-off ‘sidequels’ or ‘sequels’ to existing franchises. I feel nostalgic for a period I knew primarily from gawking at Right Stuf mail-order catalogues, going, “that’s an anime? How on earth did that get made‽”… But anime has done fine for itself since then, and the nature of these things is that they are cyclical as leverage moves back and forth, and no one can predict what the future will bring—who foresaw that big tech & media giants competing over streaming markets would lead to an OVA-esque anime market where demand for new anime was white-hot and all sorts of strange series could get made? And streaming itself will surely fadeout and some new market dynamic replace that. And if it’s a bad dynamic, well, I still have a lot of old anime to watch.
Whether we should invoke such heavyweight ideology and claim “this is Takahata applying Marxist dialectical materialism in dramatizing the thesis-antithesis-synthesis of Heian life”, or if this is simply how the story spoke to Takahata, I will leave to others to discuss. As with Neon Genesis Evangelion & My Little Pony, we should always remember that such discussions say only what can be said in words—but if it could have been adequately said in words, then they wouldn’t’ve’d to be made.↩︎
Echoes of many incidents in Heian-related material, not least Tale of Genji; in one ugly real-life incident related in Keene’s Seeds in the Heart, the emperor complains to a father that raping his daughter wasn’t as enjoyable as the emperor had hoped because she didn’t resist enough.↩︎
Made in Abyss has attracted criticism for a minor lolicon aspect, of which the penis jokes are part. The overall lolicon aspect is unusual but I suspect that it’s part of what makes MiA’s horror effective: it emphasizes the moe in an unexpected way, which makes the horror twists hit harder. (Combining sex & death is a time-honored horror trope, after all, because it is so effective—but the 50th slasher movie endangering the blonde highschool cheerleader has lost its impact.) If it were omitted, Western social media would have less to complain about, but also less to care about.↩︎
…This is the concise history of a monster, who has added to the proofs, that unbridled liberty is productive of nought but evil.
And is good for merchandising, Sevakis notes: “I understand that Chirin stationary was quite popular for a number of years following the film’s release. Surely using such stationary would serve as a reminder of all the injustice, the shock, and the loneliness he experienced, perfect for love letters and thank-you notes.”↩︎
Which was probably better than UBW, though. Fate/Zero is as arbitrary as the other Fate stuff I’ve watched, but gets the absurd exposition out of the way earlier and actually has characters worth a damn (Shiro is not a character in the F/SN anime, he is a shonen buffoon). I have a few quibbles with the rest of Fate/Zero, but overall—fantastic. And now I know why Kuritsugu is an admired character. The Banquet of Kings, the partnership with Alexander, the betrayal of Tokiomi, the last stands at the Grail, Kuritsugu’s backstory… So many great moments.↩︎
Another instance of respect: Final Yamato was the longest anime movie ever, 1983–2019, when it was surpassed by another WWII-related film, In This Corner of the World, which also included the Yamato as a character; this record was not an accident, eg. The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya is exactly 1 minute shorter.↩︎
An anonymous reader assures me that it does make sense—“continue and faith will come”:
Oikura Sodachi is the most important character in *monogatari. Superficial, she exists only to provide some background for Araragi and Oshino Ougi. And yet, after watching all 70+ hours of *monogatari ~3 times, it is my opinion that Hanekawa Tsubasa, Senjougahara Hitagi, Araragi Koyomi, etc are but supporting characters who exist to allow Oikura-san to shine. It is Oikura Sodachi who is important. (This is somewhat of an exaggeration, but still, do not neglect Oikura Sodachi. She is no less of a core character then anyone else.)
Please persevere and watch Owarimonogatari second season and Zoku Owarimonogatari. Rewatch Neko shiro and Kizu as needed. You shall be richly rewarded.
They did give him a third film, the 2020 Earwig and the Witch, which bombed. Ironically, the only Ghibli projects Goro has been involved in which have received rave reviews—the 2001 Ghibli Museum & 2022 Ghibli theme park—don’t involve animation at all but draw on his prior career as a landscape architect.↩︎
Roughly: every discrete work has the same probability of ‘success’ regardless of the circumstances. For example, scientific papers have the same probability of being highly cited no matter when in a scientist’s career they are published; peaks of scientific success are peaks of publishing rates.↩︎
von Neumann’s famous warning in “The Mathematician”, part 2, 1947:
As a mathematical discipline travels far from its empirical source, or still more, if it is a second and third generation only indirectly inspired by ideas coming from “reality” it is beset with very grave dangers. It becomes more and more purely aestheticizing, more and more purely l’art pour l’art. This need not be bad, if the field is surrounded by correlated subjects, which still have closer empirical connections, or if the discipline is under the influence of men with an exceptionally well-developed taste. But there is a grave danger that the subject will develop along the line of least resistance, that the stream, so far from its source, will separate into a multitude of insignificant branches, and that the discipline will become a disorganized mass of details and complexities. In other words, at a great distance from its empirical source, or after much “abstract” inbreeding, a mathematical subject is in danger of degeneration. At the inception the style is usually classical; when it shows signs of becoming baroque, then the danger signal is up. It would be easy to give examples, to trace specific evolutions into the baroque and the very high baroque, but this, again, would be too technical.
Harberger taxes (2016) have been proposed for intellectual property, and development hell might be reduced by Harberger taxes through both mechanisms: the entities bankrolling development hells will be more reluctant to hold onto IP they are not successfully developing, and enabling buyouts would allow third parties to take over and do their own. Harberger taxes would be especially effective in discouraging film studios from squatting on optioned rights indefinitely.↩︎
When media was really expensive, people resorted to informal sharing to a much greater degree than they do in 2023. For example, you would try to buy the same video game system as your friends so you could share games, and you might coordinate by discussing the games you planned to buy to avoid duplicates. Similarly, many anime fans would buy some tapes because they intended to share it with friends who came over, or during sleepovers or ‘movie nights’, or often at an anime club. Anime clubs themselves would be de facto ‘video rental stores’—some college anime clubs would amass collections of thousands of obscure (often bootleg or fansubbed) tapes & DVDs, access to which was the chief privilege of membership for skint students.↩︎
Which is not guaranteed. Many markets will never reach the ‘cheap’ or ‘free’ states, for example, relatively boutique software services—which is why if you are in that market, you should charge much more.↩︎