Anime Reviews

A compilation of anime/manga reviews since 2010.
personal, anime, criticism, fiction, reviews, NGE
2010-12-142020-11-20 in progress certainty: log importance: 3


This page is a com­pi­la­tion of my ani­me/­manga re­views; it is com­piled from my MyAnimeList ac­count & . Re­views are sorted by rat­ing in de­scend­ing or­der.

See also my & .

Anime

Redline

(2009)

A re­watch: I first watched Red­line in Oc­to­ber 2010, and re­watch­ing it 9 years later (as part of 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 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.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

(2013)

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is the best known Japan­ese fairy tale: a beau­ti­ful child 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 from whence she came, hav­ing ei­ther been ex­iled for a crime or hid­den on Earth dur­ing a lu­nar war for her safe­ty. What can Isao Taka­hata bring to it, his last 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, likely Taka­hata’s last, is the best Ghi­bli film ever, but it is far su­pe­rior to Miyaza­k­i’s last film, The Wind Rises.)

First, the an­i­ma­tion is stun­ning. It is in a sort of hand-crafted mov­ing wa­ter­col­or. I am re­minded of my re­ac­tions to watch­ing Red­line: every scene leaves me rapt, feel­ing that noth­ing like this may ever be cre­ated again. 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), the an­i­ma­tion in­dus­try con­ver­sion to com­put­er­ized processes is long over, and it may never be pos­si­ble to pay enough Japan­ese an­i­ma­tors poorly enough to afford such lux­u­ries in the fu­ture.

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 Grave of Fire­flies for its sear­ing sor­row; Pom­poko is con­sid­ered a com­edy de­spite the dis­turb­ing un­der­cur­rents of group sui­cide and the near-ex­tinc­tion of the tanuki; 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 and so­cial striv­ing and the ni­hilism of Bud­dhism. 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 de­mands she be­come a princess, slowly for­get­ting his orig­i­nal goal and fo­cus­ing on so­cial ad­vance­ment; Kaguya de­lights in the beau­ti­ful ki­monos and wardrobes she is given 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 fa­mously in­vented to hide an em­press’s de­cayed teeth and then be­came tra­di­tion) to meet ar­bi­trary so­cial stan­dards; her pop­u­lar­ity ren­ders her un­able to go out to see cherry blos­soms; a party sup­pos­edly in her honor turns out to merely be an oc­ca­sion for drunk­en­ness and in­sults; all of this is merely 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 the em­per­or’s as­sump­tion he can rape any women he pleases (in one ugly in­ci­dent re­lated in Keene’s Seeds in the Heart, the em­peror com­plains to a fa­ther that rap­ing his daugh­ter was­n’t as en­joy­able as he hoped be­cause she did­n’t re­sist enough). 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.

At the party scene, 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, who 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, 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.

In the end, Kaguya re­jects her mor­tal life, and the Moon’s Bud­dha (in full In­dian re­galia & ret­inue, to make it im­pos­si­ble to miss the point) in­ex­orably re­turns to take her back to the Moon; only then does she re­mem­ber her life in the Moon and yearn­ing after mor­tal life’s joys and sor­rows amidst the peace of the grave of the Moon. She could re­main on Earth only so long as she de­sired to. Too late does she ac­cept her life as a whole, too late does she yearn to re­main. (“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?

The feel­ing one is left with is Fu­ji­wara no Teika’s yu­gen: a mys­te­ri­ous feel­ing of depth. Kaguya ar­rives in mys­tery, walks in beau­ty, and de­parts in mys­tery. Was it a war, or po­etic pun­ish­ment?

Taka­hata avoids ever ex­plic­itly choos­ing, leav­ing the viewer in doubt and un­cer­tain­ty. In the end, there is only si­lence; in the end, there is only the sub­lime; in the end, there is only life through­out spring, sum­mer, fall, win­ter, with birds, bugs, beasts, grass, trees, flow­ers…

Neon Genesis Evangelion Concurrency Project

Neon Gen­e­sis Evan­ge­lion Con­cur­rency Project (2013 EGF by Sailor Star Dust/Kil­leri­con (?); 942MB; MD5: c78172b26b67888318ef2ca779596c9f).

One of the longest-s­tand­ing de­bates in NGE fan­dom is the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the fa­mous­ly-rushed end­ing of (EoTV) and the the­atri­cal fol­lowup, (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, -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 ), 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 com­pletely 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 meets ” 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 -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 place), I sus­pect Made in Abyss will be the best anime I watched in 2019, and per­haps 2020 too.

Mushishi Zoku Shou

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.

Ringing Bell

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 more 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. 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!1

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

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

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.

Kurozuka

One of the most un­usual fic­tional treat­ments of & to date, and a fur­ther un­usual in­te­gra­tion of Noh drama & twist­ing of the leg­end into a vam­pire sto­ry. The an­i­ma­tion is nice, some­thing of a throw­back to Basilisk and 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

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.

Shin Sekai Yori

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 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).

Basilisk: Kouga Ninpou Chou

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.

Wolf Children

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.

Golden Kamuy

An en­ter­tain­ingly ec­cen­tric ac­tion-his­tor­i­cal romp in the spirit of , ex­plor­ing an un­usual time and place: post- on in the last gasp of the . Golden Ka­muy suffers a lit­tle from its con­stant di­gres­sions into /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 episode), and its con­sid­er­a­tions on themes of sur­vival & war are not in­con­sid­er­able.

Shirobako

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 a 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.

The Dragon Dentist

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.

Watamote

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, long­stand­ing, 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.

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.

Ki­mochi warui.

The Garden of Words

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 . 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”.

Youjo Senki

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 fly­ing around, blow­ing things up, and 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.

Expelled From Paradise

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.

Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works

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:

  1. 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 or ;
  2. con­tin­ued in­flu­ence from 2, 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;
  3. 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”;
  4. 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 .

Genshiken Nidaime

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 :

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.

Gosick

(2011)

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.

Ayakashi/Mononoke

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.

School-Live!

See ’s “Hōjōki” (); 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.

Tonari no Seki-kun

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.

An ex­cel­lent and well worth watch­ing sum­mary is the AMV “My Neigh­bor Fi­garo Kun” which, in the great foot-steps of Bugs Bunny, demon­strates why is the best opera.

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.)

Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun

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.

Space Dandy

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).

Little Witch Academia

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 & & Dis­ney’s Sleep­ing Beauty. Who could be against that?

Barakamon

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 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.

Children Who Chase Lost Voices

(2011)

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 , 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.

The Wind Rises

A biopic fol­low­ing air­plane de­signer 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 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

Mono­gatari Sec­ond Sea­son: Nekomono­gatari+Kabuki­mon­gatari+Oto­ri­mono­gatari+On­i­mono­gatari+Koi­mono­gatari

The long-awaited real fol­lowup to ; 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 of Sadness

()

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 /-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 or , I can rec­om­mend it to those will­ing to put up with se­vere flaws for the sake of see­ing some­thing rather differ­ent from the norm.

Hells

Movie sim­i­lar to or , 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.

Tamala 2010: A Punk Cat in Space

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.

Short Peace

An­thol­ogy of 4 short ani­me:

  1. 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—“”. The 3D CGI is in­ter­est­ing but also some­what off­putting.
  2. 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”.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Arakawa Under The Bridge

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.

Mawaru Penguindrum

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.

Yurikuma Arashi

An­other pe­cu­liar Ikuhara pro­duc­tion.

It car­ries over much of his style in col­or­ing and back­ground and in­scrutable sym­bol­ism from & . 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 just the same ex­act thing, just re­skinned?) Com­bined with the ir­ri­tat­ingly flat char­ac­ters, I sus­pect this may par­tially ac­count for why YA was un­sat­is­fy­ing & un­pop­u­lar.

Gyakkyou Burai Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor

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 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: Teppou Musume no Torimonochou

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.

Flip Flappers

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 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 //—I did think 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

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Se­ries would have been bet­ter plot­ted if it had been 5–10 episodes short­er.
  3. Ditto if the New­type stuff had been de­vel­oped or brought in ear­li­er.
  4. The kids be­ing on board the White Base is still id­i­otic and a huge breaker of sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief.
  5. 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…)
  6. 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‽
  7. 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

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…)

Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid

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.

Owarimonogatari

? ? ?

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!3

From Up On Poppy Hill

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 Goro, he’s not the only Ghi­bli new­bie to un­der­per­form in that re­spec­t—Ghi­bli new­bie Hi­ro­masa Yonebayashi’s 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? 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.

Mobile Suit Gundam: Char’s Counterattack

(1988)

A re­tread of the , 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 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 , 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…

Soul Eater

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 a 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

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.

Blood Blockade Battlefront

One of the most highly praised anime of the past sea­son and based on 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 draw­ing on with am­bi­tions of an en­sem­ble cast evok­ing Amer­i­cana like , but un­for­tu­nately the se­ries dis­tinctly fails to re­mem­ber love for NYC (as a com­par­i­son to, say, the suc­cess of 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.

Hataraku Maou-sama!

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.

A Letter to Momo

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 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.

Chuunibyou demo Koi ga Shitai!

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.

See al­so: Umineko, .

Seto no Hanayome

My Bride Is A Mer­maid

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.

Ben-to

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-Punch Man

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.

Michiko to Hatchin

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 . 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

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.

The SoulTaker

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.

Evangelion 3.0

(2012)

has earned the du­bi­ous dis­tinc­tion of be­come one of the most trou­bled and long-de­layed anime movie se­ries ever. At cur­rent pro­jec­tions of re­lease in June 2020, a child con­ceived when in 2007 would be just about old enough to pi­lot an Evan­ge­lion by the time the se­ries fin­ish­es. 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 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 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 (‽) 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 / post-di­vorce (see ) 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 . 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.

Majin Tantei Nougami Neuro

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.

Manga

Biomega

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.

Manga CVN73 USS George Washington

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.

Western

The Thief and the Cobbler

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 , 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 ), 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.”

On Development Hell

Why does­n’t de­vel­op­ment hell work? Cre­ative works or that sur­vive ‘’ often dis­ap­point those wait­ing for them, and often are among the worst things their cre­ators ever make. , the Star Wars pre­quel tril­o­gy, , Dau, , , , —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’4); as great as a film-maker as Stan­ley Kubrick was, look­ing into his work­ing process as , 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 ( 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 ). 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:

  1. 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 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 were ever pro­duced, it would look much less strik­ing than the orig­i­nal in part be­cause the pro­duc­tion ma­te­ri­als and sketches were so widely in­flu­en­tial.
  2. 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. 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 ‘’ be­gin to set in, and the cre­ative im­pulse de­gen­er­ates into l’art pour l’art.
  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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 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 ), 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.5 As the feed­back be­comes in­creas­ingly de­layed and the work un­moored from the world, the 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 : 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 over6; ad­dress im­bal­ances in an ecosys­tem by en­cour­ag­ing more ter­mi­nal nodes of small in­die cre­ators or sub­cul­tures… De­vel­op­ment hell is not in­evitable.

How The Grinch Stole Christmas

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.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

The best and most en­joy­able su­per­hero movie I’ve seen in a long time, and defi­nitely the best Spi­der-Man movie. 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.

Kubo and the Two Strings

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 (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.

My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic

For s1–8, see .

For :

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 & , 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 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: , , , , , “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.

Coco

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.

Brave

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 (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.

Incredibles 2

14 years lat­er—has it re­ally been that long? yes, it has—Pixar re­turns to the 2004 . 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.

A Charlie Brown Christmas

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 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.

Other

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 , 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 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 a 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.

Rurouni Kenshin (2014)

2012/ 2014/ 2014

Rec­om­mended samu­rai movies. Less a tril­ogy than a movie + duol­ogy se­quel, this live-ac­tion adap­ta­tion of the pop­u­lar , 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 (although to be fair, the cast­ing of 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.

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness

2014 Ghi­bli doc­u­men­tary about, most­ly, pro­duc­tion of , 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 came to be in­volved as a voice ac­tor, and some of An­no’s voice-act­ing in it.

Shin-Godzilla

(2016)

Fol­low­ing up my be­lated re­view of Evan­ge­lion 3.0, an­other be­lated re­view of a film. (While tech­ni­cally there were 3 other di­rec­tors, chief blame for 3.0 must rest on An­no’s shoul­der­s.)

Anno must have ful­filled one of his life dreams when he was tapped to di­rect the next movie while pro­cras­ti­nat­ing on : 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 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 & , 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 God-War­rior beam at­tack that Anno an­i­mat­ed, the fi­nal at­tack on Godzilla re­sem­bles 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 , 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 & the 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 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 about the JSDF navy. And if Gainax­ers are de­scribed as hav­ing right-wing na­tion­al­is­tic pol­i­tics with im­pe­ri­al­ist dog-whis­tles7, the im­pres­sion I’ve al­ways got­ten in com­pil­ing like the or or Anno talk­ing about his love of the movie 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 (re­search for ), Shin is not that harsh, for who has cooler toys than the US mil­i­tary?

The car­di­nal sin of a suc­cess­ful 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 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.

Blue Blazes

Live-ac­tion Japan­ese TV se­ries, 11 half-hour episodes: qua­si­-au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal ac­count of the manga artist ’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 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 . 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, 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.


  1. 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.”↩︎

  2. 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.↩︎

  3. 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.

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  4. 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.↩︎

  5. 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.

    ↩︎
  6. Har­berger taxes (Pos­ner & Weyl 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.↩︎

  7. eg “Im­pe­ri­al­ism, Trans­la­tion, ”: “In­tro­duc­tion”/“Episode One”/“Episode Two—NSFW/“Episode Three”/“Episode Four”/“Episode Five”/“Episode Six”↩︎