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, , 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 Secret His­tory of Star Wars) and unsur­pris­ingly Lucas ulti­mately sold off the Star Wars fran­chise entirely to own­ers who have been even poorer cus­to­di­ans than he was.

It would not be going too far to say that watch­ing 3.0 killed my inter­est in Evan­ge­lion. Lit­er­ally overnight I stopped . 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, , , , , , —these have not rewarded those who waited years or decades for them as they grad­u­ally become punch­lines. 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 Nike 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 ‘’ 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.

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  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”↩︎