All posts by gendomike

Michael lives in the Los Angeles area, and has been into anime since he saw Neon Genesis Evangelion in 1999. Some of his favorite shows include Full Metal Alchemist, Honey and Clover, and Welcome to the NHK!. Since 2003 he has gone to at least one anime convention every year. A public radio junkie, which naturally led to podcasting, he now holds a seminary degree and is looking to become Dr. Rev. Otaku Bible Man any day now. Michael can be reached at mike.huang@animediet.net. You can also find his Twitter account at @gendomike.

Black Lagoon 23-24 (END)

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Impressions (SPOILERS)

And so the most intelligent and exciting action anime to come along in a while closes its most extensive arc yet, with plenty of room for more seasons to come. (Though my hopes that Yukio, the schoolgirl Yakuza boss, might become a recurring character were, alas, not to be.) The reflective dialogue in this and the previous episodes lifts Black Lagoon into the ranks of the more intelligent action genre films like Michael Mann’s Heat or Collateral. This is also a show that isn’t afraid to develop characters very well, only to kill them off –arguably, Yukio is better sketched than mainstays Rock and Revy, though here we get to see a very, very vulnerable (for her) side of Revy. She’s back in character by the very last scene but we get the impression that when she says “If it were anyone but you, I’d have put two or three holes in you” it is as close to a love confession as she will ever come to.

Some of the broader issues Black Lagoon brings up are very interesting. Rock throughout the show, though more at the beginning, represents “civilian” values or perhaps more precisely the point of view of someone accustomed to comfort and unused to the brutally utilitarian underworld. The show, usually through the voices of Revy and Balalaika, works hard to undermine that viewpoint as being naive and arbitrary (though I wonder: Revy, ostensibly a nonbeliever, blurts out in episode 23 that the only thing that saved Rock’s skin was “God’s grace” and Balalaika’s surprising mercy). Eventually Rock adopts many of the values of the underworld, though never without completely losing any sense of compassion. It’s as if he has come to some sort of balance, of a sort, able to act decisively and coldly when necessary, but without becoming a war addict like Balalaika.

If one wants to push it a bit one can see a little of the realization that the pacifistic attitude among many modern Japanese is based less on principle and more on denial. I certainly agree, if the naive pacifism of many an anime is any indicator of general attitudes in Japan. Now I’m not sure the violent cynicism that passes for cool in this show–a very American attitude, I might add, and one which will make this show very easy to swallow for fans of films like Pulp Fiction and The Boondock Saints–is any better, but it certainly has a better claim on reality, I think. (The characters, Yakuza schoolgirl and Revy included, are also self-aware enough to admit that part of them longs for the flabby tranquility that Rock’s Japan stands for.) I also find it interesting that the prevailing attitude of most of the characters in the show is that they are beyond help, beyond any point where they can change their paths. This fatalistic attitude, laden with notions of “destiny,” is what seems more “Japanese” about it; Americans are more inclined to think that “it’s never too late to start again!” But everyone in this show already considers themselves as living in the twilight, as living dead. The Sartre quotations are oddly appropriate; the existentialist despair that pervades this show demands nothing less. There’s nothing left except to make one’s own meaning and go all the way, guns blazing.

More excellent analysis of this final episode is here.

So: Black Lagoon ends fittingly, with a gun shot, with the characters returning to their posts and ready for more adventures. May they go on many more than we otaku fanboys can see. Preferably with her:

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Continue reading Black Lagoon 23-24 (END)

Afro Samurai 1

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Impressions

The first episode of Afro Samurai, the Japanese-animated and Samuel L. Jackson-voiced Gonzo production, is now available for viewing for free on the Spike TV website. It’s a fairly safe bet that the project rides almost entirely on Jackson’s name recognition (Ron Perlman also has a voice too). But how does it stack up, as an anime? If this were any other anime with standard Japanese voice seiyuu, would this stand out?

The answer is, unfortunately, no. Jackson, for one thing, hardly has any lines in this episode, so those watching who are mainly hoping for him to redo his Pulp Fiction routine in animated form will have to rent The Boondocks instead. And while it’s hard to judge too much from just the first episode, the story feels cliched and unsurprising, a rehash of animes like Ninja Scroll and (you’ll see in the story summary) Jubei-chan and the Secret of the Lovely Eyepatch. (It should be noted that the screenplay was scripted by Japanese then translated into English, so it’s their cliches we’re working with. It’s actually based on a doujinshi by Takashi Okazaki.) We learn very little about the title character other than the facts that 1.) he watched his daddy die; 2.) he’s a BADASS MOTHER (shut yo mouth), but this time I’m talking WITH A SWORD (we can dig it).* In other words, exactly what he appears to be, so far. (And right off the bat, he gains an annoying Eddie Murphy-like sidekick, the Ron Perlman character.) There’s also a Fuu-like girl who works at a restaurant, but she only appears in one scene.

The animation quality is, as one expects from Gonzo, predictably high, with a overreliance on flapping clothes in the wind and a rather limited color palette. RZA’s music is actually decent, or at least fits the scenes.

On the whole, it’s not really anything beyond what one would expect from the title, Afro Samurai. Time will tell whether it will match the greatness of its most immediate competitor, Samurai Champloo, or past greats like Ninja Scroll and the Rurouni Kenshin OAV, but so far…yawn.

* Note: Jackson does not actually swear in the show, yet. I’m sure he will eventually…if they were willing to reshoot “Snakes on a Plane” to add profanity, they certainly can do it to an anime where people’s heads get sliced open.
Continue reading Afro Samurai 1

Michael Huang’s Year-End Roundup

2006 was the year I joined an anime club and got caught up with newer shows again, kicking off what is for me the Second Age of Anime Indulgence (the first was my first years of fandom in college). I’ve never downloaded and watched and been involved in the anime scene as much as I did this past year. With that in mind, here’s the shows that I discovered this year and thoroughly enjoyed. Rather than pick a single favorite or rank them by number, I’ve broken them down into categories.

Note: this list doesn’t even pretend to be comprehensive, and not every show is technically from 2006. These are just shows I saw in 2006. I obviously haven’t watched a great deal, and I’m pretty picky in what I choose to sample. Any complaints/suggestions about what I missed are welcome as it gives me a whole list of more things I can watch. :)

With that–here we go!
Continue reading Michael Huang’s Year-End Roundup

The Disturbingness of Haruhi Suzumiya…English Auditions

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On the official American Haruhi Suzumiya website, there is a hidden link where you can actually vote on four different English renditions of Mikuru. (The original Japanese audio is included for comparison.) The scene being played, of course, is one of the many “costume assault/rape” scenes where Haruhi forces Mikuru into various otaku fetish getups. The scenes, of course, are played for laughs in the show, and this is clear in the original Japanese audio through the music more than anything else.

It apparently hid it well enough that it only hit me now, as I listened to these musicless auditions in a language I understand, just how…actually disturbing the words and the scene actually can be. It’s not called “costume rape” for nothing, it seems. Take away the music and the comedic patina and that’s what the audition sounds like, the prelude to an assault, as filtered through porn. It was actually painful to listen to, which is both a compliment to the voice actresses and a question to raise at the writers of the show and what kind of subtext was going through their heads. (And it’s not just because I have a dirty mind! :) I really do think, stripped of its comedy context, a lot of people would hear the same thing.)

Come to think of it, Kyon in one particularly nasty harassment, wonders out loud “this is supposed to be a comedy?” while acknowledging how turned on he is at the same time. I suppose this is their way of tipping their hat at this dilemma, though without really resolving it (or perhaps coming down on the comedy side, what with lines like “If I become ruined for marriage, will you still take me?”, which is simultaneously appalling and hilarious.) Yet more evidence that however charming a character in an anime, Haruhi may not be the greatest person to have around in real life–she behaves, for one thing, an awful lot like real cult leaders do, dragging poor hapless saps into her schemes for causes only understood to her. :)

Scattered Cels Podcast #2

This week, Ray and I tackle the Haruhi licensing and the depredations of viral marketing, Japanese Academy Award nominations, and review School Rumble!

Notes/Errata

  • Kadokawa Pictures USA, has actually also actually licensed Full Metal Panic: The Second Raid, another Kyoto Animation property. My guess is that they might become KyoAni’s house licensor in the US? (Source: AnimeonDVD.com)
  • The original Transformers toys and TV show came out in 1984–after Macross. (Source: Wikipedia.)
  • Brave Story is not based on an h-game, but on an award winning novel. The film screened at Cannes. I have yet to find out exactly what game Ray is referring to; it’s likely that a lesser-known game has the same title, given how generic it is. (Source: Anime News Network)
  • Sound quality issues: hopefully an improvement over last week, though some authentic city noise from Taipei and a running TV can be heard in the back. :) Ray was recording with a built-in laptop mic, and I was recording with a really inadequate microphone not made for computers and giving low output. Next time, we will use real headsets and mics!

No podcast next week, since I’ll be flying back to school, so this is the last episode of the year. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

The Phenomenon of Haruhi Suzumiya

It’s strange how badly companies want to emulate, through viral marketing, the natural process that is “word of mouth.” What makes “word of mouth” marketing work is precisely its spontanaeity and its lack of connection to those who might do such a thing for the money. Anything less is, well, marketing. (Look what happened to Lonelygurl13 or whatever her name was, when she was revealed to be a professional actress.) I would give this particular effort by Kadokawa/Bandai an above average grade though–they succeeded, at any rate, in setting the anime blog world atwitter prior to the initial announcement with genuine speculation. But surely, no matter how clever and winsome…a certain kind of spell is broken the moment the words (C)2006 Bandai appear.

I do have a question: who are the Japanese-speaking actresses in the promo video? They’re definitely not the seiyuus from the anime. Are they simply the actresses who will act those roles for the live action promo videos? I know none of these people are going to be the dub actresses….

As for Haruhi itself: it’ll probably win my originality award for 2006 along with Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni, and I’m really surprised no one has seen the similarities between Haruhi and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. That was the first thing that came to my mind in the way it mixed sci-fi, comedy, absurdism, and more than a dash of philosophy by the end. Mmmm….philosophy. Red meat for theology majors like me.

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Is Haruhi Suzumiya acknowledging the existence of a different god by wishing you a Merry Christmas?

Review: Welcome to the NHK!

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I couldn’t help but notice that a lot of recent anime have been about, or targeted directly to, otaku. Genshiken and Comic Party are about fandom; Haruhi Suzumiya and other “moesploitation” shows cater to otaku fetishes (even if it’s with a wink and a nod); the Densha Otoko phenomenon has even glamorized otaku for a moment in the general culture. Into this increasingly crowded field steps Welcome to the NHK, a show that introduces itself as a darkly comic variant of the first type of show, but only as a wedge to open up bigger, more universal issues. I came in expecting to laugh, perhaps in pity or contempt, at the patheticness of shut-in Satou and his mountains of porn and crumpled tissues. I ended up seeing a group of ordinary, lonely people struggling and often failing to make real connections. People who frequently give up entirely because that’s what lots of people do, but people I grew to care about enough that it hurt to see them fail, and for whom even a small triumph is a cause for minor celebration.
Continue reading Review: Welcome to the NHK!

Welcome to the NHK 23

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Impressions

Though the show comes to an end with the next episode, I still marvel over how far it has come since it started. Today I was rewatching the early episodes (1-6) and while the seeds of all that has happened in the show’s second half are clearly there, the emphasis on black humor and cynical social commentary seems a long way away from the straightforward, earnest, and heartfelt drama that it’s since become. This particular episode holds few surprises, really, for anyone who’s been following the show up to this point–the revelations about Misaki’s past and her subsequent actions, if anything, are almost mundane given the air of mystery that she herself and the show tried to surround her with. We almost expected something more spectacular or strange…though, of course, there is still one more episode to go, and so we may find out more yet.

But that isn’t really the point, is it? All I know is that I feel for these characters, in the midst of their failure and despair–and it’s rare, even in these post-Evangelion days, to see a major studio anime portray all of its main characters as such broken failures–or even their few successes. (Often, it seems, brought about by the threat of starvation!) And I don’t mean “feel” in terms of pity or condescension; this show cuts deeper to my nerdish self and its logical end than anything I’ve seen since Evangelion, because when I see the thought processes of Misaki and Satou I find them all too accurate to my own feelings in different situations. Like Evangelion, this show can be seen as a cautionary tale about the dangers of otakuism and social isolation. This one dispenses with the convoluted metaphors and allusions, though, and goes straight for the gut–and the heart.

I’m really hoping that we get a redemptive, but bittersweet ending: not just because it would be fitting for such a bittersweet show, or that it would be better storyteling, but because it seems that no other kind of redemption will suffice for these characters. A glib wrap-up would feel like a betrayal of their struggles and pain. So far, Gonzo has handled it remarkably well (though I haven’t read the manga; manga fans will probably disagree), and I’m really hoping they neither give us a neat Hollywood ending or the nihilistic wallow that I ultimately thought Saikano became.

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Summary
Misaki and Satou are doing one of their last counseling sessions–and, having been badly hurt by seeing Satou leave a hotel with his former sempai, Misaki soldiers on remarkably well (on the surface). She quizzes Satou about famous last words of various celebrities, with mixed results. Satou is able to guess, importantly, the last words of a famous athlete who returned to his hometown and ate his favorite foods before committing suicide. Misaki seems pleased by his correct answers, and then announces that there will be a “graduation” test for the course. The test, of course, turns out to be more or less a date: they go out to see a movie, sit together on the train, and move through crowds. At their final meeting, she announces that he passes with “flying colors,” and–to Satou’s shock–presents him with another contract. This one stipulates that Satou must grow to like Misaki, and stay by her side forever, with a fine of 10 million yen. Satou rejects her proposal, denying that he is lonely and spurning her entreaties…only to be haunted by her parting accusation, that he is lying about not being lonely.

When he returns to his apartment, in the shadow of the giant Purin statue, he sees visions of the main characters (Yamazaki, Sempai, and others) admonishing him to admit that he is a failure. He is able to admit, too, that he is lonely. It does not, however, prevent him from beginning to starve, especially when his parents, Yamazaki, and Misaki, stop sending him money and food. This, at long last, spurs him to leave his apartment and find work as a traffic guide. He has, at long last, recovered from his hikkikomori ways–which Misaki observes, sadly, from her high window.

One day, as he comes home from work, Satou discovers an ambulance parked outside Misaki’s house. Misaki, apparently the victim of a bathtub accident, is being taken to the hospital. Concerned, Satou hitches a ride with her uncle–who turns out to be his landlord, thus making sense of how Misaki was able to know his personald data–who reveals her history with her suicidal mother and abusive stepfather. It turns out that she was only happy and cheerful after she met Satou. Moved, Satou and her uncle go to the hospital, only to find that Misaki is gone; she left behind a train schedule, however, and inside is a suicide note that parallels the one by the famous athelete. She intends to return to her hometown and jump off the same cliff that her mother did. In the final shot, we see her riding on the train, bandages on her wrists, revealing that her bathroom “accident” was really an attempt to slit her wrists.

Scattered Cels Podcast #1

The first episode of the Scattered Cels Podcast is here! My co-host, Raymond Hu, reports in from Taiwan, while I’m here in the United States. We introduce ourselves, go through the anime news, and and also review an anime we both like, Black Lagoon.

Leave your comments and questions in the comments area of this post! Thanks.

Show Notes

  • Visit my anime club’s Meetup.com page, Anime Souffle! We’re very likely to have some guests or even another host from the club on the air soon.