Category Archives: Reviews

Do you want to have a matchmaker like Jane Austen’s Emma?

emma

Jane Austen is a beloved author in English literature who is remembered for the many strong minded female characters that she has created. Her stories has been retold and adapted into multiple formats and media. Probably an example that would date me, but would be perhaps familiar to readers who remember the mid-1990s with the movie Clueless (1995). The movie is on Cher’s matchmaking. Going back to the original story though it is the heroine, Emma Woodhouse who wants to play matchmaker for her friends. Because of her meddling, she learns about her own nativity and oblivious desires. In a conclusion that is prototype for the happily ever after romance story endings, Emma still ends up finding true love herself.

Continue reading Do you want to have a matchmaker like Jane Austen’s Emma?

The SNAFUS of Youth

 

What uniform can I wear to hide my heavy heart? It is too heavy. It will always show.

Jacques felt himself growing gloomy again. He was well aware that to live on earth a man must follow its fashions, and hearts were no longer worn.

Jean Cocteau

We have been subjected in the past few years to a spate of misleading, light novel adapted, anime titles. This is a happy thing, because the titles rarely promise anything other than the cheesiest, fan-serviceyist sort of outing: The Pet Girl of Sakurasou. Is it Wrong to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? The Hentai Prince and the Stony Cat. Each one of these shows has proven to be better written and characterized than their titles suggest, and perhaps can be chalked up to the collision of marketing necessity and rigid anime convention with an author’s desire to tell a different sort of story altogether. Sometimes you have to play the game in order to break the rules.

Such is the case with perhaps the greatest example of them all, My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU (lit: Just as I Thought, My Youth Romantic Comedy Was a Mistake)—though on further thought, the title may be more appropriate than it appears. It is, after all, quite a failure as a romantic comedy—its best moments are wistful and serious, not comedic. It begins with a standard quasi-harem set up but moves far beyond it, to tell the story of how teenage misfits try to navigate the emotional turmoil and confusion of adolescence in all too real ways. Real in how flawed, idealistic, and self-delusional they are; real in that they make mistakes when they think they are doing their best. The audience expects a cheesy harem comedy, but gets something much closer to Catcher in the Rye instead, a perhaps painful reminder of how one fumbles toward maturity with one’s friends in tow.

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The Holden Caulfield at the center of it is Hachiman—Hikki to his friends. He is a recognizable figure to any smartass, self-exiled teenage male who fancied himself less “phony,” less conforming, and more intelligent than his peers. If the mark of childhood is to take everything at face value, the mark of adolescence is to see past the surface and to realize there is more to life than just appearances—and to congratulate oneself for the insight, as if it were the greatest revelation in the world. This is why he cannot, in the first season, accept Yui’s kindness as genuine. She must be nice like this to everyone, he reasons, or is just pretending, either out of politeness or a desire to be thought well of. She must, in short, be a phony. As Holden put it:

That’s the whole trouble. You can’t even find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody’ll sneak up and write “Fuck you” right under your nose. —JD Salinger, Catcher in the Rye

This is the thought that runs through every adolescent’s head when he or she discovers how unfair and cruel the world can be. Even in minor ways, consequential only when you’re an adolescent: we discover later that Hachiman was brutally rejected by certain middle school girls who return in the second season, there to taunt him all over again and remind him of his past, embarrassing sincerity. The lesson he learned was that it would not do to wear his heart on his sleeve any more. He would protect himself with a shield of cynicism, even as he continues to flatter himself by “helping” others in his own way through the Service Club.

The Service Club is a concoction of his teacher, who, like Mr Antonini in Catcher, is trying to widen Holden/Hachiman’s perspective by forcing him to interact with others. At first there is only Yukino, the kindred-yet-different spirit who shares Hachiman’s reticence masking even less concealed vulnerability. In a lazier show they would be an easy pairing, but SNAFU novelist Wataru Watari does not make it nearly as easy. Their attitudes militate against connection, because it would require them to discard their constructed identities as smart, superior loners who see through the shallow social high school scene. This is why Yui at first seems an interloper, a “popular” person trying to penetrate the outcast group, but—as Hachiman, in a searing moment late in the 2nd season, acknowledges, they are longing for nothing less than “the real thing.” Yui brings that in her heart-wearing, kind, and purposeful effort to be friends with these stuck up loners.

That’s the rub, isn’t it—“the real thing.” One could call it authenticity, or emotional honesty, or speaking plainly, something the characters don’t seem quite to manage even at the very end of the second season: they avoid the subject of who-loves-whom to continue their balanced friendship, even as they know very well it cannot last forever. SNAFU is smart enough to realize that dramatic transformations do not happen instantly, not even when there are epiphanies and eloquent speeches—which the show is full of, especially in the second season where Hachiman’s self-protective worldview gets taken apart brick by brick as he realizes his “help” simply preserves a sick status quo at best, that his desire to not hurt others is hurting others more, that his unwillingness to be open is driving even his closest friends away. Realizing these things, which were some of the most emotionally satisfying parts of the series, was not enough to change everything overnight. They still can’t quite be entirely honest with themselves at the end—and we understand that, well, they are still kids. The show may be over (for now), but they still have time to figure it out. After all, it took some of us even longer to do that than many people who do as they finish up adolescence.

****

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Once, not long after graduating from college, I found myself a counselor at a urban summer camp for a bunch of Chinese kids in Brooklyn. The kids were the children of garment factory workers, whose mothers (many of them were in single-parent homes) toiled in the Garment District for most of the day and had little time to care for them. Many of them were rambunctious and unused to following instructions. Being an only child, I don’t think I’ve ever yelled at children as much as I have as I did during that week.

There was one girl whose name I have forgotten. I remember her well because she, after seeing ungainly me, unused to being around children and the kind that likes to stand around aloof and awkward, had the gall to call me “creepy” to my face. I was more hurt than offended—I knew very well that I was not the most friendly or welcoming person, because I had barely even figured out who I was in my early 20s: I’d been too busy to think about it much in my intense high school and intense college majors. I wasn’t good at hiding my awkwardness from others, and children being as forthright as they are, she called it out.

It has been over ten years since then and I really only remember two things: one was yelling at a particular boy who kept running around and disrupting the play time. The other was occasionally asking the girl how she was doing, and eventually discovering that she was interested in writing stories. She tended to play alone, the way I usually did when I was her age. When it was time to do some writing exercises, I asked her how she came up with ideas and gave her a few tips from my own efforts to write stories: I had just graduated from the creative writing program, and while I was burned out at the time from putting anything out, I still remembered all the advice I had gotten over the years from workshops, books, and brutal peer feedback.

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I did not spend that much more time with her than I did with the other kids. I only remember her so well because, for a brief moment, there was a kindred spirit, a small reminder of where I once was, but in a less privileged place; a chance to share, albeit briefly, a bit of what I had learned up to that point about writing. I was lost and confused then, much more than I actually realized at the time, and all I could do was offer a few shards of the life I had pieced together then.

I’m not sure anything is that different now, really, as I write this and I look back at this real life incident and the fictional echo that I saw in certain scenes of SNAFU, especially the ones with Rumi in S1. We don’t ever stop being broken in one aspect or another; is anyone’s life ever really whole and seamless, ready to offer as God’s gift to humanity as some paragon of righteousness? Maybe the only gift we can really give as human beings is the gift of honesty: to offer our own selves, take it or leave it, and hope that when it is offered, it will be appreciated as “the real thing.” It’s a dangerous thing, though.

Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody. —JD Salinger, Catcher in the Rye

Hi again, everyone. It’s good to be back. I missed you all.

Through Older Lenses: A Candy Colored Pill They Call Shirobako

 

Someone recently asked me about current anime television, and what I have been spending limited time watching lately. And they were surprised to hear that a soft series like Shirobako, has pretty much dominated a majority of that time. Which is funny considering how easily the series borders on self-parody. (even when it seems like such a turn would in fact boost it by leagues) While we have flirted with anime about anime in the past, Shirobako feels a lot like the kind of show the fictional Musashino Animation would indeed produce. Something quasi-steeped in reality, but mired so deep in the artifice of anime, that all of the drama inherent seems to roll off the shoulders like a set of remote controlled plastic clouds. It’s like a tailor-made opiate for raging internet commenters. Which isn’t to say that it is bereft of any charm whatsoever.

We have for perhaps far too long, shared a world built around the concept of the smooth pill. The easy answer. Flat tire fix. It is a complicated thing to delve into when talking about the whys, and how things are often sussed out in the real. When discussing any number of topics facing our daily world, one of the replies that tends to slip out of my mouth is that quite often, we prefer the myth over the weighty responsibility inherent.

Examples:

Friend: Why do we seem so hellbent on playing the same game, even when the current model no longer seems to work? Like voting for one of only two political parties.

Me: It’s comfortable.

Or (and I know I’m being a bit pedantic here, but bear with me)

Friend: Hey, ever wonder why so many fans self-serve, rather than a reflect?

Me: Myth can be a drug. Doesn’t matter if the truth is obfuscated. Which is advantageous to those who sell the myth writ large. As long as the sleep continues, profits are kept relatively safe a little while longer. In the end, everything diminishes.

Shirobako, on its face feels like one of those great balancing acts so common in today’s market; eager to reflect the world of fans-turned-animators, yet hampered by market necessity. While we are constantly let in on the process of the creation of animated product in the Japanese system, we are also reminded of what is being used to sell the series-a near army of appealing, albeit typical teen anime girls. Definitely a latter day moé-wave title, with an easygoing pace, and ready with open arms to share the daily trials and challenges of televised anime with the public at large(all while remaining as soft-pedaled as its comfort food pedigree tends to allow). There’s nothing challenging about it save for the completion to air deadlines. It’s a fantasy about making fantasy.

Especially in a net climate where animators from both Japan and the rare U.S. expat have shared grueling tales of an environment rife with problems both internal and external, there is so much that Shirobako wishes to keep soft and harmless, so as to maintain the sales potential. While we are decades beyond Otaku No Video, we are certainly not ready to blur the line between anime and reality with this topic just yet. Or it could just be that at this point, with the industry in the place that it is now, writers and producers are in a zone where all they can think of is the familiarity of the workplace. The reality has been consumed by the need for an easier dose to down.

In one of the later episodes, a great question is posed by our central character, Aoi. She asks the big one. “Why did you chose to work in anime?” And the answers turn out to often be unfocused, and overlooked. When working in such an assembly line environment where artistic aspirations run head-on into the needs of commerce, there is a factory mentality that can often blur distinctions. And while some of the show’s animation staff try valiantly answer this burning question, the replies tend to be that of aimlessness, or a wish to share something cool with the world. Things whittle down quite rapidly as those in the wheelhouse scramble for some semblance of understanding why they do what they do. Only to reveal that very often, it couldn’t be less readily tangible.

taitanic

Now the show does its part to both warm up and warn viewers regarding the attraction and repulsion of the anime production world. From charming moments that feature analogues for medium legends (there is that HA guy, as well as a vivid rendition of Hiromasa Ogura who joins in on Musashino’s latest project), to some sweet breakdowns of the process by way of Aoi’s internal greek chorus in the form of a well-intentioned teddy bear and a cynical goth loli doll. But the real surprises come in later episodes that allude to production’s darker, more broken sides by way of new PA Hiraoka, and the clearly decimated backup ani-studio TAITAINIC. As unsubtle as anime gets, if one would believe it.

It is in the short moments we have here, that the horrors and often troubling realities of anime production are cursorily hinted at if not outright explored. Dank, nearly abandoned offices occupied by merely one staffer, unseen co-workers, and half-hearted work abound. One might almost want to delve deeper into this already telling plot footnote, but alas, there’s so much more to be absorbed by. Angel Workout, anyone?

Kill me now, yes?

Now this isn’t to completely disparage the show’s occasional dips into puerile moé shtick. But as a constant quiver in Shirobako’s arsenal, it is egregious to the point of exasperation. Sure, it’s to be expected of a fluffy anime series in the mid-2010s. Who expects an anime to get its hands truly grubby with the painful complexities engulfing the entertainment industry during one of its most trying technological periods? Still. While the show does its part to make light of how episodes are divied up by PA, and each separate element is ordered, prepared, and distributed, one couldn’t be faulted for wanting just a little more adroit honesty. Every time the series runs against a potentially challenging road block, in comes a new offering of nubile comfort food to keep those nasty realities away. In classically mild Japanese fashion (and to be fair, the old school Disney model as well), Shirobako never finds itself ready to unveil past a certain amount of skin.

In tradition of hoping our entertainment would take point, and offer up something new and potent, Shirobako has certainly done its part to be mildly diverting. But one cannot help but feel the pressure of market lining every corner of its production. Heck, one episode even went so far as to address the pressures of investors that often pit artistic ambition versus sales potential, no matter how shallow or trivial. It’s at least able to get that one welt in there. Now if only more of the show were as willing to take on the industry that spawned it. And so, we’ll continue to wait. Certainly, this series could have been far more harmful than it is. At least Genshiken takes some uncomfortable, yet well-deserved jabs at a business subculture saturated in repression, and shamelessness. Shirobako is simply born to be mild by comparison. Sure, firing retorts at a wired, conspiracy-obsessed populace by way of a peek at the sausage factory through a charming set of binoculars might work. But to quell the masses, perhaps something more up front might do wonders.

garrr

Anime Power Ranking: Gendomike’s Top 10 Anime of 2014

Due to life events, I’ve been away from the Anime Power Ranking ballots for a few weeks, but I’ve returned to tabulate what I think are the best anime series of 2014!

  1. Mushi-shi
  2. Kill La Kill
  3. Terror in Resonance
  4. Barakamon
  5. Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun
  6. One Week Friends
  7. Rage of Bahamut: Genesis
  8. Sabagebu
  9. Log Horizon
  10. Gugure! Kokkuri-san

This list only includes series that concluded in 2014, which means series that began this year, but are not finished (ex: Knights of Sidonia, Your Lie in April, Shirobako, Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works, Parasyte) are not included, and shows that started in 2013 but finished this year (ex: Kill La Killare included.

Here are my comments about all the series, briefly:

  • The top position was a toss up between Mushi-shi and Kill La Kill, and there could not be two shows more different. Mushi-shi is simply one of a kind, the sort of quiet, contemplative, and haunting anime that simply has no peer or imitator, and is worthy of nearly every accolade.
  • Kill La Kill, by contrast, started off dumb but became so wild, carefree, and epic by the end that it put the biggest smile on my face. It too proved one of a kind. The true spirit of Gainax lives on in Studio Trigger.
  • It’s sad that a lot of my actual favorites–Knights of Sidonia, Shirobako, Your Lie in April, etc.–do not qualify for this ballot due to them not being done or being split cour. However I was left with 18 choices initially and I had to shut out some worthy but ultimately deeply flawed series like Golden Time, Yuki Yuna, and Chaika.
  • Terror in Resonance fits that description too, but its highs are so high, and the Watanabe/Kanno combo so potent at its best, that it still is one of the best things I watched this year. It was undermined by a muddled plot and a confusion of symbolic gesture with political statement, but aesthetically it was one of the finest presentations of the year.
  • Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun is, hands down, the most entertaining and original comedy of the year. More character-driven and consistent than its nearest analogue, Ouran High School Host Club, it takes aim at shoujo cliches but doesn’t forget to make the characters not only wacky but likable. 
  • Barakamon is a personal favorite, being a comedic drama that I could identify with and whose children are deeply authentic in their portrayal. The storyline is typical but the execution is both funny and touching.
  • The same applies with the patient, low-key, and charming One Week Friends, whose understated innocence is instrumental to its success. Also if one understands the subtext, it becomes a deeply poignant story about a person learning to come to terms with reality.
  • Rage of Bahamut: Genesis, which just concluded, is simply a winner by virtue of its sheer competence: it is essentially a Hollywood blockbuster fantasy film in anime form, but done with a high degree of finesse and wit. It falters near the end somewhat, but remains endlessly watchable. It may win a special award for greatest adaptation from a plotless card game.
  • Both Sabagebu and Gugure! Kokkuri-san provided many barrels of laughs, especially the former, which may have been the biggest surprise of the summer season. Both comedies feature demented, jerkish characters who amuse in direct proportion to their meanness. In an anime world full of characters who are too nice, it’s a breath of fresh air.
  • Log Horizon contains just enough touches of intelligence and thought-provoking drama, as well as far better developed approach to the MMO genre, to assure its place in the top 10. The slow patches were difficult to get through at times, but the reward was worthwhile, even for this non-MMO player.

Secret Santa Review: Wolf Children

Mamoru Hosoda makes family movies. That is, he not only makes movies that are suitable for a broad range of ages and backgrounds, but his movies are about families in deep and insightful ways. The families can be biological (Summer Wars, Wolf Children) or the virtual ones of friendship (Our War Game, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time), but Hosoda is most interested in exploring the interconnected bonds between people and how they help individual characters become more than they would be by themselves.

The first quarter of Wolf Children depicts the mother, Hana, and the nameless werewolf father falling in love and marrying, and it is one of the most heartwarming and unpretentious courtships in recent anime, comparable to the first scenes of Pixar’s Up. This is, of course, how new families begin, and the film makes clear about how this is just like any other marriage but also different, given the father’s background. In homogeneous Japan, this mixed race marriage–for lack of a better term–is perhaps even more unique, and by hammering home its ordinariness, it helps the audience empathize with them and paves the way for later conflicts in the story.

For the bulk of the film, however, Hosoda examines what is perhaps the most direct, elemental act of family: parenting. And make no mistake, this film is about the mother much more than it is about her son Ame and daughter Yuki, the half-offspring of an actual, literal werewolf and who have a divided heritage. This detail is simultaneously crucial and inessential to the film’s central themes. The way that Ame and Yuki follow diametrically different paths is a direct result of the different ways they respond to their wolf natures, but it is also an easily relatable analogy for how any children in the same family can follow profoundly different life paths. There is also the specter of racial prejudice hanging over all of their lives, beginning with the death of their werewolf father. The family must figure out just how much to show or hide their lineage, confronting stereotypes about wolves that threatens their self-image, living in fear that their mixed heritage will be discovered and lead to ostracization. It is an unusually sensitive film for an anime in that regard, and perhaps it could only be told in this semi-allegorical, magical realist mode to make it resonate with audiences.

Caught inbetween is the protagonist, Hana, whose efforts to raise her children after their father’s death are nothing short of heroic. Wolf Children may be the perfect Mother’s Day film. Hana refurbishes an entire abandoned country house, struggles to learn how to grow vegetables in the field while suffering the suspicions of the local community, goes out in dangerous conditions to look for her lost son. These are actually the routine kinds of sacrifices that parents make every day, but they are presented in the film with such grace and nobility, it serves as a reminder to appreciate one’s parents.

To Hosoda’s credit, however, the story does not end there. To some extent, the story arc of Wolf Children covers the entire cycle of parenthood in accelerated time: from dating to marriage to conception to birth to growing up and, finally, to the children leaving home. Ame, who wishes to embrace his wolf nature fully, leaves first, as a costly act of independence that is both painful and necessary to anyone who has grown up (or who has watched their grown children leave the nest). Yuki, by contrast, chooses to focus on her human nature and thus moves to a boarding school to be closer to her peers. Part of the story fo a family is that the child’s relationship to his or her parents changes over time in just this way: no longer dependent, but hopefully still filled with love and respect. Wolf Children recognizes both the pathos and the necessity of this process. It is how the film can be shot through with melancholy and yet still feel so affirming and warm-hearted by the end.

In my view, Mamoru Hosoda comes much closer to the inheritor of the Ghibli mantle than Makoto Shinkai or, of all people, Hideaki Anno. Hosoda, like Hayao Miyazaki, writes about children and families with unusual perceptiveness, though his imagination is more grounded than the whimsical Miyazaki–it is closer to Isao Takahata’s sensibility and mood. Like Ghibli’s general output, his films have broad appeal that go beyond the otaku audience, and the background art and animation quality are never less than outstanding. Wolf Children represents a further maturation of his exploration of family ties and how they shape people in meaningful ways, and a sincere celebration of parenthood in its trials and joys.


This review was part of the Reverse Thieves’ annual Secret Santa project, in which an anime is recommended for review anonymously until Christmas. The other choices were Tatami Galaxy and xxxHolic, and I chose this one by virtue of its being the shortest. :) The last time I participated in the Secret Santa, I reviewed the first season of A Certain Scientific Railgun.

Anime Power Ranking Ballot (Week Ending Nov 29)

Short article this time, due to lack of time. Here’s my Anime Power Ranking ballot:

  1. Parasyte 8-9
  2. Mushishi 7
  3. Shirobako 8
  4. Your Lie in April 8
  5. Sora no Method 8

Parasyte’s double feature was so compelling, it felt like watching one episode rather than two. I’m glad that they decided not to play the usual superhero card and make Shinichi instantly popular and desirable–instead, the one girl who is in love with him is deeply disturbed by his transformation, and his new status just brings more danger. The balancing act between comedy, drama, and horror is something Parasyte handles better than anything I’ve seen in a long time.

Mushishi returns with an episode highly reminiscent of the melancholy first season, with a bittersweet and poetic ending that I found deeply satisfying. The connection to the water cycle and to life is very strong.

Shirobako continues its march toward becoming the definitive workplace anime dramedy, by resolving Ema’s creative dilemma with believable and true advice that anyone should follow, and also highlighting the differences in the way family members act. It’s come a long way since its shaky start as an overstuffed quasi-documentary.

Your Lie in April gives us not one, but two stunning performances, but centered around new characters who are not yet developed. There were signs of its overwrought direction all over, especially in the second half, when the colors and monologuing nearly got out of control. (This was not nearly a problem in the manga.) The other main characters were reduced to a peanut exposition gallery.

Finally, Sora no Method enters my list for the first time. It has been a slow buildup for the show, which took too long to get to the meat of the drama, but at last the character work is paying off and there was enough emotional restraint and beautiful imagery to make it an entertaining, sentimental watch. For the first time, the emotions feel earned.

Anime Power Ranking Ballot (Week Ending Nov 22)

With the absence of Bahamut due to its recap episode, and the surprise entry of several titles, this week’s APR was hard to choose. Many shows only just barely missed the cut.

  1. When Supernatural Battles Become Commonplace 7
  2. Shirobako 7
  3. Parasyte 7
  4. Amagi Brilliant Park 8
  5. Mushi-shi 6

Coming in at #1 is When Supernatural Battles Become Commonplace (Inou-Battle), whose shattering breakdown rant by Hatoko ranks as one of the most memorable scenes of the season, if not the entire year. Bravura voice actress Saori Hayami, who did the scene in one breathless unrehearsed take, conveys long-standing frustration over being excluded AND jealousy AND an incisive critique of the chunni mindset, within 2 very long (and necessary) minutes. It was raw, repetitive, and ineloquent, which makes it feel even more real: it felt as if she had been talking not to the character, but to me, and all of my own faults as a fan with chuuni tendencies myself. Hideaki Anno could not have critiqued an otaku better. The scene was also framed by clever foreshadowing and a denouement and twist afterwards that kicks the show into truly high gear. Trigger could not have taken potentially mediocre source material and spun it into finer gold so far.

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 3.41.40 PMSomething similar also happens in Shirobako, as the show continues to deepen its characters and relationships. Ema’s plight is one faced by nearly everyone who’s worked, especially in creative professions: whether to focus on quantity vs quality, and how to deal with criticism from superiors. Having had similar experiences myself, the emotions were painfully familiar, and even more poignant in light of how much she is likely earning every year. Her pain is universal, and portrayed with genuine gravity and empathy, something that the show is gaining rapidly. Meanwhile, Aoi continues to display how indispensable she is to the office as the bridge between different departments and superiors, and Tarou gets what’s coming to him. This has truly become one of the most solid workplace dramedies done in anime.

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 3.44.12 PMParasyte continues its high standard of combining action, danger, and even occasional comedy–which makes its return with the introduction of Uda and his symbiote Parasite. The antics of Parasite, who speaks much more colloquially than Migi, was often laugh out loud funny, combined with Uda’s exaggerated timidity–which proves to not mean that he was useless, in the least. As for Migi and Shinichi, this episode brings a quick end to the central emotional dilemma and cements his rapid growth into the battle-hardened, confident, manlier man that exudes effortless cool by the end. Parasyte is a show that, up to this point, has wasted little time on extraneous scenes and character development, and its march toward being a dark superhero epic is one of the most compelling rides this season.

vlcsnap-2014-11-23-15h48m25s222Amagi Brilliant Park returns to the list with a truly funny, engaging plot about body swapping that ends up making amusing trouble for Kanie’s social life. The confusion/misunderstanding plot was a staple of the humor in Shoji Gatou’s previous Full Metal Panic, and for once, the pacing kept up with the jokes. It seems that Amaburi has at last found its stride, and it remains the funniest episode to show this week, with Garo’s “Full Monty” coming a very close second.

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 3.47.10 PMFinally, Mushi-shi turns in another fine story inspired by traditional tales of what lies at the bottom of wells, as well as the idea of slipping into a shadow or faery world. The imagery of the otherworldly stars is simply gorgeous and the theme of families being unable to hear or understand each other works as a fine metaphor. Again, in keeping with the current iteration of this show, the ending is solidly happy, which makes one wonder if we will ever see a return to the melancholy of old. In either case, its unique “traditional folk tales for the new age” continues its march toward greatness.

THINGS THAT DIDN’T MAKE IT BUT WERE STILL GOOD
Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 3.50.11 PMFor the first time, Your Lie in April/KimiUso did not make it on the list, and that is largely because it is a transitional episode: a transition from the first arc, which focused on relationships and budding romance, to what I like to call the “tournament arc” that focuses on piano competition. The depiction of stage fright and impending doom was well-conveyed, and Kaori and Kousei share a nice moment in the park as well as some psychological drama, but as a standalone episode, it felt a little bit less compelling.

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 3.52.18 PMGaro was a very near contender for Amagi Brilliant Park’s place, with a genuinely hilarious series of gags involving male nudity, chase scenes, and deception. German stands out as not just an all around womanizer, but as a great comedic lead, a contrast to his dour son. It reminds one of a well-directed Hollywood farce, almost veering into territory currently owned by MAPPA’s other project, Bahamut. The “Full Monty” reference is surely not accidental in that context. It was amusing but was just slightly bested by Amagi’s character-oriented humor this week.

Anime Power Ranking Ballot (Week Ending Nov 15)

APR ballot for this week:

  1. Parasyte 6
  2. Your Lie in April 6
  3. Shirobako 6
  4. Mushi-shi 5
  5. Bahamut 6

parasyte6Last week’s Parasyte episode is the best one yet. In some ways it echoes a traditional superhero story, like Spider-Man, but with a darker edge: this time, the transformation has made Shinichi much harder and more rugged–dare I say manlier? But it comes at a very painful price. Moreover, while it has made him stronger, it has made Migi weaker, which introduces a new level of danger. Finally, the scene where he confronts his father and his father’s subsequent disbelief is both tense and heartbreaking. I get the feeling that there will be no more comedy in this show, however…

kimiuso6KimiUso/Your Lie in April’s 6th episode spends some more time developing characters in its characteristically florid way. Here it begins to tread on familiar ground for anime romance, from the shafted childhood friend to emotional piggyback rides and sparkling stars. It still does it with all the overheated emotion of adolescence better than anyone else, but I am awaiting the next performance scene, which is being promised with the introduction of rivals–a mark of its shounen manga roots more than anything.

shirobakoShirobako continues to be the believable workplace dramedy that is it, but this episode is special in that it reminds the characters of why they got into the industry in the first place: fandom. The way the 2D and 3D artists bonded over Ide(p)on, complete with nods to Ideon’s OP and ED as BGM, was actually a little bit touching. It’s a shame that we all know a Tarou in every office, though.

mushishi6Mushi-shi presents a lovely tale, one of its most hopeful and positive ones in recent days, loosely based on the traditional stories of the tennyo (heavenly/angelic maidens). A fine metaphor for child-rearing as well as a meditation on how to raise a son, it’s nice to see an uplifting story from a series that has usually excelled most when it is tragic and melancholy. As always, the atmosphere of hushed contemplation and wonder is one of a kind.

shingekinobahamut3Bahamut takes a bit of a breather in both action and story, though it’s still nothing less than polished as always. Most interestingly we see the full mishmash of different mythologies and religions that comprise the show’s mythos, and promising developments for the show’s larger plot of preventing Bahamut’s awakening. Sadly, it appears next week’s episode is a recap so we will probably have to wait for a while for the story to continue.

Anime Power Ranking Ballot (Week Ending Nov 8)

My APR ballot for this week:

  1. Your Lie in April 5
  2. Parasyte 5
  3. Bahamut 5
  4. Amagi Brilliant Park 6
  5. Mushi-shi 4

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What an emotional roller coaster Your Lie In April is: this is the best non-performance episode yet, with some of the best-directed visuals this season, in the service of a teenage melodrama that is so immediate and so true to my own internal experience of that age. I understand that this is, among other things, what repels others, but it’s rare to see a show that speaks directly to my heart, including all of the painful and uncomfortable parts. Frankly, KimiUso  transports me back to my own musically inclined, guilt-ridden, and rescue-longing adolescence, and nothing else this season is doing that.

parasyte5Parasyte 5 is clearly some kind of turning point in the story and for our protagonist, where the full terror of the situation finally, literally hits home. The desperation and growing despair in the final scene is a mini-masterpiece of horror, eliminating whatever vestiges of humor may be left in the series and setting the show on a course for higher stakes action. I can’t wait.

shingekinobahamut3Bahamut 5 continues to astound by not only including well-animated individual duels between Favaro, Kaisar, and others, but also a tremendously epic large scale battle led by St Jeanne d’Arc. Perhaps it’s this show, not Fate Stay/Night, that should earn the nickname Unlimited Budget Works, because very little expense was spared in the volleys of trebuchets, wyverns, flaming arrows, and a collapsing organic floating ship. Studio MAPPA: the Weta Workshop of anime?

amaburi6Amagi Brilliant Park enters my ballot for the first time with the first truly laugh out loud episode (for me). It was the first episode that truly reminded me of one of my favorite comedic masterpieces, Full Metal Panic: Fumoffu, with its quick-witted humor and better pacing. Amagi Brilliant Park had suffered to some slack pacing and potted “serious” sequences in the past, but at last it hit a comedic high that proved to be the funniest thing I’ve seen this past week.

mushishi5Finally, the always gorgeous, regret-tinged Mushi-shi earns a somewhat lower place this week than in the past. The idea behind the story was great, but the solution was a bit perfunctory and pat compared to previous episodes. Mushi-shi works best when the atmosphere works hand-in-hand with the balanced, nuanced message that each episode is supposed to deliver—often about people who refuse to let go of their pasts. So far, the somewhat more positive tone of this season has been handled brilliantly, but it falters here just slightly. I am confident it will continue to be on my ballots in weeks to come, however.

OTHERS:
Psycho Pass takes a turn toward the jarring and confusing, after an extremely violent episode. We are beginning to see some of Tow Ubukata’s weaknesses on display–its approach felt like, in some ways, the rather muddled final episode of Ghost in the Shell: Arise. I felt curiously unsatisfied by the end, especially with the video game-based twist. Ender’s Game this is not.
–The Sabagebu OVA sadly dispenses with a lot of what made the original series funny (Momoka’s meanness and the surprising twists in plot, plus the narrator) in favor of self-aware fan service. It doesn’t improve things that much to proclaim how much you know it’s an OVA special, guys.
Fate Stay/Night: UBW is solid, but unremarkable at this point. The battle scenes were well-drawn as always, and it’s always nice to see Rin being tsundere, but I thought this was going to be more about her rather than Shirou. Shirou isn’t as annoying as he was in the original anime, at least, and the appearance of Rider was welcome, albeit brief. But other shows provided more kick this week.

Gonna be the Twin-Tails! Just absurd!

Ahhh, how absurd it is. Absurdity is post-modern, yes stipulated by Albert Camus. Being absurd, and I never seen anything absurd like this.  Yeah, “Gonna be the Twin-tails!” OreTwi. This is just too stupid, it’s so stupid that I can’t stop watching. Oh yes, Otaku, totally us, otaku are absurd! Otaku’s existence is absurd!  Continue reading Gonna be the Twin-Tails! Just absurd!

Anime Power Ranking Ballot (Week Ending Nov 1)

For those who don’t know, the Anime Power Ranking is a vote on anibloggers’ favorite anime episodes of the week. It’s compiled by kadian1365 of The Nihon Review. Members of the APR submit their top 5 episode choices by Sunday evening, and additional comments are encouraged and sometimes quoted in the result posts.

I ended up writing so much in my additional comments for my ballot that I figured I might as well make it a post (and probably turn this into a weekly feature).

Here’s my ballot for the week:

  1. Your Lie in April, episode 4
  2. Mushi-shi 2, episode 3
  3. Rage of Bahamut, episode 4
  4. Psycho Pass 2, episode 4
  5. Shirobako, episode 4

Dammit, I don’t care about the emerging consensus against KimiUso/Your Lie in April–I’m putting it on the top of my list for this week, for the strength of the musical performance again and for dramatizing, in immediate terms, what being on stage felt like at that age. It hits me right in the gut, and both reminds me of and redeems my own memories of freezing up on stage. I’m going to be writing more about KimiUso later this week, so stay tuned for more developed thoughts about it and the controversy that’s engulfed it.

Mushi-shi would have been at the top were it not for KimiUso’s star turn. It was a fine, and arguably stronger, counterpart to the previous episode, steeped in the atmosphere of folklore that gives it such resonance. I kept thinking of the W.B. Yeats poem “The Stolen Child” and the stories of children being replaced by faeries. No one else is doing anything like this in anime.

Bahamut manages to top itself with some truly swashbuckling, pirate ship action, the equal of any Hollywood blockbuster starring Johnny Depp. It’s going to need more character development soon though. I like my well-directed spectacle as much as anyone, but it’ll take more to win my heart.

Back to controversial opinions: I’m also going to defend the latest Psycho Pass, which was indeed more graphic than usual but brought home of the stakes of the show’s central conflicts like nothing before. Ubukata doesn’t mince words or action, the way Urobuchi sometimes did.

Finally, Shirobako enters my list for the first time. It always got the detail and the frenetic atmosphere right, sometimes at the expense of comprehension. But this was the first episode that slowed down and took its time with its central characters, allowing us to see both the hardship and the camaraderie of being in the anime industry effectively. Plus, I’m beginning to finally get everyone’s names and faces straight…I think this show is only going to grow on me more and more.

Honorable Mention that I couldn’t enter: Watamote OVA. Shin Oonuma strikes again with some truly interesting directing (borrowing a technique he used on episode 1 of Dusk Maiden, showing both the poignant and ridiculous/pathetic sides of the Tomoko character. Plus there was a hilarious parody of Evangelion in the beginning, with Tomoko as Gendo. Gendomike approves.

The Anno Age: Moving On From Hideaki Anno (Part 2)

Read Part 1 here.

IV: His, Her, and My Circumstances

Anno’s burnout after Evangelion is well-known. Many fans have interpreted the last half of the End of Evangelion as nothing less than a raised middle finger at fandom, the product of a cynical and angry mind sick of otaku pandering and the merchandising juggernaut that the franchise had already become. Death threats that were emailed to the studio, along with graffiti sprayed outside Gainax offices, flashed by in the film. The suicide anthem “Komm, Susser Tod” played over scenes of the earth’s destruction told of a level of suicidal self-hatred that is still unsurpassed to this day in anime songs. Reputedly, Anno wrote the original lyrics in therapy.

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So when Anno decided to follow up this festival of nihilism with a high school love comedy, adapted from a shoujo manga, fans like me must have been puzzled. Moreover, he interviewed dozens of high school students in preparation for the project, in order to get in touch with the youth he felt alienated from in his time as an animator.

The result, Kare Kano (or His and Her Circumstances), is both a masterpiece of genuine comedy, genuine emotion, and genuine wasted potential. It was even more ragged than Evangelion in its production quality, littered with lengthy recaps, animation lapses, and later a resorting to figures mounted on popsicle sticks. Anno was fired two thirds into its production, under pressure from the unhappy manga-ka. The ending was essentially still shots from the manga with voice overs.

kk1

And yet: I felt transported back into high school once more, with all of its highs and lows, as I watched Kare Kano. Jon, who had given me Evangelion in the very beginning, commented: “this is just like our school.” We had been in the International Baccalaureate program, which was filled with overachievers like Yukino and Arima, perfect on the outside but seething with vanity and insecurity on the inside. The types were immediately recognizable to us. I laughed heartily at the way Yukino’s perfectionist mask slipped at home, and felt heartbroken over Arima struggling with never feeling good enough in front of his distant, formal family. They are perfect for one another in a way few anime couples are, and it was easy to root for them.

Some of the best moments in the series, though, are the quieter ones, where they are in clubs, preparing for the festival. I felt the joys of slice of life, a genre that had yet to fully coalesce in anime at the time. The two of them were not always obsessed about their relationship; they had lives outside of each other and I felt that, as imperfect as it was, Kare Kano presented the most comprehensive emotional account of high school I had seen. I still feel the same way.

Though Anno was only partially involved in a way, his work had once again opened a door: a realization that beyond the emotional trauma of Evangelion and the heroics of Gunbuster, anime could also simply depict ordinary life well too. Other titles would continue that tradition—Honey and Clover, Toradora, the good parts of Sakurasou, to name a few—but Kare Kano arguably helped make that possible.

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Doesn’t that pose look familiar

V: Interlude

Kare Kano was Anno’s last anime for many years, as he began to experiment with art house film, to varying degrees of success.

After college, I began to drift from anime fandom. There were only so many times one could rewatch Evangelion, Gunbuster, and other titles. The new titles that were being released at the time, the early 2000s, were of only sporadic interest to me. It was the golden age of the harem and dating sim anime, with the slice of life age waiting in the wings, and while I watched and enjoyed some of them, no title ever captured my head and heart the way Evangelion had. Fullmetal Alchemist came close, but was compromised by a muddled ending. I watched part of Ideon to see the inspiration Anno had taken for Evangelion, but I got a formulaic robot show instead. RahXephon is a polished show and compelling in its own right, but it is still just a response to Evangelion at the end of the day. It cannot exist independently from it: for one, Anno and its director, Yutaka Izubuchi, are good friends….

Shiki-jitsu: that's so Anno
Shiki-jitsu: that’s so Anno

I remember trying hard to track down a copy of Shiki-jitsu, Anno’s second live action film. I remember little about the film itself, other than a red umbrella and Anno’s continuing obsession with trains. The wild creativity that had fueled such emotionally intense experiences in animation felt tired and even tame in the much larger world of film. As a fan of arthouse cinema as well, and judged on those terms, I found Anno’s work lacking in emotional resonance. The symbolism was clumsy. Not even Shunji Iwai, who starred, could save it. The idol was toppling.

Welcome to the NHK and Honey and Clover brought me back into anime fandom. I remember thinking that the former title was as intense as my memories of the latter parts of Evangelion, but this time grounded much more closely in real life, in the ennui of being in your 20s and the desperate search for meaning. Honey and Clover also did that, in a more poetic and gentle way. Looking back, there was something very teenage about Evangelion’s angst, one that I couldn’t identify with anymore: the raw wound of youth mellowed with age into wistful melancholy, a mood that H&C and the best slice of life shows capture so well.

So by 2006, arguably the last golden year of anime in the past 10 years, I was back in anime fandom once again. But my Age of Anno was over.

Is this what we've come to? (Then again they once did sell
Is this what we’ve come to? (Then again they once did sell “LCL Fluid” OJ…)

VI: You Can (Not) Return

It was announced not long after that that Anno would return, to remake Evangelion. Nostalgia stirred within me when I heard the news. By this time, Anno had married, inviting his mentor Hayao Miyazaki to his wedding. He had given a controversial interview with the Atlantic decrying porno manga readers, Japan’s lack of military forces, and the overall lack of maturity in society. The article praised Evangelion as being as influential in Japan as Star Wars was in America. I was amused, and wrote a commentary article in the early days of Anime Diet about it. Anno, my old hero, still had a whiff of the orneriness that had created those unfiltered works I had so loved, once. But it was now directed toward the outside world, and in a way that was utterly conventional: the opinions of an ordinary center-right middle-aged individual in Japan.

Which is why, despite their flash, polish, and excellent choreography, there seems something exhausted and lifeless in the Evangelion remake movies. Maturity, age, and happiness appear to have smoothed out Anno’s edges. Shinji is still confused and hurt, but not for too long. Asuka is no longer tortured with feelings of inadequacy and rejection, just angry. Rei wants to cook now. The only element that is original to the series–the new girl Mari–is hardly even a character. An attempt to steer the story in a new direction in the third film falls flat by no longer being focused on the vital heart that beat throughout the original series: the search for identity and place to belong in a collapsing world that places impossible expectations on you. The operative emotion in the new films, instead, is guilt: after everything is already collapsed, how do you put the pieces back together?

Anno, reputedly, felt tremendous guilt after having finished the lengthy Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water series in the early 1990s. He thought he might be wasting his life making subpar children’s entertainment, though the amount of creative control he managed to wrest from NHK in the concluding episodes still surprises me: it is almost a direct foreshadowing of Evangelion in every aspect. The darkness had already begin to creep up on him, but he used that darkness as fuel, which propelled him toward his masterwork.

Yes, this is from Nadia.
Yes, this is from Nadia.

The problem is that he stopped there. Anno would never make another original work after Evangelion: everything since then has been an adaptation (Kare Kano, Love & Pop, Shiki-jitsu) or remake (Cutie Honey, Eva). It is as if he had only one story in him, and left with nothing else, he has returned to that story to try another variation. Now older and wiser, presumably, but Evangelion was and is not supposed to be a work of age or wisdom: it was a cry of frustration that resonated with an entire generation of frustrated Japanese youth in the 1990s. That, more than pictures of Ayanami Rei, or merchandising, was what made Evangelion so enduring and popular, even outside anime circles. No anime had been so emotionally and psychologically raw, capturing the zeitgeit of the post-bubble years.

And no anime had so spoken to me so directly, in those weird drifting years between childhood and adulthood, a time that is now wrapped in emotional gauze by the anime nostalgia masters like PA Works, Makoto Shinkai, and a million lesser imitators. Otaku today, it seems, prefer the safety of such works, and there is a place for them: I enjoy many of them myself. I watch a story penned by Mari Okada and recall the more melodramatic moments of my teenage years, when every emotion is new and explosive; I watch Makoto Shinkai or Ano Natsu de Matteru and remember the yearning romanticism of those days.

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But it was Anno who spoke to the fear, the shame, and the self-loathing: the parts of life that cannot be borne for too long by anyone, but need to be brought to light and confronted. A human being cannot live in that state forever, which means that a show like Evangelion, and the Age of Anno, has a built in expiration date for a fan. We all, hopefully, grow out of it, as Anno himself has. Now he’s a successful husband, voice actor, dramatized character, car salesman, and more. But he was our companion once, the one that understood, and thus, in its own way, gave real comfort.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
That’s how the light gets in.
That’s how the light gets in.

–Leonard Cohen