Category Archives: Reviews

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Inside Mari: A Partial Review

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Inside Mari (Boku wa Mari no Naka)
by Shuzo Oshimi
Chapters 1-26 (available on Crunchyroll Manga)

Summary (from Crunchyroll)
A young man is a shut-in, with nothing to do but kill time. The sole pleasure in his life is following home an angelic high school girl he sees every day in a convenience store. Today, like any other day, he follows her, but… Shuzo Oshimi, the creator of Drifting Net Café and Flowers of Evil, continues to open hidden doors of the heart in this monthly serialized story!

Review (so far)
The Flowers of Evil (Aku no Hana), one of the most uncompromising stories to be committed to both manga and anime in recent memory, enthralled me because it took teenage melodrama so seriously: that is, in all its ridiculousness and self-dramatization to the point of serious cringe. There was nothing noble or romantic about Kasuga’s self-loathing or repressed sexuality, or Nakamura’s sadistic nonconformity: it was what it was, ugly and fascinating at once.

Inside Mari, a more recent title by Flower’s manga artist Shuzo Oshimi, continues the tradition, and not from a completely unrelated angle. Inside Mari tells the story of a hikkikomori named Isao Komori, who has been stalking a local high school student named Mari at a nearby convenience store. One day, he finds himself awake in a strange bed, and in a strange body, of the opposite sex…Mari’s body. Now Isao/Mari has to navigate school life, as a girl, all the while pretending to everyone that Mari is still Mari even though Isao has no idea how to be a woman.

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This is not a new concept, of course, as it’s been treated both comedically and semi-seriously in other anime and manga stories, and often with dollops of melodrama on top. (cough*Kokoro Connect*cough) What is different, and refreshing, about this take is how it is introduced, and how Oshimi dramatically complicates the situation over time. The first volume and half makes it appear that Isao is experiencing a bit of a morality play: you have objectified and lusted after this high school girl, now you get to see what it feels like to be one, and it’s not so fun! For example: one of the very first things Isao/Mari becomes aware of is how men check her out all the time, a glance here and a glance there. This is on top of now possessing those body parts that he had previously so lusted after and not knowing quite what to do with them…and that’s before the period begins. (Quite graphically, too: the reader is not spared the pain and messiness of the experience.) An explicit critique of the “male gaze” is very much in operation here, much like Kasuga’s actions served as a critique of the standard manga/anime “nice guy” who thinks he’s pure and romantic. Instead of an external catalyst like Nakamura to prod him into another mindset, though, he literally must walk in another person’s shoes, to see an experience foreign to his insulated ways.

Women know when you're doing this, guys.

Women know when you’re doing this, guys.

The story would be worthy enough, though simplistic, if it had been left at that. But Oshimi goes further, in an apparent (not, as of this writing, 100% confirmed) twist that turns the tables on what the apparent “moral” of the story is and how we understand the characters of both Isao and Mari. Mari is not completely all together, in the tradition not so much of Oshimi’s Nakamura, but of Saeki, whose twistedness was explored much more in the manga than the anime was able to show. Like Saeki, Mari has a near-perfect exterior that masks much pain and possibly instability. That facade, due to Isao living inside of her, is painfully and ruthlessly torn down, and the poignance of watching her social relations unravel is hard to watch sometimes. At that point, the boundaries begin to blur and the reader wonders just who these people are, and how much of what we call friendship and civility is really held together by pretense and hiding. If my theory about what is going is correct, what we have is a challenge to the whole notion of identity itself, whether it’s based on gender, social standing, or otherwise. Who is Mari? Who is Isao?

Identity crises are classically adolescent, and Oshimi is a rare talent that explores just how dark and confusing they can be. Inside Mari, barring a disappointing finale or revelation, furthers his oeuvre of hurting and desperate youth who can’t seem to stop wondering who they are, who they belong with, and what life means when you can’t seem to feel at home anywhere.

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Inside Mari is available on Crunchyroll Manga. It is recommended for mature readers as it contains some explicit nudity, though it is necessary for the storytelling.

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Kill la Kill FINAL : A Farewell To Uniformity

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Well there’s a feeling I haven’t experienced in an age. Looking back at the first piece I slapped together regarding Studio Trigger’s initial leap into the television series gauntlet, I’m pretty sure there was no awareness of what would happen. In fact, one could say that I was a bit of an unabashed naysayer regarding Kill la Kill. On its face it seemed like just another hyper-referential Imaishi noisefest. And while it maintains this facade throughout the 24 episode run, I sincerely didn’t expect to love it as much as I do now. Now, the mental drifting goes back toward his previous works, and it is clear that this is a show that required a few big warmups before happening. This is a refined and wisened Imaishi & Co., taking on roughly 40 years-plus of a medium’s history, and coming up with one of the most satisfyingly warped serial experiences I have ever witnessed. And just because they are wisened, this in no way implies matured. As far as wacky shows go, Kill la Kill is unrepentant, even as it treads classic alpha vs. omega stories with aplomb. (and that is exactly why it works.)

We can talk all day about the show’s referential nature, but to do so would mean to undermine what Imaishi & Nakashima have fashioned here as pastiche. In order to do this, one has to grasp why this is so. When one thinks of not only anime, but film in general over the last several decades, we must consider the role of post-modernist works, and how they succeed beyond the obvious. And to do this, we must think of some of the most effective uses of direct filmic response over this time period. Star Wars, Matrix comes to mind. The point is, it doesn’t matter how referential your show becomes. What matters is if it is in service of a larger story. And this is where KLK pretty much wins across the table. There is an inherent knowing behind all of the creative decisions. One that might not be as clear to some viewers, but it is present throughout the posturing and fighting.

The goal here is one of deceptive restraint. (Yes, I said “restraint” in a Kill la Kill discussion.) This is where we see a visual nod to a classic work of the past carefully embedded in service of the project’s larger themes. Not merely apparent for obvious reasons, but more as a direct symbolic response. And this is but one place where this show succeeds. It rarely to never feels superfluous, nor tacked on merely for nostalgia reasons. There is a more aware, more heightened reason as to why. Confession: upon my initial viewing of Gainax’s Top Wo Nerae! GUNBUSTER in the early 1990s, there was a feeling that something was being missed in my neophyte mind. I earnestly was not aware of all the anime & classic science fiction nods that were happening throughout, and I was taken by it regardless. THIS – is precisely the kind of effect that is happening here. It does not require us to be medium junkies in order to appreciate it. It’s just enough a melange of past and future, that it hardly seems to be issue-worthy.

So what we’ve just discussed, factors greatly in why the show ends up becoming as multifaceted, and exciting as it is. As much as a lot of it is TRIGGER’s way of respecting their sempai, and doing good by what they learned from their elders at Gainax, it is also a story of generational strife, and what it often does to families. Threads that find themselves at odds by reinforced beliefs between the generations lies burning at the heart of the show. There is a genuine concern for this tension between parental expectation, economic interests, and independent thinking. Even as the world is at last briefly shown as a complete, naked, and honest entity, the show implies that this is a constant struggle. One far beyond one massive spacebound battle for the soul of humanity. With this playing itself out in the most ridiculous, visually assaultive manner possible, the series kind of gets at the heart of why I love anime in the first place.

Before being whittled down to a calculated series of tropes and ideas ready for market, anime was far more emotional, far more unrestrained & far more surreal than it has been for years. And while many may argue that it is only in the post-1990s that we have come to a place where indeed everything and anything could happen within the form, it has long become something synthesized. And by this, I mean..controlled. Kill la Kill is kind of a kiss off to the current model and is also keeping the best elements of the past slung happily around its shoulders. The legacy of many a young, hungry, intense artist is at the heart of Ryuko Matoi’s battle for familial understanding. And even though we can see the initial episodes as being a perpetuation of oh-so many expectations based on toy and hobby item sales, the remainder goes out of its way to see well past all this to become its own, wild, restless entity. By the end, so many of the show’s more questionable qualities become moot, and the focus becomes resoundingly clear for all anime studios to see. Uniformity as an end goal – quite the terrifying prospect to the heart and soul of this project. It sees what has happened, and is daring more fans and makers to alter course.

This is exciting stuff.

So where to now? Where does one go after such a profoundly crazy ride? I could lie, and say that Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagaan could serve as a happy methadone for the days and weeks ahead, but seriously. This was a show (let me correct myself, IS..a show) that makes careers and possibly leaves a well-planted mark in the story of anime. Whether one finds personal value in the madness inherent or not is beside the point. As a production, it is all something of a miraculous thing to exist. Like a stubborn weed amongst forests of uniformed concrete, the tale of the Kiryuin family, the Makanshoku family, the Elite Four, Nudist Beach, and others find themselves as singular in a medium landscape that will continue to feel fresh and exciting for a long time to come. If TTGL was a loving appetizer, then KLK is that obstinate, scrappy main course that can make one want to be a punk chef of their very own.

Oh, and during the epilogue – I squeed.

Kill la Kill: A Final Stretch (Beyond Gainax)

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Twists at breakneck speeds, revelations abound, and allegiances reversed. There seems to be no stopping the heartpounding freight train that is Kill La Kill’s final stretch of episodes. Common cause has been unveiled, leaving it a war of nudes versus clothed avatars of shame, and former enemies now aligned with the once thought only rebellion. With many of the principle roles now falling perfectly into what could be considered destined ones, only one element remains dangling precariously; heroine, Ryuko Matoi. Traumatized, distraught, and more than a little angry about the truth of her origin, her rudder is all but completely broken off. Unwilling to see herself as part of any side other than her own, it is up to a most unexpected ally to make a grand leap in hopes of her salvation. (even if it means beating the tar out of her first..)

 

Contrary to what the internet would like you to believe, it’s often a great pleasure to be wrong. Looking back at twenty episodes of Studio Trigger’s grand kiss-off/GAINAX love-fest, Kill La Kill, one couldn’t truly be faulted for being a tad presumptuous after years of often disheartening material. So what happened to make this jaded naysayer hit the about-face button so violently? Well, the show as it has been thus far owes much of its success to not only understanding the so-called Gainax formula so well, but to how well it eschews so much of what often hobbles many of the mother studio’s shows. More about playing with form, rather than clumsily taping together with function. What Imaishi and company have successfully fashioned, is the first truly post-Gainax series. One that takes everything since Top Wo Nerae!, and amps up the levels to near murderous methedrine levels, complete with hair-raising cliffhangers every week. Honesty time, it has truly been a long, long time since I have felt this way with any show.

 

Say what one wishes about previous Imaishi efforts, this is the first truly breakthrough series from a director who’s style has often overridden any semblance of meaning within and without. As great as Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagaan is, there remains a feeling there that is more akin to a dry run at “Hero’s Journey” territory. What KLK offers up, is something both representative of his powers as a stylist, and as a fledgling visual satirist, doling out both incredible energies and sneaking wit beneath oodles of crimson chaos. Even when the show hits an occasional iffy note, more often than not it is countered with something far wilder and more insane that what had come before. Always on the brink of total collapse, the show flirts so often with the bad, and yet it corrects course as if performing a high-wire act, knowing full well that the key to a successful display of showmanship, is the semblance of fallibility. KLK seems to know very well that it’s playing matters quite close to the wire, and yet it never steps away from the edge of that ravine.

 

And it’s all in the service of some very real concerns regarding the delicate balance not only the young must maintain in life affairs, but everyone. Even as the show has made it alarmingly clear that issues are to be approached in grandiose, broad strokes, it does so with such a deft, visual manner that it almost becomes a moving political mural. A warning, not only to the elder otaku set, but to all passionates that the moral standings we take are often of a musical chairs nature. One of the show’s biggest stylistic triumphs is in how it eschews a lot of the typical muddled anime thematic posturing that bogs most series down, and allows action to dictate more. Even as characters spout out about their requisite viewpoints, it is often within battle that their truest intentions for the world are made clear. Imaishi seems to finally have grand control of his best strengths(visual hyperbole and overt visual metaphors), and is hitting far more than missing this time around. And Nakashima’s story supervision has kept the story developing at such a uniquely effective clip, that one doesn’t mind so much when grand escapes happen, and one is asking questions as to how. This particular story is about the language of action, and what happens when we run so hard against another that we begin seeing the other side’s attributes. That there is more than one justice in the world, and in life we find ourselves dabbling in more than one to see what fits. The origin of community as we strive toward larger goods despite differences. While some of these were indeed explored in TTGL, it feels so much more refined and singular here.

 
And yes, I realize the absurdity of using “refined” to describe a series that largely consists of largely disrobed teens fighting to the tune of immense collateral damage. But despite all the anarchy and unisex debasement on display, it all seems to be in the name of greater ambitions for anime on television. Even if Kill La Kill’s final stretch turns out to be a typical series flameout, it will no doubt be spectacular. I can’t imagine the staff behind this having it any other way.

 

(Oh, yes. And I have to remark here that I kind of geeked out about those flashbacks regarding a younger Ragyo & Soichiro Kiryuin. Their hair.  Maaaan.)

Through Older Lenses: Ghibli Night At The Egyptian

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Imagine the saucers I had for eyes upon the discovery that Hollywood’s fabled Egyptian Theatre was hosting a multi-week tribute to the films of Studio Ghibli, and that two longtime favorites were sharing a bill this weekend. Upon hearing the news early Saturday, I told a partner of this and held steadfast that this could be our nocturnal activity. And considering that this new quantity has had little to no knowledge of the works of legendary animators, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, this felt like a brilliant entry point. As both films represent Miyazaki at something of a career turning point (firmly planted between humanist blockbuster maven, and quasi-individualist auteur), the commonalities and breaks seemed just right to allow new eyes to survey what it is that has captured the hearts of animation fans the world over. And while personal feelings have shifted some on these films over the years, it was truly magnificent witnessing these films in their full 35mm glory, complete with scratches, pops, and prolonged silences.

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At roughly 7:00pm, we filed on in, and found seats surrounded by fellow attendees. As ideal as the seats were, I was quite impressed by the serious dearth of “anime folk” in the audience. In fact, a great deal of those in the auditorium with us were either fellow cinephiles, the occasional family, and possibly more local animation and effects artist types. The overall feeling was that of a more well-rounded viewership than I have ever been privy to for a screening like this, and that was certainly telling of Ghibli’s impact in the years since Disney/PIxar brought Ghibli’s catalog to the US masses. In a very real way, it felt as if Miyazaki’s works have finally become part of the general fabric of family film in a way that eluded many of us admirers in previous decades. It truly has been a long time since that fateful Cagliostro Castle screening at the Disneyland Hotel, with not only nerds, but parents and kids with eyes aglow at the sheer kinetic artistry gracing that audience.

Truly a long time.

So also imagine my surprise when upon giving Kiki’s Delivery Service(1989) the nth viewing, I found a great deal more to derive personally from it than I had expected. Even in the many years since first watching it, there is a confidence and effective simplicity that still evokes a potent response regarding the inherent potential in all. While many have continued to write the film off as a crowd-pleasing adaptation of Eiko Kadono’s work, it is also very much a touching call to the young, and for them to follow beyond familial piety. As young witch, Kiki seeks to create a name for herself in bayside, Koriko City, there is much to figure out as many a witch have within them a special ability that they hone into their main focus of practice. And in this single year of being away from her family (including a potions-specialist mother who muses about wishing her daughter had taken up potions as her focus), Kiki and her chatty feline familiar, Jiji must find the central meaning to independent life. Through many meetings, trials, errors, and adventures, Kiki is throughout the film faced with her own self-doubts as a girl in the world, let alone a witch. It’s a story where magic is no more than the things we grant to the world as ourselves. Told in a patient, wistful manner, the film never veers far from the focal point that Kiki is that moment between being our family’s child, and our own giving, working individual. (Which is best encapsulated by the film’s opening scene, as Kiki makes the sudden choice to leave for her one-year trip at the behest of unprepared parents. It is both a charming, and heartrending stuff that evokes feelings of that moment so many of us go through, as we move out into the world.)

POTENTIAL SPOILERS(?)

So when Kiki’s journey inevitably leads to a crisis of ability come the latter third, it is vital to consider the preceding hour as lead in for this. With all the pressures that she must carry with her as both girl and witch, as other girls her age in town are living up to many of the atypical fun and relationship building, she must maintain something of an icon of tradition. We even meet another young witch early on that informs us early how this rite of passage can very easily lead us astray, without much room for others. And rather than becoming this, Kiki’s arc largely involves her natural capacity for more hand-based services. While her mother is closer to a doctor/pharmacist-type, she is closer to a public service specialist. And while that may look less than flattering to some, there is something very sneaky and hopeful happening with this in mind. When she suddenly finds herself unable to use her magic abilities, it is no wonder that the broom she came flying into Kokori breaks..is her mother’s.

It is here, and with local artist, Ursula’s advice that even our greatest gifts will experience something of a block at times, that the road to maturity drifts into cruising speed. Kiki finds herself at her best and happiest when she is living up to her own instinctive ideals, rather than any fears she might have about the thoughts of others.

As with the breaking of the mother’s broom, the broom used to rescue airship fanboy/witch fanboy, Tombo from a nasty fate..belongs to an elder street sweeper. A “public servant”. Personal redemption comes from Kiki’s own passion for helping the people of Kokori. It’s a pretty solid tale in the telling that still finds ways to keep me active and enamored throughout.

Porco Rosso(1992), while still a truly personal work for Miyazaki containing some of his most sumptuous imagery and elegaic moments, seems to have lost some luster for me over the years. Hard to say why this is so, but upon this viewing it became evident that the tale of WWI fighter pilot ace, Marco Pagot, while as complex and politically dense as it is, suffers from a lack of a stable central thesis. It really is something of a kitchen sink affair, as Miyazaki struggled to make Porco into a loving tribute to the era, and a tale of personal redemption in a time fraught with change. With Porco, now living the cursed life of a pig after long deserting his life as an air force pilot, and now making a living on the Adriatic as a bounty hunter, the film shakily dances between sweet natured comedy, adventure, and romantic homage. And while much of it works magically (as most Ghibli films of the era did), there is a lack of focus that dogs a majority of the running time.

And yet at the same time, one of the film’s meatier themes is that of a life independent. Not unlike the shame Porco feels for having abstained from serving any nation, as well as the loss of his closest colleagues, it all feels like Kiki’s darker, more battle-worn sibling. Even as the previous film lauded the individual as part of a collective, Porco represents a search for life beyond the state. Miyazaki both praises the talents and honor of those who dedicated their lives to flight, but admonishes governments who would exploit it in the name of foggy politics and control. As Italy seems on the brink of another governmental shift, and the world economy is en route to great depression, taxes and allegiances are on the lips of all. All the while, pilots find themselves in this situation either scraping out a meager living as sky pirates, or as bounty hunters living on the fringes of this now rapidly changing society. Rivalries aside, hunters like Porco and pirates like the Mamma Aiuto gang seem culled from similar cloth. All well represented by all parties cooling their engines in peace at the Andriano bar, a place run by Porco’s lifelong friend and long-suffering love interest, Gina. With these air bound skirmishes growing ever more and more desperate, things exacerbate once the pirates opt to hiring American hot-shot, Curtis, in hopes of taking down the “red pig” once and for all. (Or at the very least, humiliate him..)

Upon losing what even wouldn’t constitute an actual air duel with the eager american, Porco is forced to make a run into fascist led Milan in hopes of repairing his beloved seaplane. So when he is surprised to learn that his long trusted plane engineering and construction genius, Piccolo is bereft of his usual help, it is in the shared labor of the feminine and the talents of his youthful american granddaughter, Fio, that Porco finds within him an unexpected spark. And while much of this is classic storytelling, a great deal of the film feels more interested in the details of the world than in any real character based storytelling. The main throughline, while relatively solid, is equally as happy to examine the the world around them, occasionally to mixed results. So when it comes time for the big rematch between Porco, and the american Rattlesnake, our attentions are recalibrated toward the fate of Fio, who in the event that our hero loses, must go to Curtis, who’s buffoonish aims seem to be mostly intent on getting hitched..even if to an underaged plane engineer.

But the worries Miyazaki has about his own talents and the way in which it is utilized post-success are evident during an important exchange between him and a former colleague-turned fascist ace, Ferrarin inside a movie theatre. As Ferrarin secretly informs Porco that the new government is actively buying off sky pirates, and actively rendering them obsolete, Porco remarks how the standard “Dog Vs. Pig” animation they are watching is lousy. Staying on message seems to be the program. This is only bolstered by Ferrarin’s respone that the animation is great. It’s well considered that Porco, is indeed the spirit of Miyazaki, ever dogged by powers that only see him as a company tool. Ever longing for the freedom to tell the stories he wishes, his way.  Now if only, the film could pick a theme before being merely one of several disparate ones. One could even argue that PR is something of a rail against the changing fates of animators throughout the 1980s. At any rate, there’s simply so much going on that it becomes a little tricky to suss out.

All this said, Porco Rosso remains one of Miyazaki’s most poetic and playful films. There’s no denying the power to entertain here. And as a work that lies in between the thoughtful, straightforward Kiki, and the oft-considered overbearing Princess Mononoke(1997), it’s still a gorgeous movie with a lot on its mind.

So in all, a memorable evening of some of the very best that commercial Japan has to offer, with an audience that was more than adequately receptive. So happy to see that the American Cinemateque is continuing to host these films over the next few weeks, with Takahata’s incredible Grave Of The Fireflies(1988) and Tomomi Mochizuki’s Ocean Waves(1993) tonight, ending with Miyazaki’s Oscar winning, Spirited Away(2001) on Thursday, March 20th. So if you’re in LA over the next few weeks, do give it a consider. The Egyptian remains one of my favorite cinemas, and this is a most exciting way to introduce these works to a whole new world of eyes.

As for the person I shared last night’s event with..I’d say we have a new convert.

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Kill la Kill : A World Laid Bare (and ready for change)

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Doctrines have been questioned, true faces revealed, and all bets are off..

You know the more this viewer wishes to resist the caffiene-injected, nonsensical, and often audacious nature of Kill la Kill, the more it has this pulling effect that is utterly irresistible. Looking back even a few episodes, so much of what has come before has finally paid off as Honnouji’s greater purpose has revealed itself, and the secret of the Life Fibers has come to light. And while the story of Ryuko Matoi has taken on galactic proportion, all of the show’s buildup of the ramparts and players has led to a battle royale over which direction civilization will take in a world dominated by clothing. And by clothing, one could mean an old world based on not greed, or simple corrpution, but by the base motivator- shame. The gravity holding the show together just enough is one of a world up for grabs. A world long dominated by market forces now in disarray as the major players learn the truth, and must eke out a way beyond the conflicts of the past. As exploitation and war no longer seem as viable as they once were, where does humanity’s relationship to shame’s remedy lie?

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Just watching the show, one sees a classic “street toughs versus rich kids” play taken to impossible extremes, and that is merely a starting point. And with the focus shifting heavily away from the simpler revenge road plotline, the ground has given way to reveal larger, more potent targets. Most notably the roles that the powerful and proletariat have played over our species’ history, and the potential grand shift that is within our collective grasp. Amidst all the punching, the screaming, and the confusion, change is near, but its never been more dangerous. For all the regional stereotyping, and often garish posturing, KLK has taken full advantage of its advanced length and is offering up an unrepentantly wacky exploration of humankind’s will to be dominant and to be dominated.

Even as the show threatens to completely derail itself, there is always this sense of greater purpose that keeps the show from succumbing to style. For example, Ryuko’s initial reaction to the truth about herself, her father, and the role Senketsu has to play in the grander scheme is both unclear, and hastily resolved. As grand as things have been throughout, there is often a feeling that Nakashima and Imaishi have been trying to reign each other in before tipping the show’s hand out too far. One can even see places where cost-saving has become important in order to make sure the animation in certain scenes can be fulfilled. But as a balancing act between style and thought, KLK often barely hangs on by mere virtue of staying true to purpose. While it can never for a moment be seen as a bastion of subtlety, there is enough happening in between the battles that offers up this notion that not only Japan is in this grand flux, but so is the world. Where philosophies for all on both sides of the pole may need to reconsider the shape of the world they once believed was certain.

And in keeping with that uncertainty, the show remains a tonal rollercoaster. Unwilling to play simple and fair, the cast and crew have made it imperative that KLK seeks its own voice. One that is equal parts serious, and unerringly silly. It is anime getting sick on itself and gleefully puking all over the dancefloor in a colorful splatter of joy and concern. Not quite Dead Kennedys, and not quite Black Flag, this show is an unruly mosh pit with purpose. In the world of KLK, the center cannot AND will not hold, so dance to your heart’s content and rejoice that this is no simple beat-em up anime. As classic as some of the turns in this story are, we have never seen anything quite like this. Sure, fisticuffs cannot solve the world’s greater problems, but it sure is a cool vessel for what is an important conversation. It is both a celebration and a yearning.

All that really matters now, is the kind of world we want.

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