Category Archives: Reviews

New Chassis/ Classic Engine – Ghost In The Shell: ARISE

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Newport City: A.D. 2027

Whilst exhuming a murdered body under investigation, Chief Daisuke Aramaki of Public Security Section 9, meets a young and already dangerous Motoko Kusanagi. There to protect the honor of the man in the casket, the once highly respected Lieutenant Colonel Mamuro, who was working as Security Official for massive tech corporation and arms titan, Harimadara. Concerns regarding what led to his killing and his possible connection to shady arms dealing make this auspicious meeting a little volatile. The investigation party at the cemetery is shocked to discover that within the casket, is not the corpse of an honored soldier, but a small, but very lethal android known as a “Land Mine”. Will the truth ever out? Can Kusanagi uncover the clues, and will she take up Aramaki’s offer of creating a special team of augmented experts to become one of the most feared cyber crime units in the world? Rarely will “more of the same” be something I can equate with sparks of positivity, but in the case of the new Ghost In The Shell, I’m inclined to let that cliche work for me.

As advertised, ARISE offers up an untold backstory to the world of Masamune Shirow’s evergreen universe in a tale of intrigue, hardware, and philosophical questions which are well worn trademarks. This time, we are hosted to the future Major as she tussles with not only authority figures, corrupt officials, cyborgs, and barrier mazes, but with a struggle for her own autonomy.

The revelation here, while not surprising, is in line with many fans already know of her. Raised into the military life, and possessing a largely cybernetic body allowed her to be a prolific Wizard-class programmer, and fighter of cyber crime at a frighteningly young age. She is a prodigy, harboring within her a surprising past that may jar some fans of the second TV series.

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Being a privileged member of Mamuro’s 501st unit, her quest for the truth is a personal one. But with her expensive cyberized body on loan, and the stakes ever increasing, her very physical freedom might be in jeopardy. Not to mention concerns of a “phantom pain” that is slowly causing problems for Kusanagi.Couple this with run-ins with rivals new and old (including longtime sparring opponent, the Batou The Ranger, gambler Pazu, and up and coming Niihama Special Investigator Togusa. .), and twists making the young Major a prime suspect, and ARISE, is full blown GiTS with revelations to spare.

It’s a fresh start to a personal favorite since I first read the Dark Horse release in a Barnes & Noble over two decades ago. Growing up young in the late 1980s left me quite enamored with the myth of cyberpunk, and outside of authors like Gibson or Stephenson, Ghost has long remained a personal visual go-to when talking stories of human flesh intermingled with technology. For my money, it’s a perfect mix between comic pulp, and hard science fiction with an almost spiritual center. Everything that The Matrix adopted, but rarely understood. A big reason as to why Koukaku Kidotai has become so well entrenched in the global anime and manga consciousness, is largely the often successful balancing act Production IG has displayed between the complexities of the show’s world, coupled with sly character dynamics. Since its’ beginnings in the form of the classic Mamoru Oshii film, it has remained one of the most universal examples of the medium. Always feature film ready in its presentation, and borderline literary with its leanings. And thankfully, under longtime Ghost collaborator, Kazuchika Kise, this tradition remains strong. Getting to know some favorite characters again from a refreshing new angle makes for fun, busy viewing (Even if it’s all a bit familiar.)

The first two “Borders” focus on getting us up to speed on these early relationships as the complex digital world post-WWIV has everyone scattered, scraping to define themselves as freelancer types with guns and gear. Aramaki, sporting not-so-gray hair as he attempts to employ Kusanagi’s expertise in hopes of understanding the truth about the military man who trained (and possibly raised) her. The allegations are looking heavy, and her isolation is well reflected in her future colleagues who tend to see her as part of the threat. In Batou’s mind, she is prime suspect in the murder of a comrade and his family, while evidence eventually points to memory tampering. Meanwhile guys like Pazu are working undercover, and not so sure who to trust anymore. Even Kusanagi’s relationship with cute, sentient multiped mecha are in limbo as she is given a LogiKoma as a bodyguard and partner! Penned by science fiction writer, Tow Ubukata, there is mind-bending fun to be had, but little in the deep surprise department. The theme hovering over these first two episodes seems to be shedding pretense in the name of simple bonds. Which feels about right for a series so largely set within the often deceptive realm as cyberspace.

The second of these two episodes, “Ghost Whispers” expands on the first by this time pitting the authorities against a this time disgraced military hero on trial, who may be manipulating a transportation crisis in the city through a secured channel. While not terribly far in model from the first, there is a leap in visual ambition that works for and against the story as Kusanagi and Aramaki seek to make a team come together. All while being led by a mysterious american special agent known only as VV, the story does have its share of fun dips and swerves as allegiances are bought, and exchanged. Where it does make up for this lack of fierce originality, is in the mecha and chase sequences which remain impressive. There has never been a time in the history of this series that this crew of artists have skimped on the hard, weighty action detail, and almost fetishistic love of kinetic showmanship. In fact, once we get to the hard driving finale on the winding freeways outside the city, it becomes clear that this is what the episode was really about. Don’t let the Assange-esque plotting fool you, the action and reversals are marquee here.

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Now to the package as a whole, it would be silly to call this a simple “prequel”. Considering these first two installments, there is a feel that IG was looking for a way to re-introduce rather than to make any hard connections between incarnations. More than anything, ARISE falls closer in feel to a reboot, and as such the voice cast is pretty much entirely new. And unless you’ve been an ardent fan, it’d be hard to notice. But to have Atsuko Tanaka and Akio Otsuka replaced by Maaya Sakamoto (!!) and Kenichirou Matsuda as Kusanagi and Batou respectively, it should have felt..off. It doesn’t. It works quite well actually. Even Ikyu Jyuku’s turn as “Old Ape” Aramaki, is pretty impressive. Everyone acquits themselves to this rebirth with great enthusiasm and grace. There is certainly a feel that is classic GiTS that implies many more adventures to come, and it’s quite welcoming. It’s also a nice way to re-approach the material without giving away all the mystique that so many so-called prequels seem hellbent on demystifying. Even here there is an admission that not every story will be told, and that’s always cool. To top it all off, the musical score by Cornelius is thoughtful, thrilling, and achingly human. With so much quality coming out of every pore, it’s hard to fault ARISE for being what made the world of Section 9 as prolific as it has been. And as long as our current world becomes further entangled and altered by what seems to be our inevitable date with the Singularity, the Major and company will remain thrillingly relevant.

-And no, it didn’t get past me that the so-called “Mobile Land Mines” were in the guise of little girls. Which is especially gallows funny, seeing them mowed over by a speeding APC. Feels like the franchise’s revenge for being gone long enough to let certain proclivities contaminate anime for as long as it did.

While this could merely be the interpretation of this writer, what else could that scene possibly mean?

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How To Muddle A Rebellion: Space Pirate Captain Harlock (2013)

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Reinterpretation can often be an exciting, yet dicey thing, especially in regards to classic characters. And upon first catching the often breathtaking teasers for Shinji Aramaki’s opulent computer animated incarnation of Leiji Matsumoto’s ultimate superhero, there was already a sense that a die had been cast. That viewers were soon to be host to a darker, more action-oriented take on the revered space outlaw. And since many icons of comics past have recently seen themselves reflected upon through more challenging lenses, it seemed time to explore this spirit in a new, potentially exciting way. Which makes it all the more troubling to say that Space Pirate Captain Harlock is an ambitious, yet spectacular failure that never finds itself comfortable with this new sheen. It’s the very model of what some may dub as forced corporate tinkering, featuring the best money can buy. A souped up show vehicle with no real engine inside.

Set generations after humankind has left the cradle of Earth, and have long existed on planetary colonies elsewhere which have inevitably dried up. This inexplicable phenomenon leads to what historians call The Homecoming War, a conflict that saw millions of would-be returners unable to return to Earth. One hundred years after this costly war against the installed Communion leadership, Harlock and the crew of his legendary battleship, Arcadia have been fighting to return to Earth, even if it means to merely die there. The secrets of which lie in those fighting days, and perhaps will serve to undo the sins of the past. Meanwhile, the outer colonies dwindle as they are informed by Communion that Earth is seen as sacred ground, and cannot be repopulated.

The tale follows a pair of brothers, swearing an oath to bring down the seemingly immortal space pirate by way of sneaking one of them onto the legendary Arcadia. With the elder brother confined to a wheelchair, and connected directly to Communion’s high officials, it is up to fair-haired Yama(Haruma Miura) to take on the mission. And what he discovers upon becoming a crew member , are Harlock’s vast plans which include altering the now dwindling dominion of humanity in space, and resetting the clock to a time when all was not so lost. This “Genesis Clock” can almost instantly be interpreted as a means of nostalgia, whereas the fanatical high command seek to keep everything business as usual. These two brothers now see themselves at a crossroads as to where humankind could go. And boy, does the film never grant us any good reason for any of these choices. With a forced plot such as all resources outside of Earth are reaching dangerous lows, and a collective need to return should work poetically, but it never stops feeling forced.

Upon the Arcadia, Yama’s encounters with Harlock’s crew offer up reasons as to their defiance of his home government, which never convinces. Upon meeting crew members such as Kei Yuki(Miyuki Sawashiro), and Yattaran(Arata Furuta), we never feel the full breadth of what this means to anyone. Posturing precludes reason throughout Harutoshi Fukui and Kiyoto Takeuchi’s script, and it never becomes any clearer. Even the classic “outsider” in the ethereal alien, Miime (Yu Aoi) never grants us any better a picture as to what is at stake. In fact, the film’s title character, never gets more than a few moments to grant us something cool to look at, and never addresses what makes him so cool. It is completely unearned, and pretty much smugs all over the screen without any support. There is an almost passive aggressiveness being doled out with the character here, and it never works beyond a “deal with it” attitude. – Which is the worst thing one can do with such an icon.

We could talk all day about the film’s lack of plot clarity, and all the shifting regarding the story’s end game, and what it means for our characters. But the crucial problem that continuously dogs Harlock, is a severe dearth of character clarity. While some may adhere to what they know about the classic Matsumoto character, it is vital that any iteration retain such clarity for the ultimate story to uphold, revere, or even reflect upon him. And a great deal of the film immediately assumes that the audience requires less of this, and more an iconographic interpretation. Meaning that the imagery would sell him. And that this alone (that he is an operatic, brooding, romantic figure) is enough to carry an audience’s sympathy and support. What might have worked better here, is to use the world building as a means of winning us back into understanding Harlock’s tragic burden. But here we have a film where the title character never gets any real juice. And for a character as simple, this is a tragic mistake.

Having seen and loved many of Harlock’s adventures on film over the decades, it isn’t difficult at all to ascertain the kind of noble spirit he can be. So why is it that his big budget CG incarnation lacks any of his simple charm or sense of heroism? The film just plunks him down like an object, and we are expected to follow – no question.

As the film plods along, we are granted closer looks at the reasons behind the brothers’ mission, and how this run in with the Arcadia reshapes their views. And while this could easily have made for an interesting story, we are so bogged down by this lack of character clarity, and emphasis of plot rugby, that it never compels. After a while, all we can ascertain from these characters is that one looks like a young Harlock, while the dignitary brother is an ill-conceived sociopath. So much angst on display, and no real human drama driving it. It is so much that nearly everything outside of the mechanical design work of Atsushi Takeuchi feels overworked, and leaden. The film wants so badly to be taken seriously, but it garners none of the wistful charms nor emotional highs that adorned films such as Arcadia Of My Youth(1982), or the first Galaxy Express 999 features.

After a decade plus of productions like these, and one cannot help but come out and state that Japanese producers perhaps lack a certain grasp of balancing story with grand scale 3D computer animated projects. Unsure as to whether it happens due to a lack of proper prep time, or if they make creative decisions on the fly. Whatever the case, it is a trend that seems to allow so many of these films to be buried under the weight of their own self importance. They never seem to live beyond a need to be taken seriously via their heavy textures, and three dimensional panoramas. There is a deep need to justify the expense, and it often is the visual team’s cross to bear, as writing often takes a tragic backseat. Something that should never be the case with any production of this size. What seems to have happened here in particular, was a need to overwrite, to overemphasize. It is to the point that the film lumbers instead of soars. Baffles, instead of inspires. Too moody to be fun, and too self-conscious to be interesting. Space opera can be complex, but this is overcooked to the nth degree. You cannot Dark Knight such a romantic character unless he comes complete with morally complex baggage. Throwing it on just because that is what big films are doing today, is missing the point entirely.

It’s funny to think of this being released in the same year as a moody Superman reboot. In many ways, one can easily regard the classic Harlock as the Superman of japanese comics. And as such, he seems to have suffered a similar fate this time around. It’s a real shame, as his indomitable spirit should endure. Harlock is at his best when he sails the seas of freedom. Adding more to such simplicity just feels tacked-on. (not to mention dishonest)

The Joneses are simply not worth the backbreaking effort.

Through Older Lenses: Cosmos Pink Shock (1986)

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It’s the year 2206, and a bright pink spacecraft has made an unauthorized launch from Pluto Space Base #17, and is sporting its hyper rocket engines with intense haste. As authorities seek to control, and perhaps even down the runaway craft, a crucial baseball drama is unfolding. With perhaps the Tigers’ 200+ year losing streak at an end, their winning play is thwarted as the troublesome pink streak fouls up the game, rendering a mob of spacefaring fans ready, and eager to destroy the speeding interloper. Not even the denizens of Macross, or Yamato can stop this intergalactic bullet from causing all amounts of nuisance to all in her path. Seriously, she’s a real pain.

Such is the life of headband wearing, pendant-sporting Micchi, pilot of the Pink Shock. Her mission is not very complicated. And it isn’t concerned with your space wars, your losing streak, your culture. She’s having none of it. She’s seventeen years old, and speeds on for love. And not you, nor any militaristic regime can do anything to stop her from reclaiming it.

How is this hard for your to understand?

OVAs in the 1980s are pretty much a wasteland of VHS nonsense, often highlighted by your random Bubblegum Crises, or Megazone 23s, and offer very little in the way of viable historical context. Even in Japan’s anime on home video heyday, these were the shelf stocker equivalent to today’s Asylum Pictures release. They were a dime a dozen, and often made on the quick and cheap. New studios opening, and new studios closing. It was a new market, and something rife with mental images of airborne yen signs just itching for a slice of this new home entertainment pie. So why in the world do we want to talk about 1986’s Cosmos Pink Shock?

Quite frankly, because despite everything in it that is typical, there is also a potent, and perhaps even frightening sliver of prophecy embedded within. From the wet-wafer thin nature of the aforementioned “plot”, there is both a reverence for the era’s legendary love of space war tales, as well as the burgeoning of that now all too worn concept of moé. The show makes every effort imaginable to play into the fetish, and does everything possible to justify its existence. In fact, the entire point of Cosmos Pink Shock, is just that: “Space Wars are annoying, this is the era of the cute girl-STEP OFF.” It has no compunctions saying that the space heroes of the past will have to make way for all the petulant cuteness, as if the show itself were Noah’s dream of a flooded planet, and we had to prepare for the inevitable.

It even goes so far as to introduce a possible foil in the form of woman hating, Gatsupi. A handsome ball of noble whom the ladies like for his looks, but are constantly rebuffed by his declaration of disinterest. Even when the assumption is that of a slashfic narrative, he contends this isn’t the case. Yes, even fangirls of the 1980s were quick to assume this guy to be prime fantasy material. But this Sho Hayami-voiced character holds within a simple reason for his standoffish ways. Perhaps leave it to the newly captured Micchi, to weave her tale of woe, thereby thaw Gatsupi’s frozen heart?

You see, Micchi’s one true love, a boy she was fond of at AGE 4, was abducted by a UFO during the night of the matsuri. Yes. And noone seemed to remember who he was, nor was motivated at all to find him. So naturally, she stowed away on a space shuttle in hopes of finding him. Again. How is this not getting through? Are you just being stubborn?

Looking back at it now, it feels like this was a sentiment that had long been festering until it finally saw a ray of legitimacy with the original Superdimension Fortress Macross series. And from that point on, it became standard practice to keep that element as an integral part of the space war genre. That is until the conditions were right. Cosmos Pink Shock feels like a light handed back slap against the decade preceding it in all its need for hard edged militarism and samurai propriety. Featuring some neat character design work by the always terrific Toshihiro Hirano (of Fight! Iczer One & Vampire Princess Miyu fame), and some impressive animation direction by Keisuke Matsumoto & Yasuo Hasegawa, there is some visual charm happening here. Especially worthy of note are the scenes involving hardsuit armor and even a robot baseball game. There is much to see as mere distraction in Cosmos, that many may see as your typical benign japan toon, but there is just enough moxy, and outright raspberrying to all things Gundam and Yamato, to make it into something of a manifesto. A harbinger of the future.

A future that was barreling closer toward us.

Whether we wanted it..or not. Get out of the way.

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Oh yes, and it features quite a nod to fans of the Hanshin Tigers, granting it a Kansai aura that must have been bubbling in lieu of their once rumored “cursed” state. A running gag that screams “you had to be there”, but is mildly chuckle-inducing regardless.

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“Date a Live” Movie Announced & “Space Dandy Season 2″ Commercial Released

On Friday, the official representatives of the Date a Live Twitter account announced that the popular Date a Live sci-fi series is currently in production for a theatrical release. Further details on its release and plot hasn’t been revealed at this time.

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On a second note, Space Dandy‘s second season is just a few weeks away from it’s return to television–or space–come July 5th. In order to further hype and excite fans of the series, Bandai Visual has uploaded a full minute and a half commercial, along with a short fifteen-second commercial to promote the show.

Commentary & Discussion

Based on the commercials alone, the animation quality seems to have improved. As for what crazy adventures Dandy will get himself into this time, only time will tell. Are you excited for Dandy’s return, along with the Date a Live movie announcement? Let us know!

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Forget Me Not

One Week Friends and How To Remember Love

Is it possible to forget how to be a friend? Spend enough time in isolation, and it almost seems like it is. Even for those who aren’t hikkikomori, for some who have had lengthy bouts of loneliness—through a break-up, work circumstances, travel, depression, or just a desire to be alone—the art of being with others is something that has to be relearned. To remember that others see you when you go out with bed head and the stained hoodie. To not mumble to yourself out loud when you have a thought. To show up on time when you agree with your coworkers to go somewhere, and to tell them if you are going to be early, or late. To look people in the eye when you are speaking to them.

Perhaps more importantly, to have an open heart and not assume the natural, suspicious huddle of someone who always thinks that the world is out to hurt you. To not push people away, rejecting in anticipation of rejection.

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I honestly don’t care that much about the male protagonists in One Week Friends. Yuuki is the standard male naif, perhaps even more innocent than usual (this is almost Kimi ni Todoke levels of guilelessness here), and while he’s the one seemingly learning the lessons, he’s not the one who faces the greatest struggle. His friend Kiryu briefly introduces some tension but is ultimately the faithful wingman, the best bro who will help him get the girl.

No, Kaori, the girl with memories of close friends only a week long, is the one I feel for. It’s a shame that the source material mainly uses her selective short term amnesia as a moe charm vehicle, bolstered by her perpetual blush and her soft features. So far in the anime the poignancy of her situation is not allowed to go too far down the subtext that it suggests, which is: for some people, friendship is hard, so hard that it takes a deliberate effort to not forget how it’s done.

The cruel irony is that sometimes it’s the ones we yearn to be closest to–not just potential romantic partners (as is the case here), but anyone who offers genuine vulnerability and emotional intimacy–that we treat with the most fear and confusion and hesitancy. It’s why, not very long ago, I had no trouble giving gifts to my friends–except for the one I had a crush on; why I have such a hard time opening up to my family whenever I am in trouble, and turn to isolation instead; why some phone conversations with certain people are the ones I most want to avoid.

Kaori’s plight reminds me of the desire to make life easier, just by convenient forgetting, or perhaps resetting is a better word: a constant wiping of the slate clean and reliving of the most fun part of friendship—its beginning. She has to write everything down in order to do otherwise, and when I wondered why she hadn’t thought to keep a diary and a reminder until Hase suggests it, it dawned on me: because, in a way, it is easier for her not to. She can sidestep the inevitable pain and confusion of young friendship and love. It is as close as life allows her to have a do-over. We have all wished to undo a mistake in our lives sometimes, to start a relationship over or to unsay those words.

And yet, as time passes, and she starts to record her fleeting memories, connections begin to form in her mind. That something is important about this chain of thoughts and time, reaching past the limits of her immediate memory. When she loses the diary, she feels the growing absence in her heart, even though she cannot name it until the end. To get those memories back—rain-stained and perhaps blurred over—is, by then, a gift. Because friendship, as hard as it is, is a gift, and it is sustained by the good and bad memories created by that relationship.

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And so we were made. Isolation is a kind of forgetting, a kind of amnesia. Isolation does offer a kind of predictable safety, but the kind of person it creates is, as CS Lewis wrote,

If you want to make sure of keeping [your heart] intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. 

Some of us have been there, in that airless room. But eventually, if we are not to shrivel inside, we have to remember, by writing on the tablets of our hearts, that the reward for loving others is to love itself.

Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them. –1 John 2:9-11

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Prefectural Earth Defense Force title

Through Older Lenses: Prefectural Earth Defense Force (1986)

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Meanwhile, at Hazama Medical University Hospital..

Ever have one of those bad hospital experiences? The kind that shake your faith in the medical establishment, and all that is right with the universe? You know what I mean. The kind of experience where you’re brought into the ER for a broken leg from a vehicle accident, only for it to end with you being turned into a fully functioning cyborg, complete with missile launching capabilities? Or the kind that does this, leading to your neighborhood nominating you as defender of community, complete with spandex outfits, and a limited expense account as invading hordes goad you into joining their band of local weirdos? Oh be quiet, you know what I am talking about. Liar.

Welcome to 1986’s OVA one-shot, based on the parody manga by Koichiro Yasunaga. One of the more sought after treasures of the anime on home video era. Goofy to a fault, the show pits a ragtag bunch of local miscreants with an augmented Indian transfer student, against the troublesome Telephone Pole Group in a series of overstated encounters and battles taking place in essentially neighborhood backyards. Looking back at it now, one can see the roots of shows like Kill la Kill, just beginning to burrow deep into the soils of anime past. And while the original manga’s punch is given a pretty lavish treatment considering the animation of the time, the focus seems less on story, and more on piling gag upon gag. The 50-minute piece remains charmingly animated, if not altogether fulfilling anywhere else. And while older fans like myself continue to adore works from this era like Project A-Ko, there is something about this OVA that remains elusive when it comes to the big laughs. Which isn’t to say that PEDF isn’t funny. Heck, any show that pokes good fun at so many J-sci-fi cliches can’t be all frownsville.

And yet, there is much to learn from this unrepentant, goofy work. Told in almost episodic vignettes, there is plenty to enjoy as both forces find themselves often undone by mutual incompetence and ensuing property damage. At times it’s the often unprovoked wrath of a missile-launching, blonde-haired foreigner with a bone to pick with-well, everyone. Others, it’s the all-out nuisance of a team of heroes with no sense of subterfuge, PEDF bursts with goofy, and is indicative of an era that simply wasn’t afraid to make up any excuse for an anime wild take. Like A-ko, it is certainly an animator’s work, displaying tons of shots and ideas that reek of a staff ready and willing to play to their talents. While definitely not Urusei Yatsura, there are quite a few jabs at super sentai shows, local politicking, and perhaps even the travails of being a startup business in an iffy market. And with superheroes/villains who can’t even figure out a way to usurp their adversaries with effective ruses, we’re definitely looking at the kind of farce that one simply doesn’t see anymore.

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Upon watching it again recently, I’m reminded of what has been severely lacking in my anime intake as of late. And what Studio Trigger’s recent TV achievement truly stands for. PEDF, while not as classic as some of my just mentioned favorites, is certainly a charming entry in what has long been a neglected subgenre in the anime world. It’s often important to be able to laugh at your own absurdity. Anime once knew this quite well. So happy to see that some animators are keeping those embers nice and toasty.

So break out them S’more kits!

Prefectural Earth Defense Force, is now streaming via The Anime Network!

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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.