Category Archives: Reviews

The Convergence Miracle of Blade Runner Blackout 2022

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Well over twenty four hours since it landed, and I remain in that rare place. A place where something one remembers in fragments, but is jolted back by a newly formed memory. A refrain of an old poem, now enhanced by a long delayed echo. And yet we have been here before throughout numerous iterations. Just as a story is capable of ending its run of flickering across the screen, so too are our absolutes as to what happened after. Such is the miracle convergence of Shinichiro Watanabe(Cowboy Bebop/Space Dandy)’s fifteen minute bridge short, Blade Runner Blackout 2022. A short, but clearly one made with deep reverence, Blackout, portrays an event that came not too long after aged Blade Runner(a state backed assassin of humanoid slaves), Deckard, has disappeared with his last target in tow.

The event as it is portrayed in nonlinear fashion, involves a large scale terrorist attack against the global human technological infrastructure. By way of setting off a missile enabled EMP blast, the aim of a pair of renegade Replicants(Of the 8th Nexus generation. The previous we have been privy to were the 6th.) with the help of a lone human collaborator, seek to send the human race into a darkness long enough to destroy vital records as to their existence. This while the human world has grown wildly intolerant of Replicant technology, opting to enable an even worse breed of death squad. We are given a glimpse into just how terrible things have become since 2019 Los Angeles, where we are introduced to Trixie (A pleasure model Replicant), and Iggy (a former military grade model). Swiftly reunited, and ready to strike a blow against the race that created them.

Rounding out the trio involved, we are briefly introduced to Ren, a sympathetic human with great antipathy for his kind. In a moment that plays like a mildly perverse rendition of Priss and JF Sebastian from the original, we’re left pretty sure that he is to be the main trigger person for the Replicants’ plan. We are also given a window into the moment of Iggy’s awakening. While off-world, and in combat with an unnamed enemy, his discovery instantly turns the imposing humanoid into a resolute force of rebellion. Knowing full well that Trixie and he, while perhaps not long for this world due to manufacturer’s insurance in a brief lifespan, remain eager to live whatever life they choose. Almost indistinguishable from humans, save for their right eyes, plans seem primed and ready for liberation.

Needless to say, the presentation remains as impeccably realized for a Watanabe work. But what is truly extraordinary in comparison to previously produced anime shorts based upon existing western properties, this one feels like a dream project for so many animators whom I’ve grown to love. And the end product sings in a chorus of sight and sound poetics that feel less creatively strained than anything sold on the same shelf as The Matrix Trilogy, or Batman. It feels both utterly reverent to the seminal original film, yet with just enough flair and energy to fuel an entire feature. Among the incredible talent assembled, Shukou Murase (Ergo Proxy, Witch Hunter Robin), Hiroyuki Okiura (Ghost In The Shell), Shinya Ohira(Redline), Mitsuo Iso (Denno Coil), and Shinji Aramaki (Megazone 23 III), and others, it is almost like witnessing lifelong rock band fans at last allowed to share the stage with their inspiration. It’s a supergroup effort that only left me wanting more. Suddenly, two weeks feels like eternity.

But what we were able to get, is both gorgeous to the senses, yet also propulsive in helping set up Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming follow-up. Everything in Blackout, feels truly authentic, and honest to the events of the original Blade Runner, which remains to this day, one of the most impactful cinematic experiences of my viewing life. Heck. I’d go so far as to comment that without Blade Runner, so many of my interests(and this includes anime/manga) would never have materialized. So to witness Ridley Scott’s landmark of science fiction worldbuilding, at last merge with a generation of artists I have grown to love as an over thirty year result, is cause for celebration.

– And yes, that is the voice of a certain cast member, reprising a personal favorite role. Man, that was great.

Hozuki’s Coolheadedness aka Hoozuki no Reitetsu

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If you happen to watch the series streaming on CrunchyRoll, well get onboard reading the manga. I am a fan, for this series. I initially learned about this publication when I was on the BookWalker Global website. Of course I grabbed onto what I can read. I have already seen the entire tv series, so getting the manga and reading it in English is my next step of re-entering into this world. This manga is currently translated and avaliable in English with Kodansha Comics as a digital first release.

So there has to be some awareness into what exactly does it mean to be in Hozuki’s hell, imagine Dante’s Inferno meets a business office setting and you get this version of Japanese hell and punishment. Hozuki happens to be the administrative assistance for Enma-Daioh and he is humble to downplay his accomplishments. All the while, many characters in the series relies on him to keep his calm, hence the coolheadness aspect in the title.

The series follows the anime quite nicely, or rather the anime follows the manga nicely. This getting into the anime and then to manga follows a trend, where the anime is broadcast, and viewers consume. Then they consume the book, where as it is reading that manga first and then watching the anime.

For readers of this series, there is a great deal of youkai and folklore to be of interest in this series. There is some footnotes, but yes mostly it is expected that the series should be reading this story for fun. If there is more to read alikes, to this story, readers should have read stories like Shigeru Mizuki’s Gegege no Kitaro or Hiroshi Shiibashi,Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan . 

Hozuki’s Coolheadedness currently has  two volumes released digitally from Kodansha, and the 13 episode television series is avaliable from streaming through CrunchyRoll.

Your Name(2016): A Telling Tale (Film Thoughts)

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In the race for anime box office domination (a race largely reserved for studios, and the occasional anime industry wonk), the unexpected can often be the most telling barometer of where art and commerce are currently merging. A dance that can often illustrate, befuddle, depress, and justify. But after finally stepping from the dark, and mulling about Makoto Shinkai’s runaway blockbuster, I am again reminded that sentiment, no matter how awkward, can be a powerful force for escapism. Adding to my still controversial relationship with the auteur’s output, the sentiment exuded in often bizarre increments by Your Name, remains a concentrated reminder that for all one’s diet for japanese animation, it takes a specific openness to quirk to overcome what has become something of a signature. Your Name, while the most standard across the surface of Shinkai’s work, stands as a veritable carnival of his best and worst tendencies.

Taking the term, En Media Res to it’s most most absurd conclusion, Shinkai throws us into the plot with all the swift-cut ferocity of an anime television teaser.(Seriously. This is a film with not one- but two segues into anime television opening montages.) City boy, Taki(Ryunosuke Kamiki) awakens, but something isn’t right. His body is swollen in some strange places, his home is now in the sticks, and he has no idea how he got there. Meanwhile, country girl, Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishi) is again occupying the body of a young high school boy with a yen for architecture, a crush at work, and some perplexed buddies. Especially in regards to his ability to suddenly talk with girls, and needlepoint. Both sides of this 1980s style body-switch scenario are taking in that both kids are indeed acting strangely, and that they seemed rather out of sorts the previous day. To both Taki and Mitsuha, there are no clues as to what is causing this, but handy mobile phone blog apps are providing clues to these bodies they are forcibly borrowing, and the confusion they’re causing. But can either of them ever permanently retain their respective bodies again? What kind of irrational hocus pocus is behind this shared affliction? And will Shinkai ever be able to maintain a cohesive narrative without falling back to his safe zone – the wistful, longing voice-over?

Without spoiling too much, the film does come at the audience fast and with greater energy than is common for the filmmaker’s more glacial speed. We are quickly granted glimpses into the lives of our protagonists, and their respective backgrounds. Especially true of Mitsuha, who’s father abandoned the family business of priesthood for township mayor, in a town with only a few friends, no real hangouts, save for their idea of a cafe, which is a rural bench near a coffee vending machine. These moments are endearing, but are often too brief to properly absorb. And while we do get a little background on Taki, his background does feel the real end of the shrift. He is well-to-do Japanese city boy, which is an archetype that is never given any proper background outside of the occasional crush. The film is often too busy to marinate, which is strange for Shinkai, who attempts to get out of his safer first gear, only to imitate a teen with a new car; endless stops, starts, and sudden leaps forward. Your Name, never seems to find a footing until the third act, in which case finds itself in a pacing quagmire that threatens to render the film numbing.

There are the expected sentimental images of dynamic skies, a reverence for tranquil nature, and a yearning for some form of grounded meaning amongst youthful recollection. Like the last twenty years of anime, there is a neverending nod toward some nebulous past that drives Shinkai’s work that echoes a cross between Anno and perhaps even the often forgotten Tomomi Mochizuki, but lacking in the same complexity. His works often feel like an echo rather than a spark, and with Your Name, there is this ever growing sense of the familiar that reeks of everything that has come before, without a terrible amount of freshness. Even as the film attempts to reconcile the plight of our heroes with the cosmic, and the musubi threads that bind us together, the notion never truly finds a place to be properly absorbed. The notion in a story is vital, but like proper sun and moisture, it becomes hard to effectively feel anything that is to be felt. We can gawk all we want, but to truly feel, that is at the heart of what it is to come away from a work forever changed. Which is why it’s one thing to talk about that feeling, and actually experiencing a sensation. Your Name, spends a lot of time trying so hard to obtain this, yet never allows the reins to its world, allowing viewers to take in more than a pat ideal about connection and resonance. By the end, I had no real understanding why these characters would or should find resonance with each other beyond the confines of the story.

It’s a gorgeous film for sure. It’s just too bad that for all it’s greater aspirations, the final piece never finds comfort in prolonged immersion with these charming characters. Every time a gag begins to work, the narrative grinds gears once again, skipping pertinent information that would be better explored in clearly animated terms. Very often, all we get are the occasional line explaining what happened. As if apologizing for a scene that simply had no time to be made. As a result, the film feels helplessly incomplete.

If the goal was to treat humans as proxies for collated data, we could easily watch Ghost In The Shell, but what Your Name implies within the premise, never runs further than skin deep. And if this is what passes for a complete entertainment experience, I’m quite curious about what it is they are seeing. Because for me, I see a grand missed opportunity to tell a tale of better understanding one another via cosmic circumstances. Which still feels like a goal worth exploring. Maybe five more films will be the charm?

Kabaneri Of The Iron Fortress: Same Club, New Woofers

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Everything Is A Remix, as the touted video series suggests. Not unlike how favorite music finds itself warped into a virtually endless number of permutations, bound by the creativity of the remix artist. There are even times when some actually surpass the radio friendly original. But very often, some works find themselves coming up short. Often bearing the idiosyncracies of the remixer, and not enough to connect on levels that the original might have. Which is often what many condemn as a culture of rehashed filler, often forgetting that some of the most notable works in any medium are but well-executed paeans to other successful creations. This is a long way of saying that for all the bluster and excitement over Tetsuro Araki’s expensive Kotetsujou No Kabaneri (Kabaneri Of The Iron Fortress), is closer in execution to a soulless dancefloor killer 7″, than a populist blockbuster.

Written by Code Geass’s Ichiro Okouchi, and helmed by none other than Tetsuro Araki, Kabaneri is the largely noisy saga of a small population of steampunk latter-edo era nobles and peasants as they struggle to survive a ferocious existential threat. The threat coming in the form of virtually unstoppable zombielikes known as Kabaneri. A threat that has forced much of Japan to forge communities of high-walled steel, all bound together via a sophisticated (and potentially fatally flawed) locomotive transportation system. During a stop over in Aragane Station, Ayame of the noble family, Yomogawa is only around her father’s station long enough to witness it be overrun by an onslaught of Kabane. Losing her father in the scramble, the remaining survivors pack themselves into the Hayajiro Kotetsujou, and are soon rocketing off toward what they hope will mean safety. And along for the ride, are both an enterprising Steamsmith in the all-heart Ikoma, and mysterious young newcomer, Mumei. Drawn together by fates both cosmic, and plotted, the pair are soon seen as potential fissures within this rolling community. You see, the two are both infected by the same virus that has nearly decimated the world outside, complete with glowing hearts and an inability to be easily fell. Even so, the two have found ways to live with it, retaining humanity in ways that have averted seemingly all who have come into contact with the monstrous mass. And perhaps even possessing abilities that could lead the Aragane survivors to safety.

Now, considering that mouthful, about how much of this can we consider to be news? The setting has distinct possibilities for sure, but a great deal of what fills in the blanks plays like a vinyl record of Araki’s Greatest Hits. Everything from the zombies, to the walled cities, to the swordplay, thundering soundtrack, and bishounen complication, the show is more a game of, “What did Araki enjoy most about his previous works?” Even as the show decides to take a breather from all the action with a matsuri episode, there’s never a feeling like we’ve experienced a proper journey. Which could speak loudly to a show that so badly wishes to be a feature film, but is hampered with the kind of required acumen, energy, and patience (oh, and heaven forbid a budget) to function as a televised saga. What we end of getting between arguments about the treatment of our enhanced heroes, or of those deemed to be weak, the show has many philosophical targets, but never fully hones in on what it wants from within all the rabble and fire. There are even characters brought in late in the game that feel grafted in from a completely different series/aesthetic.

All the while, there are also hints of class struggles, rumination on humanity’s endless grappling with matters of faith in each other, exploitation, and revenge. But it as a twelve episode series offers very little breathing space for themes and characters to breathe. Even when they have great potential. Ikoma, makes for a surprisingly engrossing “Uppity Shonen Hero” type. His unerring wish to not only better help humanity in crisis, and later his desire to save Mumei from her plight, have moments of bittersweet complication. He’s never completely vindicated at every turn, and is often smacked down for his naivete. While Mume, makes for a duration of the series, a decent counterbalance for him by having chosen this fate, and is well under way toward becoming something potentially dangerous. Sure, she’s your typical moe icon with a heart of gold and killer skills, but there is plenty of potential for effective back and forth between these two, as well as with the rest of the cast, many of whom work well. Especially the young noble, Ayame. A character that one could easily see becoming the show’s heart and soul. But again, they are undercut by the seemingly endless collage of machine noise and horrendous screaming. The show’s lack of modulation ends up hurting the whole, while one might keep pining for a better treatment come the announced future feature films. It’s a format that might better help Kabane better tune sharply into what makes the ensemble occasionally work.

And it’s true. There are moments here that are capable of rousing even the most jaded. From well-executed escapes, to even an AoT like run in with a “hybrid” mass of monsters, the show does feature several effective showstoppers. On a presentation level, about 85% of the series comes complete with some stunning animation and color, which begins to falter hard come latter episodes. But the scenes that work evoke some of the most visually striking stuff this side of either the early 00s, or even feature film anime of the latter 1980s. And make sure to watch it with the largest screen, and best sound system possible, as Hiroyuki Sawano (of Kill La Kill, and AoT fame) breaks out some of his most overpowering material to date. But admittedly, the largest draw for me was the new character design work by Macross legend, Haruhiko Mikimoto, who’s work here goes a long way toward helping create this strange aura that can at times feel distracting, but is no less refreshing in the current era. Again, problems become very apparent come episode 9, where not only is the animation starting to cut corners wildly, but the story feels truncated. We are never given the proper dramatic fuel to help propel us emotionally into the climax. So when it all comes to a classically rushed final act, more of it feels perfunctory than satisfying.

So when the series has its great opportunity to turn something familiar, yet grand, it is with great resignation that one says here that even when faced with this not quite as daunting task, Kabaneri never seems willing to break free from formula. This is made all the more painful once we are introduced to these new characters that ultimately split up our protagonists, push them to their lowest points, and resort to Fantasy Saga Climax No.4: Win Your Friend Back With Love. There are hints throughout that it might be headed in this direction early on, but for it to stick so hard to formula does nothing to help the series be more than merely a romp. There is spectacle to be had for sure, but there is also potential for a great deal more. It’s reheated leftovers with some spice, but it’s still the same old song. And these tired dance moves are doing nothing for my back.

Kotetsujou No Kabaneri is now streamable on Amazon!

My ode to Wakakozake

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I have dropped off the face of the planet, in the face of reality and real world. But I still wanted to let people know that I am mindful of some series for when I have a limited time,to watch. So I wanted to speak about my adoration for Wakakozake. This series was added to Crunchyroll’s streaming catalog around Summer 2015.

Crunchyroll has the anime, and two seasons of the live action adaption streaming. So if they have the third season, you’ll expect me to think about the term, Pshuu!

Wakakozake is a story of Wakako Murasaki who is a 26 year old office lady with a desire to drink and search for places to eat. The entire series is about her visiting different eateries after work and drinking alcohol of some type of food. So for the foodie in people, what is there not to love?!

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So Wakakozake doesn’t necessarily speak much about the preparation like it is seen in cooking shows or contests, but in the anime and the live action. There is a monologue of Wakako’s inner thoughts as she enjoys the food, and speaks like an amateur food critic.

So for people who like to share thoughts about food, there is Yelp and there are blogs. There is subtle difference between the anime and the live action, because in the anime, viewers see her enjoying the food. In the live action, it turns into subtle food advertisement, that I am unsure if the manga would have this trick. I have seen this in manga form from Fumi Yoshinaga’s Not Love But Delicious Foods. In the live action, the same treatment for introducing restaurants can be found in Kodoku no Gourmet. But it can be said that for the inner foodie, there is such a reaction such as pshuu… which gets animated quite nicely in the show. I am going to sign off on now, and just think about the next experience I have in eating Japanese cuisine!

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

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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.