Tag Archives: anime review

Barakamon: The Artist In Recovery

Contains spoilers for the ending of Barakamon.

I have been working on a fantasy novel called A Pattern of Light in some form since 2007. The ideas for it date back much further, but I wanted to update them. I began the outline for it while I was visiting my father in the hospital. In between sessions of Final Fantasy 3 on the Nintendo DS, I wrote the novel’s outline in a now battered Moleskine notebook. Around that time, too, I was watching the ending of Mai Hime and I even wrote about it here, because the sense of loss and grief in that show spoke to me then. While the novel itself didn’t deal with that directly, that is the soil where it took root.

A lot has happened since December of 2007, when the ideas first came. Anime Diet was only a year old then, and now has become far larger than the lark it began as. Friends have come and gone. I graduated from seminary, and found my way back into computers. Multiple Nanowrimos have passed, some of them dedicated to finishing A Pattern of Light, but while sometimes the 50,000 word barrier was breached, the work itself was never finished. It stopped when a number of things began to break down in my and others’ lives and had been lying dormant since, waiting for a moment when my mind and heart could settle down and feel enough both drive and pain to continue the work.

Make good art,” Neil Gaiman charged a graduating art school class, and especially on bad days. It was advice that I didn’t heed.

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When life’s messy, all you can do is to start to clean it up.

* * *

So when I first started watching Barakamon, and saw how Handa-sensei had been exiled to an island in order to reflect not only on his aggression toward the critic but also on his calligraphic art, I felt a pang of recognition. In a brief moment, Handa has to face two stark realities: first, that he had hurt someone undeservedly, and second, that the critic was probably right—his art was workmanlike rather than inspired. Those of us who tend to be perfectionists, and writers tend to be both that and procrastinators, know the pain. To be told that something isn’t good enough is a devastating blow to someone who bases his self-esteem on accomplishment.  For a creative person, to be told that one’s work is uninspiring is perhaps worse than most other critiques. When I was young, I clung to my creative abilities to help me get through a difficult middle and high school existence. To have that sense called into question hurt Handa badly.

So he has to go away for a while, to a remote island. Here, the story of Barakamon takes a familiar shape, of the broken man being healed by the charming eccentricities of the rural yokels. It is to help him recover his talents, yes, but it is also a form of exile. Exile, in literature, is sometimes a painful but necessary step to growth. The Israelites had to wander in the desert for 40 years before they were ready to enter the Promised Land. After realizing the suffering of the world, the Buddha had to wander as an ascetic before he received the enlightenment of the middle way. For an artist whose inspiration has left him, Handa needed a change of place and context: overfamiliarity is bad for art, and bad for the soul too if it leads to complacency. So is arrogance, and Handa had plenty of it initially, rejecting the critique and rejecting the children who have come bounding into his life on the Goto Islands.

There’s something quietly monumental that Naru, the lead child, is played not by one of the usual seiyuu but by an actual child—Suzuko Hara. So are most of the other children, played by actors and actresses not much older than their characters. We are not dealing with the projection of children (or worse, “lolis”) that we usually see in anime. Instead, with the writing, we are getting something much closer to reality of childhood: the carefree, illogical leaps of subjects, the annoying pranks, the sheer aggravating delight in repetition, and most importantly, the unforced affection and love. With the authentic acting, we get its texture. Barakamon’s depiction of kids is sentimental (the natural selfishness of children is only depicted occasionally), but not unreal. I saw much the same when I was a summer camp counselor, many years ago. And those children are instrumental in Handa’s healing.

Handa’s healing process is surprisingly drawn out for an otherwise formulaic show. For much of the series, his exasperation gets the better of him; he regularly berates Naru and the other children to the point where, in real life, it would border abuse. Moments of ecstatic joy are often immediately undercut by the machinations of the boys, or the teasing middle school girls who, too, are realistically snotty as opposed to the near sex objects they have become in other anime. The calligraphic work he produces varies wildly in quality, and the people of the town are not especially interested in their artistic merits as opposed to their practical uses: paint us words on a boat! Or a sign for the temple! He would not have taught the girls how to write if they hadn’t essentially forced that decision on him. And the one masterpiece he does create, “Stars,” is a product of a literal fall into despair and frustration punctuated by one moment of wonder. Good art often seems to come from violent juxtapositions, and it was made possible in large part because he was in a place where he wouldn’t be insulated from extremes anymore. It was not to be emulated again, either, marred in a bout of insecurity that frustrated me deeply when he did it.

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Because so many of us do that too, don’t we? We put ourselves down even when part of us says we did good work. That nagging perfectionist voice—Anne Lamott calls it Radio KFKD—refuses to shut up about its flaws, or about its reception. We stop working when we think the piece has reached a dead end, or that life is too hard to think about such frivolous things and that there are more important things to be done in life. Handa has to be pushed, by circumstance and by the annoyingly loving support of his island community. He only begins to miss them just before he is supposed to leave for Tokyo again. Whatever it is, that is what recovery looks like: halting, sometimes unsure, but definite.

Even more: the work he does submit, the canvas full of the names of everyone who has touched his life on the island (Naru’s name is largest), does not win. In fact, it loses in spectacular fashion, in 5th place. A work of positivity like that, it seems, is not necessarily appreciated in a contest. In a way, though, it was the work Handa needed to produce before he could move on. It is as important to him, perhaps more, that his student Miwa earned first place in her contest than that he win first place in his. That realization was what helped Handa’s mother let him go, because it is a great sign of maturity, that he cares more for others than himself. He is not a perfect artist yet, but he is a better human being.

Maybe that is actually more important than the work. Or, perhaps, the work and the person are inseparable. You improve one, you improve the other.

* * *

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The only part left in the first draft of A Pattern of Light was the final part. As originally conceived in 2007, it was going to be a part full of battles, desperate maneuvers, and self-sacrifice before reaching a happy ending. It was always going to be long and serious and epic, and the synopsis for that part was longer than any of the others.

For many reasons, that is where I stopped. Life happened, betrayals happened, and the fanciful imaginings of that ending to the story seemed hollow and unrealistic, the product of someone who had read and watched a lot of stories but lived little. Attempts to go beyond it sputtered, such as in last year’s Nanowrimo. It was as if the characters would not respond to my entreaties to go with a particular plot.

The other day, I started outlining the final part again. It has now been nearly two years since I last picked it up, and this time, the ideas slowly dribbled out. The premise is actually the same, but the path is different. It is more somber and reflective: the conflict comes from something the protagonist feels rather than externally imposed on him by outside forces. The betrayal, not there in the original plan, comes from a place of genuine but misguided concern. The battles are no longer outside, but also inside too. No one escapes unscathed, but everyone knows what must be done.

These days, I live near a beach, and I live with a good friend. It’s been a year now since that happened.

I’m not done yet.

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My Mental Choices are Completely Interfering with My Critic Skills

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Choose!

  1. Article is a tearful piece of boredom.
  2. Article is a hysterical waste of laughter

Sometimes life is stranger than fiction.

I woke up this morning around 10:00 AM, realizing that I’m three things: NEET, hikkikomori, and a woman-bane. As I remembered the last episode of My Mental Choices are Affecting My School (read: Love) Life, and feeling a powerful urge to laugh hysterically, a voice suddenly came to my head:

“Choose!”

Oh no, I thought, what the hell?

The voice continues. “Choose!

  1. Wear your pants on your head and dance in your underwear on the beach,
  2. or wear your underpants on your head and dance naked!”

I quickly reminded myself that while I liked the show a lot and it really puts a quirky spin on the dating sim scenario, it’s not reality. After all, how is reality connected to a show that talks about a bunch of choices you make as you go through life?

Hmm? Was the show that deep?

All of a sudden, I got a big headache. It was as if my head is splitting apart. A sudden fear seized me as I realized what the hell was going on.

Needless to say, I totally regretted the choice I made after finding myself in the local police station, after being reported for inappropriate behavior in public (OK, don’t quote me or legally analyze this).

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My Mental Choices is a weird show. You won’t find any solid substance at its root that may give you the sincere urge to come to tears and get your soul rocked like H2O, and you’re unlikely to feel a sense of overwhelming joy like you would in Porco Rosso. Though I did cry tears of laughter and laughed with sympathy as I watched Kanade (the main male) be the sole comic relief in absurd and absolutely contrived situations, involving his harem of Chocolat, Yuoji Ouka, and Yukihira. (It’s easier to remember names for me when the show is downright weird and not serious.) I found his situations to be very funny.

There are no deep characters here, save Yukihira, who has a deep complex on having small breasts and is unable to show her shy self. She often talks with a sarcastic voice joking about boobs, while calling Kanade massive number of names involving bugs, pigs, and other female favorite nicknames for men. The writers came up with some inventive ones, for sure.

As for the others, Yuoji Ouka is very cute, funny, and pretends that she doesn’t care much for sexual innuendos, until harem/ecchi accidents happen. Like her forerunners of the harem genre, she is forced to examine her feelings about actually being proverbially naked in front of her favorite guy. Chocolat is another annoying character with an annoyingly big appetite, but is nowhere as competent as other big-appetite type characters. She’s the fanservice character of gluttony, “hiding” a serious side. I feel that all three cute girls are basically hiding their true personalities in this freakish universe to avoid really confronting their feelings toward Kanade and other people.

If you want to read that far into the characters (lol).

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In the end, if you’re passing by, and not offended or bored to tears, then have a seat and enjoy the spectacle. Kanade is like Jim Carrey in 2D without the comedic talent, but is forced to make embarrassments funny for the sake of the Otaku audience, and gets himself a harem despite the creepy choices he has to make. And because I like Ace Ventura, I like this show as well.

Just not for a second watch or a serious purchase. I watched it on Crunchyroll.

B- for comic value, C for everything else. PG – 13 if you have pretty understanding parents. (And B for the design of the girls).

WataMote 6: Delusions of Grandeur

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EVA REFERENCES FTW

Summary

Tomoko suddenly looks…cuter? So she thinks, after a round of otome games seems to make her lose the bags under her eyes. Her newfound confidence, fueled by the belief that girls become cuter when they fall in love and horoscope predictions, carries over into the school day–and isn’t even stopped when she accidentally leads a colony of ants into her pants. Along the way, a couple of boys try to pick off the ants crawling over her, which she misinterprets as friendly overtures: boys are flocking to her! The problem only worsens, but she barely recognizes it as she splashes Coke all over herself, making the ant problem more severe. Only her brother seems to recognize what’s going on, and he’s not impressed.

Then, in an attempt to get a date to watch the fireworks, Tomoko conceives of elaborate plans to target potential loners in the library–all of which are much more complicated than simply asking them to come with her. Her first plot, to talk to one of the girls, is thwarted by the appearance of her friends, who are the typical sort of “bitches” Tomoko disdains. Her next subject, a nerdy boy reading a book, is supposed to be enticed by a fake performance she gives about not having anyone to go with, in the hopes he will overhear and ask her out. He does not. So she ends up on the roof to watch the fireworks, all by herself, when finally two middle school boys show up. Shyly, she asks if she can stay with them, and they consent–only to be not watching the fireworks in the sky, but the fireworks happening in the love hotel across the street between a couple. This, at last, seems to give Tomoko some joy.

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She really is an innocent, in the end.

Thoughts

This show actually seems to get sadder with every passing episode. Am I the only one who feels this way?

This one is particularly sad because it’s so full of delusions: full of scenes Tomoko thinking she’s succeeded when she’s hasn’t. Though she does look cute(r) without the characteristic bags under her eyes–you wonder if all she really just needs is a little bit more sleep–she continues to rely on specious theories she reads on the Internet or from horoscopes to determine her next steps to becoming more popular. The dramatic irony gets taken to new extremes in this episode, and, as we are at the series’ halfway point, the contrast is starting to look more and more distressing.

It also threatens, as some viewers have already concluded, to become a bit monochromatic and static. There appears to be no narrative arc or much change to Tomoko. Having read the manga now, I know this is not destined to change much should Oonuma choose to remain faithful to it, though he does seem to be ordering manga chapters in a deliberate way that might lead to some sort of character trajectory…it remains to be seen. This is one of those instances where one hopes that the director will exercise some aesthetic and narrative judgment in order to actually improve on the original work, just like the way the anime of Honey and Clover actually made it more than the sum of the manga’s parts and Sankarea added more character depth.

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ef~a tale of mendacities one tells oneself

I keep on, however, because while Tomoko keeps digging herself into a deeper hole, there are more and more scenes where the sympathy also grows. Oonuma even pulls out an old shot from the ef series to illustrate her loneliness, and the tone of each episode since the 4th raunchy one has been notably quieter. Non-comedy tears are beginning to form in her eyes. Earnest moments are still undercut by final punchlines, especially in the last moment of the episode with the love hotel, but the more serious parts are also more emphatic than before. The final ED, an old song sung by Hatsune Miku, is more wistful than anything else. As sad as Tomoko is, I want her to succeed even just a little, at least at the end. There has to be hope for loners like her, right? Or, to put it more bluntly, for a lot of people like us?

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It’s always about more than fireworks.

But I also remember the anime ending I hated the most, the one for Saikano. I hated it because I found it utterly nihilistic, and the nihilism came from its delusional aspect, where the character was thinking/imagining one thing but reality was another. Strictly speaking, I’m not of the opinion that a nihilistic work is necessarily a bad piece of art. Saikano was nothing but consistent, a work of integrity. But ultimately it’s an attitude/stance toward the world that I cannot ever pretend to like or appreciate personally, because I think it’s destructively one-sided. Tomoko, after all, wants what everyone wants: to be loved. We can appreciate and laugh at the foolish things people do for love–we’ve all done it ourselves–but ultimately that desire itself shouldn’t be mocked. Tomoko may be a figure of fun, but for a viewer like me, she’s also recognizably human in her basic needs and wants. That deserves some respect.

It’s still too early to tell what direction this anime adaptation will take with the static source material. I see hints of it going either in a more reflective direction and also it staying the same. Oonuma-san: it’s in your hands now.

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This, potentially, could be the saddest image in the series. Especially how it’s presented like a commercial.

WataMote 5: Personae

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Summary

In her never ending quest to become more popular, Tomoko attempts three different personality changes: first, inspired by an anime, she tries to become a Yuki Nagato-like “expressionless character.” Not only does it make her even more outcast–silence is natural for someone who’s all alone anyway–it ends up making some people (like her brother) angrier or bewildered (the handsome barista). Apparently that personality only works if a guy is already hanging around you. Next, she attempts to follow other smiling cute couples and get a picture taken at the purikura booth, but after being denied by her friend Yuu and her brother, she ends up going alone, and making only grotesque faces instead. Finally, Tomoko believes that becoming a hostess will improve her social skills, and gets herself ready for the role by learning to light a lighter and mix drinks–only to find out that the red light district of Kabuki-cho isn’t so innocent and friendly.

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Thoughts

This episode is more subdued compared to last week’s extreme situations and raunchy humor, and it highlights one of Tomoko’s key problems: she thinks that a single big change, or a single personality shift, will solve all her problems. While some of this owes more to the structure of the gag-per-chapter original manga, it’s also a perennial temptation for many people who are stuck in bad situations: if only I had x, then I’d… What’s also interesting is that in two of the scenarios, they were both inspired by what Tomoko saw on TV: an anime and a talk show interview. As an otaku, media actually is very influential in Tomoko’s life, informing her fantasy life (hence the reference to AkiraHaruhi Suzumiya, and other shows) and what she considers solutions to her problems.

Her treatment of her brother Tomoki appears to be worsening. She seems to be in the habit of stealing his food and drink–ramen last week, his sports drink this time–and even her lame attempts to be nice usually end up backfiring. Tomoki reacts with predictable irritation and now puts her in a face lock. I remember watching my teenage cousins–also an older sister and younger brother pair–get along not much better, so this sort of interaction is based in reality, minus Tomoko’s doubtlessly anime-fueled attempts to get Tomoki to do things by saying “but it’s your sister…” (Welcome to a non sis-con world, otaku girl. It’s sad that this is actually refreshing in light of all the recent anime trends, but I’ll take what we can get.) I’m beginning to feel more pity for him now than ever before. Enduring someone like Tomoko on a daily basis would try anyone’s patience, and he’s starting to lose it.

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There are some bravura Oonuma directorial moves in this episode, though less on the spastic faces this time and more on the way the scenery moves. The sparer emotional mood, which depends less on outrageousness this time, actually feels somewhat sadder than before. I felt a pang of sympathy when Tomoko fell down at the Starbucks, spilling her terrible concoction of condimented coffee. On the other hand, her bad attitude toward Tomoki is getting less admirable by the episode, which is a reminder that as hapless as she is, she’s also incredibly self-absorbed. It exists alongside her painful self-consciousness and attempts to be someone she’s not, an effort which is always going to end in failure if one isn’t a fantastic actor or actress. The strain is too much. So many of us learned that the hard way in our teenage years. The cost of fitting in is often higher than can be paid.

WataMote 2: Turn and Face the Strain

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Summary

While fantasizing about getting verbally abused by handsome yandere boys, Tomoko receives a call from an old friend, Yuu (c.v.: Kana Hanazawa). Yuu wants to meet up on the weekend to catch up, since they haven’t seen each other since high school started. Tomoko, fearful that she has nothing to talk about with her, starts accumulating experiences that she finds discussion worthy: “sleeping with” (next) to a boy in the nurse’s office, and, perhaps more consequentially, being drawn by an otherwise unappealing boy….But when they finally meet, the once nerdy Yuu has been transformed into a fashionable high school girl in a miniskirt and contact lenses. Tomoko only relaxes when the two of them go to the arcade, play their old games, and talk about anime. When it is time for them to part, they emotionally express their encouragement to one another…only for Yuu to reveal that she has a boyfriend, to the shock and dismay of Tomoko, who once again retreats into her yandere abuse fantasies while clutching the cute picture the boy drew for her earlier.

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Opinion

Yes, folks, I have made an impromptu return to episodic blogging. We’ll see how this goes.

Tomoko is much more likable in this episode than in the previous one. Her relative unlikability, note, was a feature and not a bug of the first episode, because being scorned by outsiders really does tend to turn the scorned into scorners—and that Tomoko is still there when she comes across a flirting couple planning to make out at the guy’s home. But there was something even more exaggerated about her behavior this time: whether it’s the MP3s of boys chastising her or her fantasies of being ravished, her vomiting when faced with social anxiety (something we’ve been seeing more of lately in anime—see Tsuritama and the beginning of Kids on the Slope), her creepy, possessive chuckling over her portrait. Sawako this is not, though, really, they are both just as naive in their own ways. The humor makes her more likable overall, and even cute in her own way. “Cute in her own way” is something Tomoko needs to learn in due time.

There are two plots with new characters here, one about the manga artist boy who draws her picture, and the other with her middle school friend Yuu. They reinforce each other by showing her that appearances aren’t everything. Tomoko is not free from the usual human superficialities—the overweight artist is not someone that even she would want to get to know, at first—and her shock at seeing the much more fashionable Yuu makes her wonder if this is the same person she once knew. She is proved wrong in both respects. The fat nerd quickly captures her face in a way she finds appealing, and Yuu is still interested in the same nerdy, otaku-ish hobbies as before—they have a blast at the arcade and in in taking some well-deserved swipes at the current anime scene.

You know, this isn't entirely so true anymore. But it's true enough.
You know, this isn’t entirely so true anymore. But it’s true enough.

However, since this is WataMote and not Kimi ni Todoke, there are further twists that indicate trouble ahead. Fat artist actually only knows how to draw one generic face and doesn’t really see her as an individual, though she doesn’t know it yet. Yuu has a boyfriend, which sends Tomoko scurrying back to her fantasies in jealousy and despondency. It seems that Tomoko will not be able to catch a break that easily, which not only helps keep the plot going but is all too reminiscent of reality.

This episode sets Tomoko on a path to either open up more—the scene where she shouts out her encouragement to Yuu was sincere and earnest, and she realizes a boy seems to appreciate something about her—or to close herself off even further due to neither of them being exactly what she dreams of. The collision between expectations and reality forms the central internal conflict of this show and it’s off to a good start.

EDIT: corrected information about the artist boy, whose motives were far less obsessive than I first supposed.

Spring 2013 Anime Audio Overview!

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Warning: Spoilers abound! 

It’s time for our semi-regular tradition of Ray and gendomike talking about the current season! This time, instead of a preview, this is an overview of what’s already airing for the past few weeks—in other words, our opinions are actually based on something other than pure speculation :) We used the AniChart as our guide, going day by day through the following shows, accompanied by links to their legal US streams as well as any articles written about them already:

Yes, there are some notable omissions, such as Shingeki no KyoujinRailgun S2, and others. We can’t watch everything you know. :) It’s a raw, unfiltered recording, so get ready for some true blue fan talk.

Enjoy! Leave us any comments in the section below.

First Look Fair: Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet 1-3

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Those of us who became fans in a different era—say, the late 1990s and early 2000s—remember that different sorts of stories were the norm in anime. There was a lot more adventure and sci-fi, for one; while Evangelion introduced theretofore unknown levels of artsiness, psychological drama, and pretentiousness, anime had yet to shift over to an overweening emphasis on slice-of-life, school life, and fandom self-metajerk. In fact, it’s worth remembering that the earlier episodes of Evangelion were well-animated, straightahead episodic mecha action, with only hints of the chaos to come. What drew me in was both the compelling way these traditional elements were presented as well as the deftness with which Shinji, Misato, and Rei revealed their characters.

The same feeling is coming over me with Gen Urobuchi’s newest, and in some ways most surprising, project, Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet. I get the feeling that this might not only be a potential classic, it could be a new gateway anime for another generous of fans.

These are tall claims to make for a series that’s only broadcast three episodes. There are many ways that Urobuchi and director Kazuya Murata (Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood Movie, Code Geass; see our interview with him at Otakon 2011) could screw this up. Urobuchi’s trademark descent into despairing angst simply may not fit this story, though there are indications that this may not be the case. The storyline could get dragged out or needlessly complicated, like Code Geass (the recent Valvrave the Liberator is already showing signs of following suit), though with only 13 episodes planned, there’s not much room for that.

So far, though, not only has Gargantia avoided these traps, it’s done well simply by embracing the basics: smooth pacing, likable characters, and enough plot mystery to keep the viewer interested in what comes next.

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The excitement begins with the first half of the first episode, which features well-animated space battles deliberately reminiscent of Gunbuster: ships firing fusillades of lasers at giant, plant and insectoid aliens, with swarms of mechs and aliens locked in brutal hand-to-tentacle combat. This sends an immediate signal that Gargantia intends to stand on the shoulders of its forebears, and this impression is no lessened when the action shifts from space to the watery Earth where mecha pilot Ledo is stranded. Bright shades of Nadia, Gurren Lagann, and even the works of Studio Ghibli (particularly Castle in the Sky) are evident in the character designs, settings, and overall tone. Though the Earth is in a post-apocalypse setting, with no land to be found, it is still brightly-colored and cheerful compared to the grim “service guarantees citizenship” world Ledo comes from.

Part of the show’s success too is how quickly those worlds are established. We find out much about Ledo’s universe not just in the first fifteen minutes of the series, but also in the way he and his mecha interact with the Gargantians: he has no idea what to do with fish or meat, “thank you” has no translation in his culture, and he cannot understand why total annihilation of the enemy is a problem. Remarkably, the show decently balances the perspective of the more casual, civilian-like attitude of Gargantia and the militaristic perspective of Ledo. While we sympathize with the Gargantia’s more “humane” approach, one easily understands the seeming rationality of Ledo’s point of view, and it is not one devoid of sense or restraint either: he frequently has to tell his mecha computer to stand down. He can be dialogued with and convinced. He is, after all, still human.

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And that’s the thing: there’s a human warmth to the storytelling in Gargantia which comes out in the likability of the characters and in the smaller moments. They show the whole gamut of emotions, from fear to curiosity to joy to gratitude and surprise. The nearly uniform despair of the majority of Madoka, as well the flatness of Psycho-Pass, are nowhere to be found here. It does this without surrealism, name dropping in the dialogue, or other superficial trickery. There are occasional bows to fan-servicey convention, particularly with the Pirate Queen Lukkage and her sidekicks, but it’s hardly a big deal compared to the show’s other virtues.

Gargantia is not only proof that Urobuchi can tell a straightforward story well, but that there is still life in this sort of storytelling. That so much of online fandom is excited by this show suggests that it’s relatively rare and deeply appreciated when it appears. Quality tends to be—see Sturgeon’s Law—but this, along with the ongoing Yamato 2199, signals hope in sci-fi adventure stories as a viable, relatively mainstream avenue for anime to reach audiences.

While Evangelion’s unique weirdness and intensity was what made me stay a fan, it had to hook me first. Here’s hoping Gargantia will offer similar pleasures along the way.

Secret Santa Review: A Certain Scientific Railgun (70%)

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It really isn’t quite this sort of show, actually.

My anime fandom has two touchstones, Evangelion and Honey and Clover, and that should clue you in to the sort of stories that I enjoy. A Certain Scientific Railgun, which was handed to me as part of the Reverse Thieves‘ Secret Santa project, is the sort of title that I would normally avoid. My thought was: it’s about yuri fanservice; it’s more oriented toward action rather than drama; it features the kind of fan pandering that peaked at the time the show aired (2009-2010) that I generally disdain. (Though, looking back at my first impressions at the time, I wasn’t that put off by the first episode. It was more what I heard later that discouraged me from following up.)

Fast forward three years later, and I’m ready to expand my horizons, put aside some old prejudices, and give a different sort of show a chance. Out of the three titles that were suggested to me—the other two were Aquarion EVOL and Sora no Woto, both of which I’d seen and in the latter case wrote about extensively)—I chose the show I was least likely to watch on my own.

So what did I think?

In short: A Certain Scientific Railgun was better than I expected, but I wasn’t expecting much. It’s competently directed in spots, reasonably paced when it’s not indulging in filler (which is often, unfortunately), and has a few decent cliffhangers. The action animation is frequently impressive, befitting its high budget. Aside from some of the milieu/world, however, there is little originality to the plot, and most of the characters fall flat. It is, really, a glossy but ultimately average anime series. It’s the equivalent of a second-tier Hollywood summer blockbuster spinoff; the X-Men Origins: Wolverine of anime.

***

mikoto-pose

There’s actually an old-fashioned action anime story buried beneath the yuri and filler. The best parts of Railgun tell that story, about experiments done on children going out of control with a scientist facing a moral dilemma and the need to atone for her actions—to stop the ultimate baddy from taking over. Shades of Akira and other classic sci-fi anime lurk here, with an almost late 1980s-1990s approach: big robots, thunderbolts and lightning courtesy of our human railgun Mikoto, and highways and trucks being ripped apart and thrown. Not to mention pulsing globules of monstrous flesh forming in the middle of cities. The storytelling approach and the outcome couldn’t be more different, of course, but the homages seem clear. And for someone like myself whose fandom teeth were cut on this sort of show, the feeling was familiar and even occasionally welcome. It was like watching something like Saber Marionette J or Burn Up again; not because the plots or characters are similar, but the feeling was. This is bread and butter type of anime.

Tatsuyuki Nagai, the series director, did the best he could with the material. I was most impressed with the way plot threads and hints, even from supposed filler episodes, made their way into the main story. His talent for managing multiple characters and pacing them evenly also showed, especially when all four leads are out doing different things. In the few moments of introspection given to the characters (particularly Saten, Dr. Kiyama, and Mikoto), we see flashes of the Nagai of Ano Natsu and Toradora. When the characters ruminate on whether Academy City is truly a meritocracy, what it means to be a certain Level, and who gets left out in such a system—the show rises above itself. Dr. Kiyama’s backstory episode, and the way it tied into the final episode, was handled with the sort of deftness and emotional sincerity that I expect from Nagai. It made the otherwise predictable ending feel stronger than it actually was. He even manages to sneak in some of his trademark yearning romance, albeit in compressed form, in the two episode arc about the Big Spider/Skill Out gang.

Quality villain dialogue.
Quality villain dialogue.

The show suffers most when it bows to stale comedic conventions and refuses to let the female leads grow beyond their typecast characters. Kuroko eventually proves her professional competence and dedication, but before that, her yuri slapstick antics only made me laugh a little before becoming simply irritating. Mikoto, the nominal protagonist, is the most straightforward and balanced character, but has few distinctive traits other than her love of cute things, wearing shorts under her skirt, and her powers. She’s likable but bland, and she’s the same at the end as she was in the beginning. (Compare with her doppelganger, Mai of Mai Hime. What does Kuroko see in her?) Saten, apparently a fan favorite, has a few moments given her status as a Level 0—she gets some touches of the Nagai treatment in the unusually quiet coda to the first arc—but not nearly as much as the conflicted and haunted Dr. Kiyama, who steals the show as the most complex and interesting character. (Her “undresstress” quirk seems altogether disconnected from her character.) The de rigeur swimsuit episode attempted to do something different with its shifting settings and relative lack of camera ogling*, but felt oddly paced and disjointed. Perhaps the worst offender was a single episode in which the girls attempt to matchmake their dorm matron: a cliche anime sitcom plot that felt willfully anti-climactic and emotionally unresolved by its end, because the episode has to end in the way it does for it to fit the type.

Nagai has only directed one other series with two cours, Toradora, and Railgun could have been a more propulsive series had it only been one cour. Much of the second half especially could have been cut without doing much damage to the plot, as well as the first few episodes, which did not leave the best impression until the story actually started. This is a plot rather than character-driven series, because the characters are mostly too flat to carry the story without the Big Baddy Threatening the City While Cackling and Overexplaining Her Plans. It’s a plot that we’ve seen many times before too, offering few surprises, but at least it would have been fast paced and the sleek action sequences—anime is a visual medium after all—would provide excitement.

Instead, we have a loosey, sometimes funny, sometimes actiony series. It’s neither more nor less than the sum of it parts; it’s essentially a grab bag of various anime elements that cohere somewhat when the main story is being told. I did enjoy watching Railgun, because it’s undeniably fun at its best. It’s like a lot of anime that way; not everything is a Kaiba or a H&C or Hyouka or, to use a better piece from Nagai’s repertoire, an Ano Natsu. Nor does everything have to be. It wouldn’t be fair for me to dismiss it out of hand, but it wouldn’t be fair for me to put it alongside my favorites either.

Railgun, in other words, is ok.

Rating: 70%—average.

*Granted, the standard for anime when it comes to camera ogling/male gaze is, shall we say, exceptionally low cut. But Nagai’s beach/swimsuit episodes are usually more tame than most and often contribute meaningfully to the story. See Ano Natsu‘s beach arc for one good example.

This post is part of the Reverse TheievesSecret Santa Project, where anibloggers anonymously suggest shows to other anibloggers for review. Tomorrow we’ll find out who suggested this series to me. Railgun is legally available in the United States by streaming on both Funimation and Hulu.

Memory and Oblivion in Sora no Woto

The price of a memory is the memory of the sorrow it brings.
― Pittacus Lore, I Am Number Four

We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey.
— Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933)

Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.
― Marcel Proust

The scars that are left in a person’s soul after surviving a war, the ways a society tries to console and redeem itself, how the historical truth gets twisted, suited and tailored to different people’s needs: these are topics that Sora no Woto, beyond its flaws, managed to sing about elegantly. The sound of the sky carried and awakened memories…


War trauma: the ghosts of the past

In episode 7, we get a glimpse at Felicia’s past and her recollections of war. It’s the first thing we see when the episode starts. The memories are as clear as if they happened yesterday [1]. The cinematography is excellent and when Felicia’s gaze stumbles across her fellow soldiers’ dead bodies, the ‘camera’ trembles. She starts feeling dizzy, the terror obvious in her eyes; her world is falling apart, both metaphorically and literally, drastically changing from one minute to another.

Later in the episode, the flashbacks continue: she walks aimlessly, her mind blank, when the debris and the road cave in and she ends up underground with a skeleton as a company. The situation starts sinking in; Felicia questions her reason for living, and wonders why she was the only one who survived. These dark thoughts pull her deeper in despair to the point that her guilt of being still alive morphs into an apparition and an imaginary dialogue with the skeleton. It’s her survival instinct and loneliness that make her respond to the calls of the princess who came to her rescue.

In the present, Felicia’s memories keep coming back against her will, whenever she falls asleep or spaces out. We see her having hallucinations, like when the image of a soldier appears in the fortress’ yard; she smiles bitterly, because she’s aware that her eyes and spirit play pranks on herself.

This is a pretty accurate reflection of reality. Trauma is an event that pushes the individual to its limits, destabilizes its life, and in its first phase the individual feels unable to handle and process it. Denying what happened results in ‘eternal mourning’: the trauma resurfaces in miscellaneous forms at the slightest trigger. In Felicia’s case it was the public commemoration, a day which wields enormous emotional power (I’ll touch the topic of the ceremony later). However, Felicia seems to have worked through her past, since her reactions aren’t panic-stricken. She also appears to have found a meaning for her life. Mourning in such conditions is a long-winding process, after all. And we aren’t given enough of their time to know what progress the characters have made through the years.

On the other hand, Nöel freezes, starts shaking, and goes berserk once she encounters the Roman soldier and hears her old title and commander mentioned. The cinematography is once again masterfully executed: a deranged Nöel is shown behind some sort of metal railings—she is held captive by her fear and memories.

Nöel’s case (episodes 11-12) isn’t only there to reconfirm how vile war is. Her angle is different: while Felicia is portrayed as a victim, the sole survivor of her troop and at least an adolescent, Nöel is shown as an exploited child genius who witnesses the death of people by the war machines she helped rebuild. Thus we are shown both the suffering of the perpetrator and the exploitation of children in the war.

Her trauma is deep not only due to the tender age at which she was exposed to war’s cruelties, but also from the sudden change between the protected world of the laboratory where she got praised and the raw reality. The military’s image as a highly organized and efficient unit juxtaposes with the reality of war as chaotic, terrifying, and anything but meticulously executed [2]. It’s a shame that we weren’t presented with the experience of other soldiers who dealt with hand-in-hand combat; then we could understand better how complex the human soul is and the devastation war wreaks upon on it.


Public commemoration: appeasing the living and the dead

‘Festa du Lumieres’ in Helvetia is in fact Tōrō nagashi. Tōrō nagashi is a Japanese ceremony in which participants float paper lanterns. This is primarily done on the last evening of the Bon Festival, based on the belief that this guides the spirits of the departed back to the other world. It is also believed that humans come from water, so the lanterns represent their bodies returning to water. [3]

The deep emotional and physical wounding caused by acts of violence is devastating to the individual identity and,by extension, to group identity.  Prayers, rituals and symbols can be used to heal or transform the trauma. People want to be bonded in emotional and spiritual ways—to give and receive love.  ‘Festa du Lumieres’ is an opportunity to express grief. It helps survivors to see the traumatic events in a new perspective, to build hope and a healthy self-identity, and to be able to effectively cope in their communities. It also makes people feel calmer and relieved because they are still connected and can do something good for people who have died and were special for them. [4]


The Flame Maidens Legend: memory and anti-memory

The Helvetian version is narrated by Rio, who impersonates a Flame Maiden in the Water-Dousing Festival, while the Roman version is told by the nun who heard it from the Roman soldier. In both cases we can talk about remembrance through communicative memories that passed from generation to generation, and about anonymization of the trauma.

Trauma creates a huge void in the way a society perceives itself. Besides ceremonies, history or, in this case, legend contributes to the (re)creation of identity, but not without distortions of the truth.  Be it the collective memory that got warped or the state that manipulated the narrative, the Flame Maiden legend and its two versions reflect the wishes and self-image of each country.

If we want to find out what really happened, we should take both versions into account, like Herodotus’ first attempts at writing history. For some reason, in this dystopian future the science of history seems to have been lost, and remembrance of the past reverted to oral traditions. So, we’ll work with many assumptions and our logic as guidance.

Assuming that the Romans saw themselves as punishers led by God, we can believe they were the ones who initiated a war or avenging a past lost war and its victims. The Helvetian version about the demon inside the city might be interpreted as the Helvetians co-existing initially with Romans and treating the latter with racism or as the fear of the enemy who was of different skin color.

The angel and the demon were both based on a dinosaur fossil, which each side assigned different values. In both versions the giant spider alludes to the tanks and the golden horn signifies a peace treaty. This much is clear. But what about the rest of the story? If we consider the Roman version closer to the truth, then we can claim that the Helvetians wanted to cover up what they considered treason from the women in their town (the fact they helped the enemy by providing medical help). They take metaphorical revenge by turning them into victims, but since they also need a reconfirmation of the community’s worth, they make the girls in their version suffer willingly while the villagers helped extinguish the fire by dousing them every day (this could hint at torture procedures, too).

What is not so certain is the duration of the hostilities. The Helvetian version gives the impression that it was a hard fought war and that it lasted a long time. The Roman version presents the events happening over a shorter time span. It’d be only natural for the Helvetians to emphasize the hardships and duration, while the Romans, who considered themselves god-sent, would only embarrass themselves if they admitted they weren’t victorious after a long war. It’s not coincidental that it’s the angel who gave the maidens the golden horn in the Roman version: the enemy declared peace only because their side provided the solution.

Memory is a tricky thing. We get scared in life, so we wish to forget. Sometimes we can’t. Sometimes we cover the bad memories with gold leaves and paint a new picture for us…


Notes:

[1] In order to create a memory, the brain releases chemicals “that etch these events into its memory bank with special codes”. However, when one experiences a traumatic event, the memory becomes vivid because the context surrounding the event is so significantly different from anything the victim has ever experienced before. It seems, then, that during a traumatic event, our senses are heightened – this may be due to the fight-or-flight response that readies us for action. Since we sense (or know) that something is amiss, our brain releases more chemicals that allow us to be more alert; this in turn may be the mechanism that helps us to remember traumatic events so well.

[2] as well as the above come from http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/bb/neuro/neuro03/web2/shabelow.html

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T%C5%8Dr%C5%8D_nagashi

[4] http://www.mcc.org/system/files/MCC-PON_09-3.pdf

Guilty Crown 1-12: Their Voids, Their Hearts

Guilty Crown has what I always want to see in anime: science fiction. Now I love watching a giant robot blowing things up, but Guilty Crown is not just about robots. It actually centers on a pseudo-scientific power of pulling tools out of people called “Voids,” which are supposed to represent someone’s heart or character if he or she were a tool. This concept forms the setting for a show that had me hooked when so many others left me bored. The motivations of the characters are explored with depth and complexity. The world seems real and the stakes are high. Still, the show does have some flaws with the romantic elements and borrows heavily from standard anime tropes.

The emotional center of a person can focus on hurting or healing. The characters in Guilty Crown contain this complexity and work with it creatively. The first Void we see is Inori’s sword, though there doesn’t seem to be enough character development to understand why she is a sword. But it is easier to see why a character like Hare has the ability to heal. She is a generous person. She takes care of Shu when he needs it. She is a bit of a cheerleader for everyone. On the other side, Yahiro’s Void makes a lot of sense too. He is a cold and cutting figure on the inside. He has no problem cutting people off for his own gain or benefit. It is no surprise that he manifests a pair of wicked scissors. The voids offer a chance to understand the different characters better and maybe even glimpse at their essence.

Proving that pulling things out of chests isn't just for girls.

It is amazing that the idea is just not limited to different types of weapons. We do not just see different kinds of swords or guns but a range of tools—the funniest being a refrigerator pulled out during practice.  Shields, cameras, and anti-gravity projectors are just a few of the items Shu uses throughout the first 12 episodes. Waiting to see what comes next is a nice element to the series.

Along with different Voids, we also watch a real development in Shu’s emotional arc. Shu hides the first time he is called to protect Inori, and he hates himself for the weakness it shows. But even after he gains the power to protect people, he still has to confront the demons of his past. He is horrified by the damage he can cause. He even runs away when the pain he caused in others overwhelms him. Despite this, he still eventually finds the courage to take on the important challenges.  The twelfth episode contains an epic battle that brings him to face something he really wished he had forgotten.  So Shu is a hero that seems human and relatable.

Shu’s development does not take place in a safe, clean world either. The second episode contains a pretty graphic scene showing how ugly the world is. This is not a world where good always wins; it is a world where evil exists and has been brutalizing people for a while. Death in this show is costly. It is not a cartoonishly violent display we can marginalize but a stark reminder of the harsh realities of occupation. Some of the characters may be caricatures, but the background of the world is still realistic enough for us to cheer for a victory.

The problem, summarized.

The biggest flaw is the romance. It just does not exist. Compare that to Eureka Seven, where a boy has a crush and it grows until it becomes mutual love. Shu has a crush on Inori in Guilty Crown, but instead of giving Inori some emotional depth of her own, she just remains an emotionless doll. We can make some inferences based on her actions, but that is just us projecting meaning into them. Shu just likes her because she has a pretty face. She is just a carrot waiting to be used. Hare ought be the one Shu loves instead, because at least she is more then a tool.

The crazy villains do nothing for the story either. One wants to be the president. One wants to marry a reincarnated-crystal girl. One just wants to fire missiles at everything. In short, they are one-dimensional. The first villain we meet has the most depth and he does not last too long in the show. The creativity is focused on the voids and situations while pretty much ignoring the villains. They need to have a good reason for wanting to destroy the world, though. If they can just come up with a semi-believable excuse it would be a more enjoyable story. But if they destroy the world they have nothing to do! At least if they claimed they wanted to turn it into a weapon it would make a lot more sense.

Despite those two flaws, I recommend that you go and watch the show. For American viewers, it is available for free on Hulu. Let the world take you in and strike you with harsh reality. Cheer for a hero who is as human as you. Watch as science becomes magic and tools appear from inside of people—and, of course, watch Shu grab a woman’s boob on accident.

You know what he really means.

Winter 2012 Roundup, Part 1: The Most Promising Shows

For some reason, probably having to do with prolonged illness and the boredom that goes with it, I’ve watched nearly everything this new season has to offer so far. I’ll start with the shows I regard as the ones with the most potential of actually being good—and there’s a surprising number of them, given that winter is typically an off season.

What's behind that eyepa—OH MY GEASS

Another

To this day, I still think the best horror/suspense anime was Boogiepop Phantom. What Boogiepop did better than anyone else was in evoking a genuinely creepy atmosphere, not only with its shadowy visuals but especially with its sound design: the hums, the ghostly pings, and judicious use of electronica. Not everything was well-explained in the anime, but it was something that really gave off the right feeling, especially when viewed in the dark.

Another is also a triumph of atmosphere. It is, at least so far, dependent on it—the plot has barely gotten started aside from the identity of Misaki (perhaps telegraphed a bit too early). But the shivery sound cues and the pacing in its best scenes rival some of Boogiepop’s better moments. Like another well-written but occasionally histrionic series, Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni, it tends toward more traditional anime character design, which can sometimes blunt the suspense to a certain extent; I sometimes have a hard time taking those designs seriously. But unlike Higurashi, it has so far refrained from the use of gore and shock and clearly and deliberately building up to something in a consistent way. Kudos must go, especially, to the final scene in episode 2 in the doll museum. While dolls have been used a lot in anime for creepy affect, and admittedly the show stumbled with the quick cuts to them in earlier moments, the pacing and sound were near-perfect.

The evident skill behind Another makes it worth watching. Now, if only someone could permanently retire Ali Project from ever making OPs and I’ll really be happy…Kajiura-san? Kalafina? You’re needed again for another gothic show!

 

Yes, this is just like EVERY OTHER ANIME scene, but trust me, it's more...

Ano Natsu de Matteru

I have a bias here: I have a real soft spot for the work of screenwriter Yousuke Kuroda and especially Onegai Teacher, which was one of the first animes I ever bought on DVD. (Hint: I got it long before this website ever got started in 2006.) Kuroda has a knack for giving characters emotionally resonant dialogue, and has elevated normally mundane premises like Onegai Teacher by giving characters genuine motivations and feelings. It’s no accident that he worked on Toradora! and Honey and Clover too, two of the most heartfelt slice-of-life/relationship anime of recent years.

So of course I was going to check out Ano Natsu de Matteru. Yes, it’s true: the show almost seems like a deliberate attempt to recreate Onegai Teacher, with character equivalents galore, but with some of the more outlandish plot contrivances of the original toned down. There doesn’t appear to be the “standstills” that make characters look much younger than their purported actual ages, for instance. We don’t have outright marriage right off, either. And I like the central/controlling metaphor of this one better: where they are going to make a 8mm movie. One is almost reminded of the recent JJ Abrams film, Super 8. As well as my own memories of making an 8mm film at the end of middle school…

Kuroda wisely decided to have all the main characters interact as an ensemble right off the bat, and sets up all the important tensions and conflicts between them efficiently. There are clever flourishes, like the transitions between Kai’s fantasies and reality, and the banter between the characters are not only often witty but revealing. (Sure, some of them had to get drunk to be honest, but that’s true in real life too….) This is a nearly perfectly paced show, and it makes some of the more cliche scenes and occasional fan service a lot more palatable. And while I don’t expect it to reach the emotional heights of Ano Hana, its character designer is on board and has done a good job making Ichika in particular reminiscent of, but perhaps a bit less outlandishly proportioned than, the Teacher. Sure, Kai is a bit too much like Jin-tan, but still…

From the I’VE opening to the great pacing and smart dialogue, this is both a nostalgia trip and an anticipation to see if Kuroda can work his magic again.

 

Marika had better trade that maid outfit for a pirate one soon.

Moretsu Space Pirates

To tell you the truth, I’m a little bit more cautious about this show than many others. The strengths of the show are undeniable: the writing is sharp, the pacing is purposeful, the main character Marika is winsome in both her normalcy and her ability to handle challenges. The animation quality is also excellent, though we’ve seen relatively little action so far. Moreover, it’s clear that a good deal of thought was given in building the sci-fi world: the history, the government, the role of pirates/privateers (that is what a “legal pirate” with a Letter of Marque and Reprisal is really called), etc. I also have to appreciate that despite the premise, despite the alternate title of “Mini-skirt Space Pirates,” the show goes out of its way to avoid fanservice. That is not the focus of what is building to be an old-school space adventure show, with a confident schoolgirl in command.

Forgive my impatience, but I just wish they’d get to that point just a little faster. It’s probably a disadvantage of watching this week after week, and with the knowledge that there are two cours. I also fully understand that they are taking the time to deepen the history of Marika and her mother, the Bentenmaru, and the role of Chiaki in particular. It’s working: there are some wonderful individual bonding scenes where Marika interacts with her mother, with Chiaki. I guess I just can’t wait for the action to begin, and it’s making it hard for me to see just where this is going. With the director of the 1990s classic Martian Successor Nadesico in charge, I’m fairly sure he won’t screw up, so my hopes are up—hence its inclusion on this list.

But I want my starships and piracy, dammit. I’m sure that once it does begin it’ll make that launch moment all the sweeter.

 

Truer words were never spoken.

Nisemonogatari

SHAFT and Shinbo strike again! All they had to do was to keep up the banter-dependent, sexy, artsy feel of this sequel to Bakemonogatari and it would be enough. I was latecomer to Bakemonogatari and Senjougahara fandom, but over time I got hooked on its post-modern theater-like atmosphere and its alluring, unconventional approach to the harem genre. For that is what Bake and Nisemonogatari are, at the end of the day, harem shows—but with fascinating dialogue filled with cultural references, screwball comedy exchanges (I loved the “the courage to” challenge), and a nice dollop of real sexual tension that’s captivating.

Nisemonogatari starts off with what are basically set-pieces. There are no problems or curses to solve, unlike the first series. Araragi basically drifts from conversation to conversation with his sisters and other girls; in a way, it’s the slice-of-life genre stripped down to its barest form, as written by Samuel Beckett. That, carried on too long, would be boring though if the characters weren’t so well-differentiated and, in the second episode, so convincingly seductive. I admit that I actually disliked Nadeko in season 1, because I felt the pandering was too thick. Making her bolder and more forward in this season worked, and not just because the fanservice was actually appropriate to the scene—it was directed really well. The subsequent scene with Kanbaru was even more delicious in the dialogue, and ended with a reversal that was both funny and clever.

For once the eroticism of anime seems to actually work. Or maybe I just think the girls are especially hot this season. See Charles’ article for an articulation of why that might be troubling. But the intelligence and artfulness of Bakemonogatari is fully intact.

Next time: why Nichibros, Thermae Romae, and other lauded aniblogosphere titles aren’t on this list!

Durarara!! A DVD Review!

In a city where everything and everyone appears to be linked by an odd series of seemingly “unconnected” circumstances, Mikado Ryugamine is the new kid on the block.  Having just moved to Ikebukuro, Tokyo, at the invitation of his best friend Masaomi Kida, Mikado observes things he never imagined in his wildest dreams.  He learns first hand that life in the big city is as exciting as it is treacherous, whether it be learning the origins of the mysterious gang known only as “The Dollars,” or trying to stay out of the way of some of Ikebukuro’s more undesirable characters, such as the sinister information broker Izaya Orihara.   And to top it all off, on his first night in the city he catches glimpse of the “urban legend” known as the Headless Rider, a supposedly headless driver of a black motorcycle that zooms around the streets of the Ikebukuro.

Now I know that doesn’t really sound like much of a conventional plot summary, and that is intentional because Durarara!! is probably one of the most unconventional anime I have ever seen.  It’s an anime that focuses more (at least in the beginning) on its characters than it does on an overarching plot.  It relies completely on these unique characters to hook the audience, draw them in, and make them stick around long enough for the plot to get moving, which in all honesty takes a bit longer than it probably should.  As an example, the screener disc I received contained the first five episodes and barely touched on what exactly was going on with the story.  Luckily, the aforementioned characters do their job very well.  In fact there are a few of which that are so completely enchanting that they successfully carry this show by themselves till the plot gets cranking.  Not the least of which is The Headless Rider herself, Celty Sturluson, whose story is easily the most interesting of all the characters.

Because this show lives and dies on whether or not you like the cast of characters, it’s a good thing the design and style of the show are also way above par.  The character designs and the animation are simple, sharp, yet fluid and fit the tone of the show perfectly.  Additionally, the city of Ikebukuro itself feels like an active, living breathing entity through the fantastic animation.   This is absolutely necessary as the city connects all the characters together through a series of chance encounters and shared acquaintances.

Durarara!! also has one of the strongest dub casts I have seen in a long time.  Nearly every big name English anime voice actor has a part in this show.  Johnny Yong Bosch ( Trigun, Bleach), Steven Blum (Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Shamploo) Kari Walhgren (FLCL, Lucky Star), Yuri Lowenthal (Afro Samurai, Gurren Lagann), Michelle Ruff (Gurren Lagann, Ai Yori Aoshi) and Crispin Freeman  (Hellsing, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya) just to name a few.   Every single one of these performances is fantastic.  They bring so much life and personality to their rolls, you might just forget that this show was originally in Japanese.  The show also has probably some of most unique and interesting music any anime has had in quite a long time.  The opening and closing songs alone would be worth buying the soundtrack for.

That’s not to say that Durarara!! is without flaw.  It does start slow, and of all the characters in the show, the main character Mikado is probably the LEAST interesting.   His story doesn’t really get going until the end of the first story arc which is about 10 episodes in.   Also, the show has a bit of ADD and throws a lot at you in the first few episodes introducing the huge cast of characters.  But these are minor quibbles as you will eventually become too engrossed with what is happening to notice.

Simply put, Durarara!! is a ton of fun and infinitely re-watchable.  There really is so much going on in this show and it all ties together in a neat little knot.  On multiple viewings you will catch things you didn’t notice the first time through and then you will rewind it to check and see what else you missed.   Throw in a stellar cast and you have one of the first truly great anime releases to come out in a very long time.

Story – 5  Visual/Anime Quality – 5 Audio/Subs – 5   Extras/Packaging – Not Reviewed

OVERALL – 5 stars out of 5

Durarara Review — English Dub
First 5 episodes
Aniplex
Released January 25th 2011
http://www.durararausa.com