Tag Archives: Anime Trends

Bridging The Gap: The Trouble With Natsukashii

After putting some long delayed finishing touches on a Fujiko Mine post, it occurred to me that there is a bit of a disconnect between what it means to overture towards an already established fanbase, and speaking clearly enough that new audiences can appreciate the same work. And while I don’t plan on laying out every concern in this post, there’s definitely much to consider. This is especially so when regarding filmed entertainment such as movies and anime. Of course, there is the “safe bet” of familiarity for those currently bereft of successful ideas. It has been something of a constant throughout visual popular culture that such a well be present at all times, no matter the prosperity level. Shelling out a new rendition of something that has worked before often makes for a logical “band-aid” solution, but rarely is any kind of long-term one. Heck, the Japanese have virtually created an industry on so-called “natsukashii” goods and services, created to fill the hearts and minds of so many with memories of simpler thoughts and or times. But a fundamental issue that crops up time and again regarding familiar worlds, characters, situations, and the like, is in how far can a retread of familiar retain the flavor of the past without seeming out of touch with contemporary themes and concerns.

This all came to mind after watching the final episodes of the latest Lupin III series, and how that handled the differences between what was considered acceptable then versus today. With a presentation that is already pretty bold by the medium’s standards, a lot of Fujiko Mine comes equipped with the promise of a daring new take on what is considered something of a cultural evergreen. This was something, that at least to a fan like myself, that felt appropriate in this period of insightful reimagining & re-examination. Just as 007 has gone through something of a thorough contemporization in recent years, going so far as to modernizing some of the original mythology while retaining much of Ian Fleming’s darker undertones. As expressed in my previous reviews of Fujiko, there is a discord evident early on between an intent to offer up a bleak, edgy tone, and wholesale reverence for earlier incarnations of the Lupin universe. (much of which was already pretty violent despite what Miyazaki would have us believe) And yet, this is a telling microcosm of what happens very often in the dialogue exchange from creators to consumers.

It’s no real secret as to why the familiar is such a popular go-to for media companies. Just think of it. Very few things work as well as something that has in fact worked before. When being torn between a potentially groundbreaking, experimental piece of art(or heck, even just a show with a novel idea), and a proven successful product, it’s easy to see why bean counters opt for the safe bet. In such economically trying times, it’s no wonder we see more familiarity on display than ever. It’s all part of the self-preservation machine going into hyper-mode. There are thousands of great ideas out there, they just aren’t seen as being worth the gamble. (Which also explains much of the medium’s samey nature. The safety card is never far away.) When we anime fans are inudated with so many new shows per year, it’s easy to see why producers would get cold feet after a number of their riskiest titles fail to gather a sizeable viewership. After all, there are products to sell, and that stuff piles up like the madness.

Products are also a major area in which many shows are greenlit over. It’s pretty much the central nervous system of the entire anime industry. When one cannot consider the marketing potential of a series, it becomes less and less probable that a show can be made of it. Which is why shows like Puella Magi Madoka Magika can exist; they straddle the line between the artistic and commercial just fine, and require little thought as to what kind of character products can be manufactured & sold en masse. So if a show’s characters cannot be immortalized in a dakimakura, figure, toy set, gachapon, etc. , you’re show may just never be more than a script in a file cabinet. To be fair, this has been common practice for decades. Just look at all the classic robot shows of the past, realistic, and not so. The wiggle room for risk has always been shifting and shrinking as the market determines.

So the safety net of the past has this stigma with all, but it does so quite significantly with the Japanese. “Natukashii”, as in nostalgic, colors a great deal of the general perspective. The same is true here in the west, with a few exceptions here and there. But the way these cycles tend to happen with anime, it often is so with an almost uncompromisingly forced manner that implies an almost militant need to not rock the boat, and to keep things as close to the original as possible. And while this can indeed be fun (Gundam Unicorn comes rushing to mind), it can also truly stunt creativity, and worse yet, not represent the current mindset of the original author of the work. But perhaps the most dispiriting symptom of such a need to “retain an original essence”, is disregarding the climate of the times, often running face first into social-political dissonance. When Bond first arrived on the scene, the other big global contender was Soviet Russia. Now over 40 years later, not only have political opponents changed dramatically, as have ones of gender, information, social mores, etc. Even in the realm of moving visual media, the world moves on..Even when a series such as Lupin takes place in a vague time period that hews close to the early-to-mid 1960s, the possibility of looking at the world from unexpected social angles makes for potentially compelling viewing.

Of course, this often faceplants into what one can consider to be the very thing producers and fans often mutually refuse to open themselves to; re-examination. If there is anything that is anathema to the foundation of those who cling so tight to the “way things were”, this is it. While many do take change in stride, there will always be a reactionary opposite that decries any major nuance against new artistic license. It’s pretty much an inevitable matter of course. And again, this applies to western fans of famous properties as well.

So when this inevitability seems so firmly in place, why offer up the promise of something new, only to renege on it at the last second? Granted, anything can happen throughout the course of production, and funding is definitely an issue. But when the seams of a work show due to a disagreement between staff members, or possibly even the changeup in the writing team, it can harbor ill for the project as a whole. And as a viewer that is open to a retro, or a progressive approach to old tales, it can be problematic to witness such a pulling of the parachute so late in the game.

If there was anything of value gained by studying stories/film/etc. it’s that a solid foundation in the scripting phase is crucial for the remainder of the work to come across seamlessly. Every good story requires a spine, a rubric to refer to, something that all departments can keep mindful of so that the end product is consistent. Without it, as it implies, offers up an amorphous alternative – which can only work as long as a few tenets remain. But more often than not, leads to something of a confused mess. If we don’t know which side of the bread, the author’s butter is on, how can we fully trust in the message they are delivering? Even in the name of a plot twist, it has to be in the name of some central thought in order for it to even partially work.

With this in mind, there are other issues that often come to the fray when thinking of the past, and the temptation to revisit it. There’s always the concern of updating in a manner unbecoming of the original. Also, the headaches that often come with making a new rendition with new minds in the production cycle. Nothing ever remains completely the same, and a such, comes the dilemma as to what degrees the staff are willing to do to identify their own work.(leaving a stamp will always be a driving force) And lastly (for now), the dichotomy between the production/artistic voice of the originals versus the present world. These are all viable challenges that inform, and often plague many a new series/film. But the final word comes from the most important quantity in the whole equation. Something that far more studios/marketing arms should keep mind in listening to. Its a relationship so many can no longer assume they understand.

The past can be a lovely place. But without immediacy, so much runs risk of becoming the stuff of our collective amnesia.

Bridging The Gap: Crossing The Stream Rubicon

It’s an amazing thing, to be able to watch such a subculture-centric form of entertainment like anime at the instant click of a mouse. It’s so easy to lose grasp of just how wild this very concept is, not merely to industry, but to those long in the fandom. The very idea of streaming video has been with us long enough to make this a possibility, but to consider anime as an accepted staple of it continues to blow my mind a least. The far reaching effects of something like this bringing an all-encompassing end to flawed business models, forcing companies long dependent on physical media to survive has been both an painful, yet exciting ride to witness. So when it has come to pass that anime studios/producers find themselves late to the party, but more than welcome to the sphere, it also comes to bear that it affects more than merely their bottom line. It can also be said to affect the very nature of not only how we watch our favorite shows, but how often as well.

 

 

When one considers a time when waiting & access was the greatest barrier between fans and their next fix, the very idea that being able to watch a recently released series mere days (or sometimes hours)post release has been something of an impossible dream realized. In a bold progression, legitimate entities can now beat out an often outmodded fansub model to present high quality translation and treatment, which can be upgraded for a small subscription fee. This is something that had long eluded fans not only here, but in so many other fan communities. So much so that it renders so many of the more DIY elements fandom used to comprise of. And as it becomes such a direct line between creators and fans, one can almost say that the gap is indeed closing to those originating parties most willing to work with their viewers. It cuts out the old network TV model that anime had long been a part of. Opportunities lie to those willing to open up to the possibilities. And what this means to us, is more content, better treatment, and possibly..some semblance of crossover potential.

 

 

What this promotes, is an olive branch to a global viewing audience that may force the industry to better consider what will be watched, let alone purchased. To think that audiences outside of Japan had that kind of impact before can be debated, but more than ever, this makes for an important moment between the viewer/potential consumer, and those that purvey the medium. The long term effects is something that continues to concern many, but the potential is certainly there. Especially when considering that until this point, file sharing was the de-facto alternative to purchasing, and before that it was tape trading. And then before that, it was purchasing of old 16-35mm printed film of shows and movies without subtitles, often with a need for a friend or “source” to interpret the scenes out loud to a roomful of con-goers, watching the movie years after release. One had to know the lingo, the secret handshake, or have the friend or relative in the military to even have access to shows which had zero chance of ever seeing light in the states in any legitimate manner. Which is why the previous trade models were in place. But where we are now is at a point that virtually negates this as long as the studios are willing to play ball.

 

 

On the flip side, there are also plenty of pratfalls to all of this that continue to concern not only the studios looking for new ways to turn a profit, but me as well. If there is any possible major drawback to the streaming anime, it lies in the new reality that once we become inundated with anything, as people, we have a tendency to filter out what we don’t either like or care for. The novelty of anime was something the Japanese had depended on for sales. This is something so many have neglected to consider. The allure of pretty girls, machines, magic & monsters can in fact become boring if one delves into the medium a bit more than most. Burnout is not only the concern, but the general attitude of an industry obsessed with cornering increasingly trope-based stories and concepts runs potentially against those looking for something new and fresh. Crossover potential has been a growing concern with anime for the last several years, and fewer general interest shows have been produced. The loss of shows that can garner a constant stream of new, fresh-minded fans is a deeply concerning one if one wishes for the medium to survive beyond a niche audience. Too much access, and having little in the way of choice is something both sides have to contend with today, as it can also turn away potential converts, as well as turn off older fans with a hankering for those types of shows from the past that saw potential in anime as a wide –reaching artform, with less restrictions as to story. In essence, streaming becomes the new TV, and anime just becomes another part of the background, much like in Japan. Which brings the challenge to an even greater plateau; the shows need to be more than self-serving to survive. This is a global audience to consider now, and to assume that a self-cannibalizing creative pool will keep it alive for long is worth questioning. Novelty is dead, and with that, comes a need for clarity of vision.

 

 

So when it comes to our habits, and what it is we do with this wild new world we continue to see develop, It’s well worth considering what it is we consume, and how we do it. A personal favorite benefit of all this, is a big one-up from broadcast/simulcast, and that’s the ability to sample shows whenever I like. And taking this into account, one does not have to watch every new episode the moment it is released. As a kid who is only used to marathoning shows depending on their strengths, I personally enjoy the option of pacing myself with a series. Sometimes waiting several weeks to pass, in order to catch up with them in several hour bricks at a time. And since so many shows are released per season, it also helps to be a little more responsible with what one is more willing to dedicate time to. Unlike many bloggers, I don’t see the potential in perusing so many shows just to make burst reviews. As a general rule, it simply isn’t my cup of tea, and it often only works if the series starts off incredibly strong. (which rarely if ever happens) Which brings us back to the notion of novelty, and how we are now in an era where anime doesn’t have to be on par with dangling a flashlight in front of us to be amusing. There is actual content to be considered now, and analysis can happen truthfully, and without some kind of cloud of freakishness to make it seem more vital than it is. Because much like Japan, we have the potential to clock the changes that come, and how they affect us in the grander scheme. Our anime diet can in fact be a healthy one, representing what it is that drew us to the show, rather than the mere idea of its origins. It’s all a big conversation that just continues to get bigger, so let’s live it up and act, shall we?

 

 

So as for the moment, what excites me about where we are? The shows that continue to dominate my time continue to be Moretsu Space Pirates, and Chihayafuru. Both series that continue to live up to what I prefer to see in my occasional intake. And the recent classic Hulu acquisitions by way of Tokyo Movie Shinsha have been great to share and talk about. Having Space Adventure Cobra and Lupin III: Mystery Of Mamo within instant reach keeps me hopeful that more films like these will continue to have a home for more movie and animation fans to discover. In fact, that’s pretty much my biggest pie in the streaming sky at the moment. I’d love to see more classic shows to pull a Captain Harlock, or Galaxy Express 999-style presence here. Licenses of many older, lesser known series would be the most exciting next step these studios could possibly take. In lieu of decades of fighting to have many of these shows even considered for VHS, I’d be over the moon for an “anime classics” line, myself.

Wintermuted’s 2011: Meeting Futures Halfway

 

 

2011; what it mean to me? Well to look back, dig deep, and investigate would mean having to consider something that wasn’t a list of some sort. And while something like a list surely would offer up some kind of marquee-type value to the  site, I find it much more important to point out what made the year stand out in regards to content.

With a year fraught with very real tragedy and fear when and after Japan was hit by one of the great natural disasters of our time, it is on the other hand encouraging that changes for the anime industry have indeed been in the chrysalis stages, and only seem to be accelerating again. It’s no accident that the concepts behind many of the year’s standouts seem to be coming from places not as often tread by the typical fan wank, and are edging to what is hopefully a positive new turn for the medium in regards to risk, which is something so many seem to have been dreadfully allergic to for years. While there was indeed more of the same bouts of helplessly pander-heavy shows, and milquetoast offerings, there were also some standouts that seem to indicate what I mean.

 

 

Early in the year, my initial reactions were that shows like Level E were looking toward manga’s past for potential answers, while Yamamoto’s ill-fated Fractale did the same whilst seeking a bold new bent on familiar themes. Right away the vibe was that the studios were actively looking for paths less familiar to the current generation of animators on a work level, possibly in hopes of creating a new language. And while both of these series diverge in regards to actual quality storywise, it was interesting to see this precedent so early on. Also highly worthy of note, was the inclusion of Horou Musuko, which not only offered a bold premise and story, but it also came with a rare visual palette that immediately sent me shivers. It was as if studios across the board were suddenly ready to play ball, and offer up not only something truly new, but almost completely out of the realm of anime familiarity, which is always a plus. Despite some minor story issues, it remains a standout and must-see. However, it took another show to unexpectedly take this lead further and do what few shows have in recent years. (Something I’ll get to in a bit, please be patient.)

 

 


Moving into Spring season, and with an entire world rattled by catastrophy that seemingly had no end, several shows offered up unique twists on what could otherwise be considered standard fare. The big surprise winner for me being the wildly fun and retro-tastic Tiger & Bunny, which offered up a dazzling mix of comedy, action, and drama that has been greatly missed for some time. By taking the american superhero subversion that has been occurring in the west, and giving it a Japanese consumer-satire sheen atop of it, it ends up being not only a fitting tribute to pop culture’s costumed cousins, it also grants them hearts in the best manner the Japanese can provide. It’s rare when such a reinterpretation works so well, and this is that moment where even new viewers can be allowed into a whole new world they have often felt left out of. Also standing out at this point was Hanasaku Iroha, which seemed ready to tackle not only a simple tale of familial strife, it also had cultural identity wholly on its sleeve. In a rare move for recent anime on tv, a call for balance was brought to the table. And while shows like Nichijou offered often beautifully animated absurdism ala Azumanga Daioh via David Lynch, there was still a hint of deeper concern happening within Iroha that left a lingering impression, even if the show didn’t always deliver what it set out to. Even Steins;Gate, while occasionally interesting, seemed ready to take its place alongside the ever growing pile of “cool idea that needs just a little more time to cook” shows that Nitroplus was involved with this year. Regardless, effort was seen shining in unexpected places, which was encouraging.

 


As summer came in, so did some great surprises in the form of a most unusual family drama, and the return of a long-missing master with a whopper to tell. Upon first hearing that the popular manga by Yumi Unita was to become a tv series, worry began to fill my heart, and not only for obvious reasons. Could a story this laid-back, and in the moment work even for a noItamina series? It’s great to be proven wrong sometimes, and Usagi Drop remains a heartfelt and often truthfully sweet testiment to the changing face of family. Featuring the second awkward dad this year (the first being Kotetsu T. Kaburagi of Tiger & Bunny, of course) to have not only a great handful to deal with, but also an unerring wish to be the best dad he can. He may not be the sharpest crayola in the box, but he’s doing his damndest. And it’s great to watch him try. It’s extremely rare to see such sincerity at work in anime, and the show’s 11 episodes often shine brightly because of it.

 

 
So what were my favorites overall? If I had to make a thoughtful decision, I suppose two won me over due to their audaciousness, while the third did by playing things straighter than most, with just enough contemporary thoughtfulness to make it count.

 

 


First has to go to Puella Magi Madoka Magica, an out-of-nowhere project that reminded of how much I’ve missed the full potential of anime. Confession time: coming from a very sincere place, I can’t say that I have ever truly enjoyed anything directed by Akiyuki Shinbo. Aside from being an efficient stylist with little to actually say, he has never come off as more than this, and had yet to do anything substantial on a story level. And yet it took collaborating with Gen Urobochi to rise to unheard of heights by doing his own tribute to the very best of 90s “edge anime”, and offering something that resembles an solid human theme, not to mention some vital life questions. (A fitting counterpoint to the often comfort-food territory of the Magical Girl show) Using the history of maho shoujo lore to tell what is essentially a treatise on female roles and the responsibility that lies ahead in an ever unpredictable new world. Somehow defies what I still find to be an unfocused story in the first half (populated mostly by types rather than characters). So when the footing is found, the wins often outnumber the losses despite a large need for some additonal characterization. It’s a bumpy ride, but I remain ultimately satisfied by what I see as one of the most visually haunting shows in years. Where Chihayafuru maintains a stalwart heart, and longing for simpler ideals, Madoka Magica reinstills an unyielding, provocatively forward mind.  Positing that the value of intention only goes as far as we are willing to see them through with clear eyes, and often not to what we imagine them to be. And yet, despite the false footing it starts on, it somehow eventually wields an immediacy that is sorely lacking right now. The packaging is striking, and the choices within are unrepentantly anti-fan. Simply put: the Blu-ray release can’t come soon enough.

 

A most welcome return..

 

When word came around that long out-of-action anime auteur, Kunihiko Ikuhara was to make his return with the series, Mawaru Penguindrum, I must admit that it was with a great deal of reservation. So many years had past since his work on 1997’s crossover hit Shoujo Kakumei Utena helped usher in an era of surreal, cerebral television anime, and I couldn’t help but be worried if the medium had long left his parade charge behind. Turns out I couldn’t have been more wrong as Penguindrum remains as baffling, yet startlingly entertaining from start to just recent finish. Again tackling much of the same territory he did with Utena, albeit in a world outside of merely school, Ikuhara’s obsessions with multiplicity, and justification are in full force for a new generation to parse and muse over. Whether fate comes from without or within, it could also be considered another grand questioning of the things that the average person uses to account for their disposition and actions. Also in force is Ikuhara’s lampooning of old anime’s cost-saving techniques of stock footage, perhaps even commentating on anime’s often samey nature which is more than welcome. Overall, a strangely touching and occasionally frustrating series that’s never satisfied with being one thing. Well worth the trip.

 

Long Live The Queen..

Honestly, if you had told me that my favorite series of the year was to be an old-fashioned sports-anime mashup about competitive  karuta and ancient Japanese poetry directed by Madhouse regular, Morio Asaka, I would have called you straight up…well..mad. Chihayafuru makes no bones about what it is, and makes it’s strengths look so effortless. But it takes a great amount of craft to tell a tale like this, and not lose one’s way in the process. There are so many places this could have gone wrong, and somehow the series continued to warm the heart and challenge modern anime with its tale of a trio of young people captured by an affinity for the senses. As the game of karuta requires, it is all about attentiveness & impulse. And the expected shoujo elements somehow play quite beautifully with the game-centric elements of the plot, which like in all sports anime (or even movies), are more representative of where a character is at a certain point. A series like this could never work without a likeable lead, and Chihaya Ayase is as well-rounded and likeable as they come. She contains the beauty and spiritual shell of a typical heroine of this ilk, but she also has with her an enthusiasm that is often blinding to the point of clumsiness in terms of the closest things in her life. And in how the two young men in her life represent major parts in what has led her to a path away from a more manufactured existence is palpable. They both have their qualities, so none of that ever rings false. And as I just mentioned, through Chihaya, and a group of memorable characters, the series also wins where Hanasaku Iroha was merely scratching at; offering another look at a possible Japan with one eye toward the future, yet with a true sense of identity not wrapped in consumerist plastic. Intelligent and pleasing all around, Chihayafuru is my personal favorite for 2011.

Not such a bad year despite all that happened around it, which in itself is an awe inspiring testament. May inspiration & hope continue to spring forth.

 

Until Next Year..

The Archetype Factor: Kimagure Orange Road

Happy to be back on the air in some capacity, and felt it right to go ahead and address a defense that has appeared more than once via Twitter. Now this social media platform, as much as I have loved how it has become a groundbreaking means of blurring lines between users from the most influential celebrity to the most isolated blogger, it does contain a blind spot within its character limit. The big stumbling block of it is that context can get lost in between posted statements, retweets, and so on. And one that caught my eye this week was one regarding the often incessant derision from many fans regarding the almost endless use of character archetypes, particularly in current anime. (I myself can count as one of these many voices decrying the use of this practice) And the oft used Devils Advocate statement states that the use of said character types is a practice common to even literature, and has been so for ages, so why is it a problem?

A fair statement, however, being that this is Twitter we are talking about here, such a complex subject should not be highlighted without acknowledging something even more obvious…That archetypes function as templates, not as a means to an end. I believe I brought this disconnect up recently, and i will do my part to illustrate what makes certain characters more memorable than others. And yes, this is clearly a subjective viewpoint I’m coming from here, but hopefully this will help visualize what some anime fans are trying to say when they see stock types rule each oncoming season.

For this experiment, I will go ahead and break out an older series that helped establish one of anime’s most tired premises, the high school love comedy/drama.

The Control: Kimagure Orange Road

Now before proceeding, I must admit to a little bias at the offset. And I do acknowledge many a blogger/ fan who considers this show to be the beginning of a sort of downhill trend of character idolization, and even the birthplace of many one-dimensional romantic/slice-of-life works. The animated version of Izumi Matsumoto’s coming of age love triangle tale with a dash of psionics has its issues, but it also does offer much in the way of what makes stories like this work. (Even in a prototypical sense) Even as the show establishes its characters, and prepares us for an extended ride through the smiles and winces of young love during the latter days of Japan’s bubble era, the show falls victim to what so many other shows made afterward have, and is only made worse when the show was renewed for a second season. (and let’s not start mentioning the arbitrary OVAs either) As much as I love the show, the ensuing frenzy for the show’s focal love interest was merely a symptom of other forces at play. A phenomenon that grew out of the show’s need to make this character an ideal led to some of the more leery moves made by the anime producers, including Kenji Terada.

So let’s look at the main characters of the series, shall we?


The show’s central lead & narrator, Kasuga Kyosuke is something of a variation of the ever-typical loser hero, who’s fortune takes a turn when he becomes entangled in a volatile love triangle between childlike & oblivious Hikaru Hiyama, and mature & often mysterious Madoka Ayukawa. Newly moved to the city, Kyosuke is something of a country bumpkin in many ways, which only makes his strangely grafted on ESPer abilities (coming from a family complete with psychic power wielding little sisters!) all the more unpredictable. And this is where, at least for this writer, the tacked-on issue of being young, and having psychic powers makes for both story fodder & curious subtext. (Fans of Brian DePalma’s CARRIE, take note) As empty as this character should be, he is strangely interesting in how he is set up as this completely clueless lead, and yet has to worry about his lack of understanding about his own inherited ability. Where it comes into play is when he is faced with at times the most domestic problems, and comes face to face with the corruptive possibilities of being empowered. (IE- Library Study with Madoka, or Pool Party with Hikaru & pals-At The Same Time) In fact, a lot of what transpires in the series is borne out of his “hidden” talent. From this point on, the ethics of being empowered comes into play as Kyosuke is now on/off dating the bubbly, and often caustic Hikaru, while quietly pining for her more level-headed best friend, Madoka. It is this central internal conflict that gives the show its juice for better or worse. But it is in Kyosuke’s unflagging, bright-eyed naivete that the show relies on to help viewers better understand the story’s examination of latter Showa-era feminine roles. He’s as much an archetype as he is a classic 1980s male audience surrogate.

Which leads us to looking at Kyosuke’s clueless girlpal, Hikaru. As my previous words have described, she is the smaller, cuter, and hopelessly immature foil for our leads, who functions as a sort of safety net since he can never seem to tell her how he really feels. Having fallen for Kyosuke after accidentally seeing him using his ESPer abilities to make an impossibly perfect freethrow in the school gym while thinking he was alone, she sees him as the coolest guy around. Her lack of knowing the truth behind the shot makes for a lot of the show’s at times tiring humor, but it also sheds light on certain character traits that allude to the classically immature high school girl with a love of artifice, rather than with anything substantial. What makes Hikaru so interesting to me is that even as the show establishes her as an unrealistic, and at times agitating person, she also begins to display an unexpected amount of caring and resilience that even the show’s ideal seems incapable of exhibiting. There is a well hidden maturity to her character that is only made apparent in specifically timed moments. Even under all that sugary kawaii, there is a young woman tearing at the seams, and this is the element that becomes the show’s central ticking clock; how long can any of this last before Hikaru realizes how Kyosuke truly feels? Again, as far as archetypes go, she is kind of a classic (Knives Chau, anyone?), but it is this deceptive hint that she knows exactly what is happening that makes her worth continuing to watch.


And finally, rounding out the triangle is what has always seemed to be KOR’s main selling point, the enigmatic & beguiling Madoka. Now I won’t go into too much about what makes fanboys all over go nuts for this character, but I will state here that she offers more than what some detractors have stated. As the quiet, and beautiful delinquent-turned ideal good girl, Madoka is something of an archetypical break, especially in regarding anime which at the time was largely only placing female leads in pulpy male fantasy & science fiction roles. What makes her interesting to me is how deceptively “perfect” she is. While she exhibits musical talent from the getgo, and over the course of the series, seems to be good at just about EVERYTHING, it is interesting to note that the show also exhibits a darker side to this character than some fans would rather acknowledge. From her never-truly-established checkered past, to her sneaking out and drinking, to even encouraging Kyosuke’s duplicitous nature toward her so-called “best friend”, there is more to this romantic ideal than meets the eye. In a broader context, she is a break in how the average japanese male in the mid 1980s viewed females, and therefore represented an oncoming paradigm shift that continues to take place today. She is on the surface, an independent young woman, while still tending to some deep-seated abandonment issues, perhaps even leading to her stringing Kyosuke along, and possibly even betraying her lifelong friend. Madoka defies not only cultural “norms” of the time, but also of the very concept of an ideal altogether. For every talent she miraculously pulls out of the red hat, there always seems to be a more mundane psychological trade off of some kind. She is only “perfect” in Kyosuke’s mind.

So does the show come through with all of this character complexity intact? Well, no. And this isn’t a matter of character so much as it is of stretching out a series beyond credulity, which is what ultimately hurts KOR as a whole series. However, what does work is a cast of characters that while on the surface may look like a test-type model for any other high school romantic comedy anime, serves to pose some dynamic enough questions by mashing worldviews against one another. And this is indicative of many a classic show. Sometimes, it is this kind of love for characters that allows it to last in the mind of viewers. But it takes work, and craft to make this happen. And in the era of 13 episode show lengths, and amped visuals, it has become hard to settle into a character’s shoes to see how they operate as themselves. Shows today often have to just get things over with, which is a shame.


And yet, when all is said and done, KOR still works for me because the blueprints for what made the leads was well established in the source material. Had Matsumoto not have gone out of his way to make these characters not only interesting, but representative of the time in which they were created, the show may not ever have had made such an impression on me all those years ago. And even as we have become much more sophisticated as anime views and collectors over the years, it can’t be disuputed that far too many shows made in the mold of an animated visual novel, often resort to mass produced concepts as opposed to real characters. One thing that the Kimagure Orange Road series did so well was find the varying character dimensions and played them against one another in sometimes sneaky ways that undermine what we think we know about them. In short, archetypes are the standard when it comes to populist entertainment, but it doesn’t have to stop there. In fact, the more that is played with in between the lines is what makes characters leap from the page and or screen. It isn’t enough to have a “type”, and leave the viewer scraping to add their own two cents in to make them seem more human than what they actually are- moppets for making products out of. People are more multi-faceted than this, and nothing is more reductive of character than lazy, underthought-by-committee writing. Even a little extra effort on the parts of anime & film writing can go a long way in making a cast stand out amongst an ever expanding crowd.

Because it is a lot like what Miles Davis once said, “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.”

2011: Everything Old Is New? (And Onward..)

So happy to see that around the time of my last post, a small group of new shows arrive with my notions well complimented. It seems as though despite the ever glowering cloud of desperation often gumming up recent anime schedules,this worry has finally found a weak spot. That, or the old fixer-upper solutions are no longer working. Whatever the case, it seems that certain prayers may be answered this season as not one, but three shows debuted this last week that offer shining proof that anime can indeed offer more than the expected warm blankie/cocoa combo they’ve been dishing out ad-nauseum over the last several seasons.

(Not that I dislike cocoa, mind you. But one too many makes for a violently upset Wintermuted.)

Starting off with Level E, a punchy, goofy science fiction comedy set in a world where extraterrestrials co-exist amongst the ignorant human population until the day one decides to move into the new home of a young baseball hopeful (Sans permission, and  is of the “just won’t go away” quantity.). Both refreshingly funny, and breathlessly retro (the original manga was serialized in the mid 90s-Yes.), the comedy plays like an X-Files parody, with a dose of GTO-like shonen energy for good measure. It is especially fun in how the interplay between lead protagonist, Yukitaka, an ordinary boy who’s prowess in baseball has led him to a potentially exciting new life in a new town, and hopelessly irritating alien prince Baka works. It’s a simple, and yet effective take on the classic straight-man, and the spoiled fool, made all the funnier with the erstwhile prince’s appearance as a strikingly effeminate pretty boy. Add the classic 90s hard manga art style, and the whole package thus far is quite promising. Studio Pierrot (Click Me.) and David may have themselves a memorable little hit on their hands if they continue to expand the world, and drag poor Yukitaka along for the ride.

Level E is available via Crunchyroll (Members now, but free within days!).

Second is clearly on a much more familiar stage, and pays homage to two generations of anime fandom, and as such could be a more dicey project. I write simply about Yutaka Yamamoto’s big-scale NoItamina project, Fractale, which plays like a Greatest Hits compilation of not merely anime favorites, but potentially as contemporary metaphor. In the idyllic fantasy world that resembles an Irish isle surrounded by deceptively analog trappings, where youthful wanderer, Clain seems to live amongst virtual citizens called “Doppels”, his seemingly peaceful virtual life is thrown for a loop when he encounters a mysterious girl on a glider chased by roughs in an airship. So already, this should sound terribly familiar. Right on down to the design aesthetic, we are in a post-cyberpunk take on Miyazaki (or Nadia, pick your poison), complete with simple attractive leads, silly, ineffective villainy, and a love of quiet, open space. But knowing that this is being filtered through the minds of both Yamamoto, a director with a full understanding of the form, and noted critic & writer Hiroki Azuma, this is sure to take come interesting turns as we come to learn more about Clain, Phryne, and the world watched over by the mysterious Fractale system.

The problems with this show are evident in presentation, since it depends so much on either full knowledge of the inspiration, or completely new perspective which can either help or cripple the series as a whole. Long and short, this series, while having a promising debut episode needs to gather steam quickly to fully work. So while some critics may find this inexcusably trite and hopelessly post-modern, perhaps this is only the beginning of a unique exploration of anime fandom as well as the increasing allure of insular living. The show seems to definitely be going in this direction. Here’s hoping they find something truly new and exciting along the way.

Fractale is available via Funimation & Hulu!

And lastly, it should be noted that of all the new shows out this season, the one I’m most hopeful for is AIC Classic’s visually rich & utterly fascinating adaptation of Takako Shimura‘s Hourou Musuko (Wandering Son). Telling the take of young middle schoolers, Nitori, and Takatsuki, a boy and girl who share a secret of wishing to switch genders, the story is told with sensitivity, and a truly unique visual style. So much more interested in letting the lives of the two leads take the forefront, rather than going for the cheap and easy trap route is a bold, and human turn in a medium that is often more restrictive of such notions. Right away, the visuals(much like a watercolor storybook come to life) offer the promise of something altogether new. In fact, bold doesn’t begin to describe it.

If there are any true problems with the debut episode, it is that we are thrust in several volumes into the story that was likely an episode count issue, and could very well make or break the series as a whole. We are given glimpses into their respective lives, but it makes the viewer wish for a much smoother means to get to know them. And as a show with a slower pace than others, it would likely benefit from less compression. But given the presentation, this was likely an impossibility. So the mix can be a bit of a  conundrum by design. And yet despite all this, a show focusing on issues of gender identity, and the pangs that come with being young makes for potentially important viewing. There is a lot of emotional truth to all of this, something that can go a long way if Ei Aoki & crew stay the course.

Hourou Musuko is available via Crunchyroll (Members now, but available free in days!)

So with these new shows in the ether, ready to take on a potentially evolving landscape, here’s hoping fans all over are equally as prepared for change as this new year starts off full throttle. I know I am.