Tag Archives: Post-modern anime

Kill la Kill FINAL : A Farewell To Uniformity

klkfinal

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

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

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

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

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

This is exciting stuff.

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

Oh, and during the epilogue – I squeed.

Bridging The Gap: The Value Of Penguindrum (An Ode To Change)

Well there was no real way this post could be avoided. After finishing this series and realizing that there was little to no way this couldn’t be openly discussed in mere tweets/Facebook discussions, it finally came to pass that an extended post would have to be made regarding Kunihiko Ikuhara’s return to anime television. The very notion that such a long break from the industry that helped bring his name to international prominence in the mid-to latter 1990s by way of Sailor Moon R, and of course, Utena, it would have been safe to assume that any return could only be a disappointment. It seemed an inevitability considering how dramatically different the state of the medium is today. Or so I woefully assumed.

 
 
Taken as an entire piece, Mawaru Penguindrum is an unrepentantly unique, and often visionary series the likes of which may delight older fans, and utterly shut out a good portion of modern anime’s devotees with its treatise on a Japan gone from shattered paradigm to helplessly lost world amidst manufactured dreamscapes. Ikuhara alonsgide Takayo Ikami & Brain’s Base, Penguindrum takes very much the same “process” based cinematic techniques that helped make Utena become one of the most accessible, yet bizarre-on-the-surface titles to have ever made a splash on the international fan scene. The story of sickly Himari, and her two older siblings, Shouma and Kanba remains less about a bizarre quest to save her life from almost certain doom with the help of a penguin-hat sporting princess and a trio of hallucinatory birds, but rather the journey of many through a near concrete thick foundation of denial. It is from this outset, not remotely interested in tropes so much as the subversion of them, all the while spinning a tale of what extremities some feel compelled to go through based on perceived positions. Fate and destiny being something of an established chess board, with all characters merely pieces, often willing to turn to amazingly questionable behavior in the name of altering trajectory, or abiding it.

 

 

 

The biggest difference now is that the ante has been sufficiently upped by no longer setting the central action within and around a mythical school life/incubator space where our main characters could fight their ways through. This new expansion of the discussion pitts the characters within something almost resembling contemporary Tokyo, only with a slightly more advanced technological milieu. In fact, much of what many to consider Cool Japan is hyperbolized within this at times unsettling presentation. Colors are intense with pinks and blues, and structures are often day-glo bright. The interior of one of the most often used settings- the subway, is almost wall-to-wall with moving digital advertisement (often featuring the greek chorus in Double-H, who also serve a core purpose around the story). It is almost as if the entire design aesthetic in itself is a paradoxical reflection of internet pop culture Japan. Thereby universalizing the director’s concerns that haven’t subsided any since his previous masterwork. His concerns are Japan’s concerns. His characters may be living in a world of fairy tales, but they certainly don’t see that. In fact, the two-tone reality shared by the majority of Penguindrum’s characters seems to have cornered them to the point that delusions and/or audacious actions seem reasonable. In anime reality, we are quick to judge, but the show continually calls out the viewer, making the case that even wholly reasonable people are capable of such untoward behavior.

 

 

 
 
Continuing a 17 Year Old Soul Search
As the parentless Takakura children are further tumbling down the story’s rabbit hole, it becomes apparent that not only they are bound by the illogical in order to maintain a rendition of peace, but as are the lives of virtually everyone around them. The three kids, with the youngest mostly in the dark regarding these forces that apparently hold her life in limbo, are eventually surrounded by characters who also seem primed to overstep their moral bounds in order to attain a semblance of happiness. Carrying on the theme that binds all characters in the series, it is a seemingly generational curse that has even left troubling marks on those who came before our central leads. And the more we get to grasp the lives of Tabuki, one of the boys’ most seemingly level-headed schoolteachers, and stage actress celebrity, Yuri, it becomes all the more apparent that the Takakuras lie close the ground zero of a secret that almost brought the contemporary Japanese conscience to its knees. Even as the inexplicable advances of Masako seem ready to systematically “crush” some undisclosed object close-particularly to Kanba (who’s reputation as something of a playboy belies even stranger secrets). Even more troubling still is the role of pretty, yet seemingly ordinary high schooler, Ringo Oginome. A girl who could so easily be an inocuous entity in the story, becomes an unexpected element that may save or destroy all everyone holds dear. Not unlike the American television series, LOST, perceptions are questioned, rugs are constantly pulled, and Mawaru Penguidrum becomes something that series failed to become in six seasons, a tale of a society within stones throw of a heart hampered by a lack of emotional insight. It isn’t that Japan is screwed, but rather that it stopped looking forward when the chips were down. So as the tension ramps up when history seems bent on repeating itself, the world of the show is primed to either play within these assumed constructs, or break free by acting humanly unpredictable.

 
 

 

 

A big stumbling block this show may experience in regards to fandom outside Japan, may very well be the reality that much of what is discussed within the its 24 episodes. The entire narrative decidedly centers within a wholly Japan-centric mindset. As westernized as Japan currently is, much of what affects, and ultimately motivates the show’s characters is something more akin to post-WWII psychology. And while this may seem like something that is easy for many acclimated anime admirers to overcome, there is still quite a bit of context that is left intentionally unexplained in the confidence that those aware of their surroundings might pick up on it. Which makes the series an interesting twist on what some detractors have been declaring a growing “insular” movement in anime. This is perhaps an ultimate rendition of how that very movement can create something of cultural value without resorting heavily upon familiar tropes, lest they be toyed with in some signature manner. As visually specacular as this series can be, it’s often at the service of continuing a poem Anno helped spur to introspective life in 1995.

 

 

 

 

Backtracking a little, it is important to consider that Ikuhara has long been friends with Shin Seiki Evangelion director, Hideaki Anno. An artist who became famous for pulling the veneer away from anime’s “fantasy for its own sake” place of safety with his epoch-making series. A show that was in fact affected by the outside world as terror enveloped the nation as the sarin gas attacks, and subsequent trials pertaining to the cult known as Aum Shinrikyo were taking place on tv screens during that time. A nation half a decade into crippling recession, and such events revealed a growing sense of spiritual panic that came symptomatic of a society long neglectful of its heart as profits went up a decade prior, now broken and brimming with an almost insurmountable amount of confusion ready to burst at any moment. For many, Evangelion provided a much needed pressure valve for these emotions homeside, even as the series became a monstrous media success. But it’s also worth noting that despite many series to retread similar territory (as well as Evangelion’s unfortunate “molding” into safer fabrics over the years), it has often come at the sacrifice of likeable characters, and compelling storytelling. Something with Penguindrum never seems to run short on.

 
 
Humoring The Blackness
For a series tackling such heavy themes, one wouldn’t expect the series to continue Ikuhara’s trademark surreal humor. This is something Ikuhara’s contemporary could never take away from him, and it is here in full flower, personal quirks and all. From the often amusing antics of the Takakura family’ s newly adopted penguins, to the clever use of repetition, music, love of the takarazuka, and various spins on fan expectations, the series never lets us forget that we are in an exaggeration of matters. What makes this work so well for me is that despite all the goofy antics, there is often a very character-centric reason for it. Even when the penguins acts reach absurds highs like fighting off an octopus on a window-sill, there is often a lyrical purpose to it all that remains unspoken. The show’s faith in its audience to put everything together while laughing about what could very easily become a harsh melodrama is very hard to achieve, and more often than not, it works toward better helping us understand character dimensions we didn’t realize were apparent upon initial glances. “Show. Don’t tell” is a valuable tool in film, and Ikuhara remains a master of constantly playing with this.

 
 

 

Industry Of Seduction
Which plays quite nicely against the series’ ultimate vision of collective antagonism, the enigmatic Sanitoshi’s belief that it doesn’t matter if fleeting love is what it is, as long as one feels it if even for a brief moment. More extravanant and over the top than even the character of Yuri, Sanitoshi with his hopelessly fujoshi-bait image and voice embodies a youth unwilling to compromise with their mission to undo all around him, no matter the cost. The most ironic element within his penchant for things “eletrifying”, and in the moment, his seemingly magical presence belies something of an unerring addiction to simplified solutions to complex daily problems. With all of his smiles and assurances, there is little in the way of anything truly transformative within his motivations. In fact, it is every bit as binary as the world he seems hellbent to destroy. And like all classic visions of Mephisto, Methusela, and Coyote, he is a soothing, seductive presence fully in the mold of what some fans long to adore, all the while tending to a world of emptiness. He is the face of an artistic medium gone commercially desperate.

 

 

Mawaru Conundrum

 

Which brings me back to the core of why the series carries with it something that has long eluded anime containing elements of the experimental; a solid sense of purpose. Despite years of post-Evangelion attempts to inject a certain “newness” to certain series, eager to capitalize on a growing mature market, most series have had the unfortunate distinction of either taking themselves far too seriously, or suffering from copycat-ism often symptomatic of shows existing in a newly defined environment. And it isn’t that shows like Bakemonogatari are intrinsically flawed, but rather that they often carry lesser baggage and lack the narrative acumen to reach beyond a specific audience. They ultimately become niches unto themselves, making them not only hard to market, but closer to gallery material better suited to a Murakami exhibit. What Mawaru Penguindrum has that most of these series do not is a truly sneaky package, made all the more potent by being especially meticulous about its messages/questions. There never seems to be a moment wasted, or a shot in it for the mere sake of showing it. Ikuhara has observed anime over the last ten-plus years, and clearly has quite a bit to say about it with imagery that spans the absurdist to the terrifying. Most often asking contradictory questions within the same mise en scene, as if the internet age has accelerated our intake of complexity in how we view the world, and he acknowledges this, even as the drama unfolds. Carefully, and provocatively, it beings back the notion of the auteur to television anime in a way that simply has been missing for quite some time.

 

 
 
Smashing The World’s Blu-ray Case
So when the climax comes, and matters for our heroes have reached their irrevocable conclusion, this is where Ikuhara delivers a passionate plea for not only the medium, but its fans. As our most unlikely characters are forced to rise to a challenge that threatens the future of many, including characters we once thought we knew within how the series initially presented itself, we are visually made aware of a world which Ikuhara seems ready to do away with. One that has essentially caged all of our characters, and led them to this desperate, penultimate moment. We are suddenly shown the destruction of a very vessel that binds many a fan the world over.- A batch of anime dvds/Blu-ray. Which in and of itself could very well have been taken alone as an atypical cinematic means of hammering the point home in a one-sided metaphor. But it is immediately amended when this very vessel becomes the means by which salvation is delivered. Interpretation: Mindless consumption carries none of the value that comes with what is being said within the things we value most. In short; Ikuhara’s distaste for ravenous fan culture & preference for something resembling actual substance is made clear within a mere few seconds of animation.

 
 

The world model within the series is rhetorically based on years of buying into invisible assumptions (Often bolstered by consumer culture sturm & drang-Something which even more harshly binds the Japanese.), and the form of the show (not unlike certain characters) seems bent on shattering these illusory traps. It seeks honest answers as opposed to perpetuating ad-hoc, otaku posturing. The show opines that destiny is what we determine with our ever changing expressions of inner personal desire, and not on what we are sold into accepting. The cycle begun with Shoujo Kakumei Utena closes with Mawaru Penguidrum, making it both one of the more exciting shows to have ever been given the green light in such a volatile media climate, and a challenging riposte to a decade of hiding beneath a shell of societal assumption. It’s wild, weird, beautiful, gaudy, painful, and imperfect look forward and backward, seeking diverse answers from difficult questions. It’s both an introspective masterpiece for modern Japanese media, and a spectacular yet inelegant kick in the teeth to the addicted, and we are all the healthier for it.

 
 

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.