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11:54 AM on 01.08.2013

Review: Persona 4 The Golden



As the years have passed by, the JRPG has fallen far in the eyes of gamers. From being the must have, killer app that every platform needed (love it or hate it, Final Fantasy VII was one of the most important games in the history of the Playstation), they've now been reduced to curios, outshone commercially by their western counterparts and appealing only to a small niche audience. Critics have lambasted them for generic design, poor stories and weak dialogue, and it certainly seems that barring some exceptions the overall quality of games has diminished as the years have gone by.

One of the exceptions to this downward trend has been the Shin Megami Tensei games, not so much in being niche products (part of the appeal is that they are very niche) but in the fact they've injected some fresh ideas and concepts into the genre. Dark, heavily based on existing mythologies, and normally set in modern day urban environments, they've become something of a banner series for those who insist the JRPG can still be relevant. In particular, the Persona sub series, after a successful reintroduction to the west in 2006 with Persona 3, has become a fan favourite. Persona 4 followed in 2008 and though it emerged years after the PS2 had been rendered an outdated console, it was widely regarded as a superb game. Over time its legend has grown to the point that many now regard it as one of the greatest RPGs ever made. Needless to say then that when Atlus announced a remake for PS Vita, complete with new content, expectations were high. Whereas the original Persona 4 had sailed under most people's radars, this new version arrives with 4 years of hype behind it, along with a duty to shoulder a platform which lacks decent software to put it kindly.

Is it up to the challenge? Absolutely.



At its core, this is fundamentally the same game as the PS2 original. What that means is a game of two distinct portions that tie together in interesting and clever ways. One half is a heavily story driven social interaction game, almost a dating sim but without any of the negative connotations that term comes with. You spend your days going to school, hanging out with your friends, working part time jobs etc. Certain characters act as 'social links', each of whom has their own individual little story that can be explored by spending time with them. You can also eat in restaurants, study, or work, each of which raises certain attributes such as 'courage' and 'knowledge' which are often necessary to access certain social links or dialogue choices.

The other half of the game takes place in a malevolent world inside your television set, and is a slightly more traditional turn based dungeon crawler, but with enough quirks to make it interesting. You and your party of up to three others must tackle multi-floored, partially randomly generated dungeons, battling the 'shadows' who lurk within. These come in a dizzying array of types, shapes and sizes. You'll be summoning the titular Personas - mythological creatures who represent parts of your psyche (yes, it's weird) - to battle them. Like many of the other Shin Megami Tensei games, combat revolves around a series of elemental weaknesses that both you and the enemies have - if you hit their weakness, they'll be knocked down and you'll get an extra turn. Downing all enemies leads to a powerful 'All Out Attack' which is essential to take out certain enemies.



The real genius here is the way the two systems intermingle on multiple layers. You see, unlike every other party member, you, the protagonist, have the ability to switch between multiple Personas, each one possessing different attacks and resistances. You gain new Personas by 'fusing' together old ones, making more powerful monsters out of multiple weaker ones. So there's already a compelling, Pokemon-esque nature to gathering Personas and forging stronger ones, but there's more also. The Personas are categorised into groups tied to the major arcana of the Tarot deck - The Fool, The Magician, The Priestess etc. Each of your social links is also tied to one of these arcana (and in a nice flourish, the link character(s) represent the qualities associated with that symbol). If you're fusing a Persona that's associated with an arcana you've established a link for, that Persona will gain bonus experience. The stronger the link, the more experience the Persona will gain. When social links reach their highest level, you'll also be granted the ability to fuse an 'Ultimate' Persona for that arcana, which are generally ridiculously powerful.



The final ingredient in this addictive cocktail is time. The game takes place on a 'real-time' scale over the course of a year, and while that may sound like a lot it turns out to be nowhere near enough. All of the above actions take a certain amount of time - every day you spend hanging out with your buddies is another day you could instead be jumping into the TV and grinding out some XP in battle. It's complicated by the fact that all of the characters you're interacting with have their own schedules as well. Some links are only available on certain days or once certain conditions have been met - the sports club won't meet when it's raining for example, and you'll need a certain level of bravery before you can skip class to hang out with one character. The game also sets hard dates dungeons need to be completed by, so there's no chance of simply hanging out until you feel you're ready.

What this results in is something genuinely rare in gaming - choice with actual consequence. It's not the grandstanding 'who lives and who dies' choices you often see splashed on the back of boxes, but instead something subtle and more powerful. Every in-game day is a mess of small choices that might eventually lead to big benefits. Will you spend your time after school with the band or at a part time job? Studying in the evening won't get you any immediate benefit, but it might unlock something major down the line. Jumping in the TV to battle monsters will make that next boss that much easier, but what if you want to go out with your girlfriend? With 23 Social Links (2 of which have been newly added for this version) and a plethora of other activities, it's (almost) impossible to do everything, so you're going to have to make choices about what you want to see and who you're going to hang out with.



None of this would matter of course if you didn't actually want to spend time with characters. Luckily, Persona 4 boasts one of the most interesting and fun videogame casts in years. Though it continues Japan's obsession with setting stories in high school, the teenagers who make up the majority of the main cast are far from stereotypes. Instead, they're an appealing and diverse bunch who actually behave somewhat like you'd expect kids of their age to. At Persona 4's heart there's a knockabout camaraderie reminiscent of an 80's John Hughes comedy like The Breakfast Club, full of goofy escapades and witty dialogue. Most RPGs are all about the quest, but here it's also about the downtime between the epic moments when you'll just be hanging out with your team, going to the beach or the school festival, romancing the ladies or rough-housing with the guys. This is one of those rare occasions where an RPG's extreme length (it'll take 50 hours to complete if you're racing through) helps as well - you'll spend so long in the sleepy country town the game is set in you'll adapt to the rhythms of life there, and grow closer to the characters as you live out your days with them.

It's not all teenage hijinks and hanging out after school though. SMT games have always had a reputation as dark, serious stories and while Persona 4 might be the brightest of them, there's still a lot of heavy, thoughtful material to be consumed here. Almost all of the social links revolve around some sort of issue the involved character has, and these often go to some pretty serious places. Topics such as self-confidence, depression, heartbreak and death are all explored, with a surprising amount of sensitivity and nuance, and while there's some obvious fluctuation in the quality and nature of the social links, the best are good enough that they could make compelling vignettes or short stories in their own right. Particularly notable is the game's mature handling of sexuality, which acknowledges homosexuality, gender portrayal and sexual stereotyping in an open and even-handed way. The game isn't exactly a masterpiece of introspection, but the excellent quality of the writing and the bravery of touching upon such themes means it deserves immense credit.



The quality of the game is also aided by a fine audiovisual effort and a typically polished translation from the team at Atlus. Graphically this is clearly a Playstation 2 game, but the bright vivid Vita screen and a few choice graphical upgrades help everything look clean and smooth, while the addition of new artwork and high resolution sprites helps add sharpness. Character designer Shigenori Soejima does great work producing a distinctive looking cast with his trademark style and there's a host of delightful design touches, especially the individual dungeons which boast very distinctive aesthetics. Music is a high point, with composer Shoji Meguro bringing a whole host of incredibly distinctive themes to the table - I guarantee a few hours playing will have them permanently stuck in your head. The game is also graced by one of the finest voice dubs ever, with a variety of skilled actors bringing their A-game to breathe life into the characters. Impressively, Atlus were able to bring the vast majority of the original cast back to record the (considerable) additional dialogue for this release, and the the characters who didn't have voice actors returning had their entire dialogue rerecorded.



What emerges at the end then, is a wonderfully, exceptionally crafted game that hasn't suffered one bit in being downsized to a portable platform, and in many ways has actually improved. And if that's all it was then it would still be one of the finest gaming experiences of the past year. But Persona 4 achieves that rare feat among games where it becomes more than just about the mechanical ins and outs and instead becomes about the experience. It's not just about the memorable characters, or the excellent story, or the impressive writing or the finely honed mechanics - it's all of these things, fused together into one seamless adventure that remains in the head and heart long after all the number crunching or button pressing has faded. After eighty hours in this world, after devouring every shred of content I had available to me, I still wanted one more mission, one last boss. Any excuse to spend another second in this world. That's about the highest praise I can give.   read


10:47 AM on 04.05.2012

Journey's End - Winter 2012



It seems only yesterday that we were kicking off 2012, and yet here we are at the end of our first season. Despite initial scepticism over the quality of the season, I actually found a lot to enjoy. Here, as usual, I'll be recapping what I dropped, what's ongoing, and what reached an end during this season


Dropped



Symphogear (3 episodes) - I said it had potential, but disappointingly it chose to squander that potential, devolving into a bunch of predictable angst, skin crawling fanservice and pointless plot meandering. The characters were extremely unlikeable, the fights were poor and the animation was rough. A shame.

Lagrange: The Flower of Rin-Ne (3 episodes) - My main criticism of it in the beginning was overwhelming blandness, and I really didn't see much in the following two episodes that countered that. Madoka was entertaining, the fights were OK, Lan was boring and the show was just so generically predictable that I couldn't bring myself to continue. It's a pity, as I've heard this one picked up considerably later on, which may lead to me revisiting it, but as it was the vital hook just wasn't there.

PoyoPoyo (2 episodes) - If you only have one joke then, no matter how good it is, you're going to get old real fast.

Aquarion EVOL (1 episode) - HAHAHAHAHA dear god no.


Halfway Home...

Bodacious Space Pirates



Firstly, I'd like to point something out. This show is called Bodacious Space Pirates. How frickin' awesome is that?

Pirates has continued onwards at the extremely relaxed pace it established in its first episode, something which I know has frustrated a lot of people. Ironically it's pretty much the opposite of what youd expect from a show titled like this - it's slow, very character focused and has relatively little action. This has mostly been to the show's advantage, but the pace can frustrate a little sometime. The opening school cruise plot arc probably went on for about an episode too long, and while the subsequent ghost ship arc was much better paced it often seemed a little confused as to its purpose. In fact, imparting information is something the show does pretty poorly - the Betenmaru crew, for example, are never actually introduced - they just appear and we're meant to pick it up from there. Likewise, throughout the ghost ship arc I occasionally found myself questioning who was on which side, what exactly they were looking for and generally what the hell was going on. Such poor communication smacks of bad adaptation from the source light novel, where I'm sure much more background could be laid out, but it hurts the flow of the story quite badly.

Nevertheless, the show remains immensely enjoyable, thanks to the kinetic cast, who are refreshingly well rounded characters. Marika herself remains a great protagonist, highly relatable, upbeat without becoming annoying and realistically concerned about her situation. Her big sister chemistry with the stowaway princess Gruier is a real highlight of the show so far. The rest of the cast too are funny without being caricatures and are gradually having depth added to them as the show goes on. Satelight's interstellar future continues to look and sound top notch, with the bright and clean animation very easy on the eye, and there's a bonus point for a near total lack of fanservice. I'm excited there's going to be more, and hopefully the show can step up the pace a little and build to an exciting climax.

Journey's End

Persona 4 The Animation



This is a difficult segment to write.

Persona 4 is not a bad show. It's quite a good one actually. It has a great central cast, stuffed full of memorable characters who defy stereotyping for the most part. It has a cool and interesting hook. The central plot is solid, with some decent twists and turns, and the show succeeds in weaving a compelling mystery that ties its disparate elements together. The voice cast is top notch, and the music is excellent.

The problem is these were all also strengths of the game the show is based on, and rather than using the new format to tighten and strengthen these points, the show has chosen to dilute and in many cases wreck what made the game so great. What Persona 4 the game did so well that many videogames don't is layer depth into its world. I'd never say it made its characters feel like real people, but you were aware they had feelings and motivations which were not immediately obvious. The time you spent playing allowed you to sink into their lives. This isn't true of the series, particularly due to the in retrospect disastrous decision to try and cram every single social link into its own episode. The result is a show which feels desperately poorly paced (especially noticeable in the rushed ending) and manages to reduce most of its secondary plotlines to trite concerns. Interesting, meaningful characters like Ai Ebihara and Ayane Matsunaga have to have their stories crammed into one-shot feature episodes, making them seem rushed and inconsequential.

The godawful animation meanwhile deserves an entire paragraph of its own to talk about. Never have I seen a show that struggled to stay on model so much. Characters are drawn noticeably different from shot to shot, and the animation team has a real problem with keeping eyes straight. Even the battle scenes are nothing more than passable (and the choreaography is pretty poor), and the incompetence everywhere else is so staggering it sort of makes that irrelevant. Fun game - try and see how much Nanako's height relative to the other characters varies over the course of the series (it's a lot).

Again, Persona 4 is not a bad show. Had I never played the game, I'd probably be more willing to give it credit for the cool monsters, smart mystery and likeable characters. But I have played the game. And ironically, this show is but a pale shadow.


Daily Lives of High School Boys



"Let's get this straight - there's nothing here that's going to change the world. With that out of the way, I can confess I really quite enjoyed this"

That's what I wrote in the preview for Daily Lives of High School Boys and 12 episodes later it's an almost perfect encapsulation of the series. It's regularly very funny, and it's best skits mostly involve needling the cliches of anime that it is so heavily reliant on. When it leans gently on the fourth wall and winks at us is when the show is at its most enjoyable, along with some entertaining ventures into the realm of surrealism - the three way roleplaying game roleplay is a undoubted series highlight which blends both of these situations to great effect.

Other things don't work quite so well, like the frequent reliance on very long drawn out gags that don't even have very funny punchlines at the end, and the often palpable lack of movement in the animation. It's a sketch show in the truest sense of the form - I could happily recount several setups that had me chuckling heartily but I'll damned if I could name any character or provide any distinguishing characteristics. It delivers the funny, but lacks the human heart that makes the best comedy sketch shows (such as Cromartie High School, or Azumanga Daioh) a step above. That said, there were ultimately way more hits than misses here, and that's a success in my book.

Also spawned the best show nickname this season in the form of Nichibros.


Ano Natsu de Matteru



Every season there's always one show that turns out better than you expect. This time round, that was AnoNatsu. Expecting a nicely animated magical girlfriend cum harem show, what we instead got was a bright, charming yet sensitive show on the pangs of teenage love.

Despite initial appearances, the show manages to shuck off its seemingly shallow aspirations and instead fleshed itself out into one of the best genuine straight up romances since Toradora. Huge credit must be given to the fantastic cast, who manage to defy first impressions and establish themselves as unique personalities despite falling into the well worn grooves of childhood friend, perverse loli etc. Instead, the characters develop a pleasing mixture of anime naivete and real world savvy. Male lead Kaito is a strong subversion of the traditional clueless protagonist, and he's matched well with human alien Ichika, who's also a considerably better character than her inital busty ditz act would suggest. The supporting cast is also universally strong, from energetic yet troubled childhood friend Kanna to the show stealing Lemon, who manages to buck every characteristic traditionally associated with the twin tailed loli character in a delightfully sly fashion.

If I have to offer a criticism, it's that the show really takes a little too long to get going. The first half is really just a chance for a few nice character moments interspersed with a bit of scenery porn and some generous (but to be fair, rarely gratuitous) fanservice. It's only in the last five episodes that the plot really kicks into high gear, leading to some excellent emotional confrontations and one of the best climaxes in recent memory. Credit as well for not taking the easy way out and giving us a 'happily ever after ending' - what we get is more complex but also infinitely more affecting. It's one of JC Staff's best animation jobs in recent memory too - character design is cute and charming without falling into moeblob territory while the hazy blue and green horizons of rural Japan are a pleasure to behold.

Ano Natsu de Matteru doesn't really quite have the legs to step it up into 'classic' territory but it's nonetheless a very good show, full of warm, friendly characters, beautiful landscapes, good laughs and moving moments. A fine effort that wil linger on in the memory.


Black Rock Shooter



This should have been trash. It is after all (deep breath) an OVA spinoff of an OVA that was packed in with toys that were based on some drawings in an art book. The fact that the original OVA was pretty awful certainly didn't inspire confidence either. Its therefore a minor miracle that Ordet were able to revisit the same basic premise (middle school girls have otherworldly superpowered alter egos) and instead craft it into one of the most entertaining shows this season.

To do this, they've essentially done a Madoka on it - taken a decent script, made it very dark and creep-tastic, laced with lashings of symbolism and thrown some top notch artowrk behind it. Result! And it really is quite a result. Though it doesn't match up to that masterpiece, what we have here is a very compelling ,well paced dark psychological drama that isn't afraid to kick up the action when it needs to.

It's the 'real world' stuff that really earns BRS it's stripes however. Rather than being pointless filler as it was in the 2009 OVA instead here it's an important and even enjoyable part of the stories. One of the key plot points here was to make real world events much more closely mirror what's happening in the 'Other' world, tying them closer and giving us a much more intriguing mystery to unravel. The characters are likeable too, and while they aren't the most complex personalities in the world, crucially they're interesting enough to make them the story focus, rather than Black Rock Shooter and the other warriors. It gives the show an appeal beyond the invitable battle scenes.

When the battle scenes do come however, they don't disappoint. Ordet outdid themselves here, with some fantastic battle choreography backed up with brilliant, colour themed worlds and some truly bizarre architecture. Though the liberal use of CG is reasonably obvious, it just adds to the surreality of the whole situation, and the fighting is so good you probaby won't care too much anyway.

If I have a criticism to make, it's probably that the ending is a little too neat and cliched to me. While 'You can't ignore your pain, you have to face it' is a classic message, and a good one for the show to adopt, the sequence of events comes dangerously close to THE POWER OF FRIENDSHIP triumphing and visually, it's a bit of a weird one. Having said that, the plot offers good solid resolution with a cheeky but pleasing sequel hook, and there's even a big emotional moment to add a bit of depth to the fireworks.

Black Rock Shooter was a genuine but pleasant surprise. This may be a case of me liking the show more than a lot of other people, since it ticks a lot of my boxes - surrealism, great action, distinctive art and psychological drama - but I think that it's a fine, high quality show that stands very well on its own merits and offers a unique, great looking and emotionally moving experience. For that, I'm very happy to declare it the best show of the season.

Thanks for reading guys, as ever comments and feedback are much appreciated   read


11:58 AM on 02.24.2012

Closing thoughts on...Kaizoku Sentai Gokaiger



If you're over the age of about ten, Power Rangers is the dumbest thing in the universe. It's a hyper-extended toy commercial full of cheap special effects, goofy looking monsters, laughably bad acting and way too much spandex.

But if you're under ten (or just never bothered to grow up) the Power Rangers is the greatest thing of all time ever. They have awesome costumes! Sweet weapons! Giant robots! And they're defending the earth against magical/alien/robot invasion! How cool is that?

The point is, you sort of need a particular mindset to enjoy Power Rangers, or in this case, its Japanese parent series Super Sentai. You need, in no particular order, good suspension of disbelief, a liking for explosions, and an extremely high tolerance for camp. Put those together, and Kaizoku Sentai Gokaiger will show you the time of your life.



It has to be said, right off the bat, that Gokaiger is special for a number of reasons. The major one of these is that it's the 35th anniversary season of Super Sentai, which began all the way back in 1976 with Himitsu Sentai Goranger. And so, to commemorate the occasion, Gokaiger was all about the nostalgia - the team can transform into every one of the past 34 teams, and at least one cast member from every old team returns for a cameo appearance (though naturally the newer teams get the lion's share of it). Even if you're not familiar with the extensive history of Super Sentai (and I'm certainly not 100% on it) all of the appearances by old school figures are kind of cool, showing that Toei really went all out for this special occasion.

This shows in the action too. Tokusatsu (the live action, people in rubber suits genre to which Super Sentai, Kamen Rider et al belong to) has a reputation for looking incredibly cheap but Gokaiger looks....well OK, it still looks cheap. But it's the right kind of cheap, the kind where the producers clearly said "we'll try and do something awesome and if we have to stretch the budget, so what?". So yes, the CGI looks like a PS2 game, but who cares when you're using it to make giant robots backflip and dive through the air guns akimbo? They're clearly using the same 4 or 5 locations for the fights (including the obligatory quarry) but who cares when the fights are this dynamic, exciting and well choreographed? Gokaiger puts the money where it matters - mostly into massive explosions which like all the best Sentai shows are used at every available opportunity. The action is without fail thrilling, be the crew battling the monster of the week, facing off against evil counterparts or just engaging in flashy transformation sequences, which somehow never get old.



Ah yes, the crew. At the end of the day, you can throw all the flash and thunder you like up on screen, but at least some of your episode has to involve the people behind those masks. This is where so many Power Rangers series have fallen short in adapting their source material, creating 'characters' who are just a series of exposition spouting eat-your-greens-and-do-your-homework ciphers (for a perfect example of this see the currently airing Power Rangers Samurai, where the original team have the collective charisma of paint drying). Happily, it's also where Gokaiger rises above, creating a bold and memorable cast who are just as much fun to watch out of costume as in. That's not to say they're the deepest characters in the world, but they're all well defined, distinctive and a lot of fun.

Unlike the west, Japan seemingly has no issue with letting its children look up to people who are kind of dicks, so we have as our hero the cocky, arrogant Captain Marvelous (and seriously, how amazing is it that they called the lead character Captain Marvelous?), a hot blooded, arrogant pirate who nevertheless has a heart of gold, and is dedicated to both his crew and his dream of finding the Greatest Treasure in the Universe. He's ably accompanied by his first mate Joe Gibken, a cold as ice dude-who-looks-like-a-lady who's packed full full of snark and badassery. Also along for the ride are Luka Millfy, a money obsessed, flippant lady with a troubled past, Don 'Doc' Dogoier, the team's tech guy but also a massive klutz and amusingly bad fighter, and Ahim de Famille, an unfailingly sweet and polite Princess whose planet was conquered by the bad guys. They're later joined by Gai Ikari, an earthling who's a massive super sentai fanboy and epically large ham. And then there's team pet Navi, a robot parrot who guides them to their treasure through being bashed on the head.



Speaking of the bad guys, they're a good bunch too - idiot commander Warz Gill is a moron who only occasionally manages to be a serious threat by accident, but his cool calculating second in command Damaras is far more dangerous, as is his cyborg bodyguard Barizorg. Rounding off the set is femme fatale Insarn, a scientist who's responsible for the much beloved tradition of growing the monsters to massive size. And then there's Basco te Jolokia, another dude-who-looks-like-a-lady who's a privateer and has a connection to Marvelous...

The archetypes are broadly familiar then, but the characters are incredibly engaging and a lot of fun to hang out with. A lot of this is due to good writing and good acting. It may seem super strange to be praising the acting in a Sentai series, but everyone inhabits their character well and really does a great job of making them entertaining and bringing out their characteristics. it's not Shakespeare but the actors are still great at taking everything seriously and communicating what the characters are thinking and feeling out onto the screen. I've got to give special credit to Ryota Ozawa, who effortlessly projects Marvelous' cockeyed swagger - you never feel he's not on the verge of doing something totally awesome. Praise also goes to Kazuki Shimizu, whose bumbling yet lovable portrayal of Don instantly became a fan favourite, and Junya Ikeda, whose wildly hammy turn as Gai is a tremendous example of physical acting (those flailing limbs! Those trollfaces!) that stays just on the right side of annoying.



In fact, Gai is an excellent example of the care that the writers have taken to balance the story well. As the sixth ranger and a huge sentai fanboy in-universe you'd probably expect him to be a blatant kid-surrogate who shills new merchandise like crazy. And there's a bit of this sure, but in fact his wild fanboy tendencies are played down pretty well and are generally only whipped out for exposition or for laughs. The fact the rest of team finds him occasionally as irritating as the audience is a pretty good running joke, and he may well be the least overpowered sixth ranger in the franchises history Likewise, Don may be the team's bumbling comic relief, but there's also small glimpses that show he's much more competent and important to the team than you might otherwise believe. It's this added depth, this three dimensionality, that makes the characters so fun to spend time with, and that ultimately makes the bits where they dress up and kick ass so much more meaningful, especially as the stunt actors and fight choreographers are great at getting the characters personalities through in their action sequences and fighting styles.



The show also benefitted from a very strong structure established early on - by structuring the plot around the Gokaiger's quest for the true powers of the 34 previous Super Sentai and establishing their ultimate goal as the Greatest Treasure in the Universe early on in the show it gave a pleasing coherence to the crews adventure. Often the early stages of a Sentai, or in fact any extremely long series will flounder as they tread water before the real plot kicks in. Here we had a strong objective almost from the word go, and one which fitted well with the episodic nature of the toku show, with the previous teams popping up for cameos on a per episode basis and a steady stream of new powers and weapons to up the stakes.



Even having said all of those things about how great it was, I'm surprised by how much I'm going to miss Gokaiger. I shouldn't be though. That's the thing about long running TV series, they have a weapon which no other artform can have- time. Every week for a year my friends and I have sat down to watch the Gokaigers adventures unfold on my TV screen, and during that time the characters have got their hooks into my heart.They became a part of my life, and saying goodbye to them is difficult. It'll be very weird seeing a new set of heroes don the red, blue and yellow. But in a certain sense, that's the beauty of Super Sentai's eternally changing format. The bad seasons can be safely forgotten, the good ones will stay complete in the memory. There'll be no gentle slide into mediocrity for Gokaiger, just the everlasting image of our crew sailing off into the galaxy, on an adventure that will continue forever (or at least until the inevitable reunion movies).

And for those of us who have to stay here on Earth, well there's always a new adventure to look forward to.



Busters, ready, GO!

Seriously, Gai might be the best trollfacer of all time. And I now want Tomokazu Seki to narrate everything I do. As ever guys, comments and feedback are much appreciated!   read


11:19 AM on 01.13.2012

Opening Salvoes - Winter 2012

Whoah, it's been a while since I've done one of these, hasn't it? Blame work and the pressures of pesky real life intruding. Regardless, after 2011 became such an excellent year for anime, with at least one cast iron classic and a whole range of good to excellent shows showing up, the first season of the new year has a tough act to follow. Hopes weren't raised by what came up in previews, but let's take a look at see how things shaped up.

Firstly...checking back in on Persona 4 The Animation



Guys, we need to admit it. I know it's difficult. For a long time, I was in denial myself. but we have to confront the truth that is staring us in the face.

Persona 4 isn't very good.

I know, I hate myself for saying it too, but the truth is the promise that showed early on has been dashed, obliterated by sloppy writing, badly paced plotting and some of the worst animation I've seen in ages. While there are still clever moments, moments of excitement and intrigue, they're drawn from the strength of the original game, which is almost always diluted in the trip to the animated medium. The subtlety and nuance of the source material has been gradually leeched out, most notably in the filler arcs that concentrate on secondary characters, which have tended to be laughably bad. And the less said about the godawful animation the better.

This isn't terrible. The inherent strength of the story they're telling prevents it from being so, and there's still a chance for a turnaround. But it has become a bitter disappointment to those of us who adored the game, and that might be even worse.


And now, onto the new stuff...

Symphogear



A show can never have too many ideas, but it can fail to make those ideas work well together and Symphogear seems to be emblematic of that problem - it can't decide what it wants to be, thematically or visually. As it is, we get a crazy mashup between mecha, magical girls, high school drama and dark hearted war flick. The premise is so utterly dumb I have trouble taking it with a straight face - evil forces known as 'The Noise' (who look like living fruit pastilles) are invading a futuristic city and turning people into ash. Fortunately, they can be repelled by the power of magic music, namely that of pop idol duo Zwei Wing, who have the power to transform into scantily clad battlesuited warriors and blow the crap out of them.

Our protagonist is the wide eyed Hibiki (who is in high school but looks about five - enough of this please), who idolises the group after one of the singers died to save her life, and is constantly trying to talk to the remaining member, who also goes to her school. Meanwhile, there's also a mysterious stone with undefined powers, a secret military backup team and oh who the hell cares?

Having said that, there are several strong hooks to keep me interested here. I'm not a big fan of the visual design, but the execution is excellent and the battle scenes full of flash. What's really drawing me back though is the darker edge the series seems to be going for - the first scene for example is a flash forward which shows Hibiki is dead, and the city in ruins. These two elements mesh perfectly at the end of this first episode, which offers a stunningly dark and twisted transformation which made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. As it is, Symphogear is passable, but those last 30 seconds give me hope it's going somewhere better fast.


Lagrange - The Flower of Rin-ne



The other show this season which mashes up cute girls and robots is an interesting contrast to Symphogear - while that show has too many ideas, it's painfully obvious this one doesn't have enough of them. Madoka is a cheerful high school girl who likes to help out at various clubs and who wears a tracksuit a lot. One day she's approached by the obligatory pale, mysterious girl who doesn't say a lot, who whisks her away to a secret base and explains that only she can pilot the ultimate weapon robot that she has a mysterious bond with. A giant bad guy appears and mission control puts the robot on automatic, but once Madoka takes manual control the robot amazingly powers up and kicks ass.

To call this plot boilerplate is a disservice to heating equipment everywhere. It's so formulaic, so predictable that it could almost be a parody (and the show does manage one excellent joke just before Madoka climbs into her mech). Madoka herself is charming but unremarkable, all generic schoolgirl energy and naivety. Her mysterious friend Lan is a plot spouting automaton and the credits reveal a third, busty miniskirted member, which inspires real confidence. On that note, there's also an uncomfortable amount of blatant fanservice in this first episode. Did you know that the secret of your destiny is written on your butt, but only if you pull your underwear down to dangerously revealing levels?

What keeps this watchable is strong technical merits - the seaside landscapes are very pretty, the mech CG is slick and well integrated and the robots themselves look pretty neat, with some cool organic Tron-inspired neon design. There's nothing egregiously bad about Lagrange, but there's nothing particularly noteworthy about it either. We can only hope that it can kick up a gear in the coming weeks.


Daily Lives of High School Boys



Let's get this straight - there's nothing here that's going to change the world. With that out of the way, I can confess I really quite enjoyed this. In classic comic show style, each episode is split into little comedy skits, mostly revolving around utterly inconsequential things. But it's well written and with a sly eye for fourth wall leaning comedy and a willingness to be extremely silly it managed a fair few chuckles out of me. The opening riff on the oddity of the anime's creators is extremely well done, while a skit on crossdressing is much funnier than it has any right to be, and the closing sketch manages to milk a good amount of humour out of a scene in which almost nothing happens. Don't go in expecting a comic masterpiece, but it's funny, occasionally smart and well put together. Worth a go.


Aquarion EVOL



There are only two things worth knowing about this series

1) The mech battles are amazing - a combination of decent choreography, stunning visual spectacle and fantastic music, they are exciting, great to watch and captivating to look at.

2) Everything else is rubbish - When it isn't hackneyed, it's stupid. When it isn't stupid, it's boring. When it isn't boring, it's offensive. A whirlwind of horrible clichés, cardboard characters, dumb plots, ridiculous attempts at religious imagery and a cavalcade of unwanted and straight up nasty sexual overtones.

Yeah, it's the worst show of the lot.


Ano Natsu de Matteru



Ano Natsu has, even before it has aired, gained a reputation as this seasons's 'serious, high quality' show, but upon viewing, I've a little more trepidation. It's another case of excellent execution, but a slightly more shaky core concept. Kaito is a camera wielding high schooler, who opens the show by being brutally killed in an alien landing, complete with highly symbolic shattered glasses. Then he wakes up in his bed, writes it off as a dream and goes to school to meet the beautiful new transfer student who has just arrived and has some highly unusual habits...

Yeah, it doesn't take a genius to work this one out. The worrying part here is the taint of two of my least favourite genres - the harem comedy and the magical girlfriend show. Although Kaito's ensemble also includes his dashing ladykiller friend, we're hitting all the trademarks harem wise - slightly tsun childhood friend, shy busty girl, token loli... we can only hope it doesn't go that way.

And indeed, Ano Natsu looks to be considerably better than that. There's a real feel of quality to the script, which is subtle and well nuanced, and the characters are sketched out as smart and likeable. There's some slight fanservice, but nothing too egregious. Animation is top notch, with excellent character designs and gorgeous landscapes, and a lovely sountrack and strong songs tops out a well rounded set of strengths. Though there's still some trepidation over where that plot could go, Ano Natsu definitely has chance to carve itself a niche as the best character piece of the season.


Poyopoyo



There is a cat. He is round. Many jokes are made about the roundness of the cat. The cat likes everyone except one person. The cat is round. That one person hates the cat, who is round.

Best show a-round.


Bodacious Space Pirates



Firstly, I'd like to point something out. This show is called Bodacious Space Pirates. How frickin' awesome is that?

In all seriousness though, I found this quite enjoyable, and it's my pick of an admittedly weak crop for show of the season. There's a pleasing simplicity and elegance to what could have been a very exploitative or over the top show. Our heroine Marika lives on a backwater planet out in space, works in a maid cafe after school and enjoys yachting round the planet. This peaceful existence is disrupted one day when pirates from the privateer ship Bentenmaru show up and tell her that she's the daughter of their recently deceased captain and thus the job is hers if she wants it. Unfortunately, that also brings unwanted attention with it.

It's hard to put a finger on what makes Bodacious Space Pirates quite so effortlessly entertaining, but I'd point to the light touch overall. The show knows exactly how deep or shallow to play any given situation, never milks jokes or set pieces too long and moves swiftly over the plot keeping up a good pace. Visually the show is excellent, Satelight bringing all the flair and strong CG work they applied to Aquarion to a much more tasteful palate. I love the retro-futuristic design, contrasting old school trappings with modern tech to produce a smart, clean and elegant vision of the future. Marika herself is a very appealing character too - she's a pretty girl with distinctive features and the show makes sure we notice that, but it never descends into pandering fanservice and she never feels like an object of eye candy. It helps that her reactions are smart, mostly believable and that she comes across as friendly and relatable.

Bodacious Space Pirates (I'll never get tired or writing that) will have to bring more to the table if it's too keep up, and I'll be particularly intrigued to see how they handle things once they're out in space, but as it stands it's well built, breezy and enjoyably silly entertainment, and that's a thumbs up in my book.

As ever guys, feedback is much appreciated. Let me know what you think in the comments!   read


12:53 PM on 12.30.2011

The 2011 Awards



We've reached the end of another year in the anime community, and it's fair to say it's been an extraordinary one. Patient fans were rewarded with the richest and most diverse crop of new shows in years, as the industry stretched its legs and proved that it was still capable of producing classics, along with a whole host of entertaining, worthwhile stories. Here, we'll pick and choose the worst and, more importantly, the best of 2011.

The Rapid Fire Awards

Worst character - Saber (Fate/Zero) - An endless source of boring monologues about honour and duty and blank facial expressions. By far the least interesting thing about the show she is ostensibly the main character of.

Worst Show - No.6 - Granted, there were even more horrible shows this year, but none had the nastiness of tricking you into thinking that this might be halfway decent and then savagely kicking you in the balls with crappy characters, stupid plot and risible dialogue.

Show that was actually quite good but would have had to dispense ice cream and handjobs to live up to the hype - Fate/Zero - Type-Moon fans, grab some damn perspective please. This was decent, sometimes great, sometimes desperately boring. Nothing more, nothing less.
Honourable Mention - Puella Magi Madoka Magica - Yes, it's amazing. Yes, it's one of the best shows in years. But to read the internet you'd think it was the bloody Second Coming or something

The B Gata H Kei award for ridiculous fanservice which didn't stop the show from being quite good- Korean Zombie Desk Car - Haruna, put some pants on. Seraphim, put a bra on. Show, please concentrate more on the wacky fantasy, that bit was fun.
Honourable Mention - Ben-To

Biggest Tearjerker - Tatsuya draws in the sand (Puella Magi Madoka Magica) - Heartbreaking. Just utterly heartbreaking
Honourable Mention - "Your brothers love you" (Mawaru Penguindrum)

Yaoi couple of the year - Takuto and Sugata (Star Driver)
Honourable mention - Rider and Waver (Fate/Zero)

Huh? This was a thing? - YuruYuri
Honourable Mention - To Aru Majutsu no Index II

The Norio Wakamoto Award for chewing the scenery - Norio Wakamoto as Bishop Biagio in To Aru Majutsu no Index II - Best thing in the entire show.
Honourable Mention - Satoshi Tsuruoka as Caster in Fate/Zero. You could carve slices off of the ham in that performance

Best show of 2011 that isn't anime but deserves a mention anyway because it's bloody awesome - Kaizoku Sentai Gokaiger - Seriously, it's space pirate Power Rangers who can turn into other Power Rangers. What's not to like?

Best New Show I watched in 2011 that wasn't made in 2011 - Toradora!

Most anticipated show of 2012 - Eureka Seven: Astral Ocean


The Awards which actually matter

Best OP

Honourable Mentions:

'Gravity 0' (Star Driver) paired scratchy, uptempo guitars with a fantastic art deco colour scheme and terrifically energetic 'moving' animation ..... 'Oath Sign' (Fate/Zero) conjoured up a great power ballad that evoked the epic feel of the conflict and mixed it with ufotable's excellent visuals ..... 'Connect' (Puella Magi Madoka Magica) managed to be beautiful and wistful and, uniquely, also provided a fantastic connection to the plot.

Winner: 'Sweet Drops' (Bunny Drop)

[embed]21262:1051[/embed]

PUFFY's song is the perfect match for the wonderful tale of Rin and Daikichi - it's upbeat, bouncy and catchy as hell, but also tinged with a slight note of sadness and pathos. It's paired with Production I.G.'s terrific crayon sketched animation, evoking a wonderful childhood aesthetic bouncing along in time with the music. Simply irresistible.


Best ED

Honourable Mentions:

'Magia' (Puella Magi Madoka Magica) provided a thumping finale to every increasingly desperate episode of Madoka, paired with nightmarish imagery ..... 'High High High' (Bunny Drop) was a perfect comedown for every episode, again glorying in soft focus crayon style ..... 'Zzz' (Nichijou) provided a delightful, gentle epilogue to the manic craziness of the main show.

Winner: 'For You' (Wandering Son)

[embed]21262:1052[/embed]

Rie Fu's achingly gorgeous ballad was the perfect capstone to every episode of the smart and sensitive preteen drama, filled with love, longing and joy, and beautifully sung. The accompanying animation was wisely kept simple, but seeing Nitori wander through the blowing cherry blossoms as the song kicked into high gear was one of the best images of the year.


Best Art/Animation

Honourable Mentions:

Star Driver's rainbow tinged mecha battles were never less than spectacular ..... Wandering Son painted its world in a wonderful wash of soft focus watercolours ..... Puella Magi Madoka Magica put us inside a paper cutout and crayon scribbled hell and a world where architects were allowed to run rampant ..... Hanasaku Iroha made the rolling green hills of Japan more inviting than ever.

Winner: Mawaru Penguindrum



Anime is a visual medium, and the best shows realise that they can speak just as loudly through their images as their words. Penguindrum embraced that philosophy wholeheartedly, throwing all of the crazy that was too much for the script up onto the screen, often to stunning effect. It wasn't just eye candy though - rather, the visuals spoke to us and told us things about this world, about this story that couldn't adequately be expressed by just saying them. The literally faceless masses who occupied the world, the vivid realisation of places and times that could did never exist - they all fed back into the wondrous , dreamlike aura that permeated the show It embraced a crazed arthouse heritage, flitting rapidly between paper cutout imagine spots, pets as parents and neon filled acid trips to create a heady, unforgettable blend. Never an outstanding show technically, Penguindrum wins on unrivalled artistic merit and a serious eye for style.


Best Character

Honourable mentions:

Rider (Fate/Zero) brought a fantastic, larger than life persona to a show that desperately needed it ..... Wild Tiger (Tiger and Bunny) lent an affable, world weary everyman to a superpowered world ..... Kyubey (Puella Magi Madoka Magica) brought the creepy in spades and provided this year's most memorable, iconic villain.

Winner: Daikichi Kawachi (Bunny Drop)



Daikichi may not be as big a name as some on the list. He's no conqueror, or monster, or hero. He's just an ordinary guy, struggling with a situation that he couldn't have foreseen. And that's the beauty of the character, the reason why he's sitting above all those aforementioned. Daikichi feels real, like the kind of man you and I could bump into in the street, or even be one day. All of which just makes his selflessness and the sacrifices he's willing to make for his ward, even more special. In a medium that tends to be dominated by crazed supermen, it was the simple kindliness of an ordinary man that left the biggest mark.


Best Episode

Honourable Mentions:

Rider and Archer delivered a memorable helping of smack talk to Saber (and a faceful of spears to Assassin) in Fate/Zero #11 ..... Takuto uncorked the rainbows and provided some outer-space heroics in Star Driver #24 ..... Himari and Sanetoshi were lost in the library between reality and madness in Mawaru Penguindrum #9

Winner: Puella Magi Madoka Magica #10



It's not like the whole idea of this episode was unexpected. After all, we knew Homura Akemi was a time traveller, and there had been some hints that she was from an alternate timeline. But I don't think anybody was prepared for the devastating impact of the story told within this episode. It managed to both simultaneously entirely reshape the clever, multi-layered mythology that Madoka had already built for itself, and deliver a devastating emotional punch to everyone watching all at the same time. So often when mysteries are unravelled they tend to be at least partial anticlimaxes, but this was one of those rare cases where every clue, every piece of foreshadowing, was paid off more powerfully than you could possibly have hoped for. When even your closing music is a plot twist you know you've crafted one of the most brilliant experiences imaginable.


Best Show

Honourable Mention: Bunny Drop



Bunny Drop is proof that 'slice-of-life' doesn't have to be shorthand for pointless moefest or by the numbers high school drama. Instead, it displays the greatest strength that the genre can bring to a story - by living with characters day in and day out, the triumphs and tragedies carry that much more weight, become that much more meaningful. There are no perilous showdowns in Bunny Drop, and the fate of the world isn't at stake. The closest we get to high drama is when somebody catches a cold. But it still succeeds in captivating us because it does what every great show does - makes us emotionally invested in the characters. Because we care, every small step, every tiny little victory along the way is worth as much as any grand battle. And in Daikichi, as we've already said, the show may have one of the most likeable protagonists of the year, a genuinely good and honest man, who makes sacrifices we can all relate to and is rewarded in kind with a happiness he couldn't have begun to imagine.

His ward Rin meanwhile, embodies the best aspects of the cute anime girl - she's adorable and vulnerable, fascinated with the world around her, but unlike so many modern characters there's substance beneath the moe overtones. She's much more interesting when she talks back, as opposed to staying painfully shy, and together they form a wonderfully deep and meaningful pair. Along with a slim but well realised supporting cast, backed by superb art and wonderful music, every second of Bunny Drop was a joy to watch. In any other year, this would have been a strong contender for the top prize. As it is, it perhaps pales a little compared to the crashing epics that ranked above it, but there's no shame in sitting back and watching life go by slowly.

Honourable Mention: Puella Magi Madoka Magica



I'll be honest - for much of the year, there's no way I could have seen this sitting at anywhere other than the top spot. And really, there's not much argument against it as the year's best show - it excels across the board in every area. The plot is one of the tightest and cleverest ever constructed, carefully constructed to gut punch you at every opportunity. The art is extraordinary, a dazzling blend of architectural flourish in the real world that seamlessly transitions into a nightmare realm of paper cutouts and crazed scrawlings. And the characters are everything you'd hope for, transcending their cutesy outward appearance to show real depth and emotion as they were battered by the story surrounding them. The show plays your emotions like a harp, before cutting the strings and leaving you to flounder, taking a dark glee in every second. Anybody who watched it felt every moment of triumph and anguish as it happened on the screen.

To me though, half of the story of Madoka was told in the frenzied Skype chats, the shocked reactions on Twitter, the incredulous blogs and comments that dissected every new twist and turn. To be part of the anime community as it followed Madoka was to feel part of something special, something truly ground-breaking. It's rare that a show comes along that bring such a huge (and legendarily argumentative) community together, but you really sensed it happening in this case, and it was so much fun to be swept up in that frenzy. Madoka doesn't take the top spot, but I want everyone who reads this to know that that doesn't diminish the fact that it was unquestionably the most gripping, finely constructed story of the year - no show hit harder, shocked more or was more beautifully paced and planned. Not awarding it the win was an incredibly difficult decision (you can see it was nominated in every individual category), one which I’m still not sure I got right. In a year of extraordinary quality, nothing came closer to touching perfection.

Winner: Mawaru Penguindrum



Sometimes though, there can be meaning in madness, beauty in barminess and elegance in excess. Sometimes, something can speak to you so deeply that the flaws in it can seem almost irrelevancies in comparison. Mawaru Penguindrum is such a show, something that goes so far into pure, beautiful insanity that some kind of twisted brilliance emerges out of the other end. It's difficult to articulate what exactly draws me so strongly to the show, as they aren't really things that can be put into words. Penguindrum is a show that relies so heavily on symbolism and personal interpretation that I've heard impressions range from genius to utter rubbish. There's certainly little defence of some common criticisms of the show - it's hugely confusing, the mood whiplashes wildly all over the place and there are more plotholes and loose threads than you can count. To call it an acquired taste is an understatement.

But, but...if, like me, you fall into that specific, tiny niche that is willing to bear the problems, and ride out the inconsistencies...then there's nothing quite like this. Watching the show is to be drawn entirely into another world, one where reality and myth, conscious and subconscious blend together in some sort of mad, feverish dream. To accept that in this world, sometimes the line between real and unreal is thin, and sometimes not extant at all. To be taken on a rollercoaster ride from funny to creepy, from surreal to brutal and from despairing to hoping against all the odds. The beauty and madness that was unfurled onscreen was unmatched, not only in the 'Let's do drugs and watch the pretty colours!' way, but also in darker, more twisted and more profound ways. I guarantee nobody who has seen this show will ever look at a chisel quite the same again
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Penguindrum is not the cleverest show of the season. It is not the most important, nor the most popular, nor the most influential. But I do not watch, and I do not write, to make cold, hard judgments. Instead, I came to anime to see the weird and the wonderful, the beautiful and the oddball, and to find stories that could not be told anywhere else. Penguindrum asks a lot of you - it asks for total commitment to its largely ridiculous premise, and asks for surrender entirely to the strange pocket universe it builds up between the start and end credits. But in return, I found something truly special, strange and incredibly beautiful that spoke to me in a way that few other works of art in any medium have, and one that felt utterly, irreplaceably unique. And that's worth celebrating, don't you think?   read


5:52 PM on 08.22.2011

In defence of the Bunny Drop ending (spoilers)

I, no doubt like many of you, have been watching and thoroughly enjoying Bunny Drop, the exceptionally charming tale of Daikichi, a 30 year old bachelor being forced into the role of adoptive parent for Rin, the six year old daughter of his grandfather. But I had also heard worrying rumblings from around the internet about the ending of the recently concluded manga version. There was much criticism, and many claimed it had even retroactively destroyed their entire enjoyment of the story. My curiosity sufficiently piqued, I decided to read through the manga and see just how bad this ending could possibly be. And, unsurprisingly, the internet was being a little over the top once again.

In this article then, I'm going to attempt to defend the Bunny Drop ending against the rampant hatedom that has seemingly sprung up around it. Note - this is NOT a defence of the ending on merit - I actually don't particularly approve of it myself - but rather an attempt to understand and rationalise it in the face of the overwhelmingly hostile reaction

Naturally, massive SPOILERS will abound throughout. Fairly warned be ye fanboys.



= SPOILERS = SPOILERS = SPOILERS = SPOILERS = SPOILERS = SPOILERS =

So...for those of you who jumped here just to see what the ending actually is, allow me to briefly explain. Although the first half of Bunny Drop (and the part the anime is concentrating on) is set when Rin is six years old, the entire second half of the tale is set a decade later when she's a high school freshman. The controversial part of this is that, as the story approaches its end, she realises she loves Daikichi - not as a father, but in the OTHER way that women love men. And the series ultimately ends with them discovering that they aren't blood relatives and then hooking up, with plans to get married and even have a child in the future.

Yeah.

I don't think I really need to point out the obvious issues that have caused the backlash here. But let's do so anyway shall we?

1) Daikichi is 24 years older than Rin (At the conclusion, she's 18 or 19 and he's at least 42)

2) Daikichi has raised her as a father since she was 6 years old. They may not be blood related but their relationship up to this point is certainly familial.

So I'm going to kick off this defence with a concession - this is always going to be at least a little bit creepy. There's no denying that. It is a completely valid criticism of this ending and, as I mentioned above, one which I will employ myself. No, my defence is more targeted at those who have denounced the ending as a sheer travesty, and as something that for them has poisoned the entire series. That's their opinion of course, and they're absolutely entitled to it, but I think some mitigation is required on the side of the author and story.

Firstly, I've read some accusations that this ending comes out of nowhere and is essentially a 'WHAT A TWEEEEEST!' ending. I don't buy that for a single second. Rather, it's quite skillfully built up over the course of the last quarter of the book and there's plenty of foreshadowing and subtle hinting as to the problem. There's also a real difference between seeing a plot twist like this laid out in a paragraph like I've done, and seeing it unfold over a hundred-odd pages in the manga. I'd encourage those who only know about the ending secondhand to read it as well - watching the characters work through their problems panel by panel, seeing the emotion in the drawings and words really does a lot to humanise the problem, to turn it from a slightly distasteful concept into something a lot more understandable and relatable.

To those that would argue that the ending invalidates everythig that went before it - if so, that's only in your head. Neither Rin nor Daikichi were intentionally working towards this goal, and that doesn't make their earlier interactions any less 'real'. Daikichi doesn't automatically become some sort of creepy paedophile, and nor do the earlier chapters become some sort of wife husbandry tale. Although I can understand that it can be difficult to let go of the image of Rin as the eternally cute kid, she's fundamentally a very different character in this portion of the manga, and projecting her adult personality back onto her child self is both unrealistic and asking for trouble. Daikichi meanwhile can't be 'blamed' for anything - his intentions were always pure, and he even admits this transition is difficult for him. As always, he is trying to do his best for Rin, which is entirely consistent with his previous characterization.



My final point is a little more abstract than those before it, but I also think it's just as important. This isn't how I would have ended the story - in my version, Rin would have grown up, married Kouki and they would have had a little girl of their own, leading to a delightfully clever bookend of Daikichi and his 'granddaughter'. It would have been wonderful. Heart-warming. Expected. Predictable. Boring.

When I read a story, I expect to be entertained, shocked, excited and gripped. I want to marvel at every twist and turn in the story, and be taken for the ride along with the characters. The reason I'm not a storyteller myself is because I'm no good at it, I always tend to look for the easy way out. A good storyteller on the other hand, works to subvert their audiences expectations. And I want that. I want authors to challenge me, to confound me, and to do things I don't always approve of. If they've done their job right, then I might not like where the plot goes, but it's something I will accept. And such is the case here. As I said at the start and want to reinforce, I do not like or approve of this ending. But to say that it invalidates the work as a whole is an insult to the care and vision of the author Unita. It's her story, to tell as she likes and as she sees fit. And even though I didn't want it to end this way, I still found myself stirred and moved to say goodbye to the characters and wish them the best for the future. That's a tribute to the power the story has to move me in spite of its failings in my eyes.

Bunny Drop's ending isn't perfect. It might not even be good. But it deserves better than the knee-jerk reactions it has been getting. You don't have to like it, but at least try and understand it.   read


12:01 PM on 06.28.2011

A few thoughts on...GunBuster



1988 was a long time ago. The Soviet Union still existed, Die Hard was the movie of choice and Never Gonna Give You Up was a legitimate smash hit rather than a well known internet meme. And Studio Gainax was a still struggling startup animation company, who had produced a few semi-pro tokusatsu shorts and one feature length commercial failure, Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise (these days rightfully regarded as a classic). The studio needed a hit and the man they charged with producing one was up and coming director Hideaki Anno.

The reason I mention all of this is, of course, that GunBuster's history in many ways overwhelms the show itself. It's become an iconic production, the foundation point of the studio that made it and a touchstone of Otaku culture, so much so that it's famous arms folded stance has become known as the 'Buster pose' among the mecha fandom. It's influence is undeniable, not only in ensuring Gainax's continued existence, but also in shaping and informing many of the studio's subsequent works, most notably its two other great super robot series Neon Genesis Evangelionand Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. In a certain sense, it doesn't really matter if, 23 years on, the show is any good or not - its work has been done, and its place in the Gainax canon is as safe as houses.

Which makes it a pleasant surprise that it is still rather good.



One of the most interesting things about GunBuster is how, for want of a better term, 'on-the-fly' it feels compared to more modern shows. It's possessed of a great energy, but the plot jumps about all over the place and for something that's famous as a super robot show, it's got very little resemblance to the classic forms of the genre. Indeed, one can see the main influences by dissecting the japanese title Aim for the Top! - it's a portmanteau of Top Gun and the tennis manga Aim for the Ace! - and it's classic 80's sports movies which do spring to mind upon a viewing of the first episode. All the classic tropes are here - the cute but clumsy protagonist who's bottom of the class (when it comes to piloting ROBOTS!), the synth-pop accompanied training montage sequence (but with ROBOTS!) and the final showdown with the nasty school bully (but in ROBOTS!). This carries over into the later episodes as well, but at the same time the story begins to gradually blend with the more serious matter of a interstellar war against space monsters. OK, maybe 'serious' is relative but the point is over the course of its six episodes the show gradually moves away from the more mundane concerns of the opening and gradually develops into a bona fide space opera.




What helps this transition is the surprising amount of 'hard' sci-fi the show employs. Again, in defiance of classic super robot cliches, the show tries to keep the science fiction content reasonably accurate, and, when it can't , it at least tries to keep the bullshit believable. Of particular note is the fondness for using time dilation as a plot point, a concession to the reality of near-lightspeed travel that the writers manage to turn into a terriffic dramatic device, milking a great deal of pathos out of a concept which by all rights should be a major spanner in the works. In fact, the story is at its best when it focuses on the character drama and interpersonal relationships of its cast. The titular Buster machine doesn't even show up until the end of the fourth episode and though there's plenty of stunning mecha heroics from then on the fights never threaten to overwhelm the human drama at the heart of the story.

It's a surprisingly moving and dark heart too, and one can definitely sense Evangelion's seeds being planted here, though naturally the general tone veers more towards upbeat than cynical. Centering around a core power trio of girls - bumbling but determined Noriko Takaya, her 'onee-sama' and class ace Kazumi Amano and wacky Soviet rival Jung Freud - Gainax pull influences from all over the shop, from Starship Troopers, The Forever War and even classic Japanese monster movies (the aliens are referred to as kaiju and look like something Cthulhu might have vomited up in his spare time). As I said earlier, it's this mishmash of genres, this unpredictability that makes GunBuster so interesting to watch. Any of the six episodes can swing from impassioned character piece to lighthearted fanservice fest to asskicking space battle action, and frequently feature all three at once. It doesn't always work, but when it does it provides a stirring and exciting tale. This is never more true than in the deeply emotional final epsisode, an episode so angsty and moving that Gainax saw fit to animate it in black and white (the common story that they did this because they ran out of money is (for once) not true). The crew throw everything at the screen, a bombardment of action and emotion so over the top it should be ridiculous. Yet somehow, it works, mostly because you can feel the sincerity, the passion of both the characters and the studio, up there on the screen. And that's another great trump card that GunBuster posseses. From every frame, every shot, every note of music or shouted attack, you can feel the love and dedication that went into crafting this tale and it imbues the show with an indefiniable sense of joy. It's not often I'll talk of shows having 'personality' but this one definitely does, and it shines through at every opportunity.



One of the major concerns in a production that's so old of course is how it looks to modern eyes now that two decades and more have passed. Fortunateley, it's nothing but good news on that front. Gainax's reputation for strong animation was clearly in place right from the beginning, as the show still looks fabulous even after so many years. Yes, there's the ocassional money saving still or animation error (particularly notable is an instance in the opening episode where Noriko is drawn without legs) but overall the movement is still fluid and the sharp, clean style is a joy to behold. Indeed, what one might fear would be such an old show's undoing - the visual aesthetic so rooted in its time - instead becomes just another thing to enjoy. The fantastically kitsch retro value is everywhere, from the ludicrous jacket/leotard pilot outfits to the impossibly 80s synth pop opening song. The classic style also means strong, highly 'realistic' character designs that feel like a welcome throwback after years of big-eyed moeblobs, and even the fanservice feels a lot more straight up honest (as an OVA it was uncensored and make no mistake, there's a reason why some fans refer to the show as 'BustGunner').



GunBuster then is an unashamed triumph, but crucially it's for more than just the legacy it left behind. True, by this point it's almost as important for the ideas it originated and the things it inspired its makers to go on to do. But if you return to it you'll find a fine, engaging, funny and tragic show that does it's best to thrill your senses, batter your emotions and make you cheer for your heroes as they battle impossible odds and come out victorious. Not a bad legacy to leave behind, eh?


*folds arms*


Next time - we go on a serious 'befriending' spree in Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha A's   read


3:50 PM on 04.23.2011

Closing thoughts on...Puella Magi Madoka Magica



"The destruction and grief are inevitable. You just need to change it all."

The word ‘masterpiece’ tends to be overused in modern parlance, not least in the anime community. We’re quick to leap on the bandwagon and declare the latest hot show, the latest flashy extravaganza, a masterpiece. Then six months down the line, we’ll look back and see a good solid show, nothing more, and wonder what we were thinking at the time. True masterpieces come along only rarely.

I say this so you understand what I mean when I say that Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a masterpiece.



From the very first frame it’s clear that this is a work of rare ambition, creativity and daring. Madoka’s run through an abstract maze towards a battle of monster and mysterious girl is a perfect introduction to this world – it demonstrates the dazzling visual apparatus the team at SHAFT can unleash when they wish, poses a multitude of questions with answers that will be scattered throughout the narrative, and reveals a crucial plot point to us that we will only understand a little further through the story

All great works have to excel on more than one level, and its strength in depth that is part of Madoka’s appeal. Let’s tackle the visuals first. Director Akiyuki Shinbo and his team crafted a unique visual language for the show which makes it stand out strongly from anything else. The ‘witch world’ sequences are what everyone will remember of course, and rightly so. They’re weird as anything ever seen and yet rather than trippiness, they instead convey dread and despair, superbly portraying a fall into nightmare never seen before. Yet credit must be given to every aspect of the production too. Madoka’s ‘real’ world is every bit as effective as the dreamscapes in a way, mixing bizarre architecture and a clean clinical style to create scenes that can be both beautiful and disturbing all at once.



A compelling world though, is only as good as the story that you put in it, and it’s a barnstormer that powers Madoka along, tighter and more gripping than anything I’ve seen in a good long while. Writer Gen Urobuchi drip feeds the plot superbly well, leaving you hanging onto every word, baffling you with every problem and then shocking you with every revelation. The sheer amount of speculation surrounding the show is a testament to how utterly compelling the tale was, and it’s to Urobuchi’s credit that I never once saw a correct guess (my own included). The show is also very good at intriguing ambiguity – many plot elements and references are symbolic and open to interpretation, and while it wisely makes its main plot points strongly and clearly, it leaves plenty open to be appreciated or pondered over on a second viewing. First time round however, we were all left agape as the show pushed in directions we never expected, aided by some masterful misdirection from all involved, which just led to us being sucked deeper into this epic. Friends were revealed to be enemies, truths to be falsehoods and the rabbit hole to run deeper than any of us expected. Episodes 8 and 10 stand tall among my all time greatest anime moments, both simultaneously reshaping the entire plot in a moment of revelation, and delivering a hammer blow to the hopes of our heroines, and our own hopes as well.



Those heroines are the final part of the puzzle that makes the show so compelling. Madoka has one of the most compelling casts of recent years, each one unique, instantly recognisable and with problems, hopes and fears we can all relate to. It takes a little time for their true natures to emerge, and initially some of them may seem worryingly shallow, but as in all other aspects if we give the show time it shows us hidden depths. Each of our heroines goes through their own trials that we sympathise with, from Sayaka’s jealousy to Kyouko’s guilt and Mami’s desire for friendship. Homura, as anyone who seen the show will know, shoulders the chief burden of them all, as is memorably revealed towards the end of the series. And while some criticised Madoka for being essentially a bystander in her own show, she provides a vital point for the audience to relate to through all the madness, and eventually comes into her own in a truly magnificent way during the series climax.



The net effect of all these factors is to produce a show that’s truly gripping and utterly compelling to watch. It’s been a while since I’ve watched something where you find it so difficult to tear yourself away from the screen, which engages you so completely on every level. Several of my friends have mentioned they were moved to tears by segments of the show, and I myself was deeply affected by the plight of the characters and the struggle they faced. There’s no denying this is a dark, brutal show that’s often very bleak and desperate. It takes its job as a deconstruction seriously, and takes a vicious joy in bulldozing asides the traditional tropes of the genre and layering tragedy upon tragedy. But unlike so many shows that attempt dark and edgy drama and only succeed in making both characters and viewers miserable, it also remembers that we still have to like and be able to root for our heroes even against the most overwhelming of odds, that ultimately it is triumph over tragedy we want to see, not just endless misery. There are beautiful touches of humanity sprinkled throughout the show that give it unmatched depth and feeling, like Madoka’s conversation with her slightly drunken mother, or Kyouko’s tragic paper cutout flashbacks. These little scenes really flesh out the world and make it feel real among the sea of crazed battles and turbulent story.



So...is it a masterpiece? It’s very much dependant on your personal feelings. It’s certainly not flawless by any means – there’s a lot of off model animation, several dodgy plot holes and an ending that is arguably something of a deus ex machina – and it certainly won’t be to the tastes of all, being often depressing and sometimes confusing. But on the other hand, this isn’t a show that is obsessed with consistency and rationality. Instead, it’s a grand, crashing epic, something which looks to batter your emotions and sweep you up so completely in its tale you won’t want to look away for a second, that values your intelligence and appeals to both head and heart. If you surrender to its spell, you’ll find a tragedy and a triumph that will excite, shock and profoundly move you in ways never seen in anime before.

You can’t ask for much more than that, can you?

  read


3:32 AM on 04.20.2011

Opening Salvoes - Spring 2011

Is it that time again already? Yup, the latest batch of steaming hot anime has just rolled off the production line, awaiting out approval. As always, I'm offering some initial impressions on the stuff that caught my eye this season. We're two or three episodes into most show now, so here are my thoughts...

Nichijou



Although it’s been pushed heavily as a slice-of-life show, and comes from the masters of the genre KyoAni, the term really does Nichijou a bit of a disservice. Rather than half an hour of ‘cute girls doing cute things’, this is really a mind-bending pure comedy, focused almost exclusively on weirding you out to the utmost degree. Thus we have a robot girl who keeps cake in her various body appendages, characters puling high powered weaponry out of nowhere and a boy who rides a goat to school with his butler.

Comparisons have been made to Azumanga Daioh, but they’re wide of the mark. Nichijou possesses neither AD’s more relaxed, dreamy pace or, more importantly, its strong and well developed cast of characters. Indeed, there’s little real character or plot development here. Instead, the show jumps about like mad from skit to skit with no connection in between. Although unlike many recent shows in the genre it isn't based off a 4koma it still feels like it has quad-panel origins, firing off jokes and not pausing to see whether they succeed or fail.

Sometimes this works – there’s a bizarre stalking scene in episode 2 that is wonderfully out there and later on in the same episode a frenetic chase is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a long time. But too often the jokes fall flat, and weirdness for weirdness sake is just not funny to me. Without any decent story or interesting characters to fall back on the show drops into mediocrity for the vast majority of its running time, content to just be a meandering fever dream. Watch if you like odd comedy and have a high tolerance for the sketch format, but this is hovering on my ‘drop’ list.

Dororon Enma-Kun Meramera



Right from the opening, it’s clear that Enma-kun is a kid’s show. That doesn’t mean it’s bad of course, but it also means you have to work with what you’ve got. This isn’t a show that’ll be winning any prizes for depth, subtlety or reserve, particularly since it’s based on a manga by the father of over-the-topness, Go Nagai. But there’s decent heritage here as well, with animation by Brain’s Base (Durarara!) and direction by Yoshitomo Yonetani (GaoGaiGar) as well as a theme song by the man, the legend, Masaaki Endoh.

What we do get then, is a fast paced, bawdy and irreverent action comedy that’s endearing as it is shallow. The titular Demon Prince Enma has been sent to earth to capture escaped demons, although he has a tendency to utterly annihilate them instead. He’s aided in this by his Demon Patrol, comprising scantily clad princess Yukiko, talking hat Chapeau and water demon Kapperu. They’re joined by regular grade schooler Harumi, who’s mostly there just to point out how silly everything is.

And yes, there’s a lot of silliness here. But it’s done in an irresistibly over the top way, and helped by fantastic (and fantastically deranged) animation, and some proper old-school hammy voice acting. The fights are great and there’s a fantastically retro feel to the whole affair, what with the cartoony designs and excessive powerup sequences. One word of warning – there’s some decidedly lowbrow humour here. In episode 1 the demon attacks Enma with its massive steel wang while episode 2 manages not one but two tentacle molestation scenes. It’s played for laughs and never explicit, but just be forewarned.

This one may yet take a turn into more serious territory but at the moment it looks to be a fine classic style shounen adventure.

Hanasaku Iroha



Produced by P.A. Works, the creators of Angel Beats, the first thing to say about Hanasaku Iroha is that it’s pretty. My god, it is very pretty. The animation here is top notch, every scene expertly crafted, every landscape an excuse for gorgeous scenery porn. It’s often breathtaking to see.

A good show needs more than just good animation of course, and on that level Hansaku Iroha is certainly intriguing to say the least. The basic plot – 16 year old Ohana is sent to her Grandmother’s country bathouse by her layabout mother. Dreaming of an idyllic country lifestyle, she’s instead forced to work for her keep, and it doesn’t help that seemingly nobody likes her.

If I had to pin a genre to Hanasaku Iroha I’d call it slice-of-life, but without the shallowness or silliness that term usually implies. Instead, this is mostly a slow, thoughtful look at a girl thrust into a situation she never expected to experience. Ohana herself is a charming protagonist, forceful without being dislikeable, dreamy but not stupid, and very relatable to. The surrounding cast are more difficult to evaluate – as previously stated most of them seem to hate her at this point, though some character development is softening them, especially arch-rival Minko and Ohana’s unfeeling grandmother.

The show appeared to be taking itself very seriously up until episode 3 which introduced some unfortunate and very jarring comedic fanservice which seriously disrupted the mood that had been built over episode 1 and 2. On a more general note, the opening episodes have been generally quite bleak and downbeat, and while I applaud the show for taking its story seriously, we need to see some shift in the status quo to make the show sustainable for the rest of the run.

Pretty, well composed and full of interesting characters, this one has great potential and I’d recommend it strongly to those interested in a good straight drama show for the season.

[C]: The Money of Soul and Possibility Control



Let’s get one thing straight – when you give your show such a gloriously loopy subtitle as The Money of Soul and Possibility Control you’ve got me interested already.

As part of the famed noitamina block, [C] pushes a high-concept ideal right from the get-go. While we’re not given much exposition in this episode, a basic outline emerges. In this world, it’s possible to mortgage your ‘future’ in exchange for money. In return, you agree to participate in battles in the ‘Financial District’ some sort of weird cyberspace limbo where it seems possible to summon creatures and perform superhuman feats. Our hero is Kimimaro Yoga, a perpetually poor university student who is obsessed with gaining a job in the public services and living out his days comfortably. He’s randomly pulled into the Financial District by the evil butler/clown/thing Masakaki, and agrees to participate because of his need for money.

If that sounds confusing then....yeah, it is. It doesn’t help that we don’t get too much explanation of what happens in the financial district, except for an opening battle sequence. Switch off your brain then, and instead feast on the mind-boggling design and animation, which takes the cake and runs off laughing. An insane blend of Madoka Magica, Persona and Escher, tricked out with some top notch CG animation, it’s truly mind-blowing to look at and succeeds in creating a unique style and then some.

I’m going to keep watching for that alone, but the producers will need to put some flesh on the bones of this concept in order to keep my interest.

The World God Only Knows II



TWGOK was a wonderful and extremely surprising standout from the autumn season, and the sequel picks up right where its predecessor left. Dating sim nerd and all round Otaku Keima Katsuragi has to seduce real girls in order to capture ‘loose souls’ trapped in their hearts, aided by the adorable demon girl Elcie.

TWGOKII barely feels like a sequel at all, throwing us right into a new plotline as if nothing had happened. Not that I’m complaining of course, as our first new story is a cracker. Keima has to get close to arrogant kung-fu girl Kusunoki Kasuga, who hates weakness and thus hates Keima. What follows then is a delightful tale of physical violence (mostly against Keima), attempted cat murder and one of the series’s best ‘fake dates’ yet.

There’s not much more to say here than what was said first time round – TWGOKII is a very funny and often wry sideways look at the Otaku lifestyle that’s never afraid to have a joke at its own expense. Highly recommended.

Tiger & Bunny



Sometimes a show conveys quality from the very moment you first see it. That’s how I felt about Tiger & Bunny, which really came out of nowhere to impress me. The premise is instantly intriguing – In a futuristic city, superpowered heroes exist, but their heroic activities are corporately sponsored and the subject of ‘Hero TV’, a cross between a reality channel and a gameshow that ranks the heroes against each other for points and popularity. Our protagonist is ‘Wild Tiger’ aka Kotetsu Kaburagi, an older and more old-fashioned superhero, who’s teamed up against his will with young up-and-comer Barnaby ‘Bunny’ Brooks, who’s mostly in it for the fame and adulation. They fight crime! Or at least attempt to.

What’s really impressive about Tiger & Bunny is the writing, and the cleverness and subtlety with which the plot unfurls. The show is careful never to beat us around the head with a point. While it clearly sympathizes with Kotetsu’s idealistic outlook, it also shows us the problems it brings. Likewise, characters are excellently sketched to avoid falling into cliché – Barnaby may be in it for the glory, but he’s not an out and out jackass and his gentle character development bodes well for the show as it goes along. The buddy-comedy banter between the two leads is still in its infancy but they have immediate chemistry and there are promising hints at a larger overarching plot involving Barnaby’s troubled past.

Legendary studio Sunrise provides a fitting visual accompaniment, painting the city and characters in a delightfully bright and bold style fitting of the pulp superhero style. The extensive use of CG is not to everyone’s taste but certainly aids the dynamic action sequences as well as the standout designs of Tiger and Bunny’s armoured suits. Voice acting is equally strong, the cast comfortably inhabiting their personas, with a particular nod to Hiroaki Hirata, who perfectly portrays the weary but upbeat Kotetsu.

There’s always a difficulty calling the quality of shows this early of course (something which applies to all the shows here) but on the evidence already presented, Tiger & Bunny looks to be a winner. Smart, funny and thrilling to watch, it’s the best show of this season for me.

I also started A-Channel, but I'm thinking that falling asleep halfway through the episode is not exactly a ringing endorsement. If there's anything else I really should be watching, let me know in the comments!   read


1:36 PM on 04.07.2011

Journey's End - Winter 2010/11



Time sure goes quickly huh? It seemed only yesterday that the new season was beginning, full of promise, and now it's all over and the shows we loved and hated are going to rest in the archives, at least for a while.

Here then, are my closing thoughts on the shows of the latter half of 2010. Naturally, spoilers abound for Kore Wa Zombie Desuka, To Aru Majutsu No Index II, Hourou Musuko and Star Driver.

Note: Although featured in my openeing impressions, GOSICK and Fractale were both dropped and therefore do not appear. Puella Magi Madoka Magica is incomplete and will recieve a separate writeup once it concludes

Kore Wa Zombie Desuka



Zombie was a big surprise at the start of the season, and I have to say that it almost perfectly fits into my own category of 'highly watchable rubbish.' Make no mistake, this is a trashy show, filled with dodgy animation, highly questionable fanservice and some pretty generic character designs. But it also has a weird, wacked out sense of humour that makes it a lot of fun if you can get behind it. After all, it isn't every day that you see a cross-dressing zombie kick the head off of a flying humpback whale. The show is sharp enough to it's own faults to gleefully revel in the insanity it generates and when it does, it can be highly entertaining

I do have to say however, that the beginning of the series is considerably better than the end. As more episodes pass by the joke quotient falls off and the main dramatic plot takes over, a conceit that has served many other shows well. But the characters in Zombie just aren't interesting or well developed enough for us to emphasise with them, and thus the final episodes do tend to drag a little as they pile on deep and meaningful climaxes that simply aren't particularly interesting to watch. The show does gain points however for a fantastically out there bonus episode involving idol battles and (yet more) gratuitous fanservice.

Ultimately, what you see is what you get with Zombie. It's wallpaper anime, neither especially notable, but not punishingly bad either. Good for a few laughs and chuckles and some loopy action scenes, there were far worse things to watch this winter. Also, it's reached the point where I literally cannot not call it Korean Zombie Desk Car. It gets points for that alone.


To Aru Majutsu No Index II



It's been a weird, up and down season for our favourite espers and magicians, one in which the show has gotten even wackier and more far out than it already was and in which quality has fluctuated wildly across the board. This feels like a much looser, scrappier effort than the first season, and the pacing has often been alarmingly suspect, such as the Daihasewhatsit arc, which felt extremely stretched out relative to the amount of material there was. I wasn't a fan of the increasing prominence of Accelerator in the storyline as the season progressed as well - he's a fantastic villain, but a rather one dimensional protagonist, and that one dimension is a stereotypical tortured shounen hero. The show also began to noticeably come apart at seams during the second half of its run, resulting in a final arc that was something of an anti-climax and a couple of pointless fillers to round out the season, although they do bode well for the (surely inevitable) third season.

If all this sounds a bit negative, it's important to emphasise there's still a hell of a lot to love about the show. The characters are as fantastic as ever, with Touma a dependably everyman protagonist, Index providing adorable support and Mikoto proving the tsundere isn't dead yet. The villains were also really good this season. with mad nun Agnese and nutjob Vento proving particularly memorable, although as ever I have to give the prize to the scenery-devouring Norio Wakamoto as the crazed bishop Biagio. Animation is still in the upper echelon of shows too, with great landscapes and some of the best punching you'll ever see.

In conclusion, this felt very much like a transitional season for Index, an awkward second album. It was messy, but there's still enough of that trademark action, humour and utter insanity to make it worthwhile. I'll be looking for improvement next time round though, though my my guess is we'll get another shot of Railgun before then


Hourou Musuko



It was always going to be a tough call to make a show about tween crossdressing and keep it both interesting and respectful of the subject matter, so the fact that Hourou Musuko pulled it off should not be underestimated in anyway. Just that the show was made was a minor triumph, the fact that it was pretty a good a major one.

Hourou Musuko's strengths lie at the micro level. The shaping of the characters, our insight into their lives, hopes, fears and struggles is wonderfully done, painting a picture of these children as genuine human beings. They're deepened beyond the headlining issues - indeed, Shuichi's crossdressing is only one of the many issues he has to face as he grows and changes. The rest of the cast each has a similar level of depth (except perhaps for the bratty Momo) and the show is always careful to present fair and evenly balanced scenarios where we can feel for all involved.

It's at the macro level where the show struggles slightly. The pace is - there's no real other way to say it - glacial and while there's no harm in having a relaxed atmosphere, I get a real feeling that the long stretches of inactivity turned many off to the show. There's a clear issue with adapting the dialogue heavy, static panels of the manga into anime form, and it's telling that there's an awful lot of long slow pans or static shots with narration over them. Structure also suffers - there's a real problem with getting a continuous narrative going and the show often feels almost like a 4koma adaptation, meandering gently from vignette to vignette. Again, this isn't always a bad thing, but it certainly results in a story which requires a great deal of patience.

The pendulum swings back again though when we come to the show's presentation. The astonishing, watercoloured style 'soft' animation gives it an unquestionably beautiful look, voice acting is top-notch all round, the music is perfectly keyed to the mood and in 'For You' it possesses what is in my opinion the finest musical piece out of all of this season's productions.

Hourou Musuko isn't for everyone, and even for those who like it, such as myself, the flaws aren't difficult to spot. But the things that it does well are the difficult things, making you genuinely feel for the triumphs and tragedies of its troubled young cast, and in an era where anime is being accused of a lack of originality, one can only applaud its bravery, sensitivity and breathtaking beauty.

Star Driver: Kagayaki no Takuto



Back when I first previewed it, I wrote Star Driver was the best show of the season. 24 episodes later, and after a lot of ups and downs, it emerges triumphantly with that crown still attached, and probably worn at a jaunty angle.

Make no mistake, there have been problems. I wrote of the show falling into a rut in my mid season check in and indeed there have been periods where the show's energy has waned. Even after the conclusion, the plot has more loose ends than Spaghetti junction and more holes than Blackburn, Lancashire. The constant use of stock footage became exceptionally grating and Takuto's harem became equally obnoxious after a bit.

But it's difficult to hate a show that embraces colour, action and good old fashioned fun as much as this one. Bones pulled off a masterstroke in marrying the gusto and go of the classic robot show with the silliness, goofiness and freerolling spirit of the high school comedy to produce a camp classic. They built a supremely engaging central cast, with the power trio of Takuto, Sugata and Wako a great focus as they played off of each other. Pitted against them were a cast of weird, wacky and warped villains, each more demented and diabolical than the last. And each problem was always resolved with a balls-to-the-wall battle of giant mechs, under rainbow skies and mirrored floors that looked amazing every time. Though the show dipped a little after 6 or 7 episodes, from then on it built a constant head of steam, with new baddies, new powers and new elements of the plot being drip fed in every week to great effect.

Star Driver is living proof of the fact that the most enjoyable shows do not have to be well rounded works, they simply need to capture your attention and make you feel every second of every episode. I know lots of people found it naff and silly, and that's fine. But all too often I was caught up in the whirlwind of bright colours, evil villains and dashing heroes, and reminded of every great Saturday morning cartoon I'd ever seen and every great comic book I'd read. Shallow doesn't always mean stupid. In a great season of shows, Star Driver dazzled the stage brighter than them all.

I don't get the fuss over the Star Driver ending Does anybody really think they aren't going to make it back a-OK? As ever, comments and feedback much welcomed.   read


6:42 PM on 02.21.2011

A few thoughts on....Tsubasa: RESERVoir CHRoNiCLE



Note - As ever, I'm going to try to avoid spoilers as much as possible, but it is almost impossible to discuss some of the finer points of Tsubasa without revealing some aspects of the plot, so there are some spoilers present.

I don't read much manga, certainly relative to the amount of anime that I watch, but the mangaka group CLAMP has always held a particularly special place in my heart. Not only did they create one of my favourite stories of all time in CardCaptor Sakura, they've also produced a ton of high quality work such as Chobits and Magic Knight Rayearth, and are famed for their touching storylines, lush art and complex narratives. Over the course of their career, they've created a series of memorable worlds and casts. So what better to do than mash those casts and worlds together into one epic, multi-dimensional crossover?


Tsubasa kicks off then, as an epic adventure and exploration of CLAMP's oeuvre. The basic premise is incredibly compelling - the orphaned Syaoran and his best friend, the Princess Sakura (both of whom look curiously familiar) live in the idyllic medieval Clow Kingdom. But one day, when exploring the ancient ruins near the city, Sakura is robbed of her memories, which are transformed into feathers and scattered across the dimensions. To retrieve them, Syaoran contacts the 'Witch of Dimensions' Yuuko, who agrees to send them journeying through the different worlds - for a heavy price. On their journey the two are joined by other dimensional travellers - Kurogane, a brooding ninja, Fai, a cheerful and mysterious magician, and Mokona, Yuuko's mysterious familiar who acts as their gateway between the different worlds, many of which are based on existing CLAMP works.

Everything is set then, for a rip-roaring quest across CLAMP's multiverse, and for the first half of the story that's exactly what's delivered. There's a real joy in revisiting familiar worlds in the company of our travellers and seeing what has changed through fresh eyes, and it lends the story a fabulous variety. One minute we could be in the glorious futuristic world of Piffle, the next the grim dystopia of Acid Tokyo. Throughout all of this, CLAMP skilfully builds the story, fleshing out our characters, hinting at darker goings on behind the scenes and foreshadowing large scale plot wrangling to come.



Unfortunately, it's when the eagerly awaited answers to these plot mysteries arrive than the series begins to fall off of the rails in truly spectacular style. Put basically, the second half of Tsubasa is a train wreck of epic proportions. That doesn't mean that it can't be breathtaking, compelling or deeply moving, but it also becomes confusing as hell. Without wishing to spoil too much, the plot abandons the world hopping semi-episodic format upon a major revelation and instead becomes a insanely twisting mesh of completing plot twists. We've got clones, dual personalities, time-travel, stable time loops, more clones, multiple timelines and more, creating a truly baffling storm of plots that are incredibly difficult to parse out. I've been a comic book fan my entire life, so I'm well experienced in dealing with continuity snarls, but I can honestly say that there were moments in Tsubasa where I literally did not have a single clue what was going on.

The problem is that as the story continues to push relentlessly forward these story elements become worse, not better. Rather than take the time to try and straighten the various threads into a cohesive single narrative, the plot piles on yet more ludicrous twists. Individually each one of these would be a shocking, bravura piece of storytelling, but together they simply create a blizzard of impenetrable narrative. There's never an opportunity to take a breather and assess the situation - indeed, one of the most important revelations actually comes right in the middle of the final battle, barely ten chapters from the end of the story.

It's to CLAMP's credit then that out of this insane swamp of narrative and causality they're still able to craft moments of genuine empathy. Rather than the overarching plot, it's the individual images and that stand out in Tsubasa's second half - two lovers trapped apart for an eternity in a glass prison, two characters living a new life in a new world (complete with delightful in joke) searching for each other, a price paid by a beloved heroine who only appears for the briefest of cameos - these still stick strong in the head and the heart when everything around them is an incomprehensible mush. And those plot twists, though confusing and haphazard, can also genuinely work, and at their best are revelatory, turning the entire story on its head more than once.



The series is also propped up by sublime artwork. Although CLAMP's trademark 'noodle people' are more spindly than ever, they produce a great array of character designs, and give very enjoyable spins to returning characters. Every world is a riot of visual detail, full of background detail, energy and ambition. Fights are equally good, exploding with action, dynamism and terrific spell and magic design, although the pudding is sometimes overegged, resulting in pages of over-the-top spell effects in which the actual action is difficult to follow. Mention has to be made of CLAMP's love for pimped-out clothing, leading to some truly memorable and fantastic outfits. The dimension hopping nature of the story ensures a constant flow of new environments, new costumes and new enemies, and they never fail to delight the eye.

I'm profoundly torn on Tsubasa as a whole. The series would have been a great deal more cohesive, more comprehensible and probably just straight-up better if it had continued the pattern set by its first half - that of a world hopping adventure series. The evolution of the second half into serious dark drama brings massive problems in terms of tone, consistency and understanding and it often feels that the authors are constantly writing themselves into corners that they can only get out of by inducing one silly twist after another. The extreme assumption of pre-existing knowledge is also an dangerous sign of hubris from CLAMP - I'm told much of the later story makes more sense if one has also read the sister series xxxHolic, but that is something I have neither the time or desire to do.

On the other hand though, this shift in tone and style undoubtedly brings far more depth and intrigue to the story, and all of the most powerful moments of the plot are to be found in this second half. It has to be commended for ambition if nothing else, for turning what could have been a cheap cash in on previous triumphs into a serious and interesting work. I would argue that the plot would have been more palatable if spread out over a greater length of time, though at 28 individual volumes it's already extremely long even by manga standards.



At the end of the day then, I must declare Tsubasa a failure, at least at successfully telling the story it set out to tell. It simply is too obscure, too confusing, too inward looking, and consequently extremely difficult to read. But that doesn't mean that it cannot be fascinating in its own right. There is real substance here, and a really weighty story lying behind the cavalcade of pretentious posturing (this is a series where I feel translation may have been a big issue). It's a struggle, but one often worth persevering with, especially towards the very end where CLAMP finally manages to draw together enough of the disparate plot to provide a glorious, bittersweet finale. There's also a great deal of draw for previous fans of the group's work, in the form of the endless in jokes, head nods and cameos that are almost worth reading for on their own. It's a mess then, but a truly glorious mess, one stuffed full to bursting of ideas, visions and stories. If this indeed is to stand as CLAMP's magnum opus, then there's certainly worse ways to be remembered.

As ever, comments, feedback and constructive criticism much appreciated.

Next time - GunBuster (for real this time!)   read


1:22 PM on 01.14.2011

Opening Salvoes - Winter 2011

It's a new year, and that can only mean a new season! And a very interesting season at that. I'd heard a lot of talk before we kicked off about how weak this season looked to be, but I've been very pleasantly surprised across the board. As a result, I'm going with 5 new shows this season, with no first episode drops, and keeping two continuing shows from last season. So, let's see what's going on, shall we?

Gosick



I'm a huge fan of Studio BONES, and I'll watch anything by them, but I must admit I prefer their more sci-fi orientated works (Eureka SeveN, Heroman) to their supernatural ones (Darker Than Black, Soul Eater). Nevertheless, Gosick piques my interest, although this first episode definitely had its high and low points. Highs include, predictably, the great animation and art. The Victorian/early 20th century European setting produces some lovely alpine landscapes and cool clothing and building designs, and some good looking characters, especially Victorique, our pint sized hero detective. Yes, making a detective a goth-loli is a little bit of obvious fanboy pandering, but she's engaging enough to make up for it. Less good are protagonist Kazuya, who's a unpretentious but bland everyman, and the flamboyantly becoiffured Inspector de Blois, who's really just a bit of a smug jerk, although that may be the point. The mystery in this opener is also rather perfunctory, but to be fair the characters treat it that way, and the cold open and last few minutes of the episode hint at a highly intriguing arc to come. Overall, even though this was probably my least favourite new show, it's more than strong enough for me to continue watching.

Kore Wa Zombie Desuka



Most of this season seems to be aiming for a more highbrow, serious tone, and I can only applaud that, but when you get down to it you sometimes just need to watch some goofy old fashioned trash, and that's exactly what Kore Wa Zombie Desuka is. Packed with dumb sight gags, gratuitous fanservice and more idiocy than you could shake a stick at, this one won't win any awards for, well, anything, but it's supremely entertaining nonetheless. Dead and deadpan lead Ayumu snarks with the best of them and matches wits well with the shrieky, chainsaw wielding magical girl Haruna. There's a sequence where they have an argument while he's being bisected and impaled by a massive bear, which is just as crazy as it sounds. It has the bad fortune to be a mediocre looking show in a season full of gorgeous ones, and the lowbrow black humour certainly isn't for all, but it's very funny if you can appreciate a screwy bit of fluff.

Fractale



This was my most anticipated show for this season, and I'm pleased to say that it lived up to expectations, although slightly differently from how I was imagining. Fractale is definitely a sci-fi show, but it's a very 'soft' application, and this first episode eases you in gently. Sure, there are computer avatars wandering around the place, but people dress like it's the 40s, and rather than metal and concrete the world is instead drawn in utterly gorgeous green fields and blue skies. Every single person I've read or spoken to has made the Miyazaki comparison, but you can see why. Aside from the scenery porn, there's the quirky clockwork styled flying machines and the very old fashioned, slightly more 'realistic' character design that harken back to the 80s. Plotwise, this first episode lays down frustratingly little, but the relaxed, meandering pace matches the art well, and this looks set to be one of the slower, more thoughtful shows of the season.

Hourou Musuko



Anime and sexuality don't have a particularly flattering track record, so it was with great trepidation that I heard this season would feature a show about transsexuality. Fortunately however, my fears were ill founded, and Hourou Musuko (lit. the highly appropriate 'Wandering Son') handles the matter with aplomb; that is to say, delicately, sympathetically and with a pleasingly light touch. There's a palpable feel of quality and artistry from this show, starting with the delightful watercolour styled washed out visuals and continuing with the excellent voices and music. The characters are beautifully communicated to us through small and simple actions and emotions, with hints as to some deep seated issues lurking tantalisingly under the surface. It's not perfect - it's somewhat confusing, not helped by some very similar character designs, and it can be a little longwinded on occasion. But there's real potential for something special here, and I have to applaud the bravery and ambition of those who made and commissioned this.


Puella Magi Madoka Magika



As I've previously written, I like Magical Girl shows, and the predictability of the genre is in some ways one of the comforting things about it. But straight from the stunning cold open, featuring our heroine looking out over a blasted dreamscape, it's clear we're into something very different from your normal setup here. And indeed, although Madoka Magika falls back onto the basic building blocks of the genre to construct the story (prophetic dreams, talking animals etc.) there's an undercurrent of darker intent here that really adds a lot of interest to that well trodden tale. It's also expressed in the fantastic visual styling, which is no doubt the most distinctive thing about the show (seeing a trend here?). Even the 'real' world is striking, taking place inside some sort of architect's wet dream where something as apparently everyday as Madoka's school can look like some sort of glass and steel artwork, but once the magic effects start up things really cut loose, and we're drawn into a crazed world of deranged animation, part Monty Python, part paper cutout collage, all drug trip. It's a mad and surreal journey through some loopy design, and cements Madoka's position as my favourite new show of the season. Let's hope there's more to come.

And checking in on...

To Aru Majutsu no Index II



Index continues on its merry old way - that is to say if you stop and think for a moment, things will make no sense, but it's a mighty enjoyable ride if you just let yourself be swept up in it. The latest 'Croce di Pietro' arc was a pretty bad offender in the cause of sheer craziness, and also arguably a bit too long, but a welcome return for Aisa, some amusingly gratuitous fanservice and some adorable Misaka/Touma interaction helped to keep interest high. It continues to be a great show for action and strong characters, and if you have an appreciation for the weird and wild (as I do) then that can only help.

Star Driver



I declared Star Driver my favourite new show back at the beginning of last season, but it's stock has fallen a fair bit, mainly due to repetition, and a failure to change up the basic structure of each episode. The Takuto/Sugata conflict was something I didn't really get in the first place, and seems to have been swept under the mat fairly easily, but the introduction of the adorably spacey Mizuno and her sister Marino have brought new energy to the show along with some much needed intrigue, while the mysterious Head appears to be poised to play a much bigger part in the second half. Artistry remains top notch and it's still an immensely fun show to watch due to the continuing colour and campery, but it needs to step up a level if it's going to keep the quality high. Not a big fan of that new OP or ED either.

Man, a lot of good looking shows this season, aren't there? As ever, comments and suggestions much encouraged

Next time - A few thoughts on...GunBuster   read


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