Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Working!! - 13 (End) and Series Review

Maya speaks!!!

I will confess, 13 was not my favorite episode of Working!!. Not surprising, as it dealt primarily with my least favorite character (Inami) and storyline (her overwrought quest not to punch Takanashi-kun, and her crush on him). Nevertheless, we did have a few outstanding new developments:

- The first signs that Takanashi feels something for Inami, too
- More Kotori-chan traptacular goodness
- Adorable Poplar dog-and-frisbee fantasies
- Maya!

Yes, Maya - our mystery "normal" girl finally gets her moment (or two) in the spotlight. And it turns out that Matsumoto Maya takes normal very seriously - abnormally so.

But on balance, this simply wasn't one of the funnier episodes of a very, very funny series. that's OK, though - it was a good ride and I still give high marks to the series on the whole. For each problem that I could complain about - most seriously, an overemphasis on Souta-Inami, the lame punching gag and not nearly enough focus on Poplar - there are ten things to celebrate. Slice-of-life is hard to do, but when it works, it's a great ride. It's the characters that make all the difference, and the cast of Working!! is one of the funniest and most interesting around. Each of them are odd and have huge quirks, but somehow they're all sort of believable. There are no cardboard cutouts in this show - everyone stands out. Each is instantly recognizable and totally unique.

Another thing Working!! gets right is the feel of working as a young adult in a restaurant. The sense of family that develops - even when you don't actually like some of your co-workers that much - really shines through. Those people become your family in a way, comrades-in-arms.

A word, as well, for the OP and ED. Both the music and the animation sequences themselves are perfectly suited to the material.

So in the end, it was a big winner for me. Even though I find Inami to be the most cliched character in a cast of originals, I didn't dislike anyone here. If ever a series was well-situated for a sequel, this is it - it really feels as though we're just observing these characters' lives anyway. We could go away for a while and come back not expecting much to have changed. There are ample plot paths that could be followed (though I think this show is actually better when it doesn't worry too much about continuity) and lots of source material. Clearly, the show has been popular - DVD sales are pretty good and it's struck a nice chord with the otaku fan base in Japan. There's really no downside to a sequel here, and I sincerely hope we see one.

Now and Zen - an Actual Wine Review!

One of the things I wanted to do when I started this blog was add a few wine (and maybe beer and scotch) reviews to the site. I love wine - have since I was a teenager, though I've never been financially able to partake of the upper echelon of the wine world. Once in a blue moon I'll drop $25 bucks on a wine, and slightly more often get a glass of something medium-tier in a restaurant. But generally I'm a $10 and under guy. And since I've given up soda (43g carbs in one can!) and generally drink a glass of wine with dinner now instead, finding drinkable cheap wines has never been more important.

I buy wine a few ways. Trader Joe's is a great source, but generally a crapshoot - they frequently buy overproduction wines and odd lots and stick their own names on them. Sometimes you can find incredible values, and sometimes the wine is total plonk. There's a good website ( to help, but any info on TJ's wines is always helpful in knowing where the treasures are buried - and where the mines are. I also utilize places like Cost Plus and BevMo on occasion, and here in the Bay Area we're blessed with some outstanding high-end wine stores like K & L and Beltramo's that often have good sales. We also have mini-warehouses like Jug Shop and Spencer and Daniel's where you can find true steals. And of course, we're a couple of hours away from multiple wine regions - and tasting rooms can be a great way to discover wines you might not otherwise consider.

But generally, TJ's is my day-in, day-out source. And I wine I've bought many times from them and really enjoyed is white from Alsace called Now & Zen. It runs $4.99 and so falls comfortably under the "everyday wine" threshold. A classic (more or less) Alsatian blend of 29% Pinot Blanc, 25% Sylvaner, 16% Riesling, 15% Muscat, and 15% Gewurztraminer, Now & Zen is an off-dry wine, perfect for summer. I love Asian food and frequently cook it at home, and any dry Gewurtz or Riesling blend is a perfect match for it - or almost any spicy food. There's a lovely floral nose (thank you, Muscat) with sweet notes of citrus and tropical fruits in the foreground. The sweetness gives way to to a crisp, puckery acidity as the lemon-peel and stone elements dominate the mid-palate. And all through the faint spicy notes from the Gewurz and even a a little smoke from the Pinot Blanc add surprising complexity for a cheapie. The finish is tart and clean. This is a real bargain - a great food wine, but with enough character to make a nice sipper in the warm weather. It goes especially well with the Orange Chicken TJ's sells in the freezer section.

Giant Killing - 13

Well, much as I predicted ETU added another goal as Itagaki and the rest of Nagoya grew increasingly desperate to try and score the equalizer. It's fascinating to watch this series unfold at the same time as the world cup - the experience of watching a real game and a fictional one so very different, but the same sense of excitement pervades both.

This was a generally upbeat ep, all-around. ETU got their first win. Fuwa was shown up by the team he snubbed and left for dead. Gino got his first goal of the season. But really, this game was about Tsubaki. His raw skills on the pitch have been made clear from the beginning, but he's really grown as a player - and as a character, too. By trusting his instincts he's unleashed the potential that he always held - you can't succeed in soccer just by running fast. He's enjoying the game now, and learning how to use his motor to cause problems for the opponent. His speed makes him a true two-way player, a valuable asset in the midfield - fast enough to bail out his defense as well as lead a devastating counterattack. For a team that's generally undermanned, counterattack is going to be the key to scoring goals.

There are so many little touches I love to this show. The Brazilians are wonderful - so very un-Japanese in their outlook and demeanor. They found themselves a soul-mate in Tsubaki, who earned their respect not just with his ability but with his love for the game. Brazilians, always, love football for the joy of it. Fuwa, while clearly a villain, is not presented as an idiot - he's a good coach who was taken by surprise by Tatsumi's gambit in the second half. And the Edomae are a welcome addition - their old-school fan antics charmingly anachronistic. Will they eventually merge with the new fans, or form a rival group?

In addition to some pacing issues (which have largely been limited to the Nagoya match) my one major beef with GK is the extended recaps. I know DEEN doesn't have an enormous budget for this series but really, an entire 3 minute pre-OP repeat sequence - followed by even more after the OP? It's a bit much, to be honest. Otherwise, though, I'm really enjoying this series - the matches are exciting, the characters interestingly flawed but likable, and the premise involving. This is the sort of series you'd like to stick with for a long time - 26 episodes isn't going to be enough to really do the season justice at the pace things are going.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood - 63

The long run of astonishing action-themed episodes ends at 62, as the penultimate edition of "Brotherhood" wraps up the major plot points with a quiet, reflective tone.

We saw the apparent passing of two more major characters this week, one (Hoenehim) somewhat expected, albeit possibly under different circumstances. The other (Greed) was something of a surprise. His demise was handled with a lovely swirl of poetry and poetic justice, though - the poetry in his "It's enough", the ultimately ironic statement from the embodiment of Greed. And the poetic justice an act of sacrifice, sparing Lin's life and setting the stage for Father's final defeat. Allowing himself to be absorbed, he transforms Father's body into charcoal, which Ed (using the flesh arm that Al returned to him with his own act of sacrifice) blasts a massive hole in, allowing the trapped souls inside to escape. Greed's sacrifice sends Father - back in "dwarf" form - for a chilling meeting with God/Truth/Etc., and his own date with poetic justice.

Meanwhile, the Al conundrum remains. Lin offers his precious philosopher's stone to exchange for Al, and Hoenheim (as expected) offers his own life in exchange for his son's. Ed, still the youthful idealist, abides by his promise not to sacrifice another's life to get Al's body back. Instead, with a serene smile, he draws a human transmutation circle and, in a brilliant dramatic feint, almost convinces the audience that he's going to exchange his own body for Al's. But no, that too would break his promise - instead, he uses his Gate of Truth and sacrifices forever his ability to do alchemy. Al, emaciated and exhausted, wakes up in the company of the good guys.

Finally, the the most powerful and moving scenes of the episode, Hoenheim reflects on his own role in the events wrought by Father - and even now, still feels pity for the Dwarf in the Flask. He returns home to visit Tricia's grave and, it turns out, die by her side. He's surrendered all of the souls that sustained him and now only his own remains - old, tired and wounded in every way possible. As his body slowly decays, he says his Goodbyes to his beloved Tricia and finally, in a gorgeous burst of profundity, admits that "In the end, I don't want to die." Obaa-san finds him the next day, a smile on his face as he kneels at Tricia's grave.

And so, as did the great Seirei no Moribito, Brotherhood appears to have devoted the final episode entirely to a coda - an episode-length epilogue. I think this is only fitting, given all that has happened in 63 episodes and how much emotional mileage we've gotten from these characters. While I expected Hoenheim's death, it still saddened me - in the end, Ed and Al still will live as orphans. But given the overarching themes of this story Hoenheim had to go - he had too much blood on his hands, and had already cheated death for far too long. As with Greed, he could hardly have asked for a better exit - each sacrificing themselves for something they treasured. Equivalent exchange is woven through the very heart of this story - no one ever gets anything for free. Always, sacrifices must be made - this is the nature of the truth that "Truth" itself stands for. He doles out dismay to those that, in their arrogance, forget this. No one is left standing unscathed at the end - all have given something precious to them, as the price for their continued existence. Acceptance is the only path remaining to any of them - without their sight, their alchemy, their homeland, their child, their immortality... Only acceptance that their lives are now theirs to do as much or as little with as they please.

I very much look forward to the final episode. I thoroughly expect it to be bittersweet, which is only right for this dark and often tragic story.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Durarara - 24 (end) and Series Review

Well, I suppose that counts as a happy ending...

I don't see too much point in plot summaries, since if anyone is reading this they've probably seen the final episode. As always with this show, a lot happened - Horada was betrayed by the Otaku Gang, Shizuo kicked ass, Izaya got punched by Simon (the best scene of the episode) Masaomi finally apologized to Saki and then the two of them left town, Mikado and Anri talked a lot and may or may not now be a couple, and Celty finally decided to seduce Shinra.

This has certainly been one of the most ambitious shows of 2010, and at times in the first arc approached the level of greatness. Several of these characters came alive in a big way - Mikado, Shizuo, and Celty especially proved to be great characters for me. Each of them surprised in their own way, soaring above the cliches that might have defined them in a lesser writer's hands and becoming unique individuals. There was always an awful lot going on here, but compared to Baccano the plot was much less indecipherable, especially in the second half. Indeed, the second half reminded my much less of Baccano than the first did - the plot became much more linear and the action easier to follow. It was almost like a different series, a good one, but I don't think it was a change for the better on the whole.

In the end, an awful lot was left unresolved - a natural opening to a second season I suppose, with so much more novel material still out there. Celty still hasn't resolved her head issues, though I did admire the way that became almost irrelevant after a while, as we got more and more wrapped in her problems as a normal person. It's something of a creative miracle to make a headless Celtic demon believable as an insecure young woman, but Ryohgo Narita accomplishes it here. Mikado still seems unsettled about what his existence means and who he wants to be, though that's perfectly normal for a 16 year-old. And his relationship with Anri remains unclear - is she truly incapable of love, as Izaya tells her and she apparently believes? Or did she like Kida in that way, leaving Mikado frozen out of her romantic feelings? They're clearly best of friends now, with Kida gone (at least for the time being) and the look they shared at the end had something of the Romeo & Juliet to it. But that may just be the romantic in me.

All in all, an outstanding series that seemed to lose it's way just a bit after halftime. If there's a S2 I'll eagerly sign up - I always admire series that aim high and sometimes miss over those that aim low and never do.

The Dumbest Guy on the Field

Two words: Ricardo Clark. Is he the dumbest guy? No - but the living proof that Bob Bradley is.

I mean, I love soccer and I'm fairly knowledgeable about the game - but I'm no soccer geek. So how is that me, every TV analyst and seemingly everyone in the universe knew that starting Clark and Robbie Findlay was a horrible mistake - except Bob Bradley? And that Bradley must have been the only one surprised when Clark's horrendous giveaway in midfield led to yet another early hole for the US?

How and why Bradley came to this decision, I will never know. Both Clark and Findlay were terrible against England, and the US played fluid, cohesive football with Benny Fieldhaber and Maurice Edu in the midfield against Slovenia and Algeria. I'm deeply saddened, because this was a rare opportunity for the US - Ghana was beatable, and Uruguay equally so in the next round. Not only did Clark's gaffe ;ad to an early goal, Bradley was forced to burn a sub 30 minutes into the game by his atrocious play, and the entire first half was more or less wasted. Only when the US took the field with Edu and Fieldhaber in the middle to start the second half did we seize control of the game.

It's time for Bradley to go. I deeply regret the missed opportunity to have Jurgen Klinsman at the helm for this World Cup - I doubt he'd reconsider now. But Bradley's strategic weakness is so apparent that US Soccer has no choice but to take a new direction.

Meanwhile - ganbare, samurai Japan!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Sarai-ya-Goyou - 10-11

Double-episode blog here, as I marathoned 10-11. And my goodness, what utterly brilliant episodes they were.

Episode 10 focused in large part on Yagi-san, who is proving to be a fascinating character despite his relatively limited screen time. Much of his past and that of Yaichi is reveled, as we finally learn what has been suspected since the beginning - Yaichi is Seinoshin, the unwanted heir who was kidnapped and presumed dead. Yagi was one of the lonely boy's few friends, and now has largely deduced his true identity. He goes to Masa for confirmation that Yaichi has the leaf-shaped scar on his back, but only gets it when Masa lies badly in telling him that he doesn't. Did Yagi befriend Masa only to get more information on Yaichi? I want to think not - he's a hugely likable character. But as with so much in this show, it isn't spelled out right away.

Meanwhile, we also close the loop on Masa's little sister, who goes back to their hometown richer by a silver hairpin (courtesy of Matsu) and newly determined to stand up to her older brother. She was an adorable character - and she certainly came away convinced she had stolen Matsu's heart, thanks to Masa's clumsy conversational skills.

Meanwhile Jin - the kidnapper who decided to spare the young Seinoshin's life, has arrived in Edo and is staying with the Elder, planning his revenge against Seinoshin - though for what, we're not let in on yet. The Five Leaves have finally made another kidnapping - this time the son of one of the Shogun's direct retainers - with much talk that this may be the last job. It seems no one much needs the money anymore, and Yaichi's motives to continue are unclear. Masa has been growing somewhat bolder in his manner and actions in the last few episodes, however. After the ransomed youth's family's servant delivers half the money with directions to kill the boy quietly, revealing that he is "not his father's blood" Masa confronts Yaichi in his boldest action of the series, telling him that he plans to go see the Elder to learn about his past. Yaichi goes into a rage (well, a hissy-fit at least) slightly injuring Masa and frightening his cat, but doesn't try to stop him.

And this leads us to the most shocking and violent scene in the series, as Elder reveals an episode from the past when the young Seinoshin was still part of the Bakuro gang and he was still "The Saint". An overriding sense of dread has been building these last few eps, and it finally bears fruit as we bear witness to a shocking act of brutality from the young Seinoshin, killing one of his gang-mates at the behest of their leader - though whether this was the act of betrayal that Jin now wishes to avenge is not clear (I suspect not).

It's hard to do justice to all that in words - you have to see it to appreciate the brilliance of it. The name of the show is "House of Five Leaves" but really, it's just as much about roots. All of these characters are inexorably, unshakably rooted to their past - an unbroken line of events that reaches out from the past and binds them in the present. Each cast member - brilliantly written and realized - carries the weight of all that has come before, and no matter how they try, cannot escape it. Even Yaichi, who has changed his name, appears to have founded the Five Leaves as a way to deal with his own painful past. And as we enter the end-game, all of those roots are becoming entangled - and we see how all the seemingly random interactions of the last 11 weeks are linked. The PV (Sadly, the very last and delivered by the cat) reveals Yaichi weeping at a grave - his own, or that of the servant that he loved as a lonely child?

Of course, Masa is at the center of all this - the catalyst that has powered much of the current situation. Lonely and without family, he clearly has come to love the Five Leaves - yet he retains his profound sense of kindness and his samurai's sense of duty, no matter how timid his exterior. I suspect he holds the key as the story wraps up - difficult choices are going to be forced upon him, and I worry for him greatly. I worry for all these characters - and I don't want to let them go. This is a series that rewards patience - all is revealed, logically and realistically - but only in due time. It's the best show of 2010, for me.

Working! 12

Late to the party, I thought I would briefly blog on this series, as we're getting ready for the final episode.

Though the preview was a bit of a bait-and-switch - we got an Inami ep disguised as a Poplar ep - it was still outstanding. Takaniashi's little sister still thinks he's into S & M, Poplar still wants to see him in drag, Inami still punches (and now, kicks) him, and Souma and Yamada merely want to cause as much trouble as possible.

This series has generally been a delight from the get-go. While too much of the focus has fallen on one of my least-favorite characters - Inami - all of the characters here are funny and interesting enough that the show is always a good watch. I don't want to ship Poplar and Takanashi so much as just see more of her - she's so damn cute and hilarious at the same time. And we did see a little more of Poplar here - her vivid over-imagination especially. Her zany idea to tie Inami's arms nearly robbed Takanashi of the possibility of fatherhood, but it was a great gag. Meanwhile, her hair-brained scheming lands the poor guy in a date with Inami. While Souma maliciously argues that Takanashi should cross-dress for the date, he boldly decides to risk his life by dressing as a guy - albeit one whose shirt was designed my M.C. Escher, apparently. Quite the set-up for the finale.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

You Gotta Love Sports!

Well, that was quite the day.

I confess to a tear or two when Landon Donovan finally broke through the massive wall of frustration that had stymied US hopes all day. Robbed of yet another legit goal by a terrible call (offsides) the Americans were forced to press the attack relentlessly for the rest of the match, coming close time after time only to see their World Cup future seemingly snuffed out by poor finishing.

I have to give full credit to Bob Bradley and his guys - they may not be the most technically brilliant side, but they have tremendous resilience and guts. It's much more fun for me to root for the USA when they're in the rare underdog role - in hockey, and certainly football. Make no mistake, they deserved to advance - they were robbed by referees against both Slovenia and Algeria, and they clearly dominated the game. Jozy Altidore was a dominant force the entire match, but ironically it was Landon who scored, after having a quiet performance. And let's not forget that the entire sequence was set up by a spectacular throw from Tim Howard. Best of all, by winning the group the US avoided Germany and will face Ghana in the round of 16. We may lose anyway, but I think that's a more realistic opportunity than facing the German side.

A word should also be said for Nicolas Mahut and Jon Isner. 59-59 in the fifth set? How the hell can that happen? The match has been suspended by darkness - twice. The fifth set is already longer than any other entire match. Isner leads in aces - 98-95. I can even imagine how exhausted these poor guys are. Even on grass, the odds against no one breaking through in 118 games must be truly astonishing.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Major 142

Well, it was a milestone week for Major and the legions of readers and viewers who have followed the series - Takuya Mitsuda's manga is finally ending it's historic 16-year run in Shounen Sunday:

Major nears end

I believe that there should be enough material for one more final season once the final chapters have been released. Alternatively, the producers could decide to finish things off with another theatrical film.

In any case, we continue to be treated to an interesting and compelling 6th season. This time, the Hornets greedy owner has added a big name slugger - "Mad" Mike Murdoch - as a replacement for the injured Green. Another nickname Murdoch has picked up is "The Curse" as defeat and despair seem to follow him everywhere. The owner knows Murdoch's history but doesn't care, figuring that if he causes trouble he'll be that much more of a gate attraction. Dreadlocks and all (even coming from LA) I had him pegged as a riff on Manny Ramirez, but in behavior he seems closer to Milton Bradley - surly, selfish and itchin' for a fight. Which, of course, he almost gets in his first game. After being hit by a pitch, he demands Goro retaliate - which Goro declines to do for obvious (Dad) and smart (tying run at the plate) reasons. Yes, this is one of those "unwritten rules" that baseball is famous for and don't always make sense, and it's interesting to see it explored from the Japanese perspective. Was Murdoch hit intentionally? Does it matter? In any case, he calls Goro a coward and disparages the Japanese people, and immediately follows with an error - hinting that it was intentional - that costs Indiana and Goro the game. Goro calls him out and the two nearly come to blows, with two teammates injured in the melee, including Keene who sprains his ankle and is out for two weeks. Five straight losses and much ennui follow.

It'll be interesting to see where the series goes from here. Fact is, there aren't always two sides to these things - sometimes players really are selfish bastards, and losing seems to follow them. From the looks of things however, we're more likely headed towards a "misunderstood" scenario with Murdoch, where we see his good side and he begins to gel with the team. Frankly, I hope not as I think it'd be much more interesting the other way...

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood 62

You know, I'm almost running out of adjectives to describe the ridiculous run of episodes FMA has had of late. Epic. GAR. You name it, and it fits. The only thing I could compare this final arc to in terms of sheer testosterone-driven, balls-out lunacy is the second Gurren-Laggan film.

What most impresses me about FMA is the way Hiromu Arakawa has managed to take an incredibly huge and cumbersome story, with a preposterous amount of important characters, and tie all of it together in a way that makes sense. Major characters - even the nominal main characters, the Elric Brothers - could disappear for entire episodes at a time, yet it never feels as if anyone is being cheated of their role in the resolution. Everyone has their role to play and Arakawa is stringing them together in such a way that events seem to follow in a logical progression, with a refreshing lack of deux ex machina and editorial license. This is shounen at its very best.

It seems almost pointless to recap, so much is happening here - but Bradley is apparently dead and Scar has largely played his role out, it seems. Along with the wounded Gen. Armstrong they stand down, leaving the fight to Alex and our heroes at the surface, though the blind Mustang and wounded Hawkeye refuse to stay behind. Meanwhile, the Elrics, Mai, Hoenheim, the blind Mustang and the others are joined by most of the Briggs army in a flat-out assault against Father in one of the most memorable combat sequences in modern anime. While the attacks seem to have no impact, in fact they're slowly draining Father of his philosophers stones - forcing him to search for human sacrifices to replenish his stash. Every time he starts feasting, however, be it on Ed, Izumi or the Briggs army - something interrupts his meal. In a truly memorable sequence he calls forth the souls of the long-dead Xerxes and his subjects, much to Hoenheim's horror. Weakening and struggling to contain the God inside him, Father finally releases a huge blast of energy that leaves half of Central destroyed and our heroes in various states of disrepair.

When the dust settles, the disoriented Father sees Ed, trapped amongst the rubble with his remaining arm impaled on a steel stud (his automail arm having been destroyed) and stumbles towards him intent on devouring his soul. Trapped and unable to do transmutations, Ed seems to be toast, as none of the others is in any condition to assist. Except, of course, for Al - himself nearly vaporized protecting Mei. Always the selfless and altruistic one in this cast, Al makes one more huge sacrifice - returning Ed's sacrifice of his right arm for Al's soul. It all comes full circle, amazingly enough, in a deft act of writing wizardly that left me almost stunned. And so, Al returns to his emaciated body at the Gate, Ed gets his arm back and proceeds to use it to seriously kick Father's ass.

The other fascinating - if slightly overwrought - element of this episode was the closure of sorts it brought to Greed's arc. Now finally, he admits it to Ling and himself - what he desired to possess was not ultimate power, but companions he could trust. If that's not a wholesome message to young homonculi, what is?

And so, we're left with two episodes left to finish wrapping this all up. I suspect Father has at least one more surprise left in him, but the overhanging question is what Ed will do to bring Al back now. I sense that Hoenheim will find a way to trade himself for his son, somehow - Al is the closest thing to an innocent in this dark and cynical story and I can't see him left behind when it's all said and done. And I never expected Hoenheim to come out of this alive, anyway. We'll have our answers in the next two weeks.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Giant Killing 12

Did I really just do that?

It's about time I blogged an episode of this show, because it's one of my favorites of 2010. It seems to be a new golden age for sports anime, and GK is proving itself worthy of comparison with the best of them.

While there have been times of late when the slow pace of the action (basically, real-time during the Nagoya match) has frustrated me, it's been fascinating to watch unfold. What I've loved about the way this game has unfolded has been the truly realistic nature of events. You have a team much deeper in individual talent, constantly pressing the attack and dominating possession. Yet, the pressure increases on them as they fail to score - and eventually they pull their defensive midfielder forward to try and breach ETU's defensive wall at last. And - exactly as Tatsumi predicted - space opens in Nagoya's defense and that leads to the counterattack.

It's a script you often see in football - one teams relies on possession, the other patiently waits to counter. Goals "against the run of play" are usually how real-life Giant Killings happen. It was great to see Tsubaki rewarded for all his hard work - he runs more than anyone else on the field, and his athleticism had already saved at least one goal from the Brazilians. Ah, the Brazilians - an interesting bunch to watch. I love how the series delivers their dialogue in Portuguese - not only is it a fun language to listen to, but it further plays up the impression that those three were playing a game amongst themselves, understandably frustrating for their teammates. Especially Itagaki, the striker and former top dog now relegated to his off side and generally ignored by the Brazilians. While there's something slightly paternalistic in the series' portrayal of the Brazilians, I love how it captures their sense of creativity and fun - even to the point of their respect for Tsubaki's efforts.

I can only assume, with 15 minutes left, we'll see the conclusion of this Nagoya match in the next episode. I suspect Itagaki's cowboy mentality is going to lead to another ETU goal. I think we're about to see our first giant killing, and Fuwa getting his just desserts.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Durarara 23

I've seen some mixed reviews of this episode, but I thought it did a very nice job setting up next week's finale. Thematically consistent, the story focused on the three kids wrestling with their regrets over past actions and puzzling over what to do in what, for each, feels like a no-win situation.

Of course, the grown-ups each have their role to play, and all were in their hitting zone here. Izaya still madly scheming away, Simon offering words of wisdom and pleas for peace, Shinra patching up wounds and generally being a buffoon, Shizuo being ridiculously GAR and Celty continuing her adopted place as den-mother.

Not surprisingly, Shizuo not only didn't die but walked into Shinra's flat under his own power, more concerned with killing his assailants than his own wounds. Celty, unaware of Shizuo's situation, races to Mikado's hovel to finally enlighten him to at least part of the truth, and prod him into action. Masaomi, betrayed by Harada and his fellow Blue Squares, heads for Yellow Scarves HQ to kill Harada before he can harm Mikado. And Anri flees Shinra's apartment, desperately calling out for Saika's children to protect Masaomi. And thus, fate finally brings our three young protagonists together to face each other and the truth of who they are.

No doubt, we have a lot of loose ends to wrap up in one week, and a couple mysteries to boot - who is Maruyama Ou, and why did Saki call Russian Sushi to warn (presumably) about Izaya's plans? There's the straightforward matter pf the gang war to be decided, the future of the Dollars, and possibly the reveal of Izaya's ultimate motivation. That's not even to discuss the matter of Celty's head, and any coda involving the romantic side of things between Mikado and Anri - both of which I expect to receive short shrift if they're covered at all. This is classic Noboru Takagi - too much going on involving too many people to have a real ending for all of it and everyone, but I have enough faith in him as a writer to expect a satisfying conclusion.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

B Gata H Kei 12 (Final) and Series Review

Ah, young love. And never has young love been portrayed in anime in quite this way...

I've mentioned it before, but the unique thing about this series is it's ability to deal overtly with the topic of teen sex while maintaining a thoroughly innocent tone. The last episode continued this alchemy right to the very end. Yamada (still no first name, alas) and Kosuda got close to the finish line several times, but never quite reached the promised land. Poor Kosuda - not only did he and his sex God get C-teased repeatedly, but sucker punched as well - and all that on top of a broken ankle.

I suppose in a sense I was disappointed that we never did get the consummation of their relationship, but that was consistent with the tone of the entire show - sex was the distraction, but the relationship was what was driving the action underneath. In 12 we even got so far as both hero and herioine seeing the other in all their glory - but defective love hotel beds, calcium deficiency and horny nurses proved too much to overcome. We did get to see Yamada in a nurse outfit though - and a very nice ending in which Yamada seemed to finally come to terms with the fact that she genuinely feels something for Kosuda.

There's so much to recommend this show, starting with the excellent OP and ED and smart, snappy writing that never talks down to the audience. What I love about B Gata H Kei is that, unlike so many teen romances, it deals with the sexual side of affairs in a completely straightforward and open way - right down to the language Yamada uses in discussing it. She and Kosuda are - like most teens - fascinated with, consumed by and terrified of the notion of sex. As well, both are adorably clueless about every aspect of it - to the point of asking their siblings for practical tips. Their fumbling overtures are what make what could be crude and exploitative feel innocent and charming - two words I would never have thought I'd use for this series after Yamada spoke of "One hundred fuck-buddies" in the first episode.

Yamada didn't always treat Kosuda as well as he deserved, that's for certain - I've said already that he'd have been happier with his adorable and adoring neighbor - but unlike with many tsundere females, I never felt animosity for her because of it. Yamada generally acted out of fear, that's all - she's certainly highly sexually charged even for a teenager (judging by the light petting scenes with Kosuda her entire body appears to be one giant erogenous zone) but finds the notion of actually going through with it terrifying. As is the notion of emotional commitment - so when either seem imminent she lashes out at Kosuda and retreats. As for Kosuda, he started out intentionally generic, but developed into a fully-formed and complex kid. He's genuinely kind and considerate of Yamada's needs, and never quite gets over the notion that she's out of his league - but in the end, when the goal line is in sight, he's the assertive one who takes charge of the situation. Alas, sadly, with disastrous results - but there's credit to be given for his courage under fire.

There are some surface cliches here, no doubt - the generic ecchi teen comedy, the dork with the hot girlfriend, the sexy, bookish "childhood friend", rich rival, wincest and elements of both tsundere and moe comedy. I wouldn't blame anyone for not giving this show a chance - unless, that is, they actually watched a few episodes. That's when the truth becomes obvious - this is incredibly charming and smart stuff. Likable characters grappling with hilariously over-the-top yet realistic situations, great physical comedy, sexy without exploitation and silly without forgetting to be smart. If one of the roles of a series is to leave you wanting to spend more time with the characters, those goals were met for me - I really like Yamada, Kosuda and the entire supporting cast and I'll miss seeing them every week.

Football Follies

It was an interesting day at the World Cup, to say the least.

It always amuses me to hear idiotic American fans dismiss the world's most popular sport with the "No one cares" line when what they really mean is, "I don't care so fuck it." Still, one of the valid criticisms I hear - and one that legitimately hurts football (heretofore on this blog referred to as "soccer" for simplicity's sake) in the USA - is that the sport suffers with horrendous refereeing. Mind you, we're used to horrendous work from officials in our sports - just ask Armando Galaragga. But soccer takes it to a new level, for three main reasons: First, there's more diving than the summer Olympics and more acting than the Royal Shakespeare Company. Second, so much of what the referees and linesman do a matter of guesswork and interpretation, And third, scoring chances are so relatively rare (another common American knock on the game) that a blown call can have a greater impact that in any other major sport.

Make no mistake, we wuz robbed by the idiot from Mali this morning - his phantom foul call that cost us the winning goal vs. Slovenia was one of the worst I've seen. What makes it worse it that under yet another bizarre FIFA rule, he need offer no explanation - so even now, we really have no idea what the call even was. There was certainly no offsides, and the only obvious fouls were committed by Slovenia - there were at least two blatant holds in the area that could have resulted in penalties.

What I hate to see, though, is for that sad conclusion to overshadow the very real fact that the US may have saved their world cup with a truly inspiring comeback from a 2-0 halftime deficit. It's maddening that we can't seem to keep a clean sheet in WC games and continually dig ourselves a hole, but heartening that we seem to have mastered the art of climbing out. The US played with a real sense of urgency in the second half, buoyed by Benny Fieldhaber, Maurice Edu and the improved midfield possession they provided. Landon Donovan finally emerged as the dangerous playmaker he can be at his best, with a brilliant goal and gorgeous service on Bradley's equalizer (with intermediate assistance from Jozy Altidore's head) and Edu's would-be winner.

As devastated as the Americans were to see their win stolen from them, they had to be relieved by England's truly putrid effort against Algeria. That 0-0 draw allowed the US a guaranteed place in the knockout round with a win against Algeria (which, to be blunt, really should not be a problem for a good side) and a better than even chance to advance even with a tie, thanks to FIFA's byzantine goal-differential tiebreaker rules. If the US was encouraged by their draw against an underrated Slovenian side, England had to be dismayed by theirs against a game but overmatched Algerian group. England don't deserve to advance if they can't muster a better effort than they did today - though I suspect they will suck it up and defeat Slovenia, forcing the Americans to take care of business Wednesday.

Soccer is indeed a frustrating, maddening and challenging sport burdened with poor officiating and an extremely corrupt and backward-thinking governing body. That's why so many people love it. And, frankly, with the likes of David Stern and (shudder) Bud Selig reigning supreme over sports here, are we really in a position to pass judgment? If you dislike the sport, don't watch - but I'm genuinely puzzled by the resentment some Americans seem to have towards the rest of the world for loving soccer so much. For me, I'll be watching closely for the next three weeks, especially next Wednesday.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Major 141

Nothing quite so dramatic this week as poor Taiga's crying jag after losing in Koshien, but a fairly solid episode.  Attention shifts back to America, where ballplayers call each other by their last name and owners threaten managers after every loss.  The focus this time is on Dunstan, a "lifer" who's scuffling at the plate and facing a benching, or even a trade.  Goro reflects on how Sawamura placed his hopes on Goro's shoulders after an injured knee ended his football (soccer) dreams.  Soon after Dunstan, playing out of position in CF, accidentally blows out the cleanup hitter Greene's (great name, lose the third "e") knee in a collision and must reflect on Goro's words.

Sarai-ya-Goyou 09

A bit late with this review, but I wanted to put my two cents in on this series...

I haven't seen universal agreement, but I think Spring 2010 is a pretty strong season, on the whole.  It can't compare with the ridiculously great spring season of '07, but we have terrific comedy (Working), romance (B Gata), sports (Giant Killing), and experimental (Tatami Galaxy) among others - as well as the continuation of some very good series like FMA.  But of all these entries, I think House of Five Leaves is my favorite of the season.

I love slow-paced anime.  The "filler" eps in the middle of Seirei no Moribito that everyone complained about?  I loved 'em.  This series put me in mind of Mushishi when it first aired - perhaps due to the physical resemblance Yuichi bares to Ginko, but also due to the narrative and BGM.  The director's connections to the hugely underrated Zettai Shounen are obvious in the relaxed pacing as well.  That's one of my favorite things about this show - nothing happens in a hurry.  And even when we have real "drama" and dangerous situations, they still play out rather calmly on screen.

Episode 9 continues a recurring theme to the show, where the major characters' pasts are slowly unpeeled like layers of an onion.  It's happened to just about everyone now, one by one, with this week continuing the exposition of Matsu, revealed to have a child living with her mother and another man.  Matsu's life seems to be controlled by the debts he owes to others, which has led him the his current predicament (kidnapped by a candle merchant).  Apparently, candle merchants in the Edo period were the badass yakuza of the day, like cemene companies in Jersey.

Masa, seemingly well over his Edo disease, displays a new energy and forcefulness this week, using Yagi's help to land a job as a bodyguard to the merchant holding Matsu, who was captured trying to steal back the merchant's tags of the candle merchant who had loaned him money in the past.  Masa engineers Matsu's escape, only to find upon his return that another layer of his past is about to be revealed - his younger sister Sachi has fled to Edo to avoid her arranged marriage.  One assumes we're about to hear more about why Masa is so eager to avoid going home, but the central drama is twofold.  Yuichi has apparently decided on Yagi as his next target - though there is still reason to suspect they have a connection deep in their past - and appears quite peeved that Masa has gotten close to a policeman. At the very least, target or not, Ichi wants Masa to steer well clear of the officer.  Masa, who was only starting to feel a sense of happiness at his expanding circle of friends and comfort in the Five Leaves, is forced into a difficult choice.  And we have a hint of more violence at hand, as revenge for a past betrayal is hinted at.

As always, this show is in no hurry to explain what's happening - you just have to sit tight and wait for it all to unfold at a leisurely pace.  And what a joy it is to do that.


With apologies and all due deference to the outstanding bloggers at Random Curiosity and Star Crossed Anime Blog, I'll be posting the odd review of what I'm currently watching.

Important Facts About Me

And that's what counts.

Rei or Asuka? Rei
Ketchup/Mustard: Ketchup
Kate/Allie: Allie
Eva - 25/26/EoE: 25-26
Felix/Oscar: Felix
Beatle: George Harrison
Stooge: Curly
Spielberg Film: A.I./Empire of the Sun (tie)
Siskel/Ebert: Ebert
Pinot: Yes Merlot: No
Picard/Kirk: Picard
Bush/Obama: None of the Above
Drive/Fly: Drive
Hiromi/Noe: Hiromi
Ramen: Anytime
Natto: Never
L4-L5 disc deteriorated beyond all usefulness
Chardonnay: No oak
Beer: Belgian, if possible
Pizza: Stuffed or Deep Dish
Cubs/Sox: Cubs
Blog: Yes
Tweet: No
Facebook: What?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

What is it About Japan?

Great Buddha Hall, Nara

Interesting things about Japan:

- You can buy underwear at convenience stores, but not ziploc bags

- You have to take off your shoes at an inn, but not at airport security

- It's absurdly rude to wipe your nose in public, but perfectly fine for a man to urinate in public

I wonder, sometimes, why Japan has assumed an almost hypnotic influence over my life. I have no obvious explanation - I have no Japanese ancestry. I watched "Star Blazers" but wasn't especially entranced by anime as a kid. I never even liked Japanese food - much less sushi - until well into adulthood.

Yet here I am, comfortable but stuck in neutral, looking at Japan as my salvation. I've traveled there twice in 15 months. I plot and scheme about how to move there, even at the cost of a tremendous cut in pay. I download anime and buy mediocre coffee at Borders, just so I can read manga for free. I took taiko drumming lessons and subscribed to Japanesepod101 (a very nice Japanese interactive language site and podcast). My ringtone is the "Track 16" theme from Shinjuku Station in Tokyo. Where did all this come from?

Kenrouken Garden, Kanazawa

Now that I've been to Japan twice, I can at least construct a case for why it fascinates and compels me - more on that in a minute - but that doesn't answer what drew me to it in the first place. No doubt, when I started to watch anime as an adult (Evangelion, Tenchi Muyo maybe, Rurouni Kenshin a bit later) the sheer variety and quality amazed me. I'd always loved animation and chafed at the shoddy treatment it receives from the mainstream media and public in the States. The idea of animation being respected as an art form every bit as valid as live-action, with sub-categories for all ages and tastes, immediately struck me as right. But is that a reason to adopt a country as a second homeland?

I suppose as I became curious about this place that spawned such strange and wonderful art, I began to dig deeper - and every discovery led to another fascinating riddle. The history of the country had always interested me, but soon became compelling. The aesthetic had always fundamentally appealed to me - minimal, naturalistic, even austere - and somehow, I began to feel a connection that was deeper than just Battousai and Eva-01. Shockingly for this Chicago boy, I even began to appreciate the sheer wonder of raw fish, an ever-deepening passion that will always be with me now.

So traveling to Japan seemed a natural next step. And once there, the sheer oddity of the place became even more apparent. Cliche it may be, but it's a country of extreme contrasts, paradoxes even. The ultra-modern alcoves of Tokyo, years ahead of the west in the use of technology in everyday life. Only a few miles away (minutes by train in this rail-happy land) small villages where old traditions and architecture reign supreme. It has one of the lowest birthrates in the world and one of the oldest populations, yet it's a culture obsessed with youth where teenagers exert a tremendous influence over fashion, language and the arts. Japan remains a country where formality and courtesy are woven deep in the psyche and even the language, yet possesses one of the oddest (and often most inappropriate) national senses of humor (is that a word?) of any place in the world.

I suppose, in the end, that's what draws me to Japan and things Japanese now - the sheer mystery of it. Remember when you were a kid, and every day seemed to bring a baffling yet fascinating new discovery in everyday life? That's what I feel when I'm in Japan - like a kid in the midst of constant discovery. The layers of Japanese culture are so numerous and the culture itself so opaque to foreigners that even living there for 20 years would only give me a fleeting glimpse through a door just slightly ajar. But that glimpse is enough to keep me hooked, hoping for another one. I can't imagine being bored of life there - frustrated, anxious, confused, sure - but never bored. That's a powerful appeal for me, make no mistake - though to top it off, when I do get treated to a little peek I usually like what I see. I know all the warts are there - the cultural sexism, the institutional racism against "outsiders", the dangers of a homogeneous society. But I also love the idea of a festival for every season, a shrine on every hill and a cafe where you can pay $10 to play with cats for an hour. And a businessman in an expensive suit reading Shounen Sunday manga as he sips his beer on a Shinkansen, without a hint of self-consciousness. And more than anything, I want to be a part of it - even though I know that I could never truly be a part of it. Even for a year or two, to pass those slightly open doors every day and be able to peek in and wonder is an idea whose romance hypnotizes me. I'm hooked - it won't let me go, and I don't want it to. Perhaps that's slightly insane, but right now that feeling is the closest thing in my life to a sure thing.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Deeper into the Well of Obscurity

Since I'm on the topic of sports anime, I figure I may as well use this platform to evangelize for an even more obscure title...

Not only is Capeta a sports anime, but one about one I don't especially care about - motorsports. It passed under the radar a few years ago without much attention. But it's good - the kind of series that creeps up on you and before you realize it, you're sweating and shouting and raising your hands in triumph or groaning in despair. It's the characters that matter, and this series makes you really care for them - especially the likable and inspiring lead, Taira Capeta. The action sequences are terrific too. Be open-minded and give it a shot - you might be surpised...

Post the First

I never thought I'd see the day. I have no idea what this will turn into, but for now I'll think of it as cheap therapy. If you happen to read something you like, please let me know.