Thursday, September 30, 2010

Major - 154

A somewhat quiet episode this week, leading up to the finale of the season. And the series? Who knows. There's an OVA (Major's first) due in December, along with the last manga volume. In theory, we should probably have one more season to finish up the manga - but the OVA may be all we get. We'll see.

Goro is still in the hospital as the episode begins, along with Watts. He's about the be released though, and is excited to get back home - only to find the lovely Sophia there. Sophia, if you recall, is the quintessentially American (at least as the Japanese see us) blonde trainer/manager. The Hornets, rightfully pissed at Goro's somewhat checkered relationship with the truth, assign her to babysit him and make certain he doesn't try to rehab too soon. Unfortunately, Shimizu calls during the evening and hears her talking to Goro, which leads to all sort of misunderstandings and, judging by the PV, prompts Shimizu to fly to the US and check on her boy. Since Sophia was suggesting marriage to Goro as a career choice, that could prove interesting.

On the field the Hornets win their division series, but it's all about Gibson vs. Gibson this time. Sparing no sense of the absurd, Takuya Mitsuda gives us a showdown in the 9th inning of game 7, with Junior hitting a HR off Dad's 102 MPH fastball. 42 year-old Dad, mind you. And this after previously being 0-19 against the old man. So it looks as if it's Junior vs. the Hornets in the World Series - and I don't think even Goro can come back and pitch six months ahead of schedule. But with Major, you can never be sure.

Mitsuda definitely did get one thing right - Chicago choked it away in the 9th to lose out on a trip to the World Series. I can speak from experience here - that was a rare moment of realism in this series...

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Seikimatsu Occult Gakuin - Series Review

Seikimatsu Occult Gakuin was the best show of the summer for me, on balance. I loved Mitsudomoe and I'm enjoying Shiki a lot, but for my money Occult Academy had the best overall package. Tremendous production values, courtesy of A-1 pictures. Phenomenal voice cast. The most intricate, clever and challenging plot. Likable and/or interesting characters. And the most dexterity in terms of style - it was able to deliver suspense, action, horror, slapstick and character comedy in equal measures. Most of all, perhaps, it was the most ambitious - setting it's sights high and often achieving brilliance in the process.

But in many ways it was the most maddening series of the season, too. Honestly, for me, this is a series that should have been 26 episodes. There was so much happening here - it was a series densely packed with big concepts and enough good characters that their relationships begged to be developed further. Frustratingly, even at 13 episodes too much of middle run was spent on "filler" eps - stories that didn't do anything to advance the overall plotline. Some of them were very, very good - not all - but there were just too many for a one-cour show this smart and complex. As a result - as I bemoaned yesterday in the Giant Killing summary - we were left with so many threads dangling that it required shortcuts to tie them up in the finale, and left us little room for an epilogue.

With all that, though, this was still a tremendous work. While the overall series pacing may have suffered from those filler eps, almost every ep itself was a masterpiece of pacing. Even the frenetic episode 11, when the creators threw everything including the kitchen sink at us and shattered a lot of preconceptions, totally worked - it was like going 100 MPH on a motorcycle without a helmet (which I don't advise, BTW). The writing was astute enough to spill enough information every week not to frustrate the audience too much, but in the process to create more unanswered questions and keep us guessing. The mystery worked right up until the very end, and if the finale itself seemed to cut a few corners for convenience, that can be forgiven.

Gatou Asou, the character designer behind Seirei no Moribito, filled that role for this show as well and his designs were the best of the season. A-1 has earned a reputation for stellar animation and they reinforced it here, in spades. Backgrounds were detailed, movement natural, the character's faces incredibly expressive. And what characters they were - even if some of them felt a little under-explored. It was really Fumiaki who was developed the most here - we saw all sides of him (adult and child) and his inner nature - not always pretty - was bared for all to see. He was a man who was always being manipulated, always under the control of others - and his redemption in the end was poetic justice. Maya was much more opaque - an angry, guarded girl who would be a fascinating character to follow in a sequel. Their supporting cast - Kazue, Smile, Ami, JK, the Vice-Principal, even Mikaze - were vibrant, interesting and often mysterious characters in their own right.

In the final analysis I can forgive a lot from a series that really tries to be great. Seikimatsu Occult Gakuin did have some swings and misses, but that's because it was always going for the home run - and I'm always more interested in a series that does that (Ghost Hound is another that comes to mind) than one that plays it safe and goes for the easy path. My biggest wish is that this had been a longer series, because there was plenty of extra life in the material. But even at 13 episodes this was an intriguing mix of suspense, mystery, irreverence and really smart comedy. It didn't succeed all the time but even its failures were more interesting than most of the other shows out there.

Seikimatsu Occult Gakuin - 13

Well at this point, if you're reading this you've probably all seen it. So I'm not going to bother trying to explain what happened, especially as most of that is left up to interpretation anyway. My focus is on how I felt about the episode itself.

For starters, those of us who speculated that Fumiaki himself was the key were correct. For the ending the creators went with a fairly tried & true "time paradox" theory - the nut of it being that if Fumiaki met his younger self - let's call them Fumiaki and Abe-sensei - it would cause a dimensional rift. This, as it turns out, is what allows the aliens to enter our dimension and mess over 2012 big-time. Through a chain of innocent events, Fumiaki and Abe-sensei meet at the school on the destined day - the rift opens, aliens come through, and that's when it starts to get weird.

Apparently Fumiaki is one hell of a powerful telekinetic when the mood strikes him, if his stone-bending skills are any indication. After he and Abe-sensei touch and the aliens come through, Abe-sensei apparently rediscovers his telekinetic ability. At this point, my best guess as to what happens is that he uses Fumiaki's spoon to fight off the aliens and seal the rift, sacrificing himself in the process - again, a result I expected after last week. Just how he was able to do that I'm not quite sure, but this is where things get really dodgy as far as time-travel theory is concerned. The future is apparently changed at last with Abe-sensei's death - now 2012 is a bright, happy place and when Papa leaves the bunker, the bunker is now a tea shop. Except he seems to remember everything (I think) and so does Maya (I think, but with less confidence). Even more interestingly, she and Fumiaki are living together and possibly marries, and Papa apparently lives with them. Which means that one way or the other, Maya waited for Fumiaki to grow old enough not to be jail-bait and they ended up together. But if Fumiaki never returned in time, how did he get back to 1999 to fix the timeline? And how is it that even after the timeline was fixed, Papa and all the scientists were still in a bunker that didn't exist when the outside world was "normal"? I have a headache...

Like I said - I won't try too hard to analyze. It was certainly an interesting finale, loaded with tension and a sense of impending dread. I commented yesterday how nice it was that Giant Killing allowed itself time for a real epilogue, and I think that was sorely missing from this episode - in the mad rush to the finish line, there were only brief moments at the end to reflect on what happened. It was nice to hear that Fumiaki and Maya ended up together, though it would have been nice to have some context for that. And I hated to see Abe-sensei - for me, the funniest and most empathetic character in the series - meet a bad end, no matter how much I expected it. Still, it was incredibly consistent thematically. Fumiaki took a lot of criticism for his behavior early on, but he was fundamentally a decent man who chafed at always being manipulated at those around him. His "Keep living like that" to his younger self was a recognition that he was taking some control, at last. At least he went out a hero, and maybe it was the sight of him doing so that made Maya fall for him at last - though there were certainly signs she was already doing so...

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Giant Killing - Series Review

Part of me wants to call Giant Killing a sports anime for those who don't like sports anime - but I think "Cross Game" really fits that title better. That's a sports anime that isn't (in a good way) while GK is a sports anime that really is a sports anime. It's about the sport of soccer (football to non-Americans) in every facet starting with the most obvious - the on-field action. It's excellent - well-paced, smartly drawn, exciting. But this is a sports anime about everything sports means to people - to the players, the coaches, the front office, and most especially the fans. No aspect of the game is ignored, and none treated less than brilliantly.

It's certainly different to see a sports anime about professional athletes, for starters. I love coming-of-age stories, but we haven't seen many sports series focusing on adults. That opens so much fertile ground - the young rookie struggling with nerves, the aloof and cocky cover boy, the overachiever, the fading veteran hanging on to his leadership role... All are here, and all portrayed in lively, layered roles. We had ample time to live with the three strikers, Sera, Sakai and Natsuki - all struggling with their own demons. The proud Captain Murakoshi, the prima donna Gino, the pugnacious defender Kuro - all real people. But I think my favorite among the players was Tsubaki. His wide-eyed nervousness was something anyone who has stepped onto the field can empathize with, but he also grew more than anyone over the course of the series. He got most of what he got with hard, tireless work - but his talent was undeniable. He's the future superstar of the new ETU era.

And then there were the coaches - Dulfer and Blanc were especially memorable. In Dulfer, Tatsumi found the perfect foil - the brilliant and proud Dutch coach and believer in "beautiful football" trying to prove his own brilliance at Tatsumi's expense. He was one of the great supporting characters of the last two seasons.But fundamentally this ensemble series was about Tatsumi. It was his unbreakable spirit that Goto noticed in England, and that sustained him as he took over a derelict club. Tatsumi was lazy, irreverent, and often maddening - but it was his genius that made the series go. His genius in on-field tactics, but also his genius at analyzing and motivating people. He has the ruthless ability all great coaches have, to look at a player and see him in terms of whatever value he can provide to the team. It can be a bit cold-hearted, but in a sense Tsubaki had to get blood from a stone - to turn a last-place team without much money into a contender overnight. And so he did - using the same Giant Killing techniques he mastered at East Ham. He spotted Tsubaki's ability to disrupt the opponent's shape immediately, even though all his timidity and mistakes. He saw what Murakoshi needed to re-motivate himself, what Kuro and Sugie needed to believe in themselves again. He even saw what ETU needed to do to win the fans over again.

And oh, those fans. We got effectively three generations of them - the three little lads from the junior team, their dads, the "old-school" Edomae fans, and young toughs The Skulls. The fans were the heart of the show, in many ways. It's rare to see their travails portrayed like this, but any lifelong sports fan can tell you what it means to love a team with all your heart only to have them break it over and over again.

It says something about this show that the overall best episode was probably an "between" ep - #19. This was the one that focused on the buildup to the Osaka match - the stretching, the strategizing, the tension in the locker room, the excitement and trepidation among the fans. I can't think too many series would have bothered giving a full ep to this material - but it was a beautiful thing. I can never remember an episode of a sports anime doing such a great job of building up anticipation. It did all the little things right - and that sums up Giant Killing pretty well. This is a show that just gets it. It gets soccer, it gets being a sports fan, and it gets the demons that trouble us and the joys we feel when we overcome them. This is something of a golden age for sports anime, but if you're one of those anime viewers who avoids them on principal, maybe you should re-think that stance. GK is an outstanding series on every level, with complex and sympathetic characters, real wit and exciting action. I can't imagine we're likely to get another season, which is a real shame - but if we had to end in the midst of ETU's rise, the show did a fantastic job wrapping things up with style and feeling.

Giant Killing - 26 (End)

Let me tell you, there's really something to be said for a good epilogue. While most series end up rushing at breakneck pace to resolve everything in the nick of time (and often fail at that) a great series needs a chance to step back and breathe, to wrap-up - a benediction if you will. You need an opportunity - especially with two cour and longer shows - to reflect back and say goodbye to the characters. And Giant Killing gave us a great example of the recap episode at its best.

No doubt the comeback win over Osaka was the true dramatic climax of the series, and it was tucked in at the end of the penultimate ep, just as it should have been. We did get some more game action here - a couple of league matches and a cup match, with two wins and a tie for ETU. Akasaki got a callup to the Olympic team (I never would have guessed he was only 23). But best of all, the episode really focused on Tatsumi taking what he learned managing East Ham in England - how vital a part of the community the football club can be. So at midseason, with Gino hurting and the team a bit tired, he decides to step back from soccer and throw a kind of block party for East Tokyo - a curry party, in fact, with the players handing out flyers, shopping, greeting, and even cooking. Even the owners serve up the chow along with the cafeteria ladies. It's perfectly charming and fits the series perfectly - GK was always concerned with the role the fans play in the life of a team.

Finishing up things with yet another spot-on flourish, the ED is a couple of ETU chants - starting with the three junior players singing a capella and building to a full chorus of the fans complete with foot stomping. Thus GK ends - on a perfect note.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Mitsudomoe - Series Review

It took me a couple of episodes to catch on to this series, but once I did - and that really started with the brilliant episode three - I was fully hooked. The Kool-aid had been drunk and I was ready to do anything the Marui sisters commanded.

This series ranks with Seitokai no Ichizon and Baka-Test as the funniest comedies of the last year. And it came as a real surprise - Mitsudomoe ended up being much smarter, darker and more layered than I expected. As a sketch comedy, there were bound to be ups and downs - and there were - but after some missteps early, the batting average was truly astonishing. There were so many highlights it would take too long to recount them all - the barrel "silent movie" sketch and "Shin-chan, you gotta nail me in the butt again sometime - it felt great!" from episode 9 spring to mind immediately. But there were so many more, and what's really remarkable is how versatile the humor was. The specialty of the house of course was misunderstandings - and no one did them better. But we also had sight gags, double entendres, character humor, slapstick, parody - and almost all of it totally worked. Of course the mind of the series was firmly in the gutter, but it (almost) always seemed to know just when to pull back. One of the great secrets of dark comedy is to know just how close to the edge you can go without falling off.

My initial trepidation was that this would be too relentlessly mean-spirited to really be enjoyable. Fortunately, we were shown all sides of the characters - not just their ugliness, but also their vulnerability. While all three sisters were wonderful, Futaba was my favorite - a human disaster film of a girl, wreaking havoc all around with her superhuman strength and super-baka denseness. Hitoha was adorable, bookish and awkward but a pushover for a hamster, pussycat or color-coded superhero. And Mitsuba, for all her bluster, was an incredibly softie at heart - looking out for her sisters and even her classmates while doing her best to hide it. Like Minami-ke - with whom this series shares a director - Mitsudomoe offered a spectacular roster of supporting characters. Papa Soujirou, so slovenly and scary-looking he's constantly hassled by cops, is actually a sensitive and savvy father who adores his daughters. The honor student/pervert Shin-chan (Futaba's future boyfriend), his hapless squad of admirers, ero-boy Chiba... The entire class was a vital part of the alchemy. And then there's poor Yabechi, whose panicked humiliation could only be brought to life by Hiro Shimono. But at least he has Hitoha crushing on him...

I know a lot of viewers gave up on this after the mixed bag of the first two episodes - or even based on the premise and art. That's a shame, and I hope those people will give it a chance. This is really smart and fearless comedy, and that's something to be celebrated. Mitsudmoe wasn't a big success commercially and I can't say that shocks me, because you really have to think about most of the humor to appreciate just how hilarious it is. But for those of us that joined the club and came over to the dark side, it's been a fantastic ride and we're counting the hours until January and Season 2.

Mitsudomoe - 13 (End)

Mitsudomoe ends as it's been running for the last two months - with a genuinely hilarious episode that showcases everything that makes this series great.

Sight gags join misunderstandings at the heart of this episode, which starts with the seemingly indestructible Futaba felled by a vicious cold. She arrives at school looking so wasted that Chiba mistakes her for Hitoha. Not only that, so does Nipples - which sets Hitoha off on a spiral of despair. Futaba manages to pass her cold off to Hitoha and return rejuvenated in time for gym - but Hitoha emerges from the nurse's office looking uber-moe' and turning all the boys' heads. Next is a rather low-key sequence with the girls wanting to adopt a stray cat they've been feeding (Mitusba denying all interest, of course, though she loves the cat). After Soujirou agrees the girls stop to pick up the cat after school, only to discover it's gone. The highlight of the sequence is a dialogue-free scene with a devastated Hitoha pouring cat food into a dish, over and over - prompting the ever-conscientious Mitsuba to convince Futaba to impersonate a cat. Naturally, this goes disastrously wrong...

The series ends as it starts for Yabechi - badly. First he sees his life mocked on television in a truly ingenious musical scene. This wouldn't be Mitsudomoe without misunderstandings and this time, Soujirou mistakes Yabe - over for a teacher visit - for a pedo because he's engaged in some heavy petting with the cat. The entire sequence is so wrong, yet so right - and when Yabechi mistakes Soujirou for a burglar we're off to the races. The concluding sketch involves two free "Tokyo Domeland" tickets Mitusba wins in a lottery ("My era is starting!"). Both Futaba and Hitoha want to go, surprisingly in Hitoha's case - but they have Gachi events! Naturally Mitsuba's too proud to admit she really wants to go and too much the good sister to take a spot, so she pretends she has plans so her sisters can go. As it happens the tickets were for 2 people each, so Daddy can come along after all - except Futaba thinks Mitsuba really has plans so she invites Shin-can (serious crush there). We get an unplugged version of the ED with Mitsuba alone and bereft, but in a heartwarming twist Soujirou has bought another ticket - so Mitsuba can come after all and off they go to meet Futaba's future boyfriend and have loads of Gachi fun.

A great end to a great series - or if not an end, a hiatus. In three months Mitsudomoe will be back (huzzah!) but with only 8 new eps (boo!). Until then, it could be some serious comedy withdrawal.

Asobi ni Ikuyo! - Series Review

Asobi ni Ikuyo! was a series that was hard to love, but impossible for me not to like. It was never guilty of taking itself too seriously (thank goodness) and presented the occasional moment of genuine inspiration, an incredibly catchy ED, and some of the best fanservice of the season.

What did I like here? Eris, for one. She was one of the better examples of her trope - Lala, etc. - in that she was eminently smart and altogether a responsible creature who felt genuine love for Kio and didn't exist simply to make his life chaotic. Her decision to bypass her first mating season and wait for him was, in its silly way, rather moving. While she checked off all the necessary otaku boxes - busty, cheerful, horny (when in season) she was also thoughtful (the visit of the first assistroid being a good example) and considerate.

I also enjoyed the pleasingly obscure cultural references this series threw at the audience, showing both a literacy of American and Japanese pop culture and a respect for the audience. Tekkaman Blade suits in finale was good in its own right, but Professor Jameson and Captain Future? That's some full-bore deep-diving into the cultural pool there - not to mention Muttley.

Best of all for me? The Assistroids. They were the series best contribution in my book. Adorably kawaii, absolutely - but also hilarious. A great vehicle for cultural references, a humorous device for censorship, and with their delightful methods of communication - they were pure win. They represent the wistful irreverence that this series embodies when it's as its best.

It wasn't all success, by any means. The overall plot was incredibly complicated and after a time, just not interesting enough to try and decipher. I never thought the romance element heated up much, though I didn't dislike the main characters. Kio was fine as the guy at the center of the harem - nothing especially remarkable about him other than his denseness, but he showed enough sense and courage to be useful when times were rough. Manami's relentless interfering on Aoi's behalf became rather annoying, but I think it was supposed to - we saw the fruits of that in the "cat fight" in episode 11. Manami had that coming - it had to be obvious to everyone in the world except Kio and herself that she was carrying a torch for him herself while trying to deflect by pushing Aoi onto him. And why not - Aoi certainly represented an easier opponent than Eris.

Production-wise, everything was solidly unremarkable. I enjoyed the "travelogue" elements that really showed off Okinawa, if not the product placements. OP was decent, last ED extremely catchy, animation and character designs agreeable if unremarkable. That pretty much sums up my feelings about the series as a whole - though the assistroids and the wry pop-culture sensibility nudge it up just a bit above simply agreeable.

Asobi ni Ikuyo! - 12 (End)

Finale week continues, as Asobi ni Ikuyo! finished its run at 12 episodes. And what a frantic finale it was.

There were basically two threads hanging as this series wrapped up - the romance thread, and the main plot concerning the crippled Catian ship. Fittingly, the latter was resolved with the same general silliness and indecipherability as the rest of the plot. If you watching this series for that, I can't think you came away too satisfied - really, all that political and sci-fi stuff was just an excuse for the fanservice, harem and cultural references. Kio led the gang into space in his homemade rocket, donned a plug suit and grew cat ears and a tail, the dogisians were rather violently routed and all ended well as long as you didn't care about it making sense. Kanpai!

The rest, as ever, was more interesting. The creators chose the harem end for the romantic entanglements - each girl stole a kiss with Kio, though it was unexpectedly bold Aoi who went first. Eris suggested that all three girls become Kio's lovers and share him - a prospect that the episode did nothing to call into doubt - and Kio was totally clueless to the end, even after hearing Eris make the suggestion. The best line of the episode belonged to Manami, bemoaning the fact that with Kio an otaku, Eris had an unfair advantage due to her nekomimi and huge boobs. Of course, that still left Manami a leg - well, a pair of boobs - up on poor Aoi, who doesn't need a bra so much as a tube of Clearasil.

Our happy ending? The Catians, now free to befriend the Earth free of doggie interference, give the humans a space elevator as a Christmas present. It's as good a way as any to bring this series to a close - completely silly and over the top, but full of good feeling.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Summer Wars

For the second time in a week, I had the opportunity to see a film by a young director often hailed as "The next Miyazaki". Last week it was Makoto Shinkai's seminal masterpiece 5 Centimeters per Second. This time around, Mamoru Hosoda's "Summer Wars".

First if I may, a word or three about this "Young Hayao Miyazaki" nonsense. Anytime I hear someone referred to this way is raises both my hackles and suspicions. I don't especially want there to be a "next" Miyazaki - I'm quite happy with the one we have. When he retires from directing (as he's been threatening to do after every film for a decade) that will end the Miyazaki era. And that's fine - the top young directors don't want to be the next Miyazaki either - if they did, they wouldn't be worthy of consideration as heirs to greatness in anime.

That said, I do believe that the two next generation (if you will) directors who have shown the most potential to be artistic giants in Hayao's class are Shinkai and Hosoda - and especially with the tragic passing of Satoshi Kon at 46, these comparisons are sure to continue. Neither Hosoda or Shinkai reminds me especially of Miyazaki - or each other. Shinkai is an artist of unmatched visual genius in my view. His storytelling tends to be spare and idealistic in tone, wistful and bittersweet and only achieving real grace and subtlety in the superlative "5 CM". Hosoda, on the other hand, is a more conventional - while still brilliant - visual artist who has distinguished himself as a writer of spectacular creativity and originality. His "The Girl Who Leapt Through Time" was a great success in Japan and even a minor one outside it. It's been hailed both for its sci-fi accented love story and its starkly defiant portrayal of the teenage heroine. It's a wonderful film, but for my money Summer Wars achieves a greater level of emotional heft and visual genius.

Summer Wars is really several films in one, as befits its 114 minute running time - quite long for an animated feature. Most of the attention has fallen on the film's brilliant take on social networking, but before "Oz" takes center stage the film is something equally mesmerizing - a totally engaging portrayal of an old-world Japanese extended family, headed by the stern but loving Granny, Sakae. Kenji is an unassuming, shy math whiz tricked into accompanying Natsumi, the most popular girl in Kenji's high school, to Sakae's 90th birthday party at the Jinnoichi estate. The first half hour of the film is mostly an introduction to the odd and wonderful characters that make up this clan, and Kenji's clumsy attempts to play the part of Natsumi's fiancee. One thing I'd forgotten is just how funny this film is - Hosoda is a writer of genuine comic genius. The dialogue amongst the family is spot-on, and it's easy to forget that there's another story that's about to play out.

And what a story that is - and one where Hosoda's seemingly bottomless creativity goes wild. The online community of Oz, in which much of the rest of the film takes place, is one of the great creations of modern cinema. It represents what many of us imagine and hope online communities might someday be - someday soon, even. Yet, it also represents the potential dangers these communities might represent, and not just the conventional ones overzealous parents groups caution us about. While the string of coincidences and technological speculations that drive the rest of the plot do stretch credulity at times, Hosuda's magic is such that he makes the outlandish seem real, and disbelief is effectively suspended.

Finally, there are a couple of very real human love stories here. The most obvious one - between Kenji and Natsumi - is only innocently hinted at, though Sakae has her own views on the subject. There's also a very moving one between Sakae and Wabisuke, her illegitimate stepson and the black sheep of the family. But the love story at the heart of this film belongs to the entire dysfunctional Jinnouchi family, four generations of them.

Neither Summer Wars or 5 CM, the two finest anime films of the last decade (I would rank both ahead even of "Spirited Away", Miyazaki's best film of the period) are reminiscent of Miyazaki. Both stand on their own as bold statements by their talented directors, each of whom is staking their claim as worthy additions to Miyazaki's perch on the top rung of anime directors. Miyazaki continues to put out fantastic films - I think "Ponyo" will be remembered as one of his better works, though not all agree - and that makes this something of a golden era for theatrical anime in my view. Hosoda is the more "conventional" of the two young lions in style, and he's in the employ of a major studio, Madhouse. Perhaps it's the fact that Madhouse has - not entirely wrongly - been tapped as a progeny of Studio Ghibli that he most often receives the "Next Miyazaki" stamp. But while there are direct links between Madhouse and Miyazaki, they're represented more in the likes of "Mai Mai Miracle" and its director, Sunao Katabuchi, who was the Assistant Director on "Kiki's Delivery Service". Hosoda's work stands as something completely new and different. Yet with his studio connections and more populist style, he stands as more likely than Shinkai to inherit Miyazaki's spot at the top of the ladder of commercial success. Shinkai is more the lone wolf (quite literally so for the most part with his first two features), the inscrutable artist. Where Hosoda is a master storyteller Shinkai is really more of a poet, both in terms of plot and visuals. Poetry doesn't sell as well as prose does, no matter how wonderful it is - so one suspects that Shinkai's role will be the one of critical darling, center of controversy and maverick. Yet both have clearly leapt ahead of all rivals in proclaiming their talents to the world, in my view - only Kenji Kamiyama ("Seirei no Moribito", "Ghost in the Shell - Stand-alone Complex") has demonstrated comparable genius, but his best work is more in the realm of television and extended series. Hosoda is just 43, and Shinkai 37 - so it isn't unrealistic to hope that their creative peaks might still be in their futures. That's an incredibly exciting thought.

One final note - I'm beginning to wonder if there isn't a curse on anime screenings in San Francisco. After the self-inflicted debacle at the Crunchyroll "5 CM Per Second" screening that I detailed here last week, there was a glitch with this one too - albeit accidental. The digital projection froze and skipped at the very end of the film, and about a minute of the ending just before the credits was lost. Not the disaster that last week represents, and not intentional - but still irritating, especially under the circumstances.

Amagami SS - 13

With Shiki on hiatus, Kuroshitsuji finished and the fall season not quite upon us, it's been a slow week on the anime front. So I thought I'd check back in with Amigami SS and see if things have picked up at all now that the underwhelming Sae arc has ended.

And based on one episode, I would say they have - at least somewhat. The annoying narration is gone, for one. And Ai-chan is certainly a much more interesting character than Sae. She's forceful, snarky and a bit dangerous - more like Haruka (my fave so far) than either of the two girls that followed her. Of course, unlike Haruka she's a first-year - a classmate of Miya-chan in fact - and this lends an interesting and different tone to the romantic and sexually charged moments.

As for Junichi, he seems something of a cross between his persona from the first three arcs. In this episode he seemed like a fairly normal teen male - awkward, horny, kind of a goofball but mostly harmless. That lent a fairly authentic tenor to the moments between he and Ai-chan. Where in the first arc he was a slyly clever puppy-dog, in the second a put-upon best friend, and in the third something of a wolf to the lambishly-timid Sae, he's straight down the middle here. He and Ai-chan seem to be on a pretty equal footing here - she's more daring, but also as the younger a bit deferential towards him. He's clearly inexperienced but smart enough to pick up on the signals she sends him. All in all, it made for a pretty effective vibe in the first episode.

So that's me, back blogging this one at least for now. If the Ai arc lives up to the potential it showed in the first ep, I may just stick through till the end.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Nurarihyon no Mago - 12

Episode 12 of Nurarihyon was very much like episode 11. The new villains, the "88 Demons of Shikoku" continued to have their arc introduced slowly, while the best moments of the show were comedic ones surrounding Nurarihyon and the three girls in Rikuo's harem.

Nurarihyon and Yura were great together once again. The old geezer showed one of the wind youkai that he was no mere old geezer - easily dispatching him on the rooftop after the demon had trounced Yura and her shikigami. She, of course, continues to think of him as a harmless and feeble old ojiisan - a misconception he's only too anxious to foster. When she gets a little too enthusiastic at having "saved" him and invites him for dinner, the old youkai discreetly makes his exit, teaming up with Natto again and heading for an undisclosed location.

Meanwhile, the apparent leader of the invading clan is a boy not much older than Rikuo, with a sidekick that has obviously seen too many Gene Simmons videos. There's a fairly good confrontation where the invaders introduce himself and Kana is ingloriously licked on the cheek by the sidekick, but all that rather pales next to the proceeding moments, when the budding jealousy between Yuki-onna and Kana began to boil to outrageous and adorable heights. Seriously, Yuki-onna's cuteness quotient went off the scale this week - her smug taunting of Kana was a joy to behold. Of course Yuki-onna has her own worries, as she still believes that something happened between Kana and Night Rikuo - mostly because Kana is getting all mushy about demons in general and one special demon in particular.

Oddly, we appear to be having a recap episode next week - recounting the Gyuuki arc, which only ended a few weeks ago. Hopefully it wasn't a representative PV, because otherwise we're going to be in for a rather boring episode.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Asobi ni Ikuyo! - 11

How appropriate that here, almost at the end of this series, we finally have a cat fight.

And it was a good one, too - if all too brief. Aoi and Manami got into it after Manami "confessed" to clueless Kio on Aoi's behalf - without Aoi asking her to. Aoi was understandably pissed and told Manami so, Manami slapped her, Aoi slapped back and otaku everywhere wiped spittle from their chins. But alas, the assistroids appealed for calm, the NATO army attacked and that was that.

As for Kio, first he gets a Catian plug suit and now a bell - the lad is slowly being turned into one of them. And he truly did seem clueless when Manami lamped him to Aoi's feelings - I don't think it was an act. Aoi nailed that whole situation pretty well - she got on Manami for doing something for Aoi that she didn't have the guts to do herself. And, as Aoi suggested, the timing could hardly have been worse with Kio about to lead them into deadly danger in space, to rescue the crew of the time-frozen Catian ship. Fortunately Kio seems so dense that the incident had no effect.

What else did we have this week? Let's see - the loli-weapons dealer Ichika, playing the Doggies and Kitties against each other. Another reach deep, deep into the abyss of of sci-fi obscurity with a reference to Neal R. Jones' pulp hero Professor Jameson. That's what makes this show interesting - despite its seeming formulaic nature and rather silly plot, it's clear that the minds behind it are very smart, quirky and well-versed in the obscurities of both Japanese and Western pop culture. While it's hardly a classic, Asobi ni Ikuyo series continues to show the ability to surprise, week after week.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Seikimatsu Occult Gakuin - 12

Another action packed episode of Occult Academy is in the books, and another outstanding series creeps towards conclusion. These season ends are always a little sad - Seikimatsu, Mitsudomoe, GK - you will all be missed.

We were certainly treated to a terrific battle between Chihiro and Mikaze, which finally turns in the black witch's favor as she gloats over having kissed Fumiaki. Things are looking pretty bleak as Maya flees with Chihiro's familiar, now in the form of a giant black panther. Fumiaki remains paralyzed and the others are fighting off killer obaa-sans in Ami-san's truck. But in her last act (apparently) Chihiro summons her strength to free Fumiaki, tells him Maya's father is alive and whispers a secret in his ear. He runs to Maya and she (apparently) expires. Maya is being pummeled by Mikaze on the roof of the school, but Abe-sensei turns up just in the nick of time and it turns out the secret was the spell hidden in Maya's notebook - her real notebook - which is a spell to banish all demons. It works on Mikaze, Chihiro's familiar and Chihiro herself (apparently) all of whom disappear. But not before Maya has snapped a photo of Mikaze which shows she is (apparently) the Nostradamus Key. Bunemi reports his success to the future and all should be well - except it isn't. The future still sucks.

I'm definitely getting "bad end" vibes for Fumiaki here, though I certainly hope I'm wrong. There are all kinds of possible reasons why the future might not be fixed - not least of which might be that it was Fumiaki, not Mikaze, who was the Key. They were both in the picture, but the problem with that theory is that in principle Maya would have had to have been wishing for Bunmei's destruction for the trick to work. Or, just possibly, would wishing for the destruction of the other party in the frame (Mikaze) have been enough?

The revelation that the Principal was alive certainly was telegraphed at the end of 11, but judging by the PV Chihiro might be, too. That was a very disturbing PV and so is the episode title of 13, "Maya's Bunemi". I think he's going to need to sacrifice himself one way or the other to save the future. But the mere fact that we're still on edge wondering with one episode left is testament to how effective this show has been at building up both its mysteries and audience identification with the characters. Things have been revealed consistently but never too much at once - and there were always new questions raised when others were answered. Mitsudomoe is definitely the funniest series of the summer, and Shiki the scariest - but Seikimatsu Occult Gakuin is the full package. Top to bottom it's the best and most consistent show of the season.

Giant Killing - 25

ETU..wins??? It would have seemed implausible a few episodes ago, but they did a pretty good job of selling that ETU really could come back and win 3-2 against mighty Osaka.

The tying goal did indeed come as a result of an exhausted Hiraga's foul on Tsubaki. But it was Sugie of all people who scored it on a header, off a great free kick by Gino. I love it when defenders score - doesn't happen too often, but a tall guy like Sugie is always a threat on set pieces. Turns out Dulfer - showing his real grit as a coach - was already planning to pull Hiraga and Hauer even before ETU tied the game, a real concession that the win was more important than his ego. But he was too late - it was tied before his subs could enter, and Tatsumi subbed out Sugie and Akasaki at the very same time. Osaka fell into all-out defense mode and ETU all-out attack, proving out Tatsumi's ultimate strategy. The winning goal came as the payoff to all Sera's character development and it was he, not Natsuki, that tallied the winner - on a great diving header in extra time that probably would have been disallowed as a dangerous play in the real world. Sera finally achieves his destiny as the ultimate overachiever - not big, not too skilled or clever, but relentless. That seems to be a theme of the new ETU.

So with one epilogue episode left to go, we finally have our Giant Killing. The on-field action was terrific, but for me the real battle of the giants was Tatsumi vs. Dulfer. Those two were immensely entertaining, and in Dulfer I really feel Tatsumi has met his great rival. He was victimized by his own arrogance here, but Dulfer won't be caught out next time - and the onus will be on Tatsumi to come up with yet another strategy to counteract Dulfer's superior talent. Meanwhile, the lady reporter seems to have concluded - and I concur - that Tsubaki is the key talent around which ETU will build their new legacy. He's the kind of player that's impossible to prepare for. He's so fast and so tireless that he's liable to disrupt things anywhere on the field, at any time. In soccer keeping your "shape" is vital to the defense, and Tsubaki is a one-man wrecking crew. He's doing it all on energy and instinct right now, but he's only 20 - as he gains confidence and learns the game, he's going to be a beast. Tsubaki vs. Kubota could end up being the great on-field rivalry in Japanese soccer.

I don't suppose we're likely to see a second season of GK, which is really too bad - it's a terrific show and there's 15 volumes of manga to adapt.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Mitsudomoe - 12

Mitsudomoe is solidly back in the groove with the penultimate episode, which is clever right from the title - "I can't reach you". Not only does it apply to acrophobic Hitoha who can't reach the fixture to change a bulb (do they make little girls do that in Japanese schools?) but Miyashita's futile efforts to make a social connection to her. And, in a larger sense, the total sense of chaos that drives all the misunderstandings in this series where it seems as if everyone is speaking a slightly different language.

After two Mitsuba-heavy weeks it's the Hopelessly in love with Shin-chan Squad and Miyashita who slip into the spotlight this week. Poor Shin-chan continues to be on the business end of some of this show's biggest indignities (and that's saying something). This week, Futaba seems to be trying to loan him her gym shorts by force, prompting Chiba to publicly announce that Shin-chan has "got one". His own fangirls, still convinced he's a perv, turn on him in the midst of a dodgeball game ("We want Satou to smash his ball into our faces!"), assuming he's an "M" and wants to get creamed in the face. Finally Airi, furious that Shinya loves panties more than her, discards hers and launches them into the sky after providing him with an unwanted show.

Miyashita is the other major victim this week. For some reason she remains obsessed with Hitoha and making a connection, which her friends mistake for a lesbian crush. After removing her hairpins in an attempt to look less intimidating no one recognizes her. And stretching before gym class she feels Hitoha up in search of her Gachi belt - hoping to bond over that - but in an "only in Mitsudomoe" moment the rest of the class thinks she's found something else, and that Hitoha is a boy. This brings us to great spiritual ouroboros moment of the series, when Hitoha proclaims "I'm sick of all these ridiculous misunderstandings!" and outs herself as a Gachi fan once and for all. And lo, turns out most of the class like Gachi Rangers too and even knows a little about it. Love is in the air and all are as one - except Miyashita, who proclaims "I like the green one." to Hitoha. As there is no green one, this heaps still more scorn upon poor Miyashita - and Yabe-chi, not knowing it's safe to come out of the closet, has no idea what the kids were discussing. "I can't reach you"...

So now I'm thinking that Futaba has a little crush on Shinya too - she seems to stick close to him pretty much all the time. And you know, he doesn't push her away too hard... Futaba also had a great moment in "Yabe-chi's Room", seemingly a much better guest than Hitoha as she's so chatty - except, perfectly true to form, her answer to everything is "I dunno!" and she proceeds to trash his room in pursuit of a cockroach. It's a shame we're down to the last episode now, because no series is providing hilarity like this week after week. And with the announcement that S2 will only be 8 episodes, that means we only have 9 left in total. Withdrawal, here I come...

Indian Creek (Navarro) 2008 Pinot Noir

I'm going to qualify this review by stating up-front that I'm a Navarro fanboy. It's without a question my favorite winery in California, for a multitude of reasons. I love the physical location - off Route 128 in idyllic Philo, at the end of a long and gorgeous drive on the way to Mendocino. The tasting experience is managed by friendly, knowledgeable staff who will open pretty much anything on the release list and never charge a cent. They have a dizzying array of varietals and blends on their roster, but specialize in my two favorite grapes - Pinot Noir and Riesling. When it comes to Riesling and Gewurztraminer the talents of winemaker Jim Klein are really on display - he can excel at bone-dry, stony versions and also produce some of the most spectacular late-harvest wines in the world. I'll never forget the '99 "Cluster Select" Riesling - 43%(!) residual sugar yet crisp, balanced and completely unforgettable.

Navarro has used the name "Indian Creek" as a sort of second label for years. Now it finds itself used in a different context as Navarro - like all Mendocino County wineries - grapples with the aftermath of the massive wildfires that ravaged the area in 2008. Turns out all that smoke found its way into the wines that harvest produced, with a variety of results. Pinot being the most delicate of varietals and thus the most susceptible to taint, many wineries poured their entire 2008 output down the drain. Others forged ahead and met interesting results. Turns out smoke in Pinot Noir is a love-hate sort of affair - some tasters raved, others were horrified. Navarro entered their regular and reserve Pinots into several competitions and won multiple golds and offered a bottle to their club members to try for free before committing to purchase, but in the end decided that the wines simply didn't represent the Navarro style. Rather than dump them, they released them under the Indian Creek label - and in the process created an opportunity to sample some Navarro Pinot at an unheard of price.

The "regular" 2008 Pinot is going for just under $10 a bottle through the winery (and you can get a package of that, the Reserve and the '08 Zin for $30). I will say, for my part, that I don't mind a little smoke in my reds, even Pinot. That said, I don't honestly taste much smoke in this bottling - it's a suggestion, not a command. Navarro's Pinots are definitely crafted in the silky, elegant style - not the fruit bombs many California winemakers favor - and this wine is no exception. It's 100% Anderson Valley fruit, most of it from Navarro's on-site vineyard. As usual, Klein shows restraint when it comes to overripe flavors, with this wine coming in at a positively retro 13.6% alcohol. As a result, the wine has a lovely soft mouthfeel. For me the smoke shows itself more in the nose and at the finish - as a slight tang just below what I would call obvious levels. There's fruit here - plum, dark berries - but in the old-world style it's layered within the subtle hints of vanilla. This wine doesn't have the pronounced earthy notes of some old-world style Pinot, but certainly has what I would consider a Navarro signature - lots of herbal notes. It makes for a very refined, subtle experience - and as you'd expect from the restrained alcohol levels, would make a fine food pairing with the usual Pinot suspects.

In the end, this vintage will probably go down as a novelty - there will certainly be an asterisk next to it in all the wine guides. Try it and decide for yourself - and the great thing about these Indian Creek bottlings is that you can do so at a fraction of what it would cost you to do so in a normal year. If you have a real aversion to smoke, there may be enough here to turn you off. For me, it worked - this is still Navarro and that fact comes through in the glass.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Kurishitsuji II - Series Review

In the end, it's hard to review a series that's an anime-original sequel to a series that had an anime-original ending. The source material's relevance in all this is somewhat muddled - neither series really reflects a continuity with the manga. That said, the truth is that, for most of its two-cour run, the first series was mostly faithful and derived from the source material. And the second was almost completely new material. And that led to some very distinct and important differences.

A lot of how one feels about this sequel comes down to how they liked Alois and Claude, as well as the new supporting characters. For me, that pairing was never nearly as interesting as Ciel and Sebastian. Alois did become more of a layered character as his backstory was revealed, but he was an unpleasant lad - vulgar and cruel and frivolous, where Ciel - for all his misfortune - always carried himself with a stern dignity and grace. As for Claude, he never impressed me as anything much more than a pale impersonation of Sebby. Hannah probably turned out to be the most interesting of the new characters - complex and surprising, and ultimately the instigator of all the major events in the story.

There were certainly some identity issues with the series as whole. Some of that schizophrenic tone was intentional, I think, but still - a lot of time was wasted with mediocre episodes in the first half. Those eps felt like a fairly good rip-off of Kuroshitsjui rather than Kuroshitsuji itself - the elements were there, but something just wasn't quite right. But fortunately, that turned around in the second half as the story focused where it needed to and it became clear that each pair had a vital role to play. Of course the fact that we only had one cour this time was important for a number of reasons, and that fact also makes the wasting of so much time in the early eps that much more galling. But it also caused the series to be much more frenetic and action-driven that the first one was. This was a major difference in tone for me. The first series had a real sense of gothic horror to it - leisurely, darkly funny and quietly disturbing. Everything was bigger, louder and faster in the sequel - the humor campy, the conflicts more obvious than implied.

In the final analysis though, I think this show ended up being better than I expected after the first few episodes. It did manage to capture something of the true feel of the material, if less so than the first one. Considering that the material was 100% anime-original the plot held together pretty well - it progressed logically, secrets were revealed at an agreeable rate and the resolution felt somewhat true to the story. But as I said in the episode review for the finale, I think that one's overall view of the series will largely depend on how they feel about the ending.

Have a nice eternity, Ciel and Sebastian. See you in Wonderland...

Kuroshitsuji II - 12

Anyone remember this image?

That's right - the very first promo image of S2, before anyone even knew who Claude and Alois were, was the ultimate spoiler. After all the head-fakes, misdirections, phone spoilers and decoy OP and ED, we're right back where we started. Psych!

Of course, the question everyone is going to ask themselves now is whether they loved that ending or hated it. I suspect there won't be too many in the middle, although that's sort of where I find myself at the moment. I'm relieved that it wasn't a simple rehash of the S1 ending, with Sebastian devouring Ciel's soul - that would have been a major anti-climax. And it's somewhat delicious to see Ciel turn the tables on Sebastian, although it wasn't exactly his idea.

What a rollicking ending it was, too. Hannah turned out to be batshit crazy, but she got the last laugh - both brothers reunited inside her, Claude dead after having acknowledged Alois and Ciel - as Alois' wished - released from the contract. It was never remotely in doubt that Sebastian and Claude would duel, and that Sebby would win - it was predicted here and elsewhere last week. Only the context of that fight was in question - and it was set up fairly well. But it all comes down to how you feel about the ending. Ciel, for all that he's now bonded to Sebastian for all eternity, is undeniably dead - the Ciel we knew, anyway. His servants are alone and bereft, and Elizabeth has lost her fiancee. There was clearly something of the old Ciel still left in there, though - he took the time to say Goodbye to everyone with a gift, and sent Elizabeth off with a smile and one last dance. But his cup is empty and he can no longer appreciate the beguiling scent of tea, except in his memories. And Ciel said himself how useless memories were.

What does it mean to be a demon, I wonder - how much of what Ciel was is retained? Well, at least he won't be lonely - he has a servant until the end of time. The real loser in all this is Sebastian, I suppose - which makes quite a switch. But if pressed, I suspect he would admit there would be worse tortures for him that being with his bochan forever...

Major - 153

Goro, you magnificent idiot.

The entire episode, only one thought was running through my mind:


So, for the third time, our hero has literally pitched himself into unconsciousness. I hope it was all worth it.

That's the central theme of this show, I suppose - is Goro a hero, or insane? Is his way of viewing the world really something to admire? I suppose my answer to the first question is yes - to both. Whatever else you can say about this unique, singular character he's undeniably courageous and, when it comes to the team, selfless. He's a gladiator, with all the positive and negative connotations of that term. There was something truly poignant in seeing him meekly trudge off the field after pulling himself out of the game at last - in so much pain that he was unable even to respond to his teammates or his manager.

Thanks to Goro's inspiring pitching - just missing the Major League record of 10 strikeouts in a row, though he did notch his 10th (and last) in 11 batters with a 101 MPH fastball - and Murdoch's 12th inning HR, Indiana finally prevailed 11-8 and clinched their first division title in 25 years. Unfortunately Goro was in an ambulance on his way to the ER at the time. Though we're not clued in on his condition, one assumes he has to have surgery. His teammates come to his room to douse him with champagne (that he's still too young to drink in the US) but clearly, he's done for the season.

Which leads to an interesting point for the series. That would seem to have been the dramatic peak of the season, but there are still three eps left. Looks like 154 will focus mainly on the Gibsons, but what then? The Hornets will soldier on without Goro and even Watts, but the inherent drama of that is certainly less without Goro there. I can honestly say I have no idea how these last three eps will play themselves out.