Friday, December 31, 2010

Shiki - Series Review

There's a tendency to let our feelings towards final episodes guide our feelings towards a series in general. But in reality, endings are only one episode of many - in this case one of 22. And while the ending is generally the most important episode, it's also the hardest to get right. And I'm not going to throw Shiki under the bus because it didn't. I love this series anyway - it's my pick for #2 show of 2010 (behind Sarai-ya-Goyou) and not even a disappointing finale can change that.

One hallmark of great writing is the ability to polarize the audience. You have to be able to get people interested enough to get really angry if you want to polarize, and that's hard to do. And boy, did this show do it. Shiki vs. humans. Seishin, love or hate. Sunako, sympathy or no? Great ending or horrible cop-out? The opinions were strong with this one, and it isn't surprising - the writing here is some of the best you'll ever see on television.

I've said already that I find this show more like a Greek tragedy than anything else. Usually, as in a tragedy, the audience knew what was happening long before the characters on-screen did - the intensity of feeling comes from knowing, and being powerless to change it. But remarkably the series managed to maintain a hypertensive level of suspense almost throughout in spite of that. How? By always knowing just where to leave off an episode, for starters - making those weeks between episodes agonizing, and the horrific three-week hiatus in the middle even worse! As well, despite the tragic aspects Shiki still never lost the ability to shock - the episode where Toshio experimented on his wife a perfect example. It may have been the most powerful and disturbing episode of any anime this year, and it was all the more impacting in that it came at the end of string of incredibly bleak and depressing episodes for the humans - making it seem as if there was no hope for Sotoba altogether, it's fate sealed.

That transition was artful - a deft sleight-of-hand where things changed and we were hardly aware of it. For a horror series things had become almost routine - but that was the downfall of the Shiki, who became fat, contented, complacent - and the hunted. And once the humans, driven to animal desperation and brutality by their dire situation, went on the offensive things really began to get ugly. We were shown the dark nature of their anger and fear, and this was when the split in the fan base really became apparent. I don't see a moral equivalency between the two sides - but many did, and even rooted for the Shiki. Was this a cop-out by the writers? To some extent it was - but one that could have been a brilliant feint if the ending had proved more gutsy and decisive.

Fundamentally, this was the question that haunted the final episodes. Do you feel sorry for Sunako? Do you understand Seishin's feelings? I was really hoping the show would take a stand on this in the end, but it didn't - I won't harp on it, since I harped plenty in my review of the last episode. But Seishin is a weak link - one of the few - in the series as a whole. If we were meant to feel some sympathy for him, it failed miserably - he was one of the most despicable characters in recent anime. A self-hating monk who hated the life that was forced on him, he tried to kill himself and failed and, lacking the courage to try again, decided that he would sacrifice his family and village instead through betrayal. Anything to get out of the life he hated. Toshio hated the life and responsibilities thrust on himself, too - but he ended up fighting to save the very village that weighed down his soul. He showed ruthless courage and loyalty while Seishin showed cowardice and betrayal. My opinions of these two men changed radically from my initial impressions. Toshio seemed utterly useless at first - "Dr. Obvious" - and he was symbolic of the entire village idling while it was being devoured from within. But when he turned, he turned hard.

Running parallel to all this are the side stories - the kids, starting with Megumi, the angry teen who found her true calling as a sadistic ghoul and met the grisly fate she had coming. Natsuno, who also rebelled against village life but chose not to fight his death at the hands of his best friend Tohru but meekly accept it - only to rise as a Jinrou and be the vital cog that facilitated the comeback of the human side. Akira, one of only two characters who both had clean hands morally at the end and behaved with courage throughout and Kaori, his meek older sister. And then there was the heroine of the story for me, Ritusko-chan. She was the one who finally broke the cycle of death - she refused to kill to survive as a Shiki, choosing instead to starve herself despite the prodding of Tohro and Tatsumi. In her act of defiance she not only saved herself, but Tohru, too - a kind boy who never accepted the side of himself that would kill his beloved friend in order to survive, In a grisly way, their deaths were the most uplifting moment of this bleak tapestry of woe - for at least they died together, and did so with their humanity intact despite the biological change in them.

It goes without saying that this was a technically brilliant show, another Noitamina masterpiece. The BGM was as good as any this season, the first OP one of the best of the year. The direction really brought to mind a fine live-action film, with the matter-of-fact depictions of brutality, long panning shots of the mountain landscapes and the delicately choreographed conversations between Seishin and Sunako. It was a terrific show all around - a true masterpiece. Suspenseful, disturbing, challenging - an intricate web of dozens of characters inter-woven together with amazing dexterity and elegance. To have adapted a series with so much complexity of plot and so many important characters is a great achievement. In the end, if the ending was a failure it can be forgiven - endings are hard, no matter how good the rest of the series is. That end certainly did disappoint, though - I won't deny that.

How do you feel watching Shiki? Do you feel sympathy for Sunako or merely want to see her meet the fate she deserves? Are you as disturbed by the shocking brutality of the human villagers as you were the sadistic harvesting of the village by the Shiki, pitting family against itself and sparing no one? Is there any redemptive quality to Seishin in your eyes, or does he disgust and repulse you? These are questions everyone who watches the series will have to answer for themselves. I suppose those answers will strongly influence your feelings about the way the show wrapped, pending the DVD special episodes. I applaud the series for challenging and provoking the audience, for making us think and driving us to anger and horrifying us. It was brilliant - a work of art and a dramatic masterpiece.

Shiki - 22 (End)

I can honestly say I'm bitterly disappointed that I didn't like the ending for this series, even if I wasn't totally surprised. I love this show - I rank it as the second best series of an above-average year, and that's pretty rarefied air. But as I feared it might, Shki copped out in the end, didn't choose a side and fell back on cheap horror movie cliche.

To it's credit, there were things the ending got right. It managed to tie up a surprising number of loose ends, considering how many were hanging after episode 21. Megumi was certainly given her comeuppance - she seemed to enjoy the cruelty of the Shiki existence more than almost anyone, so it was unavoidable that her end would be especially grisly. Akira and Kaori appeared, however briefly, and we see that they were indeed saved - presumably by Natsuno, though we may need to wait for the DVD special episodes to see that happen. I especially enjoyed Natsuno's end, and thus Tatsumi's. There was an elegant poetry to Natsuno's final arc - saving Akira and Kaori, even his father - facilitating the saving of the surviving villagers by preemptively biting Toshio. And in the end he at least got to see Tohru before his body was destroyed. He then proceeded to lure Tatsumi into a trap, taking both their lives and fulfilling his promise as best he could.

The fire was a nice touch, too, though we never see definitively who set it. It added an incredible sense of urgency to the final episode, a final layer of drama on top of an already tense and gripping situation. Though it, too, felt a bit cliched there was a sense that so much evil had transpired in the village that only by fire could it be purified, and cleansed of it's sins - it had to be turned to ash. Sotoba couldn't continue to exist after all than had transpired on both sides.

But then there's Seishin and Sunako. And really, to say the ending was fine apart from that is like saying London was a fine place to live in 1666 apart from the fire. That Seishin should live after all he had done - so much hypocrisy, so much evil, a traitor to his village and his family. Seishin was pretty much correct about one thing in the entire series, and that was his self-loathing - it's only too bad he didn't succeed in killing himself. His speech to Sunako in the church after killing Ookawa - "No one to protect you", etc. - was really almost vomit-inducing.  Sunako had an army of her own victims to protect her - a legion of demons to clothe, protect, and comfort her - to feed her blood from her victims and practically swaddle her. Even Sunako was ready to take her medicine in the end - she knew full well she deserved to die. And Seishin took that away from us, took that poetic justice and pissed all over it and did to the ending what Natsuno did to Tatsumi - dragged it into a festering, stinking pit and blew it up.

To make matters worse, the end result was the worst-kind of cliche - Seishin driving off with Sunako in a box like this was some kind of twisted version of "Let the Right One In". One vampire survived - will she go start the cycle anew elsewhere? Oooh, the suspense! Really, Shiki deserved better than that - and it deserved a commitment from the story itself, a side chosen - rather, we were given an ambiguous "they were all bad so let's call it even" kind of ending, a get-out-of-jail-free card for both Seishin and the writing staff. Dammit, there was no moral equality here - as Natsuno himself said, the Shiki started it. For the humans, it was a crime of passion. For the Shiki - and especially Sunako - pre-mediated mass murder.

So now we await the DVD specials, 20.5 and 21.5. I suspect we'll see more of Akira, Kaori and Natsuno there - but then, what was up with the "epilogue" over the ED? It looked for all the world like a preview of an episode 23 - events clearly taking place after the body of episode 22 and thus, not in the DVD specials. Was that meant to be the epilogue - this little inset scenes? If so, that's a woefully inadequate way to wrap things up.

Letter Bee Academy - 1

The little omakes attached to the DVD released for "Letter Bee" finally trickled onto the sub lists this week. As omakes go, these are pretty good so far.

Animation-wise, they've decided to go with a sort of bright, Saturday-morning Mahou Shoujo look (and come to think of it, a Mahou Shounen starring Lag is kind of a great parody idea) that contrasts totally with the anime style. The premise features our four main bees being taught Tegami Bachi basics by an egomaniacal Dr. Thunderland, hoping to score a larger role in the main series. All the boys are pretty much themselves, only more - crybaby Lag, emo Gauche (no sign of Noir), tsundere (mostly tsun so far) Zazie and glutton Connor. So far, so good - you can only succeed in parodying yourself if you're committed to it, and this humor in these 3-minute extras is fairly sharp. If you enjoy the series, you should certainly get a few chuckles out of them.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

First Impressions - Starry Sky

Unfortunately, my very first "First Impressions" of the winter season didn't make much of one.

A Studio DEEN adaptation of an Otome game, this one reads as something of a spin on Fruits Basket - a reverse harem about the only girl student at a previously all-boys school dedicated to the study of the skies. The boys all represent the signs of the Zodiac, starting with a French lad named Henri. Apparently their stories will be told as 11-minute half episodes.

I'm sure this will find its niche, but for me 11 minutes felt endless. I'm not usually one to drop a show based on animation quality, but it really seemed poor here - choppy and jagged to the eye. The bishounen character designs were as cliche as you can get, and the dialogue seemed pretty stilted and tired. There really wasn't anything distinctive or engaging about this for me - it just sort of lay there and left no impression to speak of. I'm afraid this one is a pass for me.

Best of the Best

In the spirit of the Oscars, here are my picks for the best of the best this year. I'm going to bend my rules for this one and allow series that began airing in 2009 for this one, just because I really want to give Cross Game some of the credit it deserves.

Best Actor: Irinu Miyu, Cross Game
Irinu Miyu has been one of the best male seiyuu in the business since he broke in as a 13 year-old in DN Angel. In Kitamura Kou, he's found his Hamlet - the role of his career. This is an actor's role - Mitsuru Adachi's words are full of subtext and the series direction is respectful of that, leaving a lot of heavy lifting in the hands of the cast. Kou is one of the best male characters ever, but Miyu-miyu brings out all of the humor, grace and quiet suffering of this great soul of a young man.
Honorable Mention: Daisuke Namikawa, Sarai-ya Goyou (Masa)

Best Actress: Omigawa Chiaki, Soredemo Machi wa Mawatteiru
Chiaki is a polarizing figure with her distinctive voice, but I'm a fan - she's instantly recognizable in every role so range hasn't been a strong suit (yet) but in Arashiyama Hatori she's find the role to make her a star. Her edgy, histrionic style is perfect for this walking tsunami of a girl, spreading chaos wherever she goes but possessing a heart of gold.
Honorable Mention: Hisako Kanemoto, Shinryaku Ika Musume (Ika)

Best Director: Tomomi Mochizuki, Sarai-ya Goyou
Mochizuki can do more with stillness than any director in anime today, as witness his stunning work in the underrated masterpiece Zettai Shounen. To have told this rich, deep and complex story in 12 episodes is truly a remarkable achievement.

Best Supporting Actor: Takahiro Sakurai, Cross Game
Azuma is the master of verbal economy, speaking volumes with few words. Sakurai captures his world-weary cynicism without losing his keen intelligence and desire for acceptance. A great performance in a great role.

Best Supporting Actress: Aoi Yuki, Shiki
Aoi Yuki stormed the anime world with her brilliant work as Murasaki in the Kure-nai TV adaptation. She's almost grown-up now but she perfectly conveys the ageless youth of this vital role. Sunako is the linchpin of the entire story in many ways - she must simultaneously be a figure of sympathy and malice, cruelty and pity, age and childishness. In a great and huge cast, Yuki's work stands out.

Best Song: Koi Kogarete Mita Yume, Ayaka (Cross Game)
It was a great year for music in anime, but this first ED from Cross Game captures the heartbreak of the first arc so beautifully that it stays with you forever.

Best Original Screenplay: Seishi Minakami, Seikimatsu Occult Gakuin
It wasn't a great year for non-adapted anime series, but this one was truly ingenious. While the show struggled with the one-cour format, in concept and design it was utterly brilliant - creative, original and fresh. Full of surprises, it also demonstrated a tremendous range of comedic styles.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Kenji Sugihara, Shiki
This might be the toughest category of the year - a year full of wonderful adaptations of manga and visual or light novels and even eroge that built on the success of their source material. I would have been happy to award this to Cross Game or Sarai-ya Goyou, or even FMA: Brotherhood - but I think in Shiki we have the strongest case for the true art of adaptation. The pacing, suspense and deft juggling of so many characters earn this one the top honors.

Best Art Direction: Maho Takahashi, Tegami Bachi Reverse
Quite simply, I think Tegami Bachi is the most beautiful anime on TV this year. The art style is certainly faithful to the manga's, but so darkly gorgeous and atmospheric - the world presented here is unique and haunting.

Best Picture: Cross Game
In the end, this one isn't close for me. Much of the credit no doubt goes to Mitsuru Adachi for writing this perfect story, but give credit to Osamu Sekita and Synergy for not messing with greatness. The story of Kou and Aoba is one of the finest relationships ever told in anime, growing with subtlety and patience through 50 glorious episodes. There's so much that's great about this show - the supporting characters, the humor, the weaving of baseball into everyday life. If Touch was a beautiful fairy tale, Cross Game is a bittersweet reflection - a mature, almost somber view of the pain life throws at us and the rewards it can grant us if we'll just open our eyes - and hearts - to accept them. It has no flash, no glamor, no gimmicks and not even an OST - just an incredibly realistic and rewarding tale of youth, love and baseball that only Adachi could craft.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

2010 in Review - The Top 11

It's that time of year again - namely - the end of it - where we look back and take stock of what transpired over the last twelve months.  In that spirit, here's my "Top Eleven" of 2010.  A couple of notes:

 - Why 11?  Honestly, the last few shows on the list were so close I couldn't eliminate one.  Besides - let's honor the new year as we review the old one!

 - I only included shows that premiered in 2010 on this list, contrary to some sites out there.  If I were including 2009 shows that finished in 2010, Cross Game would undoubtedly be #1 and it wouldn't be all that close.  FMA: Brotherhood would probably come in at #3 or #4.

So without further ado, the list:

11. - Tegami Bachi Reverse.  What an outstandingly consistent show this is.  Of course, consistently bad doesn't help you - fortunately this one is really good.  It's one of the most emotionally transparent anime I've seen, unabashedly sentimental and heartfelt.  The backgrounds are gorgeous and the music superb, but I'd watch it just for the mangled English proper names.

10. B Gata, H Kei. This is a show that really surprised me. When the heroine, Yamada, announced she wanted "100 fuck buddies" in high school in the very first episode I was sure we were going to get a pretty broad sex farce. Instead, it proved to be a surprisingly complex and balanced look at teenage romance.

9. Ore no Imōto ga Konna ni Kawaii Wake ga Nai. This is the other major bait-and-switch of 2010. Based on the description I was banking on yet another incest fantasy a la Kiss X Sis, but that couldn't have been more wrong. Mind you, we still may go that route in the "true end", but this was a different show altogether - satirical, challenging and smart. I didn't love Kirino - she was hard to take some weeks - but it was towards a larger goal, and I adored Kuroneko as a supporting character.

8. Working!  This was a terrific year for comedy, and this refreshing slice of life, following young adults working at a family restaurant in Hokkaido, was a great one.  Having worked in food service as a late teen I can vouch for the brilliance with which the series captured the lifestyle.  Great characters top to bottom, though I did feel the show focused too much on one girl - Inami - and her annoying dysfunction at the expense of the others.  Still, this was consistently funny situation comedy and seems ripe for a sequel.

7. Shinryaku Ika Musume.  Another winning comedy, this one about a squid girl who comes to the surface to invade and punish humanity for polluting the seas.  This one totally works because it embraces the absurdity - no effort is make to rationalize any of the preposterous situations.   Told in three short installments per episode, the comedy was razor-sharp and the cast extremely likable and diverse.  Again, this one really should have a second season on the way at some point.

6. Baka to Test to Shoukanjuu.  What, more comedy?  You bet - I told you it was a great year.  This one is based on a series of light novels and quite unlike anything I've seen before.  The first ED ("Baka Go Home") does a better job musically and visually explaining this brilliant madness than I ever could - I'll just say it's fearless, spectacularly original and you should really watch it.  And that's not even talking about Hideyoshi - winner of favorite character polls (both genders) and adorner of body pillows everywhere...

5. Kuragehime. Another in a long line of winners airing in the Noitamina time slot (there are three on this list).  From the brilliant movie parody OP, I knew this was special.  It's a fairly simple story about really complex, damaged people - alternately funny, romantic and terribly sad.  The biggest flaw is that 11 episodes is going to be nowhere near long enough to do the story of the characters justice.

4. Mitsudomoe.  I admit it - I really hated this show after the first episode.  But it totally, totally won me over - the ugliness was toned down just enough to make the characters likable.  Sharing a director with the first season of Minami-ke, the brilliance of Mitsudomoe was in almost always knowing how to walk the line between going just far enough and going too far.  As with Shinryaku Ika Musume, this one was told in three short skits - generally involving misunderstandings.  This was the Monty Python of anime - and the silent movie treatment of the "Hot Tub" chapter was a perfect example of an anime using music and motion to make a great manga moment even better.  Season two starts next week!

3. Giant Killing.  Maybe the best pure sports anime ever, in terms of what it says about sports.  This series took the game of soccer (football) and studied every aspect of it - off the field and on.  The fact that the series was about professionals allowed all sorts of interesting storylines and character development we don't see in school sports anime.  Some of the best stuff involved the fans, and what it means to support a franchise heart and soul.  Truly an excellent series top to bottom - I only wish it had been longer.

2. Shiki. Another Noitamina property, currently wrapping up its run.  It took a little while for me to love this show, but once I did I was hooked.  No series in years has used the art of anticipation and suspense like this one.  It's more of a Greek tragedy than a horror series in some ways - we can usually see what's coming before the characters can, but that's part of the art of the story.  The war between vampire and human has galvanized and polarized the fan community the way only really great writing can.  This isn't cheerful stuff and it won't fill you with hope or love for your fellow sentient beings, but it will anger, captivate, thrill and disturb you almost every week. 

1. Sarai-ya-Goyou (House of Five Leaves).  Fittingly, the list is topped by yet another Noitamina show.  For me, it's the highest praise possible to say this show reminds me of Seirei no Moribito.  The story proceeds at a deliberate pace, never hurried, always taking time to show the small details of life in 19th Century Edo.  The tale of awkward, shy samurai Masa, kidnapper Yuichi, and their circle of friends and associates will slowly creep inside your soul and take root - it's hard to overstate how much I cared for these characters by the end of 12 episodes.  The writing was subtle artistry with never a wasted syllable, and the backgrounds, animation and music sublime and beautiful.  Truly, this was a work of art - what anime can be when brilliant, talented people are allowed to pursue their vision.

Just missed out: Soredemo Machi wa Mawatteiru, Durarara, Seikimatsu Occult Gakuin.

Nurarihyon no Mago - 26

 Move along - nothing new to see here

Episode 26 is a recap episode - a "digest" of the Tamazuki Arc. Two recap eps in one season is a bit of a stretch, but at least we're getting a second season (though at this stage no one seems certain what season it will air in). So at some point, presumably in 2011, we'll see the legendary Kyoto Arc animated and maybe this anime realize some of the potential it showed in the first cour. If the Kyoto Arc is anywhere near as good as the identically named arc from Rurouni Kenshin, we're in for a treat.  In the meantime, enjoy Yuki-onna cuteness.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Bakuman - 13

The big news this week: Masahiro finally emailed Miho. I suppose in the world of Bakuman we have to consider this progress on the Masahiro/Azuki front.

I've rarely seen an anime generate as many complaint posts as this one does. It makes me wonder - if you hate it that much why are you still watching it? I'll rarely stay with a series I'm not enjoying past three or four episodes. Since the lack of development in the main romance is the biggest source of venom, maybe this will quell it a bit.

As slow as that romance develops, things are moving pretty damn quickly on the manga front - which is unavoidable I suppose if you're actually trying to tell a story with a narrative. The boys decided to come up with a pen name - Ashirogi Muto, actually dreampt up by Miyoshi - to avoid complications at high school. Of course most high schoolers would love to have the fact that they're nationally published mangaka well-known, especially to the girls, but that's their choice. "Next" is published and we get our manga lesson for the week - there are two sets of results for the questionnaires, an initial quick take and the "real deal" the detailed results that generally decide who gets syndicated. The boys come in first in the quickie and are so enthused that they write three more names for "Money and Intelligence", hoping for serialization - but when they slip to third in the real deal (behind Niizuma of course) Masahiro is so distraught that he refuses to show off the names to Hattori and tears them up.

Seriously - lose the jacket...
That was pretty intense, actually - the duo worked so hard on those names and just like that, they're confetti? I realize these guys are fifteen, but even so. Hattori is a bit alarmed at their disappointment - knowing full well what his industry does to innocents and that third place for a debut (and an esoteric one at that) is damn good. There seems to be an increasingly heated rivalry heating up between Hattori and Niizuma's editor, which bothers me a bit - is Hattori going to be thinking about Takagi and Masahiro's best interests or beating his colleague? He's already got the boys obsessed with Niizuma. On the plus side Masahiro admits that Niizuma has advanced as far as he has based on real ability. "Now they must wrestle with the decision again - go "mainstream" to try and defeat Niizuma, or stay with their own style? Here's an example of where the Niizuma obsession is negatively impacting - I think their original decision to be originals was the right one, but now Masahiro is pushing them towards pure shounen territory.

At last, looks like we'll get some real screentime with Niizuma next week - it's long overdue. It'll be fascinating to see Masahori and Takagi wrestle with this decision of art vs. commercialism - I hope the story makes the case in favor or staying true to your vision.

Monday, December 27, 2010

To Aru Majutsu no Index II - 12

Definitely a setup episode this week, and it looks like next week will wrap up the Croce de Pietro arc. Not too much happened, really - not a lot of humor, not much action - mostly a lot of talking.

What was interesting? Well, we had a seemingly extraneous snippet of dialogue from Mikasa - which leads me to wonder if my guess about Accelerator stepping into the fray may bear out. We had Komoe - quite covered in Himegami's blood - attach herself onto Stiyl in thanks for saving Himegami's life. And we had Kuroko (ugh) smitten with Mikoto's busty MILF. Biri-biri aura with woman-sized cleavage? For once, I agree with Kuroko! And Touma finally got a little taste of his own medicine, getting Falcon Punched by a girl.

This arc is starting to drag a bit for me. Oriana is a good villain - a mistress of double entendres ("You can't make me come if you're distracted!") and slutty outfits. She's systematically kicked everyone's ass so far, though this week she showed some guilt over the Himegami attack. But we get it - she's a badass and she wants to use the Croce de Pietro and basically open up some kind of Roman Catholic Human Instrumentality Project in Academy City. But I'm ready for the final battle already - enough is enough.

As for Index - you know, the one in the title? She continues to be largely AWOL though adorable in cheerleader mode - too risky to let her presence to exposed. That's not a big plus for me, either - get this arc done and maybe she can play with the other kids again.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Soredemo Machi wa Mawatteiru - Series Review

I've said this before, but Soredemo is a series that elevated itself in my esteem as much as any I've watched for a while. It was on the edge for me whether I'd blog it after the first couple of episodes, but somewhere roundabout the third episode my resistance wore down and I started to really get into the odd world being created here.

This manga was a perfect vehicle for the better angels of SHAFT's nature to reveal themselves. Every SHAFT series is instantly, recognizably SHAFT. Sometimes that can be a bad thing, but here it's good - the visual style works perfectly with the off-kilter, quick cutting style of the source material. In a sense we're seeing this world through Arashiyama Hotori's mind - her clever but dim-witted, innocent, mischievous, ADHD teenaged brain. Hotori is not so much a girl as an element - pure chaos unleashed with "blowfish cheeks" on a suspecting but still unprepared neighborhood in Tokyo.

While the supporting cast played a larger role as the series progressed, Hotori was always at the center of things and Omigawa Chiaki's performance is central to the success of the adaptation. This was a role she was born to play, and it's no wonder Shinbo likes her so much - her histrionic, always on the verge of panic yet lovable voice is a great fit for his restless eye. I enjoyed her in Soul Eater and especially as Jun in Natsu no Arashi (another Shinbo series) but this is a star vehicle for Chiaki, and she really runs with it. If you don't buy her in the lead role, this definitely isn't going to work for you.

The genius of Masakazu Ishiguro's manga is that it's a true slice-of-life, unconcerned with structure or dramatic convention. It's a series of short and generally hilarious chapters that don't especially need to be read in order - each stands more or less independently once you know the premise and characters. Ishiguro's writing (and Shinbo's direction) really give the sense that things are happening in real-time - you just happened to look in and see what was happening at any given moment. Thus, the decision by SHAFT to adapt the chapters literally as mini-episodes (as Mitsudomoe and Shinryaku Ika Musume did) was crucial - as was the decision to adapt them in more or less random order. Some of the funniest and best manga chapters - such as Takeru's adorable date with Ika, his "Rock Lobster" - were not ones I would have necessarily expected to see adapted. You would think the anime would narrow the focus to the cafe and the three or four most important characters, but it didn't. Shinbo let Takeru, and Grandpa's ghost, and the antiques dealer have their moments - even if they were as serious as they were humorous.

The cast of this show is large, no question, and again Shinbo chose wisely in letting Hotori take a smaller role after the first few eps. Tatsuno and Kon were vital elements to the story, but we also got great mileage out of Takeru, Moriaka the math teacher, Hotori's Dad, the middle-aged merchants at Seaside, and even Grandma's deceased husband. This all served to feed the slice-of-life authenticity, as did the layering in of gently serious moments with the absurd and satirical comedy. Not just the final episode, but the time-travel and ghost episodes were really well-done and genuinely thought-provoking.

Finally, as for the production values, what's most striking is the sound. The OP and especially ED were excellent pieces of work, as was the insert song the maids played at the school festival. But the overall sound design was just as impressive - a deft use of silent pauses and loud exclamations and the highlighting of Hotori's voice as a sort of "first violin" in this orchestra of everyday life. The series looks interesting as all Shinbo series do, even if the animation isn't conspicuously lavish. The character designs are spot-on and very faithful to the manga, not too pretty or grotesque but whimsically ordinary.

There's been talk of a second season - Omigawai Chiaki prayed for it on a TV special where she visited the shrine the one in the series is based on - and SHAFT is a studio that isn't afraid of sequels. I don't imagine this is going to be a huge hit in terms of DVD sales but neither was Natsu no Arashi, and that got a second season. We have some fantastic manga chapters still out there so it's really up to Shinbo at this point. I'd absolutely love to see more and I'll be rooting for it to happen - I may even give 3400 yen at a shrine and pray for it...

Soredemo Machi wa Mawatteiru - 12 (End)

What started out as a pretty typical chronicling of a Hotori misadventure developed into something quite a bit more in the final episode of Soredemo. I found this one hitting pretty much all the right notes for me, as the series itself did for most of its run.

For starters, Hotori has mangled a pen by securing a magnifying glass to the end - creating what she thinks is an original double-purpose detective tool. Unfortunately this has already been done, as Grandma shows by producing the cheap model from her junk drawer. Even more unfortunately, the item Hotori butchered is a ridiculously expensive fountain "pendant" - a Mont Blanc her Uncle gave her when she entered high school. When he asks her to visit over the summer she's stuck - until she comes up with the brilliant scheme of writing a detective story to win the "Mystery Magazine" 5 million yen prize. What follows is a preposterous murder mystery set on an "Jelly Island" and, not surprisingly, a quick rejection. That rejection devastates Hotori so much she get hit by a truck.

That's when things take a pretty interesting turn. Hotori goes to the afterlife, greeted by the same Angels who messed up Grandpa's passage, and they promptly dump her in the Egyptian afterlife by mistake. But a friendly civil servant rescues her and places her in the Japanese line, and from there a hilarious social commentary plays out. But as this show has proven it can, the episode deals with some fairly emotional stuff - especially when her guide takes her to an arcade where she can pay 100 yen to see what's happening on Earth. This emotions aren't subtle here, but they're genuine - pretty believable for a 16 year-old who thinks her life has ended. Fortunately, her brain makes a miraculous recovery and Hotori gets her second chance, her memory wiped clean of the time she spent on the other side.

That was a nice end for this series, which has often moved deftly between absurdity and seriousness without missing a step. If that's the last we see of this adaptation - and I hope it isn't - it was a good place to leave things.

Tegami Bachi Reverse - 13

Episode 13 serves as a sort of breather, as we take a break from the main storyline. It's also great to see Aria as the sole focus of an episode, and we certainly see a new and different side to her (and I don't just mean squeezing into her bee pants).

Lag, while in better shape than Gauche/Noir, is exhausted from shooting too many shindans. As we all know, even for a healthy lad in the prime of youth like Lag shooting too often will make you listless and exhausted. So Aria dons her old uniform - with difficulty - and goes off to make a mysterious delivery to someone who "used to work on the airship".

Aria's dingo, Bolt, is old and tired now, so Lag begs a reluctant Niche to go along and protect her while he rests at the hive. Niche relents - calling Lag her "Poor thing" - and catches up with Aria. The interaction between Niche and Aria provides some of the best moments in the episode - Niche's disgust at Aria's boobs, her constant reminders that Aria is "no Lag!". Aria, for her part, reminds Niche that Sylvette is a pretty serious rival for Lag's heart - a fact that Niche is only too aware of.

It turns out that Aria is completely uncoordinated - tripping over her own feet, slipping and generally falling on her derriere constantly. But her shindan is an interesting one. The same violin she uses to soothe and restore tired bees also generates her attack shindan. She needs an awful lot of help from Niche to get her attack launched against the gaichu named - with glorious absurdity - "Tequila Sunrise". But when she does, it zaps all of the gaichu simultaneously and even Niche is impressed - "Not even Lag can get them all at once!"

The main plot isn't totally ignored here. We get the interesting revelation that the Amberground sun is in fact comprised of human hearts. Judging by the PV it looks as if the next episode will also focus primarily on Aria - whose delivery may or may not be connected with the central story - but something interesting is definitely going to happen with Lag at some point.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Kure-nai - OVA 2

This is the second OVA release for Kure-nai, a special treat for readers of the manga (of which I am not one), bundled with the last two volume releases. And I liked it quite a bit more than the first one.

The tone of these OVAs is quite a bit different than the TV series, which I was quite a fan of despite it's meandering finish. The anime was much darker than the OVAs, with a clear and well-defined plot that ran through it start to finish. Manga readers tell us that the OVAs capture the tone of much of the printed version, in which most of the chapters are in a light-hearted style. In any case, I'm a huge fan of the characters and most of that charm came through in the second OVA.

Things still revolve around teen "mediator" Shinkrou Kurenai and his little charge Murasaki, the preternaturally mature loli he saved from a terrible fate at the hands of her wealthy family. But most of the laughs come from the wacky harem that's formed around Shinkorou - his boss and protector Benika, childhood friend and hacker Ginko, former housemate and sparring partner Yunno, and wacky,saucy neighbors Yamie and Tamaki. Murasaki's bodyguard Lin is along for the ride, largely in the role of Shinkrou's tormentor.

There are three short stories in this 30-minute special. The first involves 14 year-old assassin Kirihiko, who Shinkurou saved in one of his assignments. The last involves Murasaki acting as a sort of guidance counselor to the harem, with the ultimate aim of securing Shinkurou all to herself. By far the most successful is the second story, "Treasure". Shinkurou's appalling living conditions are the driver of things here - Benika seems to enjoy keeping him under her thumb by keeping him desperately poor - and they were a running gag in the anime as well. Here an attempt to fix a leak leads to discovery of a "man's treasure" under the sink, and wild speculation among the girls about whether it belongs to Shinkurou or not. Things get pretty hilarious here, especially when Yamie and Tamaki try and turn Shinkurou on so he'll feel the need to use his treasure later that night. Turns out his treasure is something completely different, though misunderstandings flower and Murasaki - as always precocious and innocent at the same time - give Shinkurou a new treasure to cherish. That treasure is sure to feed the suspicion among the others that he's a lolicon, but he isn't - the poor boy isn't even a pervert, but he can't seem to catch a break.

I would say these OVAs are probably going to be more enjoyable to someone who has seen the series and gotten hooked by the irresistible charms of the characters. While the OVAs actually share more with the manga than the TV, if you haven't seen the series or read the manga I suspect you'll wander what the fuss is about.

Shiki - 21

OK, we're definitely being trolled

Another magnificent bloodbath as the penultimate episode of Shiki takes the human side further off the path of rationality and the Shiki closer to extermination.

I fully understand what Fuyumi Ono is trying to do here, and it's certainly effective. This series has sparked some fascinating debates, with sympathies falling all over the map. There's no question that anger and blood lust have pushed the human population past the point of reason. One can't help be horrified at some of the things they've done - but that's not the same as feeling sympathy for the Shiki.

Mind you, outside of the Kirishiki inner circle I do feel some sadness - the likes of Tohru and Masao did nothing to ask for their fate. But for the humans, this was a fight they didn't start. What the Shiki did was cold and premeditated - what the humans are doing is a crime of passion. I see a moral difference, which is not the same as seeing either side as blameless.

One person I don't feel any sadness for is Seishin. He's a self-loathing hypocrite as far as I'm concerned, and he's chosen the Shiki over his own people. And by hiding with Sunako at the temple, he chose her over his own family. The notion that he couldn't have known what would happen to his family is preposterous to me - of course he knew. He simply chose the side he agreed with in his heart, and his family was an acceptable sacrifice. The elder monk, at least, tried to offer himself to save his family - he resisted the urge to become a cold-blooded (no pun intended) killer, as Ritsuko showed us was possible. He genuinely welcomed death, as I suspect Rit-chan and Tohru did, and died with his humanity intact.

In purely practical terms, things are pretty bleak for the Shiki at this point. Seishirou has been turned, most likely by Natsuno, and wipes out the Jinrou woman with a bullet to the head. Every hiding place has been discovered, and Tatsumi and Sunako are on the run, the latter in a suitcase with Seishin. Megumi is alive somewhere to have her final confrontation with Natsuno next week, but that looks to be about it in terms of survivors. Sunako's greed in wanting a village of Shiki has been their undoing.
Ciel...Is that you, Ciel?

The story of Ritsuko and Tohru remains the saddest and yet most uplifting in the story. Ritsuko not only stayed true to her humanity and saved Yasuyo, but she redeemed Tohru in the process. They died together, side by side, which is some small comfort - at least they didn't have to face their fate alone. Ritsuko is the true heroine of the story for me - other than her, Akira is probably the only one who is both morally clean and behaved courageously throughout the story.

Ah, Akira - what of him, and of his sister? Still no sign in either the episode of the PV of the finale. As we received the interesting news this week that the 8th and 9th DVD volumes will contain bonus episodes 20.5 and 21.5, one suspects that the siblings' story won't be resolved until that release this summer. If so, that's a harsh move on the part of the anime staff - I think if you're going to introduce a cliffhanger in the TV you have an obligation to give it some sort of resolution. But I'll forgive it, because I really admire this series. It's tense, exciting, and never shies away from the darkness that's at its heart.

Amagami SS - 25 and Series Review

"I wonder what I should use for the murder weapon?"

Well, that was altogether more interesting than it had any right to be. Since this was my first exposure to the omnibus format in anime form, I don't know whether this kind of "digest" ending is typical - but it was a fascinating way to wrap things up

Risa turns out not to be the girl who broke Junichi's heart two Christmases ago, but the girl who helped that girl break his heart. She told Makihara (said heartbreaking girl) to meet Junichi at the cinema instead of the park, and the rest is history. Risa says she did it because Makihara was planning on breaking up with Junichi in front of her friends for a laugh, but given that Risa's subsequent behavior points towards "crazed stalker" I'm inclined to be skeptical.

What of that behavior, you ask? Well, she systematically put the kibosh on every relationship Junichi started - beginning with Haruka and ending with Tsukasa - by showing them a fake photo of he and a girlfriend. Again, Risa says she did all this to "protect" Junichi from having his heart broken again. Conveniently, this also resulted in him being single when she finally got around to confessing to him. She does so in a sort of utility closet and says that's the only place they can meet - yeah, that's normal. Risa does finally apologize to the other girls and she and Junichi end up the episode as a couple, but if I were him I'd be locking my doors at night.

Good puppy
I'm not sure whether I'd classify Amagami SS as a success or not. Yosuga no Sora did more interesting things with the omnibus format as far as I'm concerned - here, it was a blessing and a curse. With such a literal version of the genre - six arcs of exactly four eps each with no continuity overlap once they begin - some of them are bound to work better than others. The series batted about .500 for me - the Haruka arc was by far the best, but I also enjoyed the Tsukasa And Ai arcs. The Rihoko, Kaoru and Sae arcs did nothing for me whatsoever. Junichi's fairly radical personality shifts between arcs didn't help much - while interesting at first, they eventually ended up being a distraction.
Now THAT'S a Merry Christmas!

Any series that can produce an episode as great as #3 here - sexy, funny and crisply written - deserves some praise. But the inconsistency drove me batty after a while, to the point where I dropped the show altogether for a while in the middle. I think omnibus can work, but there needs to be more tying the various arcs together (as there was in YnS). The last episode finally did that, but it felt like an omake - totally separate from the reality of the series. Amagami SS is interesting as a curiosity, and has some genuinely nice romantic moments. But taken as a whole, it falls short of the better romance series of the last few years. I'd watch the first arc again just for Haruka - it (and she) was playful, sensual and a little bit daring. There was just too much mediocrity to wade through in the rest of the series for me to recommend it, though.