Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Colorful

This may not be the first review of Colorful you've read - it's been out on DVD in Japan for over a month now, so I'm a little late to the party. But I loved this one so much I couldn't possibly let it go by without sharing my praise for this wonderful, heartfelt work.

The film was released in Japan in 2010, the product of a joint project by several studios, by far the most well-known of which is Sunrise. Director is Keiichi Hara, who in addition to directing most of the "Shin-chan" adaptations also wrote and directed 2007's Kappa no Coo to Natsuyasumi (Summer Days With Coo). It wasn't a huge box office success, but caused quite a splash critically, winning several International animation prizes both in Japan and outside.

To say that this movie hit close to my heart is an understatement. While my own clumsy scribblings would bear little resemblance to this adaptation of Eto Mori's 1999 novel in quality or execution, in theme and sentiment it feels very much like something I would have written if I could. I adore magical realism, and even more the coming-of-age story - the bildungsroman. It feels like this used to be a much more common type of story in anime back in the day, when lots of series and movies were about boys and growing up - but I guess it's unfashionable now to create anime about young men and the struggles they face. So in that sense Colorful is a throwback - indeed, the novel was written during that earlier period in anime I refer to - but that just makes it all the more precious to me.

The numbers tell an indisputable story - teenaged boys are about six times more likely to kill themselves than girls. It would be a long post indeed if I were to list all the things Hara does right with this film, but foremost among them might be the way he captures the pain of his protagonist, Kobayashi Makoto. Boys are expected to internalize their sadness and anger - to "man up" and "keep a brave face". The things Makoto has to deal with - his parents troubled relationship, terrible bullying at school, an unrequited crush on a girl "out of his league" - are very real and very believable. Boys deal with this things all the time, in Japan and elsewhere. And sometimes, they deal with them by trying to end their lives.

I won't spoil the major plot twist that comes at the end of the film, just in case you haven't seen it - but I will say that I guessed it fairly early on. Rather than lowering my esteem for the film, though, it bolsters it - because it feels natural and logical to the story. Frankly, it's how I would have written it if it had been my story. The basic premise is that a lost soul shows up in the afterlife, guilty of a sin it cannot recall. An odd little "angel" named Purapura - an impish schoolboy in a short-pants suit and tie - tells him he has a choice. He can go on a "homestay" - inhabit the body of a recently deceased human and try to remember his sin, atone and earn his way back into the reincarnation cycle. In this case, the human is a 14 year-old boy named Makoto who has just attempted suicide with his mother's sleeping pills. Just as he expires in his hospital bed, the wayward soul enters his body and opens his eyes to a strange, unfamiliar world.

With only the occasional visits from the snarky Purapura as guidance, the soul must navigate the maze of Makoto's life - and it's no bed of roses (pun intended). Makoto is small for his age, friendless even before his suicide attempt (which his schoolmates don't know about), and struggles badly in school (32nd out of 32 in his class). A decent high school seems an impossible dream, he pines helplessly for the beautiful but remote Hiroko, and he alone bears the knowledge of a terrible sin against the family committed by his mother - a mother who helplessly tries to reconnect with a totally remote and hostile child returned from the dead. Only through his painting and sketching did this strange boy find any respite from the troubles in his life.

The casting here is crucial. Makoto is played by 14 year-old Kazoto Tomizawa and Purapura by 12 year-old Michael (that's his only name, oddly enough) and - as I've said countless times before - the degree of realism from casting real kids in these roles is indispensable to the success of the film. The entire cast is stellar but those two - especially Kazoto-kun - carry the weight of the movie on their shoulders. There's no denying that the emotional pitch of the story is pretty intense - no punches are pulled in dealing with serious and ugly issues. Suicide, bullying, Enjo Kosai - things adults would rather pretend didn't play roles in their children's lives. But they do - and they're dealt with here in a frank, matter-of-fact way - not sentimentally but not heartlessly either. The tone is just right - this could easily have been either bleak and depressing or corny and sappy - but it's neither. it's painful, honest and true.

One more element that seems to have largely disappeared from anime is the theme of male friendship among teenagers - not the superficial stuff you see in most series, but real, heartfelt friendship - and just what a lifeline that can be to a kid in trouble. It says something about the unconventional choices this story takes that rather than romance (frankly, a remote concept to most real 14 year-olds) or the troubled family relationship, it's ultimately Makoto's friendship with Saotome that proves the most crucial relationship in his life. Anyone who has even been a teenage male will tell you that for all the love of parents and the longing for a girl, very often the best friend is the most important person in your life - and the one that ultimately helps you make it through the long, dark time that is adolescence.

I've referred to Makoto Shinkai as a poet of animation. While this story is a little more linear and complex than Shinkai's standard, I look at this is a visual poem as well. The gorgeous backgrounds, character designs and animation merge with a fairly subtle but impacting soundtrack to create what's more than anything else, a mood piece - a collection of emotions that slowly opens up in the viewer over the 125 minute running time. No detail is overlooked - even a seemingly minor scene involving Makoto and his new friend Saotome tracing the paths of old streetcars is wonderfully moving and beautifully executed.

Again, I won't spoil the twist by talking too much about the ending - but for me, it was an ending that fit perfectly in place. Life is difficult and always will be, but that's rather the point. As much as I love this film and I think every parent (or older sibling, and there's a great one in this story) should see it, I especially wish every teenager could see it - especially boys. A story that moves and entertains while casting light on the real issues people confront is a rare and valuable thing.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Game of Thrones - 7


Well now, it's really hit the fan now, hasn't it?

Lots of things strike me after this latest stellar episode of Game of Thrones. Not least of those is that poor Eddard Stark is a boy among men (and women) when it comes to the titular game. His frankness and integrity is almost quaint in this world of liars, ingrates and power-crazed fiends. Even when he tries to dabble in a bit of clever intrigue himself - changing Robert's words on his final proclamation to "Rightful Heir" - it proves a mere amusement to the Queen. Poor Ned just never stood a chance. The dueling mercenary in the last episode showed what happens to men who fight with honor in this world.

The deaths just keep on coming - looks like last week was just the beginning. I'm both surprised and disappointed to see Robert go - Mark Addy was absolutely splendid in the role. And is Benjen dead now, too - was that his forearm Ghost the dire wolf brought back from the woods? It was nice to see old John Snow again - it's been since episode four - but he appears to have been dealt yet another losing hand, being assigned to be the Lord Commander's steward rather than a ranger. Fortunately Samwise Samwell was there to talk him back off the ledge - but I have my doubts about whether his theory of John being "groomed for command" was more than just a bid to make John feel better.

A word has to be said for the first three scenes of the episode - two long dialogues and a monologue that did wonders to drive the story forward. But more, they proved that you don't need action and violence to create tension and excitement - Martin's dialogue as presented here can be stunning. The first - a conversation between Jaime and his father Tywin - took place while the elder man was ruthlessly gutting and skinning a buck, a superb image that ran the scene through with foreboding. That scene revealed so much about both men - as the following, a long chat between Ned and the Queen, revealed much about them. Finally, Littlefinger - arguably the most fascinating character on the show - was a veritable lava flow of venom as he talked about his love for Catelyn and how he lost her to the Starks. That scene certainly doesn't bode well for Ned.

Back East, the first wave of Robert's assassins has made an attempt on Danerys' life. Too late Robert realized the folly of the decision to kill her - all this failed attempt managed to do was piss Drogo off enough to make him promise to claim the throne for his unborn son. Interestingly, though, it appears that Jorah was sent to Danerys to make sure the assassins are successful - based on the secret pardon he received. But he foiled the attempt to poison her - have his loyalties truly turned in her favor, or is he merely playing a waiting game? In this world, everyone wants to back a winner.

No Bran or Arya, or Tyrion or Catelyn - this series is remarkable in its stable of characters but it can be frustrating to have to wait weeks between visits by favorites. In the end, though, this one all came back to the events in King's Landing. It's strongly implied that Robert was not randomly gutted by the boar due to drunkenness, but had either been poisoned or drugged before the accident. While Drogo begins his plans thousands of miles to the East and the Whitewalkers arise to the North, the immediate battle is within the walls of the castle. I still believe Littlefinger has more tricks up his sleeve, and Robert's brother Renly - power-hungry but seemingly more measured and wise than his brother - has fled the castle after Ned refused his entreaties to seize power. Indeed, Ned was given two good options - Renly's plan, and Littlefinger's suggestion that he use Joffrey as a figurehead while holding the secret of his parentage over him - and spurned both due to his sense of honor. Poor fool - he seems truly friendless in the capitol now. Littlefinger still holds the key though, it seems - he did promise Catelyn that he would protect Ned, after all - though on the other hand, having Ned out of the way might not be a bad option for him either considering how madly he loves her. He just has to make sure his hands look clean.

Human nature sure is ugly in these parts. Imagine what things will be like when the real trouble starts.

Trust no one...

Ao no Exorcist - 7

OK, before we get to the actual review - what's the deal with the Bunny Shota and Hooded-cloak Guy? They're animated into virtually every school scene but they seem to have no impact on the story, and they haven't even been introduced. WTF?

Ah, Shiemi - you're a slam-dunk for KanaHana, aren't you? But that doesn't mean you aren't moe - so it's only fitting that you should have a cute familiar, I guess. Ni! Ni! I think my favorite Shiemi moment, though, was when she chased Izumo down the hall - "Oi! Oi! Oi! Oi!" Hard to believe - bullying in our little Hogwarts...

There was some development here, namely surrounding the summoning teacher. He's apparently in charge of the demon that attacked the girls in the bath, though he did make a comment about being the "dog of a demon". Is he testing Rin's strength? Working for Satan - or a conscientious exorcist trying to off Rin because he knows his parentage? I'm definitely getting "Harry Potter" vibes here - teachers whose motives are unclear, and everyone all hugger-mugger about one particular students lineage - he could be the salvation of the world or the destruction of it, no doubt.

For all that, this marks effectively three school life episodes in a row, which is a pretty big chunk of time off the gas pedal for so early in the series. We have 24 eps to work with so there's still plenty of time to get back on story, and these eps have been entertaining enough, but it's an interesting choice nonetheless.

Hanasaku Iroha - 9

That was more like it. A good, straightforward "back to basics" episode - something I think this show badly needed. No wheels were reinvented, but there were no shenanigans either - just down-the-middle light drama and comedy consistent with what this show is when it's working. I wasn't thrilled that the whole Kou visit turned out to be a troll, but this is a two-cour series - I guess it's too soon.

It's all the rage at the moment to compare this show to Mari Okada's masterwork True Tears (I'm quite comfortable leaving that title there until we see how AnoHana ends) but I frankly don't see all that many parallels. I suppose it was inevitable that the romance side of the series would increasingly move to the fore, especially with Kou's arrival on the scene - but where romance was the raison d'etre of True Tears, I don't expect it to be that way here. This show is really about growing up - Ohana's growth, to be exact, and I think Kou, Tohru and Minchi are primarily important for how they influence that. That's not to say that there won't be romantic development and the show won't end in a relationship - but I don't count on it and I don't think it will be the major focus.

That doesn't stop it from being the main topic of fan conversation, though. The one disappointment of the ep for me was that Kou's visit turned out to be a troll, pretty much. What 16 year-old boy has the money to ride JR for hundreds of miles, only to turn around and go home without seeing the girl he came to see? Though his visit ended in disappointment there's still hope for Kou fans - it was his hair she thought of when she smelled the inside of Tohru's helmet, after all. Might the new character - Kou's older co-worker - be put there to prove a test of his love for Kou, much as Tohru is for Ohana?

Ah, Tohru - the explosion of fan-love for him is highly amusing to me, if a bit puzzling. I guess bad boys are always popular - but Tohru has gone viral. I didn't see a whole lot of romance in Ohana's quest to find him - I really think she was doing it for the inn, and Grandma. I also don't see a whole lot of spark between them, especially from her side - though I do think there's evidence Tohru is interested. If Mari is indeed the one writing these eps, she seems to be doing a good job sending mixed signals to the audience about what's the come.

Ohana, for her part, is like a better-behaved version of Arashiyama from SoreMachi. She's a force of nature, a pinball of misguided impulse and adolescent emotional turmoil. She's also incredibly stubborn and persistent - she seems to have only one speed (fast!) and one direction (forward - until she bounces off something, of course). I simply can't see her being with Tohru - even if she proved to be interested - knowing what that would do to Minchi. It seems totally contrary to her nature.

If this were a one-cour show I might have a pretty good idea of where things might be headed, but with well over half its run to go I confess I'm pretty baffled. I wouldn't even be completely shocked if they pulled a Zettai Shounen and moved the second half of the show to the city - with Kou and her mother reintroduced as major characters - and then tied it all together in the end. That's an extreme example, but not completely unrealistic - and that's evidence of just how up in the air things still are. One way or the other, Kou and Ohana's Mom still have major roles to play in this series - that's one thing I feel totally confident about.

Mahou Tsukai ni Taisetsu na Koto: Natsu no Sora - Series Review

A few weeks ago I posted on Animesuki looking for some suggestions for older series I might have missed - and this one came up a few times. It caught my eye and piqued my interest, so I gave it a watch. Thanks to those who recommended it - my review is below. Please note that it's full of series spoilers, so don't read it if you haven't watched the series and think you might.

A very interesting watch. What will strike someone at first, of course, is the unusual visual style. I happen to love Beck and I think Osamu Kobayashi is a real talent, but in the end the combination of still photography and hyper-crude cel animation ended up being more unique than successful - though there were certainly beautiful moments.

For about 7 episodes it was about as slow as I think it's possible for a series to be - I think my comment to Totoum was that it "makes Sketch Book look like Gurren Lagann" (and no, I wasn't aware that TTGL reference in episode 12 was coming). A lot of blood has been spilled on trying to define "Slice-of-life" but if any show ever was...

Then, of course, the shit hit the fan and that all changed. I was a bit broadsided because it seemed so out of character for the series, but in the final analysis I think it was a good thing - it gave the series a much-needed narrative jolt and sense of purpose, and cast those early episodes in a different light. Of course everything at that point felt very rushed - starting with Sora's relationship with Gouta taking about ten steps forward overnight. That, for me, is a flaw. But what the show lacked in narrative sophistication it made up for in sincerity. I especially liked Sora's line in episode 11 (my favorite episode): "It's OK if you get married and have lots of kids - but remember me once in a while." It summed up the moment in a beautiful way.

As for the ending, which many apparently hated, I thought it was pretty decent. I figured going in there was no way they were going to tie things up without a time skip, and I'm glad they didn't sell out for some phony miracle where Sora was saved by magic, or heel-clicking or something. The show made its bed and was content to lie in it, letting things play out as they naturally might. I was glad there was a minimum of crying and histrionics - it was understated but still heartfelt, much as the show itself was all along.

So in the end, for me, an interesting and very good series. I never totally bought into it to the point where my emotions were gutted by what happened - I don't know exactly why. Perhaps the visuals were too odd and remote, perhaps things were just a bit too meandering early on, and there was just the hint of emotional manipulation in the way the material was presented. That said, I was still genuinely interested to see where things were going, and genuinely cared about the characters - just not with my entire being as I might with a show like Moribito or AnoHana. I'd recommend it to anyone with the patience for a show with a ton of patience, and an eye for something different and unusual. I've never seen another anime I'd say it was quite similar to, and that's a pretty rare statement for me at the close of a viewing.

A couple of final thoughts. First, the music - quite nice, especially the OP. I enjoyed the folk songs, though I thought they were a bit overused. And the show was quite the travelogue, too - I never made it to Hokkaido, but this really makes me want to even more (and I love tomatoes). I'm especially sorry I didn't see this before my most recent trip to Tokyo, because I would really have loved to visit Shimokitazawa - which I didn't know existed before this series. Oh, well - next time...

Tiger & Bunny - 9

This was a sort of "Two Men and a Girl and a Baby" episode for T & B. While the baby story wasn't especially interesting - the whole bit with the kidnappers was as mundane and predictable as you can get - it did offer a nice opportunity for some character development.

First off, any doubt that Blue Rose has a thing for Tiger can officially be set aside - her reaction to the news that he's a widower and has a daughter settles that. Now, I would have guessed Kaede much older than nine - but it's irrelevant as far as Rose is concerned. Will this impact her crush - and is there any possibility whatsoever that Kotestsu sees her as anything more than a surrogate daughter? I doubt it.

How very like Kotetsu not to want to burden the young people with his painful past. His character continues to drive this series, and it's one of the best male leads we've seen in many a season. While he didn't end up being the baby's favorite, it was still telling that the Mayor wanted Tiger to watch the child. He pretty much assumes the role of surrogate parent - or at least Nii-san - to everyone he interacts with. There's an essential virtue to Koteetsu than anchors everything that happens here - even his sense of justice is more pure than the others around him. It's remarkable to see a character project world-weary cynicism and idealism at the same time, but he does. Even tsundere Barnaby is starting to be wilt - worn down by the fact that Kotestu always seems to be there with a grin, no matter how much abuse he heaps on him.

One of the last outstanding heroes without a major introduction got one this week in Dragon Kid. Another teenaged girl, the whole plot device of using the baby to shed a light on her relationship with her parents was pretty trite, but the character itself was pretty likeable. Like all the other wayward lambs, she seems to respond to Tiger's paternal concern and, as you knew she would, ends up coming around and appreciating how much her parents love her. But poor Kotetsu's own daughter doesn't even wear the hairpin he gave her...

Parental relationships are awfully important to this series as a whole, in fact - most obviously through Barnaby and his obsession with his murdered parents. The cliffhanger ending was pretty interesting this week - the image of Tiger holding the stun gun prompting a painful flashback for Bunny to the murder of his parents. The man Barnaby finally remembered looked a bit like Kotetsu - especially when we got a closer look at him as a present-day freaky nude guy finger-painting the air. Is that resemblance a coincidence? I rather doubt it - but who can say for sure. At this point it's still anybody's guess whether there's a direct link between Kotetsu and the incident, but we've learned nothing about Kotetsu's childhood to speak of - so it seems very possible at the least.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Doctor Who Season 32, Episode 6: The Almost People

I find this two-parter to be an interesting contrast with the prior episode, Neil Gaiman's "The Doctor's Wife". I think what you see is the difference between a very good TV writer and a great writer, period. Matthew Graham's fleshy story was very solid - totally derivative and completely of Doctor Who with all it's baggage. The moral quandary, the isolation on the island, the choice/sacrifice at the end, even the twist ending. Gaiman's episode, by contrast, was not as neat and orderly - and totally soared above the box 32 years of history can put a TV show in. He did what he wanted and came up with something new, rather unwieldy and ultimately revelatory. It's neither possible nor (probably) desirable to have writers like that every week - but it sure makes for a nice change.

For all that, Graham has put together a very solid pair of episodes here. The dilemma of the "almost humans" was handled with suitable balance - we saw both sides of their existence, and what it could mean both for them and for the human race. We also saw the depth of the crimes humanity has committed against The Flesh - who could blame Jennifer for snapping a little and going all "Alien" on us? That's the dual nature of the 'Gangers (but I thought they took on the nature of humans? Hmm...) - they can love a child and show mercy, or they can become monsters hellbent on revenge.

While Rory has become my favorite character this season and Arthur Darvill is doing a bangup job, I was rather let down to see him become a dupe in Monstro-Jen's revenge plan. I did enjoy the interplay between the two Doctors though. While hardly a new concept for this series, it was handled in a fairly novel way with a few nods to the past as well. Matt Smith was quite good, here - he's a very good Doctor but, like Peter Davison, tends towards the "too nice and too human" side of the spectrum. It's nice to see him as "other" as he was, here - that coldness that separates him from humanity has been too rarely seen since he assumed the role. And indeed, he was cold as ice this week - it's only as we get to the blockbuster surprise ending that we realize just how much everyone - including us - has been taken for a ride by the inscrutable Time Lord.

All in all, a solidly traditional "Who" that built on the season-long mythos the show is working towards. An enjoyable supporting cast, especially Raquel Cassidy as the acerbic foreman Cleeves. Next week is show runner Steven Moffat's "A Good Man Goes to War", the last episode before the "break" that splits S32 in half. I'm sure that cliffhanger will be a gangbuster, too.

Deadman Wonderland - 7

So much is happening so fast with Deadman Wonderland now, and I'm really torn in how I look at the series. It galls me to see so much content crammed into such a short timeframe, for sure. But OTOH, they're really doing a fine job of introducing new characters and concepts without making things feel ridiculously rushed or confusing.

This episode pretty much confirms that Shiro is in fact the Red Man - and the Wretched Egg to boot. What's more, her costume appears to be based on the "Ace Man" (first name Ace - last name, Man!) hero character Ganta worshiped as a child. A childhood he now remembers, in fact, that includes Shiro. She was his playmate and guardian while his parents were alive and he was a somewhat weak little boy. Of course, he has no idea still who (and what) Shiro really is, and that revelation hangs over him as a massive pending karmic shock. Shiro has a deep connection to the Director - apparently spending her time in his inner sanctum when she's not cavorting with Ganta.

There's so much happening on screen that it's pretty hard to keep up with all of it, but it's all important stuff. In addition to Ganta's childhood flashbacks - handled rather well, I thought - there's the matter of Minatsuki and her perverse relationship with her brother. There's also the little matter of her punishment game - a game rigged to make her lose only her hair (a kidney and part of her stomach are already gone) by Owl and Karako as gesture of good faith. Who are they? Members of an underground resistance movement in G Block, and they want Ganta as part of their cause.

They aren't the only new characters introduced this week - we also finally get our first look at Genkaku, who fancies himself an "Ultra-priest" but is basically Tamaki's attack dog. It appears to be his job to look cool and keep the Deadmen in line. And in case you've forgotten about the Warden, she's getting more and more suspicious of what's happening in Deadman Wonderland and more and more pissed off that it's happening behind her back. Tamaki appears to consider her beneath his consideration as a threat, but she sure doesn't act like he should.

It's hard to believe this is more than half over, but unless we get an announcement of a second season, it is. If Manglobe is able to walk this tightrope and deliver the remaining episodes with both breakneck pacing and coherence, we could end up with some sort of comprehensible resolution. If there is another season, though, it's by no means too late to step off the gas - there's plenty of material to fill a second cour even with all the exposition of the last few weeks.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Gosick - 19

Rather than backsliding into another "mystery of the week" pattern, it looks as if the Beelzebub's Skull arc and it's aftermath were the beginning of the final arc after all - it's just taking some time to come together. It now looks as if any mysteries we have will be directly tied into the big one, the coming storm and Victorique's role in it. And the Marquis de Blois certainly looks like the final boss.

In many ways this may have been the darkest ep of the series so far, though to be sure it's never shied away from showing us the evil that men do. But this really cranked up to eleven with Coredila's backstory. The poor girl was an innocent can-can dancer, minding her own business and drawing legions of fans in "The Blue Rose of Saubere", when de Blois appears out of nowhere. After accosting her on stage and identifying her as a Gray Wolf (which probably should have set off more caution in her than it did) he kidnaps her off the street after her performance, just as she's to meet a red-haired lad named Brian.

There's no glossing over what happened next. He raped her, held her prisoner and impregnated her with the daughter she gave birth to on Christmas night, before abandoning her on the street. She winds up in a mental hospital, where the redhead finds her - and thus begins what looks to me a fascinating partnership on-stage and off. They have many common goals - not least the hatred of de Blois and the Ministry of the Occult - though in one area they strongly differ. Brian professes to loathe Victorique and curse her birth for what it represents, while Cordelia has only love for her child. I haven't decided if their partnership is one of convenience or if there's real affection there, but it certainly seems like an interesting pair.

Most of the ep is told from Cordelia's POV, and it's interesting how little she appears to be driven by hatred despite her horrific treatment. Indeed, she seems to care only for helping Victorique realize her potential - while for Brian, this is obviously a quest for revenge. de Blois' motives still aren't perfectly clear in terms of Victorique - he speaks of a child with "The power to purge foulness...to break up the storm..." The storm must surely be WW II, but Victorique's precise role is still obscured. For now, as part of her ascendance, de Blois has yanked her out of school yet again to solve the greatest mystery of Saubere - the Coco Rose Case. Alas, this comes down at the very moment Kujo has hitched a ride with Sophie to go shopping for Victorique's Christmas (and birthday) present. So it looks as if in the next episode we'll be treated to Kujo racing off to find her again.

I can't shake the feeling that the finale will turn on Greville having to choose between his father and half-sister... But that's still several eps away, and we've at least one more mystery to solve in the meantime. As good as this ep was, I did miss the Victorique-Kujo interaction, which was totally absent. It's the best part of this series, but at least we'll get another touching reunion scene as a result of this additional separation.

Dororon Enma-kun Meeramera - 8

You know, there are times when I'm watching Dororon when I catch myself thinking that I couldn't possibly be seeing what I know I'm seeing. In their own terms, the writers and animators ripped the circlet off about four episodes ago and now Hell is raging all across our screens.

For starters, the "How educational!" bit with the three girls might just be the funniest moment I've seen in an anime, well - ever. It's wrong and hilarious both on so many levels, the very essence of genius and stupidity rolled into one. But there was so much more insanity this week, not least of which the three four villains. Butthead - and he's exactly what he sounds like. L'il Avalanche, secretly in love with Yukino so madly that his passion causes him to melt. And Crotch Goblin, well - basically he's a crotch otaku who gets his jollies ripping folks in half the hard way. And was there a fourth one there, somewhere?

So much to wince at here. Poor Harumi had it rough even by her standards this week, but having the following conversation with Enma-kun while being ripped in half may be a new low:

"Look - there's already a hole between your legs!"
"I was born that way!"

Best...joke...ever
Of course, things got a little awkward for Enma too. In between impersonating Gamera in his kotatsu he had quite the experience with Butthead and Crotch Goblin as they tried to de-circletize him. And Harumi got a little revenge at least by telling Butthead that his third horn was "adorable". Oh, what a cruel blow to any man! In terms of actual plot advancement, it appears for now that the whole circlet thing is nothing more than a red herring - Enpi-chan only thought it'd be the end of the world if he took it off because she'd have to put it back on and start wearing clothes, and Enma-kun only promised to be a good boy and wear it so his Mom and Dad (missing, BTW) would give him a hundred years worth of transformers. And the Great Demon King Enma is definitely hiding something.

Nice little homage to Astro Boy in the pre-opening, too. Damn, this is one cool, clever and offensive piece of work.

C: The Money of Soul and Possibility Control - 7

So that was a switch - but then, given the frequent directional changes for this show, a logical narrative progression from the prior episode would actually have been the real switch. It's almost as if the episodes were tossed onto the floor and were picked up and aired in random order.

Basically, this one was a complete diversion - half of it background into Mikuni, and the other half from Mashu's POV. Now, it just happens that those are the two best characters on the show, so that manages to turn what could have been a disaster into a pretty good idea. We even get our standard couple of nuggets of exposition, as I've become used to.

The notion that the asset represents the future of the entre is an interesting one. It's very hard to quantify what it actually means, given that the vast majority of assets appear to be completely unrelated to humans. No one on the series seems to be able to offer any insight on just what that relationship means - or the ones who do aren't talking. In Mikuni's case Q is clearly his comatose imouto. Her story was incredibly cliched - the ill sibling in the hospital, the cold, greedy father. It was told pretty effectively and shed a little light on Mikuni's psyche, but beyond that there wasn't much of note to it.

Based on that, it's tempting to believe that Mashu - as another anthropomorphic asset - represents Kimimaro's future. But what that means is again unclear. A girlfriend, daughter, wife? Maybe it's Mashu herself, since they're clearly playing the shipping game between those two? Heck, she even tries to kiss him after seeing it on TV. A flustered Kimimaro demurs, noting that he's never kissed anyone so can't say just what it feels like. Poor boy - not just a virgin but a NBK at 19?

Mashu is a real delight, the one part of this show that elicits real feeling from me. Yes she's cute, but there's more - it's fascinating watching her pseudo-intellectual analysis of Kimimaro and his world. Haruka Tomatsu is nailing this role - it's a kind of tsundere turned on it's ear. I loved the fact that after she started eating ramen, lots of other entres are feeding their assets, too. There's talk of some darker stuff, which elicits a rare moment of impulsive action from Kimimaro. He's clearly developed feelings for Mashu, but what can possibly come of it?

With only four eps left I'm still astonishingly unsure of what we have here. There are definite elements of Satoshi Kon, who was a genius at telling a larger story through superficially unrelated mini-arcs. But I don't sense the same sense of purpose here - this seems more disjointed and less directed, as if there's a lot of improvising going on (something I never felt with Kon). I hope Kenji Nakamura has a master plan to give meaning to all this interesting content he's splattered about, but he better hurry - he's running out of time to make a cohesive whole out of it.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Denpa Onna to Seishun Otoko - 7

It's Maekawa's world - everyone else is just using it by permission.

With apologies to Harold Camping, an entire half-episode from Maekawa's POV was rapture for me. Fuchigami Mai may be an unknown seiyuu but she's stealing every scene she's in - and that smile! Stick a fork in me, I'm done. I love the way she plays the grown-up around the other kids, but I sure wish Makoto would figure out she's the pick of the littler and toss the other girls aside.

I'll confess that Ryuushi is starting to annoy me, just a bit. I'm generally OK with genki girls (I adore Horie Yui, after all) and moeblobs on a case-by-case basis. But her act has less appeal for me than the other girls this time around. There's no question she's a serious contender for Makoto's affections, and even threw us a yandere moment or two to let us know she's serious. Meanwhile Maekawa continues to observe all with that sly grin on her gorgeous face, and Erio seems so disconnected from reality even now that I wonder if she even realizes she's in a competition.

Speaking of Makkie, why is it that he wears the arm in a cast and sling some of the time and not all the time? Is that just a SHAFT visual tic or is there a deeper meaning? I wonder, too, what the significance of Auntie Meme's uncharacteristically serious attitude when she pulled her bike up outside the confectionery shop at the end was all about. Most of all I wonder what's up with the bottle-rocket guy. A weirdo, for sure - dressed in a suit and tie and hanging on the beach launching bottle rockets all day - and what's with the "2" tag in the ear? It crosses my mind that he could be Elliot, but that seems a little too simple.

As always, SHAFT refuses to treat this material seriously enough to make me take it seriously. My curiosity on these matters is more idle than intent - while the potential for greater emotional investment is certainly there, is just doesn't look like the series is interested in playing that game. I remain entranced by the eye and ear-candy, and as long as I get my Maekawa-san - preferably in cosplay - and my ED I'll be perfectly happy. But it would interesting, in a different universe, to see the self-indulgence dialed back to "medium" for a while and the characters given a chance to really interact seriously.

Ana Hi Mita Hana no Namae o Boku-tachi wa Mada Shiranai - 7

Working!
I really, really love AnoHana. It has so many moments of profound emotional truth that I leave every episode exhausted from the ebbs and flows. But for whatever reason, I find myself feeling very strongly tonight that the show is going to rip my heart out and stomp it to pulp. Only a show I love this much could do that, and I don't know why I feel it so much more strongly this week than last - but that's what my gut is telling me. Sure hope I'm wrong.

I could give a litany of things that I loved about this episode, one of the best of an impressive bunch. But a few do stand out. First, the moment when the "A" Team (Jintan, Poppo and Anaru) were looking at Menma's old drawings and Poppo mused that old men must think high schoolers have their whole lives ahead of them - while the kids were looking back wistfully on their elementary years as the time they could do anything. That's an insight of real depth and so true, both to the characters and to life as a whole.

Another one of those moments for me was when Jintan was lecturing Anaru about skipping school - though not without noting the irony of that. Jintan was 100% right about that snowball effect of skipping (and I can speak from experience here). One day is easy - too easy. That's the problem - at some point it's easier to skip than go back. Whether this stuff is coming from Okada-san or someone on the writing staff I don't know, but for a ghost story this series is amazingly grounded in real human experience.

But then, just about every Jintan scene this week was wonderful. Honestly, I just don't see how anyone can not feel for Jintan - he just breaks my heart. Hasn't got a mean bone in his body and just wants to do the right thing, but somehow it's all gone wrong for him. He's carrying so much pain and self-directed anger that it's turned him prematurely into an old soul. Yet, when the chips are down and someone is in trouble - Anaru, Menma - he forces himself to step up no matter how uncomfortable it makes him. Heroism isn't doing stuff when it's easy - it's doing stuff when it's hard.

I'm not saying Jintan is a hero, but everything has been hard for him for so long - I think he just got tired of it all and couldn't bring himself to leave the house. As long as he was only hurting himself, he couldn't break himself out of it. In that sense Menma's return has already accomplished something, whether it was her wish or not. The moments where he gallantly stands up for Anaru despite being terrified at drawing the eyes of others themselves are just gut-wrenching and heartwarming at the same time.

As for the wish itself - which I'm beginning to think could conceivably end up being as much a red herring as the nature of Menma's existence, though I wouldn't bet on it - we made some small headway from the diary. Whether this theory that Menma's wish was for the gang to send a firework to heaven with a message to God to help Jinta's Mum is true or not, it seems to be serving it's purpose. It continues to bring the Busters together (though the "B" Team is on the sidelines of this one, so far) and it's forcing Jinta to re-immerse himself in the outside world. It's not clear what that firework would represent now, with Jinta's Mum passed away - but what it clear is that it'd cost 200,000 yen (about $2500) for the gang to get it made, and they need an adult's help. And the adult who can stop the whole project is none other than Menma's father. There's a mystery surrounding that man that we haven't see the last of, yet. And whether there was a deeper meaning to Menma's mother calling her "Onee-chan" or not isn't clear yet - she might just have been referring to her place in the family unit (she has a little brother, if you recall).

Only 4 episodes left to sort all this out - the wish, Jintan's future, his relationship with Anaru, Yukiatsu and Tsuruko (poor girl was almost ready to believe she was being asked on a date this week) and then there's Poppo. Have his tales of world travel been tall tales, or did they really happen? Come to think of it, I'll probably be wiped out just by the show ending, never mind what the ending itself is - I've grown so addicted to my weekly fix. That makes the prediction in the first paragraph something of a done deal...

13 Assassins


I think it's worth mentioning up front that this film is violent. Extremely, spectacularly violent. Heads chopped off, graphic atrocities, guts spilled out. And blood. So much blood - vast spraying, soaking, bright red and viscous oceans of blood. Miike leads with blood, inducing the audience to squirm from the initial frames and never relenting.

If you're familiar with Takeshi Miike ("Audition") you know he's an expert at making the viewer feel uncomfortable. Astonishingly proficient - 84 films as a director by his 52nd birthday - he's also capable of a wide range of styles on a wide variety of subjects. His next effort, in fact, is Ninja Kids - an adaptation of Soubee Amako's children's manga series "Rantaro", about first-grade ninjas. As astonishing as that will seem after watching 13 Assassins, Miike is surely capable of it.

Most will call this a throwback to the samurai movies of the '50 - in fact it's a remake of a 1963 film - and I suppose it is. We get a classic hopeless quest for justice, this time drawn from the pages of Japanese history. In the fading days of the Shogunate Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (Goro Inagaki), younger half-brother of the Shogun, is wreaking havoc throughout Japan with his cruelty and lust for blood. The Shogun's justice minister, Doi, recognizes that things will only get worse when the young Lord joins the Shogun's inner circle and gains political power. Doi hires aging Samurai Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho) to secretly assassinate him.

Shinzaemon, a patient and clever man, puts together a group of 13 men to carry out the impossible task. His nephew, a gambling womanizer, a spectacularly skilled ronin and his teenaged student, a wry spear-wielder, and a cast of other misfits and quiet men. The job seems impossible, but for a Samurai a chance to die in glory - especially in the current (but doomed) "Era of Peace" - is something not to be rejected.

That plot sounds pretty familiar, of course - and this one is actually grounded in truth - but that's not the point. For pure, adrenaline-driven, heart-pounding entertainment this film is hard to beat. While grandiose in its depiction of violence Miike's movie nevertheless doesn't glorify it - in fact, it seems that virtually every death (and there are lots and lots of them) happens on screen. Usually in a graphic manner. It's desensitizing, I admit, but it also takes great pains to show the consequences of war and the price a Samurai must pay for his code of honor.

The narrative of the film is a battle of wits between Shinzaemon and Naritsugu's chief Samurai, Hanbei - a former colleague at school and the dojo - leading up to the final conflict in a small village in the Kiso Valley. It's that last sequence that drives the film - an astonishing 45-minute bloodbath that leaves the audience as exhausted as the few surviving participants. It's a combat sequence on a par with Spielberg's opening scenes in "Saving Private Ryan" - not as lavishly expensive and effects-loaded, but beautifully choreographed and dazzling in both its pacing and horror. It exerts a certain additional hold on me as its set in the small villages of Kiso that I hiked and stayed in only weeks ago - crucial checkpoints on the Nakasendo Road with an important place in Japanese history, and now frozen in time as a kind of living monument to that history.

I won't say this film is one that will inspire and uplift you, nor that it's an easy one to watch. It's grisly, ugly and despairing - but powerful and beautiful in a strange way. A piece of classic Japanese film-making is a gritty modern style, taken from the pages of a dying, bloody era, this is a film that will stay with you for a long time.



Table Image Posting



I have so many thoughts running through my head as I think back on the finale of AnoHana. That's the hardest part about writing this post, probably - that, and trying to be objective about a show that's so incredibly close to my heart by now. So I'll begin by summing up and keeping it simple - thank you. Thanks to Mari Okada and Tatsuyuki Nagai and A-1 Pictures and NoitaminA for creating and airing this work, and thanks to anime viewers everywhere for confounding my expectations and making this one of the most talked-about and loved shows of 2011. It's certainly the best.

To my great relief, Okada trusted what she'd built for 10 episodes and let the situation speak for itself in the finale. There were no shocking plot twists, no deux ex machina moments, and no "going big". There was no need - you'll never see a better job of developing complex characters and placing them in a powerful situation in a short series. Yes, it was emotional and I can see some fans turning on the show for that - but this is an emotional series. Despite it's supernatural premise it derives all its power from raw human feelings - and relatively simple ones, too, the world viewed through the lens of children and teenagers who still have the child very much inside them.

As I kind of expected, the theme of selfishness was a major player in the conclusion. Of course the firework was never Menma's "wish", and the wish itself (as was becoming increasingly apparent) wasn't really the point at all. While Menma did have her reasons for being back and a promise to keep, Okada thankfully stayed away from dissecting the mechanics of the situation and offering endless explanations. What was important is that Menma was real, and the impact she had on the Super Peace Busters.

Of course, they've been spending the years since her death blaming themselves in various ways. They all blamed themselves for their own selfishness being the reason Menma couldn't go to Heaven. Poppo blamed himself for seeing Menma's death and not being able to stop it. Anaru and Tsuruko ended up being a lot more alike than they realized, so much so that they had a catfight about it. Yukaitsu hated himself for wishing Menma away so that Jintan wouldn't have her to himself. Ironically, it was Jintan who ended up holding it together while the rest of the gang tore themselves and each apart and broke down sobbing. He was the only one, in the end, who was OK with her going to Heaven for the right reasons - but Menma had other plans.

That confrontation and breakdown at the temple was a sort of false conclusion, an important cleansing moment for the Busters to finally bare their scarred souls but ultimately a prologue to the main event. Of all the confessions and recriminations (self and otherwise) in that scene, I found Poppo's to be the most compelling. Always the odd man out of the group, he finally admitted what was obvious - that he was torn between running away from his childhood and being stuck in it. What was new was the reason - what he saw on Menma's last day - but we knew the rest of the story already. He dropped out of school and traveled the world, all to escape the pain of that day - yet ended up returning to the scene of his greatest heartbreak, unable to escape it. In many ways Poppo was the simplest and purest of the living Busters - untainted by unrequited romantic feelings he could focus on Menma. And even if he was ultimately selfish too, seeing her return to Heaven as a way to redeem his own perceived sins, his ultimate reasons were still altruistic in my view. Poppo loved Menma as they all did, and the fact that he'd been unable to help her when she died made him all the more desperate to help her now.

The temple scene was intentionally theatrical, with each character symbolically returning to their child selves - right down to the names they addressed each other with.  It was the eruption of a lava flow of repressed emotion of literally more than half the lifetimes of the Busters, so it's only natural that it be so.  Then, with everyone's darkest secrets out in the open - secret plots, terrible visions, petty jealousies - and the mood suitably lightened by Anaru's eyelash fiasco, the Busters were free to move on to the business of helping Menma to a better place, from a better place themselves. But the matter of her existence was still unresolved, and as expected it turned out to be directly connected to Jinta's Mum. It was thankfully simple and elegant in the end - a promise to make Jintan cry. What the others needed to do to move on from Menma, Jintan's Mother knew he needed to do to be able to move on from her. So Menma promised she would make him cry, and she certainly succeeded there - along with me and, I suspect, millions of viewers.

That was the setup for the real emotional climax. Her promise fulfilled, Menma was starting to disappear on her own. But in coming back at all, she'd created the need to fulfill one more requirement - a proper goodbye to the Busters. Her own selfish wish - even Menma had one - was to be able to say Goodbye to everyone, not just Jintan. In a race against the clock as she faded, Jintan carried her to the secret base only to have her disappear even from his sight. What followed played out through the diary and a desperate, gut-wrenching game of Hide-and-Seek. Irinu Miyu proved why he's the best in the business, creating more raw power in his frantic pleas to Menma than the entire confrontation at the Shrine had mustered. And in the end, Menma (no explanation necessary, or desired) managed to be found at last. She left each of the Busters a note, and one last vision of her smile as she disappeared into the sunrise. Did she fulfill her last wish to continue to be with her friends by being reincarnated as field of flowers - forger-me-nots? Perhaps. I don't need to know - I'm happier with that left to the imagination.



Similarly open-ended is the epilogue. There are hints that Jintan and Anaru might be growing closer, but no more. Yukiatsu makes a peace offering to Tsuruko, but we don't know if it was more than that. What's clear is that Poppo is going back to school - taking that important step towards growing up at last - and that Jintan is back in school himself. Their lives go on, perhaps with a renewed sense of friendship between them and a weight lifted from their shoulders. But there won't be any shortcuts to happiness - they'll have to work at it. Menma gave them an opportunity to move on, but that was the easy part - now they'll have to do it.

I was pretty happy with the landing points for each of the characters. Ironically the firework ended up bringing closure not to the Busters and Menma, but to her family. Jintan's father still worries for his son, but sees hope in his renewed connection to the world. As for Jintan himself, he'll forever live with the knowledge that he loved a girl who died, and that she loved him in return. Their future was stolen from them, but he was at least given a chance to tell her how he felt and to learn that it was reciprocated. Will he take that knowledge and look at Anaru in a new light? Perhaps - but that would be too much to ask from this series. It's enough for now that he realizes how much all of the Busters mean to him, and that he can't function alone in the universe. Menma was not able to give him happiness, but she was able to give him a fresh start. With that miraculous gift, perhaps he can find happiness with the help of his friends and his father. Knowing that nothing would please Menma more could just be the motivation Jintan needs to do it.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Shouwa Monogatari - 3

Or whatever the hell episode this actually is, since they seem to change the order around constantly with no real explanation.

I'm glad this series is finally being subbed, though of course it'll take a while for the group to catch up to the RAWs - but I'm grateful they're doing it. This is a good show - not spectacular or anything, but quite unlike anything currently airing. It manages to create a nostalgic, wistful tone that makes me feel oddly sad every time I watch it.

You get a little history lesson with every episode of Shouwa Monogatari, and I'm enough of a Japan geek to take real pleasure in that. This week, it's Funabashi Health Center - a real-life onsen/amusement park that opened in Funabashi, Chiba, in 1955. It wasn't until the commercial featuring the ultra-catchy jingle aired in the early 60's that it became a sensation. Alas, it closed in 1977 to be replaced by - you guessed it - a shopping mall (Lakeport) but this series is set during the peak of its popularity. Kouhei is crazy to go there and check out all the cool stuff his rich buddy got to see - but his Dad can't be bothered to take him there. Or anywhere - on winter break, spring break, weekends...

Fact it, Kouhei's Dad seems pretty much like a dick to me. He treats both his sons like shit, never smiles, and though it's implies his company makes decent money he spends next to nothing on his family. For the topper, this week he slaps Kouhei hard enough to knock him flat on his rear end in the snow. Admittedly, this was after Kouhei and his friends got into a spot of bother by sneaking onto Haneda Airport to check out the new jet hangar and ended up on a US military base in Yokohama, causing his family a lot of worry. But that doesn't excuse hitting him in my view, never mind the rest of Dad's meanness.

This has come up in anime before - in Seirei no Moribito (by far the most thoughtful and disturbing incident) and Oreimo (with a much older son) to name two. Clearly this is something not uncommon in Japan and hardly a taboo subject, but I must confess I can never envision a valid reason to hit a child in the face hard enough to send them flying. Are sons commonly subject to this in Japan, I wonder? It certainly didn't raise an eyebrow here or in Oreimo.

In the end, Dad does at least build the paper model plane Kouhei needed to finish for his rich friend - and after Kouhei gives him a birthday gift of a "ticket" for Funabashi and coupons for 10 neck massages - along with an apology - it's implied that he'll finally take his son on the trip. But when Monday comes, I'm sure he'll go back to being a dick. In the meantime, it's a real blast seeing the daily lives of middle-class Edoites in the 1960's - the trips to the sento, giving cigarettes as birthday gifts - and getting a glimpse of the city as it was then. This series is nothing if not lovingly detailed - if probably a bit rose-colored - in its depiction of the Shouwa era.

My one disappointment - we didn't get our "casual stroll" segment at the end this episode. Hopefully it'll return with episode four.