Thursday, June 30, 2011

Dororon Enma-kun Meerameera - Series Review

Sometimes, good series are easy to blog. Sometimes, mediocre series are easy to blog. And sometimes, good series are really hard to blog. Dororon is a good series, but damn, it's hard to blog.

Why are Yuki-onnas so damn cute?
I love this show. For my money and with apologies to Yondemasu Azazel-san, it's definitely the funniest show of a relatively comedy-deprived Spring season. But it's so damn hard to explain it, which makes it a blogger's nightmare. Honestly, for all that it sounds like a cop-out on my part, this is a show that you really just need to watch.

Of course it's not going to be for everyone. The parodies can be ridiculously obscure. It's incredibly filthy. Not just nudity and sex jokes filthy, but Ishihara nightmare-inducing filthy. 12 year old/demon yuri filthy. Fisting filthy. Worldwide orgasm filthy. If you have a taboo, Dororon will find it, stamp it to bits, and kill it. But if you don't take your taboos too seriously, you'll laugh your ass off while it's happening.

Go Nagai, creator of this concept, is understandably renowned as a bizarre comic genius, a legend for pushing boundaries who faced parental outrage in his day. But I don't think even Go-sensei imagined that his original manga or the 1973 series based on it could reach these heights of depravity. This is unlike that show is almost every way. For starters, Brains Base have done a great job with the look of the series. The animation is crisp and fluid, the backgrounds wildly imaginative, the colors vibrant. The music is sensational - the OP by anime stalwarts Endo Masaaki and Moon Riders is the best of the year. Their ED is wonderful as well - get the full versions and give them a listen if you can. In true 70's fashion, the show is full of insert songs playing over bizarre and silly battle scenes. That's the great thing about Dororon - though it's a complete update, it does remain true to the spirit of its era. Many of the parodies are from this period, though we do get some more modern stuff too.

The voice talent is mostly old-time industry stalwarts, too, and they've obviously having a wonderful time with this craziness. And how could they not? It's just random insanity full of endless opportunities for showing off their skills. And in spite of all of the above, it really does feature great characters that you care about. Enma-kun is a little brat with a filthy mind, but he's somehow loveable too. And he really does love his Yuki-onna, the panties-free Princess Yukiko. Kappeiru probably ends the series in a tie with Harumi for indignity (just based on episode 10) and then there's Grandpa Chappeau with his box of hat porn. And then there's poor Harumi herself, who suffers as much humiliation as any 12 year-old girl in anime. She's a perfect victim for all this with her manic indignation at all she suffers. And the supporting cast - his wife Grandma Chappeau with the American Japanese accent (same seiyuu as Grandpa), Enpi-chan, forever naked and questing for a sexy and fun world. Mark Angel, the Goblin Kings, Great King Enma, God... The list goes on and on.

I'm afraid that's the best I can do. In closing, I leave you with some final words of wisdom from this thoughtful, perceptive series: "Who's got the death grip on my sack?"

Dororon Enma-kun Meeramera - 12 (End)

You had to know things weren't really going to get serious with this show, even in the finale. This is still Dororon, after all. And it didn't let me down.

Unless you consider penile light-sabers, boob-job in a can, icicles shooting from nipples and a worldwide orgasm serious, that is. If you do, maybe you weren't the target audience for this one. Otherwise, if you were looking for things to wrap up with some big laughs you were in the right place.

Boob job in a can!
We did get a fairly heavy dose of plot by Go Nagai standards, for the first ten minutes anyway. The all-out battle between the forces of Heaven and the forces of Hell (and the sixth grade) was on, with the global genocide on the line. We'd met Team Hell, of course, and most of Team Heaven - though there were a couple of suitable bizarre additions to their squad. The war went back and forth for a few moments, before the good guys managed to get the upper hand thanks to some magic mandarins from Demon King Enma's trash bin.

But that was false hope, alas - the Heaven squad powered up and pretty much wiped out the Demon Patrol (and the sixth grade) in a matter of moments. And that's when things really started to get weird. As the Heavenly gang repeatedly pummeled Enma-kum, the lone surviving opponent, they managed to unleash the power held in check by the circlet. For back of a better description, it seems to have been the power of love, lust and orgasm rolled into one. Well naturally, unleash that on an unsuspecting world and it's a bit much even for Enpi-chan. Even Yuki's attempt to seal Enma with a kiss fails, and it's only the intervention of Enma and Enpi's parents - who it turns out were the circlet all along - that restores order. With Heaven's coffers of soulperglue restored for hundred years, the global genocide is called off - and with a last affront to Harumi's dignity (rubbing dog poop on her face) the Demon Patrol bids Earth a tearful farewell.

Heh. That whole sequence when Enma's power was unleashed was quite unlike any I've ever seen in anime. I tried to describe it but that's an effort doomed to fail. You just have to experience it or take my word for it - when this show goes off on a riff like that it leaves you speechless. This finale wasn't quite the blockbuster of hilarity that the very best eps were, but it was a solid finish to the rudest - and best - comedy of the Spring.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

An Interesting Turn of Events

I'm pleased to be able to share some rather exciting news - starting this season, I'll be joining Random Curiosity as a regular contributor.

First and foremost, let me say that this blog will go on uninterrupted, and hopefully better than ever. I think this is a great thing for Lost in America - for a new blog like mine, the chance to interact with the readers of a monstrously popular site like RC is a fantastic opportunity. I'm extremely grateful to Divine at RC both for asking me to join the writing staff, and for being open to me continuing to blog for both sites.

What will this look like? Well, as I see it the synergy should be great. I'll be picking up a couple of Spring shows for RC that are covered here, and for those I'll blog them on both sites. Ongoing, the plan is for me to cover different shows on RC and LiA. It looks like 4-5 shows total this season on RC - we'll see how many after that, but it should be around that number. I'll blog a number of shows here apart from those 4-5 - maybe a few less than I have been, in order to preserve my sanity (blogging 14 shows at once is a lot) but still a good selection.

Of course, this blog being my personal project I'll keep the manga, movie, TV, travel, wine and whatever other miscellaneous topics strike my fancy posts coming - but blogging current (and occasional older) anime series will continue to be the focus. This place will continue to be busy and updated with care and passion by yours truly - albeit hopefully with even more readership. Of course, any feedback you can share with me about making this site better will be read, replied to and carefully considered. And much appreciated as well - please talk to me and keep the comments coming.

So to sum it up: I'm absolutely thrilled to be joining Random Curiosity, and very excited about what this can mean for Lost in America (tonight, we've already broken our record for visits in a day). RC was the first anime blog I followed regularly, and one of the main inspirations for me to start this one. It's an honor to be invited to work there and I'll write with diligence, passion and commitment. I thank everyone who follows Lost in America from the bottom of my heart, and I hope you'll like what I do with the site in the future. This is an exciting day for me and I can't wait for the Summer Season to get started!

Guardian Enzo

Steins;Gate - 13

Well now, if there were any doubt it's gone - playtime is really over. It's becoming obvious just how much the altogether enjoyable first dozen episodes of Steins;Gate really were just the setup. The real show is starting now.

I can hardly think of a series where viewers who don't know the source material are at a greater disadvantage than we are with this one. It's almost impossible to really know what's going on just based on what we've been told in the anime, yet in a way I think we're the ones having more fun. We don't have anything to nitpick over at the very least.

First development this week - Suzuha shows up at the lab just after Mayuri has been shot. She shows off some flash moves and disables Moeka's henchmen pretty readily, but things end up at a checkmate standoff with she and Shining Finger having their Glocks pointed at each others heads. Eventually she manages to create a distraction, allowing Okarin to test Kurise's adaptation of the telephone microwave (name subject to change) under battle conditions, at the least. He triggers the memory transfer just as Kurise is shot.

It works - but things aren't so simple. The first thing I loved here was that the writing gave ample weight to the very real problem that was foremost in my mind. Given three hours to change what happened, just what would - and could - you do to change it? Going up against an organization that can shut down transportation and quite literally (seemingly) stop time, three hours isn't much to play with. Where could you go that would be safe? How could you convince your friends of what was happening?

The relationship between Okarin and Mayuri has been developing beautifully, to the point where you could really sense that when something terrible happened to her (and the flags were too plentiful to ignore) it would rip your heart out. His devotion to her is pretty clear and quite moving - as is her obvious frustration at not being able to understand the part of his life that's so important to him, his mad science. Okarin wants to protect her - he always did - but in doing so, he's unwittingly making Mayuri sad at being shut out of what he's so passionate about. Even in this extreme situation that same dynamic is still playing out.

What was occurring to me as this grisly Groundhog Day scenario played out was that the safest place for Mayuri at that moment would have been as far away from Okarin as possible. Did that just not occur to him, even after she died again? Or was Okarin so determined that no one else could be trusted to save Mayrui that he refused to let her out of his sight? There were some interesting philosophical questions raised as Okarin relived those three hours twice. The implication as I see it is that, even if you can jump back in time via sending consciousness backwards (apparently not creating a new timeline in doing so) you can't fundamentally change events like someone's death. Call it "fate", or destiny, or what you will - but it certainly seemed to me that we were being told it was simply Mayrui's time. Even if her second death was only partly random, the third one seemed to have nothing to do with Moeka or SERN whatsoever. It's not a new concept by any means, this kind of "Final Destination" scenario, but based on this week's events it seems to be the operative reality in Steins;Gate. Of course, that too could be subject to change.

Any way you view it, if it weren't bad enough that Okarin has to watch Mayuri ("Tutturu" outgoing message? Ack - too kawaii to live!) die three times, he has to believe that it's his fault. And honestly, it is. If he hadn't gone down the time travel path, messed with SERN, allowed the D-mails to be sent, she'd be happily cosplaying and working at the club and bringing moe and light to everyone around her. What a weight on his shoulders, especially if he's unable to find a way out of the trap fate has apparently laid for the two of them.

And that's the big question going forward. What now? It occurs to me that the Final Destination paradigm can't be the whole answer, or else the series would basically be over. Maybe if the new method of time travel can't save a life, the old way can. With three hours to play with, Okarin could certainly try to send Mayuri a D-mail and a carefully thought-out and composed one at that. That's assuming he gets another chance, of course, and that SERN isn't right behind him on the subway platform. Brutal cliffhanger, anyone? How about two in a row...

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Hoshizora e Kakaru Hashi - 12 (End) and Series Review

So with this episode, one of the strangest shows of the year ends in a strangely conventional fashion.

Hoshizora closes its run with a straightforward romantic conclusion that settles on exactly the pairing predicted from the first episodes. There were no hints of an Ayumu end (not even a brocon joke), very little humor, and not many surprises. Since the odd, even somewhat perverted nature of this series was what kept me watching, that's a little disappointing.

As expected, Kazuma ends up with Ui. I'm fine with that, as to be honest I never thought the romance in this show was developed enough to make me care very much one way or the other. It does make you wonder when more time wasn't spent developing Ui beyond a very superficial caricature, though, if she was destined to be "it" at the end. Ibuki, Madoka and even Hina really got much more development than Ui - and then, the shaft.

The entire finale played out around the summer festival (which had to make things even harder for Miko Madoka). In a clever tie-in to the race from way back in episode 5, Kazuma finds out he has to be the town's Ogami for the festival, as the top-ranking boy in the race. The Megami is to be Tsumugi, both roles central players in the Matsuri events. In fact, there's even a tradition of the Ogami and Megami confessing to each other during the festival.

It becoming so obvious now that even the on-screen characters are becoming aware Kazuma and Ui see eye to eye, Tsumugi takes it upon herself to fake an illness so that Ui will have to step in and be the Megami for the Matsuri. This leads to a confession scene as the two face off from opposite sides of a bridge on their respective Mikoshi, and Kazuma lets it be known how he feels. Ui awkwardly follows suit, and the rest is history.

As I said, depressingly convention end to a really unconventional series. If you except a couple of horny teens hijacking a sacred Shinto festival for a summer confession, there wasn't much untoward happening here. No sex, no debauchery, no shotacon... None of the naughty antics that made Hoshizora kind of fun even when it was being blissfully stupid. Was there any point to all that Ayumu buildup at all, other than simply a reason for some odd humor? Apparently not.

This was certainly a show I could watch with by brain on autopilot, and there's nothing wrong with that. For an anime based on a dating sim there was really very little romance in it, right up until the last couple of eps. At it's best this show was being silly, stupid and innocently filthy. It had a kind of determination to it's weirdness that I really admired. I couldn't have ever told you this was a smart show, but for much of it's run it was an enjoyable one. Every episode was good for a decent combination of laughs and groans.

I only wish Hoshizora had ended as it lived, as a shining beacon of perversity. What will remain in the memory after the show if long gone certainly won't be the half-hearted romance between Kazuma and Ui, but the twisted humor and genuinely baffling tone of the first eight or nine episodes. As if sensing this, the director gives us as a last eyecatch yet another disturbing Ayumu image. If only the rest of the finale had been as disturbing.

Ao no Exorcist - 11

Even in a series with an established proclivity for filler episodes, this one was exceedingly lightweight.

There were some odd things about this ep, starting with the fact that there was really no setup for it at all. It started, and Rin, Izumo and Shima (Kuro, too) were at the beach for reasons that weren't really clear. They were selling squid, there was a teacher there I didn't recognize (is my memory shot?) and some mention of it being a job.

Really, all of this was a setup for the introduction of a young boy named Youhei (Yumiko Kobayashi) who saves a cramping Izumo from drowning. He butts heads with her (literally) and generally acts like a shounen hero, taking a moment to call her cute. Turns out his father was lost at sea six months earlier trying to kill a demonic giant squid that turns the ocean black, ~degeso. Youhei has decided to avenge his father by destroying the beast, and our trio plus cat sidhe decide to keep an eye on him at their teacher's urging. The squid eventually does show up - surprisingly, along with Youhei's father just at the moment Rin is about to make lacrimal out of it. Turns out the squid had a change of heart and proved itself a softie, helping Youhei's Dad find his way home. The teacher says the moral of the story is that demons can have a change of heart, too.


That was certainly odd. There were some pretty humorous moments, especially the bit at the end where Izumo finds out just why Youhei thinks she's cute (and I wonder if there's any significance to the dog being named Shiro). But even by stand-alone episode standards, this was really stands alone. It was odd enough to feel quite discordant with the series as a whole. We'll see if things normalize at all next week, which looks like an amusement park episode ("Go to Hell"?) featuring a lot of Shiemi.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Hanasaku Iroha - 13

The last couple of episodes of HanaIro have been so intense that it really does feel good to have a break from all the romantic tension. While this one was still full of character development and meaningful plot movement, it was certainly slower and more wistful.

For one thing, stepping off the gas pedal allowed me to appreciate once again just how gorgeous the visuals in this show are. PA Works is certainly one of the best in this area and this is as good as they've done in terms of backgrounds. The torii gates, the gardens the small details of the inn itself - it's really remarkable just how beautiful the look of the series is.

The other interesting observation after this week is that I actually like Satsuki now. Sure, she's pretty iffy as a mother and sister, has questionable journalistic ethics and smokes like a chimney. But she's also smart, funny and has some pretty good reasons for the bad blood between she and her mother. Not only that, her ideas for running the inn were actually quite smart. Choice of yukatas, using the local yuzu (yum) in the tea sweets, keeping the baths open to suit the needs of the customer - this is all good stuff. And she showed she was willing to be a slightly bigger person by giving Kissuiso a positive review in the end.

The scenes between the three generations of Shiima women were really wonderful, and, I might add, instigated by Satsuki. It would have been easy enough to go through the motions but she more or less insisted both her daughter and her mother spend time with her. The whole notion of Ohana getting "drunk on soda" is pretty laughable - I guess they just can't show a 16 year-old getting tanked on beer - but their conversation about boys, men and fighting spirit was pretty memorable. As was Grandma getting drunk. That was certainly a new side for her, not least of which admitting that she still dreams of Satsuki taking over the inn. I can't see Satsuki agreeing to that, but it's still pretty touching.

Of course, in the final analysis people are still going to want to talk about Ohana and Kou, so I guess it can't be avoided. Ohana let it slip in her drunken stupor (as if it were ever in doubt) that she was still hung up on Kou, and devastated at being "dumped" (though I don't personally see it that way). She said out loud in the light of day that she still loves him. But the fundamental conundrum remains - she loves being at Kissuiso more than being in Tokyo. She's growing up and can't go back, and that's where he is. So perhaps this really is a Kobayashi Maru situation for Ohana and Kou.

That seems to be the fundamental question overhanging this part of the story. Is it a "subplot" as some have called it, and one that has concluded at that? It's possible, certainly - I predicted two weeks ago that time was Kou's ally, and if the "Ko-Hana" end were to lose out, we would know soon. Alternatively, is this merely a setback, with the story to cover other ground for a bit before Kou comes back into the picture? That's possible too - "Ja ne (So long)" is not the same as "Sayonara". It's just marginal enough to be interpreted either way, which is just how the devilish Ms. Okada wants it.

One definite piece of good news - more Yuina next week.

Deadman Wonderland - 11

With one episode to go, I have absolutely no idea how Manglobe is going to finish this.

11 might have been the busiest episode of all - it seemed as if they crammed about 4 shows worth of development in there. But the finale is going to have to blow it out of the water to have any hope of wrapping up all the loose ends dangling after this week. It was a briskly entertaining episode, at least.

Will these developments offer salve to the Ganta-haters out there? Well, who knows. I'm not one of them to begin with, but at the very least I think it should be acknowledged that he's already way ahead of the pack by admitting he's been too wimpy. Certainly, he feels badly about hitting Shiro (though if he knew...) and he wants to do better, so he does a very wise thing in seeking out Crow. While turned off by the crying habit, Senji does have a grudging respect for Ganta's tenacity and agrees to put him through an accelerated boot camp to dry and develop his own ssssssslice at supersonic speeds to foil the Undertakers.

Into this inspiring scene steps Mockingbird, AKA Toto. It's funny that such a powerful and critical character should have been introduced basically at the end of the series. He's a serious badass despite sounding exactly like crybaby boy Lag Seeing. Heck, even Crow is a little scared of him. And a little freaked out when Mockingbird licks his blood. He makes a point of answering Crow's inquiries by saying he's been "dead for a while" and he's back at the bottom of the totem pole, for strength. Stopping only to shake Ganta's hand (so as to be able to imitate his form later, presumably) he's on his way). So is Ganta, after Genkaku proudly announced the capture of Karako and Shiro, with the intent to gang rape them and then kill them off. With him, Ganta takes his newly found supersonic tiny bullet. Size isn't everything, Ganta.

As usual, Scar Chain has a remarkable talent for getting themselves killed and captured. They may be the most inept resistance movement ever, but Ganta at least has a sense of duty to try and help Shiro. As the rest of the chain gang continues their plan to escape he goes to the Undertakers secret base to try and help Shiro out, reaching it only with Minatsuki's assistance. The spanner in the works is Nagi, who appears to have been turned into a full-out vengeance demon by Genkaku. Shiro appears ready to forgive Ganta, but killer loli Hibana reappears, not dead after all, and knocks her out cold.

So many characters, so many subplots, so little time. We didn't even see Makina this episode, but she's still a variable out there in addition to everything else that's happening. Anime-original or no, how can they possibly tie this thing together in 22 minutes?

Tiger & Bunny - 13

I guess we have out answer about Joker Jake Martinez - doesn't look like he's the top boss after all.

Assuming what appeared to happen actually did, Jake was taken out by the crashing helicopter. That's a neat way to eliminate him without getting cold blood on Barnaby's hands, but it does make me wonder why Barnaby wasn't more upset about the situation. After all, the guy he'd spend his whole life trying to find just died without giving him any insight as to why he killed Barnaby's parents. If I were in his boots, I'd be pretty pissed off.

Kudos to those sharp-eared viewers who caught the fact that Jake called Tiger "Kotetsu" last week, as it turned out to be the key to figuring out his second power. What's interesting about that is that it does appear that Jake actually had two powers - which seems to be a first as far as our heroes are concerned. Kotetsu is always underrated for his smarts, and it was he that figured out the connection. If the name clue wasn't enough, his kick landed because he was unconscious, with no mind to read.

Kotetsu used his hundred power to heal himself so he could go to Barnaby's aid, which is pretty GAR and a neat application of said power. Except it appears that it largely a cosmetic surgery, with his internal injuries still there. He's a tough old dog, our Tiger, and while he seems to have the respect of his fellows he still can't manage to land any credit with the public. Alas, it's Bunny who hogs all the limelight again for taking the kill, and apparently it never occurred to him to tell the adoring press that Tiger was the real hero of the day. For a change, even Tiger had the temerity to be ticked off, but the only other person who got any credit (thanks to Legend Mr. Maverick's keen political sense) was the useless Mayor.

Still, fujoshi everywhere will delight in the fact that Barnaby finally acknowledged Kotetsu himself. Not only did he smile at him, but even called him by his name. Not to mention trusting him about the sonic device. Ironic that the day was saved by Bunny finally trusting Tiger when Tiger was actually lying - but then, it was a pretty clever plan at that. The highlight of the episode for me was probably the brief exchange between Fire Emblem, Blue Rose and Dragon Kid, especially the latter's "I'm sorry - is it because I'm a tomboy?" F.E.'s predictable response and Blue Rose's obvious urge to crack their heads together like Moe Howard revealed a lot about all three characters.

What now? That's the big question, of course. With Jake dead, does Yuri Petrov i.e. Lunatic re-emerge as the big villain? Even more to the point, does the whole story of Barnaby's parents simply go away because their killer is dead? That would be pretty dissatisfying, and I can't imagine it will go that route without even explaining why they were killed, so I think it's a good bet that Ouroboros will continue to serve as the main plot driver and the Brooks' death will be tied up with that. For now, though, it looks as if we may return to the "Hero Slice-of-Life" mode this show does so well for at least a week, with some possible Tiger/Blue Rose development next week.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Columbia Crest "Amitage" - 2008

It would be fair to say that Columbia Crest is a label that doesn't hold a lot of cache with wine experts. CC is about as far from a a boutique as a winemaker can get - it's a behemoth by any standard. But I've always had a soft spot for these Washington wines, which usually provide good QPR if not tons of complexity at the low end. And the 2008 Amitage red blend is one of their best efforts in terms of value.

This one is an interesting blend - 64% Merlot, 19% Syrah, 7% Cabernet Franc, 5.5% Cabernet Sauvignon and 4.5% Malbec. Yes, in addition to a Columbia Crest it's mostly Merlot - but the 5-grape blend adds a surprisingly complex character to this wine. I would describe this one as a hard wine not to like - in fact, I tasted it against several considerably more expensive red blends and actually liked it the best. Why? Well, for starters it has wonderful fruit - blackberry and currant most prominent for me - but a nice minty note, a little pepper and a really lovely nose of violets.

At 13.5% this is an easy-drinking everyday red in every way. Perhaps it isn't the most challenging wine out there, but I think anyone who drinks red wine regularly - including the real snobs - would be hard-pressed not to like it. While soft, it even has a little tannic structure at the backbone and I think it will hold up nicely to modestly seasoned red-meat dishes. I paid $6.50 per bottle at BevMo's "5-cent Sale", and at the price it's a true bargain.

Amagami SS - OVA (Haruka, Kaoru, Sae)

Gods, I love this bad girl...

The series that just won't die is back with another OVA, this one featuring the first three heroines (and the crazed stalker).

Anyone who read my posts on this series knows that Haruka is by far and away my favorite character, and any excuse to see her again is a good one. As usual, her part of the story is the best one. She's such a naughty girl - I adore the glee she takes in making Junichi squirm. It's not hard to notice that a lot of their kinky scenes together involve food - the ramen one being the most memorable - and this short is no exception. Haruka's decision to park herself between his legs while Kaoru delivered the parfait was perfectly in character.

Thing is, I think it's not just that Haruka is the best heroine but that Junichi is at his best when she's the foil. He plays the puppy well, but don't kid yourself - he enjoys the sexual hijinks between them every bit as much as she does, and he plays up the role to his maximum benefit. As we all know one of the things that made Amagami interesting is that Junichi's characterization changed in each of the arcs, and he and Haruka are great together.

The other two 5-minute shorts are eminently forgettable. Kaoru is OK, but never makes any kind of an impression on me - she's one of the least interesting osananajimi I can remember. And Sae, with her squeaky voice, is so resolutely not a worthy subject for romantic comedy that every scene between she and Junichi is awkward at best. Probably the most interesting part of these shorts was seeing the crazed stalker Risa pop up in each one, no doubt trying to decide whether she should kill Junichi or the girl first...

Hyouge Mono - 5

I confess it's been so long since I last watched an episode of Hyouge Mono that I had to go back and review the events of the last one. In the interim, the guitarist of Cro-Magnon, the band responsible for the wonderful OP, was arrested for marijuana possession and the song was dropped from the anime. Why the Japanese are so obsessed with pot I have no idea.

As for the anime itself, well, it's still great. What a masterpiece of subtle dialogue and intricate plotting (both by the writers and the characters). On the giant chessboard of Sengoku era politics and warfare all of these men have their part, with the specter of Oda Nobunaga casting a giant shadow across all the other pieces. And even pawns like Sosuke can have their dreams of greatness.

The focus of this episode - and increasingly, the series - is on Hideyoshi and his careful rise to power. Sosuke is a useful tool and a curiosity to him, but his thoughts are primarily with Akechi Mitsuhide, his greatest rival. The tea master Senno has already confessed his desire to see Hideyoshi rise to power, fearing a rise of a gaudy sensibility should Oda rule the land and seeing a more sympathetic sensibility in the monkey-eared commoner. This is treason, of course, yet Hideyoshi does undeniably desire power desperately.

The lengths to which he's willing to go to get it are illustrated by a pair of stunning events. The first is his ruthless slaying of two soldiers for the simple reason that one of them remarked that the masked samurai leaving their military camp looked like Senno. The other comes as part of one of the most astonishing scenes you'll ever see - a quiet conversation between Hideyoshi and Mitsuhide at the latter's estate. Hideyoshi's goal of course, is to test Mitsuhide's loyalty to Oda and potential willingness to rebel against him. Their verbal dance is exquisite - Hideyoshi testing his rival with agonized fretting over the fate of their clans should Oda rule the land, and the two men competing to describe the other as least-praised and most disdained by Oda. Hideyoshi breaks down in tears, proclaiming his weariness, desire to live as a tea brewer and serve a noble spirit like Mitsuhide.

The twist comes in the revelation that Hideyoshi had secretly cut himself with a knife to bring forth those tears. As well, a wrench is thrown into his plans when the gift of a "masterpiece" he gives to Mitsuhide - a tea scoop that was one of eight masterpieces given to him by Oda as a reward - had been switched out by Sosuke for a worthless one of his own crafting. Sosuke assumed Hideyoshi's rough eye would never tell the difference, but the refined Mitushide spots the difference immediately. One can only guess what this perceived slight by Hideyoshi will be interpreted as meaning.

The episode concludes with Sosuke musing over his modest collection of treasures - including a silver cross gifted to him by his Christian Brother-in-Law, the nature of which is of no interest to him other than its shape - and dreaming of rising in Oda's esteem so that he can acquire more. Yes, he's an aesthete - but he craves power too. What is the aesthetic of a man willing to do anything necessary to possess beauty as his very own? An interesting question. Physically aroused at the thought of gaining power, Sosuke seeks out his wife, leaving us with another reminder of just how different this series is than any anime you've ever seen.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Gosick - 23

Wow. That was really something else.

It's pretty damn rare to see a series step up in weight class so close to the end, but BONES has done something special here. All of the lame mysteries and pacing errors of earlier on have faded into distant memory - with this episode, Gosick has established itself as a force to be reckoned with. That was as good an ep as any I've seen this year from a show not written by Mari Okada (edit: Kaoru Chujo informs me this ep was written by Mari. Sigh...). If indeed we're headed for an anime-original ending, they surely seem to be on track for a good one.

What's clearly established is that we're looking at an alternative history timeline here. Though it's but 1925, Germany is already acting in Poland and gearing up for a major war in Europe (a practical impossibility in our timeline, but that's not really the point). Where many of the earlier mysteries struggled at smoothly weaving the pieces of cloth, they were but the prelude - this last one has fit them together like a master builder. All of the developments surrounding the core cast have led us inexorably to this moment, and none of them were wasted. Nice work, BONES. Hard to believe this is the same director (Hitoshi Nanba) as the thoroughly average Heroman.

The details of Albert de Blois' plan have become clear, and it plays out as it's been building up. He has the memento box to discredit Jupiter Roget, who appears to have King Rupert's ear as head of the Science Ministry. He's pushing for peace, but de Blois has other plans. In the Spring of 1925 he plays his first trump card - just as the King is proclaiming Saubere's commitment to peace, Blois exposes Roget, who flees in disgrace. Blois has a different idea for Saubere - ally itself with Germany and go to war for glory and riches. Not only that, but he has the other trump card his Monstre Charmant unearthed for him - when Rupert wavers at sending thousands of his own citizens to die, Blois blackmails him by revealing that he knows the truth of Blue Rose (the fake one, anyway) and her death. Not only does Rupert accede to Blois' war plans, he agrees to appoint him Prime Minister - a success Blois intends to celebrate with an ostentatious ceremony featuring none other than his Monstre Charmant.

Blois has been vile from the beginning, but he's really stamping himself as one of the evilest villains of the anime year. He raped and imprisoned Cordelia, then stole her baby and abandoned her. His treatment of Victorique is well known to viewers, but his sadism towards her is only now becoming clear - the biting scene being one of the most uncomfortable of the season. Against this backdrop is the plight of the man I expected all along to be the fulcrum of events at the very end, Grevil. With no pretense to be anything but a tool of the Occult Ministry, he carries out his father's orders as a dutiful subordinate and heir. But inside, he's obviously dismayed by the way Victorique is being treated. He'll be tested severely in the end, this one - and I suspect how he fares will have a major impact on the way things end up.

Meanwhile, poor Kujo has been stashed by Blois in the army, in the North. A risky move, as he's presumably a better hostage for Victorique's cooperation alive than dead - though she would have no obvious way to tell - and it's unclear to me whether he's in Saubere's army or back in Japan. As Victorique grimly holds onto his pendant as a symbol of hope, Kujo endures bad haircuts, terrible beatings and bitter cold by grasping Victorique's ring with all his might. He's 15 and in the army of a nation preparing for war - possibly that of a nation not even his own. It's hard to say whose position is actually worse, his or Victorique's.

The shocking wild card of the episode comes as the Brians and Cordelia spring into action. Blois appears to have it all - his rival vanquished, his King hopelessly under his thumb, a nation full of Monstre Charmant otaku acting as his "homonculi". One Brian manages to sneak Cordelia into the Ministry where she switches places with Victorique, who escapes with the other (he calls him "my other half" but I'll assume they're twins until told otherwise). As Cordelia disrupts Blois' ceremony and reveals her identity, Brian #2 unleashes a rain of fire and systematically guns down the homonculi in the audience as Cordelia and Albert have their final battle. Brian is stabbed by one of Blois' killer nuns, Coredelia stabs Albert but is stabbed by a nun, and on a distant road Brian #1 prepared to kill Victorique - whom he passionately hates for giving Cordelia such a heavy heart that she would sacrifice herself...

Oh, my - what a blockbuster that was. Can the finale possibly live up to it? Well, we have two huge stories playing out against each other here - the march to war and the personal drama of Victorique and Kujo. Is it too late to stop the machinery of death - even if Blois is in fact dead, which I doubt? As huge as that is, of course the main question is whether or not Victorique and Kujo will find each other - and stay together. The storm the old wolf predicted has certainly come, and confounded our guesses by doing so 14 years early. Without a doubt this has been the best romance of 2011 in anime - I've already waxed poetic on why and I won't bore you by doing it again. I sincerely hope these two do end up together, because they deserve it. Gosick has pretty much come down to a straight up good and evil story in the end - will good prevail, both on the global stage and on the personal?

It doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that.

- Rick Blaine, "Casablanca"

C: The Money of Soul and Possibility Control - Series Review

I've already gone on ad nauseum about the interesting trend that seems to have developed with NoitaminA. Just about every season seems to have one heart-warming emotional series and one intellectual, sci-fi/fantasy based series. Every season has one show that attacks the problem of the 11-episode format with a targeted, disciplined plan and one that founder by trying to do far too much and ends up accomplishing far too little. It isn't hard to guess where C falls this season.

Director Kenji Nakamura is an industry heavyweight, always capable of coming up with the big idea and an unsettling final product. The premise of this one had elements of Philip K. Dick - a kind of paranoid future world where a shadow society of high-rollers was toying with the fate of the world through secret financial dealings. Yes, the symbolism here is pretty easy to spot. It's a good conceit, and it started out as something that was intellectually engaging, even if it struggled to connect emotionally.

Unfortunately, things started to unravel somewhere around the midway point (along with the animation quality) and the show never really recovered. There certainly haven't been many series about global economics and this one sparked a very interesting and lively discussion. The basic dilemma of the premise - mortgaging the future to stave off disaster in the present - is pretty thinly veiled political commentary, but at least it's a statement, a representation of a belief in something. But it became clear that while this was a series that wanted to try and illuminate the dangers of the global debt economy, it didn't really have any answers. After trying to set itself up as a serious social commentary, it resorted to a pretty standard series of devices to resolve the plot.

C also struggled to balance the character dynamics and the massively bloated amount of plot it burdened itself with. Individually several major character arcs were involving and interesting - Mikuni and his sister, Kimimaro's teacher, everything involving Mashu. Kimimaro himself wasn't especially engaging - more of a flat and inscrutable presence than anything else much of the time - but not so much of a liability that he was an anchor dragging the show down. But the uneven nature of the pacing and direction robbed these character arcs of some of the drama they might have had in a better series.

The best thing about the show? Anything involving Mashu, as wonderfully portrayed by Haruka Tomatsu (who really shone this NoitaminA block). She was funny, cute, interesting and original. In fact, her impatience with Kimimaro and "get to the point" attitude sort of echoed my own frustrations with the show as a whole sometimes, almost as if she were speaking for me. In the end she too was denied a worthy conclusion - she got her open-mouth kiss, but her role above and beyond that of the asset was never really explained. OK, so she represented Kimimaro's future - but how, exactly? What does that mean - was she his future daughter, wife? He was at his best when on-screen with her - they were a funny and liable couple. But the lack of real closure for them is just another frustration with this series.

Finally, I think C stands as a well-intentioned miss - a very good idea with mediocre execution. As with Frctale, the demands of the timeslot seemed to be too much for it despite the presence of an excellent director. It asked interesting questions, but didn't really try to answer them. It hatched good character stories, but never found a way to weave them into a cohesive whole. It presented interesting and striking images, but but struggled with budgetary issues which led to spotty animation and short-cutting. I respect noble failures much more than unambitious ones, and I'm glad I watched the series. I just don't think it will stand the test of time and emerge as a successful and important work.

C: The Money of Soul and Possibility Control - 11 (End)

To my perception, C has pretty much been lost and foundering for a while now. So it really didn't come as a great surprise or disappointment that the finale had a sort of spent quality to it, as if the opportunity for a real dramatic payoff was already gone, but the effort had to be made anyway.

We all know the 11-episode format is a tough one, and there's been an improvisational feel to the last several episodes. I think Kenji Nakamura had a big idea that he wanted to express, but the details have proved to be problematic. At the very least we seemed to have an interesting conundrum as the finale started: how can there be a present without a future, and what good is a future without a present? Both Kimimaro's and Mikuni's ways seemed to be in error.

Cost Effective
Unfortunately, the resolution seems to gave pretty much been a cop out, though I'll freely admit the last couple of eps were confusing enough that I can't be sure. Apparently, by totally devaluing the yen, Kimimaro's plan managed to make the C wave pass over Japan unscathed - thus freeing him to use his darkness card to reverse the rotary press and buy back the future. Huh? That seems remarkably convenient to me, but I suppose there was no other way out of the box the show had written itself into. What's left is a Japan that uses the dollar, where Hanabi is a teacher who apparently doesn't know Kimimaro, and the professor has his wife and kids back. Easy, peasy.

Inside the FiDi, of course, things are crashing down all around as the collapse of the yen means the end for the Japanese FiDi. The conclusive battle between Kimimaro and Mikuni was fairly dramatic, though the switch to pencil sketches was a transparent budget saver that added nothing creatively. Obviously Kimimaro was going to win, and he did - but Mashu was still just as doomed as Q. That's a shame, as she (and Haruka Tomatsu) was the best thing about this series. As Q removed all doubts by actually turning into Mikuni's sister Takako, Mashu got busy and made sure she didn't die a kiss virgin, giving Kimimaro a big one on the lips before she too disappeared. We never did find out just what or who represented from Kimimaro's future, but it was said to see her go.

I like most of the characters here and I really wanted to feel connected as the series closed, but things were so chaotic and rushed that it was hard to care all that much. If I'm not mistaken Satou is alive after all, though that doesn't seem to make much sense after last week. Masakaki appears to Kimimaro on his park bench and implies that the FiDi will return at some point in the future. Mikuni says he's "staying in today forever". And what becomes of Kimimaro? Well, I guess it's hard to say. Mashu is gone (was she his future daughter?), Hanabi seems not to know him in this world, and presumably he's just a poor college student again.

And that's that - not with a bang but a whimper. So much of that was random - the insert song was supposed to be poignant, I suppose, but it was sort of a discordant not in the episode. It's too bad, but for me this finale didn't really make much of an impact either emotionally or intellectually. It's possible I'm just burned-out after the intensity of AnoHana's final episode, and there's no denying this one pales by comparison. But even the interesting philosophical and economic musings the series sometime used successfully were fairly punchless in the last episode. A good try, but for me this was a forgettable end to a forgettable series.