Tuesday, December 22, 2015

[Anime] The Perfect Insider Review

Subete ga F ni Naru: The Perfect Insider - 6.5/10

"The Perfect Insider" is an anime that is unintentionally self-referential: just like Dr. Magata, it also suffers from multiple personality disorder.  It wants dearly to be a profound metaphysical series while still staying rooted in the practical intrigues of a murder mystery.  Unfortunately, it comes up short on insights, which in turn hurts what otherwise would have been a perfectly good thriller.

In order to understand what the Perfect Insider is attempting to do philosophically, some explanation is necessary.  The story centers on a group of software engineers: Saikawa the reserved professor, Nishinosono his enamored student, and Magata Shiki the unfathomable genius.  Watching the ED you will see that it draws heavily on the imagery of  Conway's Game of Life, which is a program that digitally recreates complex, evolving patterns from simple rules.  This has garnered some interest in the intellectual community.  Some mathematicians, namely Wolfram, have gone so far as to say that this could represent a new way of understanding the world.

The idea then is that these software engineers are, in a sense, plumbing new views of reality in their research.  Dr. Magata is the pinnacle of this detachment from normal reality.  She is reminiscent of the uberman idea, that morals and social trappings are merely fetters for those who are truly profound.  She has committed some acts which are considered unconscionable: sleeping with her married uncle, murdering her parents, and using her daughter's mutilated body as a decoy for her escape.  On top of this, she is additionally removed as she has "taken in" what she valued from the outer reality in the form of her multiple personalities, with each one representing something she lost on the "outside."  And finally, she has cut herself off from for 15 years and has even invented a virtual reality chamber to allow the inner world to be projected as though it were the real one.

However, this is also where the series falters.  The process of revealing Magata's background and inner workings is interesting in itself, and along with the mystery could stand alone as a compelling anime.  But then it tries to take one step further by trying to be just a bit too clever, giving contradictory indications as to what it is trying to express.  On one hand it holds up Saikawa and Magata as unfathomable beings, lost in their deep and moving thoughts.  On the other, it has Nishinosono acting as a normal social anchor and the explanation of how Saikawa supported and raised her in her worst times shows how important normal human morality is. Unfortunately I could not detect any indications that it was using this as a subtle conflict, and so was left simply dissatisfied that it ruined a perfectly good mystery with its quibbling.

The Good: The actual, honest-to-goodness mystery at the core of its real world story.  I was really interested to find out what had happened in the past and what was actually happening at the laboratory.  I really think this was the strongest aspect of the series and it's what kept me watching every week.

The execution of more sensitive scenes and topics were also very tastefully handled.  Magata is a minor and basically seduces her uncle.  This has the potential to be a very disgusting topic, but the way the narration is done, how it stays far away from any visual depiction, and the general way that it treats the scene as fundamentally negative keeps it from being any sort of voyeurism.  The same applies to the murders.  They are scenes of horror and confusion, not excitement.  All in all, it managed to have a very dark story in places without using the topics to get cheap views.

To support its story, the art is also top notch with its design and pallet.  The style is, for lack of a better word, antiseptic.  If you pay attention you'll notice that everything looks an unearthly level of clean, as though it's not entirely real.  This supports the general themes that I mentioned above, and overall gives an eerie atmosphere that is perfect for both a philosophical and mystery piece.

Finally the OP and ED were both great and I watched them nearly every time.  They were visually very appealing while at the same time connected firmly with the themes and feel of the series.  As somebody pointed out, in the OP they can never actually touch Magata unless she lets them.  Otherwise she is always elusive.

The Bad: As already mentioned, the biggest issue I took with the series was its attempts at being profound.  In particular some of the final statements made really got to me:

In the last episode, Magata has a philosophical chat with Saikawa and has several statements that were just painful.  The one that really got to me was her statement, "Nobody fears death, just the life and suffering before death."  No, I'm sorry, that's entirely and completely off base.  In fact, if anything a crushing sense of mortality is what scares most people into never thinking about it.  I mean, perhaps Magata is expressing a truth for herself because she is so alien, but she was such a poor observer of humanity (she was locked up for 15 years...) that it made me cringe.

Perhaps it's the biologist in me, but in this day and age I consider any speculation on the nature of humans to require an understanding of and reference to evolution and biology.  They don't explain and account for everything about humans (I'm not a reductionist), but the time for baseless speculation of this sort without science has passed.

What is worse is that in order to make room for some of these musings, the series had to cut short some of its story elements.  Basically we're presented with some of the pivotal story realizations in the forms of flashes or Saikawa staring blankly into space while essentially spanning what were plot holes for the audience.  The scene that got to me was when Saikawa finally figures out that the daughter was brought inside with Magata.  Rather than any sort of reasonable cues as to what he understood, we're treated to a deluge of visual images that would confuse even Picasso.  Apparently the image of ostriches represents that ostrich meat is considered good for mothers, but the fact that I had to go research this to even make sense kind of ruins the impact.  A little more time spent spelling out the steps for the rest of us would have gone a long way to improving the story from a practical stand point.

Finally, I found Nishinosono Moe completely insufferable as a character.  I'm not necessarily saying she was a bad character, but the fact that she went into super-possessive mode of Saikawa every time another female so much as entered the room got really old.  The truth is that she didn't understand him in the slightest the entire time, and the fact that she keeps trying to aggressively foist herself on him romantically was painful.  I contemplated that maybe she was important to the series for some reason, perhaps acting as a foil to the more ethereal characters, but in the end I just couldn't make myself appreciate her.

So in conclusion, The Perfect Insider aimed high with its blend of interesting story and philosophical introspection, but became tangled in its own "complexity" and found itself a bit lost.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

[Anime] Death Parade Review

Death Parade - 7.5/10

Parade (noun): a procession of people, often in costume, celebrating a special day or event.

Death Parade is a cavalcade of people whose time has come, usually in an unexpected manner.  So shocked are they at the transition that they have forgotten that they are dead, and so they continue to put on their usual face (farce?) until they are apprehended by the inescapable truth of their demise.  It is the purpose of arbiters to prompt and observe this transition, using it as the basis on which to judge the nature of the person.

At its core, Death Parade asks what constitutes a good person and a meaningful life, using the clarity of death to expose people to their essence.  The series begins in a fairly straightforward way, with it being assumed that a good life is one which results in reincarnation and a bad one the void.  However, cracks begin to appear in this narrative almost immediately.  The verdicts rendered often seem strange...misplaced.  What becomes apparent is the judgments of the arbiters are, in fact, flawed.  Or, more precisely, perhaps the very idea of judgment is flawed.

This is where the series comes into its own, with the dawning realization of the conundrum of Quindecim: how is it that judges, lacking empathy, can fully comprehend the nature of the people whose fates they are deciding?  And, more deeply, is judgement even possible after having truly felt as another?

The Good: 

The stories of the people who come into Quindecim.  The way in which the layers are peeled back, exposing people's loves, desires, fears, and hopes is what makes the series tick.  It is the concreteness of the individuals that allows Death Parade to pursue its central themes so effectively.  To merely state that judgement is flawed is one thing.  To see desperate, confused humans struggle against their own weaknesses and mixed motives, is another.  This brings me to what are two of the most diametrically opposed, yet equally powerful, scenes in any anime: the judgement of the murderers and Chiyuki's ice skating.

At the end of episode 9 it has become apparent that the murderers are entirely different.  On one hand is a kind brother who was driven to rage and violence by the assault and rape of his beloved little sister.  With the other is a man who is dedicated to the eradication of evil, but at the cost of allowing it to occur so that he may justify striking them down.  Goaded beyond restraint the brother gives in to his darkness and inflicts heinous suffering on the older man, in vengeance for his inaction.  The sad episode ends with Decim overwhelmed by the evil he has produced, sending both to the void.

By comparison, Chiyuki's ice skating scene is sublime.  A beautiful, wordless review of her life and a potent reminder of its waste.  Set to the lush Moonlight Night, I have found myself on more than one occasion rewatching this scene just to dip into its poignant tranquility.  It is a reminder of how much love went into just one person's short life.

Supporting all these events, the art of Death Parade is on point.  The design of Quindecim is elegant, with its muted ambiance and cool colors falling away into the darkness.  Combined with the silent jellyfish above, it generates a sense of the otherworldly.  The smooth musical score also adds to the calm background.  Also as an outlier, the opening song is incongruous yet extraordinarily catchy; I can't hate it even while feeling it is such a mismatch with the rest of the series.

Finally, as I close out this segment, I would like to make mention of miscellaneous touches that I personally enjoyed:

  • Chiyuki's "skin" first comes off at the wrist where she cut herself.  Later as she further degrades it is from the knee, where the wound that precipitated her death was located.
  • The visual designs of Nona and the young Chiyuki were particularly enjoyable for me.  The former was diminutive yet imposing, an appropriate stature for her role.  The latter was simply adorable.  When she said her favorite part about Chavvot was her smile, and then mimicked it with her own big grin, was really sweet.
  • Spike and Yagami Light making cameos was pretty funny, and both extremely appropriate for their respective series.
  • Chiyuki's name means "knowing happiness."  I love that.

The Bad:

Death Parade, for all its grandeur, often stumbles when it comes to the details of its execution.  In particular, the depiction of Quindecim and its inhabitants.

Quindecim is part of an overall apparatus for judgement, which has various departments, overseers, a bureaucracy, and all the trappings that come with a government agency.  This peculiarly Eastern view of the afterlife never sits right with me, because it clearly moves beyond metaphor into a quasi-literal interpretation.  In Death Parade we are given just enough details that the setting is concrete, but with many loose ends that it is insubstantial with many dangling issues.  The most egregious of these is Oculus' comment that God has since departed to leave the running of things to him and the other arbiters.  Wait!  What was that again?!?  This may be slightly important...and it is never touched on again.

Speaking of Oculus, he is a prime example of the type of addition the series did not need.  Quin, Nona, Ginti, and the rest are fine characters in their own right, but are ultimately a detraction simply because they take time and focus away from the better elements.  Their own stories and interactions are just not that important compared to the real people.

Finally, an issue that stuck with me from my particular translation was that the arbiters were continually referred to as having no emotion.  Their depiction was entirely incongruous with this statement.  They display exhaustion, anger, frustration, disillusionment, boredom, and even sadism.  Perhaps this was a translation error, but it was one that nagged at me the entire time.

Even with all these problems taken into consideration, I still give Death Parade the highest recommendation.  It is extraordinarily powerful and moving when it is at its best.  It will make you think over your life and, if you are receptive, remind you not to take its wondrous confusion for granted.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

[Anime] Your Lie In April Review

Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso (Your Lie In April) - 4/10

"It was only a hopeless fancy
It passed like an April dye
But a look and a word and the dreams they stirred
They have stolen my heart away"
-George Orwell, 1984

"Shigatsu" is a saccharine middle school drama, centered on the recovery of the Kousei Arima's will and ability to play the piano.  I was drawn in initially by the promise of good music and the setting of two people connecting and helping each other through their passions.  However, what starts as an intriguing premise becomes an excuse to wallow in adolescent monologues and sentimentality.

Before beginning the review in earnest, a discussion on the difference between good and bad sentiment is in order.  All series aim to make us feel something.  To accuse a work of trying to manipulate feelings is to point out the obvious, and we are rightfully disappointed when it fails to do so.  We pay good money for this experience.  The difference is in the intent of the manipulation.

A good series has content that causes the viewer to feel something because of its meaning or impact.  It is confronting a situation which is emotionally evocative, either positively or negatively.  It is legitimately trying to do or say something with regards to its subject.  If executed well, the viewer responds emotionally to the creation.  By comparison, if a series' primary objective is to make its viewers feel, rather than be substantial, then its emotional content is meaningless.  It is put on for show in an attempt to fish for the reaction, but the content is insubstantial.  It's the equivalent of an artificial sweetener: there are no actual calories, but it tastes (mostly) like the real thing.

While I get ahead of myself for "The Bad," I found that Shigatsu fell into the latter category.  It took a collection of emotionally-charged subjects (young life, romance, spring/awakening, music, and sick/dying children) and packaged them together in hopes of getting some easy tears.  This was the inspiration for this review's quote.  In 1984 there is a segment where Winston is visiting the entertainment wing of the Ministry of Truth, and he comes on the music department:

"Here were produced...sentimental songs which were composed entirely by mechanical means on a special kind of kaleidoscope known as a versificator."

In other words, a list of emotional words and phrases are thrown together in a tumbler and the order that they fall out is used to create a song.  Shigatsu has all the earmarks of being produced in an equivalent human fashion: "hopeless fancy," "April dye" (spring rain), "dreams they stirred," and "stolen my heart" sum up much of the anime.  It lacks any real substance, but it's enough to trigger emotions and get the results it wants.

I loved these stills.
The Good:
The production quality of this series was superb.  The colors were very soft but vibrant, giving a gentle look to the visuals.  The backgrounds in particular struck me, as they seemed to stray into an almost pastel range with their presentation.  Character design was also very pleasant.  What impressed me the most was how effective the incorporation of small amounts of color into their cheeks and lips made them feel more alive than most anime characters.

The atmosphere is also supported strongly by the music (which, frankly, it would be an embarrassment if a series like Shigatsu had bad music).  Both the pieces composed for the series itself as well as the classical arrangements played by the characters are well-chosen, and run the range from discordant frustration to serene sadness.  Even as somebody who is not particularly musical I could appreciate the attention given to this facet of the show.

While I was unimpressed by most of the characters, one did stand out to me: Saki, Kousei's mother.  This may seem strange, but for the first half of the series I found her the most compelling.  Saki was a person at the end of her rope.  She was clearly somebody who was always ambitious and in control.  When sickness took her, there was nothing she could do except wither slowly until she died.  In the grip of this, she turned all of her remaining attention to the one thing she could control: her child.  Devolving into an abusive relationship, she pushed him relentlessly as an extension of herself.  By the end she was deranged, and through the sad psychology of abuse her child was manipulated into feeling that he was at fault for things that were never under anybody's control.

Sadly, they completely ruined her character around the halfway point.  In order for Kousei to come to terms with his abuse the series attempts to explain away Saki's behavior.  It turns exclusively to remembering the early days, before she began her long descent.  Using this, it justifies Saki in the light that she simply wanted her child to be the best and that the beatings and emotional torment were only a little excessive.  This is an insulting resolution, glossing over the real damage she did to her child in favor of an easy fix.

I was similarly excited-then-disappointed by the scene in the hospital where Kaori loses her composure.  She lashes out at Kousei, blaming and berating him.  In that moment she mirrored Kousei's mother more strongly than ever.  I hoped that perhaps they would connect the two more firmly: that Kaori's childish forcefulness and selfishness, her impulsive behavior, and her erratic violence were actually natural precursors to somebody like Saki.  That perhaps there is a dark side to living your life on the whim of your feelings.  But then this parallel never manifested itself and the show swiftly moved on.

Finally, I am a sucker for good death scenes, and Kaori's final moments were indeed excellent.  It was a very sweet last duet to have her spiritually playing alongside Kousei, knowing what this meant for her surgery elsewhere.  That the series decided to skip the actual funeral scene would have been brilliant, by making sure the final impression of her was so glowing.  Unfortunately, the gains made by this move were completely lost by the over-the-top 10-minute letter reading at the end.

Dead giveaway what was going to happen.
The Bad: 
I have already thoroughly covered the cardinal sin of the series: that it is suffused with purposeless feeling.  However, there are several other aspects which sink the series into mediocrity.

First is its total inability to keep an even tone.  It raised the art of bathos to such heights that I could only be impressed.  Any serious interaction, if extending for longer than ten seconds, was promptly interrupted by what can only be described as "anime outtake" mode.  If this was a subtle attempt to mirror the rapidly vacillating emotions of its subjects, it was lost on me and served instead to ruin the mood.  There were many satisfactory scenes that became a hash of incompatible impulses under such direction.

Paralleling this, many of the performance scenes were also disrupted by the injection of excessive introspection.  In that moment of performance, all of one's attention turns to the task at hand.  It is a moment of flow.  At that time, conscious thinking actually decreases.  The immediateness of the experience is produced by a reduction in our thoughtfulness.  For the moment at least, we are in the here and now.  It is totally incompatible with "deep" musings about one's self, and the fusion of the two is nonsensical.

The pacing of the series also felt off to me.  It felt like thirteen episodes of content stretched to twenty-two.  The amount of reminiscing and remembering, coupled with frequent flashbacks, padded the series.  This was most egregious where sometimes the flashbacks were of the same episode, now brought back again to lead to another...um...epiphany.  Similarly, while I appreciate Kousei's trauma is real, the scene of him huddling and crying as a child was replayed practically once an episode for the first half of the series.  The introduction of completely unnecessary and unimportant side characters in the latter half of the series also soaked up screen time, extending what was functionally one cour of content into two.

So in conclusion, I had high hopes at the beginning of the series.  The appearance and music drew me in and promised a lush experience.  Unfortunately, its shallow emotional underpinnings and protracted execution destroyed the impact it could have had.

Monday, July 27, 2015

[Anime] Gunslinger Girl Review

Gunslinger Girl - 10/10

The first impression one might have of Gunslinger Girl is that it is another "cute girls with guns" show. The name does not help the series any either, as it sounds cavalier in its use of violence. When I first watched it a few years ago I was not expecting much, but thirteen episodes later it had impressed me more than any series has before or since.

Gunslinger Girl is not an action series, but a drama without plot. The structure is primarily episodic, focusing on each of the individual girls in the organization, along with their "handlers" and back stories. But this does not describe its true purpose. It is profoundly sad, but the sadness is muted.  It isn't about what happens in the series, but the fact that it can happen.  At the core is a desperate questioning of how the world can be so distinctly wrong. The phrase that comes to mind is a title somebody used for an AMV: Expendable Innocence. Nothing cuts to the core better than that epithet.

"I am very happy to be here at the Social Welfare Corporation..."
The essence of the conditioning is what is most perverse.  The girls are stripped of much of their humanity so they may kill, but left with enough to suffer.  Referred to generically as "brainwashing," observing it in action makes it clear what it is. These girls have had their fundamental need to be loved and appreciated turned to the ends of the organization. This is why it works best on children: it is a deformation of the most basic child-parent bond.  For the entire series you can see them desperately seeking the attention and approval of their handlers, and everything in their world is distorted for it. The scene that hit home the most for me was Angelica's trainer watching her on her first mission: she moves through the targets, killing them in rapid succession, then turns to the observation camera with an innocent smile, as if to ask, "Did I do a good job?"

However, it is the final episode that makes the series whole.  For humans, the essence of spirituality is connectedness.  We experience a vibrancy of our being when we feel fundamentally linked to something else, whether this be a higher power, the universe, or other people.  In a sense they all mirror each other.

As the series comes to a close, Angelica dies.  It is a tragedy, but it is not unmitigated.  She has suffered so much, but as she leaves this world she is cared for, appreciated.  Her affection, so long unrequited, has finally been returned in these last moments.  I know it is taboo to use such a word on the internet, but "spiritual" is the only proper description.  It can be said that this does not fix anything, but that is missing the point.

The Good:
The visual design is subtle and exquisitely matches the tone of the show.  The color pallet is subdued, but not dark.  Instead, there is always light, coming from elsewhere, seeming to suffuse through the world.  This approach also acts to heighten the shadows, often creating strong visual cues throughout the series.  This low-key, unextravagant approach is reciprocated by the appearance of the characters.  The girls in particular are well-designed: young, vulnerable, but not "cutesy."  Matching these visuals, the direction of the series is to a slower pace, giving us time to think.  Many situations pass silently, the shots slowly shifting across the scene, lingering on single people or objects.  It is, in a word, contemplative.

Further complimenting this design, the series places great stock in the accuracy of its world.  Scenes take place in well-established locations, such as the Uffizi Gallery, the Spanish Steps, and the Apennine Mountains.  There is also a curiously high level of detail given to the weapons and their technique, which are exceedingly accurate despite being employed by young girls.

Another thing Gunslinger Girl is to be commended on is its restraint.  In a series which features abuse, rape, human trafficking, and the suicide of a child, it stays above utilizing them for vulgar shock value.  What has happened to these girls is something nobody ever needs to see.

"If you ordered her to practice last night, she should still be there."

The musical score of Gunslinger Girl also deserves mention.  Starting off is the OP of the series, set to the haunting, "The Light Before We Land."  Matched with the meaningful visuals and simple introduction of the characters, it is one of the few openings that I never skipped while watching.

Beyond this the series possesses a melancholy Western-sounding classical score, which fits perfectly with the Italian setting.  The score is not just beautiful, but it is applied with great poignancy.  The main theme, Tema I, is sorrowful and captures a powerful loneliness and grandness in its notes.  Another of my personal favorites is Etereo, played when irreparable damage is being done: the training of Henrietta and the dismissal of Elsa.  The confusion comes pouring through in the disjointed notes, fading slowly into a quiet end and a dark last chord.

Finally, Gunslinger Girl ends with Beethoven's Ninth, a song that like "Light Before We Land" is not written for the series but finds exquisite application.  I would like to end this section with a translated section of the lyrics, sung as Angelica dies:

Joy, beautiful spark of divinity
Daughter from Elysium
We enter, drunk with fire,
Into your sanctuary, heavenly (daughter)!
Your magic reunites
What custom strictly divided.
All men become brothers,
Where your gentle wing rests.

The Bad: 
I find no major faults with Gunslinger Girl as a series, aside from the occasional drop in visual quality.  However, I do feel compelled to mention that the anime is slow. It is very slow. In fact the first two episodes are the same day, repeating much of the same content. This can be particularly off-putting for many people. This is doubly bad if the show doesn't really "click" with the watcher, because many of the scenes have no explanation. An example that comes to mind is the moment when Henrietta watches the couple ride past on the motorbike. She doesn't say anything, they don't explain anything; we just track her gaze. But in the context it's her mind obviously trying to understand that existence, as it is so far outside of her. I found it a poignant moment, but it and many others can slip by easily. So I highly recommend that if the show isn't clicking to just drop it, because it won't "get better."

The other thing I must mention is the existence of a second season, which I would normally not mention because it's terrible. Studio changed, VAs changed, tone changed, theme changed, everything changed. Even worse, Angelica doesn't die according to the second season. This is such a horrible mangling of the first season's ending, robbing it of the power that it has. I just pretend it doesn't exist.

Gunslinger Girl is a series that is deeply resonant, subtle, tragic, and beautiful.  It is my recommendation that every thoughtful person take the time to view it.

[Anime] Gankutsuou Review

Gankutsuou - The Count of Monte Cristo - 8/10

"Moral wounds have this peculiarity - they may be hidden, but they never close; always painful, always ready to bleed when touched, they remain fresh and open in the heart." - The Count of Monte Cristo

Gankutsuou is the science-fiction reincarnation of The Count of Monte Cristo.  While it borrows much of its substance from the original there are significant changes to the plot, focus, and pacing. As somebody who enjoyed the original, I found that most of their alterations worked surprisingly well.  However, there were some liberties that I did disagree with and I feel made the series worse for their inclusion.

When reviewing this series I attempted to keep the original and the anime separate, but frankly I failed.  I now know how manga readers feel, continually comparing the fidelity of every character and scene.  Below, "The Bad" is principally devoted to the juxtaposition of the two, although I will endeavor to substantiate why I feel the changes were negative rather than simply being disgruntled that they were not identical.

The Good:

Just as in the source material, the Count is the dynamic center of the series.  It's hard to go wrong with such an intriguing character, and he made the transition well.  He is foreboding, charismatic, impressive, terrifying, commanding, mysterious, generous, and dangerous.  Riveting in the original, he continues his dominance into the anime as well.  What makes him so interesting is his mixture of traits.  The original character of Edmond Dantes is gentle, but has since been riven by the events of his life; at this point neither the original or the damaged is the "real him."  Only together do they make up the man that is now the Count.  There is no simple way to separate the two anymore, allowing a single man to visit generosity on some and hellfire on others.  He is not, "A good man that does some bad things" or "A bad man who does some good things."  He is the grey checkered man that he is.

I also want to give special mention to Haydee and the other female supports.  While Haydee's general role and primary scenes are not altered much, the anime enhanced her character and animated it beautifully.  I was captivated by her when she was on-screen.  Her varied expressions of anger, shock, sadness, longing, terror, and complete rage were amazing.  Peppo was also a fun character whose role was significantly expanded from the original, but who also worked quite well (and I still maintain he was FAR too cute to be male).  Even Eugenie is given better development, with her screen time transforming her elegantly from "aristocratic shopping bimbo" to a surprisingly thoughtful personality.

Beyond the characters the visuals are strange, but oddly mesmerizing once I had become accustomed.  They lent a charm and identity to the series that it may have otherwise struggled with.  The surreal aspect worked especially well at the beginning Carnival as well as the ritzy scenes in Paris, where the superficiality found clear voice in the imagery: full of color and glamour, but lacking in depth.  Beyond this, they were simply a treat at many times, even without secondary meaning.

Finally, I want to give recognition to the small details that were forged in translating the series into the future.  The small touches such as the Count recording conversations and the DNA evidence against Villefort felt very natural.  If Dumas had written his book today, these types of details are precisely what I would expect.

The Bad:

My primary charge against the series were two changes that I strongly disagreed with in the nature and fate of the Count.  The first is that the Count dies at the end.  The second is that he gained his power through a contract with a type of supernatural being.

My issue with the Count's death is that it alters the message drastically.  In the original the Count is successful with his revenge: he destroys Villefort's reputation, Danglar's finances, and Morcerf's future.  There is nothing left to do.  The final scenes of the book are now his intent to commit suicide after he's returned Valentine to Maximilien (who act as the innocent inspiration for Albert's character in the anime).  He has nothing to live for.  This is when Haydee impresses upon him that there were those who cared for him and that his life wasn't entirely compassed by revenge.  They depart on a voyage to see the world together, and the book ends.

By having the Count die in the anime, this means that instead of release he is instead consumed by revenge until the end.  While the counterbalance that he did some good (such as saving Haydee) is still there, it loses much of its impact.  This issue is further exacerbated by the elimination of most of the book scenes in which the Count uses his great wealth and power for kindness.  We get a much shallower view of the man: in the anime he was only a destroyer, and destroyed himself in the end.

The second change, that the Count's power is from an outside source, further cheapens his character.  In the original the Count is the World's Most Interesting Man by his own merit.  He was granted immense wealth through chance or fate, but all of his other skills were the result of self-training and his iron will.  He has traveled the world, seen and experienced many things, and is a man at home in any place.  This highlights the essential waste of his revenge: he's learned so much, and done so much, just so he can return to Paris and cause his enemies to suffer.  He has tragically chained himself to his past.  In the anime, all of this is simplified.  Edmond Dantes is good, Gankutsuou that inhabits him is evil.  Most of his strange powers come from this pact.  It lacks the depth of somebody whose good and evil has been twisted together inseparably.

This is especially apparent in how the different Counts are affected by their collateral damage.  In the original the Count is deeply shaken by Madam Villefort's double suicide with her son.  He didn't expect his revenge to accidentally spill over to others, and he is even brought to questioning his own revenge knowing that it has cost an innocent life.  In the anime, Gakutsuou makes light of the death, even going so far as to laugh at the destruction he has caused.  If the original Dantes is in there, he is eclipsed by this evil persona.  Again, it is far less nuanced than the original.

Beyond the Count, I also felt that Albert was simply a weak main character.  As mentioned before, Albert in the anime is actually a mixture of multiple personalities from the original. On top of this, he is given the standard anime whitewash: his primary occupations are to cry the names of his friends repeatedly and break down in helpless tears of regret.  With so many better characters in the series (namely the Count himself), Albert felt like a relatively dull choice.  It was as though being an anime, the writers couldn't resist making the protagonist a teenager with his first love interest.  I guess I am at least grateful that he wasn't attending high school, sitting in the back corner near the window.

Even with these weaknesses, I still consider the series worth watching.  It was enthralling to see the original tale enacted in a surreal future setting, and even with the debatable alterations the quality of the narrative shines through.

[Anime] Akame ga Kill! Review

Akame ga Kill! - 5.5/10

Akame ga Kill! is a solid action anime. It's fun, it's flashy. It has action and romance, villains and heroes. It ends with an appropriately well-choreographed fight. If you want nothing more, you get nothing more, and can simply enjoy the ride.

The Good: The theme of all the pros is the same: it wasn't groundbreaking, but it did what it did better than most action series.

First off: people died. While a few characters had the plot armor feel, most did not. I recall my exact thought process early in the series. Sheele dies, and I was like "Okay, here's our token hero death that we feel sad about and avenge the whole series." Then Bulat dies. Then Chelsea dies. Etc. It was refreshing to have some actual tension about whether characters would live or die. This was enhanced by the series because a tight situation did not mean automatic death. Mine surviving Seryuu's self-destruct, Bols his Imperial Arms exploding, and Leone surviving....nearly everything are good examples of this. It was even better in Bols' case because he dies shortly afterward to Chelsea, which foils the "okay he lived, it's all okay now" feeling.

This aspect also connected well with the theme that when people fight, they die on both sides. I know that statement is so obvious as to be banal, but again it's something of a cardinal sin of most series to have the entire good guy team standing at the end (except maybe one token death) having all barely overcome their opponents. Casualties are not only common, but are pretty even on both sides, which was a touch that I could appreciate. When a team like the Jaegers is assembled it does its job, if at a cost.

Finally, there were a few abilities and fights I thought had particular merit. I'd like to give special mention of Lubbock's Imperial Arms. It was rather unusual as weapons/devices go, and they really pushed its implications. From movement, to surveillance, to heart pureeing it did it all. In fact, overall I felt the Imperial Arms were put to good use but his in particular impressed me.

Esdeath was also well-done. Her usage of ice was top notch and they did a great job demonstrating her mastery, rather than just stating it. That is, often the big bad has one trick and otherwise is just "powerful." To show how unbeatable they are, they take the super attack of some hero or another without flinching, and then via plot necessity fall to attacks that they shrugged off before. Esdeath just dominates everybody, and does it in a convincing way. And when she is cut by Murasame she doesn't evil-villain-power it off.

The Bad: In their rush to kill characters many felt under-detailed. You meet them, they get a name, then they die. Between the frequency and lack of attachment to them, many of the deaths were emotionally irrelevant. The worst that comes to mind is the general guy (I don't even remember his name). They introduce him, talk him up as being second only to Esdeath, then have him die next episode. The demons in the religious movement town also suffered from the same underwhelming experience. I also really disliked Run for this reason. He receives no build up, no explanation, then a quick forced monologue during a fight to explain why he's actually not that bad of a guy. It was poor characterization for a character who spent the whole series being hinted at having more depth. I notice that most of my examples come from the end of the series, and I suspect a combination of manga deviation and forcing the show to fit 24 episodes contributed to these drawbacks.

Their attempts at moral ambiguity were pretty weak. A few of them were okay, like Wave who was obviously just on the wrong team. Bols was actually somewhat believable as well; not from a justification standpoint, but from how disconcertingly human opponents can be. But their attempts to make me feel much for Kurome were pretty weak; they first introduce her sitting on a pile of human corpses eating cookies, and the whole tenor of her Imperial Arms resurrecting dead friends didn't improve it from there. Similarly they had token, "we do evil things as assassins" phrases pop up in Night Raid...and then promptly went on to show how they were morally superior anyway. The series seemed more sure of itself when it stuck to, "Evil guys are really evil and good guys are really good" and had them fight it out.

At last, a tiny complaint of mine: when it's all over, building a nation is a thousand times harder than destroying one. It just seemed incongruous to the whole series that everybody was getting along and life was happy sunshine in the end.  Except Akame, who gets the Homura treatment. "Hey, life's better for everybody but you. You get to wander out into a desert and our last scene will be of you launching a post-credits attack."

So overall, I thought it was better than the average action series but nothing I plan on dwelling on or rewatching.

[Anime] Another Review

Another - 3/10

I knew going into this I wasn't going to be overawed. I think this was the result of having too much time and wanting to try something new again. I'd also heard the name come up a few times, so figured why not.

The Good: I'll give the series credit that I was curious during the first half. I wanted to know what was happening and why, and cared enough to sit through it to see the resolution. I also didn't figure it out, so there's at least that. And the fact that Misaki was actually alive the whole time surprised me; I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, because she was such a lifeless oddity.

Art quality was also pretty high. That's kind of damning with faint praise but I did appreciate how crisp the whole series looked.

Finally, it had some of the most unintentionally hilarious moments I've seen in a while. The scene where the guy crawls out from under the fallen chandelier, only to have the pillar immediate fall on him...I had to pause it and laugh for a minute. It was comic gold; it just needed a "wah wah" afterward to be complete.

The Bad: It's a suspense-horror series, and follows all the tropes.

1. Nice people with minimal screen time die first. We know it's getting serious when glasses girl impales herself on an umbrella and the nurse dies in the elevator. Their sole purpose is to demonstrate just HOW SERIOUS this curse is.

I have an image of these characters trying to get future jobs with resumes reading, "Can kill myself accidentally with common household items" and "Good at being the final part of a lethal Rube Goldberg machine."

2. The "oh no, will something happen?!?" music will be played for every scene that could potentially be scary. This includes, but is not limited to: opening doors, looking down stairwells, reading or listening to records, discussing the contents of said records, going to an abandoned location, using sharp objects, turning around, and feeding kittens with your grandma.

3. Somebody will break down psychologically, go on a rampage, then die. Another, not wanting to be outdone, has a case of mass psychosis strike the students and lodge faculty. I can only assume that they had been memorizing "Lord of the Flies" in class, preparing for this day.

4. Inevitably has that moment when somebody who's been around the whole series dies. Unfortunately your immediate reaction is, "Who was that again?" Another also went above and beyond in this category. Bodies pile up as the class is decimated by the curse, and I would have felt worse if Misaki's special desk had been destroyed. At least I recognized it.

5. There is at least one colossally stupid decision made. "So, I can see dead people with my doll's eye. I guess I should have mentioned that 10 episodes ago." Yes, yes you should have Misaki. "Oh, did I tell you that I saw the dead person murdered so I knew who it was all along?" Oh really? Tell me more. "I'm a twin who has an extensive backstory that doesn't matter until it's inconvenient." You know what Misaki? I don't think people ignored you because of the curse.

This is of course on top of the whole deadly school thing, that everybody-and-nobody knows about, so they keep sending their students there like cattle. I mean, sure it's only a few students every year. And a teacher coming to class and committing suicide is just one of those things that happen.

So my bar was low, and Another was about where I expected. But at least I got to have fun writing this review because of it.

[Anime] Fate/Zero Review

Fate/Zero - 8/10

Fate/Zero is a character-driven dark modern fantasy.  Centered on the 4th Holy Grail War, an event in which seven mages are summoned to compete for the ultimate prize of having their wish granted by the grail (no relation to the Christian version).  In their scramble for supremacy, each mage summons a servant from the annals of history to act as his or her champion.  Despite sounding like one long tournament arc, what makes Fate/Zero is not action but the diverse personalities and forces that vie for this power.

My recommendation going into this series is to forget any semblance of historicity.  At first I engaged the series critically, constantly begrudging the discrepancies, but found that I was only hurting myself.  The heroes are only loosely based on their real life counterparts, and should be appreciated for how they are written in the here and now.  Wanting anything more will only lead to disappointment.

Speaking of wanting more: Fate/Zero is part of an expansive universe with multiple series.  Which to watch first?  My harsh opinion is, "Only Fate/Zero."  The other series offer little in the way of the explanations Fate/Zero is lacking and range in quality from mediocre to bad to risking jail time.  The "Fate" tag does not guarantee the same experience that Zero offers.

I won't be talking about these two, but they provide much-needed relief.
The Good:
The cast of Fate/Zero is its strongest asset, with each of the master/servant pairs being unique.  They range from genuine friendships, to ideological opposites, to the devil and his pawn.  The varied interactions between these characters is what animates the series.  While the majority of the cast is worthy of mention I will be concentrating on just two and their relationship.

At the center of the maelstrom is Kiritsugu Emiya, an errant mercenary who has now turned his attention toward a bid at world peace.  He remains one of my favorite protagonists in anime.  Kiritsugu is a Utopian pragmatist, one of the most dangerous mindsets in existence.  He is a deeply driven revolutionary, a man who has a dramatic vision of the future.  There is an earnestness to his quest, fueled by his life-long dreams of heroism and reinforced by his years on the battlefield.  Kiritsugu is the real deal: he truly believes in what he is doing.

However, his utilitarian morality is completely uncompromising and merciless.  Early in his life he demonstrated an aptitude for disconnecting his feelings from his actions.  As he developed through the years, he refined his theory: the sacrifice of the few is always worth the good of the many.  There is nothing more to morality than adding up benefits and subtracting costs.  This ethical calculus is unbelievably dangerous when combined with the Utopian ideal: if what one is striving for is the ultimate good then ANY evils are justifiable in its pursuit.  Many revolutions of the 20th century bear witness to the horrors such reasoning births.

Magic can be...unkind in this universe.
The series adroitly suspends judgement, neither supporting or condemning him.  He may not be a saint, but one cannot accuse him of cowardice or hypocrisy.  The ultimate resolution, when his position is taken to the logical extreme by the grail, offering to fulfill his "wish" by slaughtering most of humanity for the benefit of the remainder, is what finally arrests him.  Hollowed out by the realization that there was no singular fix for the world, and recognizing with deep regret all the damage he had done, he concludes his days tending his own garden.

His character is further enhanced by the contrast to his servant, Saber, the gender-swapped King Arthur (Arturia, because anime).  She represents the epitome of the chivalric ideal: she believes in the just war, the good fight, and respect given to one's foes.  Honor is the highest ideal and should never be sacrificed, even unto one's dying breath.  In life she was "perfect," the very avatar of her own beliefs.  Taking the entire kingdom on her shoulders, she sacrificed everything of herself to enact the vision of a perfect king and a just society.  Her failure, that she was too driven, too inhuman, haunts her.  She stands as Kiritsugu's medieval mirror, at once his opposite and eerie familiar at heart.

She even looks good in a suit.
Their disagreements beget one of my favorite exchanges in anime: the judgement of honor.  It is engrossing  because neither side occupies a clear high ground.  Arturia may cling to outmoded ideals, but they serve as a valuable reminder and warning that one's humanity should not be abandoned lightly.  Her own disastrous lack of empathy in life only sharpens her disgust with Kiritsugu's flagrant disregard for sympathetic morality.  However, Kiritsugu's accusation is not without merit.  Honor and glory appear puerile in the face of modern warfare, a flimsy rationale, a fairy tale told to disguise violence in all its grotesque forms.  Better to be unambiguous: the business of war is killing.  There remains no easy answer, the scene concluding with a pointed view of the deceased as Kiritsugu expounds the permissibility of evil for a greater good. 

These two are not alone.  They are embedded in a multifaceted plot, with many others striving with equal vigor for the prize.  While the ultimate goal is clear, the paths leading to it are not.  Alliances form and dissolve, schemes unfold and fail, ancient feuds intrude on the conflict.  It is not the strongest or the most righteous who carry the day, but the most cunning and, perhaps, luckiest.  Such a message is befitting the ethos of the series.  Despite the initial appearances, it is not a contest between heroes.

As a cherry on top, all of this is animated well by Ufotable, making the most out of its expansive budget.  The designs are great and the surprisingly infrequent fights are frenetic and smooth.

The King's Banquet is also a magnificent scene.
The Bad:
The most frustrating part of watching Fate/Zero is the near-absence of world-building explanation.  The greater and lesser grail, the need to implant the grail in a living vessel, previous wars, the choice of Fuyuki, the nature and relationships of the mage families.... I guess we're just supposed to divine it all?  It is conceptual in media res but without the requisite followup.

This paucity of explanation unfortunately extends to the resolution.  It is a perplexing jumble of events, incomprehensible without outside knowledge.  That the grail was corrupted is never indicated in any fashion, only spontaneously thrust on us with obtuse references to Angra Mainyu.  Kiritsugu's vision is powerful and disturbing, but difficult to follow at times.  However, the resurrection of Kirei and revivification of Gilgamesh, accompanied by the destruction of the town, are completely intractable.  The series itself offers nothing more than a verbal shrug, forcing further research.  It still leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

My other primary concern is the excessive cruelty shown to children, especially by Ryuunosuke and Caster.  It is made monumentally clear that Ryuunosuke is a psychopathic killer from the moment we first meet him, casually scrawling shapes on the floor with the blood of his victims.  Caster, on being summoned, immediately proceeds to "tutor" him in superior methods of torment.  No more brutality was necessary to establish these characters, yet they received a shocking amount of screentime, with glimpses of their "hobby."  Crunchyroll apparently edited the series, sparing me the worst, but what was left in was more than enough.  Their gruesome depictions crossed the line from atmospheric to simply vulgar.

Finally, there are a few minor wrinkles, such as tangential references to "stats" and "S-class," which belie its digital origins.  They are out of place, but so brief as to not be intrusive.

Ultimately, Fate/Zero is worth the time.  Sometimes grandiloquent, predominantly sincere, it is a well-constructed and engrossing experience, even if one must locate a local Fate expert to truly appreciate it.

UntilDawnCreeps Trailer: An excellent fan-made preview with no (obvious) spoilers.  Gives a good feeling for the series.  

Salvation of Kiritsugu: One of the best anime videos I have ever encountered, this work is laden with spoilers.  The slow beginning, the mounting energy, the explosion of tumultuous violence followed by regret...it is a perfect representation of the series. 

[Anime] 5 Centimeters a Second Review

5 Centimeters a Second - 9.5/10

The first Shinkai film I watched was The Place Promised in Our Early Days.  I was immediately struck by its overawing beauty.  The evocative blending of grand vistas and subtle details stayed with me as some of the most objectively artistic work I had ever seen in anime.  In my review I mentioned that if a movie could replicate that atmosphere while jettisoning the stranger sci-fi elements it would be truly great.  5cm is just that, and it is a masterpiece.  A celebration of both the intensity and impermanence of life, it is the visual medium at its finest.

The Good:
The heart-wrenching beauty of the entire movie.  It is visually stunning, and not simply in a high-production way.  There is something essentially Zen-like about its animation.  This is a case where poetry, rather than prose, will serve to better illustrate.  Below are two poems; the first is by Dogen, a Japanese Zen master, the second by William Carlos Williams, a modernist poet from the early-mid 20th century.

1. "This slowly drifting cloud is pitiful;
What dreamwalkers men become.
Awakened, I hear the one true thing-
Black rain on the roof of Fukakusa Temple."

2. "so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

What these have in common is a sort of minimalist ultra-realism. It's an appreciation of the mundane as transcendent and mysterious. It's difficult, if not impossible, to describe with words but 5cm does it masterfully with its art. Not just the things you would think of as beautiful either. Its clouds and sun and snow are majestic, but in a small way so are its construction signs, cigarette smoke, and pools in the asphalt.

Other than its art, its characters were also strong and real. Its portrayal of loneliness and alienation in particular really hit home as Takaki finds himself writing messages to nobody. The imagery with the rockets in deep space fit perfectly with what it was going for.

I also took particular gratification from how the final movie resolved.  As it drew to a close, I anticipated that the original couple would get back together and live happily.  I was even hoping for it, since they were so enamored earlier.  Instead, the resolution is more nuanced and profound.  All things are transient, and the world spins on regardless of our desires.  Having things go to plan is not a prerequisite for happiness, and life exists on the other side of sorrow.  And so 5cm ends: seeing that she is no longer there, Takaki turns, smiles wistfully, and continues to walk on.

The Bad:
The final song is utterly atrocious, and is the single worst part of the entire movie.  It is nothing more than a generic love song whose melody and tone are completely incongruous with the rest of the film.  At a moment when the audience should be experiencing a poignant mixture of longing for missed opportunities and appreciation for those that were not, we are assaulted with this saccharine caterwauling.  Furthermore, the images are thrown at us far too rapidly in an attempt to match the beat of the song, not allowing us to properly savor them.  The movie would have been essentially perfect had they used the main piano track instead, and it’s a real shame that such a poor choice was made for the final few minutes.

[Anime] The Place Promised In Our Early Days Review

The Place Promised In Our Early Days - 7.5/10

A high-quality movie that has a lot of things going for it, but also felt somewhat off-kilter in crucial departments.

The Good: Visually it's very high quality, and it puts this to work for it. "Place" knows how to create a real sense of openness, of the ultra-real, and also of emptiness. In particular I enjoyed the first half in this regard as it reminded me of trips I've taken to remote Alaska; there is something frigidly beautiful and thoroughly vast about the setting they grow up in. I was frankly very touched by it, especially with the strokes of melancholy laced in there with the universe. There was a genuine appreciation there of grandeur and mystery.

I also thought the characters were reasonable and the unusual details of their situation interesting. It's not really a spoiler, but this is happening in an alternate universe where the Soviet Union had taken over the norther portion of Japan. And in their area they've built a gigantic tower for some purpose, which shadows over Japan literally and figuratively. All in all a rather compelling setting.

The Bad: The sci-fi. Don't get me wrong, I love science fiction. But the way it became integrated into the movie felt out of place. It was around the halfway point that it gets weird. It starts into some heavy pseudo-science that somehow attempts to explain why the female lead has now fallen into a coma that is actually her connecting to alternate universes and the only way to wake her up is to fulfill a promise they made as kids. It was around there that it lost me. What was charming about the early portion was the thoroughly normal interactions of the trio, how life felt then, and how they looked forward to the future. The sci-fi elements felt more like they were getting in the way of this than supporting it.

It makes me want to see "5 Centimeters a Second" now. Both movies are from the same director, but my understanding is that "5 cm" does not have the same sci-fi elements. If that is the case, and it is able to retain the same well-crafted atmosphere and general personality then I greatly look forward to it.

[Anime] Humanity Has Declined Review

Humanity Has Declined - 8.5/10

HHD presents the viewer with a very unusual, but enjoyable, experience. I find myself struggling to hit the right tone for this review.

HHD is on one hand a very dark show: set in the future when human society is in disrepair. There wasn't an apocalypse that ended our reign. Instead we just stopped caring and our time has passed. At the same time, it is hilarious. The series doesn't mope about, but instead comments on society in a sharp satire. Taken together they actually make a very potent package: the setting and themes give the show true content but the comedy keeps it from dragging and is able to approach the topic in novel ways.

The strangest thing approaching the series from the outside are the fairies. In fact, just reading an outline you'll get out of it that "fairies like sweets, MC makes sweets, they have adventures." Just watch the intro for confirmation. I was thoroughly skeptical at first but by the end I was sold. They are humanity in mock: given extreme levels of intelligence and ingenuity, they spend most of their time motivated by the simplest of things. I don't really want to say any more, because the show develops the theme far better than I could here.

The Good: The innominate main character is driving force behind the show and also its major highlight. HHD would be nothing without her. She is the last sane person, surrounded by a farcical cast of characters who are all too human. Her reactions and monologues are just gold because of it. It reminds me of a story from Nasreddin:

-One late evening Nasreddin found himself walking home. It was only a very short way and upon arrival he can be seen to be upset about something. Alas, just then a young man comes along and sees the Mullah's distress.
-"Mullah, pray tell me: what is wrong?"
-"Ah, my friend, I seem to have lost my keys. Would you help me search them? I know I had them when I left the tea house."
-So, he helps Nasreddin with the search for the keys. For quite a while the man is searching here and there but no keys are to be found. He looks over to Nasreddin and finds him searching only a small area around a street lamp.
-"Mullah, why are you only searching there?"
-"Why would I search where there is no light?"

It is only through the observer that the peculiar strangeness of human behavior can really be remarked on, and she performs this role magnificently.

On top of this, she is interesting in her own right. She is highly intelligent, capable, and polite. But under this hides a person who is also just a bit cynical and lonely. The series develops this gradually, and by the end she felt like a fairly fleshed-out character despite how little time is spent actually dwelling on her directly.

The humor in HHD is also top-notch. Like the use of fairies, I was at first skeptical. When the robot-bread commits suicide in the first episode, I was more weirded out than amused. If it had just stuck to these I would have been unimpressed. But the series really takes off over time with its humor as you acclimate to its world. It's kind of like watching Monty Python for me: the first time through it's more strange than humorous, but given time it sinks into your psyche and becomes really funny. I had to pause it a few times I was laughing so hard. Completely out of context, but having to retcon their manga to be a rendition of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," the fairy saluting to "God Save the Queen," and the statue of the MC handing out the book of names were some of my particular favorites alongside the numerous one-liners from the MC and fairies.

I also want to remark on Y. I didn't like her at first. I thought she was just a bit obnoxious and unduly eccentric, there only to be a foil to the MC. But by the end of the series that had completely turned around. Usually when a show tries to go back and make me like a character I'm dubious, but I felt they did this marvelously in Y's case. What makes her so good isn't a big sob story in her background. It's the realization that despite her oddities, she is genuine. It made me realize how shallow my first reactions had been, and nailed me right in there along with the girl collecting locks of hair. I was duly impressed by the simple efficacy of their approach to her character.

Finally, I was mesmerized by the ED and watched it every time I could. There was something about it that perfectly matched the series. At one time it is bright with an upbeat theme, but the background has the MC's shadow passing all of humanity, shedding a tear, and eventually lying down to have the grass grow around her. One of my favorites.

The Bad: There were no significant flaws about the series. It is definitely surreal at some times and so might turn people off, but nowhere near as strange as some anime series get.

I was also a bit iffy on the "Voyager/Pioneer" episodes. They seemed the weakest to me overall, and I couldn't quite figure out what their point was.  So that particular sequence can be seen as a weakness.

All-in-all, though, it's a series I would definitely recommend. It's just like a sweet: bright candy coating on the outside, dark chocolate in the center...and definitely attracts fairies.

[Anime] Clannad Review

Clannad - 5/10

Clannad is a slightly above average representative of its genre.  Based on a video game in which the (male) player navigates different situations and stories of the (female) characters he encounters in a high school setting.  First romances, teenage antics, and school activities form the backbone of the adolescent plot devices.  The series structure is also heavily influenced by its roots, as it takes turns focusing on each of the female characters and their stories, only to move on after a predictable number of episodes.

Where I found Clannad to both excel and flounder was its more sentimental moments. This is where it was a mixed bag, because it had an uneven hand on its "emotional volume." It would be relatively even-keel, dipping up and down as the scenes passed, but then would suddenly attempt to blare feeling at you at maximum levels. The problem is that these moments were often excessively contrived, as one thing was laid on another to try and reach a fever-pitch of feeling.

The Good: 

When the series stuck to realistic situations and did not try to overawe us with emotion, it had several scenes that were genuinely poignant.  What made them successful was their down-to-earth nature and connection to the meaning of family and friends.  A few that were particularly well done were:
  • The opening scene.  Clannad begins with a remark that these events were just the first steps on a long journey.  This simple statement stuck with me.  It just slightly broadened the horizon of the series, putting the events in a greater context.
  • Kotomi's desperate house search after her parents had died.  The way that scene was directed, with her outer frantic search mirroring the internal hunt for answers, was both touching and insightful into her mindset.
  • Tomoyo's talk about her family.  Her story itself was not what was most moving, but what she took away from it.  It's an old theme, but she realized that no person was an island.  Her reckless behavior was affecting those around her, and when this realization came to her it was with such strength that she immediately changed her direction in life.
  • Akio's speech at the play.  This is another case where the message was better for not having any frills.  It wasn't that Nagisa's parents had lost their dreams, but that their daughter had become their new dream.  Her feelings of regret and guilt were misplaced, for her happiness had become theirs.  Again, not an original insight, but also no less genuine.
The series was also enjoyable simply from a "comfort food" perspective.  While watching I knew that everything was going to be alright, even if there were some problems at times.  It even had some jokes that I found genuinely humorous.  Overall, I came away from this series with a little positive glow for its effort (I sound like the Grinch admitting his heart might have grown a size...).

The Bad:

As was mentioned up top, the series has no gain control on its sentimentality.  This results in some of the most vapid, contrived scenes I have ever had the misfortune of viewing.  Disregarding any sense of restraint or realism, the series would pile on element after saccharine element until one could only gag at the artificial sweetness.  The worst offenders that come to mind are Fuuko's older sister getting married and the story of the suitcase traveling around the world to return to Kotomi, although there were many lesser disasters along the way.  All told, it made the much of the viewing simply painful.

Beyond this, there was the innate mediocrity of the genre.  The slapstick comedy, obvious gameplay-based rotation of female characters, and protracted "will they/won't they?/they will after exactly 22 episodes" romantic routine are all in full force.  I tried not to judge this too harshly, as it is simply the nature of this type of show, but still as one who rarely views them I couldn't help but be put off.

Finally, I must remark on something which, even after acclimating to, I never completely stopped noticing: the eyes.  There are normal eyes there are anime eyes, and then there are Clannad eyes.  I am confident that the girls of this series could see 200m on a moonless night like barn owls, with Nagisa also using her antennae to navigate.

Having finished Clannad I can check it off my list.  Overall it is a cute but mediocre series, with a few highlight moments which make it worth mention.  Its connection to After Story helps it, but overall I found Clannad forgettable.  The primary benefit to having seen it is now I can answer the question that plagues all discussions of the series: Tomoyo was best.

[Anime] Shigofumi Review

Shigofumi - 5/10

I have a hard time rating this series because I want to give it a fair review for what it did do, rather than what I wished it had done. Going into this series I was intrigued by the basic premise: that people can send one last letter after death. After all, when it comes to themes common to humanity, death is about as universal as it gets. Being able to bridge that, even only a small way, is a dream of the ages. However, what I ended up getting really fell short of my hopes.

The Good: The first few episodes were, in my opinion, the best of them. They had some good scenes wherein they demonstrated some of the potential of the premise, with either the vindictive or loving shigofumi (the letters sent by the dead). In particular, I thought the phrase "sentiments of the purist kind" was touching when the older sister's letter is delivered to the younger at the end of episode 2. The way they also set up the letters was absolute, since as Fumika mentioned "the dead cannot lie." It was a touch of kindness, but still as unarguable as the death it followed.

Something small that I also appreciated was the way the lesbian couple are handled. It's a pet peeve of mine that homosexual characters in anime are usually portrayed as so ridiculously uncontrolled and over-sexed (see Kuroko in To Aru). These two were right, if just because their whole personalities weren't dictated by this one character. They were intimate, but it wasn't voyeuristic. One teased the other a few times, but it wasn't constant or lewd. Overall it was clear they cared for each other, but they didn't interrupt every scene reminding us of it. It was just something I wanted to remark on because I feel it's usually done so poorly otherwise.

Finally I also liked Fumika's design, especially when she appears without her hat.

The Bad: This is where I start to struggle, because frankly I feel like "the bad" happens to make up the majority of the show after the middle point. I don't care about Fumika. She was a good character as long as she was as enigmatic and remote as death itself.  She was perfect for her job as a dispassionate intermediary. But after a while the series turns to focus on her as a character and her past. This destroyed the stolid credibility she'd formed in the earlier scenes when she's unmasked as a semi-unstable alter ego that is only cold because she's bitter, not because what she does is in service to the absolute. Add in her fellow deliverer Chiaki and the talking staff and you suddenly wonder who's running things... At least they had the decency to not put Fumika in a bathing suit when they went to the island.

Ultimately, it felt like the whole plot with the abusive/eccentric father and the fallout of a girl trying to put her life back together could have been a powerful, real drama in itself. But because it was merged with everything else that goes on, I couldn't feel the impact as strongly as it should have. So it was an unsuccessful fusion of a supernatural premise with a more mundane resolution.

Also, one thing that really raised my hackles was in the last episode the "original" Fumika mentions how she wants to stop revenge because she knows what revenge does to people.  I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment. But then she goes on to explain that exposing the abuse by her father was revenge, and that she's getting her just rewards by being ostracized and bullied by her classmates. Wait. No. NO. For her to finally get that in the open, to clear that skeleton from her closet, was one of the most difficult and important things she needed to do just so she could move forward in her life. Branding it as part of a cycle of hatred, and causing her to deserve her later suffering...I found that supremely offensive.

So the series was headed for a 7-8 initially, but as it developed I felt it lost sight of what could have made it great and finished in mediocrity.

p.s. Is it just me, or does Fumika's friend Natsuka Kasai bear a striking resemblance to Toboe of Wolf's Rain? Not just the still appearance, but the way they moved seemed oddly similar. Drove me nuts.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

[Anime] Phantom: Requiem for a Phantom Review

Phantom: Requiem for the Phantom - 6/10

Phantom is a show about assassins. Again. This one isn't half bad (but not a lot more than half good either). It follows the advancement of an abducted and brainwashed "Zwei" through the mafi: how he is taken in, trained, his first kills, and the machinations of the various members and factions within the organization.  It is within this world that he is paired with "Ein," his predecessor and prototype for the training process.  She is his trainer and emotionally-broken partner reminiscent of Rei Ayanami.

The Good: 

The show has a bleak atmosphere.  People die, whether they be mafia thugs or innocent bystanders.  When the series is in good form, it is able to bring this evil to light.  In its darkest moment, Zwei is assigned to drive a man to despair by killing his wife.  During the infiltration of their home he also confronts their child and is forced to murder him as well.  The execution is done off-camera, but it is deeply disturbing and the flatness in Zwei's eyes afterward reflect the inner deadening of his soul.

The change in Zwei's character over time is also executed well.  In the beginning he is reluctant, cursing his bad luck and desperately trying to avoid death by doing what he is told.  After a while he becomes proficient and progresses to a machine stage, where he is forced to suppress what is left of his former personality to get the job done.  He is simply on automatic.  Then at last, he reaches the true low where he is no longer repressing.  The desensitization is complete and he begins to glory in his power and prestige.  He dresses in expensive clothes, drives exotic cars, and consumes alcohol and women with equal disregard.  It is not until he meets Cal that he begins to realize what he's actually lost.

Ein's dynamic with her "master" Scythe is also executed well.  Their relationship is profoundly abusive, both emotionally and physically (along with indications of Scythe's perverse tendencies).  Yet, despite her own power, Ein keeps coming back no matter how many times she is kicked.  She can't completely give up on him.  This is not for sentimental reasons; she doesn't believe "there is some good" or that she hopes to help him.  It is simply that a life out there is unknown.  Despite her stolid exterior, Ein is remarkably sensitive to this and continues to cling to him as a source of direction and rare praise.  It was saddening but well thought-out.

I also appreciated the last scene.  It is the subject of some debate, but the general interpretation is that Zwei is shot and killed by a disguised hitman.  Ein, realizing that she is now alone, picks a poison flower and eats it, dying on the side of the road with him.  It is a bitterly stark ending, but I felt it was an appropriate conclusion to the series.

Finally, I would like to give some credit to a few of the best tracks in the series. Canzone of Death (NSFWish picture) stood out in particular, with its dark tones and heavy male chorus. Zwei's Theme was another of my favorites, with its rap-like elements reflecting the street gangster nature of the scenes.  It is a shame that by the end the track is horribly overused.

The Bad:

The terrible plot holes in the transitions between arcs. Essentially, Phantom breaks apart into three sub-arcs. Self-contained each makes sense and is reasonable (by anime standards), but the connections between them are tenuous.

Transition 1: At the end of the first arc Ein is shot and "killed."  A bullet literally goes through her heart and she falls lifeless into the ocean.  But apparently she was able to sleep it off and shows up ready for action in the second arc.  Anime has a bad habit of killing-but-not, and I have come to expect it.  However, this pushed the boundaries beyond what is reasonably tolerable in any medium.

Transition 2: Three years have passed since Zwei took off with Ein and they went into hiding, but their freedom is not to last.  The past catches up in the form of Drei, the cute little girl that nearly made Zwei quit everything for a proper life, has been taken in by the same organization and trained to hunt him down.  But she's grown: in three years she's developed from a fuzz-headed eight-year-old into a busty, motorcycle-riding nutso.  The transformation is so implausible that I laughed out loud on its presentation.

Other than these key failings, the series as a whole also goes downhill.  The first segment was the strongest, the second had some solid parts but began to waver, and the final was entirely lackluster.  It is particularly unfortunate when a series ends on such a low note.  Drei as a character is just abrasive and one-dimensional.  The mafia dynamics completely disappear in favor of Scythe taking center-stage, and his complete derangement was more comical than diabolical.  That he now had a legion of masked psycho-girls in the mold of Ein make the entire situation feel even more artificial than it had been previously.  Even Ein's cathartic defeat of Scythe did little for me.

Phantom is ultimately a series that attempts to delve deeply into the abyss, but is prevented from having true gravitas by its general mediocrity.  What starts as a premise with potential is slowly lost, until at the end the series collapses, exhausted by its exertions.