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.