Saturday, January 30, 2016

[Anime] Shinsekai Yori Review



"[People are] forgetful that they themselves perhaps tolerate...inequalities under a mistaken notion of expediency, the correction of which would make that which they approve seem quite as monstrous as what they have at last learnt to condemn." - John Stuart Mill

Shinsekai Yori – 9/10

Shinsekai Yori is an engrossing tale that merges the intimacies of a coming-of-age story with the grander narrative of a future society molded by the necessities of humanity’s new powers.

In the future, every member of society is telekinetic.  It is more than being able to move large objects with their minds: humans are able to affect the subtle structure of the world around them with subconscious desire.  It is a level of control over our surroundings that far surpasses anything humanity has ever experienced.  On the surface this sounds like a utopia, for humans no longer need fear the world around them.  However, this immense Power has brought forth a terrifying reality: humanity’s greatest threat is now itself.

The strange truth is that the description I gave above is surprisingly close to the current state of affairs for humans in developed nations.  Almost all of our stress and want come from the actions of other human beings, not the environment.  If we lack it is not because of the inability to provide, and more than ever our fate is in our own hands.  This verisimilitude to our current state is what allows SSY to surpass being a simple supernatural-themed series about telekinetic children and cut to the heart of what makes society tick when it moves beyond the subsistence level.

"All the problems we face arise from the human mind."

The Good:

The strongest parts, if it was not already made clear, are the setting and exploration of themes using this futuristic society as a model.  It is world building at its finest, taking real principles and exploring their implications in a novel setting.

Foremost, there is the moral logic behind their community.  Killing children is generally considered wrong.  Yet early on we are presented with a situation in which this society watches them so closely, and judges their actions so harshly, that they can be disposed of on the basis of seemingly minor transgressions.  How is it that this “advanced” society can see this as justifiable in any way?

To understand, we must take a step back and examine morality in light of human society.  In biology, cooperation is a delicate balance between self-interest and group wellbeing.  Humans are no exception to this.  We give up some of the autonomy of living singly for the benefits of living socially.  Our moral structure reflects this, with a mixture of individual and group values that are often in conflict with one another.  Our modern concept of “rights” is an attempt to formalize the line which societies cannot cross; rules of thumb rather than laws of nature.

In our 21st century democracies we have come to prize individualism more than any other group of humans in history.  We have this luxury due to the immense improvements science and technology have wrought; there is little need for any of us to sacrifice to ensure the whole survives.  But this was not always the case.  In tribal cultures, infanticide is commonplace.  This isn’t due to callousness or misguided superstition.  It is a response to necessity: if the tribe cannot support more people, then it risks starvation by supporting too many mouths that cannot feed themselves.  The needs of the whole must outweigh those of a single life, regardless of what “rights” they have.

A distant mirror.

The world of SSY bears a greater resemblance to the tribal condition than our own.  In this situation a single child with dubious qualities may result in a catastrophe.  Even a single failure can result in the annihilation of their society.  It is a risk that their own history has shown is not worth taking.  As repugnant as their behaviors seem to us, there is a strong justification for why it must be the way it is.  It is we, as 21st century viewers, who are misguided by our long acquaintance with individualism.  For the elders to pursue a sort of hopeful carelessness, praying that the worst does not happen, is far more inexcusable than the policies they pursue.

The presentation of this moral structure is another of SSY’s strengths.  The narrative pursues a purposeful misrepresentation of the situation through the eyes of the children.  We are so easy to trick, falling into the trap that surely the children must be the ones in the right.  After all, who doesn’t assume the little trip up the river, beyond the barrier, was nothing more than harmless fun?  Or that when the censorship of the past is discovered, that it was clearly unnecessary and malign?  And of course, we are all hoping that Maria and Mamoru escape the town and live happily, away from the vile clutches of the Education Committee.

Yet as it becomes clear later: these events are what directly led to Shun’s mental disintegration, the Monster Rat rebellion, and the Messiah fiend.  The adolescents, rather than seeing things in a clearer fashion, were dangerously ignorant of their world.  Their well-intentioned fumbling was the catalyst for disaster.  It was a testament to the quality of the series that it causes us to sympathize with the protagonists while having them in the wrong.  However, blended with the true faults of the society (it’s dehumanization of the Monster Rats, the miscalculations on the part of the committee) it is not a simple message about trusting authority, but a more nuanced insight into what drives them to do what they do.

Something's not quite right with this...

Finally, I want to end this section with a tribute to my favorite character of the series: Squealer.  Squealer is not a likable character.  His appearance is unattractive.  His behaviors are a mixture of servile groveling, cowardice, and vindictive anger.  Even his name is pejorative.  Clearly he is inferior, we think.  And yet, just like how we are misled about the nature of the society, so are we placated easily by our assured superiority.

Squealer is both intelligent and cunning.  He is not a brave warrior like Kiroumaru, but a driven and idealistic rebel who cares deeply about his cause.  More disturbing to us, his beliefs are not without merit: he and his race are subject to gross inequalities, both under their own queens and the lordly “true” humans.  Seizing the opportunity presented to him, Squealer hoped to better the lot of all Monster Rats.

I do not seek to justify his terror tactics.  Like many revolutionaries before him, he views the potential good of his cause outweighing any evil done in its name.  However, the desperation of his situation and the power of his arguments cannot be ignored.  In one of the best scenes of the series, Saki asks him to apologize for all the deaths he was responsible for.  His retort is simple: he will happily apologize, if only she will apologize first for treating his kin like chaff.  The scene ends with no response.  For a more thorough analysis, I would recommend this post.

The Bad:

As excellent as Shinsekai Yori is, it has a couple noteworthy flaws.  The first is the overall quality of the animation, which noticeably dips on several occasions (the backgrounds remain striking, however).  Episode 5 in particular looks to be done by a different studio, and is frustratingly incongruous with the rest of the series.  However, I don’t wish to spend too much time haranguing on this; it simply makes me a little sad that SSY wasn’t given a better treatment.

There are also plot points that feel slightly forced for the sake of the overall story.  Many of these occur in the early episodes of the series while the children are stuck in the wilderness.  I was incredulous about the ease with which they gained access to the wandering library, bypassing all regulations by the simplest of threats.  The explanation as to how the children got all their powers back was equally convenient.  Finally, the odd menagerie of mutants and technology (gas pumps) that the Monster Rats had access to seemed out of place.

The Tokyo segment also has a distinct sense of being unnecessary.  While it does give an opportunity to become more acquainted with Kiroumaru, the series could have resolved just as effectively by remaining in Kamisu 66.  Overall it felt like more of a detour than a natural progression of the plot.  This and other parts don’t individually sink the series, but it does make it feel flimsy at certain points.

However, despite these shortcomings SSY is a marvelous piece that seamlessly links intriguing concepts of social morality with a harrowing story of children growing up in this brave new world.


[Anime] Kekkai Sensen Review


Kekkai Sensen – 7/10

Kekkai Sensen is the psychedelic journey of Leonard Watch in the upside-down world of a monster-infested New York.  Being sane gets you nowhere in this little corner of the world(s), leaving Leonardo (and the audience) to constantly to wonder what will happen next.  With a bit of action, a bit of drama, and a bit of comedy Kekkai Sensen is quite the ride.

Note: unlike usual, I will be using the character design plates when linking a picture of the person in question.  I do this because of the series' exceptional visual design is crucial, and random scenes are not as effective at conveying this.

The Good:

The visual design of Kekkai Sensen is one of its most striking, and strongest, elements.  The world it is set in is absurd, and the style matches this perfectly.  But it is more than simply being extreme or over-the-top: there is a great deal of love put into the details which craft the atmosphere.

First, any listing of Kekkai Sensen's visuals would be remiss if it didn't include the opening and closing songs:

OP: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4J8jcI0WtzM

An impressively long shot as the sun slowly dawns over the city, smoothly transitioning into a collage of pictures making up the otherworldly cloud that hangs over the city.  This quickly transmits a sense of scale and detail to the setting - that it is a vast city made of many individual stories, an impression reinforced by the subsequent scenes of the main characters walking through the vast and varied crowds.  While the latter parts were a bit more standard fare, I still greatly enjoyed this OP.

ED: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3SlUmr_T4g

The ending credits take a somewhat different approach, focusing more exclusively on the myriad characters that make up the show.  What is impressive is how effectively the nature and relationships of the characters are expressed in such a short time.  From Klaus's stodgy clapping to Chain's reflexive punches at Zapp, it takes only a second to give us an immediate idea of the personalities involved.  What is particularly telling are the scenes in which Libra attempts to dance together.  Despite their best efforts they're all just a bit too individualistic to work in synchrony, but they get along just the same.

This strategy of efficient visual demonstration extends to the individual characters as well.  From Leo's pedestrian street clothes to Chain's plain suit to Klaus's gentlemanly jacket you can immediately assess the characters just on how they look.  Backing these visuals, each character is idiosyncratic, with a well-crafted set of quirks that easily identify them.  This extends even to minor characters such as Don Arlelelle Eurca Felgouche, who despite only featuring in a singe episode, is memorable.  When it comes to establishing characters through appearance and mannerisms, Kekkai Sensen is second to none.

To round out this section, I want to end with a discussion of a few of my favorites from the series, if simply because of how much I enjoyed watching them:
  • White: White was a joy to have on screen.  The attractive simplicity of her design combined with the smooth mixture of humor and seriousness in her personality produced a wonderful female lead.  What is even more shocking is that she is anime-original.  Usually when a character is introduced in this fashion they stand out painfully from the surroundings, a blistering sore on the series.  That White was so effortlessly integrated is a testament to her character.  I will genuinely miss her.
  • Klaus von Reinherz: My other favorite of the series, Klaus is the definition of "indomitable."  Typically in trying to demonstrate an unbreakable spirit a character is shown to go through predictable cycles of self-doubt, fear, and final desperate success by believing in themselves.  Klaus would have none of that.  He struggles (as in the “chess” episode), can be worried about the outcome (as when the barrier threatens to break), and can even lose (as against Black).  But each time he gathers his resolve quietly and steps forward again to do what must be done.  He was a perfect choice for the leader of Libra, a rock that everyone else could count on.
  • Chain Sumeragi: Chain is unusual in that despite her early introduction, she remains in the background for most of the series.  In spite of this, her essence is transmitted clearly.  Her attire is professional, her visage composed.  She is always there when needed but doesn't stick around for extra duty.  She isn't into heroics if she sees help is useless.  Yet another testament to Kekkai Sensen's ability to craft unique characters with limited cues.
  • Dog Hummer and Deldro Brody: I found these two genuinely entertaining, with just enough exposure that they didn’t wear out their welcome.  There isn't much more to say on them, except that their story was morbidly funny and their interactions bafflingly effective.

The Bad:

Above I praised the series' ability to match its tone with the general incoherence of the world it represents.  Unfortunately, this extended into the presentation of the plot as well.  In the beginning, when the series is primarily episodic, this wasn't an issue; why things were happening didn't really matter, and it was wrapped up every episode anyways.  Then the Blood Born are introduced, and in one episode go from being non-entities to the Big Evil that Libra has apparently opposing up until now.  This sudden shift is handled poorly, and what is otherwise a serviceable plot is confused by messy implementation.

The other major weakness of Kekkai Sensen was the inexplicable failure to extend its virtuoso character building to key players.  The worst offenders are Steven and K.K.  Like all members of the cast, they have detailed designs that convey their basic nature: Steven is a professional while K.K. is more exotic.  Both are clearly experienced, exhibited by their scars and casual demeanor.  Beyond this they never receive more explanation.

For many characters, this wouldn't be a problem; there are plenty of supporting members who are little more than an eccentric face.  But as the series draws to a conclusion these two receive screen time equal to the primary characters, yet we have nothing to go on.  I can't remember the first episodes they are featured in, their personalities, or their motivations.  Everybody else has blood powers, why are Steven's based on ice?  And where was K.K. for most of the series?  She acts familiar with the entire team, yet we never see her outside crucial plot scenes.  Nowhere are these defects more damaging than in the first encounter with the Blood Born, in which Steven and K.K. fight a desperate losing battle.  These two are humanity's first responders, giving valorous speeches and demonstrating their resolve in the face of this evil scourge.  But just as the introduction of the Blood Born was muddled by its abruptness, the heroics are weakened coming from characters we do not know.

To complete the litany of semi-pointless characters, Femt, King of Depravity, must also be mentioned.  He is the first villain we are introduced to in the series.  His escapades are clearly sadistic.  His background indicates that he is a criminal mastermind with resources, connections, and an audience hungry for more.  Surely he is to play a major role as the excessively-demented antagonist?  Well, I am sorry to notify you of Femt's untimely demise from the script.  He becomes nothing more than a commentator on William's actions.   The complete mismatch between his initial presentation and ultimate impact was dismal.

I was also disappointed in the lack of world-building detail.  Kekkai Sensen's setting is expansive, with a plethora of questions waiting to be answered.  Often a series can get away with leaving these ends open, allowing the audience to use their imaginations to create their own stories.  But in Kekkai Sensen we aren't even give enough to dream on.  There is no exposition of the magic system, the different guilds that operate within the city, the levels of reality, or the other Kings that rule them.  The final sensation is one of frayed ends rather than being elegantly unresolved.

In conclusion, Kekkai Sensen is an enjoyable, if flawed, series.  It was nothing out of the ordinary in terms of its plot or message, but made up for this in spades with its exuberant visuals, quirky humor and detailed character design.  A solid choice for when you just want something fun and entertaining without having to worry too much about the point of it all.