Monday, August 14, 2017

[Anime] Samurai X



Rurouni Kenshin: Meiji Kenkaku Romantan – Tsuioku-hen (Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal) – 7.5-8/10


He who learns must suffer
And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget
Falls drop by drop upon the heart,
And in our own despite, against our will,
Comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.
-Aeschylus

Despite Rurouni Kenshin being one of my introductory anime many years ago, I never got around to Samurai X.  I didn’t watch it then because I was disturbed by its graphic violence, and later on when I became (regrettably) more jaded I never returned.  Finding myself with some time, I decided to see what I missed out on years ago.

Samurai X reminded me how much I appreciated the candidness of Rurouni Kenshin’s message: violence is appalling, and inevitably begets more violence.  Even if Kenshin is an admirable swordsman, it never loses sight of how terrible his path is.  The fights are short and brutal where the goal is to murder the opponent and escape.  Swords eviscerating torsos, piercing necks, and being driven like spikes through the throat and up out the skull are common moves.  There is no honor, just blood in the dark.


Coupled with this is an acute appreciation of how idealism can go awry.  Kenshin doesn’t descend into the chaos to become a hitman, to revel in killing.  He does so because he feels deeply the suffering of the people.  He himself was nearly slaughtered and was only saved by the grace of Seijiro Hiko; he wants to be that person to all of Japan now, protecting its people against the predations of the violent and powerful.  It is only later when the fallout of his actions, the collateral suffering of the fallen, comes back to remind him of the true price.  It is similar to a Greek tragedy, where the great character of a man is what precipitates his inevitable fate, with the greatest falling all the harder.

However, there is a refreshing optimism despite this.  Kenshin’s story doesn’t end in irredeemable failure.  The monumental suffering brought on by his mistakes is palpable; he is scarred both inside and out by his actions.  But he doesn’t succumb to evil, his passage through darkness serving to guide him in the future.


Kenshin is also not the only good person in this world.  The women who protect him are compassionate, willing to use their own bodies to guard the future of an unknown child.  Seijiro Hiko is a thoughtful and principled master.  He may not have the bleeding heart Kenshin does, but he is wise in his own way.  Even Tomoe can be viewed in a positive light.  Her appreciation for Kenshin’s inherent kindness overcomes her hatred, even if it is late.

This mixture of horror and hope is refreshing to me, as it is lacking in many anime.  So often series seek to coddle their viewers, guarding them from unpleasantness.  Even if the worst happens, it is mitigated, fixed in a final burst of magical goodness.  Or, seeking to escape from this childlike safety, they plunge to the opposite extreme, sinking into faithless despondency.  Kenshin’s story defies both of these extremes and offers more: a true story of redemption.



p.s. I tried to watch the Rurouni Kenshin anime after this out of nostalgia’s sake.  I was…sorely disappointed one episode in.  Better to leave that in the pleasant past.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

[Anime] Chikyuu Shoujo Aruja v2


Chikyuu Shoujo Arjuna (Earth Maiden Arjuna) – 6/10

Note: This is version two of my review, written later and with less venom than the first.  I felt the first version was excessively abrasive, abusive in both tone and substance.

“Arjuna” was a frustrating series for me to watch.  On one hand, I love its early-2000s ethos.  The hopeful inspiration of Evangelion still lingers: that deeply strange and thoughtful anime, driven by the vision of an auteur, can reach the masses.  However, it pains me to say that Arjuna is simply not great.  It seeks to address some of the deepest issues of our modern culture, but falls short both its execution and fundamentally irresolute worldview.

The series follows Juna, an average Japanese high schooler who dies in a motorcycle accident* while on a drive with her boyfriend-but-not Toshio.  On passing away she is confronted by an unsettling-looking angelic being that identifies itself as Chris (Krishna).  He tells her that she is the Avatar of Time he’s been looking for, and that he will restore her to life if she agrees to help save the world.  In her distress she agrees, immediately waking up in the hospital and beginning her journey toward eco-enlightenment.

The result of this setup is a mixed bag.  Most of the concerns that Arjuna pursues are legitimate.  It identifies real problems with modern farming practices, food animal mistreatment, resource waste, pollution, gross global inequality, and a society of thoughtless consumer convenience.  I admire attempts to bring attention to these issues, even if it comes with (in my opinion) baseless accusations against other topics.

*The near-death experience scene before she flatlines was what originally drew me to watching the series, having seen a clip of it elsewhere.

"I think you have the wrong costume for ecological activism."
Cracks begin to appear rapidly, however.  No Evangelion-inspired show would be complete if it didn't  write in para-military organizations, meaningless phrases, and then attempt to bolt action onto its message.  Juna isn't just a thoughtful girl, awakened to practical activism.  She's a literal Earth spirit, capable of transforming into a Hindu-inspired pink magical girl, summoning the bow Gandiva, and summoning an Asura to defend her.  The evils of humanity are giving rise to "Raajas" ("disease"), giant CGI worms that physically attack the signs of civilization.  I guess it was India’s turn to have its mythology plundered for names.  She's also now part of S.E.E.D., a clandestine group spread around the world, dedicated to saving it from itself.  Captain Planet's commando unit, as it were.  She's TI2 ("the second child"), Chris's necessary backup as his health declines.  It appears all "first children" are destined to be pale and sickly.

However, this entire apparatus is simply...pointless.  The story distracts from the themes, rather than acting as a scaffold in which they operate.  The action is thankfully infrequent, but when it occurs it isn't exciting, just ludicrous.  Arjuna follows the cookbook for "intellectual post-Eva anime" without understanding what made it work in the original.

Not sure which is scarier: the Raaja in the background or that smirk.
When the series ignores all this and simply focuses on Juna's growing sense of social awareness it is at its best.  The highlight is clearly the latter half of episode six, when she and Toshio follow their math teacher Sakurai home.  This is because Juna wants to hear his "true voice" after seeing him plod soullessly through class every day, reading out of the book with no attention to the people around him.

Once inside his apartment, he grills Juna on why the world is set up the way it is.  The disillusioning realization he brings is that it is not due to optimization or morality but unexamined convenience.  This is deeply worrisome, for ease does not beget happiness, and therefore society as a whole is on the wrong track.  Following this scene is a sincere expression of intellectual estrangement.  Sakurai helpless attempts to convey his love of mathematics to the uncomprehending pupils.  His desperation is palpable, and for me personally relatable.

The cherry on top is the exchange Juna and Toshio have as they walk away from the apartment.  Neither of them understood their professor.  The best Juna can muster is a specious remark that, "[To change the world takes] each and every one of us feeling the beauty in our hearts.  If each and every one of us changes, we all change."  In a rare moment of insight Toshio replies, "What happens if you are the first one who changes?"  A lonely image of Sakurai sitting in his apartment suffices for the answer.


Unfortunately, this reflectiveness is a one-time event.  What fully alienates me from this series is its fanciful extremism.  The director isn't simply critical of modern society, he demonizes it.  He can dream of nothing more desirable than we all return to our pre-modern state, where we can all feel constant oneness to nature.  This view irritates me deeply, as it demonstrates both an ignorance of human nature and an unrealistic vision for the future.

The best place to see these contradictions in action is the arc where Juna and Toshio visit the mountain hermit.  A wizened old man, he left his career and city life to pursue an idyllic rural life.  His garden is unweeded, his fields untilled, in accordance to how nature intended.  Does he not see the contradiction?  Before humans were there a forest existed.  He or somebody else had to clear the trees, flatten the land, and divert the water.  While this may be less invasive than mass agriculture, farms are by their very definition not ecological.

This also represents a selfish solution.  This man can afford to live out this dream because others do not; with humanity numbering in the billions, there is not the space left to support us in this fashion.  It is only the well-to-do of industrialized civilization who can afford to daydream this way.  Arjuna's rallying cry to awareness and action is catastrophically undermined by its sheer impracticality.

This was in reference to gut bacteria.  I do not believe that woman has ever been to medical school.
Arjuna's views become especially degenerate when it achieves ideological orbital velocity and escapes from the tenuous pull of reality.  Fully succumbing to the naturalistic fallacy, it seeks to correct the errors of the present by retreating into the mystical past.  Ley lines, telepathy, chakras, ancient ruins, and all manner of rubbish make a showing.  As Juna becomes more attuned to the world, she begins to “hear the voices others cannot,” including those of babies in the womb, and seeing the colors of people’s emotions.  One can blame science for getting us into this mess, but it is most assuredly science that will get us out.

Earth Maiden Arjuna is a series that sought to say something, and say something it did, loudly and with greater partisanship than FernGully.  However, its distinct lack of groundedness, both in message and execution, doomed it to mediocrity.  It would have been served well by trimming down, eliminating its more fanciful elements in favor of the down-to-earth experiences of a girl suddenly made aware of the contradictions on which her world is built.

+1 for quality insect animation.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

[Anime] Chikyuu Shoujo Arjuna v1


Chikyuu Shoujo Arjuna (Earth Maiden Arjuna) – 6/10

Note: After some consideration I have rewritten this review into a less acerbic form.  I decided to leave this version up here, as the two are not entirely redundant.

“Arjuna” is a special kind of series: the sort that irritates me so deeply I finish it out of spite just to have the opportunity to eviscerate it in a review, my ire sharpened by the superficial similarity of its message to my own views.

The series follows Juna, an average Japanese high schooler (what else would she be?) who dies in a motorcycle accident* while on a drive with her boyfriend-but-not Toshio.  On passing away she is confronted by the creepiest fairy in existence who identifies himself as Chris (Krishna).  He tells her that she is the Avatar of Time he’s been looking for, and that he will restore her to life if she agrees to help save the world.  She agrees, wakes up in the hospital with a Yin tattooed on her forehead, is inducted into a secret military organization that is guarding the planet, and promptly runs off to a nuclear plant to fight giant bad CGI worm monsters by turning into a pink Hindu magical girl and summoning a bad CGI robot named Asura (no, I’m not kidding).  I guess it was India’s turn to have its mythology plundered for names.

*The near-death experience scene before she flatlines was what originally drew me to watching the series, having seen a clip of it elsewhere.  Hope springs eternal is all I can say.

"They're all laughing at your costume."
Fortunately for the series, the plot doesn’t really matter, for its entire purpose is to use Juna’s newfound attunement to the Earth’s spirit to explore every single grievance the director has with modern society.  With an approach that makes Captain Planet seem subtle by comparison, we are introduced to the evils of nuclear power, pesticides, fertilizer, pharmacology, meat packing, food waste, groundwater pollution, GMOs, genetic modification in general, social and global inequality, dependence on technology, hospital birthing practices, and intellectual estrangement.  All of this was thoroughly contrasted with the harmonious, natural state of planetary oneness that Juna begins to experience.

Herein lies the issue.  I have no objection to the many of its ideals or criticisms, at least in the ecological realm.  Modern civilization is not sustainable in its current form.  Our economic system is built on a relentless quest for more, our short-term weakness for convenience overriding deeper concerns about what these mean for ourselves or the planet.  At some point reality is going to catch up with us in the form of global warming, ecological collapse, exhaustion of resources, or some other external factor.

Or giant spiritual embodiments of planetary unrest will get us.  Yes, that's it.
However, like all such ecological daydreaming, Arjuna offers nothing substantial in the way of answers.  Take for instance the segment where they stay with the old man in his mountain shack.  He left behind the city and his career to live up in the hills in harmony.  He points out that he doesn’t till his fields or weed his gardens, and yet get what he needs.  It’s an idyllic world that he has retreated to…and one which is both a contradiction and impractical.  As nature-loving as he is, he seems to have overlooked the crucial fact that rice paddies are not the native ecosystem.  He or somebody else had to clear the trees, flatten the land, and divert the water.  What organisms remain are not those that would have flourished originally, but those which can best abide by human disruption.  Yes, it’s better than an over-tilled, pesticide-drenched giant monoculture field, but let’s not delude ourselves that farms are natural either.

"To see one's self in a kernel of corn."  It's almost Blake-worthy.
But more damningly, this is a selfish solution.  With seven billion and counting, there is simply no way to support the current population on such a dream.  We would overrun the land worse than we do now if everybody farmed with such a gross level of inefficiency.  Even if we did want to abandon our current civilization, and the vast benefits it conveys, humanity could not pursue this path.  To retreat, to run away, and then imply that everybody else’s suffering could be eased if they just did the same is insulting.

But what sticks in my craw even more is its insistence on pseudospiritual nonsense.  In its haste to reject the errors of the present it regresses backward, adopting the methods of the past.  Ley lines, telepathy, chakras, ancient ruins, and all manner of complete rubbish make a showing.  There is an unabashed indulgence in the naturalistic fallacy, erroneously harping on how humans don’t even know what to eat out in the wild because of our disconnect from nature.  As she becomes more attuned to the world, Juna begins to “hear the voices others cannot,” including those of babies in the womb, and seeing the colors of people’s emotions.  It’s the whole New Age package unironically presenting chakra centers alongside images of the Mandelbrot set, with no comprehension of the latter.

This was in reference to gut bacteria.  I do not believe that woman has ever been to medical school.
After this, is there anything left of this series?  Well, to be fair there are a few slightly redeeming elements.  The animation is good for the most part, except for the poorly-aged CGI and disruptive interjection of real photography.  The backgrounds deserve recognition as quite beautiful on multiple occasions, even those that are cityscapes.  The direction is also quite reasonable, and there are a few genuinely creepy and intriguing scenes where Juna’s sanity wavers.

While the characters are unremarkable, their interplay has a few high points.  Cindy’s faking of friendship and manipulation of Juna to consummate her relationship with Toshio, and so monopolize Chris’s affections, would have actually been a clever scene in a series that focused on such interactions.  The love triangle between Juna, Sayuri, and Toshio was comparatively pointless, and its associated theme of the insufficiency of words was implemented weakly.

However, my favorite part was easily the final half of episode six where they met with their math instructor Sakurai.  The first part where the teacher grills Juna on why people do things (“Because it’s easier”) is interesting, if a little simplified.  The final conclusion, that convenience does not beget quality or happiness is true, if unsubtly executed.  But then in one of the best expressions of intellectual estrangement I have ever watched, their teacher helplessly attempts to convey his love of mathematics.  His desperation is palpable and personally relatable.  As Juna and Toshio walk away from the apartment Juna speciously remarks that, “[To change the world takes] each and every one of us feeling the beauty in our hearts.  If each and every one of us changes, we all change.”  To which Toshio immediately replies, “What happens if you’re the first one who changes?” and a cut to Sakurai sitting alone in his apartment.

Also +1 for quality insect animation.
Earth Maiden Arjuna is a series that sought to say something, and say something it did, loudly and with greater partisanship than FernGully.  It would have been served well by trimming down: the whole apparatus of S.E.E.D. eliminated, the magical girl transformation and combat erased, and Chris’s role minimized to that of a teacher.  Extraneous topics such as natural midwifery and medical practices should have been pruned in favor of a purer ecological focus; trying to hit too many targets at once inevitably causes misses.  Obviously this opinion comes from somebody who doesn’t subscribe to the return-to-nature program as a complete package, but what else can I say: people producing compost is natural too.

For the record, there are no ants that glow blue.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

[Anime] Alice to Zouroku



Alice to Zouroku – 6.5/10

“Alice” is a disguised slice-of-life series that follows Sana, the physical embodiment of an expanding self-aware realm that has been evocatively titled “Wonderland.”  Her fantastical abilities allow the alteration of the world as she sees fit, the supreme expression of a set of powers that have begun to appear sporadically across humanity.  After her escape from the research facility where she was “born,” she encounters Zouroku, a gruff but kindly old florist who finds his fate tied up with hers.

Alice is simultaneously the worst offender of the current methodology for producing anime and a fairly coherent execution of that same approach.  Modern anime is often designed with many target audiences in mind, virtually guaranteeing that they will find some fans.  This frequently makes series safe from a studio’s point of view, but artistically tepid.  While Alice is undoubtedly a slice-of-life at heart, it has the associated tags of mystery, supernatural, adventure, and seinen.

So how does Alice manage its unruly herd of genres?  I would argue that despite its broad pallet the anime is quite focused.  The secondary themes are either left consciously undeveloped or serve to feed into its main narrative.  However, this order is temporarily obscured by early developments.  As a result, it confused most people’s expectations, with its short run time preventing it from correct the situation.



Reality and Expectation:
Alice is, at its core, a story about Sana and her development.  Her growth as a person from an all-powerful, but ignorant, whelp to functional human and true member of the Kashimura household is the uniting purpose behind all the events.  What pleasantly surprised me is that the supernatural touches, rather than feeling artificially grafted in, fed her story.  Sana’s origins support both her overwhelming curiosity and complete lack of knowledge of the world.  And despite having phenomenal cosmic power, Sana must still live with herself.  Learning to not abuse her powers is the same as learning self-control, a basic struggle that all children must face to mature.  Zouroku sees this; he doesn’t discourage the use of her powers because they are “unnatural,” (although he has a healthy fear of them) but because he wants her to build character.

The backseat nature of the Dreams of Alice is also seen in how they emphatically do not drive the plot.  They are ancillary.  In Sana’s case, her powers serve her whimsical and underdeveloped nature.  She is a consummate child character.  I cannot emphasize this enough, but the show isn’t about what she can do, it’s about what she wants to do.  When she is held immobile, scared and hurt, threatened by Minnie C, she doesn’t logically teleport herself away but piteously brings Zouroku to protect her from this madwoman.  Later on, faced with growing feelings of anger (“frazzled”) at Hatori and Ayumi she doesn’t try to think of ways in which her power could combat them.  She draws up elaborate schemes to punish them, because that’s what appeals to her.  Because she was so puerile, I found Sana to be one of the most compelling child main characters I have watched.  Normally I rapidly tire of their antics and forced cuteness, but she held up well and I came to appreciate her precisely because she was a well-measured mixture of endearing innocence and peevish brat.

"If somebody's always smiling, doesn't that mean they're never smiling?"
Minnie C was appropriately creepy.

Where this neat story appears to break down is the narrative structure.  In an attempt to grab viewers, the series starts off on a “strong” note: wild displays of ethereal abilities, 3DCG car chases (ung), and evil secret institutions.  Anybody watching can clearly intuit where this is going: the organization will stop at nothing to get Sana back, and there is an impending final clash wherein Sana will inevitably bring justice down on the wardens of her former prison.  It has put on airs of being a suspense-based drama/adventure.  And then…the government steps in, arrests the amoral scientists, and shuts it all down by episode 5.  The conflict is resolved in a lawfully mundane fashion, putting full breaks on the hope that it will ever culminate in a supernatural showdown.  It is a bewildering betrayal of narrative expectations.

The remainder of the series is devoted to further slice-of-life development of Sana, unfettered from any pretension of action or violence.  Even when Hatori shows up later, it is obvious from the tone that this situation will not be solved through force.  This second half is also the stronger part, for it now more freely pursues Sana’s growing humanity, illuminated by her extraordinary circumstances.

In the short time we knew her, I actually also came to appreciate Hatori.  Not an Oscar-winning character by any means, but yet another emphasis on how despite their amazing powers, what drove the characters forward was how they felt about things.  The resolution, especially when her mother hugged her when she returned home, was genuinely sweet.


Length:
This is where I believe the series’ length, or lack thereof, is unusually damaging to Alice.  The first arc is nothing more than a prologue.  It is setting the stage for Sana and her world, where she first transitions between laboratory rat and human child.  The darker, more action-driven beginning is part of establishing where she’s come from and underscores the real value of the peace she enjoys now.

But Alice as a series is incomplete.  What should be a story in which there is a prologue (episodes 1-5), her first awakenings (6-12), attending school and meeting society on a wider basis (13-18), coming to grips with how she will be treated as an Alice user by her peers (19-24), growing up (25-30), and finally maturing and having to lay Zouroku to rest (31-36) is stunted.  The scenes in which she has a conversation with her future self, as well as the closing shot of her presumably at Zouroku’s grave, give us hints that this is where the plot is going: a Sana who is a gentle, mature woman.  But instead all we get are the first two pieces of her story.  Without multiple arcs to contrast with, the first half appears misplaced and bipolar rather than merely setting the stage.

I do not offer this theory to justify the series.  I am a stickler for judging anime as it is, not what it could become.  I instead suggest this scenario to offer coherence to what otherwise appears to be an inexplicable oversight in the construction of the story.

As I come to the end of this review, I find myself having played the role of apologist more than that of critic.  Alice is not a great series.  It is certainly entertaining, and more than a little cute, but it is not worth going out of one’s way to view.  It will likely be swiftly forgotten in the annals of anime.  However, I do feel that it has been given short shrift by many reviewers, overlooking its fundamental focus on Sana in favor of misguidedly criticizing elements that were consciously left undeveloped.

"I don't think there's anybody who should or shouldn't exist."

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

[Anime] KADO: The Right Answer



Seikaisuru Kado (KADO: The Right Answer) – 5/10

”The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” – J.B.S. Haldane.

KADO is a series that begins impressively: a vast, otherworldly cube appears in Japan.  Its size and perfect regularity defy physics, and the shifting fractal patterns on the surface hint at dimensions curled up in ways we cannot visualize.  It is more akin to a Platonic mathematical ideal than material object.  Out of it comes a being: zaShunina.  Our first contact.  An extradimensional entity represented by a physical construct that is only the barest tip of its true nature.  And so, the world is set to change forever.

However, once the glow of this introduction wears off the reality of the series begins to settle in: how does one effectively portray an entity which does not even share the same concepts of space and time that we do?  By definition, we cannot comprehend the mind of such a being.  Such is a classic problem of science fiction, and how it is handled separates the wheat from the chaff.

What underlies great science fiction of this type is not the wildest imagination, but the intellectual depth to appreciate that as extravagantly as we can dream, the universe is grander still.  The goal of such works is not to encompass all of the heavens, but just to steal a single tongue of its fire and return to Earth with it.  It gives us a glimpse into that vast unknown, both exciting and humbling us.

Unfortunately, KADO does not demonstrate this insight.  Unable to live up to its lofty setting, it takes the meanest path of least imagination.  I found this bitterly disappointing.  To even have a remote acknowledgement of the incomprehensible grandeur of the universe is rare in fiction, let alone anime.  The promise of such is what initially caught my interest, and held it even as it became readily apparent that KADO would not live up to my hopes.

A bonus of being extra-dimensional: you can juggle your own hands.
The Good:
While the core of the series was regrettably brittle and crumbled, some of the pieces that broke off still retained their value.  My favorite shard was the wam.  The innovative idea is not the promise of unlimited energy, or even their method of drawing energy from the anisotropic.  It was the clever explanation that it was not the substance that mattered in their construction, but the form.  Paper, metal, glass…it didn’t matter; all that mattered was the shape, the proper reflection of a higher-dimensional structure in this three-dimensional plane.  This is thoroughly insightful, and representative of some of the deepest trends in modern physics.  This sort of touch was precisely what was needed to substantiate the original premise, with zaShunina looking down on us “flatlanders,” amused at our misunderstandings of the simplest of higher-dimensional truths.

The heavy use of 3DCG was also with some merit.  While it still retains the under-detailed-yet-overly-fluid appearance of its predecessors, it has made significant strides since Sidonia and other 3DCG works.  The facial expressions were more varied and detailed, able to express a greater range of feelings.  Aside from the curious red eye-lining shared by all the characters, they also felt far more individualized, avoiding the Sidonia same-face syndrome.  There were some scenes where I couldn’t even tell the characters were done in 3DCG.  The unfortunate decision to splice in traditional 2D animation only hurt the series, both due to the heavy contrast and its low quality.

My reaction to the 2D scenes, accurately rendered in 3DCG.
Where the 3DCG was really able to strut its stuff was in the non-human elements.  The Kado cube was a natural fit, where the intricacy of its thoroughly unnatural patterns were given full show.  The digitized views of the world and the shots of galaxies and stardust were actually quite beautiful in a way that didn’t feel like a poor second to traditional animation.  My personal favorite were the jellies, which were rendered so accurately in their motion that you could have convinced me it was footage. (Note: The dates in that segment are so laughably off it hurts.)

The OP also deserves praise as my favorite of the season, with a special emphasis on the first version without the vocals.  While the premise may have caused me to initially consider KADO, it was the OP that got me hooked.  The wordless melody spoke of the grandeur that the series aspired to.  It begins with rarefied geometry, its beautiful arcs and shapes presented to us as existing eminently before all else, before spiraling into creation.  They invade the later scenes of fluid flow and neuronal firing, an eloquent expression of mathematical unity between such disparate phenomena.  Human history now begins to grow, with math still dancing behind such iconic images as the Vitruvian Man.

Interspersed with these scenes are the characters, but they are treated differently than a normal opening.  The images are blurry, indistinct.  They are found in random locales, coming and going.  It is a subtle hint that they should not be the focus of this drama, but merely temporary players compared to the grander narrative that they are imbedded in.  Again, I cannot help but express my disappointment at how insufficient the series itself was compared to its evocative introduction.

Finally, if for nothing else, I enjoyed watching Tsukai.  I found her design attractive, which has caused me to come to the conclusion that I must be a sucker for anime girls in suits.  Go figure.

"Hmm...according to these calculations, I really am just that obnoxious."

The Bad:
The characters are abysmal.  Shindo receives no significant development as the main character during the entire course of the series.  His expressed philosophy in episode 0, that negotiation is about making sure both sides get what they want, is never expanded on or deepened.  Is this purely a utilitarian view, one that he has arrived at from years of work?  Or does it have moral undertones, where he feels it is fundamentally important that all people are treated equally and with respect?  How about what happens when certain demands are irreconcilable, or even incomprehensible in the case of zaShunina?  What will he do then?  We’ll never know; he’s just along for the ride in the plot as a “nice guy” who eventually gets the girl...and then dies.

Tsukai fares a bit better, as she does have some exposition of her beliefs (although more on those below).  Unfortunately, she heads straight for Mahou Shoujo-ville in episode 9, which completely negates any development she had.  Hard to take her human-centric views seriously when she was actually God all along.  Secondary characters were just bad.  Hanamori is pathetic and grating, a half-hearted attempt at comic relief that has no place in this type of story.  And Shinawa…no, just no.

And I'm sure these people were important too...right...?

However, the wreck of the characters is mild compared to the multi-lane pileup that is the plot.  It begins on a spectacular level, challenging us to dream big of the possibilities.  Some of the early points, such as zaShunina making up his own words to describe ideas were clever, and the moving of the cube was a well-orchestrated idea, constrained by certain factors that zaShunina was unable to describe.  But around the middle it begins to slip, and the end veritably implodes on itself.  Instead of a thoughtful conclusion, with humanity attempting to reach upward and understand realities beyond itself, it devolves into a hackneyed series of anime tropes.

While the obvious moment when everything went south was Tsuskai’s transformation into our universe’s spandex-clad God, I would argue it began earlier with her impassioned defense of human “pride.”  Her idea, that zaShunina should be returned to the anisotropic realm because he was ruining the inherent beauty and order of this world, is utterly incoherent.  It isn’t even worth taking apart as an idea, because it only exists to give us later rationalization of the plot.  In the face of a being that is essentially a god itself, the best the writers can do is fall back on human elevationism: that there is something special (and superior!) about us that he cannot understand.  Yes, of course.  Our characters aren’t limited in their perspective and understanding compared to a being that is literally responsible for the creation of our universe, no!  He is the unfeeling Architect, the omniscient being that is fatally flawed as a moral agent.  Thus dethroned, he is portrayed as unstable, inexplicably experiencing and failing to cope with human emotions.  It is the very worst that could have been done to him as a character.  But at least there’s nothing left to ruin, right?

…and then comes their child, Ms. Deus ex Machina in a schoolgirl outfit.  Leaving aside the laundry list of minor plot holes she represents, she is the magical solution to everything.  She beats zaShunina up because her dimensional (power) level is higher, erases all traces of the anisotropic from humanity in line with her mother’s delusions, can talk with the dead, and even makes julienne fries.  This conclusion was so lackluster that I have no more words for it.  Save yourself the time and watch Arrival instead.


Thursday, June 22, 2017

[Anime] Yugo the Negotiator

Yuugo: Koushounin (Yugo the Negotiator) – 6.5/10

“Yuugo” is a hero anime about Yugo, the self-trained globetrotting wordsmith.  With his iron will, cultural savvy, and bevy of friends to supply him with gadgets and support, he proceeds to meddle in world politics while ostensibly rescuing hostages from dire situations.  Split into two separate arcs, the series focuses first on Pakistan and then Russia.  However, due to each half being produced by a separate studio, there is a notable shift in style and tone between the two.  While this does not create any inconvenience for the viewer, it does result in a bipolar split in my rating and review.

Pakistan:
The sterling effort that went into portraying the locale, giving it a gratifying foundation of realism, cannot be overstated.  The vehicles, geography, dress, factions, architecture…a general awareness is displayed on all fronts.  While there are errors, they felt minor, of the sort that experts and locals would notice.  It is only fair to forgive them in light of the implicit respect shown through the high degree of research.

Nowhere is this more striking than its incorporation and depiction of Islam.  As befits the setting, the entire atmosphere is imbued with its essence.  The calls for prayer, the litanies and rituals, and the terms form the fabric of Pakistani culture.  “Yuugo” manages to walk the fine line between recognizing its unifying power as well as the faults and extremes it produces.  It also demonstrates great discernment between the religion and the people.  While the devout could be laughably quaint, violently deranged, or deeply holy, it was the men who were that way, not necessarily the beliefs.  It was assiduously anthropological, seeking to portray the culture, not to assess it.
Colonel Warcrimes reporting
…at least until Yugo gets to the village.  This is the one part of the series that I was confused by.  When tied to the rock he chants passages of the Koran and is miraculously able to withstand the heat.  I presume the idea is that Yugo was attempting to swindle the onlookers, passing off his superhuman perseverance as divine intervention to buy their trust.  But the presentation at the time gave the impression of a false conversion, a subtle demeaning of their beliefs by the patently-superior outsider, especially as this was the first demonstration of Yugo’s “powers” in the anime.  I was never able to shake that sense of trivialization afterward.

Moving down from the culture to the people themselves, the general intelligence of the characters involved deserves mention.  The Colonel is able to sniff out the oddity of Yugo’s ploy, interprets the signs of the money transfer, and pursues doggedly but competently.  Despite his hackneyed depiction, complete with a maniacal disregard for life and paroxysms of rage, he was a worthy foil to Yugo's schemes.  Ali, for his part, may have been a zealot but he didn't fall for obvious tricks.  He had to exhibit some degree of cunning in order to lead his men.  It made the unfolding of the plot more enjoyable, as it truly is a competition between people rather than our hero sailing to an easy victory.

All of this is dusted off with a subdued, almost faded, color pallet.  It was superbly effective at portraying the sun-bleached desert climate, where everything seems to swelter in the unbearable heat.

7/10

Russia:
Russia is where it all goes wrong.  While it still maintains the semblance of what made the first half enjoyable, it simply lacks the same execution.  The research into the country is still solid, with the plot centering around real locales and events, but its presentation is less vibrant.  Similarly, Russian “motherland” patriotism is substituted for Islam as a cultural ethos, and yet again doesn’t seem to quite bear the weight as convincingly.  However, the worst changes are to Yugo and the nature of the plot.

Yugo morphs from dickering champion and part-time masochist to a self-employed James Bond.  No longer is he limited to his radio-operator buddy for a single HAM radio.  He can now command a GPS that hacks spy satellites, a radiometrically perfect reproduction of an antique, snugly-fitted professional winter gear, and even a hidden lock pick in his belt.  And not to be outdone by his exploits in Pakistan, he suffers two torture sessions with no aftereffects, walks 30km in a -40ºC Siberian storm at night, and premeditates his own ignorance so as to avoid confession.  I half expected him to storm the Kremlin at the end to resolve the problem.
"And please bless папа, and мама, and all the little plot holes."
The plot is also on thin ice.  In Pakistan Yugo is forced to react to unexpected deviations, counting on the intelligible behavior of his allies and enemies to see it through.  In Russia, he hero modes his way through his problems, surviving the patently impossible, only to ask for seconds.  He banks on Olga’s hidden patriotism overcoming her dismay when he shows up in her room and suggests that she frame a colleague as a traitor.  In the resolution, he confidently appeals to the educated patriotism of a devout Russian girl to divine the final three numbers of the code.  Yes, that’s right.  His ace in the hole was a 12-year-old solving a 70-year-old riddle out of the blue.

I’m not sure I can even blame the studio change, for unless they entirely rewrote the script this entire segment felt as though it was just trying to push harder.  The hostage more pitiable, the stakes much greater, the brutality more refined.  It pushed suspension of disbelief in Pakistan, but by the end of the Russia arc it takes a leave of absence from reality.

5.5/10

Yuugo is a curious series.  It is convincingly cosmopolitan, with a sincere and accurate portrayal of the cultures its primary objective.  Trickling down, the people involved are also appreciable for their multifaceted nature; passed off for who they are and what they want, they can transition from foe to friend on circumstance.  But its reliance on Yugo’s outlandish abilities failed to persuade me, and in scoring I am forced to come to a compromise between its two halves.

"Should"?!?

Saturday, June 17, 2017

[Manga] Private Report



Sabishisugite Lesbian Fuuzoku ni Ikimashita Report (The Private Report on my Lesbian Experience with Loneliness) – 8-8.5/10

“Pushed into a corner, even a mouse will turn and bite you.  Push a twenty-something into a corner, and they’ll go to a brothel and publish a report about it on the internet.” – Private Report

What compelled me to read this manga, I will never know.  Normally on seeing such a title I would dismiss it as a racy story based on lurid self-divulgence, the sort that have gained such popularity through masking voyeurism as personal expression.  However, something lured me in.  Maybe it was the source of the recommendation (thanks sj), a peculiar mood, or an embarrassing lapse in my own standards.  Whatever the reason, I am grateful that I read this little gem.

“Private Report” neatly sums up the nature of this work.  On one hand, it is deeply personal: it is autobiographical, detailing the confusion and mental ordeals of the author’s 20s.  Intimate and completely uncensored, it is a full disclosure of her experiences.  However, coupled with this is a sense of detachment.  It is not a plea for pity but an informational summary designed to enlighten others.


A summary of the plot does little to capture the essence of the series.  The innominate main character has graduated from high school, but finds herself completely lost in the world.  She drops out of college, falls into depression, and becomes profoundly burdened by her own psychological rumination.  After many years of wandering in this mental wasteland, looking for jobs, trying to please her parents, and not fully understanding her own desires she contacts a prostitute in an attempt to resolve some of her issues.

What makes Private Report so appealing is the candor with which she approaches the topic.  There is no moral to the story, no judgment on her part of herself.  She elucidates what did happen, not what should have happened or even why she thought it happened.  This latter part is crucial, for she avoids entangling herself in psychological theories that can often warp the perception of such events.  Whenever she does speculate, she makes it obvious that she is doing so, and usually after the fact.  This clear separation of observation and causation bears witness to a personality with an extremely developed sense of self-reflection.


She also displays a great deal of tact in what she omits.  This might be surprising; after all, didn’t she detail her entire sexual encounter with a prostitute?  Her approach is very genuine; given her tendency to live in her head, it is all about what she is thinking (NSFW), the visuals almost an afterthought.  The style also comes to the rescue, preventing it from being truly pornographic.

But more deeply than this, sex is not terrible.  What is terrible, and what she only mentions in passing, is her tendency toward self-harm.  Early on she comments on the scars on her arms (NSFW), but declines to display their origins.  Later she comments about how for the first time in her life, “Die” was off the options.  Yet never once does she mention her suicidal tendencies directly.  I suspect she skips these in part because of the painful memory, but also because she is a very conscientious author.  She isn’t writing this manga for casual consumption, but out of a mature self-reflection, and it comes through.  Drawing panels of her cutting herself would simply be vulgar and add nothing; it would stoop to making her suffering a spectacle.


This also brings me to the humor.  The subject material is deadly serious, yet her wry and hilariously honest thought processes manage to keep it light-hearted, even in the most intimate of scenes (NSFW).  It is the sort of humor that doesn’t make one laugh out loud, but instead grin or slightly chuckle at the verisimilitude to one’s own aberrant thoughts.

This is where her simplistic art style was a perfect fit.  It reflected the very child-like impulses that were still lurking in her, that she had yet to deal with.  It also allowed her to draw outlandish scenes as external representations of her mental state and have them feel continuous with the narrative.  Another good touch was her very-literal labeling of herself, with thoughts and emotions appearing as physical objects.  It also accomplishes all this without feeling surreal, an approach which I feel would have hurt the manga by muddling its down-to-earth sensibilities.


Finally, one element that I think she is very aware of in herself and I find very pertinent is her comment on the effects of fiction on her perceptions.  Nowadays we are smothered in artificial depictions of all situations in our lives, and this creates an ungrounded network of expectations which are more and more removed from reality (NSFW).  Another layer of fantasy that all of us must dig through to find contentment.

While Private Report may seem inappropriate to some, it is a deeply earnest expression of uncertainty, growth, and hope.  The contradictory and confusing modern milieu that affects us all now is one of the defining aspects of the current generation, and the author artfully expresses the suffering and disorientation that many experience as a result.  At the end I found myself overjoyed that she found her “new nectar”, as it reflected on that general hope that we can all find that someday.



Thursday, June 15, 2017

[Anime] Michiko to Hatchin



Michiko to Hatchin – 7-7.5/10


The journey series. A whimsical mixture of idyllic wandering coupled with the hardship and uncertainties of life on the road. The seeking of something that, ultimately, is not as important as the experiences and people encountered along the way.


Michiko to Hatchin is a picaresque entry into this category with a distinct 80s Latin American twist. Taking place in not-Brazil, it follows the escapades of Michiko, an escaped convict, and her abducted daughter Hana (Hatchin) as they search for Hiroshi, their ever-elusive boyfriend/father. Like similar Manglobe productions it has a combination of flippant grittiness, casual violence, and dark humor that make it simultaneously disconcerting and approachable. 


However, despite its unique flourish, Michiko to Hatchin suffers from the general problem of being “good” but not “great.” Everything it does it does competently, but not expertly. Its characters are solid, but not exceptional. The action acceptable, but not amazing. The humor worth an occasional chuckle, but nothing more. Ultimately it’s worth a watch, but not a revisit.




The Good:

If there is one thing that Manglobe grasps well, it is the tragedy of poverty, and nowhere is this on better display than Michiko to Hatchin. At every turn, the specter of want hangs over people. The ceaseless scrambling to get out of the pit, the obscene value of money to change lives, and the subsequent corruption that accompanies that power is all too real. It can only be described as pestilential.

This leads to some of the most impactful, most horrifying, yet understated, scenes of the series.  The one that stuck with me the most was the death of Pepê Lima and her sister Lulu.  What is so terrible about it isn’t the graphic nature, but the subtle treatment it is given.  Michiko sees Lulu being chased by the boys (children, really) with guns, and then it simply shows us no more.   When Pepê is caught, all we see are the muzzle flashes and then black and the credits.  Approaching it this way, it creates a simultaneous sense that these events are both too terrible to be viewed and yet so commonplace they aren’t worth dwelling on.  Afterward, even Michiko is forced to ask herself, “Why didn’t I help?”




Kids with guns, kids with guns // Taking over, but it won’t be long

Michiko to Hatchin 
also bypassed another common hurdle with ease: the ending.  Except for some concerns (below), the final resolution was a satisfying reiteration of the primary themes.  It wasn’t locating Hiroshi that was the climax, but their final embrace.  In fact, he was disappointing, and his later abandonment of Hatchin was true to character.  I thought it was a subtle touch Hatchin didn’t want him to use that name: “Hatchin” is her mother’s name for her, and her father has no right to use it.  It was also very true to form that series didn’t resolve neatly, but with Hatchin committing the same mistakes as her mother.  It left a strange sensation, but overall a positive one that life’s vagaries are not inevitably tragic.


Finally, the Brazilian atmosphere was a nice change of pace from the usual anime fare, with the favela a far cry from the usual Japanese neighborhood. The bright, ramshackle setting gave a frenetic atmosphere to many of the scenes, and a worrisome decay to others. Overlaying this was the racial diversity in people, a rarity in anime. From white to black and everything in between, Michiko to Hatchin is populated with an impressive sampling. I personally found Michiko herself to have an exotic beauty that sadly wasn’t given much exposure due to her flamboyant tendencies. Rita’s design was also striking in its elegance.


This does, however, call into question the curious oversight in naming: Michiko, Satoshi, Hiroshi, Atsuko, Shinsuke, and Yamada are hardly traditional Latin American names. Why the series failed on this point I do not know.




"Satoshi"...he's Japanese, right?"

The Bad:

By their nature, peregrination series must be a certain length to capture the variety and vicissitudes that power their core themes. However, in the case of Michiko to Hatchin there was an oppressive repetitiveness to the events and interactions that made the length feel excessive.

One of the prime offenders is Michiko herself. She has only one way of resolving situations: force. She never bargains, never cooperates. When things inevitably go south, she has not the wits or subtlety to avoid the use of violence. When she is in a pinch she can only punch. While it is fair to argue that this is an accurate portrayal of a woman with a coarse manner and ignorant upbringing, as a viewer it meant that all the situations felt predictably the same.




You could talk it out just once.

This was made worse 
by the predictability by which Atsuko, her childhood friend-turned-cop, would let her off the hook.  Every time Atsuko had Michiko in her grasp she would relinquish control.  It became less about their relationship and more about plot convenience.  It ensured that no matter how many times Michiko brutalized the police, or how effective they were at finally cornering her, she could always just get away.  This was particularly painful in the last sequence, where after their emotional separation, and Atsuko’s insistence that she will not recognize Michiko next time they meet, she still has the gall to tell her fellow inspector to halt.  There was simply no reason for Atsuko to wield that kind of power.


This one-dimensionality also spilled over into the relationship between Michiko and Hatchin. Repeatedly we are treated to the same scenario: Michiko proves herself to be abrasive and immature, Hatchin is disappointed and frustrated by her mother, they exchange a heated conversation and usually at least one slap, one or the other leaves, Hatchin gets in trouble, and the episode/arc is resolved by Michiko riding to the rescue. By duplicating this situation a few times the writers effectively filled out the first half of the series.




However, don't mess with grandpa.

And the Champloo:

As I watched Michiko to Hatchin, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons with Samurai Champloo. Both are from studio Manglobe and are built with remarkable similarity. From the quirky characters to the incorporation of “foreign” aesthetics, it becomes rapidly apparent that Michiko to Hatchin is an attempt to recapture the magic of Samurai Champloo in a new setting. However, in nearly every regard it is less engaging than its predecessor.

Take for instance the dynamics between the main characters. In Michiko to Hatchin the relationship is very simple one of mother and young daughter. There is a pre-existing vision of how this relationship should play out, where Michiko is comforting and supportive and Hatchin is valued and cared for. During the series, then, the interplay of the two is like a tug-of-war along a single axis, where every situation brings them closer or further away from this vision. There is no further exploration of “relationship space” beyond this. From the beginning there is a clear end goal, an ideal state that the series will steadily approach.


Comparatively, Samurai Champloo’s three protagonists have triple the number of relationships (Mugen-Jin, Mugen-Fuu, and Jin-Fuu as opposed to just Michiko-Hatchin). Not only this, but these relationships affect each other, and the shifting focus of the series examines each of them in turn. For instance, Mugen and Jin experience a mutual rivalry and respect. But their antagonism is buffered by Fuu, which gives it another dimension when she is there (and highlights her absence when she is not). Pairs also break off due to circumstance and this gives a variety to the experiences as each of them must figure out what (s)he means to the others. And since there is no pre-set way in which these characters must relate, there isn’t a sense that they are growing toward a foregone conclusion.


By this comparison I don’t intend to demean Michiko to Hatchin. It is an enjoyable series on its own terms. The mother-daughter dynamic will inevitably be different than that of three young adult wanderers, but using this style of series to explore it was simply less engaging and fruitful than it was for Samurai Champloo. If you enjoyed one of them, I would recommend the other due to their similarity of theme and construction (unless it was just for the sword fights, then you’re out of luck).




Thursday, June 8, 2017

[Anime] Angel's Egg


Tenshi no Tamago (Angel’s Egg) - ??/10

Angel’s Egg is a surreal Christian Rorschach test that submerges the viewer in a gallery of meaningful, but uninterpreted, images.  It is one of the most fluidly alien works I have ever consumed.  What follows can only be described as my own attempt to find the bottom.

First, the relevant facts:
Oshii (the director) had extensive training in Christian theology
Oshii had a sort of falling out or crisis of faith prior to the production of Angel’s Egg
Oshii himself stated he didn’t know what the film was “about”

When first diving into Angel’s Egg, the first thing one needs to do is prepare to look for meaningful, religious symbolism in every scene and event.  The second is to then abandon the thought of specific interpretations being the “right” ones.  The best way to describe the design of the symbolism is “archetypal.”  Water, trees, eggs, shadows, bones…all are so universal in human thought that one can hardly call them uniquely Christian or even religious in nature.  This causes each of the scenes to have multiple valence levels, wherein the part of the observer is no longer passive in their meaning.

Every scene in this movie is a piece of art in its own right.

Take for example the men chasing the shadows of fish.  Fish have an obvious link to Christianity, both in the fish symbol and the “fishers of men” phrase.  Using this iconography, it has been suggested that this scene represents those of blind faith chasing after an ever-elusive true belief, only to damage the world around them.  A secondary interpretation in the same current is based on the identifiably ancient structure of the fish.  In this case they are not elusive but extinct: the shadows representing the belief that used to be, and the men are futilely attempting to reclaim it.  Finally, yet other commentators suggest that by virtue of being shadows the fish must represent the negative of faith, the fallen angels that lead men to destruction intentionally.  There is no clear consensus.  But in all cases, the irreducible nature of the situation is unchanged: there is something that cannot be caught, yet men seek after it with all their might, even to the detriment of what is around them.  A theme universal.

This brings me to an important point that is often sailed over: while there may be many “correct” interpretations, there are most certainly many wrong ones.  For instance, the scene above is emphatically not about man’s lust for power and the subsequent spoiling of the world.  Nor is it an allegory about the continual search for ultimate scientific truth, and the resulting horrors that it has caused.  There are bounds to the interpretation.  It does not take the shape of every container.



Because of the nature of this work, I feel it is only proper that I also descend from the position of author to get my feet wet in explaining what I experienced personally…and the truth of it is, it meant nothing to me.  I have floundered for days, reading explanations and watching reviews.  Cognitively I can explain what Angel’s Egg is, and emotionally I can sense the potent longing permeating its core, but these two things are not soluble with my own character.

Perhaps an example will do.  Near the end of the film, the two journey to a building replete with bones.  They wind around the columns and are embedded in the walls.  Clearly, if any place is to be called a mausoleum, representative of death and the passage of time, this is it.  My first response?  Oh, it’s a museum (why else would the skeletons be mounted in the walls?).  What a curious, but harmless, place.  Dead?  Yeah, they’re dead; so what?  Dead creatures aren’t horrific, tragic, menacing, or a failure…and I wonder what species they are…?

"Here is the bird."
...that's not a bird...
I don’t intend to be flippant with my remarks, but truly the symbols one after another passed me by as unnatural, with hardly a ripple.  It was like deciphering another language, one I did not speak natively.  Intellectually I could grasp the literal meaning, but there was a palpable sense that their deeper impact was flowing through my fingers.  I drew some solace from this review:

“This movie’s images tapped into the subconscious reservoir of my fears and desires, [but] maybe the images will mean nothing to another.  It’s an expressionistic work, that however exquisitely crafted, will fall flat for some people.”

Because of this, I have decided for the first time to not award a rating to an anime.  Angel’s Egg is pregnant with meaning to those who are attuned to it.  It will drown you or baptize you, and I have been both surprised and humbled that I cannot encompass it through my intellect alone.  I depart from Angel’s Egg, returning to more familiar seas, with the realization that there exist in the deeps things I cannot take the measure of.