Thursday, December 28, 2017

[Anime] Houseki no Kuni

Houseki no Kuni (Land of the Lustrous) - 6.5/10
Full picture album

"Long ago, the three races lived in harmony.  Then, everything changed when the Lunarians attacked..."

"Houseki" is the surprise success of the Fall 2017 season.  As a CG series it had to prove itself, and the premise of, "Hey, we've made everything else into cute girls, why not gemology?" was hardly inspiring.  Yet somehow, against all expectation, it has developed into one of the most spirited shows in recent years.

It centers on Phosphophyllite, one of many girls (yes, they're girls, bite me) who are made of living crystal.  Together they serve a man simply referred to as Master.  Their prime function is to defend themselves, as periodically beings called the Lunarians descend from the sky and attempt to steal them away.  This results in more than a few fantastic fight scenes against these otherworldly invaders.

In the meantime, though, each of the characters has a specific specialty and role that she plays for the group.  But Phos lacks this purpose, finding herself at loose ends, annoying everybody around her while they work hard to serve each other and their master.  In time she begins to branch out, exploring her world and coming to appreciate much of the danger it contains.

The Good:
As mentioned, Houseki is a series that is almost exclusively computer graphics with only the minimum of traditional animation.  Versed anime fans are well aware of CG's bad reputation in the genre, treated as an economic shortcut to the intrinsically superior hand drawn style.  A few series have made inroads, with Knights of Sidonia as the most widely recognized and successful attempt.

With the completion of Houseki, I would have to say that this crown has been stolen, and with style.  Sidonia never quite shook a flatness in its lighting that caused the people to appear porcelain, like the robogeishas from Ghost in the Shell, their expressions limited to the same open-mouthed gape.  Other series, such as the ill-fated KADO, I complemented for some of their novel shots but was always forced to say this with a caveat.

Houseki takes CG and makes it its own, passing out of uncanny valley into an aesthetic that matches its origins.  The small details, such as the smooth motion of multifaceted crystalline hair and the flow of liquid gold, are handled with ease while dazzling with grand panning shots that can be produced effortlessly in a computer.  The chase scene in which Shiro terrorizes Dia was also a beautiful mixture of shot planning and the strengths of what a computer can do.

But where I most appreciated its application was the Lunarians.  It puts the eeriness of concerted computer-generated mass-movement to use; their coordinated behavior, which would normally provoke a snort of CG recognition, was oddly appropriate.  Their sunspots also had a symmetric and highly-detailed mathematical-fractal appearance that played well to the unearthly nature of their coming.

This furthers the theme that how Houseki looks and how it feels are expertly coordinated.  All the events take place on a luscious and idyllic island that is very pretty, but slightly unnerving in its emptiness.  As the series unfolds we are told that this is in fact Earth, some time in the distant future.  Humans used to exist but are now no more, having been apparently split into their three facets of biological promulgation (flesh), unwavering duty (bone), and rapacious need (mind).  How this occurs is never revealed, but furthers the sense of mystery.  In the last shot, the island is shown to be curiously shaped, as though it were formed by unnatural forces, while drifting alone in a wide sea.

While I never took any meaning from the split (maybe it's the neuroscientist in me that rejects it as a inaccurate hypothesis), or the Buddhist iconography that guides the Lunarian design, I did appreciate what they created: a post-apocalyptic world that feels like no other.  The absence of humans, the regression of "civilization" to small outposts of gems or sea slug people, presided over by hostile invaders who attack at will, is non-desirable without feeling oppressively tragic.  It is simply strange, representing echos of some past catastrophe, but with so much time passed it has lost any meaning to those who now live.  The closest experience I can think of is Shinsekai Yori, an unnerving faux-dystopia that intrigues with its details.

Finally, no praise of Houseki would be complete without a mention of comedy.  Anime humor is a hard sell for me; usually I find it slapstick, over the top, and too reliant on being amused by just facial expressions.  Houseki's comedy is just this, and yet the framing and timing made all the difference.  It's the one-off visual gags of Phos pointing with arm-stubs, pushing herself lazily through the snow, waving with two hands, or just completely discombobulated that got me.  They are shown just long enough to elicit a chuckle and then move on.

And all of this comes back to the CG: the expressions.  Where other series have failed, Houseki succeeds in spades.  The gem-girls are remarkably fluid.  Gone are the rock-like faces and mouths that pop open and closed like nutcrackers, replaced with detailed eyes and evocative expressions of surprise, distrust, concern, dislike, irritationembarrassment, and more.  While one can say that it still doesn't measure up to the best that hand drawn has to offer, I consider that a fallacious comparison as most regular animation does not either.

The Bad:
Houseki built a great house, but ultimately struggled to make full use of it.  At its core, the story focuses on Phos and her development.  She begins as an unwanted brat, a gem that has failed to find any real use in the world, both due to her weaknesses as well as a lack of effort on her part.  At first she is passed off on working on an encyclopedia, but is derailed by meeting Cinnabar, another lonely soul looking for a purpose.

This sounds like the setup to the crucial plot, the bond between these two characters that will substantiate the series.  Phos promises to help Cinnabar find a job, and this quest will in turn give Phos something as well.  But it never goes anywhere.

At its foundation, I never got the sense that Phos experienced more than a passing irritation at her lack of purpose.  I don't require that she mope around in existential angst, but the natural moments of quiet pensiveness that should have accompanied such a worry were missing.  She was just kind of obnoxious.  And no, I refuse to get into a discussion as to whether obnoxious protagonists are important; if 20 years of talking about Shinji Ikari didn't do me in, Subaru Natsuki did.

Because of this central weakness, a feeling that Phos' personal development had nothing to do with her own drives, I had a hard time grasping the thread through much of the series.  The events just happen to her, and after a series of screwups she learns nothing until finally turning a corner with Antarcticite's capture.  She then shifts completely to a world-weary being, weighed down literally by her gold and figuratively by her past.

This transition felt jarring, as though it didn't originate properly with Phos' own mental structure.  Like Cinnabar, we had no reason to care about Antarcticite after so little exposure.  She was there and then she was gone, and yet her loss is the prime motivator for Phos in the latter half of the series.  I would have loved dearly if the series were twice its length and had taken more time on developing their bond, but it was simply not to be.

Similarly, it's not that I didn't like the new Phos; in fact I loved how deeply she realized that what she had taken for a game of self-realization was actually a life-or-death struggle.  Nor did I fail to appreciate how they were trying to develop her.  It's that the steps taken to get there were uneven and didn't flow naturally from how the series played out due to a lack of care for Antarcticite as a character.

In the end, it all returns to Cinnabar in a dramatic final scene, and I was so surprised it was calling on me to care about her that I had a startle moment.  Cinnabar even loses the taciturn distance she has maintained and becomes completely, openly abashed at Phos' attention.  Just having Phos interested in her in the slightest seemed to trigger a complete unraveling of her defensive persona.

It feels like the series was trying to guide us toward an idea that these pairs were more than just teams but like romantic partners, evidenced by the tenderness between Dia/Bort, Yellow Diamond/Zircon, and Rutile/Padparadscha.  As such, for Phos to really find a partner in Cinnabar would mean more than just company, and that she turned to her in this important task of finding answers shows real trust.  But again, I was prevented in feeling the impact of any of this because Cinnabar was practically absent the entire series.

This leaves me in the final point, and that is my tired complaint of open endings.  I understand that they couldn't wrap everything up given the manga, and that they had to do the best they could, but it still leaves me slightly tired, feeling like all of this was a long setup.  Phos has just left the Shire and the book ends.

I fear sometimes putting the bad last gives an impression that on the whole the series was dissatisfying.  Houseki is the only series I kept with this season.  It was clever, humorous, intriguing, and entertaining and I looked forward to it every week.  I don't think it's a great series destined to become a classic, but as a break-out achievement in CG anime that has a lot of heart I'm happy that I decided to watch it.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

[Anime] Gunslinger Girl Meditation

On first viewing Gunslinger Girl six years ago I was profoundly affected.  I knew I had experienced something different from what I had encountered before, but how I could not say.  Since then my endeavor has been to capture that insight in my reviews.  I have been dissatisfied with them all; what they say is true, and yet never enough.  Sincere expressions of my love for the series, they fail to explain why it is deserving of such admiration, as I was unable to elucidate what lay at its heart.

Gunslinger Girl is a religious piece of art.  When I say “religious” I do not invoke a particular system of belief, but rather that like all great religion it is engaged with a topic that words alone cannot reach.  The paradox it embraces is the simultaneous affirmation of suffering and divinity, a view of both that negates neither.  It is a task both subtle and demanding.  Its accomplishment in doing so is what makes it art.

For many my claims above may sound dubious.  At what point did Gunslinger Girl become about religion?  Always.  Where did it explain that such was its purpose?  Nowhere.  The message is there, but it is never directly espoused or discussed.  If it’s never delineated, what grants me such certitude?  Am I not just reading too much into it?  These are difficult to answer.  This ethos was self-evident from the first time I viewed it.  In agonizing over this analysis, I sought to answer these criticisms through justification, citing examples from the series.  This amounted to a disaster.  It was like attempting to “prove” a puzzle represented a flower since an individual piece was red, or establish that the tenor of a song was sad because it contained flat notes.  For this reason, I have settled on a top-down approach, one which presupposes my thesis and explains the series on its own terms.  This may not satisfy the skeptic, but after many drafts it felt the most appropriate.

My goal, then, is to offer a suitable codex for those who found Gunslinger Girl lacking.  To explicate its ethos and how it relates to the details of the series.  To invite people to this vision rather than erroneously attempt to batter the reader into submission.  I recognize that in some areas I will inevitably fall short.  However, I hope that through my efforts some understanding will be gained, and perhaps yield for the reader a moment’s pause in the day.


The world contains a vast amount of suffering.  When as humans we are faced with suffering, we instinctively ask ourselves two questions: why is this person suffering and who is at fault?  We are satisfied when we receive answers to these questions; it reassures us that the world follows reason, is comprehensible, is just.  It is deeply comforting to know somebody else’s suffering is explicable and well-deserved, for it frees us from the fear of a shared fate.

What, then, to do with the suffering that does not fit this mold?  This is where Gunslinger Girl begins.  It seeks to corner us in our rationalizations by demonstrating beyond doubt that what these girls have been subjected to is grotesque, and that there is no narrative which justifies such deflowering of innocence.

First there is the why of the suffering.  The message is simple yet devastating: they are suffering for want of affection.  Such a fundamental lack has distorted their psyche, for there is nothing so desperate as an unloved child.  Each girl is driven by a frantic longing, a compulsion to be recognized and accepted by her partner.  They will stand in freezing rain through the night, undergo painful operations, and keep trying even as their bodies and minds give out.  Their need, our need, for acceptance is just that crucial.  Horrifically channeled by the Social Welfare Agency, an organization made all the more rank by its pretense at compassion, the method is terrible in its effectiveness.  I have never forgotten the scene in which Angelica is on her first mission: moving through her targets, she dispatches them with ruthless efficiency, only to turn to the camera with an innocent smile, as if to ask, “Did I do a good job?”

This mental structure explains many of the decisions in the series.  Why is the brainwashing most effective on children?  Because they are most vulnerable to this manipulation of their needs.  This also supports another observation of the series, that Triela as the oldest is apparently the least affected.  She retains an adolescent air of defiance in her behavior, even as she still submits to her conditioning.  When the girls learned of Elsa’s death they all knew why she had died.  This wasn’t a case of the conditioning gone wrong, as the handlers assumed.  This was the conditioning coming to its logical conclusion, understood intuitively by the other children.  The opposite of love is not hatred but indifference.  Even Rico, who is treated so poorly by Jean, still receives his attention.  Lauro did not even deign to grant Elsa that “kindness.”  When she tried to talk he turned on the radio, when she followed after he never turned around.

Etereo” is a song of breaking.  Of things coming apart in a way that can never be fixed.  It is reserved for only two moments in the series: the training of Henrietta and the dismissal of Elsa.  It is the most terrible track of the anime.  As it plays, Elsa realizes she will never be loved.  At this point the title of the episode, “Lycoris radiata herb”, is realized, for in Japanese folklore these flowers bloom along the path of someone whom you will never meet again.

Now comes the more troublesome question of fault.  Who is truly the cause for all of this?  The immediate suspects would be the handlers or fratello, for it is their want of compassion that causes the girls to suffer.  However, this answer is insufficient.  While being most immediately connected, the final blame cannot be placed squarely on their shoulders.  The Social Welfare Agency?  After all, it is this horrid institution that stole these girls’ futures, modifying them into weapons with an expiration date.  This answer is also incomplete.  While the SWA’s actions were abominable, these girls were delivered to them.  The SWA is a disgusting organization, but it didn’t enable a world in which there were broken and unwanted girls to be had.

Pursuing the next logical step, it must be the fault of those who made the girls available in the first place.  But here we come to a problem: no one person did.  The girls trace their roots back to murder and rape (Henrietta), human trafficking (Triela), disease (Rico), and parental greed (Angelica).  Human depravity and weakness, along with the pressure of inhuman powers, combine to yield this crop.  This begins to give us the shape of Gunslinger Girl’s answer: this situation is not the result of any one failing, but in essence a failing of the world itself.  We will not find any satisfying answer to the question of fault no matter how deeply we pursue it.

"We're going to die.  We're going to die not knowing anything!"

This absence of identifiable fault finds further expression in the lack of antagonists in the series.  While there are certainly characters who are abusive, thoughtless, and shameless, there are none who can be called on for responsibility.  No one whom we can say, "If this person were held accountable, this sort of problem would not exist."  We innately desire there to be a focus for our cathartic anger, somebody whom we can confidently proclaim the world would be better off without.  In its absence, we are left with an abiding sorrow that remains uncatalyzed.  Without cause it vaporizes, until it is part of the atmosphere itself.  It ceases to be a case of singular grief, but a penetrating melancholy from which there is no escape.

The distributed nature of the sorrow explains one of the common reactions to the series, and that is to experience it as sad, but not brought-to-tears-bawling depressing.  The natural conclusion is that Gunslinger Girl is deficient in emotion.  However, this is not what the series is designed to achieve.  It seeks to bring the viewer to a world where the colors are muted, the sounds not as bright, and the joy fleeting.  To feel extreme sentiment throughout the series is to have misunderstood.  Enduring melancholy, not bereavement, is the destination.  To this end, the closing scene of the series mirrors the beginning, as if to say, “And yet, it continues.”

To complete its survey of suffering, there is one more issue which Gunslinger Girl must refute: that of purpose.  If nobody is at fault, then maybe, we want to think, there is no “true” suffering, but instead just one great misunderstanding.  For this we return to the why, but now with the ultimate rather than the proximate sense in mind.  This suffering must serve a higher purpose.

To this Gunslinger Girl replies, "no."  It does not utilize a theological argument, but the inescapability of the situation it has created acts in its stead, putting the onus on the viewer to defend an explanation.  For the betterment of society?  No, it is abundantly clear that all those in contact with the SWA are infected by a sort of mental malaise, from which they either must hide or numb themselves.  Part of a grand historical plan?  The functioning of karma?  The holistic goodness of both pain and pleasure?  None of these answers, when confronted with the situation at hand, is sufficient.  To imagine using any of them to console the girls is repugnant.

In the end, we are cornered.  The suffering is real.  We cannot find a source of fault, nor can we explain away its presence.  It simply exists without lesson or moral, a tragedy without recompense.  Once again, I am moved to mention the sound track, with its quiet and unresolved, “Silenzio Prima Della Lotta.”  The notes rise at the end of each stanza, as though a series of questions is being asked, each without an answer, until it fades quietly and the memory of Rico telling herself she is very happy at the Social Welfare Agency is all that is left.


What is divinity?  This is a question that has become alien to modern culture; people imagine angels and outdated mythology rather than abiding Mystery.  Answering it properly has been the sole reason for my inability to write a satisfactory review.  Pursuing a definition has led me places I did not anticipate, and the reader will have to forgive me as I wander a bit, for I believe seeing the journey may assist in identifying the issue.

The question rests with the conclusion of the final episode.  At the end, Angelica’s body is failing.  Marco, so long estranged from her, has overcome his own pain to return to her side.  Her affection is not unrequited as she gently slips from the world.  It is there, it is then…it was always there…that something happens.

In my first reaction, I characterized it as beauty.  I expressed how the natural splendor of the meteor shower seemed to merge with the manmade harmony of the symphony.  This is true; I don’t disavow my earlier statements.  But “beauty” didn’t cover it.  It simply wasn’t enough; after all, how does things being beautiful make it better?  Three years later, I expressed it as acceptedness, connectedness.  That Angelica’s experience of connecting with Marco was reflective of the feeling of oneness divinity brings, and that as social beings that was our most natural expression.  This is also true, and I still consider that insight to be crucial to understanding human spirituality.  But it still fell short.  Earlier this year when writing brief epithets for all the series I had seen I described it as, “A reflection on…the centrality of compassion.”  You can anticipate my verdict: true, but yet insufficient.  Shortly later, you can see my articulation beginning to falter: I’m back to “heart-achingly beautiful” with, “the background is…luminous.”  By the end of my post I simply give up.

I had reached an impasse and was beginning to thoroughly doubt myself.  After all, the reasonable answer to the repeated feeling of, "This doesn't quite fit" should simply be, "I'm wrong."  I should regard this entire exercise as a case of misplaced elevationism and wash my hands of it.  And yet, the observation won't leave me; it feels as though it is more important to explain the evidence than to be beholden to my own expectations.  This is when, exhausted of my traditional options, I try to understand why all my efforts have been unfruitful.

I am attempting to describe something that has no like.  This thing, this idea, this divinity stands in a way untouched by the sorrow of the series.  It is beauty and acceptance and compassion, yet none of these things.  In its immaculate nature, it seems to reflect back on everything that has happened and…what?  Make it better?  No.  It doesn’t resolve or fix the situation.  Make it inconsequential?  No.  It doesn’t belittle the suffering.  Then what does it do?  It…changes things.  All I can say at this point is that somehow the series is transformed.  The best analogy I have developed is that of sublimation.  To sublimate is for solid matter to turn directly into a gas; it does not lose its chemical identity, but the new form is not identical to that of the old. 

Here I must emphasize again to prevent misconceptions from arising.  This is not a soft-headed look back, a philosophical rationale for what has happened.  That is the strength of Gunslinger Girl, its refusal to take any of those ways out.  In order to avoid cosmic romanticism, the issue must be real and it must be grave.  This conclusion is not a reversal of previous observations.  The ending is not a happy one in the traditional sense.  The events do not “make it better.”  And yet, somehow (?), that is not the point.

Similarly, I feel it important to emphasize that it isn’t Angelica’s death that consecrates the series.  She didn’t have to die to make things “better” (or not better).  But her passing is used as a window through which something else enters.  Upon realizing it, you see that it was there the whole time.  It was in the wind in the drapes, the light in the colonnade, even as it was in Angelica’s eyes at the end.  The promotional art is consistent in one thing: the light, shining brightly from elsewhere, flooding the scenes.  The opening is explicit in its imagery with Henrietta holding her head in her hands, crying, and then looking up.  She sees the sunlight and then leaps upward, suspended for a moment, before becoming the sky herself.

Perhaps we can see it once again in the music.  Revisiting the most poignant of moments, that of Elsa’s body lying in the park, we come upon a singular piece.  It is “Chiesa.”  Church.  It is reserved for only this scene.  Mournful, yet it does not cry.  It is a hymn, reaching upward.  The music is laying her to rest.  Like much of the score, it is subtle.  Terrible is the event yet hopeless is not the conclusion.  How one can maintain this statement appears to be nonsensical.

This is the paradox that I presented in the introduction.  How is it possible for such senseless suffering and transcendent divinity to coexist?  I have tried and tried to give an answer.  Thousands of words written and yet what is left?  It is this realization, that against this problem my battered intellect can find no purchase, that leads me to conclude that it is not that I have failed to find the words, but that there are no words to describe it.  I cannot find any logical structure that contains it.  I must emphasize I do not make this statement lightly, as though it were a proposition I wished to discover.  I find myself on the wrong side of Huston Smith’s statement: “However much the rationalist may begrudge the fact, paradox and the transrational are religion’s life blood, and that of art as well.”  This isn’t a conclusion sought but a case where the truth has been forced to come as a conqueror.

Having left the realm of discourse we enter into that of art.  At this stage, the series ceases to obsess over what is being portrayed.  If the content cannot convey the message, it must be found in the form instead, with the ultimate goal to affect change in the recipient directly.  It is the imparting of a type of knowledge that cannot exist separate from the knower.  How this alchemy is performed I do not know, and am in awe that such things exist.


When I first began writing the section above I titled it, “Divinity is liminal.”

Liminal (adjective): 1) Relating to a transitional stage of a process.  2) Occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.

Like “sublimation” it is only an approximation, a best guess on my part.  It mirrors a sentiment from Abraham Heschel that, “it is as if things stood with their backs to him, their faces turned to God.”  This concept is illusive.  As a friend of mine remarked when I was trying to explain it: I have hold of a thread of spider silk, one so thin I cannot even feel it, and which is only visible when the light strikes it just right.  It is not possible to convince anybody it is there until they see it too, and yet I am led on with a certitude that is surprises even me with its strength.

However, be that as it may, this is the core ethos of Gunslinger Girl.  A world scarred by suffering.  A world permeated by divinity.  Not the observation that there is good and evil in the world, but that there is something that transcends that good and evil altogether.  It was never hidden.  There is no obscure symbolism or cultural references that must be researched; the most informed critic enjoys no advantage over the thoughtful viewer.  In this analysis I have, truly, uncovered nothing.  I have simply found a strange new path and in my typical fashion am expressing this experience as a lesson to edify others.


There are so many more things I wish to say.  I have barely mentioned the details that make the series “real.”  The masterful implementation of the psychological dynamics of the characters, especially between the fratello, gives a tangible grounding.  The attention given to the scenery and locations underline the reality of the setting.  The color pallet is subdued with the melancholy of the atmosphere, the drifting shots aid the contemplative essence, and there remains more of the music I could detail.  The many small scenes, both wonderful and sad, that demonstrate the virtuosity of a series with a full mastery of its outlook.  These will have to await another day.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

[Anime] Princess Principal

Princess Principal – 6/10

“PriPri” is a series that has no right working, and yet almost manages to pull it off.  The premise is every bit as ludicrous as anime can muster these days: in an alternate steampunk universe, Victorian England split into two rival countries.  The Commonwealth and Empire have entered into a cold war of espionage with each other, with the Berli….London Wall dividing the capital.  Unfortunately, Sean Connery was late for his audition, and the part of ace spy for the Commonwealth is played by Ange, a petite gray-haired girl with a wholly nonfunctional spy outfit.  Along with her crack team of teenage associates, she conspires with Charlotte, a princess of the Empire, to bridge the two sides.

If the above description does not impress, then one is in good company.  The unorthodox inclusion of young girls into inappropriate roles has long ceased to be novel in anime.  In fact, the habitual reliance on this trope has become tiresome, detrimental to the production of any serious atmosphere.  One is simply overwhelmed by the unintended comedy of having grown men being threatened by such diminutive characters, let alone the obvious inappropriateness in terms of emotional maturity and training.

Yeah, this ain't terrifying.
Yet against my will the first couple of episodes dared me to hope that PriPri might rise above its mediocre origins.  It introduces itself curtly with a bare minimum exposition before diving in.  Initial indications are that the series will explain as it goes, expecting the viewer to keep up; a welcome contrast to having every detail carefully spoon fed to the audience.  The cavorite sphere is a good example of this: by the handling it is clearly valuable, by the reaction of others it is novel, and by the necessity of cooling it there are limitations.  No exposition needed.

The portrayal of the world also imparts a sense of impending depth.  The hospital of the first episode suggests a darker tone, perhaps intimations about exposing the ugliness of the industrial-era society or the drawbacks to Ange’s prolonged exposure to the sphere.  Similarly, the fight at the end was more graphic than one would expect for such a series.  However, it is Ange who steals the show.

Good characters have flaws, and in the first two episodes Ange has flaws aplenty.  Introduced as a pathological liar, she has no trouble telling falsehoods to allies and enemies.  This culminates in the most brutal first episode this season: having taken a traitor to a remote location he turns and asks her whether she intends to kill him.  She coldly answers, “no” and then fires.  “No.”  Another shot.  Half a dozen denied bullets loaded into the man.  This isn’t professionalism, but the sign of a person broken.  The second episode also wastes no time, introducing the driving plot of the series, and ending with all the internet viewers frantically deciphering the handwritten letter to see what comes next.  All in all, one of the strongest starts of the season.

"Please put 50,000 dollars into this bag and apt natural. I am pointing a gub at you."
Unfortunately, this is where my praise will come to a wrenching halt.  There were indications in the first few episodes that PriPri might not live up to its potential, but I selectively paid them no heed.  The blinders could not be maintained as the mediocrity of the series mounted; all the tantalizing indications above come to naught in a collapse toward the black hole of the moe girl standard.  Ange is made relatable and vulnerable, the ambitious princess a bleeding heart.  Secondary characters are squandered as convenient tropes and eye candy, as are the details of their world.  Disconcerting scenes become rare.  Friendship, rather than the necessities of espionage, come to dominate the narrative.

Most frustrating was the consistency with which it marginally fell short.  All episodes Most episodes had within them the spark, the small piece of inspiration that if only executed with more proficiency and less pandering would have born quality.  A brilliantly choreographed fight here, a touching scene of a lost father there…it kept me going every week, hoping that perhaps this was merely the lull in the middle of the series, a doldrums that would escaped from by the end.
So close to being impactful, yet so far.
That, however, was not to be.  Even my damningly faint praise must be reined in for the final episode.  Its eerie ability to anticipate my entire “Please Don’t” checklist was disconcerting:

Please don’t have Dorothy come back just to help Ange.
Please don’t let Chise choose her friends over duty.
Please don’t allow Ange to escape from the airship and ride to the rescue.
Please don’t involve Beatrice just because she needs air time.
Please don’t let the entire cast escape the consequences of their actions.
Please don’t have a dangling end for a second season.

In other words: please don’t be completely cliché in every regard.  My attempts at parody became dismal foreshadowing instead.  After the always-enjoyable opening song played for the last time, it was a disappointing conclusion to what had started with such promise.   It seems on principle that these sorts of series appear at first disguised as princesses only to be revealed as paupers.

Final verdict: First few episodes will be remembered fondly for the energy they provoked while airing.  Not a series I intend to ever rewatch or recommend to others.

Isn't treason fun?

Monday, August 14, 2017

[Anime] Samurai X

Rurouni Kenshin: Meiji Kenkaku Romantan – Tsuioku-hen (Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal) – 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.

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.

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."