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.


Monday, June 5, 2017

[Anime] Texhnolyze


Texhnolyze – 9/10

If there is an anime which best demonstrates the difference between “quality” and “enjoyment,” Texhnolyze must surely be it.  Texhnolyze is a deliberately crafted view into the abyss.  It is completely uncompromising in its vision and pursues the implications of a Godless world in which all sources of meaning are in full retreat.

To fully appreciate Texhnolyze, a short explanation is in order.  With the rise of empirical science and the discretization of traditional Christianity, the idea of God has fallen into disfavor.  However, without God to hold the cosmos together there is no absolute source of morals or values.  All is will and chance.  This has led to a profound sense of alienation.  There is no benevolent, understanding God and man doesn’t belong in nature, so there is nowhere to turn.  We are estranged from ourselves and others by the inherent unknowability of our own psyche, the subconscious beast that lies in wait beyond the reach of rationality.  The dream of reason and the dream of faith are gone.  All that is left is for us to wander in this chaos until we meet the common fate of death.

Texhnolyze is a metaphor for this experience.  The series begins in the ironically-named city of Lux, located in an unearthly underground cavern.  Here the remnants of humanity huddle, locked in violence with each other.  How humans came to this place is never explained, but ultimately it does not matter.  While there are some who exist beyond the city, we shall see that they have not escaped this shared fate.  The protagonist Ichise is a prize fighter, content to live a menial life of casual brutality and indulgence.  A lost soul, he is forcibly awakened from his mental slumber by the events of the first few episodes and now doomed to be free in a world that is itself adrift.



The Ideologies:
0) Texhnolyization: Not a true faction, but a persistent reality of the world.  It is the encroachment of science and technology on all things, and when integrated into a person invades their very perception of the world.  It is used and abused, worshipped and reviled, at once an accomplishment and a horror, and thoroughly inhuman.  While many look to it to create the next step for humanity, it alone cannot fulfill our quest for purpose.

1) The people of Gabe: these are the remnants of the old religious vision.  They rely on the proclamations of an omniscient oracle to guide them.  However, this reliance on authority collapses into an inflexible fatalism.  Even seeing their doom coming they do nothing to prevent it, helpless in the face of such change.

2) Yoshii: Life is conflict.  Coming from the “lifeless” above, he prizes the turbulent vitality that pervades Lux.  It isn’t meaning he seeks but a respite from his own boredom.  He only feels alive when he is adding to the havoc.  However, ultimately he is killed, his activities come to naught.

3) The people above ground: They are alive, and nothing more can be said of them.  They continue their decrepit existence in absence of hope or meaning, living in the past and steadily dying out because this is not enough to sustain them.  Humans cannot just be cows in the field.

Some have suggested that they are a metaphor of heaven.  I think it is more accurate to say that along with the Class (the people on the hill) they are a statement that there is no better place.  Lux is what the world has to offer, and dreaming of a better place is folly.  When Doc finds this out she commits suicide and Shinji (leader of the Racan) becomes psychotically unhinged.

4) Anti-Texhnolyze Alliance: Kimata and his group are the last persistent strands of romanticism.  They believe in the natural man and loath tainting our essence with other sources.  However, when faced with those who have become integrated with technology, the Shapes, they are torn apart.  There is no returning to our origins.

5) Kano: An abandonment of humanity, he employs texhnolyzation to its fullest extent, replacing his followers in their entirety.  Using these Shapes he seeks to enforce his vision and will on all of humanity.  And in a sense he does win, or at least kills everybody who opposes him and leaves his followers stranded in place for eternity.  He even incorporates Ran into his plan, which has a distinct whiff of fascism saying, “God is with us.”  But nothing comes of it in the end.  He takes over the world and then Ichise just punches his head off as violence is reciprocated with more violence.  Close scene.

6) Onishi: Unlike the others, Onishi doesn’t represent an ideology so much as his own humanist principles, which is what draws Ichise and others to him.  As his many antagonists note, he’s the one holding Lux together even as they try to tear it apart.  He hears the voice of the city, a.k.a. Ran, a.k.a. God, and what remains of the religious values while not actually being religious.  He is able to maintain his position in the face of all that happens.  But in the end he is overwhelmed by the rising tide of violence; he might even be “right” but it does not matter.

I am confident that I have missed many more references and metaphors that await discussion.



The Good:
I have already said a great deal on the symbolic portrayal of ideas in Texhnolyze, but what remains to praise is its art and atmosphere.

The atmosphere of Texhnolyze is both expansive and cold.  It is extraordinarily dark, punctuated by the most blindingly white light.  Yet somehow this light doesn’t seem to reach the objects themselves.  It imparts no warmth on the surroundings.  It simply leaves a stark impression of them on the viewer, with deep shadows lingering everywhere.

The buildings are decrepit.  Everything is in disarray, as though it was once a magnificent place but has since fallen into ruin.  There is also a sense of depth; buildings behind buildings, sewers under the roads.  It is a tangled mess.

All of this combines to create a clawing desolation to Texhnolyze.  The spaces in the world remain empty, a chilling testament to the loss of humanity’s capacity to fill them any longer.

Interspersed with this void are the moments of climax, where for brief moments the characters feel alive.  The screen positively vibrates with the intensity, as though just for now they are truly existing.  It is reminiscent of The Stranger, wherein most of Meursault’s days are spent in persistent vacantness, only to feel reality rushing in at the moment of killing the Arab man.

The conclusion of Texhnolyze also deserves acclaim.  All has come to an end, and only Ichise remains.   He dies alone, but it is all over.  It is a curious resolution, both extraordinarily sad yet also strangely mitigated by the vocals of the music.  Seeing the last vision of a rising flower he smiles.  The lyrics in the background serve to guide us, perhaps even comfort us, but not answer us:

“I dip my hands into this darkness
This is the ink of all of our lifetimes
Here in this world of utter silence
Let the stones speak to me
Tattooed here across my skin, "I Will Live"
Like a rose that grows from the wreckage
Blood red, beautiful
How the storms all around me are now breathless

Is this the end of the raging road
Through the tangled mind?
Is this the end of starlit sky?
Are we walking blind?

Let me set out through this morning
Open arms to greet the empty ages
Reborn, see how I'm circling
I'm a sailor, eternal”



The Bad:
Texhnolyze is, quite frankly, a masterpiece.  I have little in the way of significant criticism toward it on any front.  From art and design to atmosphere and themes, it is a finely-crafted work.  There is perhaps some merit in arguing that the series is quite slow, not character driven, or particularly enjoyable.  But as I began my review, entertainment is not its purpose; it is a tour de force of modern intellectual estrangement, made manifest in the visual medium.  The only reason I cannot bring myself to give it a 10/10 is due to personal disagreement with its message, not any failing on the part of the series itself.

AMVs:
I haven’t done these in some time, but Texhnolyze has a few AMVs that excellently capture its feeling in just a few short minutes:

  • Imagine: Low video quality, but the merging of the song and music is perfect.
  • Paper Clocks: Another AMV that captures the melancholy, unreal atmosphere of Texhnolyze.

"Imagine there's no heaven..."

Saturday, June 3, 2017

[Anime] Death Billiards



Death Billiards – 8/10

Death Parade is one of the most heartfelt anime I have had the honor of reviewing, although at times against its own wishes.  I am completely enamored with its core themes and bittersweet portrayal of life and death, but its insistence on incorporating superfluous characters and details obscures the power of its message.  Death Billiards, the OVA that preceded Death Parade, is the distilled essence of that series.  It is able to reach the same conclusion in 25 minutes that Death Parade takes 12 episodes to approach.  However, paradoxically, I cannot find it in myself to rate it higher.

The problem comes from its very strength: in being succinct it is also less impactful.  This can be seen most clearly in the difference in the characters between Death Billiards and Death Parade.  In Death Billiards Decim is a compassionate observer, willing to embrace and support a man who realizes that his time is up.  He is a fully realized arbiter: having seen so much suffering and pain, while knowing that he never had to experience it himself, all he can do is offer comfort to the fallen.

The woman in black, by comparison, is his bored and jaded cohort.  When the old man has his head smashed into the glass, all she does is grimace in disgust and exasperation, as though to say, “What a mess this is for me.”  She demonstrates no empathy or surprise.  Her relationship with Decim is clearly that of the subordinate; she is familiar with him, and is genial with her interactions, but there is no doubt he is the deeper personality.  But, like Decim, she is “complete.”

"I'm going to have to clean this up."

In Death Parade we are presented with a very different duo.  Decim is cold and distant, a personality not much more animated than the marionettes he controls.  Because of his aloofness, he is unable to fathom the multifaceted nature of humans.  His method of judgement, to place people in extreme duress and analyze their reactions, only serves to bring out the worst in people.  It is a cruel approach that ultimately fails.  It is up to Chiyuki, a pure lost soul under his temporary care, to help him find the compassion required for a proper understanding of humanity.  But she herself is also a work in progress: suffering from amnesia, she lacks a clear sense of herself and is casting about for answers.

Starting out this way, Death Parade in a sense takes a step back before it takes two steps forward.  Its characters must originally be incomplete in order to undertake their journey to fullness.  In this process we are able to observe firsthand Decim’s growing regard for Chiyuki’s kindness, his appreciation for her as a person, and the ultimate failure of his method of judgement on her.  Conversely, Chiyuki comes to remember that she committed the worst of crimes against herself, and that what she has done inflicted untold suffering on those that loved her.  Unlike Decim, however, she does not follow the arc that would lead to her Death Billiards self.

Using their mutual journey, and despite being burdened with unnecessary detours, Death Parade is able to reach the same place as Death Billiards but with more import.  It is also able to address the conundrums that Death Billiards sidesteps.  When Chiyuki asks Decim what happened to the two in Death Billiards, we are denied an answer.  If the OVA uses the same signals as the series, then the masks over the elevators indicate that the old man was sent to hell smiling while the boyfriend was reincarnated in total disarray.  This would seem strange in light of the events, and has spawned a number of theories.  Did the old man’s last whisper offer to exchange himself for the younger one?  Were the flashbacks of the old man’s life, which hint that he may have been something of a swaggering bully, indicate that singular instances of adultery and desperate violence are not nearly as reprehensible as a lifetime of arrogance?  Or similarly, did he grin because he thought he had out-witted Decim: by playing the kindly old man did he sell himself to be reincarnated?  Is this lead-in to Death Parade’s theme about the incoherence of judgement itself?  Ultimately there may be no answer.  This lack of resolution is artful on the part of Death Billiards; by leaving such loose ends it is able to expand its impact beyond the allotted time and offer good food for thought.  It is at the same time unsatisfying, without the strength of message contained in Death Parade.

"Come at me, boy."

One final confounding factor I must remark on is the interference of previous knowledge.  Going into Death Billiards blind, I suspect it is much more biting, for as a viewer you don’t realize that both men are already dead.  The “reveal” is no surprise at all to veterans of Death Parade, and so it loses some of its potency through no fault of its own.

If you liked Death Parade then Death Billiards is worth the watch, and the same is true the other way around.  I suspect there will be fans on both sides, since each has its strengths which are not entirely shared by the other; they are sibling works, not direct extensions of each other.


Sunday, May 7, 2017

[Anime] Attack on Titan


Note: I have not read the manga.  My praise or criticisms could very well be modified by future information, but for now I write on what I have experienced.  Also stole a few screenshots from S2.


Attack on Titan is a series that requires no introduction; like or hate it, it is one of the most spectacularly successful anime to ever be released.  As such it is subjected to constant criticism and pointed hatred.  The process that contemporary popular series go through in the anime community is so reliable that I facetiously suggest that there must be predetermined stages:
  • Denial: The initial hype begins and long-time anime viewers refuse to believe that it will last, citing the overall mediocrity of the series.
  • Anger: The enthusiasm continues to build among the larger fanbase, which only intensifies the disgust.  After all, why isn’t their favorite show this popular?
  • Arguing: In an attempt to curtail the mounting worship the dissenters become more and more vocal with their criticisms.  Both sides begin to polarize, settling into the Love It or Hate It camps.
  • Depression: Finally, it sinks in that the series isn’t going anywhere, and that people will continue to like it no matter how many times it is compared negatively to Cowboy Bebop.  Clearly anime is going downhill.
  • Acceptance: Given time, the situation cools down and it becomes acceptable to say that in spite of your clearly superior standards, you did sort of enjoy watching it…but only just a little…
I write this review several years after the first season completed, as the second season continues to air.  Attack on Titan as a dark action-drama is still the standard by which similar series are judged.  I would argue that this is for good reason, and that there are many elements which have not been equaled since.  This does not excuse its flaws, which are significant, but if you’re just in it for the ride, Attack on Titan does deliver.

Aww...hell...
The Good:
What forms the solid foundation of Attack on Titan are its mysteries.  From the beginning, there is one overwhelming question: what are the Titans and where did they come from?  They have completely ruined human civilization, forcing the traumatized survivors to huddle behind their equally-inexplicable walls, and yet humanity still has no answer for their existence.  The mystery only deepens with more details: Titans are lighter than they should be for their size, they lack any method of reproduction, they only hunt humans but do not actually require them for sustenance, and are unaffected by all harm except to the nape of their neck.  These problems are presented to us organically and create an air of confused urgency: the answer may be out there, and it may be the salvation of mankind, but it may just as well yield nothing.

This brings us to the titans themselves.  Their presentation is one that straddles the mindlessness of zombies and the vitality of predators, with just a hint of the insane in their behavior.  They are deranged idiots, so closely resembling us yet so alien at the same time.  Without knowing why they do what they do, their actions are unpredictable and therefore all the more terrifying.

On top of this, the titans are horrifying for one other reason: they eat us.  This fate, the fate of succumbing to a creature larger and stronger than us, to in turn be devoured, is the most primal of fears.  Some of Attack on Titan’s greatest, and most disturbing, scenes are when people are caught and see the mouth opening in front of them.  In that moment intelligence, bravery, and virtue evaporate in the face of unbounded terror.  People scream, they beg, they flail…and then they die.  This inevitability, taken together with their cryptic nature, is what causes the titans to be such compelling monsters despite their patently ridiculous appearance and behavior.

Seemed like a nice place to live

Appreciable detail is also given to the overall world.  There is a clear geography, consistent architecture, some history, and of course the iconic 3D maneuvering gear.  We are often given small glimpses into the logistics of the army as well, such as refilling gas canisters or loading up supply carts for different groups.  These operations are usually supplemented by small vignettes in the middle of each episode, adding a further sense that the details of the world continue deeper.

Finally, there’s the hype.  There isn’t much to say here: the direction is bombastic, but when it comes to Attack on Titan it works.  The sheer scale of the action coupled with the operatic vocal music and intensity of the imagery comes together to create moments that are simply satisfying.

Our three deep and exciting heroes
The Bad:
Attack on Titan is great when it stays in the realm of action, but when it ventures into the human sphere it degenerates into pure melodrama.  The directing style that serves it so well in combat is simply ridiculous when used for human interactions.  Every character, when saying something of importance, MUST SHOUT IT AT THE TOP OF THEIR LUNGS  The camera will zoom in uncomfortably, and the audience is given the sense that somebody is screaming directly in our face.  There is not even the slightest shred of subtlety.

This also applies to the characters themselves, who have no depth to speak of.  Eren is our good old powered-by-youth male protagonist, Mikasa takes on the emotionally-blank girl role that seems to be necessary since NGE, and Armin’s job is to whine.  These people exist solely to fuel the action; they never have a development that doesn’t involve advancing the plot toward more titans.  Any sort of resolution, such as Mikasa ending up with Eren, will likely be part of the denouement as a way of giving fans what they want in the end.  The side characters are also forgettable, with no real function except to feed into our main trio or become titan fodder.

Because of these weaknesses, the parts of the series between the major action moments tend to drag.  After a while it becomes obvious that nothing interesting is going to happen when only humans are talking on screen, and we must content ourselves to waiting until the next titan encounter.  This is made worse because the mysteries I praised at the beginning of the review are never given closure, so many of the conversations boil down to, “Well, we still don’t know anything.  BUT WE’RE REALLY EMOTIONAL ABOUT IT.”  Strangely, I am more forgiving with regards to Attack on Titan for its lack of closure, a point I am normally a stickler on.  I have no defensible reason for this lapse in rigor, but I felt placated knowing that the story was continuing.


Saturday, May 6, 2017

[Anime] Spice and Wolf S2 Review

Review under construction - needs images.

Note: Unlike most of my reviews, what follows is a collection forum posts gleaned from the discussion of the series during a group viewing.  I have edited a few of them for clarity, but have left them essentially in their original state.

Spice and Wolf II - 7.5/10

Post #1: Episode 0 and Discussion

This is the first episode that I have not seen in years, so this was enjoyable to not remember as many scenes. That said, I have a very mixed feeling toward this episode: it is half fantastic and half terrible fan service.

The good of the episode comes from Holo's internal monologues and dreams. They give excellent insight into how Holo thinks. As she muses on how the days, months, and years just slipped by when she was alone she cannot help but feel delight in the daily variety she now experiences. They also demonstrate how self-aware she is of her actions: she knows that at times she loses some control, and is bothered by how much more vulnerable she has become since her long solitude. But at the same time she doesn't apologize for herself, she merely reflects on it.

Easily the most powerful segment is Holo's dream where she finds herself standing on a snow field. On one side are her kin, the wolves waiting for her to come home. On the other is Lawrence with arms outstretched. In this moment she makes a clear choice: as long as he is there, she would like to be with him. But when she reaches him, the reality sinks in that he won't always be there. She will live to see him die, and that is a most terrible thing. Unable to explain this to him it eats away at her. In terms of quality character development, these are top notch.

However, it seems that they decided to also pair this with some profoundly mediocre elements. When I called it "fan service" above I don't mean the sexual variety, but simply that the interactions between Lawrence, Holo, and Nora are for the most part designed to entertain the audience. At the table Holo's forced jealousy, Lawrence's exasperated goodness, and Nora's cute innocence are all excessively highlighted. And later on the scenes involving the flirty interactions at the "sick" bed are just bones thrown to the audience, even stooping to Holo becoming so excited she hits her head (haha?).

Finishing the episode I felt a mixture of feelings. On one hand it's like they had an excellent series of ideas they needed to get across, and they did so amazingly well. I have a soft spot for the grandness of time and our own impermanence, and they nailed that firmly. On the other hand, it seems they feared the episode would be too abstract or depressing, and so were forced to throw in antics to ensure the attention of the audience.

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As to Episode 0, the reason I dislike it is because the interactions have no impact. That is, normally their banter has something to do with the plot or is part of shaping their relationship. As much as Holo's teasing drives you (and me at times) nuts, the constant testing also tends to result in certain situations where she realizes she's pushed him too far, or suddenly there bursts through a moment of genuine interaction. These give insight into each of them and are what help us appreciate how their relationship works.

However, during this episode nothing of the sort happens. They play out their parts as established from previous episodes, but as it is adrift between the two seasons it has no relationship to progressing a plot or affecting their relationship. What happens in episode 0 stays in episode 0. I suspect I'm also influenced by some knowledge from S2: (minor spoiler) We never see Nora again. Because of this I can't help but feel that the design of this episode was meant to pander to people who enjoyed the little three-way relationship before it vanishes.

Posts #2-3: Episodes 1-6, irritations

Finished my late viewing of S&W2, episodes 1-3. I honestly don't have a lot to say, mostly because of how it ties in with what is coming up. I figure I'll write out everything then when the first arc is done.

One little thing I disliked about the version I was watching, though, was when Holo is upset and asking to have kids with Lawrence. In my current version she says, "you could make love to me." In the original I watched it was instead translated, "you could mate with me" which I felt was far more fitting.

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If S&W is consistent for one thing, it is that it likes to imitate familiar approaches and then purposefully derail them. This arc is no different. On the surface it's yet another, "two guys compete for the affections of a girl" structure. The threat of losing the girl is real to the protagonist who must give it all he has to woo her. The series reinforces this view of the situation somewhat through Lawrence's internal imagery of Holo and Amarty together. In reality Holo was always on his side and this whole mess was to teach Lawrence to trust her and recognize his own feelings. It never was a competition, and Holo thoroughly belittles Lawrence for thinking that.

The problem I have with this arc is that it tries to close with a reconciliation of the protagonists, with the implication that this has further strengthened their bond. Now, I'm not Lawrence but if I found out that I had just spent several days in mental anguish just because my prospective girlfriend couldn't be bothered to talk things out and opted for roundabout manipulation to get the message across, I'd be rather angry. It's like...Holo has a grasp of psychology but no sympathy to accompany it; she just berates him again and again for being an idiot, when as best I can tell he's acting pretty reasonably for a human male. Better than most, really.

Which again brings us back to Holo and her personality. She knows he's a good guy, but she still cannot shake that insufferable manipulative superiority. This whole arc is a result of her not treating him as an equal and talking things out. Instead she views it as her prerogative to beat some sense into him emotionally. It isn't even the little tests the average female does, like seeing if a guy picks up on her cues as a sign of his devotion. She really just likes doing things this way.

So as the arc ends I once again don't attack the writing of Holo. She is who she is. But I do disagree that this event would lead to better relations. If anything it reaffirms the inequality between the two, which is pretty bad for a stable romantic relationship. Also the insight for Lawrence, that he really cares for her, was one that I think the whole audience already knew. What we're all waiting on is Holo to reciprocate.

p.s. Birds > wolves

Post #4: Episodes 7-12

As I watched S2 I was struck strongly how both arcs have exactly the same point: Lawrence chooses Holo over wealth. This insistence on proving the point , however, confuses me. During S1 I never had the impression that Lawrence was a hard-headed merchant who only cared for money. Sure he pesters Holo about her debt, but that is just banter with a small sliver of truth. By the end of the first season it was abundantly clear that they had formed a substantial bond with each other. If I were asked at that point whether Lawrence would part with Holo for profit I would have emphatically answered no. Yet, for some strange reason the entirety of the second season is devoted to proving what we already know.

Anyway, moving beyond that general critique there are two primary reasons I like this arc more than the last one:

1) Holo is back. Like her or hate her, her uniqueness is one of the main claims to fame for the series. When she is absent for several episodes the engagement of the series can't help but suffer. Moreover, now that Holo is back she reciprocates more of Lawrence's kindness. Yes, there are the quips and games and endless meddling but we are given many more instances where she is openly fond of him. She is seen resting her head on his lap, content to let him stroke her head. When he kisses her hand she is actually taken aback for a moment. And when she really is scared, she reaches out to him instinctively. Again, I know this doesn't impress a lot of people but it is a fairly large advance compared to her previous attitudes.

The other aspect of Holo that I disliked during my original viewing but appreciated the second was her suggestion that they separate. I recall feeling quite disgusted at her suggestion that they separate. I felt like they had already been over this and that it was just drama in the making again. However, this time around it made a lot more sense. Previous suggestions of their separation originated with Lawrence, and were often born of practical concerns. This time it was from Holo, and this made all the difference.

Holo is old. For her all things are transient. We see this clearly illustrated when Lawrence comments that people change steadily over time, and her response is, "Yes, just like rivers." Lawrence can't even fathom what she means as he lacks the perspective of time that she does. On this journey she is happier than she has been in a long time, possibly happier than she has ever been in her life. Simply to have everything feel new every day is a gift. But even all this excitement can't shield her from the realization that it will not last. Everything comes to an end. Frankly, when she says that she's accepted Lawrence will eventually die she's just lying to herself. She knows he will die and that there is nothing she can do about it. It reminded me of a scene from Babylon 5 where an immortal being reflects on the burden of his own timelessness:

"To live on as we have is to leave behind joy, and love, and companionship, because we know it to be transitory, of the moment. We know it will turn to ash. Only those whose lives are brief can imagine that love is eternal. You should embrace that remarkable illusion. It may be the greatest gift your race has ever received."

As I watched the series this time it really sunk in just how burdened Holo was with the interminable future. Unfortunately, the scene itself was actually sloppy with some strange cuts that made me feel disoriented. In the end Holo's fear is not addressed and is actually not even meaningful for the rest of the series; it is swept under the rug as Lawrence tries to reconcile with her while not even understanding what she is upset about. I found this quite disappointing in light of how potent this insight into Holo was.

2) The side characters are superior. In the first arc Amarty wasn't bad...he just wasn't great. He did the job he needed to for the story and that was it. Lawrence's merchant friend Mark and his apprentice were similar. I would have loved to see more of Dian (bird woman) but that was not to be.

By comparison Eve is a far more dynamic character. She exhibited just enough self-contradictory aspects to make her feel real. Originally introduced as mysterious and aloof she is actually quite gregarious given the opportunity. Her later deceptions in no way negate this. If anything, they reinforce that coexisting with her cutthroat attitude is a desperate need to be liked and understood that never completely went away. Her life has taught her the hard way that she has to guard herself carefully, but it hasn't extinguished that original spark. Even when she betrays Lawrence it is fear, not avarice or hatred, that motivates her. That she leaves him with the deed to the inn further illustrates that she bears him no ill will. Ultimately she is a sad character who is on a path of self-destruction. Feeling the world close in on her she pursues her ambitions with a mad defiance, if only to prove that she has lived. It's why her last line to Lawrence, that she has hope, is such a sad lie. (That said...can't Lawrence win a single fight in this entire series? Just once?)

Rigoro the scribe and his assistant nun Merta didn't enjoy as much development as Eve, but the way they were presented it hinted at so much more. While Rigoro is clearly educated and wealthy, we do not know his background. His fortune seems to be greater than just what a town scribe would earn so it is likely inherited along with his mansion. The deep cellars with old books would attest to this as well. However, his family is conspicuously absent and in its place is Merta. She clearly can't be his wife, yet she is continually alone with him serving as companion, assistant, and secretary. During the credits we see that Merta goes to Rigoro and that he embraces and comforts her. Aside from her Rigoro avoids the company of others, despite his friendly nature. The final piece of the puzzle is the greenhouse, a dream that is simultaneously extravagant and simple. He not only takes great pride in it, but clearly finds peace within as well.

Taken together, these paint an interesting picture of somebody who has suffered great emotional privation and who now appreciates the simple and quiet beauty of his home and garden. It tantalizes us with the story of two people who have mutual respect and understanding, grown to affection, that cannot be pursued. But rather than view it as a tragic tale, it strikes me as very sweet that perhaps in this world these two people were lucky enough to find a measure of happiness in each other.

Post #5: Summary of S1 and S2

In the end, while this rewatch gave me many new insights into the series my overall assessment remained the same. I have both seasons rated as an 8/10 on MAL, but if I were given more subtlety of ranking I would give S1 a solid 8/10 while S2 strays closer to a 7.5/10. If season two had more focus on side characters like Eve and Rigoro, woven into their interactions with our main duo, it could have been quite masterful. Unfortunately, the unnecessary emphasis on Holo and Lawrence's uncertain-but-not relationship overshadowed these brilliant side personalities.

In the final analysis, what I have to give S&W the most credit for is Holo as a personality. Even as infuriating as she is at times, I know of no other character like her. I never found myself bored while she was on screen. Her relationship with Lawrence is similarly interesting. Even if I was irritated by the way some aspects of it were handled, they form a unique pair in anime with how their relationship forms and manifests itself in their exchanges. Their development is the shining centerpiece of the story.

That said, I fear that this interplay came at the cost of story. It's as icedwarrior lamented in his post for 7-9: that once again the plot was about the personality conflicts between Holo and Lawrence. After a while everything is about whether Lawrence and Holo are getting closer or further apart. They can't just let their relationship slide for a few episodes. It ultimately robs us of the ability to experience anything else in the world. So even as the names and places change, there begins to creep in a sense of sameness about everything that happens. I suspect this is yet another contributing factor to why I prefer S1 over S2: things are still fresh in the first season before the repetition sets in.

And with this, I leave one of my favorite AMVs: Spanish Wolf. I find myself often returning to it as it captures the best the series has to offer: the joy of living and traveling, the give and take in the turbulent partnership between Lawrence and Holo and the romance that unfolds and deepens over several seasons. And of course, the rampant alcoholism.


[Anime] Spice and Wolf S1 Review

Review under construction - needs images.

Note: Unlike most of my reviews, what follows is a collection forum posts gleaned from the discussion of the series during a group viewing.  I have edited a few of them for clarity, but have left them essentially in their original state.

Spice and Wolf - 8/10

Post #1: Episodes 1-3, Holo’s Personality

S&W is one of the few series were most of the nudity doesn’t bother me. I’m normally part of the Prude Police, but S&W knows how to frame situations properly. A good demonstration of the writers’ conscious understanding of how to frame females is in the comparison between Chloe and Holo in the first episode. While Lawrence has no romantic inclinations toward Chloe, when she lies down on the hay and comments that she has grown up his eyes can’t help but notice this fact. The way they frame those shots and then cut to Lawrence’s face clearly indicate that we’re being treated to Lawrence’s point of view, not just being given shots of a pretty girl for fan service reasons.

Later on when Holo is getting out of the cart she is stark naked but the way the situation is handled manages to keep it from feeling like it’s just there for sex appeal. Her being naked is natural; she doesn’t give a second thought to it and neither should we. The only compromising shot is yet another that is clearly from Lawrence’s point of view: when she bends over to pick up the jerky and looking at her (nicely rounded) buttocks he notices that she has a tail. So the scene which could be a train wreck of bloody noses and shallow fan service manages to wordlessly demonstrate to us how Holo views her body and how we as the audience should as well.

One thing that is interesting to note is that later in the second episode when they are drying off in the inn Lawrence does become embarrassed at Holo being naked. At first I thought maybe this was inconsistent, since he didn’t display any of this in episode one, but on further reflection I think it could be argued that he is becoming familiar with her as a person now. Even if she doesn’t care, his maleness does.

Continuing on to Holo herself as a character, I’ve always had a very interesting time trying to pin her down. I know she is a fan favorite, but I don’t think most people appreciate a simple fact that is stated in the first episode: Holo is Holo. She is her own personality that is not any particular trope and doesn’t play to what people want. She is very old and experienced, despite appearances. However, she knows the effect her appearance has and smoothly abuses it to get what she wants. The only reason she isn’t a villain is because what she wants is usually fairly basic (apples!) or more or less good-willed (helping Lawrence). In short, she is highly, but benignly, manipulative.

This is the reason that again, despite her popularity, I really don’t think people appreciate how dangerous she is. Not in a “wolf eat you” way (although that is also true), but in the fact that in scene after scene she is content to play with Lawrence. To tease him, to excite his emotions, and then to stomp them. It’s her pastime. This is somebody who is very adept at wearing a mask and only rarely lets what she thinks and feels through, instead pretending to be many different things and watching other people react. So in short, even though I admire Holo as a character I have never thought that she would be an amazing person to be with in real life.

To finish up, I have a question for people: where do you imagine S&W taking place? I’ve always imagined either southern Germany or northern Italy given the names, but never could quite decide on which.

Post #2: Episodes 4-7, Lawrence

I like this first arc, but I will be honest I still don’t 100% understand how the deal worked. More specifically, they never answer the original question which is: why were Lawrence and Holo targeted by Medio Trading? They bring this up as a bizarre choice by Medio Trading since Milone Trading wouldn’t care that much. Is the implication that Chloe recognized Holo‘s name and authorized the hit out of a hunch? I just never got it.

Which brings me on to the second point, and that is Chloe’s involvement in Medio Trading. It strikes me as terribly anachronistic that Chloe would be a major player in a powerful trading company. The author even seems to realize this: she’s surrounded by grizzled old men who would naturally be the leaders, so a young pretty farm girl sticks out like a sore thumb. The interaction she has with Holo is important, but the fact that she’s there at all has never settled well with me.  (Note: I was later told that Chloe is anime-original, and therefore clearly grafted in.)

Finishing for this week I want to take a look at Lawrence’s role in the series. Lawrence is not an extraordinary person. He demonstrates a heightened degree of intelligence and cunning, which has made him into a successful merchant, but beyond this he is relatively unremarkable. I don’t state this as a bad thing, simply that it’s important to appreciate the incredible task Lawrence is up against: keeping up with Holo.

This is what makes Spice & Wolf different from most romantic series. Usually the role of males is more dominant: the guy is the one taking care of the problems. He protects the girl and through his effort woos her over. And at first Lawrence tries to do just this. He attempts to show off his business savvy, pose questions he thinks she can’t answer, and protect her when they are cornered by Medio Trading. But the truth is, she’s just as smart as he is and has centuries of experience that make her far more capable in nearly every regard. She gets better deals, figures out his riddles, and saves them both by turning into a giant wolf. Everything he can do she can do better.

The result of all this is two-fold. For Lawrence it means that as his feelings for Holo grow he has to figure out and overcome his own bruised ego. It isn’t a grand transformation, and in fact the series remarks little on it, but it is still a journey that adds a layer to his character. For the audience, it serves as a warning to not expect these roles or even find them desirable, for as we are reminded, “All men are jealous idiots, and all women are stupid to be happy about it. Idiots are everywhere you look.”

Post #3: Episodes 8-10, Concerns and confusion

After the last series of episodes we’ve seen Holo and Lawrence get through their first major ordeal together. This shows from Lawrence’s perspective – he is steadily more willing to trust and confide in her. However, for me Holo becomes more abrasive as she eschews any typical signs of increased intimacy for more teasing and abuse. This isn’t a criticism of the writing necessarily, as it would entirely appropriate for her character to try and distance herself from mortals by ensuring that they know their place, if even in jest. That said, from a human perspective it really starts to hurt because she just won’t give him a break.

This irritation with her distancing act is actually exacerbated by her over-fondness for foods shown in this arc. I am unsure if this behavior is meant to make her more relatable or demonstrate a flaw in her personality, but it comes across as clownish to me. In this instance I have a harder time giving the series credit for good writing because it feels so at odds with her normal behaviors. For instance, her drooling at the thought of honey-soaked peaches is truly inelegant. Holo, if nothing else, prizes that vision of herself and reacts negatively when it is questioned (“You snore.” “I do not snore!” “Just a little bit…” “NO! I DO NOT snore!”) That she would then make unreasonable demands to wake up the merchant and sell their wares and immediately leave the city doesn’t appear to be teasing but a truly thoughtless course of action brought on by her fixation. Having a soft spot for sweets is one thing, but it seems to be played just a bit too heavily to be in accordance with her overall character.

All this taken together is why I am happy when they meet Nora. I feel just like Lawrence: grateful that there’s a normal human female around. One that I don’t feel constantly on edge with, not knowing if I’m going to bit bitten. Also doesn’t hurt that that I apparently have the same taste as Lawrence…

The last thing I want to both comment on and ask about is: what went wrong in his deal? And why is it labeled as greed?

So I understand that he caught the guy trying to cheat under the name of God, and that both as a merchant and good churchgoer his reputation would be ruined if it got out. He then squeezes the guy for double but asks for it in armor as goods. (1) This somehow incurs a debt to the merchant? I honestly don’t understand, because I thought he was trading for pepper not buying on credit. Either way, his debt becomes far worse when he finds out that the armor market is greatly devalued and that his goods are nearly worthless. But then this debt is transferred from the merchant to Lapatron Trading, which means he’s in debt to them and cannot pay it because his armor is worthless. (2) Why was his debt transferred?

These points, (1) and (2) are what I just don’t follow. I don’t understand why he had a debt when he appeared to be trading goods, and then why and how his debt was transferred. If anybody could help explain, I’d appreciate it as economics is…not my forte.

@icedwarrior I also noticed the huge quality drop in a few scenes as well. I’m not sure if they were there before and I just noticed them now, or if these episodes suddenly have that issue. Also to answer one of your complaints: The reason Holo accompanying Lawrence is a problem is because of the appearances. They are in a church-run town and a man has fallen on extremely bad times. In other words, in his friends’ view Lawrence has likely done something to anger God and this is his punishment. Not only this, it’s pretty obvious what he’s done: he’s dragging around town with a girl that can only be his mistress. But in their view, he isn’t even trying to help himself. He isn’t trying to change his life of iniquity, and a mistress is sure to be a money sink as well. Yet he parades her around in front of them while having the gall to ask for money. This is why he is consistently turned down, whether with nice-sounding excuses (“We need to save money for the crop season…”) or with water being thrown in his face. It isn’t until the last man that he realizes what has happened.

Post #4: Episodes 11-13, Finale and Holo in depth

These last three episodes are some of my favorites in the first season.

As I remarked before, what I dislike about the last set of episodes is that Holo‘s temperament doesn’t improve. They just got through a tight spot together and they are obviously meant to become closer, but suddenly Holo reverts back to her initial level of teasing without any balance of visible affection. While this may be accurate writing (more on this below) it still irks me and I find myself feeling quite annoyed with how she is portrayed. In the final episodes the series this is amended and, at least for me, feels more natural.

The primary scene that illustrates this is in the inn at the beginning of episode 11. I like it because Holo is earnest, while not completely losing what makes her unique. She acknowledges from the beginning that having her hand brushed away before was minor, and knows that the damage she may have done to Lawrence’s life is irreparable. Yet he has the gall to apologize for his minor transgression, and that shames her terribly. It’s really the first moment where I think she realizes maybe she isn’t superior to Lawrence in all ways. Holo has great personal pride, and while she acknowledges to herself that she is fond of him** she also has a fundamental attitude that he’s the lucky one to be with her. In this scene I think she first realizes that maybe, just maybe, she’s also lucky to be with him.

Being Holo she is far too proud to say this out loud, but what she does next is telling: she basically demands he confess to her. She suddenly wants to hear, to really know, that she does have his affection. Her domineering manner in which she has him retry it until he ‘gets it right’ is pretty typical of her powerful personality, but despite that she still earnestly wags her tail at the end – a sure sign of her true feelings. Between this and other scenes (such as when she kneeled and begged for Lawrence’s sake with the wolves)I feel like this series finishes itself well in the portrayal of their relationship, striking a good balance between teasing and underlying emotional bonds.

And speaking of the give and take, the final couple of scenes are also some of my favorite. Finally, Lawrence gets Holoback. The look on her face when he tells her that he probably called her name because it was shorter is priceless. And when she tries her heavy-handed approach like she did back in the inn, trying to put herself back in control of the situation, he completely turns it around by calling during the bells. And all this only works because we now know how much Holowants Lawrence to like her, again emphasizing how I feel this arc better sculpts their relationship

Other than this, I like Nora. She isn’t an award-winning character by any stretch. She is too young and we don’t know her for long enough to get more than the basic story behind her motivations. But despite being a slight, innocent, frail-looking girl she shows that she can look after herself. Her scenes involving the wolves are really serious. Just imagine what it would be like: middle of the night, in a dark and unfamiliar wood, you wake to the sound of wolves surrounding your camp. That is a primal human nightmare, but Nora has the ability to stand there ready. Even when they are fleeing she doesn’t panic, but instead acts intelligently to disrupt the wolves’ behavior. It’s really as Holo says: don’t confuse this girl for a sheep just because she looks tame. I don’t really see it as a “girl power!” kind of thing as much as yet another case where the series seeks to purposefully disrupt the usual stereotypes.

Finally, I have to admit that the last few episodes do highlight how poorly non-humans are drawn in this series. The scene where Holo attacks the thugs from Lemerio Trading is particularly atrocious. The action doesn’t flow and many of her movements look profoundly unnatural. I think it’s just as well that the scenes with Holo‘s wolf form are few and far between. Enek also looks really strange in many of the scenes he features.

**Addendum on Holo‘s Personality
I think sometimes people confuse Holo as a tsundere because she keeps herself distant at many times and has occasional violent outbursts. However, I really do not think that is accurate.

Tsunderes are motivated by the repression of strong feelings. Unable to handle their own emotions they are overwhelmed and try to cover them up, often even to themselves. This creates a very unstable personality because they want something so badly yet go about getting it in all the wrong ways. In particular they frequently turn to violence in their confusion, seeking to give the impression that they are not besotted as well as perpetuating a self-image of being in control (which they are clearly not). Over time they warm up if the male is patient enough to put up with their antics, soothing their fears of rejection.

Holo does not have these kinds of internal conflicts. She has a great deal of self-confidence and knows what she wants and how to get it. She readily acknowledges to herself that she has feelings for Lawrence as well. Her distance from him is not due to confusion. It is because of two things: pride and fear. Her pride as Holo the Wise Wolf means that she simply has a hard time weakening herself in front of others, especially inferior humans. Expressing affection always makes people vulnerable, and so she cannot bring herself to openly show her affection on a regular basis.

The fear is something I already touched on above. In the inevitability of time, she knows that she will outlive Lawrence. As she already has said herself: she is tired of being alone. She knows deep within herself that these times can’t last and that she can have no illusions that their love is ‘eternal.’ In this regard she finds herself drawn in with the moment, but also struck suddenly by a deep melancholy that has no answer.