Friday, March 31, 2017

[Anime] Youjo Senki Review

Youjo Senki- 7.5/10

Youjo Senki is my favorite type of series, where a driving idea is comfortably nestled inside a self-sustaining story.  On the surface the plot follows the exploits of Tanya Degurechaff, a young girl advancing up the ranks of the German military in a magically-infused alternate WW1.  However, as is shortly revealed Tanya is the reincarnation of an amoral salaryman from modern Japan.  God (or Being X as the series calls it) has brought him here to this time and place to teach him humility and devotion.  Tanya (we never learn his former name) is a devout atheist, and sees no need for God in his world.  Furthermore, he is a psychopath in the strongest sense: he can understand how others feel, but experiences no compassion or moral drive beyond his own well-being.

The engine that drives the series is this underlying struggle between God attempting to prove itself to Tanya, and Tanya firmly rejecting the divinity or necessity of such a being.  The brilliance of the series is executed through the uncertain balance between these two, for while Tanya is clearly evil God does not acquit itself much better.

Tanya's evil is a special brand, one which is far more insidious than the "maniacal" evil usually demonstrated by villains.  While Tanya clearly enjoys her work, she has no special hatred for the enemy or love of her country.  She is not sadistic or gloating.  Instead she is the epitome of banal expedience.  One cannot even say that the ends justify the means, for in her mind the means need no defending if they are efficient and effective.  This is also seen in the peculiar legality of her efforts: she will commit atrocities, but only once she has nominally fulfilled her duties to international law.  The best example of this is her paper on the legalization of combat in cities and how to reinterpret regulations that prohibit the artillery bombardment of civilian centers.  She doesn't defy the law, she just twists it beyond recognition.  It exposes the disturbing corporate view of laws as nothing more than conventions, with no basis in morality.

And so, to rescue this sinner God has decided to intervene.  Mocking the traditional God has become passé, but what Youjo Senki does is demonstrate the inherent perversity of what are traditionally viewed as the signs of God's power.  God's use of trials and miracles is absurd.  Tanya is placed under the command of a heedless experimenter, her life put in danger simply to force her to capitulate to God's will.  And the miracle that "saves" her, the special insight given to the head engineer, again begs the question as to how a benevolent being could so grossly employ such tactics just to lean on a single mortal.  And now, for all God's efforts, these weapons have been bequeathed to the devil.  That Tanya is forced to recite a sort of prayer in God's name every time she uses her equipment is obviously a farce in light of what she uses it for.  At best God is incompetent, and at worst knowingly aiding evil.  This is all given special poignancy for being set in WWI: I do not know how aware the original writers are of European history, but WWI is what intellectually killed the traditional God in Western thought.

The Good:

Tanya, Tanya, and Tanya.  This series runs on Tanya, and as a character she bears the weight gracefully.  She is a villain that you find yourself rooting for, if just because the other guy is worse.  Her evil also comes and goes in ways that make it easy to forget what she is capable of, and many of her experiences are humanly relatable.  Her drive against God, rather than feeling like hubris, is eminently relatable through her disgusted anger. 

That said, this series has a great sense of subdued humor.  Most of it centers around using Tanya as the straight man.  Small touches such as after-credits scenes of Tanya hating second-hand smoke helped keep Youjo Senki from becoming too grim, while also adding a humanizing element that roots Tanya's personality.  At key points Tanya’s normally collected demeanor is "cashed in" to powerful effect, from her humorous reacquaintance with Dr. Schugel to the raw helpless rage at the letting the Republican army slip away.  What makes all of these scenes function so smoothly is the contrast with her well-established mannerisms.

Speaking of scenes, while Tanya’s final scene is striking I would argue that her meeting earlier with von Rerugen was the crowning moment for her character.  In this world humans are still believed to be rational.  They have not experienced the confused awakening that ours has, and through this tainted modern lens Tanya gazes down on their idealism and crushes it casually.  The moment where von Rerugen stares, aghast, his cigarette burning and falling to the floor, was the only appropriate reaction.  She is the freakish future of war, and now he knows it.

In summary, the English translation of the title (“The Saga of Tanya the Evil”) is entirely appropriate.  This series lives and dies on her character, and so help me I looked forward to seeing our loli psychopath in action every week.

The Bad:

The main problem with the series is that it tends to forget that Tanya is what matters.  While individual scenes spent away from Tanya are not detrimental, the bottom line is that whenever the story about the war begins to eclipse Tanya’s own crusade the series suffers.  Even her more mundane scenes around the office are more interesting than the character-defining moments of her enemies and allies.  I truly don’t care about any of the other actors in the series, and that is okay.  This setting is purely to showcase Tanya’s deistic vendetta.

My other recurrent issue was a suspension of disbelief.  Using Tanya’s age and gender to sharply contrast with her inner character is an old, but effective, trick.  Despite this, and a reasonable explanation as to why she is so vicious, I couldn’t take certain elements seriously.  There is simply no believable way a 12-year-old girl would rise the way she does in the WWI-era German military; basic chauvinism would keep that in check at the very least. 

But let’s grant for a minute that the high command is forward thinking, highly logical, and more willing to employ women than their real counterparts were.  There remain several scenes in which Tanya manhandles grown soldiers, entirely apart from her magical abilities.  The scene when her troops take the Republican forward command irked me as she snuck up Splinter Cell style on her targets and assassinated them…while barely coming up to their navel.  It was just goofy. Even as I enjoyed the show these mismatches pecked at me, and were detrimental to the experience.

Finally, there are some miscellaneous complaints I have, such as the vagueness of the magic system and the conflation of WWI- and WWII-era technologies on several occasions.  But none of these are great enough to warrant more than a passing mention.

Ultimately, I found Youjo Senki to be surprisingly enjoyable with an unusual essence and competent execution.  It has one of the singularly best main characters of any series and a sharp sense of humor to match the grim undertones.  However, its strength was also its weakness, struggling at times to accommodate Tanya's "largeness" alongside the rest of the plot.  One can only hope that God will work a miracle and give us a second season.  Amen.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

[Anime] Hunter x Hunter (2011) Review

(As much as I bad-mouth the Chimera Ant arc, this episode was spectacular)

Shounen series are some of the most iconic and well-known in anime, regardless of their level of quality.  Hunter x Hunter (HxH) makes an attempt to buck the usual shounen stereotypes or employ them in creative ways while still sticking with the endearing simplicity of the genre.

Take Gon, the series' protagonist.  A mixture of Luffy's dreams of adventure and Goku's half-feral wild child, Gon encapsulates many of the qualities one would expect.  He has transparent motivations, an innate sense of justice, sticks by his friends, and has vast potential to become the best there ever was.  The primary story is built around him becoming a Hunter and finding his father.

Building on this common foundation, HxH then purposefully alters the standard narrative.  Take, for instance, the classic shounen structure in which the protagonist always seems to encounter opponents he can barely defeat, while his friends confront appropriately-powered henchmen.  In HxH, Gon is not always the primary player.  He only survives the Hunter Exam due to Hisoka's twisted generosity.  Later in the story the heavy-hitters such as the Zoldycks, Chrollo, or Meruem are never directly matched against him.  Despite being the main character, Gon's contributions to the situation are often marginal.  The author of this series was clearly familiar with battle shounen and knew how to both give his audience what they wanted while keeping it fresh.

Unfortunately, the series simply loses its way after a period of time.  Novelty gives way to brittle plot elements and poorly-paced story, culminating in an experience which feels far closer to the standard shounen mold.  Ultimately while HxH does encapsulate some original ideas and can boast a few excellent episodes it fails to go the distance.

The Good:

Easily the best part of HxH relative to other series are the villains.  Most of the time villains exist for one purpose in shounen: to be defeated.  Before that point they are contract-bound to gloat over their superiority, refusing to lift a finger to stop the heroes from running amok until it is too late.  Essentially they are written as though their lives revolve around the protagonists.  HxH goes out of its way to embellish its antagonists, giving them a separate existence outside of the current context we have encountered them.  The two that stand out the most are Hisoka and the Phantom Troupe.

Hisoka is arguably the best character in the entire series.  His visual design elegantly portrays what he is about, reflecting his mysterious nature (face paint), utilization of illusion (clown/carnival), and wild card nature (the suit symbols).  And yet, it isn't overdone.  We see him without his mask, so we know he isn't some monster from beyond.  We learn the secrets of his deceptions, yet this doesn't make him any less potent.  And finally we are fully told about his motivations yet this does not make him more predictable.  What finally pushes Hisoka to the top is that the series manages to keep him in the right balance of relevant but not central.  He frequently interacts with the protagonists, but defeating him is not the end goal.  Ultimately he is a clever independent personality that sometimes aids the protagonists, sometimes opposes them, and the rest of the time pursues his own desires without having to relate them to the main characters.

The Phantom Troupe also goes into my book as an evil organization done right.  Like Hisoka above they have an independent existence.  During the Yorknew Arc their paths temporarily cross with Gon, Killua, and Kurapika but that is all.  This isn't a defining moment in their organization's history.  They aren't wiped out nor does Kurapika resolve his business with them.  The members of the Troupe also had positive attributes without the series trying to redeem them.  They shared a profound sense of loyalty and camaraderie, joked with each other, and felt deeply when they lost members.  But the series never tried to justify them for this: they were still in the business of killing and stealing even if they were nice to each other.  In this regard it was very refreshing to have a shounen recognize that the bad guys don't have to be 100% evil to still count as villains.

This segues into my compliments for the best segment of the series: the Yorknew arc.  It is the arc that best exemplifies all of the positive features I have listed so far.  It has an interesting plot that does not always default to combat to resolve situations.  Both sides are intelligent and act in convincing ways that keep the outcome from being certain, with Hisoka in the middle playing his own game.  Gon and Killua, rather than flying to the rescue, are actually taken hostage and have to be ransomed back.  In the end, surprisingly little is resolved.  It is true that Kurapika manages to kill both Uvo and (indirectly) Pakunoda while disabling Chrollo, but that isn't the end of the Troupe or his quest.  It even manages to introduce a few side characters, such as Melody, who actually complement the arc rather than detracting from it.  The Yorknew arc bucks every trend I've come to expect from shounen while still managing to be entertaining with a satisfying conclusion.

Finally, I want to give some credit to Meruem.  While I consider the Chimera Ant arc as a whole a wreck, Meruem himself is a good character.  Just how the Phantom Troupe is an example of how to write an evil organization, Meruem is the the right way to create an intelligent villain that has a change of heart.  He is effectively a toddler with nearly unlimited capacity, born knowing that he is King and innately feeling his superiority to all life.  When this view is disrupted by Komugi, as he cannot best her, he does not dismiss her or fall into mental disarray.  He adjusts his view, encompasses this new information, and adjusts his estimation of humans.  We see this when he is talking to Netero: he admits that humans have some value, and that rather than have them all consumed he believes that they ought to be preserved.  This may not sound impressive from our vantage point, but for Meruem this is a shockingly rapid adjustment in a short period of time.  He truly is the most perfect being in the HxH universe, capable of both amazing physical and mental feats.  It is a shame that he is weighed down by the mire that is the Chimera Ant arc.

The Bad:

As already indicated, the primary problem with HxH is that it does not manage to keep the quality of the Yorknew arc for the rest of the series.  We see the first glimmerings of this during the Greed Island arc, where the villains are one-dimensional and many of the victories are achieved more and more through grit alongside planning.  But it is the Chimera Ant arc that truly fails the series.  It was a protracted mess filled with stock villains and excessive time devoted to unimportant side characters.  Nobody, I repeat nobody, wanted to see that much of Ikalgo.  The plot was also necessarily simple: because the Chimera Ants' existence was antithetical to that of humanity the only possible conclusion was elimination. 

But the final nail in the coffin was the destruction of consequence.  At the end of the Greed Island arc we see the first stumble with the Breath of the Archangel healing Gon's missing arm.  Up until that point, events had serious ramifications that could not be undone.  The Chimera Ant arc takes this further by introducing pseudo-reincarnation in the form of new ants, negating the finality of death.  While this allows for touching reunions, it ruins the impact of the events.  This culminates in the final arc with Alluka, who is an incarnation of the Dragon Balls.  She is able to wish away the debilitating effects of Gon's sacrifice, making it no sacrifice at all.  It is this that, in my opinion, really harms HxH at the end.

These shortcomings also begin to painfully highlight the ridiculousness of Gon and Killua's development.  While it is simply accepted in these series that our young heroes will have exceptional ability, these two abuse it to a degree that destroyed my suspension of disbelief.  Training that should have taken months or years was completed in a single weekend.  At first I believed the author was poking fun at this trope, but the repeated reliance on these shortcuts made it a bad joke.

Finally, I want to remark on a philosophical problem I saw with HxH: it wanted to be better than its audience could support.  The author sought to demonstrate the inner mental workings and shifts of personality for a variety of major and minor characters.  Everybody in the HxH universe is meant to be 'real', rather than just a throw-away used for a few scenes or episodes.  This is a laudable goal, especially for an anime that is more than a niche artistic piece.  However, this creates a problem: good character development is usually accomplished with hints.  How a person reacts, the words they choose, and the actions they take all give insight into their inner workings.  But the audience of HxH is, frankly, that of the average shounen series.  Because of this it has to satisfy the lowest common denominator and it cannot risk having these subtle cues being missed.  So it falls back on exposition.  A lot of it.

Exposition in itself isn't bad.  Often it is what is needed to ensure that key ideas are clear.  But in HxH it overstepped its boundaries, where the narrator became more and more compelled to explain every single event.  "Gon was shamed."  "The King had never felt something like this before."  "Knuckle then made a poor decision."  When exposition reaches this level it interferes with the actual story and throws its shortcomings into sharp relief.  Perhaps I am being too demanding of the series, but given its apparent goals I feel this criticism is fair.

In conclusion, I went into HxH with relatively low expectations and was pleasantly surprised by my initial experience.  Even as I watched the series go downhill it continued to demonstrate sporadic moments of quality.  Despite my criticisms I would still rank this as the best shounen series I have ever seen, and regret that it squandered so much of its potential.