Author: Scott Spaziani

Review: Silver Spoon

Fish out of water stories are fairly easy to construct. You take a person and drop them into an unfamiliar situation and then each episode going forward features this character exploring the world they previously knew nothing about. It automatically accomplishes two tasks: giving the audience a compelling world to explore and a character to grow while exploring them. Silver Spoon follows this formula to the letter, and that might be its greatest strength.

The story follows Yugo Hachiken an overachiever at academics but a dispute with his parents convinced him to move to a boarding school as far away as possible. He is accepted to Oezo Agricultural High School where he is surrounded by the children of farmers who already are adept at most of the lessons. At Oezo, normal academics take a backseat to learning how to tend livestock, harvest crops, and all manner of the menial labor of farm life. Hachiken is forced to adopt to his new lifestyle and learn the skills of working on a farm in order to pass High School.

Hachiken’s adjustment to the life on the farm is where most of the drama is focused. The show goes over the standard facets of farm life and how Hachiken is completely unprepared, while his classmates handle most of the tasks with ease and precision. The audience watches as Hachiken becomes accustomed to everything from waking up early to learning how to clean and care for the animals.

The heart of the show lies in Hachiken becoming estranged from his parents, which is only talked about briefly during the show. Hachiken ran away from his previous life where he shut out everything except for academic advancement and in the process completely lost sight of himself. Arriving at Oezo he learns quickly that his classmates all have clear paths in their life and he feels like he doesn’t know where he is going. What his parents demanded of him was pure academic achievement but he had no goal in mind, no idea why he was striving for academic perfection other than to please his parents. While most of his classmates goals are that they will take over the family farm he envies them for having some direction while he floats around aimless.

However, the show is clear that this aimlessness isn’t fruitless. Hachiken accomplishes some amazing advancements in his own personal skills and in bringing people together at Oezo. Hackiken’s classmates, whom Hachiken is jealous of, become envious of his ability to unite people and succeed at his short-term goals. While they know where their lives are going to take them after High School that actually limits them from trying new things. Hachiken has no limitations and so he makes an effort to go around just trying as many of the skills Oezo has to teach. In doing so Hachiken’s aimlessness forms him into a well rounded person. 

 The chef among those skills Hachiken tries is raising a pig. Early in the show he falls in love with a small piglet and takes care of it throughout. The way Hachiken comes face to face with the slaughter and preparation of animals also works to change him. His first few days on the farm he is disgusted at where an egg comes from but as the show goes on and he learns more about the process of preparing meat and the farmers relationship with animals, he gains a respect for the entire process. If Hachiken had never come to the country he would have continued to enjoy meat in blissful ignorance for the rest of his life, but now he carries with him a new respect for where his food comes from, and that completely changes the way he approaches food.

Silver Spoon ended abruptly and with a lot of questions unanswered. The final scenes of the anime were bittersweet because they hinted at things that were to come such as Hachiken’s budding romance and him finally confronting his parents, among a lot more stories still untold. Luckily, a second season has already been announced so Silver Spoon is ultimately an unfinished piece, there is more coming and hope that these loose ends will be tied up with the expertise that they were opened.

Grade: B

Review: From the New World

The start of From the New World might be the most unsettling and interesting opening scene in recent memory, on par with Serial Experiments Lain. The quick images of children, blood, chaos quickly shows the start of events that lead to the utopian like society scene in the rest of that first episode. Mystery, irony, and pulling the curtain back to reveal the larger picture are what make From the New World a compelling piece of fiction.

From the New World is about a group of children growing up in a seemingly idealized society based on feudal japan, except with some comforts of a technologically advanced society. We experience and see the world through the eyes of these children as they grow up from middle school aged to adults working as productive members of their community. The main tactic the show employs is using these children to guide the narrative forward. The audience is slowly introduced to the details of the world as these children, who are mostly ignorant of how their society works, grow up and experience the price humanity had to pay for living a peaceful life.

The show asks one question: what would the world really be like if people developed physic powers. The opening scene is what happened in the immediate aftermath and the children learn quickly that in the era following the emergence of “power” war, slavery, and chaos followed. The utopia the show opens in is a result of figuring out how human beings can co-exist when everyone has god like powers. The main element of which is called the “Death of Shame” which causes any human who harms or kills a fellow to suffer terrible physical pain and most likely die. Only by altering the way human physiology works were they able to build and maintain a peaceful society.

That is one of a dozen serious moral questions the show addresses and forces the audience to struggle with, it effectively takes all of the horrible elements human society had to implement and presents them in a sinister light, but when more is revealed about the reasons for the setup of the world all the elements that originally came off as abhorrent take on a shade of gray. The show runs through a constant cycle of revealing something to make the audience mortified and then, a few episodes later, finds a way to justify it. This cycle is amazingly effective in keeping the audience on the edge of their seats while simultaneously providing a thoughtful moral dilemma that continuously evolves throughout. 

A large portion of the show focus’ on humanities interactions with the “Monster Rats” a race of intelligent mole rats that have taken over as the dominant species on the planet and view the powerful humans as gods. Early in the show Saki and her friend Shun get caught up in a war between two Monster Rat clans and are forced to use the blunt of their power to defend themselves. This is when the audience is treated to the full force that humans have been able to wield using Power, and the result is terrifying. The Monster Rats themselves continue along the same path as the rest of the show. As we live with the Monster Rats and witness their lives and their conflicts we get a thought-provoking shade of gray. Even though the humans have these destructive powers why and when they should get involved in the politics of this “lesser” race is a consistent question throughout the show and these decisions have lasting effects on humanities future.

The only unfortunate aspect of the show is that it does feel a little truncated at times. Adapted from light novels the series does quickly pass over a large section of romance that is introduced, flashed quickly, then is mostly ignored except for a few key plot points. In fact, most of the characters feel a little hollow and interchangeable, with the exception of Saki Watanabe. Ultimately they are used as a way for the audience to get exposed to the world and develop how the politics of new human society work. It’s not a huge fault, as From the New World is a pretty dense show, but it would have given the show a bit more of a personal feeling if I care more about the characters.

The real terror the show presents to the audience is that we are all capable of doing these terrible things and that there are consequences for trying to do the right thing. In “From the New World” the peace that humanity finally one is fragile, and if not maintained properly will crumble quickly. The gift of ultimate power comes at a startling cost and the show illustrates these facts beautifully. While it lacks individual compelling characters the driving force behind the show become the moral questions it asks and the horrifying realization the characters as a group experience when they realize that aspects of their society they wanted to rebel against are necessary for humanities survival.

Grade: A

 

Review: Chūnibyō Demo Koi ga Shitai!

Chūnibyō Demo Koi ga Shitai!, known in English as Love, Chunibyo & Other Delusions, is a coming of age love story like so much anime that has come before. But the slight tilt that Chunibyo takes on the formula is placing the main love interest in a period of adolescence known as “Chunibyo” in Japan, where a person begins to believe their own delusions of having magic powers or being from another dimension, or any of a long list of like delusions. Yuta Togashi is a boy who has decided to leave his delusions behind and live a normal life, and to that end goes to a high school far enough away as to guarantee no one who remembers his previous life will attend. On his first day he meets and becomes connected with Rikka Takanashi, who is lost deep in her own delusional world.

The show builds on the relationship between Yuta and Rikka with the tension comes from Yuta being sympathetic to Rikka but wanting to attempt to live a normal life. Yuta ends up helping Rikka set up a club, which he then unintentionally joins, and the two become friends despite Yuta’s constant annoyance at Rikka’s actions. Yuta falls into this trap where he likes Rikka and wants to help her but doesn’t ever want to be too close to her because of the fear of being labeled. The odd part is no one in his class seems to care that much about Rikka being a bit weird, other boys response to his relationship with Rikka is jealousy at getting attention from any girl. It quickly becomes apparent that most of Yuta’s fears are completely his own, created by his own insecurities. That factor plays in and forms the central theme of the show, which is not only to accept who you are but to accept others for who they are. It is a beautiful theme, one often seen in adolescent and adult romances alike but including it with the delusion hook of Chunibyo gives the message all the more power.

This comes to ahead when it’s unveiled at about the half-way point, the reason for Rikka’s delusions and the reasons why she immediately attaches herself to Yuta. There is no real surprise as to where the narrative goes, from the start of the show it’s clear this is a story about a broken person, it’s the depth at which she is broken and the fact that the show does seed reasons for her delusions and obsessions. Even pulling back from the tragic reasons for Rikka’s delusions, the flashback for when Yuta’s delusions began show a young boy with friends who are starting to be interested in girls and moving away from the games and stories of their childhood. In that moment is when Yuta’s delusions began, it was a coping mechanism for feeling different. Being out of place.

In the entire show the theme of delusion keeps coming back, from the obvious ones of Rikka but even in the character of Shinka Nibutani. I struggled with the purpose of this character for a good part of the show but she is there as a thematic anchor. She suffered from delusions as deep as Rikka’s when she was younger but now, attempting to break out of them, her new set of delusions are formed around her idea of a “normal high school girl.” She acts the way she believes she should, and she joins the cheerleaders only because that is what she thinks is expected of her. In reality she ends up hating her club and struggling to even know how she is supposed to act. The message of the show is that all of us suffer from delusions. Some of them are like Rikka where it manifests as a borderline personality disorder but most of them are much simpler than that. Delusions could come from acting how you feel you are expected to act, putting up a shield around your own personality because you fear being rejected.

While the show becomes profound and compelling, the first few episodes I found Rikka more annoying than endearing, there is a trend in Moe anime where the early episodes relay on a hook in order to bring people in and Chunibyo definitely falls into that pattern. There was a moment into episode two where I felt the show was moving towards fetishizing the mentally ill. I think that might have been a rush conclusion, based the fact that Rikka was just being weird, but Rikka being weird that was the entire show for the first three or four episodes.  Also, most of the side characters fall flat for me. In the middle of the show half an episode focus’ on Yuta’s friend Isshiki who gets caught ranking the girls in his class. This just didn’t fit with the themes of the show. The anime only side character Dekomori gives Rikka someone to play off of, but she is ultimately redundant.

The most troubling feeling I got while watching the show is it seems overly abusive to Rikka. There is a slapstick trope in anime that when a character is acting overly silly, the other characters react by hitting them. When Yuta hits Rikka, mostly taps on the top of the head, an awful lot. Combine that with the feeling in the early episodes that she was seriously mentally ill and it started to make me feel uncomfortable. This comes to a head when Rikka faces down the wrath of her sister, whom she is living with. The first time the audience sees her sister she approaches Rika menacingly carrying a large spoon, Rika becomes visibly frightened and tries to fight back.

Then there is the second to last episode, where something occurs between Rikka and Yuta that made me want to stop. To give up. To write off the entire series. Yet even with all that which made me uncomfortable the series does end on a high note, lessons learned. Does it justify the emotionally traumatic and physically abusive moments in the show… absolutely not. Some of it I can forgive just because they are common anime tropes added without thought to how it would affect tone. But the event in the second to last episode nearly completely undid everything positive the show had accomplished up to that point. I’m not disappointed I watched to the next episode, but that may prevent me from ever going back and re-watching the series.

Chūnibyō Demo Koi ga Shitai ends up being an above average love story with a nice character arc between the two protagonists set on a backdrop of overcoming a part of adolescence which, ultimately, prevents young teenagers from progressing to the next stage of their lives. It has a sincere and effective message which carries serious weight. Unfortunately the early episodes end up being Moe non-sense with a feeling of fetishizing the problems of poor Rikka. Mix that with a lot of useless characters and subplots, slapstick comedy that is skewed by the serious tone of some of the scenes, and an upsetting event in the second to last episode the series was difficult to watch. There is a good narrative, a good theme, and great characters in this show. Unfortunately, they are buried under some of the more tedious aspects of Moe.

Grade: C

Review: Tamako Market

Kyoto Animation is known for creating the most popular anime among the serious, hard core Otaku in Japan. It’s hard to believe that they haven’t attempted to create an original work before Tamako Market. They’re success has come from taking already popular work among those handful of hardcore fans and applying their animation ability to it. Tamako Market represents their attempt to apply what they learned from their adaptive works and try to create something without the need of outside licenses.

Tamako Market is about Tamako Kitashirakawa the daughter of a Mochi seller at a shopping district. The show mainly follows Tamako and her family as they go about their lives in the shipping district. The one odd thing the show tosses in is the introduction of Dera, a talking bird who is on a quest to find a bride for the prince of an island nation.

Dera acts as the viewpoint character, and is constantly making comments about the situations he finds himself in. His role goes from being the central focus of the narrative to a sideline character to the normal routines of the Shopping district. The show is structured with a breakneck pace with an entire year taking place during the twelve episode series. The show covers favorite Moe anime tropes, including a valentines and beach episodes but moves far too quick for any structured narrative to develop. Instead the show focus’ in on it’s characters. Tamako herself represents the idealized Moe heroine, always cheerful and always optimistic. The side characters are far more interesting from her eccentric carpenter friend, the rivalry between the two Mochi shops in the district, or the beatnik café owner, their brief moments on the screen spoke miles as to their personalities and their roles in the tight nit community of the shopping district.

So while Tamako and friends play through their typical Moe storylines a richer experience is developing just under the surface, the background characters that are encountered briefly in each episode start to snowball so that the entire make up of this shopping distract begins to come to life. This group of individual stories about cute girls shopping or building a haunted house is united by a rich theme of community and what it means to live and grow around a group of people. There is a speech Tamako gives towards the end that makes it clear that the show is not about Tamako herself, but about the market. The year the audience gets to live through is only a tiny bit of its history, Tamako has lived and grown with these people in this place her entire life and the rich assortment of personalities and professions leads to a greater whole than a family living a secluded suburban life style.

There is also a second thread that runs through the show and that is the theme of change. My main complaint with the show is nothing really seems to happen, it ends one year after starting and it might as well have been the same day. Tamako has learned very little and no major event changed anything about the Shopping District. Then the question of Dera, the talking bird, left a bad taste in my mouth. Why a talking bird?

Dera I believe represents a major change that happened to the market. A normal family gets visited by a talking bird and while at first it’s focused on, soon after it becomes folded into routine. The characters go about their daily lives as if the bird was always there, they learned to adapt to the weirdness of the situation. The opposite side of this coin is when a major even threatens Tamako’s life in the Shopping district it turns out to be a false alarm. The show’s message here is that sweeping, drastic change doesn’t really happen. Even when major change happens, like a talking bird flying into their lives, they simply adopt their lives around it and continue on.

This simple message addresses one of the biggest holes in Tamako’s life, her mother. She died a few years before the show begins and throughout the series it becomes clear that while the absence is left, one particularly touching scene with Tamako’s father drives that point home, that the characters do not dwell on the absence. The change is eventually accepted and folded into the new reality of their lives, just like a talking bird quickly stops being novel and folds into reality.

The more I think about Tamako Market the more I start to see the subtle brilliance of the show. However, I would have liked Tamako to be a bit more of a character and many of the side characters who are interesting don’t get nearly as much time as I would have liked. A lot of the threads and build up established early on don’t go anywhere. Tamako’s love interest, established in the first episode, barely plays into the narrative and it’s barely referenced even in the final episode. Even though I managed to find a deep theme running through the show that doesn’t excuse some of the boring and poorly executed ideas and characters. But it’s cute, and it has a lot to say about community and how strength can be found as a group of people live and grow around each other. Moe fans will find a lot to like in this show but it won’t be converting anyone not already invested in the genre.

Destiny: Zenith of a poisonous hype machine

 There is a poison that has been growing in gaming culture for some time now. In the last year or so I think it’s reached a zenith, and it is time that consumers start fighting back. The core gamers are told that there are threats to their hobby. That congress is legislating against their games, that iPhones and iPads are causing dedicated game consoles and game capable PCs to disappear. However, the real threat to gaming culture is internal, and is inflamed by PR firms who want to manipulate and gamers into buying into their story so they can sell games. Hype. Hype is the greatest danger to the gaming market and it is time that the majority of core gamers realized how they are being manipulated.

Of course, this could be a problem with the greater geek culture that has risen to prominence in the last ten years. Fans line up for hours to watch ten minutes of a film they are going to see in theaters in a few months. That waste of time and money has always baffled me, as I have always found myself with more media to consume than time to consume it. In gaming I’ve seen fans line up for hours to play a few minutes of Portal 2 at PAX East less than a month before release. The same for L.A. Noir, a game that wasn’t even worth playing even after the price had bottomed out. At NY Comic Con fans waited in line to watch game play of Batman Arkham City only a week or two before release.

I think most of it can be attributed to the social aspect of those hobbies. You want to be able to play the latest games because then you can talk about them with your friends or in online communities. You can be the first person to have a brand new experience. However, this causes gamers to constantly look into the future for entertainment, being tricked into paying top dollar for a game when there are plenty of games dropping in price they haven’t touched. I bet a large number of people who jumped on Assassin’s Creed 3 didn’t play the first few because the third one was advertised as being prettier and more fun. These fictional gamers who jumped to the third Assassin’s Creed without exploring the originals spent more money only because the game was newer and shinier, and they are robbing themselves of other game experiences in preference to one that they can talk about with people who are also playing the game. They don’t want to play the original and jump into an AC discussion being that far behind, not having anything to add to the current discussion.

Game reviews have been a pet peeve of mine for a long time now. The main issue being is that most games will not get an average review score lower than a “7” on the ten point scale used by meta critic. On a logical use of the ten point system this means most games are above average. Sites that use a more rational scoring system are yelled at for being too hostile, and bad games that earn average scores lower than a “7” have defenders coming out of the woodwork. Any reviewer that gives an opinion contrary to one of the loud obnoxious gamers on the internet becomes a target for some of the worst hostility imaginable. Does the excitement for a game overshadow the games actual value? Is believing accumulated hype for a game better than the game actually being of quality?

In the recent year there are three examples of this that are examples of this being a serious problem, at least as far as I’m concerned.

Continue reading “Destiny: Zenith of a poisonous hype machine”

Review: Tsuritama

Japan being an island nation with a long and rich fishing tradition I’m surprised that fishing hasn’t snuck into more Japanese animation. At least, few anime that have made it over to the United States. Looking at the synopsis, a show focused around fishing didn’t sounds appealing but what I got was less a show about someone fishing but a science fiction adventure with a sweet message of friendship.

The colors in Tsuritama are incredibly vibrant, a fantastic looking show which captures the whimsical nature of Haru, an alien who arrives on Enoshima and befriends the island’s new transplant Yuki. Yuki has moved around with his grandmother and has never had the chance to make friends. Haru immediately latches on, to Yuki’s dismay, to the loaner and recruits him for a task that requires fishing. 

Tsuritama is really two shows in one. The first is an enjoyable show about friendship, family, and how spending time and bonding between people brings out the best. The bonding is seated in Natsuki Usami, a prodigy fisherman whose life is in turmoil following the death of his mother and his father’s second marriage. Through fishing, the three characters learn what it is to be friends, and learn to express themselves in healthy and natural ways. It is part coming of age story and in part a story of broken people becoming whole again. The relationship between Yuki and Natsuki is the highlight of the series. Their uneasy beginning evolving into a strong, bonded friendship is a joy to watch.

Most of this friendship is built as Natsuki teaches Yuki and Haru how to fish. This part of the show is executed about as well as could be; remaining technically accurate while building in small bits of accomplishment to keep the audience interested and to illustrate the progress the protagonist is making. There are a lot of details and time spent on the fishing aspect of the show but the true purpose of those scenes are to build the relationship between our four main characters, which it accomplishes well.

The detractor is Haru, the alien who needs a skilled fisherman for some mysterious reason. He is playing the same role that any alien or mysterious stranger would play. He is an awkward ball of energy that is played mostly for comic relief. In the moe era I’m surprised it wasn’t a female character, but that would hurt the core themes of the narrative. It isn’t until the series is halfway over that Haru calms down and stops being bouncy and weird and actually has a few touching scenes as his actual purpose becomes known. Unfortunately, if there is anything that made me want to stop watching during the first half of the series it was Haru acting like a generic anime weird-alien. I’ve seen it played out a million times in anime and it severely clashes with the otherwise honest and memorable character moments between Yuki and Natsuki.

The second half of the show involves Haru’s real purpose for coming to earth. There is a mysterious sea monster that is, apparently, from his planet and he is tasked with attempting to fish it out of the ocean and return home with it. So Haru brings Yuki and Natsuki into his plan because of their fishing skills. At the same moment Duck, a secret organization that fights aliens, has been mobilized to try and take Haru down and use force to stop the monster in the ocean. This half of the show builds on and uses the bonds forged in the first half of the series.. There are some genuinely suspenseful moments during the climax of the series. The real fun of the second half is watching the ridiculously dressed “DUCK” operatives move in and take over Enoshima, evacuate the island, and then pursue Haru and the monster in the ocean. While the tone remains deathly serious the previously noted color scheme, turned a bit grayer due to an oncoming storm, and the duck shaped water right suits keep the whimsical tone of the show high even during some truly dark moments. 

Tsuritama is an enjoyable, beautiful anime about the affect of friendship and how it can help through personal issues and life threatening events. Most of the characters are interesting enough to carry the series alone but the second half morphs into an above average epic science fiction monster anime. The character work built during the fishing scenes certainly aided in making the monster-movie pieces far more memorable and enjoyable because of how much genuine time the audience had spent with the characters. However, Haru remains a blot on an almost perfect ensemble of characters as he represents the generic, annoying fish out of water anime character. While the show represents some best-in-class character work, specifically because of the relationships built during the show and a monster-movie second half that balances both being hilarious and gripping, finding those elements behind the intolerable Haru is going to be tough even for the most seasoned of anime fans.

Review: Moretsu Pirates

When I first saw the previews for Moretsu Pirates I was instantly excited. Space! We get so little anime about space these days that I will take anything I can get. Of course, being deep in the moe era of anime we can’t have an anime about space that isn’t also about cute high school girls doing cute high school girl things, but it’s also about space so it’s going to be different, right? Space is awesome. Statement of fact. 

Well, yes and no. Moretsu Pirates suffers from the industry’s attempts to chase after a duality, create the perfect anime that will appeal to not only moe fans but also a larger audience. The goal is to break the anime industry out of their small group of a few thousand dedicated fans but at the same time not alienating that audience. Because of this goal, the show suffers from balancing its two opposing sides. Time spent with Marika Kato in school and at her job at a maid café is standard high school anime fare, enjoyable because the character is a ball of energy but avoids any interesting narrative steps. The show will go from those school scenes and jump right into semi-serious space pirating, where Marika has to deal with intergalactic conspiracies, lead massive fleets, and make split second combat decisions. The two sides of the show collide when it is “necessary” for Marika school girl yacht club to take control of the pirate ship. The merging of the two sides becomes the most enjoyable arc of the show. The original crew, unable to join with the ship, panicky had to prepare documentation for the inexperienced crew to man the highly customized pirate ship. The use of the girls was fine, again far too silly for the overall tone of the space parts of the show. Watching the mostly serious crew freaking out over the new crew of teenage girls attempting to figure out how their precious space ship worked and becomes a good analogy for the show. The serious side of the show bends to serve the moe aspects of the show, to facilitate its existence.

The costume design also harms the shows chance of being taken seriously. Marika has one awesome outfit which radiates her authority as a Pirate Captain and that appears in the series finale. The outfit she uses the most is a stylized 17-18th century era pirate outfit with her school uniform miniskirt prominently displayed. Again, this serves to highlight exactly how the show is designed: Moe with a space pirate skin overlaid on top.

The “piracy” that Marika and her crew are involved in walks in line with the light tone of the show. This isn’t a group that goes out and maliciously attacks innocent ships. They have a letter of marque and with that are technically a part of Sea of the Morningstar’s military, but they are allowed to pillage ships at will if they wish. With no war currently being fought pirates may lose their letters of marque if they do not engage in piracy. The answer comes in entertaining cruise liners. They ally with insurance companies and set up mock pirate attacks in order to entertain the upper class who can afford cruises through space. This justifies their letters of marque without having to do actual piracy, allows the audience’s perception of the characters not to be muddled by brutal and illegal action but justifies them being in space when they are called into actual jobs that involve real combat. Again, the tone remains light while they are going through the actions of space pirates.

I’ve hammered the moe criticism home, and due to the moe Moretsu Pirates will never be taken seriously, but that isn’t what the show wants. The show is out to please its duel audience and I think it fails to even start appealing to that broader audience. Unlike some shows that attempt to walk into the duality model non-moe fans will find little to love about Moretsu Pirates. The first four episodes of the show feels like school girls playing space captain. Afterwards, the show becomes much better, but someone looking for space drama and not moe is going to find it difficult getting past those episodes. After the first serious arc, the show bouncing back and forth between its two modes is jarring at best even for moe fans.

While I enjoyed Moretsu Pirates I wanted there to be more of the serious arcs. Using so much moe to appeal to the hardcore anime fans dragged the show down and obscures some of the interesting ideas that it set up for Space Pirates in an otherwise peaceful world. I hate to conclude a review this way but Moretsu Pirates is simply fun. In most places the show is horribly hyperbolic and silly, but it justifies itself so well and takes itself seriously while becoming completely self-indulgent. It wins on pure entertainment value, even if it’s empty on an intellectual level.

Top 5 Anime of 2012

 In some ways 2012 was a great year for anime. But that came in the form of long shows and unfortunately, two of the shows I’ve watched and enjoyed the most in 2012 didn’t end and don’t qualify for my list. While I haven’t watched a lot this year, what I did get to was some incredibly fun and innovative stuff. While I’m disappointed that my own rules don’t allow some of my favorite shows to make the list, what is included are shows that definitely should not be overlooked.

  5: The K-On! Movie

K-On! deserves to make the list for one spectacular reason: It’s the best K-On! that has yet been released. The K-On! Movie tosses the characters into more conflict than in both seasons of the TV show combined. Watching the characters get lost in London and attempting to speak english sis both adorable and extremely satisfying. Those aspects combined with the stellar animation quality that Kyoto Animation puts into a theatrical production and K-On! The Movie is the ultimate experience of the franchise. For that reason alone it deserves to make the list.

 4: Mouretsu Pirates

Mouretsu Pirates is one of those shows that attempts to serve a dual audience, fans looking for serious science fiction and fans looking for moe. It suffers from the problems that all those shows suffer from, while it has some interesting science fiction and good action the tone is constantly spun from serious to a light school comedy and the effect is jarring.

While Mouretsu Pirates is hard to take seriously as a work of science fiction when it is deep in its action sci-fi mode it’s a lot of fun and it plays with some new concepts for space pirates. On the other hand the moe elements are also fun, and I’d love to spend more time with all the characters. So while it is harmed by it’s duality it doesn’t disappoint on either front.

3:  Natsuyuki Rendezvous

The strength of Natsuyuki Rendezvous comes from the strong, realistic relationship built around the main characters. The telling scene is early on when Hazuki confesses his love to Rokka and it isn’t treated like the massive bomb that you’d normally expect in a romance anime. Rokka simply nods, says she’ll think about it, and they go and have lunch then go back to work. They react like adults, and that alone puts Natsuyuki Rendezous in a special category.

On top of the romance there is the hilarious relationship between Hazuki and the ghost of Rokka’s husband Atsushi. He hangs around, unable to let his wife go and the only one who can see him is Hazuki. So he tries at all opportunity to get between the budding romance.

While the middle sagged a bit, the characters and relationship does more than enough to qualify Natsuyuki Rendezvous for this list.

 

 2: Kids on the Slope

Jazz, the 1960s, a male friendship at the core of the story. A theme of my lists have been shows that have elements that make it stick out among most of the anime that we get from Japan. Kids on the Slope ignores most anime tropes, choosing instead to deliver a realistic narrative grounded in a set time and place. The show we get doesn’t even have to be animated, but I’m glad it gets placed in the skilled hands of director Shinichiro Watanabe and the music of Yoko Kanno.

The animation is absolutely beautiful and the characters and narrative are superb. The show is also extremely dense with time flying by as these eleven episodes attempts to cover two years of the characters high school career. Often single episodes feel like two episodes shortened and jammed together. I’d assume that the show might have been planned for a longer run but they worked with what that had, condensing where they could. That might be the only complaint, the show tries to do so much over a small span of time and pieces of it just get lost or left hanging.

There was a note in the penultimate episode during the preview that hinted that this show barely got made. It was one of the most genuine notes I’ve seen come from a production team and it showcases just how difficult it is to get compelling animation made in the current anime marketplace.

 1: Chihayafuru

No one who has heard me rave over Chihayafuru this past year will be surprised that it is my pick for the best of 2012. The show does everything near perfectly. There is a type of show that forces me to become so involved with the characters and narrative that I can’t help breaking down emotionally. There is a stretch in Chihayafuru that I was brought to tears at the end of nearly every episode. Either that shows how good this show is or how easily manipulated I am.

The success of the show is mainly because it hits so many of the most popular tropes of anime over the last few years. There is a club where the characters can interact, there is a shonen sports aspect, and there is a romance piece that features a love triangle with a childhood friendship! The key is that Chihayafuru is able to make all of them work independent and then interweave them to make the whole so much stronger than the sum of its parts. It’s a homerun, and a must watch for anyone who loves anime.

Review: Chihayafuru

There are so many barriers to entry in Chihayafuru that if it wasn’t freely available streaming I doubt that I, and many others who have been singing its praises, would have even attempted to touch it. It’s a sports anime that is about a card game rooted in ancient Japanese poetry, and that doesn’t sound like it would have much appeal outside a small number of specialized hobbyists. However, Chihayafuru is an anime that transcends it’s subject matter, and even it’s genre, to become something truly spectacular.

The way Chihayafuru is constructed feels like the perfect combination of all popular anime genres. Chihayafuru is based around a card game, which is treated like any other sport. So, it is essentially a Sports anime where character interaction is based around and connected too the single sport. It’s also a romance, with a flavor of the “separated childhood friend” trope that pops up so commonly in Shojo romances. The tournament sections of the show remind me of Shonen tournament stuff especially when the “Master” and “Queen” characters, the best Kurata players in the world, are fleshed out. Their super human ability and the constant stress at how large the skill gap between them and the heroes barrows heavily from Shonen tournament and fighting shows. Finally, Chihayafuru features a group of friends focused around a school club which has become a popular trope in Moe anime after the rabid popularity of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. 

Do all these elements coming together in a single title imply that Yuki Suetsugu sat down and crafted Chihayafuru to be the ultimate manga? No, I think she simply told the story she wanted to tell and the combination of all the elements listed above are each individually solid tropes that capture an audience and keep them coming back for more. Which is why each of them have traditionally been enough to serve as the basis of a show. Chihayafuru does each of them with such skill and precision that the result is a show that doesn’t allow you to become bored for a second, even if it is about a card game that no one outside Japan can even play. Karuta is based on 100 chosen poems that were written throughout Japanese history. A reader reads the first verse of the poem and the players must take the card on the field that has the second verse written upon it. The first player to capture the majority of the fifty cards in play is the winner.

Part of the fun of Chihayafuru is how unfamiliar I was with the game and the culture surrounding it. The audience watches Chihaya as she makes her way through the world of Kurata; making her way up the ladder to class A, playing in tournaments trying to each national levels, and finally attempting to challenge the Queen and become the best player in all of Japan. Even though the story follows Chihaya quickly working her way up the Kurata ranks her advancement never seems rushed or unrealistic. Chihaya is a skilled player, but she doesn’t win all of her matches, in fact many of the matches towards the end of the season she ends up losing handedly. It’s in these moments that the strategy and complexity of the game comes out. The different ways to position your hards, the way the players sit, and even the point the player begins to move towards a given card are all calculated and must be perfected in order to play with top level players. Chihaya spends a large portion of the second half of the season learning about her shortcomings as a Kurata player the hard way, by suffering a series of crushing defeats. However, each one she walks away with a taste of how difficult becoming the best Kurata player in the world actually is, and each time she walks away with a small tip that she is determined to work into her game and slowly overcome her shortfalls. 

The romance in Chihayafuru starts off as standard Shojo fair with Chihaya being torn between two boys, both of which were her childhood friends. While she has known Taichi for longer and they have been closer, she shares a connection with Arata because he is the one who inspired her to pursue Karuta. The dynamic becomes more interesting considering that Arata and Taichi know they are rivals yet are still friendly with each other, yet Chihaya doesn’t seem to have any interest in romance. The love triangle formed plays off of mutual respect and is hindered by the complete obliviousness of Chihaya. The audience is toyed with as it seems like Chihaya is slowly getting closer to Taichi, that the two of them might start to develop a serious relationship, and then the mention of Arata puts a glow in Chihaya’s eye that totally crushes any confidence that Taichi had gained. It is a difficult and exciting romance to watch, yet it doesn’t hit the audience over the head with what it’s trying to do. It remains subtle and in doing so has a larger affect than any pure romance anime has had on me. The most impressive part is I don’t know which guy will end up with Chihaya in the end, and I don’t have a preference. Both of them are good for her, for different reasons. I can’t imagine having to choose.

The secondary characters are all strong and serve to aid Chihaya’s story while being fully developed characters in their own right. Each one of them approaches Karuta in a different way and in doing so helps Chihaya see the flaw in her game. Kanade loves ancient poetry and teaches Chihaya the meaning of the poems, which is the first time she thought of them as anything but a matching game. Tsutomu shows Chihaya that the game can be analyzed and that keeping a record of your matches can help pinpoint strengths and weaknesses. Yusei brings a sense of physical competition to the group, showing that by building up ones body in other areas that physical endurance will help Karuta players hold up during the long tournaments. While they bring these aspects to Chihaya so she can evolve her own game they each have their own character arches and goals within the Karuta world that drives them forward. They serve to support Chihaya through their diverse skills but also to highlight the difficulty that Chihaya has to go through, how much better Chihaya is than the average player, and also to show exactly how far Chihaya has to go in order to capture the title of the best player in all of Japan. 

Chihayafuru is a difficult show to approach but I can’t see anyone who enjoys Japanese Animation not enjoying this show once they get a few episodes in. Yes, the subject matter is difficult to digest at first, and yes the poetry is completely unfamiliar to a western audience but the narrative does go through a lot of trouble to catch people up on the game and the poetry, and from that a western audience learns section of Japanese literature that they never would have encountered before. Above even that the show contains elements of a solid character drama, a compelling romance, and a gripping Shonen tournament show. There is something for every type of fan to latch onto in this dense, amazingly constructed masterpiece. Chihayafuru is a must watch for everyone.

Review: Char’s Counterattack

 After the horrors of Double Zeta Gundam I was excited to watch the final chapter of Tomino’s Universal Century Gundam franchise. Char’s Counterattack takes place three years after Double Zeta and about thirteen years after the original series. Char returns from hiding with a newly created Neo Zeon force carrying an asteroid with them. With the goal of rendering the Earth uninhabitable, Char sets to drop it on the planet but Amuro Ray, Captain Bright, and the elite Federation Forces team Londo-Bell are dead set against stopping them.

The movie doesn’t waste any time getting into the action. The first scene shows the unveiling of Nu Gundam, whose construction had to be accelerated because of the appearance of Char and his Neo Zeon army. Following that, Amuro Ray battles against Char’s forces while attempting to stop the astroid from falling on Earth. While the conflict rages just above the planet, the Federation Forces admit to being powerless against the oncoming asteroid. 

The set up of this movie contains most of its problems. That opening scene doesn’t quite make any sense. For starters, this is the first we’ve heard that Char is alive! He was assumed dead at the end of Zeta Gundam, killed in the final battle against the Titans. Second, Amuro Ray was retired from military service, which was covered in an arc of Zeta Gundam. If Amuro wanted to fight again why didn’t he just return to the Argama when Kamile was put out of commission, or even before, and pilot the Gundam? It feels like the movie begins twenty minutes after it should have because the audience is missing some important pieces of information.

The film disguises plot devices with some serious commentary on politics. The Earth Federation doesn’t want to get into another war after what Earth has been through during the Zeon conflict from the original series and the Neo Zeon conflict in Double Zeta Gundam. This blinds them and they completely believe and give in to Char’s demands after he drops the initial asteroid on Earth. However, the deal feels more like satire than desperation because in exchange for Char agreeing to disarm, Earth gives him the massive asteroid base Axis. They give a man who just dropped a giant rock on Earth an even bigger rock which he can drop onto the Earth! That’s exactly what he does, too. He barely hesitates! He sends a a handful of dummy ships to where the Federation was waiting to disarm Neo Zeon and then tosses Axis right into planet Earth. So while yes, Tomino is commenting on politics and how desperate the Federation was to stay out of the war it also works as a plot device to give Char the weapon he needs to destroy Earth. I’m not quite sure which way the scene favors.

The film goes on to introduce three new characters Chan Agi, a female pilot under Amuro who becomes the main love interesting in the film, Quees Panya, the daughter of a high ranking Federations Forces officer, and Hathaway Noa the son of Captain Bright Noa. Chan is a capable pilot who grounds Amuro emotionally and she is quite enjoyable to watch. However, the other two are plain annoying. Especially Quees, who quickly sympathies with Char’s goals and betrays the Federation Forces to join him. She is a Newtype prodigy, and Neo Zeon takes advantage of her to pilot a new Mobile Armor.

I don’t have much to say abut Quees except that she doesn’t serve much in the film except to fulfill a theme of corruption. She sympathizes with Char using fuzzy logic. This line appears in the Bandai subtitled version:“I’m with him! People on Earth are so stubborn and conservative but don’t have a problem changing wives or husbands! And that’s why I think Char is trying to do what he can to bring out the potential of humanity.” Which shows that the character really doesn’t know what she is getting into or why exactly she was getting into it. Once that is established, the audience is treated to Char just taking advantage of this naive girl. Beyond that, it’s annoying that she enjoys being used by Char and gets away with whatever she wants. At one point in the film she steals a Mobile Suit and finds Char out in space, then opens the cockpit and rolls through open space while holding her nose with no space suit. At that point, I just declared Tomino was using this character to annoy the audience. In reality, she is supposed to be another Lalah Sune, a young girl corrupted by Char, but this time Char has no emotional attachment to the poor girl. 

Hathaway Noa had become attached to Quees during the fifteen minutes they spent together and makes it his goal to make her see reason. During the final battle above earth, he ends up getting in the way and causing far more damage than doing help. His actions end up killing allied pilots who would have survived otherwise and doesn’t help in saving Quees, who pays the ultimate price for her betrayal and naiveté. Hathaway Noa becomes the standard Gundam character. This film is filled with veteran pilots and soldiers where the themes of Gundam traditionally come from inexperienced soldiers going into battle. Hathaway goes into this war as a child and comes out having seen one of the most horrible battles in human history, seeing someone he cared about killed, and being responsible for the death of a comrade. He becomes the audience stand in and, even though he lacks much characterization, is relatable because of that.

The question why we needed to have the novice soldier in this film is what bugs me. This should be a film filled with people who have survived through the previous two wars and are ready to put everything to rest, or not in the case of Char. Instead Tomino uses Hathaway Noa as a tool to continue telling the one story he seems to recycle over and over again, that of a young man walking into the horrors of war. It isn’t needed in this film, and it distracts from the main point of the film, the final battle between Amuro and Char.

Char’s motivation is never really made solid to me. Most of the options given as to why he is attack Earth are speculation, and in terms of narrative consistency there are no details on how he produced an army of mobile suits or gained control over Neo Zeon after they were all but destroyed at the end of Double Zeta. He always had the “Space should rule over Earth” aspect of his character but I would have liked to see how exactly he became such a radical. A slight hint that Lalah’s death was eating away at him and driving him crazy isn’t enough. Amuro suffers from the same problems. He is simply Amuro. He pilots the Nu Gundam, which he also designed, he is legendary and awesome. I never got a sense of the man he became after all these years. Zeta Gundam did a good job of moving the character forward and now we see him again and it feels like even the development exposed in Zeta Gundam is ignored.The film presents Char’s motivationit matter-of-factly, I never really buy it considering the history with the characters. Char wants Amuro dead because of the death of Lalah Sune. Even after all these years he still loves her, and still resents her picking Amuro over him at the end. He also goes on about how human being’s souls are tied down by gravity and how Earth will always ignore the needs of people in space, and all of this justifies mass genocide, apparently, because once the Earth Government is moved to Space they won’t be bitter that their home and families were annihilated by a radical splinter group.

The best part of the film are the animation and action scenes. This movie was made in 1988 and the animation and mech battles rival anything made since. The mech designs are fantastic, the fights are breathtaking, and the one on one duel between Amuro and Char is worthy of going down in animation history. That final duel is almost perfect, except for one scene where they both get out of their mechs for no reason. The battle uses everything we love about Gundam and pushes it to an extreme without using any of the silliness that tainted some of the final battles from previous UC Gundam series. This is what the movie was made to showcase, it’s what Gundam fans have wanted since the original series. The rematch finally comes and it’s glorious in every respect. 

Then comes the end. Axis is blown apart but half of it is still falling towards Earth. Amuro moves to attempt to stop it’s descent using the Nu Gundam and its Psyco-Frame. Suddenly Federation reinforcement arrive and all help, then Zeon mobile suits join in to help. But that isn’t enough and all of them are forced to retreat. It’s then that Char realizes the warmth of the human heart, even in someone willing to destroy the Earth. That realization causes him to renew his faith in humanity and that combined with the Psyco-frame’s resonance, pushes Axis away from the Earth. Yet, Amuro and Char never reappear.

So after all that, Char simply changes his mind and that’s enough to reverse everything that he put into motion. Sure, he had the aid of a magical Mobile Suit system but …it’s still a little disappointing. Maybe if I had more of a sense of Char’s character before this realization made the difference in the fate of planet Earth it would have been more believable. It’s presented as epic and rational, but it feels cheap because of my lack of truly understanding these characters.

I wanted to love this movie. But the annoying side characters and subplots just dragged it down, as well as a lack of a cohesive narrative and characters who had proper motivation. However this film is a must see for fans of mecha combat and anyone who has ever enjoyed a Gundam series. In the end, it’s visuals and action are stunning to behold and it’s the that final battle between the original protagonist and antagonist of the Gundam franchise that has made this film a classic. For all its flaws it wasn’t a bad watch and I kind of look forward to seeing the film again not only for the action sequences but to further deconstruct how the themes reflect post-war Japan and Tomino’s ultimate message about war. Through my watching of UC Gundam there has been a duality to the various parts of the franchise. The first is great action and a compelling world on the brink of destruction. The second is incomprehensible character decisions, poor plotting, and Newtype “magic” as a solution to problems. Yes, the second one seems to out weight the first overall, but that is just one of the elements you’re signing up for when approaching Gundam.