Author: Scott Spaziani

Review: Steins;gate

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There are few things in the world I enjoy more than I good time travel story. Time travel offers a unique twist to a standard narrative, in that, events don’t always occur linearly. The events the characters experience are jumbled and due to this the plotting of a time travel story come out far more interesting than a standard drama. Steins;Gate takes place in Akihabara where a group of friends modified a microwave to send text messages into the past. Underestimating the consequences Okabe Rintaro, self proclaimed mad scientist, allows people to use the machine to change the past. What he discovers is that even altering the past slightly can completely change the world.

573830.jpgSteins;Gate is really two different shows. The first half is a Moe show with time travel elements and the second half is a time travel show with Moe elements. Strangely both work, for different reasons, and the transition from the lighthearted and fun atmosphere of the first half of the narrative moves smoothly when Steins;Gate suddenly becomes deadly serious. Such a change in tone is difficult to pull off, yet Steins;Gate manages it by having a fantastic first episode which encapsulates most of the elements that the series will represent going forward. The audience gets the insane antics of Okabe, the wonderful Moe of Mayuri, some of the deep time travel elements, technobabble, and murder. This execution is viewed in hindsight, however, as the first episode’s tonal imbalance may turn away overwhelmed viewers.

The element that really drew me into Steins;Gate was the use of internet culture as a hook, specifically using John Titor as the jumping point for the series. In late November 2000 a man who claimed to be a time traveler appeared on IRC and his claims have been immortalized on the internet. Steins;Gate’s hook is when Okabe notices that the first message they send back in time, accidentally, erases John Titor from existence. Going forward Steins;Gate uses pieces of the John Titor story has important plot points including the search for the IBM 5100, Titor’s explanation of how time travel works, and the year John Titor claimed to have been from; 2036. Prior knowledge of John Titor isn’t required to enjoy the narrative but you get a little extra out of the show by recognizing the references.

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Early in the show Okabe recruits Kurisu Makise, a prodigy scientist, and together they develop and test the Phone Microwave and it’s unique ability to send messages back in time, called “D-mail.” Much of the first half of the show is spent on these experiments and on playing around with the show’s moe cast of characters. Being Akihabara, many of the characters are Otaku with classic Otaku tropes. Daru is a brilliant engineer but comes off as a lonely pervert, Mayuri is an adorable cosplay Otaku who works at a costume cafe, Feyris works with Mayuri and remains in her cat persona even outside of work, and various other characters. They’re enjoyable to watch interact and the characters who get a chance to change the world with D-Mail get backstories which crush the heart of the viewer and Okabe in the same fatal stroke. However, I never felt like the majority of the characters received any depth. Most of them simply work as plot devices to drive the narrative forward, provide a reason to alter the course of the world. Even when their backstories were explored I felt more for Okabe than I did for the individual characters because he had to explain that their wishes were harming the course of time, and he felt responsible for them having to undo their changes to the past.

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Kurisu Makise is also an interesting character. While she holds many of the stereotypical Tsundere traits she is given enough development to not only to overcome them but to somewhat justify them. Her secret obsession with 2channel gives her an interesting quark and the unintentional rivalry with her father both shows why she seems profoundly sad yet has accomplished so much at a young age. Even her first encounter with Okabe showed her range, at first she took a profound enjoyment out of proving him wrong and yet when he proved that time travel was possible she was humble enough to agree to work for him. I have a respect for characters who command respect and yet can be humble when they’re defeated. Mayuri offers an interesting intersect because while she is a character who exists as a plot device and doesn’t have much development you can’t help but fall in love with her. She is the sweetest, most gentle creature in the world, which works as a nice foil to the often abrasive and rude Okabe. She’s able to bring out a side of Okabe no one else sees which makes their relationship profoundly endearing.

Time travel is the main focus of the plot in Steins;Gate. D-Mails sent into the past don’t exactly change the future but shift the “world line” Okabe inhabits. He has the unique ability, conveniently, to remember all the world lines he happened to inhabit. His friends don’t notice any change because they’ve always existed in the world created by the D-Mail. So “Time Travel” for the majority of Steins;Gate is actually “world line travel.” Altering a small part of the past allows Okabe to jump between the world lines. Although later in the show more actual time travel takes place I enjoyed the plots created by the D-mails because of the mystery around what effect the message would have on Okabe’s world. One simple jump and an element he was relaying on, a driving focus of the plot for the early episodes, would just disappear forcing Okabe to completely rethink his strategy. In total, Steins;Gate uses three methods of Time travel; world line travel, consciousness travel where a person’s present mind jumps back into their physical body; and physical time travel where a character travels from the present into the past. Each of the methods are pulled off well with their own benefits and drawbacks expertly explored.

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One aspect of Steins;Gate that I didn’t like is that the science changed when it became convenient to the characters. At one point Kurisu declares that her field of study was in the brain when she is first scene giving a presentation on physics and had, up to that point, only mentioned being a physicist. Another bit of rule breaking that irked me was they changed rules when the plot needed a rule to be changed. At first one Time Machine is limited to only travel backwards through time, which creates a depressing departure that the show spends an entire episode fixated on. Later a time machine of the same make has the ability to travel forwards and backwards through time, which gives Okabe an extra chance to change the past. It’s sloppy storytelling and bad science fiction.

I’ve discussed how well I think the time travel elements of Steins;Gate work, and indeed at its core this is an extremely solid Time Travel narrative. However, the moe elements are going to drive away people who would otherwise find the series enjoyable. The early episodes are light on the Sci-fi and heavy on moe characters doing moe things, the pacing is slow allowing the audience to spend more time with the characters. Each episode reveals one small piece of the plot. When that shift in the middle of the series happens Steins;Gate becomes a serious time travel narrative but getting there is going to prove difficult for someone looking for good science fiction right from the start. It’s unfortunate that by playing to the Otaku crowd who love both science fiction and moe, the audience who would most appreciate Steins;Gate won’t be able to make it through those first few episodes.

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This review might feel a little negative but I can’t stress enough how much I enjoyed Steins;Gate. For all it’s failings, Okabe and Kurisu remain interesting characters and the way it employs the standard time travel tropes are always fun and entertaining. The dark, serious tone during the second half of the show is contains some incredible character drama despite the cast of mostly shallow characters. Okabe is forced to carry the burden of the narrative, being remembers world line jumps, that the depth of his character, what he goes through, and how he is profoundly changed by the end is truly moving. So while moe elements hold the show back and some of the science fiction elements are weak, the show comes off as a definite watch for science fiction and moe fans alike. No where near a perfect show, but an entertaining and moving piece of animation.

Winter Preview 2012, Part 2

The second and final part of my 2012 Winter season preview. Here I review the first episodes of Nisemonogatari, Lagrange: The Flower of Rin-ne, Another, and Ano Natsu de Matteru.

Nisemonogatari

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Picking up right where Bakemonogatari leaves off the show follows Koyomi Araragi as he deals with various supernatural phenomena. He also has to deal with his insane girlfriend, his sisters, and a cast of lovably crazy characters.

Fans of Bakemonogatari rejoice! The long awaited sequel is here. Like the original, the animation and character designs are absolutely beautiful. There is a special craftsmanship to the backgrounds in this show, probably because the majority of the show is made up of long scenes of dialogue. Due to the lack of action, the look and feel of scenes becomes extremely important. In the scene that takes up a long portion of the middle of the episode Koyomi speaks to his younger sister about life and love. The room she is in is elaborate, featuring a

Screen%2520Shot%25202012-01-17%2520at%252011.23.55%2520PM.pnglarge round couch sitting directly in the middle, a fully fledged art gallery on the left wall, and ladders arranged oddly. The camera angle shifts as they speak to highlight different parts of the scene. These backgrounds are the most beautiful part of Nisemonogatari and like Bakemonogatari I look forward to each new location that Shinbou crafts and look forward to deconstructing how they reflect the narrative.

The show is largely dialogue, but what made Bakemonogatari brilliant is that the dialogue is as compelling as the best choreographed action scenes. The banter back and forth between Koyomi and the various characters is wonderful, each character having a different flavor of banter which allows the characters to get fleshed out in an abundance of detail. It’s almost as if the tone of the show shifts depending on whom Koyomi is interacting. In the opening scene with Hitagi the show takes on a dark, desperate aura but the next scene makes the show feel like a romantic drama. Like Bakemonogatari expect these changes in tone to be constant throughout.

The unfortunate thing about Nisemonogatari is that it picks up shortly after the end of Bakemonogatari and viewers without knowledge of the pervious series will be completely lost, especially with the opening scene. I have seen Bakemonogatari but this first episode assumes a level of detail that two years has wiped from my memory. Even so I can that that with this first episode it looks like fans of Bakemonogatari may have finally gotten a worthy sequel.

Nisemonogatari is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.com

Lagrange: The Flower of Rin-ne

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Madoka is an energetic young girl dedicated to helping people with her “Jersey club” and is otherwise normal. That is until she is recruited by Lan to pilot “Vox”, a powerful robot and only defense against an invading alien force.

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The first episode of this show is simply a paint by numbers Evangelion clone except replacing Shinji with an energetic young girl. Like Shinji, Madoka is brought into a secret location because she is the only person who is capable of piloting a super secret mech that is the only defense earth has against an invading alien force, she is given no instructions prior to combat other than she just needs to “sit in the cockpit,” and she successfully activates the machine and defeats the invaders with seemingly minimal effort.

Honestly, apart from the blatant Evangelion copy and replace, the show wasn’t that bad. It has a fairly good setup with the character Lan arriving from nowhere to find Madoka. Where does Lan come from? Why is Madoka so important? These questions are left up in the air as the battle unfolds. Even the mundane pieces of the narrative have mystery attached to them, such as the reason why Madoka is the only member of her “Jersey Club” despite the fact that she seems incredibly popular. Everyone talks about her club as if it was something that shouldn’t be approached.

While watching this I had an overwhelming sensation that if I had seen this in 2002, I would have instantly fallen in love. I’ve just seen too many similar shows. This doesn’t seem like it’ll cover any new territory or offer anything new to the medium. However, the animation is vibrant and the writing and action aren’t abysmal. This may turn out to be an enjoyable watch, even if it’s a show we’ve seen countless times before.

Lagrange: The Flower of Rin-ne is currently streaming on Hulu.com

Another

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Kouichi Sasakibara transfers to a new school and can immediately feel something frightening lurking within. The feeling seems to come from Mei Misaki, a beautiful girl that no one seems to be aware of except for Kouichi. Why is he the only person able to see her and what secret is the school trying to hide?

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I love the vibe that the show gives off. The atmosphere built around the city, around the main character, and around the school is so wonderfully creepy that they put me in the mood for horror. It isn’t even blatant, it’s just a feeling in the back of your mind that something is off, something isn’t quite right about how some of these characters are acting. There is a mystery to the show, to the main character, one that even he seems ignorant of which makes unraveling the mystery all the more exciting.

I’m not that big of a horror fan, but this show has me intrigued. Trying to pin down what it is, I think it has more to do with the mystery of the show rather than any type of fear the show brought me. While the goal of horror is to scare the audience, a tactic that fails on me because my disbelief is never suspended enough for it to be effective, this show relies more on it’s creepy tone and mystery to build a compelling narrative. Japanese horror is based less on the jump scare and is more focused on creeping the audience out slowly over time until a single huge scare happens that brings the creepy feeling to a crescendo. Anyone who has seen the ring can identify with this feeling when first seeing the girl start to crawl out of the television set.

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That’s what I expect from Another. Right now the “ghost” is simply creepy, a little weird. As more is revealed about the ghost, about the students in this creepy school, and about the main character the greater the sense of dread will climb.

The one misstep of this first episode was the prologue which described the origin of the ghost and why the school is haunted. This gives the audience knowledge about what is going on before we are even introduced to the main character and it spoils a little of the mystery. I’m hoping the prologue is a clever bit of misdirection, but until that plays out I just feel it’s an information dump in a show that seems to thrive on limiting the information given to the audience.

Another is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.com

 

Ano Natsu de Matteru

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Kaito Kirishima is out testing his 8mm camera at night when something causes a massive explosion at the local dam. He is tossed viciously into the air but he wakes up the next day perfectly fine. That day a red haired transfer student, Ichika Takatsuki, shows up at school and through a series of circumstances ends up living with Kaito. Ichika is an alien and having caused the explosion, feels guilty about harming Kaito and wants nothing more but to nurture him back to health.

Screen%2520Shot%25202012-01-17%2520at%252010.22.00%2520PM.pngAnother show that doesn’t seem to want to bring anything new to the table, with the exception of the cast’s desire to make a film. That single element is compelling in that I’d want to see a well executed play with in a play that might be able to transform a rather generic concept into something interesting. I said this about “Lagrange: The Flower of Rin-ne” as well but it rings just as true for “Ano Natsu de Matteru,” I would have been super excited about this show in 2002. But now, ten years later, I’ve seen more than enough harem shows to satisfy that itch. Better harem shows! I have harem shows I want to re-watch before getting into another attempt to revolutionize the formula.

So Ichika arrives out of the sky in a sudden and impressive showing, by accident injures Kaito so that she has a deep desire to make sure that he heals properly. So what other harem shows start by a girl coming from the sky? Tenchi Muyo; the classic that may have jump started the genre; Please Teacher, Sora no Otoshimono, and Ah! My Goddess to name the ones off the top of my head! Why does anime insist on taking a single popular concept and driving it firmly into the ground?

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There is also something weirdly non-confrontational about the show. I don’t like how Kaito offers Ichika to stay with him while daydreaming, he doesn’t realize he is actually speaking with her! It’s as if the show is telling Otaku “This is how easy it is to get a woman to live with you!” It’s a vibe I strongly dislike.

I’m being overly harsh on this show just because I heard good things and was expecting something. What I got was a simple rehash of a show I’ve seen before. Granted, the animation is better and the character designs are OMG ADORABLE so much so that I will be collecting art of Ichika even if I never make it to the second episode. There are just so many of these shows out now that I don’t have the energy to care about this one. I’d rather re-watch Tenchi Muyo or Ah! My Goddess than experience a cheap imitation.

Ano Natsu de Matteru is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.com

Winter Preview 2012, Part 1

In this first part of my Winter Preview are the first impressions for Poyopoyo, Familiar of Zero F, Mouretsu Pirates, and Brave 10.

Poyopoyo

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Moe Sato finds a cat and names him Poyo because of his round shape. The episodes are short pieces about Sato’s new life with her pet.

Screen%2520Shot%25202012-01-17%2520at%25208.33.06%2520AM.pngPoyopoyo’s first episode was extremely quick and simply a set up for some of the jokes going forward. The show is about an adorable cat who is round, to the confusion of most of the cast and is really the chief gag of the series. This episode established that the cat does cat like things, and is cute while doing them.

The art is cute and fun, fitting the style of humor and the length of the episodes. The humor of the show doesn’t only come from the cat but from a bunch of quick jokes simply tossed at the audience in mass. The Father quickly became my favorite character as you watched him instantly fall in love with Poyo and suddenly put him in a role reversal as he and his daughter beg his distraught son to allow them to keep Poyo.

If you like cats there is no reason not to check out Poyopoyo. It’s three minutes an episode and streaming for free. You’ll find it cute, at the very least.

Poyopoyo is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.com

Familiar of Zero F

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Familiar Zero F is the fourth season of the “The Familiar of Zero.” Based on a series of light novels the series is about Louise who is a magician in training at Tristein Academy who has had no recorded success with magic. During a magic test she must summon a powerful Familiar but instead ends up summoning Hiraga Saito, an ordinary Japanese boy.

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I don’t have much to say about this show. I started it now knowing much about it, and definitely not knowing it was the fourth season of a long running show. What I saw didn’t impress me, and I really couldn’t follow what was going on.

It started with some boob-grab humor, which was the shows way of quickly reintroducing the characters to the audience. Again, being the fourth season of a long running show there is a lot of information left out that the audience is just supposed to know. When the characters are summoned before the Pope I really had no idea what was happening or what the importance was that they were Vord mages, which we’re told posses a legendary form of magic that everyone in the main cast just happens to have… and needs to be told about.

The villains of the show appear out of nowhere and use the boring anime joke of having the older brother look really young and the younger brother look older. They attempt to steal some unknown object from the church. A boring battle happens, and nothing much comes of it.

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Character development can be seen, barely, in the scene where the Familiar gets angry at his master because she is starstruck by the Pope. So the being that she summoned has some kind of severe inferiority complex? This isn’t character development, this is a weak attempt at humor and it fails. Love interests arguing over silly things seems to be a staple of anime comedies and I’ll never understand the appeal.

dDon’t make the same mistake I did and watch this if you haven’t seen “The Familiar of Zero” before. If you got through the other three seasons I’m sure you’ll know if you want to go forward.

Familiar of Zero F is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.com

 

Mouretsu Pirates

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Marika is a first year high school student living in the galaxy Uminoakeboshi. She suddenly finds out her father was the Captain of the Space Pirates Ship “Bentenmaru” and that she is set to inherit the ship, taking over as Captain.

Screen%2520Shot%25202012-01-17%2520at%25209.28.53%2520PM.pngThere is a lot to like about the first episode of Mouretsu Pirates. The main character is a spirited young girl who has experience piloting ships in her school’s Space Yacht club, which is far more than I expected as a base for the character, on top of her being an intelligent and driven individual. Her mother, a former space pirate, is wrapped in a ton of mystery which sets a level of intrigue to the narrative. Why did she stop being a pirate? Why never tell her daughter about her father? The rest of the cast is just as interesting, although most don’t get an adequate amount of screen time in the first episode to really get a feeling for them, other than to quickly plant a kernel of development. It was enough to realize that I desperately want to see more of them.

The fact that the pirate ship she is set to inherit is a group of Privateers given licenses by the government during the war for independence is far more interesting than just having them be a gang of thugs. Evil pirates who rape and pillage wouldn’t be a good focus for a show that seems to be setting up for a light comedy. Pirates who are good guys and plunger for heroic reasons make for a more compelling narrative without having to corrupt the main character.

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With no space combat I can’t pass judgement on the action of the show so far. Having the main character being pursued by a group who doesn’t want the pirates to exist is a good starting point and what little action there was in this episode was certainly compelling.

The one thing that irked me about the episode was the inclusion of a Maid cafe. It seemed tossed in for no other reason than to show the main character in a maid outfit. While it got worked into the narrative for more reasons than fanservice the fact that this young girl living on a distant planet in space would be working at a maid cafe seems like a lazy solution to the problem. It’s as if the creators needed to sneak something in so the show would appeal to Otaku.

Mouretsu Pirates is currently streaming on Cruncyroll.com

Brave 10

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Set during the Sengoku Period the ninja Saizou Kirigakure meets the priestess Nami Isa when she is attacked by assassins. For some unknown reason Saizou feels like he must stick with her and protect her on her journey to seek revenge for the destruction of her shrine.

Screen%2520Shot%25202012-01-17%2520at%25209.25.08%2520PM.pngThere are somethings to like about Brave 10. It’s an action show that has no identify crisis, it just wants to be a vehicle to show you action. Saizou is a tough scary guy who has powers that make him almost impossible to beat, he saves the girl who will be his love interest, and that allows him to meet up with a lord who is putting a team together in an epic Nick Fury style twist.

Unfortunately nothing is particularly original. It feels like a rehash of a dozen shows that came before from character designs to the set up. Enemies have shown themselves as generic masked Ninja characters, the settings is Sengoku Period which has served as the backdrop for countless shows, and the action wasn’t particularly compelling unless you enjoy enemies failing to take advantage of the main character after they wrap him in chains!

Screen%2520Shot%25202012-01-17%2520at%25209.26.36%2520PM.pngThe worst element of the show are the anime tropes tossed in that work to undermine the seriousness of the main character and the tone of the series otherwise. Tropes like characters eating an excessive amount and freaking out around women are tossed in as if to remind the audience that they are watching an anime.

The most confusing part of the episode is the character’s motivation for helping the girl. He seems completely determined not to help her and then suddenly he is protecting her. At the end of the episode he agrees to stay with his new lord because of some loyalty for her that doesn’t seem to exist, at least I can’t find it. The character development is more focused on driving the narrative forward rather than building interesting, fully developed characters.

If you’re an action fan or a serious fan of the Sengoku period than you might find something to like in this show. If those elements don’t appeal to you then it is a definite pass.

Brave 10 is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.com

Top 5 Anime of 2011

luckystar01.jpeg2011 turned out to be an interesting year. It seems the moe craze is starting to dimmish a bit with a few notable failures; Yuru Yuri I’m looking in your direction; but overall 2011 turned into a pretty good, especially for Funimation with them pushing out two of the titles on this list on top of their exceptionally successful FLCL rerelease.

The titles on my list paint 2011 as a year where Japan returned to attempt reaching a western audience, where an auteur director came of age, where artistic exploration reached a new pinnacle, where sweet and simple narratives play with our emotions, and where Japan proves they are still capable of creating some of the finest Science Fiction in the world.

Each of the titles on the list represent different reasons why I’m an anime fan. The chief reason among them being how much depth the medium has to offer. The qualifying rules are simple, a series had to have finished airing in 2011 and a film has to have been released on DVD or screened in the United States at some point in 2011. Now, on to the list!

5. Tiger & Bunny

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Tiger & Bunny stands apart from other Japanese attempts at superhero stories because it relies so much on the characters. They are beautifully drawn and full of life, so much that I desperately await more stories set in the universe. Tiger & Bunny has the potential to be the new gateway drug for the next generation of Anime fans just as Cowboy Bebop was for my generation. It has themes that appeal to a western audience but enough anime tropes to prepare an unsuspecting audience before jumping into the vast world of the medium.

Above all else Tiger & Bunny could keep me on the edge of my seat with excitement though the majority of the final arc and allow me to build a strong enough emotional connection with the characters to have me break down in tears. For an action show to do both of those things elevates it above the majority in its genre.

4. Summer Wars

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Mamoru Hosoda made a huge affect the industry with his film “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.” Summer Wars represents the first time Hosoda directs an original script and it definitely shows off the level of creativity of which he is capable. The imagery is stunning from the rich and full virtual world of OZ to the subtle beauty of rural Japan. The narrative pits old world family values against the need to be connected through a digital world and the stark difference between how the two worlds look aids the theme in profound ways.

The greatest achievement of Summer Wars is Hosoda’s handling of characters. The family depicted in the film easily contains two dozen members and yet with a few short scenes the audience feels as if they understand the make up of the family, and the character of even the most minor players. This is done by relating universal experiences and allowing the audience to fill in gaps with their own experiences. Truly, a magnificent style to immerse the audience in your world.

3. Puella Magi Madoka Magica

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In an attempt to describe Madoka Magica I called it “The Dark Knight of magical girl shows” and indeed I believe that it took a genre that had been traditionally for young girls and transformed it with gritty realism and dark characters that left the idea of escapism normally associated with Magical Girl shows far behind, instead turning the idea of “Magical Girl” into a fate I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. This isn’t the first show to turn Magical Girl tropes upside down but it certainly did it in a lasting and profound way.

The greatest achievement of this show is the direction of Akiyuki Shinbo as he weaved his fantastic cut out art style into the show which gave a stark contrast between the evil witches and Ume Aoki’s adorable character designs. The dark shadow filled world he crafts work to create the sinister undertone that drives Madoka Magica forward as it slowly destroys the emotional stability of the audience.

2. Usagi Drop

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I can’t stop talking about how much I love this show. Compared to all the other shows on the list it might seem like nothing special. The animation is simple and the story is almost nonexistent, being a slice of life drama. So how can it compete with shows that have innovative animation and narrative techniques? With pure heart. The show is the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen and it handles it’s subject, a single guy taking in a little girl, with sincere realism. The characters are so beautifully and realistically constructed that one cannot help falling in love with all of them, even the annoying bratty kid who befriends Rin.

Usagi Drop is a beautiful, universal narrative which succeeds because of how honest and true it is executed. It transcends the medium and is a product that shows a universal human experience no matter what age or disposition from which the viewer approaches.

1. Evangelion 2.22

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Evangelion 2.22 took the number one spot late and pretty much by default. It wasn’t until I was compiling the list and went over my rules that I realized that Evangelion 2.22 qualified, and that’s why it wasn’t on last year’s list even though the first time I saw it was in 2010.

Evangelion 2.22 is an amazing accomplishment chiefly because it takes it’s source material, the Evangelion television series, and improves on it. There are few anime series that come close to the complexity of narrative and depth of character development that the television series accomplishes and this film comes to much the same place using much tighter and complete character arcs. Not only is the structure of the narrative better but the visuals and action are perhaps some of the greatest ever seen in Japanese Animation. The style of the opening fight with Evangelion Unit 2 accomplishes what took the television series needed twenty minutes for in seconds. The intensity of the final battle with Zeruel seeds doubt into the audience as to what the outcome will be, and this is a remake of a much loved series! Hideaki Anno has improved on his own masterpiece and there is no question that Evangelion 2.22 takes the top spot for Anime released in 2011.

As always, I look forward to what next year will bring. Another year, another fantastic list of shows to represent the medium. I hope you enjoy.

 

Correction: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time was not Hosoda’s first film. I know Digimon exists, I just temporarily forgot about it. 

Review: Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below

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Makoto Shinkai has been called the next Hayao Miyazaki, for good reason. In his newest work he creates an adventure narrative in the vain of the greatest of Miyazaki’s films, a departure from his extremely emotional love stories. By making a Ghibli-esuq film he is making a direct challenge to the master of Japanese animation but is it too early for him to be making such bold declarations or is this Shinkai clearly declaring his rightful place in the animation world? Asuna is a young girl who has been forced to mature early due to the loss of her father and the hectic schedule of her mother. She spends her time on the mountain listening to strange music from her crystal radio. One day a mysterious boy saves her from a beast, this starts her on a journey that brings her to the underworld Agartha and will lead her to a power capable of resurrecting the dead.

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The film is gorgeous. Known for his fantastic art and attention to detail, Shinkai again creates some beautiful landscapes. There are dozens of frames in the film that deserve to be framed and hung on a wall, moments where I audibly gasped at the landscapes that Shinkai creates. Shinkai is probably the best artist currently working in Japan and he has poured all of his talent into crafting this film. When Asuna descends into Agartha we’re treated to the remnants of a once great civilization, here Shinkai builds magnificent ruins and gives them an unbelievable sense of scale. It can’t be understated how a meticulous use of background detail aids world and character building. Being able to see shelves and books, various containers, and other elements of life make the people of Agartha come alive. The creation of a lived in look to the villages and cities is comparable to Miyazaki’s towns in Nausccia and Princess Mononoke. The audience is immersed in this world completely. It feels alive.

One of the most exceptional images of the film is when Asuna reaches the edge of Agartha and sees a massive crater, the center of which is the gateway of life and death. Clouds hang over the crater and past it lies a flat desert. As the clouds hang above the crater the sun starts to peak over and the light transforms the entire horizon into a brilliant orange. The images shapes itself and one beautiful image transforms into a magnificent image as you watch. This is one of the best visual treats that Shinkai employs and it’s always stunning. He allows the subtle change in nature to tell a piece of the story, to define a bit of his theme, and to imbue the audience with a slight emotion. Again, Shinkai’s genius comes in attention to detail.

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Asuna is a fantastic character and Shinkai spends the first part of the movie showing her daily life. Her relationship with her pet squirrel, how she takes care of the household chores, and prepares her own meals. Shinkai’s subtle use of visual narrative gives the audience a ton of information through quick visuals or background noise. Her mother isn’t around and a line is dropped that she’s working at a hospital, which conjures a host of images in the viewers head. During an early scene Asuna is seen praying at her Father’s shrine, so without beating the audience over the head with her circumstances the audience understands and is immediately sympathetic. The same can’t be said about most of the other characters of the film. Mr. Morisaki, who becomes the driving force of the journey into Agartha, has a rushed development and little is known about him before a twist has him on his way to the gate of life and death. Years of research and this life threatening journey are the result of the loss of his wife, who we never see and recieve no information about. We’re supposed to take it at face value that Morisaki would endanger a young girl, recruit a group of commandos, and recklessly journey across a dying world on foot in order to bring her back to life. His obsession is the driving force of the film, he is introduced by teaching the myth of Agartha to Asuna’s class long before we learn that he lost his wife. He also never speaks personally about his wife during the film, even after he becomes close to Asuna. This lack of any sympathetic qualities turns what should be a rich, sympathetic character into a flat obsessive villain.

Makoto Shinkai’s films are traditionally slow, which allows the characters and imagery to take center stage. “5 Centimeters per second” used imagery, narration, and dialogue to tell its story. “Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below,” being an action/adventure film can’t relay on those tropes that Shinkai has mastered. The first ten minutes of the movie do follow that pattern, as I wrote above much of

children_who_chase_lost_voices_from_deep_below_3.jpegAsuna’s characterization comes from Shinkai’s brilliant use of imagery. Once the action starts is where some of the problems begin. The pacing is extremely start-stop, never finding a consistent middle ground. Characters felt less that they were traveling in the epic world of Agartha and more that they were fulfilling plot points as they came along. This is where comparing Shinkai to Miyazaki breaks down. Most Miyazaki films stick to a strict structure which leaves room for great action while winding the pace down smoothly to explore the characters and insert humor. Shinkai hasn’t developed that ability yet, but the shortcomings in the plot and pacing aren’t large enough to ruin the film, it’s one of the failings that arises when attempting to compare Shinkai to the mastery of Miyazaki.

Shinakai’s themes are always fantastic and “Children” is no different. The film is an extended metaphor for grief, the process of overcoming the death of a love one and what happens when someone isn’t able to let go. It’s a beautiful theme and well executed, the characters all come to a point where they have to make a difficult emotional decision and some fail that test. Even with the problems in characterization the desire that Morisaki had to bring a loved one back to life carries an emotional wight which is executed with profound skill.

Shinkai also adds a single sword fight to the movie, a quick minute long sword fight that happens near the end. It is perhaps the greatest action scene ever animated, comparable to the best action scenes from Princess Mononoke. Character movements are extremely fast and fluid, the choreography is exciting, and it feels like there is something serious at stake. Where most anime’s action scenes can come off as flashy Shinkai favors realism, as with his backgrounds, and captures the complex nature of humans in a physical struggle with the same profound skill he uses to craft his stunning landscapes.

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Shinkai achieves near greatness with this newest film but by switching from his traditional style to a formula that strongly resembles that of Hayao Miyazaki he now enters an area where he is overshadowed by giants. However, the most exciting part about Makoto Shinkai is his age. When Miyazaki constructed his first “masterpiece” in “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” he was forty-three years old. Makoto Shinkai is currently only thirty-eight. The exciting part about Shinkai is that his art is still developing. He already is one of the best animators working in Japan at this time and plenty of time to work on characterization, plotting, and other narrative failings of this film. So while some elements hold “Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below” back the career that this film foreshadows has me more extremely excited about the future of animation.

I recommend “Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below” as an enjoyable adventure story despite some of it’s narrative failings. However, the artistry in the film and the sheer beauty that scenes are animated make it an incredible visual experience. Even if the narrative doesn’t win you over the few scenes that make you gasp in delight will be well worth the investment.

Convention Report: New York Comic Con 2011

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It’s hard to say anything about New York Comic Con that hasn’t already been said, or that isn’t a repeat from what I talked about last year’s show. The event was definitely bigger than last year and the space was far better utilized than last year with them opening up the North Hall for the autograph area. Of course, this being Comic Con, even with the large show space the crowding was horrible. Building a multi-genre show has its positives and negatives but I fear that Comic Con may have finally crossed the line into being more of swap meet with a theater showing clips from upcoming pop culture hits rather than a space to celebrate any type of fandom.

IMG_1777.jpgThe main component of New York Comic Con is undeniably the show floor. A massive space that serves as both a dealers room and a place where marketing professionals can attempting to push their new products on con-goers, a space for meeting your favorite artists and writers, or check out some fantastic indie art pieces. The show floor comes with all the spectacle that you’d expect from a geek event that takes place in one of the largest cities in the world. This is, unfortunately, a double edged sword. While the show floor is so large as to keep attendees busy for an entire weekend it is also the main place where the majority of people will be concentrated. Over all three days it was difficult to get from one end of the floor to the other. There is a constant fight against the raging mod to see anything and if you happen to be stuck behind someone who wants to take a photo the halls immediately get blocked with dozens of people fighting, not realizing that they’ve been halted by a guy with a camera phone and desire to get a third picture of Captain America. They’ll always be something to enjoy on the show floor, but be ready to fight in order to see it.

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Surprisingly, this is an improvement over last year. The anime section of the show floor experienced a massive traffic jam making that entire area impassable. This year the anime booths were spread throughout the floor, making it hard to hit all of them but it ensured that they were actually approachable. Overall, space between booths was much improved and even though the crowds were difficult to move through there were no complete jams like last year. It seems they did everything possible to increase the flow of traffic, if only they could prevent people from stopping and gawking at

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costumes.

The biggest question hovering over the convention this year was if the anime section would be improved or continue to become a shrinking piece of the convention. Well, while anime artist alley was moved from the basement to the gallery at the very top of the convention center it was still a difficult place simply to stumble upon. One needed to go up two escalators, following large signs, even to get to the area. Once there the artist alley was spacious and easy to browse and at the end of the gallery was a massive space which contained dozens of tables, some snack vendors, and the dreaded anime stage. Last year New York Anime Festival had a decent assortment of fan panels in small rooms. This year the only anime fan panels excepted were forced to perform on a stage, which forced the presenter to speak to a massive room where the majority of people were just sitting and chatting, not even caring what was happening on the stage. This worked for some of the game shows, like cosplay dating game, but I cringed through Aaron Clark’s Evangelion Deconstructed panel as he attempted to present serious analysis over the low rumble of crowd noise and the shouting of memes.

It’s clear that the anime fans and the comics fan simply don’t mesh together. New York Comic Con is evolving to become closer and closer to San Diego, a direction that I dread. Instead of eagerly waiting for fans speaking to fans and building a sense of community San Diego Comic Con is about room sitting all day to hear actors talk about films and television shows that are due to be released in the next few months. That isn’t a convention to me, the same task can be accomplished by reading an interview or checking a Hollywood news site. I go to conventions for the community, to see people I only know online and to experience fans speaking about their passion.

There are two main reason for the divide between the anime and comics fans. The first is simply age. Anime convention attendees tend to be younger and are more focused on hanging out with their friends than browsing through rows of comics looking for a rare issue. The other, and more important, reason behind why these two groups can’t seem to coexist is a difference in philosophy when it comes to the art. Comics fans come to these conventions to see footage of upcoming movies and get exclusive comics from the big publishers, they come to these conventions as consumers of media. Anime fans have developed a culture where they get most of their content for free on the internet, be it through illegal fan subs or the many legal steaming services. There is no surprising an anime fan with new titles or “exclusive” content because of the delay, even with simulcasting, it takes to licenses and release media from Japan. Anime fans don’t come to conventions to consume anime, they come to participate in the fandom, hang out with their friends, and buy additional merchandise.

The unfortunate fact about New York Comic Con, to quote Christopher MacDonald from Anime News Network at Sunday’s ANN Q&A panel: “It’s really good for the industry, it kind of sucks for us. Well, it’s good for me as a business but it’s not so good for fans.” The sheer number of people walking through the show room floor is always going to be good for the licensing companies and allows them to expose their titles to fans outside the group that normally goes to anime conventions. That being the case the way New York Comic Con was this year will probably be the way it’s going to stay, and as much as I might not like the state of the convention if this draws more fans towards the medium than it is completely justified. We’ll always have Otakon.

Panels

Anime News Network

Anime News Network panels are always fun as they allow the people fans have come to know through their writing to interact and answer questions. In New York there were some extremely well thought out questions asked to the panel, as well as the normal awkward “how can I write for ANN” questions. For a group of writers they are surprisingly adept at handling their interesting fan base.

Evangelion, Deconstructed

As always Aaron Clark put on an excellent panel going over some of the visual, cultural, and narrative references used the Neon Genesis Evangelion. Clark seems to have an endless supply of knowledge on the subject and will always surprise even the longest Evangelion fans with some tiny tidbit. The anime stage wasn’t the ideal place for his panel to be held as he was being drowned out by the low rumble of the mass of fans sitting and going about their business. He handled the situation professionally, not even letting a minor technical glitch to get in his way. If you like Evangelion his panels, and his website are highly recommended.

Makoto Shinkai

The highlight of the convention of me was getting to meet Makoto Shinkai, sit down for an interview with him, get an autograph, and watch his newest film “Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below.” I’ve been a huge fan of his for a few years and it was a great honor and opportunity. If Shinkai hadn’t been a guest at this convention this report would be a lot more negative. Read my interview with him, watch the excellent Makoto Shinkai spotlight panel with Roland Kelts, and I’ll have a review of “Children Who Chase…” up in the next few weeks.

Hiro Mashima Interview

I was able to sit down with Fairy Tail mangaka Hiro Mashima. It was an interesting talk especially since I was paired with two bloggers from South America who made the long trip to New York Comic Con!

Photos

Comic Con is a difficult place to take photos because I don’t want to be like the people I mentioned above. So I was reserved, far more reserved, than I usually am. I did get lots of very pretty photos of toys though!

My Loot

I didn’t pick up much at New York Comic Con because of the logical problem with bringing loot back on the train. But I did get a few really cool items.

This adorable Kagami figure who is looking her most Tsundere.

A wonderful Squid Girl art book complete with a flipbook printed onto the side of the pages.

Makoto Shinkai autographed copy of 5 Centimeters Per Second. Now the crown jewel of my Anime DVD collection.

 

More New York Comic Con 2011 Coverage

Review: Tiger & Bunny

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Superheroes are a traditionally American trope but as Japan is trying to grow their shrinking animation market they’re making more attempts to appeal to American sensibilities. The first attempt in resent years to create a superhero anime set in America was Heroman, which failed because it felt like anime tropes shoved into an American superhero story. Tiger and Bunny comes from one of the most famous Japanese animation companies that still exist, Sunrise, and is helmed by a man who has worked on Gundam and other serious mech shows. Using talent that has created some of the most memorable Japanese science fiction they have crafted a series that is not only a capable superhero narrative but an exception example of the genre. In a alternate reality filled with NEXT, people with superhuman powers, Wild Tiger is a veteran hero who has been dropping in the rankings of the reality show “HeroTV.” His contract is sold to a new company where he is forced to pair with the rookie hero Barnaby Brooks Jr. The pair has to learn to work together to take down the criminals of Sternbild, gain enough points to win HeroTV, and track down the terrorist organization responsible for the murder of Barnaby’s parents.

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The first thing viewers will notice about Tiger and Bunny is their approach to superheroes. The audience is introduced to the heroes through the commentators of HeroTV as they attempt to apprehend a suspect. This first episode enables the audience to quickly learn the main cast and what their individual powers are but it also fills in a lot of world detail that is required going forward. The television aspect of the show makes a whole lot of sense when attempting to create a realistic superhero narrative. With some exception, it takes a lot of dedication and selflessness to go out at night and capture thugs for free. Now if you could monazite the effort without giving up your actual goals than it becomes a way to make a decent living. The sponsorships fall into the same category, superheroes need equipment and want to make money on the side just as much as athletes. There is no reason why they shouldn’t leverage their visibility in a mutually beneficial sponsorship. It may sound cold and greedy, but it’s the way our world works.

Tiger and Bunny is a show about a partnership. From the second episode onward the show revolves around the relationship between Kotetsu and Barnaby, the charm and humor of the show comes from their banter and growth as a team. The personality of the characters clash beautifully with the stoic Barnaby constantly being annoyed by the carefree and impulsive Kotetsu. Watching the two of them conflict and grow is a real treat. The constant conflict works as a mechanism to get some serious character development. The amount of trust that the two put into their partnership and what they decide to share with each other tells a lot about how the character thinks and what they think of their relationship with the other. Due to the amount of time the show uses to distinguish the personality types the moments when the two come to a point of understand are all the more profound.

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Tiger and Bunny uses a team style of superheroes making them both rivals and comrades, which creates a great dynamic among the group. All of the heroes have varied powers which fall into the general pantheon of superhero abilities such as, flight, electricity, fire, and ice. Tiger and Bunny doesn’t do anything new with these abilities either, but the abilities of the heroes quickly fall into the background to allow their personalities to shine. Throughout the series most of the heroes get their own character building episode which gave each of them some serious depth. My favorite being the one where Dragon Kid has to deal with her issues with femininity, her relationship to her parents, and to protect the Mayor’s NEXT baby. The episode hit it’s beats perfectly allowing the audience to understand Dragon Kid in only twenty minutes on top of presenting an interesting story, bringing us two NEXT villains, and fitting in plenty of banter between Tiger and Bunny. The development of the side characters gets perfectly integrated into the episode.

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The animation in Tiger and Bunny is a great combination of CGI and standard animation. The character designs look more like aclassiclate 1990s style with a little modern influence. The mix of different styles in the main cast highlights the varied nationalities of the Heroes, having been recruited from all over the world to be on HeroTV in Sternbild. The clothing the characters wear is a combination of realistic and a reflection of their personality. Dragon Kid wears a one piece track suit when not in her hero uniform which highlights her reluctance to explore her feminine side which serves as a nice foil to the extremely fashionable Blue Rose. The same rule applies to their hero costumes, with the added bonus that the costumes have motifs based on their abilities. Fire Emblem, an eccentric homosexual, dresses the part when out of costume while his costume is standard superhero garb with the addition of sequence cape to give it that extra flare. Tiger’s dress is especially telling of his role in the series. His casual clothes are a dress-down formal shirt and pants with a vest and matching hat which gives him an old worldly appearance. His superhero uniform, before getting an upgrade, looks handmade when compared to the modern equipment used by the rest of the cast. The audience knows immediately that he belongs to a pervious generation of heroes.

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Narratively Tiger and Bunny consists of a good number of episodic stories, most of which designed for character development as I explained above, but the show soon smooths out into two large arcs surrounding Barnaby’s quest for the man who killed his parents. This brings the heroes up against a super villain NEXT which tests the limits of Heroes, who are used to chasing thugs, and helps to break Barnaby of his stoic personality. The second half of the series starts off by laying groundwork for a much larger narrative which incorporates at least four threads started in one off episodes, naming any of them would be too large a spoiler, and weaving them together for a fantastic climatic payoff that is surprising, suspenseful, and overwhelmingly emotional.

If the show wasn’t dense enough one more layer is spread throughout, the concept of justice. This manifests itself in the non-hero, non-villain Lunatic. Lunatic is an extremely powerful NEXT, so powerful that even Tiger and Bunny combined can barely match him, who wants vengeance against criminals. Not content with simply capturing them he gets in-between heroes and their targets to murder the suspect before the heroes have a chance to arrest them. This brings a Death Note-esq question of Justice into the mix. Lunatic himself gets his own character episode which somewhat justifies his rather extreme method of dealing with criminals. At least I found myself being sympathetic towards him. The show does a wonderful job of painting him as neither good or evil, simply a force that dishes out “justice.”

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I do want to talk about emotions for a moment, even though this is an extremely subjective topic. I do get emotional easily because I tend to completely invest myself in the characters. Tiger and Bunny, an anime about superheroes, had me emotionally moved in more than one occasion. Not even in large moments or big character events, although I wept like a child through those, but just during epic moments caused by characters working together or going through some pain. I loved these characters and falling in love with them happened extremely quickly. In the second half of the series I was completely hooked on all of the characters and wanted to know more about each of them. It still shocks me how much I’ve become attached to them. The character development is so perfectly mixed in with the narrative that attachment sneaks its way into the audience.

With all the praise I’m tossing on the character development it’s a shame that some characters didn’t even get their own episode. I barely know anything about Fire Emblem or Rock Bison other than the small facts learned through their conversations with the other heroes. The writers went to the trouble of giving the four other heroes screen time but perhaps just ran out of space in what does become a dense and complex narrative. If a sequel comes, I’d hope that they move away from the personal stories of Tiger and Bunny and give the rest of the cast a larger role.

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While the main characters are expertly crafted the villains of Tiger and Bunny are flat. The villain of the first half wants to create a world ruled by NEXT, a plot taken right out of the Xmen except with less magnets, and will ruthlessly kills civilians just for the fun of it. This doesn’t make for a compelling villain, although from him we got some good character drama with the heroes because they were forced to battle him one on one and for the first time faced serious danger. Even so, his own personal story or reasons are only explored on a surface level and leave much to be desired. The villain of the second half of the series has a more complex reason for committing his crimes, but becomes cartoonish through the effort of covering them up. He goes from a respectable person who seems to have genuine emotions and becomes a complete psychopath at the drop of a hat. Granted, that is probably the definition of a psychopath but his actions in supervillain mode completely came out of nowhere compared to who the audience knew him as perviously. If there were a few more clues leading to the reveal that might have been forgiven, but as it stands his switch form honest man to supervillain just doesn’t ring true.

The ending also stumbles, following a classic mistake in anime. After everything wraps up in a satisfactory way and has some closure it’s undone so Sunrise can insert a little afterward which reverses the ending and winks to the audience that more Tiger and Bunny is possible. If Sunrise wants to make more Tiger and Bunny I welcome it but if they don’t then this ending will forever ruin a chance to put a nice bit of closure on an otherwise fantastic series.

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It’s rare that Japan produces something so perfect for a western audience but I think finally they’ve completed a masterfully constructed superhero story filled with complex plots, amazing action, and deeply moving character drama. What few flaws there are could be blamed on the genre they’re working in rather than any shortfall on the creators part. They’re playing with tropes well established in the west and almost brand new to them, so a fumble or two is understandable. I believe that Sunrise has created a group of characters and, more importantly, a world that has the potential to rival any of the currently sitting Superhero or anime franchises. I’m looking forward to a second season and hope for many more after that.

Review: Sailor Moon Vol. 1

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It’d be hard to find someone who doesn’t recognize Sailor Moon, even outside the fandom. The series is responsible for giving Anime it’s first big push into mainstream pop culture and for defining the magical girl genre. I’m happy Kodansha decided to release Moon in the brand new 2003 editions from Japan, potentially introducing this classic series to a new audience. Usagi Tsukino was a normal young girl, although a little on the ditzy side and a bit of a crybaby, who stumbles over a talking cat. This cat, Luna, grants Usagi the powers of the Moon and tasks her to find and protect the legendary silver crystal and protect the Princess of the Moon. To aid her quest she must first recruit allies to her and form a team of Guardians of Justice.

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Compared to it’s prequel, Sailor V, Sailor Moon’s art is of much higher quality and much cleaner. It’s stunning considering the series were created at the same time but it’s obvious that Takeuchi had some assistants and a much larger paycheck to help her craft Sailor Moon as opposed to the sporadically published companion piece. The character designs are fantastic with each of the girls getting a distinctive look that suits their personality. Their transformations, although all consist of a similar sailor uniform, have slight differences to help distinguish between the characters. The differences are as slight as giving them all different shoes and slightly different jewelry but it is a nice touch that Takeuchi threw in, it expresses her attention of detail.

I’m coming at Sailor Moon comparing it to Sailor V because Kodansha released both at the same time so I was able to read them back to back. Takeuchi was able to improve on almost all of my complaints in Sailor V in the short time between the two series. Sailor Moon is more contiguous, has a defined goal for the main characters, gives the villains a face and motivation, and Usagi gets a clear character arc in this first volume which takes her from a lazy middle school girl to preparing for the responsibilities of leading the Sailor Scouts.

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The most impressive part of the work is how well it combines Shojo with Shonen elements. Sailor Moon is clearly a shoujo title with the romance between Sailor Moon and Tuxedo Mask appearing early and often throughout this first volume. Even with the relationship budding, Sailor Moon doesn’t know exactly who Tuxedo Mask is or what are his exact goals. Is he a villain? Ally? Why does he want the legendary silver crystal? These questions come into the narrative to create a mystery that adds another layer of plot and character depth. The fighting and team of warriors are nods to Shonen or super sentai, monster of the week type shows. The enemy, although more fleshed out than in Sailor V, still lacks any kind of depth. They are evil people who are doing evil things for evil reasons, and while they are starting to have personalities in this first volume they’ve never around long enough to get any individual characterization. Each of these threads on its own doesn’t make a completely compelling narrative but by interweaving them they build into an entertaining and fun story.

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The goal of this volume is to bring together what will be the main cast. Each of the Sailor Scouts gets their own origin story that gives amble background and personality information which explains why they receive their chosen powers. The introduction of the scouts and the interaction between the characters was the most enjoyable aspect of Sailor Moon. Mercury, Mars, and Jupiter are all strong and capable people and it seems odd at first that Sailor Moon is chosen as the leader of the group. It’s in the interactions between action scenes and in the introduction of characters that her leadership is shown. She is friendly and likable, and those qualities draw people to her. So while she is not the most capable fighter of the group she is certainly the most charismatic and perhaps most illustrates the aspects of a “Guardian of Justice.”

Usagi is at first an odd choice for the heroine of the series. One of her biggest traits is that she is a crybaby, which is exploited for humor early in the book, and isn’t really that enthusiastic or driven by her sudden powers. She finds her abilities severely lacking and even requires aid from Mercury, who was recruited by Usagi, to complete her training. Having the heroine start at such a low point gives plenty of room for development, even at the end of this first volume Usagi begins to see her own short comings and dedicates herself to push beyond them. What seems to be building is a unit that can’t work independently but a team that needs to draw from each other in order to fight. Those themes are certainly common in Shojo, friendship and love, so it’s not surprising that I see them plastered all over Sailor Moon.

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The path I see the series going down is that Tuxedo Mask will be a crucial part of this group, giving Usagi the confidence and drive that she lacks. Is this a positive theme in a title meant for young girls? I’m not going to condemn the series based on speculation but even if the crutch of the show relies on Usagi needing a man to feel confident the rest of the cast already consists of some strong and independent characters to even out Usagi’s weaknesses. Mars, a shrine maiden who jumps to action without hesitation, and Mercury, a super intelligent girl who spends all her free time studying even though she is already at the top of her class, those two alone are solid role models that balance out Usagi’s failings.

While Sailor Moon isn’t revolutionary or new to seasoned manga fans it offers a good historical perspective on tropes that havebecomealmost universal to the word “anime.” New fans, especially young women, will find what is presented in Sailor Moon new and excited, incredibly enjoyable, and fun. The characters are solid and interesting, there is a developing mysterious that kept me drawn in, and the action is standard shonen fun. Surprisingly, there is something inside Sailor Moon for everyone and it’s necessary read for anyone who claims to be a fan of manga.

Interview: Makoto Shinkai

During New York Comic Con 2011 I had the privilege to sit down with Makoto Shinkai; director of Voices of a Distant Star, 5 Centimeters Per Second , and his newest work Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below. This interview took place, unfortunately, before the screening of his new film so my questions focus on his previous work.

We start by talking about some of the influences and themes of Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below, then I transition into some specifics about the creation of 5 Centimeters Per Second and the upcoming manga that Kodansha is bringing to the US market. We end the interview by asking about his attention to background detail, his thoughts on the state of the Anime industry, and his advice for upcoming Anime creators.

My questions are indicated with “Otaku in Review” and the other interviewers present are indicated simply by “Press.”

We began the interview by introducing ourselves to Shinkai-San. He then humbly introduced himself to us:

Makoto Shinkai: I’m Makoto Shinkai. I’m a director. 5 Centimeters per Second is, I think, my main title.

Otaku in Reivew: So you think 5 Centimeters Per Second is your greatest work?

MS: Many people say so but it’s been four years since its release and I’d like more people to pay more attention to Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below. The two titles are completely separate they have different styles and topics so some like one over the other.

OiR: Unfortunately I haven’t seen the new film yet, I will be at the screening tomorrow. Reviewers have compared the styling to Studio Ghibli, is there any influence?

MS: There is no Japanese Animation creator who hasn’t been influenced by Studio Ghibli. That’s the atmosphere that we live in.

Press: What is your influence? Is there anything in your past that influences your work?

MS: During University days I was studying Modern Japanese Literature and I am a big Haruki Murakami fan. I think that influenced my storytelling a lot because I read his novels over and over again.

OiR: The theme of your first three works seems to be “relationships through distance and time,” why does this theme resonate with you?

MS: When I was making those three films I was thinking a lot about human relationships and at the same time new technology was coming into play. Human relationships and how people communicate was a theme I was thinking about a lot so when I made Voices of a Distant Star that was when people were just starting to use Cell Phones in Japan a lot and they were sending mail, short messages, and because of that technology sometimes a message would come five minutes later, two hours later, or maybe in a day or even, in the case of Voices, like a few years later. I was thinking of the way new technology effects the way relationships develop.

Press: I’d like to ask you to talk about Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below. What was your underlying theme for this film? Was it also a study in human relationships and how people communicate?

MS: The biggest difference is that this is also about human relationships, how people relate to each other, but this time it’s about the relationship between a living person and a person who has already passed away. That’s the biggest difference. It’s still about human relationships but this one is about the relationship with someone who has already passed on.

OiR: I have a couple about 5 Centimeters because I have yet to see the new film. Masayoshi Yamazaki’s “One more time, one more chance” plays a prominent role in the ending of 5 Centimeters Per Second. How did it play in the creation of the film?

MS: We made 5 Centimeters I wasn’t planning on creating a new song to match with the story. I was telling a story that happened in the 90s so I looked at a bunch of pop songs that happened in that era. When I heard Masayoshi’s “One more time, One more chance” I thought it fit the story perfectly and it was extremely popular when it was released so everyone was familiar with it.

OiR: At the beginning of Episode 2 of 5 Centimeters Per Second there is a magnificent image of the sun rising behind the earth. (image above) Can you talk about creating that image?

MS: Takaki, the male character, had dreams of this girl he liked who was very far away. In the image they’re both on a distant planet that is far away, so he’s dreaming that he’s with her even though she’s in a far away place. That image came from something a bit different. When I was in High School I had a recurring dream where I became lost on a faraway star.

When I was in high school I was really into Science Fiction and I used to read a monthly magazine called “Newton,” a science magazine. Today the images in science magazines are computer generated but at that time they were hand drawn and I thought they were really cool. So I was thinking about those a lot and had those dreams.

OiR: The 5 Centimeters Per Second Manga will be coming to the US soon. How do the manga and the film pair with each other?

MS: Normally in Japan there is a manga first and it gets popular, sells millions of copies, and then they make the anime. The story behind the 5 Centimeter manga is like this: First when I came up with the story I made the anime. Then after I made an anime there were a lot of things I wanted to improve on so I wrote a short novel and in it I fixed the elements that I thought were weak in the anime. Shortly afterwards I was approached by Kodansha and they asked if they could make a manga out of the short novel. The manga is actually a culmination of both the anime and the short novel so I believe it’s the best representation of the work I wanted to make. It mixes the best elements of the anime with the best elements of the short novel together. I recommend people check it out.

Press: I’d like to ask your opinion on the Japanese animation industry in general. What’s your opinion on the recent trends and the thematic elements used in recent anime?

MS: Right now in Japan there is a lot of anime being made for lots of different tastes and that’s a good thing. There are new styles of anime, for example the noitamina slot on Fuji TV. Noitamina is animation spelled backwards so they take anime and they try new things all the time. I don’t know if this works economically and I don’t watch much anime myself, but I know what’s going on. In the old days the anime was very similar and everything was typical so I think the new varieties of anime is healthy for the industry. However, in the long term it’s a question mark as where 2D animation is going in Japan. As we see in the United States 3D is taking over and becoming more popular. I think that will eventually happen in Japan as well which means that what we know as anime today may go away because of 3D coming in and because there are less and less people who can actually make anime these days. That’s a little bit sad but it’s just evolution and it’s the way things should evolve in the future.

Otaku in Review: In the last ten or fifteen years the people who do background animation are retiring or leaving the industry. Yet you focus a lot on background detail and the tiny elements in a scene. Such as She and Her Cat which is compact and beautiful and yet is filled with vibrant detail, even small elements like the kitchen. Why are those backgrounds so important?

MS: When I made She and Her Cat I was working on a Fantasy Role Playing Game during the day. In a fantasy role playing game your surroundings are very rich and detailed. But I was living in a typical small Japanese apartment and around the apartment building were concrete telephone poles with lots of electric wires. That’s a typical kind of surroundings we have while living in a very small place. Even though the surroundings may be jumbled with ugly things I wanted to find the beauty in the things all around me. Even living in a small apartment surrounded by electrical lines I wanted to make it look detailed and beautiful to express that it was ok to live in such a situation. That’s why I believe I focus on all these background details.

OiR: Has your time in England inspired your work at all?

MS: I lived in London for a year and for the first six months I was going an English school, even though I was thirty-five years old I was going to school with a bunch of college kids. The next sixth months I spent working the script for Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below. During that time I was able to visit all the museums, I especially enjoyed the British Museum of Art and the World History Museum where they had ancient artifacts. When you see the film you’ll see ruins of ancient societies so going to museums influenced me that way. But when you watch the film you won’t think it has a British influence, while I was in London I was able to explore some global things.

OiR: For upcoming animation directors do you recommend the independent route or should they go the classic route, start at Key Animation and climb up the ladder while working in the industry.

MS: It’s difficult to suggest the best way right now because there are no barriers to entry. If you’re an artist and want to create something and put it on the internet and everybody can see it. But there are some demerits for that because you feel like your job is done, you’ve shown everyone your work. It’s different from the old days where you’d make something and take it to a publisher to see if they’d publish it. They’d be a lot of back and forth and negotiations required to get your work out. In that sense it’s good so you can get your work out quickly but it’s also still good to work for a studio and climb the ladder that way because in the old days you’d have had to brush up your work before it went out into the public. You had to work hard before you could show it to the public. Now it’s so easy you don’t even have to work too hard.

Maybe the best was it to make the best possible thing by yourself and get it out there and then from there it’ll make it easier to talk with studios and then you can enter a professional studio and work on things. Maybe that’s the best way

 

I’d like to thank Makoto Shinkai for taking the time to sit down with me during his busy trip to New York. I’d also like to thank Crunchyroll’s Vincent Shortino for helping bring Shinkai-San to New York Comic Con and for help with translation.

Also check out video of Makoto Shinkai opening and closing the screening of Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below and the Makoto Shinkai panel

 

Screenshots from Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below taken from Manga Market.

First Impressions: Persona 4 The Animation

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Based on the Japanese role playing game of the same name, Persona 4 for is about Yu Narukami who moves to live with his uncle after his father, a former politician, is disgraced. While investigating an urban legend he nearly gets sucked into his television, but is not large enough to fit. With his new friends they enter the world on the other side of the television where Narukami can summon the powerful form called Persona.

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The show is beautiful, balancing it’s dark tone with some energetic and lively characters. The sinister narrative happens in the background of the story of Narukami learning about his new home and making new friends. I was enjoying the characters while at the same time starting to feel a creepy vibe from the murder and supernatural narratives developing slightly under the surface. The transition from one element to the next is also well done, the kids chatting about odd urban legends folds right into them becoming reality.

I was taken with one character in particular, the energetic Chie. She is a character type I always enjoy, the hyper energetic; random; and manic girl who wants nothing more than to be the main character’s friend. In classic Moe style the character is played by an actor already familiar with the role, Yui Horie, who played Minorin in Toradora. Curse you, Japan, you know just how to hit my database. The stoic Narukami and the cheerful Chie play off each other well and I look forward to seeing their relationship develop.

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Unfortunately all we have in this episode is a set up and a hook. The world inside the television is intriguing and has me wanting to see more but the audience is treated to no information about what this world is, why Narukami has power, or why monsters started chasing them. The action was good, if quick, and the design of the Persona is definitely worthy of the best JRPG designs.

An interesting premise alone doesn’t make a good show. Without knowing anything about what the story is going to be about I can’t make a judgement call. In this case that might be a good thing because I’m dying to explore the world of Persona 4 The Animation and answer the questions this first episode left open. That is what a first episode is supposed to do, after all, get you to watch Episode 2. It definitely worked on me.