Monday, December 27, 2010

Code Geass: Lelouche of the Rebellion

So we've come to our very first mecha anime, and we find that it's not necessarily about mechs. But in all seriousness, this anime is no joke. We're about to enter into an alternate universe where the rulers of North America control Japan, taking away it's name and its culture. But there's a new hero on the rise...     hey wait a minute, back up. Is Lelouche really a hero? His alignment's really too grey for me to call him a classical hero per say, so who wrote that? Me? Really? I can't seem to remember doing it...   Weird...  Yeah, we've entered a world where some folks have special abilities. Like mind manipulation. (Really Lelouche, you've got some nerve. ><;) Let's get back on track. If you're looking for an anime with simple definitions of who the bad guys are, go watch Dragonball Z, this anime isn't for you. If you're looking for something happy, turn back now. It's not too late. You may yet be able to save yourself. However, if you're looking for a story that could be interpreted a hundred different ways and is a heart-breaking tale of mistakes, revenge, and regret, you've come to the right place. So grab your fancy black cape, and strap into your Knightmare, we're taking a look at Code Geass: Lelouche of the Rebellion.

Lelouche and his alter ego,
the mysterious leader of the Black Knights, Zero.
I first heard of this anime when most other American fans did, when it came out in the states and erupted in a firestorm of popularity. Maybe I had an extreme mistrust of that mysterious thing called hype, or maybe I was more interested in an older series I had just recently discovered called Slayers, (If it's not an anime classic, it should be,) but I had this strong impulse to tune it out, and ignore it. As such, when I was doing my study abroad in Japan that summer, (which happened to be focused on popular culture as seen through manga and anime), I was left out of the loop by most of my fellow students because everyone else had seen it and that was all most of them would talk about. My interest in the series was mostly an academic one when I became more familiar with it after nearly watching it all the way through later, and I eventually came to appreciate it enough to use it as a reference for my senior thesis. It was a rare example of an anime that did not come from a manga but was actually an original series. Produced by the acclaimed studio Sunrise, Code Geass: Lelouche of the Rebellion ran in Japan for 25 episodes starting in October of 2006, and ending in July of 2007. Bandai holds the licensing rights for those of you wishing to find it in the United States.

Lelouche: So...  much...   death... right in front of me...
Our story begins in an alternate dystopian history where there's this country called Britannia which controls North and South America, and more recently, Japan. As a result of their having conquered the country, it has been stripped of it's name and has been renamed Section 11. The Japanese are not even second-class citizens under this new leadership. They are now called elevens, due to this change in management, and are horribly oppressed because of Britannia's fanatical racism, as well as their love of Social Darwinism. This already sounds like a very happy show doesn't it? ^^; After thats been gotten out of the way in the prologue, we cut to our titular character, Lelouche Lamperouge as he totally beasts some noble at chess before going back through Shinjuku (which is a ghetto now) to the boarding school for Britannians that he attends in Tokyo. However, as he returns, he has some incredibly bad luck when a truck crashes in front of him. In his attempt to step in and help like a good Samaritan, he accidentally ends up in the trailer of the truck and discovers that it's being driven by terrorists/freedom fighters (depending on who you've decided to root for in this story) and they're escaping after having stolen what appears to be a giant canister of poison gas. Things get even more complicated when Lelouche finds that his old Japanese friend Suzaku has become an honorary Britannian and is among the strike force out to subdue the rebels. In the confusion, the gas canister opens revealing that it's actually a holding tank for a mysterious girl. Suzaku is shot trying to save them and then C.C. the girl, (who is clothed in a ludicrously constrictive straight-jacket by the way, and the name is pronounced C. Tsu.) is almost immediately shot in the head before Lelouche's eyes. With her apparent dying words she grants him a special ability by a contract called a Geas which he can use to give a person a single command that they absolutely have to obey. He promptly uses this to have the whole extraction squad commit suicide before he starts thinking how he can use this to his advantage. As he has no love for Britannia, for reasons I'll go into later, he immediately determines that he'll have to use the rebels and some of the mechs they've stolen (called Knightmare frames in this universe) like his chess pieces in order to get everyone out alive before plotting his next move. Shortly after, he adopts the moniker "Zero" along with a theatrical mask and the same group of rebels, in order to set his plan in motion to get revenge on his father (who happens to be the current king of Britannia by the way) and reshape the world into a place that he and his sister can live happily in. The rest of the series concerns Lelouche's struggles as he attempts to build his army, and eventually to take back Japan while dealing with his friend Suzaku, who has gone the other way, trying to change the world by changing the system from within.

Hey guys? I don't think we're in Japan anymore.
The world in which all of this takes place is imagined in fascinating detail. Though in the context of this series alone, the viewer knows very little about what happened differently to create this alternate history, we still know that something has gone very wrong. Unlike the Japan we know in real life, this one is a crumbling mess except in areas where the Britannians live. The Japanese have been forced into ghettos and mining colonies that are some of the worst places to live, having been stripped of their country's name and their designation as Japanese. The Britannians on the other hand, live in an opulence that is more reminiscent of the French palace of Versailles, than any remnant of what we think of as American. From that perspective, I can only guess that the American colonies must have failed to become independent somehow, which leads me to wonder if the descendants of the american rebels have similar issues with Britannia. Its an interesting question to ponder, but its neither here nor there. There are also two other empires out there, comprised of the European countries and of China. Politics are never far from the scene of things, which makes a corrupt bureaucracy even more intricate and confusing. The current political layout seems pretty well thought out in that respect.

And now, reprising its role as a symbol of Japan in ruins,
allow me to reintroduce the
Tokyo Metropolitan Government Offices Building.
However, just to nitpick, I will point out that their timeline has more than its share of hiccups, because I'm a critic and thats what I do. There are a couple of iconic buildings in the background that actually exist in our timeline, but I have a feeling that aside from the metaphoric sense in which they are used, they have no business being in this continuity. Of course, I speak of the ruins of Tokyo Tower and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Offices building in Shinjuku. I'll start with the tower first. Theoretically if the United States never existed then they never would have flattened Tokyo in World War II. Tokyo Tower was a product of the economic boom that happened after the war, so if that war never happened, then the tower never would have been around to be destroyed. Same goes for the Government Office building. It was built in 1991, and it probably never would have been built without World War II because it was planned during the last years of the boom before the recession in the 90's hit. If we wanna take this even further, without the United States forming we never get Commodore Perry. See, the reason he wanted to open up Japan to trade was because the United States was looking for trade routes to China. Great Britain, (presumably, whether they lost the motherland or not) still would have had the East India Company at that time and therefore didn't need said trade route. As a result, Perry never would have made it to Japan to use gunboat diplomacy to change their policy of isolation and end their feudal period. As a result, there would be no development because Japan never would have gotten the wakeup call to industrialize and look at other forms of government and such, which means they never would have gone to a more oligarchical form of rule during the Meiji period, which means there wouldn't be a prime minister (which would have made Suzaku's father's position an impossible one in Japan, never mind that no one seems to know what happened to the emperor...). It also means they would have no reason to have all those destroyed skyscrapers after Britannia took the country. I could go on to argue the semantics of how fast technology progresses, in relation to the cell phones and mechs, and how progress it is often inhibited under totalitarian rule, but I digress, we need to move on. (Betcha didn't think you'd get a history lesson too, though.)

What these two enemies don't know is that in their other lives,
they're actually best friends and attend the same school.
That's Suzaku up top by the way.
The main characters, Lelouche and Suzaku and the circles they run in are very well detailed and thought out. Lelouche is a classical example of what TV tropes calls a Magnificent Bastard, in that he excels at putting together intricate plans, yet he's capable of changing things up on the fly, acting like he knows nothing, and putting himself on the battlefield with epic effectiveness. Though he hates making useless sacrifices, he will make sacrifices, and ruthlessly, when he has to. This is exemplified by his sacrifice of the leadership for the Japanese Liberation Front (another group of rebels) in episode 13 to make his own forces think the Britannians had fired on a ship that was surrendering. Yet, his more human qualities and the doubt he suffers when he allows himself to contemplate his own mistakes and grieve over the things he regrets having done, along with his relationships with the characters that surround him in the student council at the school as well as his double life as Zero, make him a very complex and interesting character. Suzaku too, has his secrets, though he's a lot less of a trickster and a lot more like a traditional heroic warrior type, in that he runs to danger wherever it rears its head and fights like a lion for those he's sworn to uphold. Because both of these archetypes are interesting, it makes it really hard to know who you want to win, because half the time you want to cheer for Lelouche but when Suzaku flies in, you can't help but want him to succeed too, even if the folks he works for are the goons of an even bigger, meaner boss. That they're on opposite sides makes things even worse. As a result, because of Lelouche's antics, Suzaku often ends up in prison and because of Suzaku's interference, Lelouche's plans are often thwarted. So it may as well be a stalemate half the time. But whenever the two clash, its always exciting and epic.

In the first intro, it takes
three group portraits to introduce everybody.
This is just the nakama from the boarding school.
When it comes to the minor characters, I tend to be of two minds about them. On the one hand, my knee-jerk reaction when they start bringing everyone else in is "Wait! Slow down!...   too many sub plots!...  need more space...!"  Each of these subplots is important as are the characters, sort of, but when you only have 25 episodes to fill, maybe having around 10 different groups, each with their own fully formed characters and ideas of what they want to happen, may be a little much. Like on the Britannian side, there's the Royal Family, there's Suzaku's unit that runs his mech, there's these two officers Jeremiah and Villetta, who got royally screwed by Lelouche early on, and then there's princess Cornelia's royal guard. That's just the antagonist's side. On the Protagonist's side of things, there's his Black Knights, there's Deithard, there's Rakshata and her team, there's Lelouche's family, the Japanese Liberation Front, and the Kyoto group that funds a lot of the resistance movements. Taking all these groups out, there's still the neutral ground of the student council at the boarding school Suzaku and Lelouche both attend. With all these people, no wonder things get crowded. It's hard to keep track of everything half the time.

Princess Euphemia and Suzaku
discussing the situation in the Shinjuku Ghetto.
On the other hand, it would be nearly impossible to get rid of any of their sub plots and have the same story as a lot of them provide catalysts for bigger things. Like there's a sub-plot with this girl Shirley who goes to the school and was actually in love with Lelouche but because he's responsible for her father's death in one episode, her influence serves to drive Lelouche further into his own obsessions and has repercussions that span several episodes. Further, some of the minor characters are easy to start caring about, and in some cases, they're easier to, than the main characters. Like princess Euphemia. She's such a kind and loving person and your heart-strings tear every time she has to face the realities that are controlling her world, and when her sub-plot ends, you know she never deserved what she got. (I won't say what that was, but I wanted to cry even though she was with the antagonists.) Then there's Villetta, who is the first person who survives being tricked by Lelouche in the beginning. She eventually loses her memory and even though she was a royal jerk to begin with, you do want her to make something of the life she finds with Ohgi, one of Zero's subordinates (Once again, I'd say more, but it's a big spoiler.). C.C. is such an enigmatic character, and surprisingly active for someone who got shot in the head in the first episode, and you really want some answers about that, but you don't get a lot of them. The most you really get is that it seems she's virtually immortal, the Britannians were using her as some sort of test subject, and that she's had other people she's made a Geas with, one of which is a white-haired Chinese guy with the stereotypical name of Mao, who has gone totally crazy because of it (perhaps telling us that power is dangerous.) She also apparently likes pizza. A lot.

Hey, uh...  guys? Overkill much?
Because this was an anime original, and because of all these sub-plots, filler is completely non existent. There is always something happening, even in the episode with the school cultural festival, which is usually the stuff of fillers in most anime. While the show is pretty dark, there are plenty of lighter moments that are supposed to add a little bit of comedy relief, but even so, there were plenty of things I found to be hilarious with logic applied, that probably shouldn't have been funny. For instance, there are some horrible examples of Engrish in the Japanese dub when the Britannian mech pilots use the English phrase "Yes, my lord!" As a form of address when they've been issued an order. If you realize that half the people they address aren't really royalty, it compounds the amusement. Sometimes the imagery can also be unintentionally amusing. Like in one episode, Lelouche and Suzaku have to go down into the basement of the school in order to find Nunnaly and I found myself wondering if they'd find Cerebro and Professor X down there, because it looked so much like the basement under the Xavier institute. (There was even a Danger Room...  sort of...) The other thing I noticed is the liberal use of straight jackets in Britannian prisons. I mean, I could understand C.C. having one given the incredible powers she seems to exhibit, but Suzaku and many of the others who land in jail end up in full-body straight jackets even when just sitting in their cells. I mean, maybe it's just me, but isn't that kinda overdoing it? What are they afraid of? It's not like most normal people can shoot laser beams out of their hands in this universe. Most folks seem like they'd be pretty helpless even without the extra restraint.

These guys spend a lot of time
contemplating stuff to be sure.
All kidding aside though, some of the greatest strengths of this piece are its uses of metaphor and irony to provoke thought about the questions being asked. Let me be clear, this is not an anime that is supposed to give you the answers. In many ways Lelouche and Suzaku are clearly shaped by the worlds they inhabit and they are often given the same questions to ponder while coming up with their own ways to cope with them. Sometimes their given totally different questions and come up with no answers except to keep going, which is what happens in a fascinating set of scenes they do alternating their dialog in two different places about the questions regarding whether its good to be strong, and if it's bad to be weak. One of the really interesting things about the show however, is how it can be interpreted so many different ways. The laziest of which would be to interpret it as representative of World War II in some shape. Such as attributing it to the U.S. occupation, or perhaps even a reverse parable for the Japanese occupation of Korea (during which the native Koreans were stripped of their heritage and forced to take Japanese names.) But after having seen this season all the way through, I now realize that there are other less literal and much more basic possibilities to consider. with a much more modern touch. Over the last few years, Japan as a whole has faced a lot. An internal recession, the ravages of globalization as things like McDonalds and other westernized things have become more prevalent, and a fear of losing some of their identity as the Japanese to this thing that is often identified as American Imperialism which some perceive to hold them in thrall under the guise of the nuclear umbrella. Perhaps what it is really, is frustration on the part of the young that things have progressed the way they have because of actions taken by the old and those who have been placed in positions of power, and perhaps a general confusion as to how to deal with the results and their unintended consequences, which are truly an enduring theme for this show.

Overall, the presentation is very well done. The music is at times epic, and emotional with choirs often singing at pivotal moments in the score and sometimes unusual but incredible audio choices are used for some scenes. I never thought a harpsichord could be epic until now. I will point out however, that there are also some choices that were kinda silly. Like there's this male choir in several scenes with the Britannians that I doubt could sound more laughably pompous if they tried, Image songs are also used in a couple of places that I felt were appropriate, but I couldn't find them as memorable. There are three theme songs to this anime, and each of them on their own are okay (I liked the last one: "Hitomi no Tsubasa" by the band Access, the best.) However I found "Colors" , the first opening theme by SunSet Swish to be a little too happy for the show. Think of the stuff that happens just in the first episode. Mass genocide takes place, a girl gets shot in the head, and a guy tells a whole military squad to kill themselves and they are compelled to do it. Now wander over to youtube and find this song and then tell me, given the horrible stuff that happens, does this song fit? I'll leave that to you dear readers. The imagery and character designs are also very nice as should be expected since Sunrise had CLAMP on the character-design team.I also took a brief look at some episodes with English dub. It's not bad and there are a few familiar voices such as Johnny Yong Bosch as Lelouche, Crispin Freeman as Jeremiah, and Mary McGlynn as the Princess Cornelia, so you English-only folks won't be disappointed. As far as this anime is concerned, there's a lot of good and a lot of weird. I do recommend you see it at least once, (probably twice because you'll notice things you didn't see the first time through,) as I do think it is an important one to to see, but be prepared for it to end on a downer. Even so, its okay. After all, if everything ended in ponies and kittens, where would the fun in life be? And don't forget, there's still R2 out there, if we want to be really sure, but that's for another time, so that's the tiger's two cents.

The images utilized in this review are taken from Code Geass: Lelouche of the Rebellion.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Fun with Japanese: The Language of Food

If you thought this was a lot of food,
you haven't watched Dragon Ball Z.
It's the holiday season, there's lots of parties and plenty of fun to go around between Thanksgiving and Christmas and all the other varied winter holidays that show up around this time of year. It's a time of family gatherings and rubbing elbows with beloved family members as well as the more annoying ones. So what is one thing such parties all have in common? You guessed it, food, and is there ever a lot of it. With all the healthy eaters that anime is famous for it would be inconceivable to think that it's not on the minds of many anime characters, in many cases, often, and in such cases they will let you know about it. Goku and his friends from Dragon Ball pictured left are probably some of the more famous examples of hungry characters, but there are plenty of others that they'll have to share the menu with if everyone's going to be happy. With this in mind, it's time for a taste of five common Japanese phrases you will hear in anime, this time having to do with edibles, and their consumption. So pull up a chair, get out your chopsticks, and prepare to dig in.

Zelgadis: Can't you shut up for just a few minutes?
Onaka ga suita.

Whenever a character wants to let another character know that they are hungry, this is a common phrase that they use. Some of the more bratty or childish ones might act really dramatic about it, running around in circles, or appearing cartoonishly emaciated. You will see antics like this especially in shows where you have characters with very low tolerance for hunger, such as Lina Inverse from the TV series Slayers. Often with characters with such a low tolerance, it will be at critical points where their abilities might turn the tide of a situation, if only they were just at full strength...   either that, or it's just a major annoyance to the characters who are actually capable of some semblance of maturity, like poor Zelgadis (on the left). Things couldn't get any worse for him right now. He's on the run from an evil sorcerer who basically turned him into a rock man and could attack them at any moment, and all this girl can seem to do is complain about not being fed!

Conan: Is it a murder if I annoy you to death?

When there's something someone wants to eat, or they just want to use an alternative for "Onaka ga suita," this is what they'll often use. In anime you'll see it more often as a way for a bratty little kid (or kid at heart) to try and wear down his or her elders into getting them a food they enjoy. FYI, it's a rendering of the verb taberu, which is "to eat" and there are many other ways of rendering it to mean many different things, such as tabenasai (please eat) or tabechatta (someone regrettably ate the object of the sentence this verb was attached to). As you can see here, Shinichi/Conan from Detective Conan is trying to take advantage of his outward appearance  and this verb to pretend to be a spoiled brat and hopefully convince his "chaperones" to take him home because he's actually concerned about one of them. His love interest in fact.

Misato: Come on Shinji, show your thanks
for the bento packagers who gave us this meal.

Most times you will hear this phrase at the beginning of a meal when everyone at the table is ready to start. Respect is very important in Japanese culture, even when the meal is a collection of bento boxes from the nearest convenience store and the folks who put the grub together are a long ways away. Misato is the first to use this phrase in the famous scene in Neon Genesis Evangelion where she welcomes Shinji into her home and they throw a little celebration. Translated as "Let's Eat!" in the English dub, Misato spouts off this thankful phrase right before chugging down a pint of beer and displaying her loud personality by giving Shinji a lecture about being finicky (much to his shock.) It's probably one of the funnier scenes in the show.

Sakura: As much of the sweet stuff as we eat,
the dentist must really love me!

When a Japanese speaker has just consumed something tasty, they will often say this to express their appreciation. It is often translated as delicious and is an adjective that in magical girl animes that often involve things like candy and sweets, you will hear without fail. (Although just about any anime with a penchant for cavity-inducing sweetness is also susceptible to its use.) One such anime is Cardcaptor Sakura. Here, Tomoyo's mother just handed her some cake, but it happens so often (involving strawberry shortcake a lot of the time) that it sometimes feels like you can't go two episodes without hearing it.

Kiko: Wow, that pile of bowls could rival one of Naruto's!

At the end of a meal, when the table's done creaking and the ramen bowls are emptied, it is a matter of politeness to once again thank your host for the meal you've just consumed and the hard work they have put into making it. This is the phrase most Japanese speakers will use, and whenever food is involved, and the end of a meal is shown, it will usually be heard. Hei, the main character from Darker than Black is a very well mannered assassin. He's Chinese, and even he knows this is the proper way to thank the chef from your favorite ramen shop, although leaving piles of empty bowls can also show that you enjoyed your meal, I suppose, after all, if you ate a lot, you apparently enjoyed it, right? Even so, for most of us with normal sized stomachs, the verbal way is probably better.

And there you have it. I hope you've enjoyed this little sortie into the world of linguistics. Until next time, keep listening, you never know what interesting phrases you'll pick up.

Images taken from "Cardcaptor Sakura", "Darker than Black", "Detective Conan", "Dragon Ball", "Neon Genesis Evangelion", and "Slayers".

Monday, December 13, 2010

Black Lagoon

What's say let's take a walk on the wild side? Or rather a boat ride, perhaps? The high seas are always a fun topic for just about any medium, and boy do we have plenty of that here for you today. Straight from Southeast Asia and the South China Sea's criminal undercurrent, come a veritable smorgasborg of dark hilarity and violent awesomeness. You can find every sort of thug in the city of Roanapura, from the yakuza, to the Russian Mafia, and even freelance mercs, and if you want more excitement, you can go out for a ride and catch some pirates, or possibly...   well I'll tell you about the other things later. I kid you not, this short anime is chock full of pulse pounding action and fun surprises as the Lagoon company tears its way through the Thai underground with their old PT-boat, in search of the golden mercenary standard: Profit. So get out your cutlass pistols, and strap on your AK-47, we're taking a ride on Black Lagoon.

The Black Lagoon: Pirate ship, delivery vessel,
and home to the craziest crew in the South China Sea.
I first heard of this anime when I saw the first two episodes, once again, at the anime club I was part of in college, and I found myself howling with the rest of the club at the dark humor and totally on the edge of my seat wondering what would happen next. Now that I've had the chance to see the entire first season, I can safely say that it is well worth your time, as long as you aren't too hung up on watching folks getting shot. (Please note that once again, I do not actually condone violence, it's fun in fiction, but in real life... just don't do it.) Originally, Black Lagoon was based off the manga of the same name by Rei Hiroe. It was produced by Studio Madhouse and ran for 12 episodes on various networks in Japan during the spring of 2006. It also has a second season, referred to as "The Second Barrage", as well as an OVA that is currently in production, but since many folks seem to treat these as separate projects, we're focusing on the first season here. Should you care to look for it in the states, it's currently licensed by Geneon Entertainment.

Rock: Within the last twenty minutes, I've been kidnapped,
forced into a drinking game with a psycho,
and shot at by mercs hired by my own company.
Why shouldn't I look stressed!
Our story begins in the least innocent of ways, as Rokuro Okajima, our Japanese protagonist (soon to be known as Rock), gets kidnapped by the crew of the converted PT boat, the Black Lagoon, when they come for a pirate operation to liberate a disk of his company's information that he has been charged with. At first glance, it appears that they'll hold him for ransom and that'll be the end of it, but then things go awry as his company decides they don't care enough about him for a rescue. At that point, the now ex-salaryman decides to join the crew of the Black Lagoon as he really has no where else to go, and he's sick and tired of living on his former company's terms. Now teamed up with his former captors, the steady handed Dutch, the gunslinging sociopath Revy, and their intel guy Benny, Rock spends the rest of the series attempting to stay alive and contribute to the Lagoon Company's work as a delivery and freelance company for the South China Sea's crime bosses.

Be glad this isn't a close up shot.
You might get more than you bargained for in this city.
This anime did a really great job making the world believable not just on the level of environment, but even down to the technical detail in the art style. The world itself is a feast of interesting things to look at, especially in the city of Roanapura, which is the Black Lagoon's home base. Though there are a couple of points where frames are reused, the city has this feel of being some sort of wild western (yet still Asianized) town where shootouts are common and the law is only as powerful as the money in your pocket can bribe it to be. The first time you see the city, Rock gives a short narrative about the place to build it up, and it works really well, since he goes into the city's quirks along with its glaring flaws. Even so, there's enough mystery about the place to make you curious about it, but not enough to distract from the plot. It's handled the way someone often approaches a city when they have somewhere they need to go in a hurry. The more obscure things melt into the background, there for the mind to caress, but not enough to be distracting. Like the mysterious noose that hangs on the bridge for some unknown victim. It calls the mind to wonder who it might be for, yet it's not important enough to make you angst over it. The visuals out on the boats are equally interesting. For instance, there's a point early on where the crew needs to hide in this river after being chased by some ex-military mercs in a helicopter and they come to a dead end with a very nice waterfall.

From left to right, Benny, Rock, Revy, and Dutch,
looking somewhat the worse for wear
at the end of their first mission together.
While some of the characters are definitely stereotypes, they do have their own kind of life to them that makes them a bit different from the standard molds they represent, and in some cases, make them their own. For instance, Rock is an ex-salary man, but at the same time, he's made of much harder stuff than he first appears to be. There are several times where he's stared down the barrel of a gun pointed at his head and actually managed to intimidate the person threatening him (I even felt a little freaked out by it sometimes as he becomes better at this little skill). As one would expect of a person who had been attempting to climb the corporate ladder, he's great with accounting and appears to have a nack for negotiating. He may not be the best gunslinger, but his surprising inner strength makes him a really relatable character, especially since he likes to compare the stuff that's happening to spaghetti westerns and famous movies. (There's even a terminator reference in there that's totally hilarious as they use it again almost immediately afterward.) He's often paired up with Revy, the pistol-wielding near-sociopath after officially joining the crew. That pretty much sums up her character entirely. She loves violence and often approaches life with a psychotic grin and a cigarette. Though woe betide you if she shows any weakness in front of you. There's also Dutch, the Vietnam veteran and owner of the ship, as well as Benny, the Jewish american who runs the detection equipment. You can't help but think they have stories, but they don't go into great detail about them. It's okay since the anime is short, and that's not the focus, but the fact you can tell it's there is still a good thing.

Do not cross Roberta. Really. Just...   don't.
I definitely enjoyed the supporting characters and the antagonists too. If you watch Detective Conan (Japanese version), you may recognize the voice of Vermouth's seiyuu, Mami Koyama who does the voice of Balalaika, a Russian Mafia boss on good terms with the Lagoon Company, in the Japanese dub. She does a good job at making Balalaika a very competent and believable mob boss, seeing as she knows how to use just enough of an allure in her voice to keep it feminine while still radiating power. It's awesome to hear. Many of the other supporting characters are equally awesome, like Mr. Chang, the Chinese Tang leader who hires them later in the series, and  Shenhua, the Taiwanese assassin who favors blades over guns and seems to have a rivalry with Revy. Both of them are frighteningly competent at what they do. The group also goes up against some of the craziest antagonists I've ever heard of. Early in the series, they go up against some ex-military mercs and that doesn't sound so bad, but then there's the Neo-Nazis later, and after that, there's Roberta. Let me tell you about Roberta. If anyone could make being chased around by a Columbian catholic girl in a maid uniform scary, she did it. I am dead serious when I say this. Suffice to say, there was a reason Rock compared her to the terminator. She packs some serious heat, with a suitcase that's full of pistols as machine gun rounds and umbrella that doubles as a shot gun, this ex-revolutionary guerrilla turned family caretaker is enough to give Revy a run for her money and she does it convincingly. It's probably one of the more exciting chase and fight scenes in the series, aside from the last one, which I won't ruin. ^^

Gotta have a cool head for tea-time in Roanapura.
As the series is so short, it is naturally very lean on filler, in fact it's almost non-existent. Every episode is important for something, which I definitely like. I also really liked how dark humor is often used alongside the serious moments as well as how the writers are very aware of the story they're telling. Like in the first episode, right after being kidnapped at gunpoint by Revy, Rock is sitting next to Dutch on the boat talking to him and he reflects how he must be succumbing to Stockholm Syndrome because he's started thinking that Dutch is the only friend he has in the world at the moment. Later, things get really funny when the group is at this bar in Roanapura and after being goaded by Revy because she doesn't think he could hold his liquor he yells at her not to mock a Japanese Businessman and after a few angry lines about being forced to drink at corporate functions, he takes her on and chugs a whole pint of stuff down without breaking a sweat or succumbing to intoxication. In fact, a lot of the dialog between Rock and Revy is hilarious to listen to as their characters play off each other beautifully, even in the fight scenes where he's often ducking for cover and she's running into the gunfire with wild abandon and yet artistic precision. But seeing them out of the fight is fun too, like in one episode, their checking in with some of their delivery clients and Rock shows he has a knack for negotiation by talking tea with a gun-dealing reverend mother of a church, while Revy is pistol to pistol with the reverend mother's bodyguard. (It is an awesome scene to watch.)

Revy, doing what she does best: Kill.
The fight sequences are perhaps the main attraction of this title, and boy are they exciting. From the PT boat's incredible face-off with a military helicopter in the second episode to the final chase (which is really really crazy, trust me! There's pot involved, it has to be!) the sequences are really well done and exciting and you can tell that the artists put a lot of work into making them good. However, the big genius image-wise is perhaps the computer graphics that were used for this project, and what you don't see about them. Like in a lot of the action scenes, computer graphics are used to smooth the appearance of some frames and make the movement more fluid. However, it is so well done that I didn't even notice until I actually saw that they had a CGI company in the credits and started looking for the evidence. I don't mean to brag, but I have great faith in my attention to detail and if I can't tell the difference, that's a darn good job. This shows especially well in the shipboard scenes where Revy is running up and down the PT Boat shooting up all the enemies on other ships. If you know, you'll recognize it, but it didn't even cross my mind until later that it couldn't have been anything but standard frames. Now that is some seamless artwork. The background music was also really well done and captured the mood really well when it needed to. I found the intro theme, "Red Fraction" by Mell, to be different, but enjoyable as it did an excellent job illustrating the dangerous, high-stakes world you're about to enter. The voice talents are all pretty good in both English and Japanese, so you won't be disappointed either way. Viewer discretion is advised however, which means you probably don't want to show this while there's kids around, but I'm sure you could figure that out.

There may not be an end to the story, but I get the feeling that was because by the time they finished it, the Second Barrage was on the way, so it wasn't really necessary. But even without that, it still felt like a complete story as by the end, Rock has proved himself an equal within the company and a valuable asset. Because of that, I can't say I have any real complaints. If I did, I'd just be nitpicking. Overall, this anime was fun and enjoyable. Though it was definitely violent, bloody, and geared towards the crowd that prefers an adrenaline rush, it didn't hit the line where it became unnecessarily disgusting. I would definitely recommend this anime, especially if you like shows with heavy combat. And that's the tiger's two cents.

Images taken from Black Lagoon.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Dangerous Characters: Naraku

It's about time we put a villain in the gallery. This guy's even got an appropriately snow-white outfit for the holiday season (sure it's the skin of a baboon, but who cares). Coming all the way from Feudal Japan (a highly fictionalized version of it anyway), this partial demon put together from various lesser demons has been actively working to ditch his human heart forever so he can lose his lust for a woman who's no longer alive. He enjoys anything that makes others suffer and uses his manipulative ways to attempt to physically and psychologically destroy any enemy (or innocent bystander) who is unfortunate enough to cross his path, and even some of his own allies. We now introduce Naraku, from Sunrise's anime Inuyasha, based off the manga by Rumiko Takahashi.

This is a character whose reputation is much lower than most of characters we've introduced so far. While most of the others are here mainly for negative affects they unintentionally visit on others, like most true villains, Naraku will go out of his way to royally screw over anyone who he perceives could be a threat to his interests, which are to possess the complete Shikon jewel (a very powerful magicky-type plot device/Mcguffin), become a full demon, and to have the priestess Kikyo for his own (or kill her, depending on how crazy evil he is at the time. This last one is made even weirder by the fact that she's already dead. It's complicated.). He is well known to be quite creative in making others suffer too. Among other things, he has the brother of one of the series' supporting characters under amnesia and mind control, and cursed another supporting character with what basically amounts to a carnivorous black hole in his hand (actually called a wind tunnel in the series) that persists through generations. He is also personally responsible for getting the titular character of the series, Inuyasha pinned to a tree with a cursed arrow, and causing much psychological trauma for both him and his late ex-girlfriend, the same priestess, Kikyo. He has a special place in his heart for causing Inuyasha and his party as much pain as he possibly can, however, his ire is not limited to the main cast. Most of the people around him are equally susceptible to his wrath and he certainly has no qualms about destroying whole villages and castle towns to get his way. Thanks to his dangerous tendencies, which create a completely new category of "totally evil" to add to our previous set of parameters for an entry on the list, Naraku is truly a very dangerous character. Happy December!

Image taken from Inuyasha.

Monday, November 29, 2010

D.N. Angel

So yeah, I was really late again. But anyway, we've got another review to do. For this anime, we're following the exploits of a young boy with a secret. While by day he is a shy timid boy who has to decide who he likes more between a pair of twins at his school, by night he takes on an an alternate personality that steals cursed artifacts so that they can be properly sealed for the greater good. While it definitely has some more thrilling high-flying adventure type elements (after all, this other personality has the ability to fly), the focus is primarily on the main character and his attempts to navigate through a confusing labyrinth of romance, teenage hormones, and near-intimate contact with a member of his own sex, to figure out what girl he likes. So get out your tarot cards and magic feathers, we're taking a look at D.N. Angel.

Dark, Daisuke Niwa's alter ego/roommate?
Is that what you would call someone who shares your body?
Based on a manga of the same name by Yukiru Sugisaki, that started it's run in 1997, D.N. Angel was a relatively average production that ran on TV Tokyo for 26 episodes during the spring and summer of 2003. It was produced by the studios Dentsu and Xebec, and is licensed in the United States by ADV films. While it may have a surprise or two as the story progresses, I'd hardly consider it above average in most capacities. You will certainly get a good laugh or two, and a few moments that are so sugary-sweet you might get a cavity, but issues with the amount of information available to the viewer as well as certain contradictions and aesthetic choices make this one lose slightly in terms of suspension of disbelief.

Just when you thought the day couldn't get any worse,
the floor falls out from under you, and then you learn
you're the living vessel for a phantom thief.
The beginning of our story is rather unusual. After a brief and confusing flash forward to the end of the series  in which a couple of strange angel-type characters are battling it out and it looks like one of them gets sealed in a mirror, we cut to the present(I guess it was supposed to be artsy?). Here, we find a strange scene in which a mysterious cult is having a weird ceremony, and then we learn that this cult is actually composed of our protagonist's family (his mom, his grandpa, and their cute little family pet), and that it's some sort of coming of age ceremony. Our newly turned 14-year-old protagonist Daisuke Niwa then proceeds to enjoy his birthday, and lives through a day at school after having his interest getting denied indirectly by the girl he has a crush on. (I know. Riveting isn't it?) When he gets home, we learn that not only is his house a death trap (the traps get silly later, like someone gets attacked by a cream pie at one point) which he has to circumvent in order to pass one of his strange grandfather's tests, but he has also just become the living vessel for Dark, a spirit/angel thing who earns the family's living as phantom thieves, for the greater good mind you. Further, he transforms into Dark when he is "emotionally" aroused by looking at a picture of the girl he has a crush on. Naturally, his folks are perfectly okay with this. Why wouldn't they want their child/grandchild to risk life and limb providing a medium for some powerful dark being that routinely steals cursed paintings? In fact, they actually encourage it as a rite of passage type thing. With such a big secret to carry around, one would think the focus would be on finding a balance between Dark's missions and real life, but actually, the focus is more on how Daisuke comes into his own and finds his true love while dealing with having an extra personality swimming around in his head. There are only really about 7 or 8 true thefts in this series and if anything, the guy could have done just as well working for the government to seal these evil artworks as they're clearly public safety hazards, but I digress.

Yes the city is nice, but if we went inside that house there,
 would we find a family or support planks for the front wall?
The world the characters live in was a frustrating one to pin down. The city they live in is apparently called New Metropolis, however, where this city actually is would be anybody's guess. At first I thought it might be somewhere in Mediterranean Europe but then someone pretended to be an American who couldn't speak Japanese, suggesting some really strange place somewhere in Japan? And to complicate matters further, apparently something happened in this unnamed country called a Cultural Revolution (like in China? That's the only one I know of.) that caused some books to be rewritten. And THEN I saw a sign that said "ROMAN" on it. So yeah. I have no idea where this is supposed to be. I guess we can just call it an alternate universe in which a lot of things we know did happen but this is basically "Random Japanese Town Pretending to be a European Town #1." America appears to exist, but in all honesty, no one really comes or goes in such away that we see anything beyond New Metropolis's borders, unless you count the tropical island in episodes 17-18, but that could be anywhere. That doesn't mean the visuals aren't beautiful. There's definitely plenty of eye-candy if you like looking at giant windmills and cliff-sides and there's some nice imagery having to do with snow later that is really nice. Even so, I had a nasty suspicion the entire time I was watching the show that should one of the characters venture beyond the town's horizon, they'd just find an empty expanse of nothingness. Magic seems to exist, but it's not really clear how common it is or how non-magic-users generally think of it. The same could be said for the mechanics behind the government and the school. They seem to only exist for the purpose of providing the plot, or an antagonist for Dark to get the best of, or for Daisuke to have a little angst episode over. I guess in short, the world feels like a Hollywood Western town. It feels like it only exists in the capacity for which the story needs it, and doesn't feel like there's anything beyond that to expand on.

Hiwatari: My purpose in life is to make Daisuke
uncomfortable and the shonen ai fans squeal.
A lot of the characters aren't all that original. We have Daisuke the shy yet perky young male protagonist who hides a darker alternate personality (which really isn't taken advantage of nearly enough in my opinion.) There's Dark, who is supposed to want Daisuke's body for himself so he can do what he wants but instead comes across as a non-corporeal older brother who only indulges in his own interests, such as going after the girls he likes, once in a while. Then there's Satoshi Hiwatari's blue oni personality to counter Daisuke's red oni. He's really more a friend with no personality who has evil antagonist Krad for his dark side, and spends all his time appeasing the shonen ai crowd (that's boy love for those who don't know) by making Daisuke get close to another boy, while saving his butt and trying to keep Krad from surfacing and killing everybody.

On the left, Mio Hio, the most obnoxious exchange student ever.
Enough to make Daisuke flee in terror.
On the right, Riku, Daisuke's eventual significant other,
 just down to earth enough to be obvious. 
Then there are the twins Risa and Riku. Risa, the sweet and shallow one who's obsessed with horoscopes and is apparently spot on with Tarot cards, is initially the object of Daisuke's crush, but eventually he starts falling for the predictably sports loving and full of heart twin Riku. The relationships are an important thing that drives the story as Dark maintains a weird kind of crush on Risa, but ends up letting her go, but she eventually doesn't feel that bitter about it, (god this sounds like a soap opera ><;) while Riku and Daisuke end the series together. There's also this other girl called Mio Hio who sort of reminds me of a creepier, short-haired version of Vanille from Final Fantasy XIII, who is at first  obsessed with Daisuke until you learn that Satoshi's adopted father created her out of a doll to try to get rid of Daisuke because he houses Dark (it's complicated). Then she starts trying to fight her fate, which a lot of dolls seem to do in anime, by trying to save Daisuke from herself instead. 

Aww...  so cute!
Even though he did eat all the strawberries,
could you really stay mad at him?
The rest of the characters are developed hardly at all aside from the grandfather, the mom, and With, the ridiculously cute white cousin of Ryo-ohki the cabbit from Tenchi Muyo, who is also Dark's familiar and allows him to fly by turning into big black wings. Apparently the grandfather was also possessed by Dark as a boy and was the previous vessel due to his daughter being the one to carry on the Niwa line. With gets a filler episode devoted to him where we learn that he's apparently some kind of demon thing, and that he takes a shine to rabbits and strawberries (he's so adorably sweet he makes sugar look bitter). Daisuke's mom does get a little development as it comes out that she was actually the half of Daisuke's parents that would have inherited Dark had she been a boy and had apparently really been disappointed to be denied it. Thankfully that comes across no where near as disturbing as it could have been (considering we learn this because she found her old school girl uniform, and tried it on to find it still fits) but still, it would have been interesting to see that angle used a little more. Daisuke's the only character who really changes all that much, and even that is pretty predictable as he learns to have a bit more faith in himself and not be so shy. Aside from Krad, there really aren't that many actual antagonists to speak of, unless you count the guy who heads the school newspaper because he's a perv, and Krad really doesn't show up that much. You could make an argument that Dark is a bit of an antagonist, but it really doesn't hold much water considering that he and Daisuke generally get along pretty well, while Krad is just frigging crazy. There's also the police, but really, they're just there to be a minor incompetent annoyance.

If accidentally getting knocked over by a school girl
makes you faint, you need a higher constitution score!
The plot is pretty straightforward, if poorly explained. Daisuke and Dark continue to steal cursed artwork to seal their evil for the greater good, while Hiwatari's evil stepfather attempts to thwart them through various ways for reasons that aren't really clear, as it seems pretty obvious Dark's doing a good thing by getting rid of that dangerous stuff. It's spelled out at the beginning that the story is gonna culminate in a showdown with Krad at some point, it's just the outcome that's not quite so apparent. The producers definitely came to this anime with a decent sense of humor, as there are jokes that will get you laughing. Like in episode 8, there's a one liner in the Japanese dub about how Daisuke doesn't have time to be a swindler because he's got phantom thief duties (the irony in that line cracks me up anyway) and in episode 11, where Dark is endeavoring to steal an artifact from an aquatic archeological site, someone points out all the money being wasted on subs and trap nets to try and stop him. There are also plenty of points that, even if they aren't particularly original, are fun to watch. Like whenever Dark is flying around at night, it is a pretty nice visual. But at the same time the inconsistencies make things kinda silly. For instance, Daisuke at first, puts on this act of being so physically weak that Riku knocked him over in the hallway at school and he fainted. Most toddlers wouldn't faint from that. Yet later, he's so tough he can handle bike rides across town and intense pain because when Dark uses his powers he takes the energy out of Daisuke's hide. There's also a part of the main plot that comes out in one of the episodes just before the end game about Hiwatari's lineage that comes almost out of no where which suddenly renders him one of the fastest painters the world has ever seen in order to pull Daisuke out of a cursed painting. It's weird. Then there's another point where the city's electronics stop work because of magical interference from the Endgame plot device, but somehow, the chief of police managed to talk to his son by his cell phone through a payphone. I know phone connections aren't necessarily affected by power-outages, but isn't a cellphone an electronic device? Get you're information correct guys. There are plenty of other offenses but there are too many to name here.

Dark. So much of a charmer, even inanimate objects are swept off their feet.
Don't believe me? That lady is a manifestation of one of the objects he steals.
Speaking of cursed artifacts, they themselves seem to follow a pattern. Almost all of these artifacts that Dark has to steal and seal seem to be possessed by the soul of a pretty girl (with the exception of the statue of Adonis in one of the earlier episodes, in which it was just possessed by the love god's spirit), who's waiting for someone, and sealing the artifact usually involves giving her peace in some form so she won't go stealing people's souls. As common as these artifacts seem to be, one would think the public safety devision would have better measures in place than "allow Dark to steal it and give up on finding it again." One of these so-called thefts really shouldn't even have merited an announcement in advance (which he does for most thefts, not unlike the Kaito Kid from Detective Conan) from Dark in the first place because the object was in this abandoned house that nobody cared about anyway and yet he goes in preps the artifact, then sends out the notice so he can steal it with everyone watching. Even Dark questions Daisuke's logic on that one and he doesn't give a very good answer. Oh well, I don't write'em, I just comment on'em.

In terms of the music, it's okay, although there are a couple of weird quirks. Like the producers felt the need to have an image song just about every time anything happened. There was one time, Daisuke and Dark were even trapped in a freezer with Satoshi and Krad and failed to fight them, and they had an image song for that. I will point out that the main theme song "Byakuya-True Light" by Shunichi Miyamoto is truly incredible and one of the pieces that really shines in this anime, as it's heavenly choir, organ chords and piano shift into the hard core strains of an electric guitar, backed up by synth strings (the English version is even sung by Vic Mignogna, who also does Dark's voice in the English dub, a bonus for dub watchers!), however it's awesome melody backed up by the visuals in the intro are misleading as they suggest that the story is an action adventure when actually it's more of a romantic comedy with an action-related ending. Overall, I don't think it's a bad anime, but information and plot issues keep it from going above average. Those of you who like fantasy elements and think more about relationships than you do about the plot will have fun and if you just want some anime eye candy, it will do. But it could have done better. And that's the tiger's two cents.

Images taken from D.N. Angel.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Anime on Location: Destination Tokyo

Usagi from Sailor Moon as she
wanders through a neighborhood in Tokyo.
Ever wonder about the places all this stuff comes from? Even I do sometimes, and I've actually been there. Yes, that's right folks, today, we're gonna take a peripheral look at one of the largest supercities in the world, a city that has been a central location in anime since before there was anime. Welcome to Tokyo, the center of anime production, and a rich and vibrant hub of locations that constantly pop up in stories relating to anything from historical dramas, to soap opera, to the post apocalypse. Since it is such a big city, there's only so much I can cover in a small article, so I'll just be giving some highlights, and a small smattering of background, but I expect we'll be coming back for more as time goes on.

The crew from Genshiken off to
 find some dojinshi in Akihabara.
I did say you could find anything here.
It's only natural that Tokyo would sit at the heart of the Japanese consciousness. Not only is it Japan's current capital city and the seat of their current emperor, it is also the country's largest city, it's highest concentration of businesses, and the seat of their government, not to mention, it's located in one of the more fertile areas of the region, being located mostly on the Kanto Plain. With so much riding on one city, it would be nearly impossible for it not to be considered important. Then there is also the wealth of goods that are sold here. From Shibuya's department stores to the discount electronics and manga goods in Akihabara, you can find just about anything here if you know where to look

Rurouni Kenshin's Kenshin, Kaoru, and Yahiko
 buying groceries in Meiji Tokyo.
The city itself has a long history, It was founded in the mid 1400's and fortified by the Edo clan, (Naturally, it was known as Edo then.) and was a small fishing village until the Shogun made the place the center of his government in 1603. It became more important after the Emperor moved there at the start of the Meiji period, eventually acquiring the title of 'capital city' but only after it had acquired all of the trappings of that title first. Because the city is so big, the landscapes that exist within its borders are quite varied, from mountains to coastline. Like New York, it is not just one city anymore, but several. As New York has its boroughs such as Queens and Brooklyn, Tokyo is also divided into several smaller areas. There are a total of 23 special wards in the city, along with 26 smaller designated cities, 1 special district that's more mountainous, 4 sub-prefectures and several small islands all within the boundaries of greater metropolitan Tokyo (that's not counting the smaller villages either. As such, this concrete jungle is a perfect location for many an anime and manga set in the past present or future, and characters have plenty of area to run around in and get in all kinds of trouble, and boy do they ever.

Tokyo Tower as seen in a dream
 sequence in Cardcaptor Sakura.
From the moment you meet Kenshin as he runs into Kaoru on that street in Meiji era Tokyo in Rurouni Kenshin, he pretty much has to beat off all those ex-samurai looking for revenge with a stick (um... reverse-blade sword), to get any peace and quiet, but you don't have to to look to the past for excitement in this city. Modern Tokyo is also a favorite place for characters to live, such as Conan from Detective Conan who lives in the fictitious neighborhood town of Beika. Rather disturbingly for a family show, there seems to be quite a glut of murder mysteries there. Of course there are plenty of other characters that call Tokyo their home stomping grounds. Other old favorites like Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura also have their characters bases of operation within this city, as well as some newer ones, like Genshiken. Through series like these, we get to see characters run around below the skyscrapers, taking advantage of the city's overall charm while living the lives of normal, or in some cases, not-so-normal Nihonjin.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office Building in Shinjuku,
at least, as it would be in the post-nuclear future of Ghost in the Shell.
Of course, who could forget the many many many dystopian futures that have been created for this city. Just recently we explored the evils of an authoritarian United Nations in the world of Darker than Black, but there's also the cold uncaring government of the cult classic Akira. In Ghost in the Shell the very city has been torn to shreds by nuclears world wars, while in Neon Genesis Evangelion, it has been repeatedly smashed by alien monsters. (If it's not the most ravaged city on the planet in fiction then it is at least one of the most.)

Though they call it the Yamate line to avoid trademark issues,
 Conan and the kids he hangs out with ride on
Tokyo's Yamanote rail line all the time,
as they work to catch criminals in Detective Conan.
There are a number of prominent landmarks in Tokyo that have become common sights themselves in anime and manga. Tokyo Tower comes to mind, along with some of the skyscrapers in Shibuya's skyline. Surprisingly the Metropolitan police headquarters shows up quite a lot (though less surprisingly in many detective related stories). There's the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office Building in Shinjuku as well, along with the Yamanote line, which is the major rail line that runs in a loop around the central part of the city and is one of the more important means of transportation, especially for younger folks who don't own cars. Conan has visited just about all of these areas at one time or another, over the course of the nearly 600 episodes he's been pounding the city's pavement looking for clues, but other anime series get their time in the sun too. For instance, Tokyo Tower was a major plot location in Cardcaptor Sakura and the Metropolitan Police Headquarters can also be found as the home of the security personnel in Darker than Black. Further, the twin towers of the Government offices building has been favorite symbol of a society in ruins in more futuristic settings, as illustrated by its appearance in the crumbling mess of the once great city in shows such as Ghost in the Shell, and in CLAMP's Tsubasa, the Reservoir Chronicles. As we can see, the city is a wealth of potential locations.

Now that we have taken a brief glance over the greater metropolitan Tokyo area, I hope this has been informative. Over time, I hope to further explore the city and its surroundings, and their relevance in anime in future articles. Until then, keep exploring, and thanks for reading.

Images taken from Cardcaptor Sakura, Detective Conan, Genshiken, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex 2nd Gig, Rurouni Kenshin, and Sailor Moon.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Hatenkou Yuugi

Even though this one was quite short, this show is confusing and it had trouble keeping my attention and since I've also had some other real life stuff going on, I've been kinda distracted. Hopefully after this week things will get back to a minimal amount of scheduling turbulence. But enough about me, you want to know about this show. It features a classic traveling adventure formula with magic and mayhem as a young teenage sorceress travels the world with her two male companions. So prepare your walking shoes and a teddy bear backpack. We're taking a trip through Hatenkou Yuugi

Now that I've seen it, it's understandable why the show hasn't come to the United States officially, even though the manga it's based off of, Dazzle, penned by Minari Endo, is still running and enjoys a position in Tokyo Pop's lineup in the USA. While it was produced by Studio Deen (known for its involvement in Ranma 1/2 and the final third of the Rurouni Kenshin anime) this anime enjoys much less room to grow its story as it's only composed of about 10 episodes. It also only ran for a short period of time on a few networks during the period between January and March of 2008.

The main cast.
From left to right, Alzeid, Rahzel, and Baroqueheat
We begin the story rather unceremoniously with a brief introduction to our protagonist, Rahzel, a 15-year-old magic user, who lives a sheltered life with her adopted father, of whom we see virtually nothing until near the end of the series. The most we see is that as soon as Rahzel is introduced, her father kicks her out the door, on the pretense of sending her on a journey to "see the world." (Gosh dad, isn't that a little harsh?) Apparently he's so lazy as a father he won't even go out with her, and just chooses to let her wander around on her own. (That's really risky if you ask me. I mean, I've known 17-year-olds I wouldn't trust unsupervised, never mind that there are a lot of nasties out there who could take advantage of a young impressionable girl, but I digress.)  Almost immediately, the plot drives her into an alley where she meets a tough guy named Alzeid who is apparently supposed to be her somewhat indifferent partner in crime on this expedition (who can also use magic). They are soon joined by another magic user, and an old war buddy of Alzeids, the womanizing Baroqueheat, as they travel through the countryside going on adventures and getting into heaps of trouble along the way.

Put in prison just for standing next to someone the police were after.
Brings a whole new level to guilt by association doesn't it?
The world in which the characters exist is very ephemeral and suffers from the same problem that the world of Claymore had. There really isn't much of an indication of what sort of world it is, who controls it, or what the geography is. Outside of the characters you're following, it may as well be a fog of war. If anything, it looks like a Victorian setting on an acid trip. The clothes Rahzel wears are often reminiscent of the Lolita style of apparel but you see folks in contemporary clothing or attire like it just about everywhere evenly matched up with outfits that look like they belong to a museum. The cities have a sort of anyplace fantasy kind of feel. There's always an inn or a house somewhere that will function as the group's base of operations, generally related to them having helped someone living in said household or business. There seems to be things like electricity and guns, and a military, but you never see whole armies and swordsmen seem to come out of the woodwork. Modern sciences and urban legends seem to dwell side-by-side with ancient arts and magics, creating a sense that you're not sure what kind of world your in. I'm not even sure the author of the original story knows. To further add to the confusion, the color schemes of some of  the scenery gives it a kind of dream-like quality that makes the plot feel nowhere near as urgent as some of the situations that occur should have felt. But maybe that's just me complaining because the plots were confusing as all get out and kind of left me with the feeling that the author was just making stuff up as she went along. Like in episode 2, they end up in jail for no apparent reason other than because the boy the police were trying to arrest for attempting to get revenge for his father's unjust execution just happened to run to the street they were on. (Is this a common occurrence? If so, the justice system must really be a bunch of pricks.) There's also the question of how common certain abilities are. Apparently being able to use magic is supposed to be pretty rare, but they seem to encounter folks who can use some variety of it with surprising regularity. To top it all off, there isn't even an explanation of where the magic comes from or how it's supposed to work.

As far as the characters are concerned, they seemed pretty bland to me. Rahzel seems to be trying to come off as a confident bruiser who can take care of herself, but sometimes gets in over her head and has to be bailed out. Not to mention, it never gets explained why she carries around a teddy bear at 15 years old, or why it's blindfolded. It's just there to be weird. Her relationships with the other two characters are never really expanded on aside from a few things to explain their motivations (or not explain them as the case may be). It's pretty clear that Alzeid is supposed to be paired off with her as some sort of special friend/significant other type character, but he has all the personality of a doorknob, and it feels so forced. I might be more willing to buy it if I had a little more time to see him get fleshed out, but no, at least in the anime, we don't get that. On that note, Baroqueheat is constantly disappearing to go do his own thing, leaving little time to really explore his psyche that much or find some redeeming qualities in him. (One even wonders why this group stays together at all aside from by the author's will.) In fact, even the outsider characters were pretty generic. I'm willing to understand a lot of stock characters when you need to move the core group through a scene, but coupled with the other issues in this anime and you've just made things worse.

So deceptively cute,
she has to be a mass murderer.
The antagonists they face don't feel that original either. We've all seen the crazed lunatic at the circus that kidnaps children in episode 3 somewhere (though I will admit her using them for a Frakenstein monster's body parts was creepy). The evil forest from episode 7 reminds me more of an evil version of the vanishing city from that old movie Brigadoon (instead of keeping outsiders away, it just eats them). Then there was that guy Solesta from episode 8 who was trying to convince the guys to ditch Rahzel. He was just a total jerk. None of them have anymore than a superficial level of complexity, with the possible exception of the young girl from episodes 5 and 6 who turns out to be a crazed murderer on a homicidal rampage. But that story is just depressing. Most of them, just have this overall feel of being the villain of the week, and all of them are sadistically psychotic, which I guess is supposed to make it okay when Rahzel and the guys inevitably defeat them. (By episode 3, I was totally bored, even as the body count has starting to build to ridiculous proportions. Yes, countless folks were being murdered by the villains and I couldn't find myself caring.)The only real antagonist who looks like he's actually going to be important, doesn't show up until the last episode, and then the series ends before we get to do anymore besides listen to him sneer ominously while buying Rahzel a birthday present. By that point, the series is over before the viewers even learn what his name is (unless you read the manga, but I'm only doing an anime review here).

So who's this mysterious red-haired guy?
This anime certainly won't tell you.
The plots themselves are kind of confusing to wrap your mind around, but the worst aspect of the whole thing though, was the pacing. Most of the anime feels like you're just drifting and not really engaged, until you get to a plot point and then there is an info-dump. This happened right at the beginning of the series, when Rahzel gets kicked out the door and immediately the plot rail brings the narrative train crashing into Alzeid. Baroqueheat is introduced so fast that for a moment, I got confused and thought he might not even be real, but some imaginary friend Rahzel had spontaneously conjured up before realizing that Alzeid could talk to him too. There are other plot points that happen just as abruptly.  To make matters worse, some of the confusion is compounded because the story likes to jump into flashback to insert conversations Rahzel has had with the other guys before to try and make certain events more significant, which leaves the reader to wonder if such activities weren't an attempted retcon. Then there are a miriad of things that  just pop up out of no where. Like the apparently important red-headed antagonist that the party never meets and just buys presents ominously in filler scenes in the last episode. Even at the end, her Dad just comes out of no where and is suddenly all like "Okay, you're coming back now, and don't talk back to me." completely out of left field. (Gee dad, you certainly didn't seem to care about it before now, what gives?) This brings Alzeid to a place where he actually has to act like he cares about continuing to travel with Rahzel which doesn't feel genuine at all, and totally leaves the anime in a heap of confusion and profound dissatisfaction. None of the characters have really changed for the better, nothing seems to have a real point and there never was any real focus.

By the end, I was begging for this to be over. Not even "Heartbreaking Romance" a very nice opening theme that was performed by Kanako Itou, could have saved the anime. The song itself had a nice beat, and really belonged in a DDR game, but sadly, it ended up here, to only briefly lift the spirits of those unfortunate enough to have to watch this show. In closing, what I have learned from this experience is that there is a compelling reason no anime licensing company has picked this up for the the United States. It's just a waste of time. And that's the tiger's two cents.

Images taken from Hatenkou Yuugi.