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.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Dangerous Characters: Kenshin Himura

Since I was running late, we're going two for two this week with the monthly introduction of a dangerous character. Hailing from Meiji era Japan, this ex-revolutionary still maintains his sword-skills to deadly accuracy, even if he has refused to kill. Surrounded by enemies and dangerous friends alike, if you are anywhere near him, you'd better make sure you avoid any confrontations. Otherwise someone is going to get much worse than a headache from that reverse-blade sword he carries. So allow me to introduce Kenshin Himura, of Studio Gallup and Studio Deen's TV series based off of Nobuhiro Watsuki's manga, Rurouni Kenshin.

The source of danger for Kenshin is somewhat convoluted, though mainly derived from occupational hazards. Back during the Meiji revolution he was a powerful assassin with a reputation for being brutally efficient. He may just be a wanderer now, but that doesn't mean he doesn't still have some pretty mad skills, only dulled by the fact that his sword has a reversed blade so a swing of it won't kill anybody (theoretically). His has a past that not only haunts his own nightmares, but also returns in the form of old enemies or rivals ruthlessly searching for anything from testing their skills to revenge. As a result, just being around Kenshin is a risky affair, as many of his enemies make no bones about taking hostages, or hurting bystanders. His friends are especially at risk as more often than not, they serve as a means for foes to get to him in order to make him do what they want. So if you ever find yourself in Meiji Japan, keep an eye out for him, and steer clear, unless you are an epic samurai. Even then, you probably shouldn't tell anyone he's your friend in public.

Image taken from Rurouni Kenshin.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Gokusen

Happy belated Halloween folks as well as a good start into November. Sorry I'm late with this one. I'm trying to avoid that, but sometimes, real life just makes things difficult. So anyway, this week we're looking at the anime Gokusen. What is it with animators and yakuza anyway? Seems like the last couple of anime I've reviewed have both incorporated criminal syndicates somehow, and here we are with a main character who's actually the heir to a position of yakuza leadership. That's bad enough, but imagine what could happen if such a young woman wanted to become a high school teacher? That's the premise of this anime. So put away your shiv knives and get out the textbooks, school is in session.

The main cast. Yankumi, the protagonist, is the girl in the red jumpsuit in the center.
Gokusen has been a number of things throughout the past few years. It's a story that's been made into several dramas, and a number of TV specials, along with a movie and the anime we're reviewing here. However, it got its start as a mange written for You magazine by Kozueko Morimoto, starting its run in August of 2000. Intended for a josei demographic, that is, a readership largely composed of adult females, it eventually became popular enough for an anime to be produced in 2004 which ran about 13 episodes, along with the other media described above. Those of you wishing to check it out yourselves in the USA can look for it under license by AnimeWorks. With such a vast amount of material behind it, one would expect such a story to really carry some weight. I don't know if the manga was any different, but as for myself, I'm not entirely sure that this series lives up to the hype.

Anyway, the story begins as our protagonist, Kumiko Yamaguchi starts her first day as a teacher at one of the worst schools in the district. However, it turns out that she has a secret. She is also the heir to an influential Yakuza family, and thus, much of the intended comedy and plot draws from her trying to balance her new responsibilities while keeping her past a secret. Even though the kids are basically a bunch of hoodlums, she slowly earns their respect while maintaining her position in the criminal underworld and avoiding being discovered. It's a pretty simple plot and it plays out rather predictably. You have the bullies trying settle scores with Kumiko (nicknamed Yankumi by her students) stepping in at every other opportunity to show them what a real ass kicking looks like. While I will admit some of the jokes are kind of funny, like when she has to cover herself when she accidentally slips into Yakuza jargon at odd moments, or acts scared when the police are nearby, for the most part, it's pretty easy to tell where things are going to go before anything even happens. If a bully shows up, there are only two possibilities, he will either fall to her wits or her brute force. Either way, she wins. It'd be okay if that was milked for comedy, but its not taken advantage of at all. Further, the melodrama is laid on so thick you'd need a carving knife just to cut through it. It's like watching a soap opera. Even the tiniest annoyance feels like its made out to be a huge emergency, which makes the dialog annoying as all get out.

As far as the characters are concerned, almost all of them are pretty stereotypical. You have one guy in the class who is the closest thing the show gets to having a bishounen (physically attractive for the uninitiated), and the rest of his classmates are a bunch of hoodlums who prefer acting out and causing trouble to actually being good, productive people. The other female teacher sounds like she would like to be having affairs with her students even as she tries to set the school up with a choir club (dear god, I never want to hear those guys sing again, I was begging for it to stop by the time that episode was over.) The principle is a dirty old man who wouldn't know how to wipe his own butt if he could find it (most of, if not all of, the students are equally perverted), and the assistant principle is so obviously a rat-faced villain (if he looked any more like a rat, he'd have a tail and round ears) that there is never any mystery about it when someone starts sabotaging the school. It was probably intentional that Yankumi was made out to be one of the only competent people in the show, which makes you really worry about Japan's school system. Then there's the yakuza characters. They act pretty much the way you'd expect yakuza thugs to act. The only one that's really of note is Yankumi's dog, and that's only because he narrates. Otherwise, he's just kind of an annoying distraction. I guess it was kind of interesting to make the Ooedo group somewhat sympathetic, but at the same time, you have to be aware that they are criminals which creates a sort of values dissonance that might weird some out.

You know you want your kids to learns THIS in school!
In all fairness, I've never been a huge fan of those "Mr. Holland's Opus" type stories where someone amazing comes to a school and teaches a class of rowdies and misfits something valuable about life. I'm the type that gets a lot more excited about epic space battles and daring adventures with sword and shield in hand. But even so, I find it even harder to give a show a good report when I don't feel like the characters get any good messages out of it. There is one exception. One of the messages that Yankumi brings the audience is that you don't have to be like your family if you don't want to. But at the same time, she blackens the moral spectrum by keeping one foot in the criminal side of her life even as she steps the other foot out into the world of teaching. What's the lesson here? That it's okay to be in the yakuza as long as you aren't caught? Anyone who knows anything about the yakuza should know that they are bad news to most people, and in some ways, I feel like their lives are almost glorified in a disturbing sort of way here. Further, none of the characters change that much by the end of the show, aside from Yankumi earning enough of their respect that they're willing to go out in a mob and beat up some toughs for her at the end of the series. (You know, there is such a thing as calling the police, guys. I believe the number is 110 in Japan, that's their job, look into it.) Then, as if to totally reverse the whole point of any message about being good productive people, once her secret is out, they keep her on as a teacher, even though she offered to resign, which totally blows off any suspension of disbelief that might have been left after the talking dog that apparently walks on two legs sometimes.

I'm really kind of sad that I was so disappointed, since apparently this story was popular enough in Japan to get so many other film and TV releases aside from this anime, and I find myself hoping that the live-action and manga material is way better than this. Visually, I can't say there's much to make this anime special, although I will say that at least the ending credits theme, Onore Michi by Aki Yashiro, was kind of nice. Making use of traditional instruments such as the koto, it was a nice end theme to an otherwise annoying piece of work. In spite of all the problems I had with it though, I will say that it could have been much much worse. At least it's not Tona-gura!, and that's the tiger's two cents.

Images taken from Gokusen.