Monday, May 30, 2011

Exploring Japanese Culture: "What's that Funny Thing Buddhist Monks Say?" and other Religious Conundrums

Such a pretty shot, I thought it was worth using again. ^^
In today's article we're going into a more spiritual vein of inquiry. Religion is a big part of just about any culture and the Japanese are no exception, but as a result, there are probably plenty of references and traditions that most of us Westerners know nothing about and therefore we don't understand when we're watching. For the trivia seekers in our audience, and those who'd like to know a little bit more, here are the answers to five more questions this time related to Japanese religion and philosophy. From Shinto shrines (like this one here from the anime Ghost Hound) to Buddhist temples, and beyond, let's dig in and see what we can find.

Hiding behind this curtain is a very shy middle-school kami.
What's a miko?

They're Shinto priestesses. They have male counterparts too, which you can see in the picture in this article here. (It's about a third of the way down the page.) You'll also see Shinto priests in anime every now and then, who generally wear a very special looking smock-like kimono that covers the front entirely rather than showing the overlap of the two sides of the kimono like most normal ones do. As to what Shintoism is as a whole, well you could say it is a religion and it isn't. From the earliest records of Japanese history, there has been evidence of a shamanic tradition of worshiping spirits called kami. We often translate this word as "God" but it has a much more flexible meaning in the Japanese language which more or less evokes the idea of something drawn from the divine. This set of indigenous beliefs varied by region and was not officially codified into what we know as State Shintoism until early in the Meiji Period (which began in 1868). This particular brand of State Shinto basically added an extra element to the already existing kami related tradition by adding in the worship of the Emperor as a direct descendant of the sun goddess, Amaterasu.  (As a side note, the Emperor was forced to renounce this claim at the end of World War II.) This tradition is also where we get those paper tassels on rope that are often used to mark sacred sites and sometimes are attached to sticks for ceremonies. The thing about kami is that they can be just about anything, from oddly shaped rock, to really old trees, to certain animals, and even charismatic people. Of course in anime, you can even make things even more interesting by actually making them literal gods rather than just believed to be gods. Such a thing happens to Yurie Hitotsubashi when she wakes up one morning and realizes she's become a god in the anime, Kamichu! As a result of this discovery, she's taken in by the local Shinto shrine and spends quite a bit of time trying to help out the local spirits, while also having to deal with the ceremonial responsibilities of being a living god.

Shamon: What? You mean most monks
don't get to drink sake all day? That's not right!
What's with this stereotype of not-so-pious Buddhist monks?

In anime and manga, it's more often just played for humor and parody today. However, this isn't particularly new. Japanese artists and story tellers have been using this joke as far back as the original emaki complete with the drinking and lechery, like Shamon from the anime Amatsuki who loves to drink with the best of them. In fact, it probably wasn't as unusual back in the feudal period seeing as a common practice for wealthy families with multiple children was to send the younger siblings who wouldn't get any of the inheritance to Monasteries and I'm sure there were probably a few who were used to better life styles as a result and had trouble adapting, but I doubt they were or are nearly as prevalent as Japanese popular media seems to make them out to be. You can even find some monks that actually are serious practitioners within the medium itself. In reality, none of them are supposed to do any of this stuff if their serious practitioners anyway, since it violates Buddhist precepts.

Miroku: Your post-its ain't got nothin' on these babies!
What's that funny thing some Buddhist monks say?

Once in a while when a Monk finds himself in a bind, you might hear him reciting a chant that sounds something like "Namu ami, namu ami..." while holding a rosary in his hands. Actually, it's a specific chant from the Pure Land Sect of Buddhism which had a lot of followers during the feudal period (and even still a few today). The Pure Land school of Buddhism holds that gaining enlightenment through traditional means is very hard, and therefore the best way to do it is to appeal to the compassion of the Amitabha Buddha (or Amida within Japan itself) to gain entrance to a pure land overseen by the above mentioned. This pure land's influence as well as Amitabha's guidance will provide followers with the ability to eventually achieve Nirvana. The chant is actually called the Nembutsu and it is said that reciting it is a form of generating good fortune and benefit for everyone who hears it as the speaker puts his faith in the Buddha. While there are many minor sects within this sub category, this is one of the major ways you can tell whether a monk is in general a member of a Pure Land sect or one of the others. Itenerent monks in the feudal period such as Miroku from the anime Inuyasha, are a lot more likely to be Pure Land monks than a monk from a monastery (not to say that there aren't Pure Land monasteries because there are) as many of the other sects required a lot more discipline and teaching in a monastic setting while many of the pure land sects lend themselves more to proselytizing and going among the populous. Pure Land also lends itself more to using sutras as charms and exorcist tools since they're a lot more faith-based rather than having more of a basis in discipline or meditation. They still have these things, but not necessarily as much.

You can't see the altar very well, but it still contains
a lot of the the items associated with a Buddhist funeral.
How do these Shintoists get along with Buddhists so well? Don't they follow totally different religions?

Well, as I said, Shintoism is a religion and it isn't. One of the interesting things about what happened when Buddhism came to Japan was that a lot of the Japanese decided that it wasn't so different, and they figured many of the kami they already worshipped might just be reincarnations of Buddhist figures anyway. Interestingly, this has spawned a more recent setup where Shinto shrines cater more closely to matters of life, while Buddhist temples deal more often with matters of death. As a result, you're more likely in modern times to see Shinto priests and mikos presiding over festivals, while most funerals are conducted in the Buddhist tradition as seen in this shot from Detective Conan.

Seriously, kids get horribly dismembered in this series,
yet the moral guardians are more worried about this?
I've seen a lot of anime with Judeo Christian/Norse/Other symbology in it with no apparent connection or significance. Is there some specific reason for this that I'm not getting?

I can't exactly give a clear answer on this one because it depends on the context, but a lot of the time, there's nothing subliminal going on, someone just decided to add some extralocal symbology for effect. In fact there's even instances of manga being edited and redrawn when it came to the states because someone put something in that the moral guardians thought would be offensive (they find a lot of things offensive it turns out). This happened to the manga Fullmetal Alchemist, in which there is a scene where originally the character Greed was chained to a stone formation that looked distinctly like a crucifix. When they adapted the manga for the United States, they redrew it so it was just an ordinary rock. There hadn't really been any symbolism to the original drawing, Hiromu Arakawa just thought it looked cool.

So there you have it. If there's anything you'd like to comment on or you just want to tell me I'm flat wrong about something and want to correct me, feel free to post down below. So until next time, take care, and have a great week.

Images are taken from Amatsuki, Detective Conan, Ghost Hound, Inuyasha, Kamichu!, and the manga Fullmetal Alchemist.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Inuyasha: Season 4

Due to the long running nature of this show, there WILL be some spoilers in this review and the reviews to follow related to subsequent seasons. Read at your own risk, you have been warned.

Welcome back to our extended Inuyasha review and now that we're on Season 4, and whew, I am so glad to know that there's only two seasons left. But on to business. As noted before, if you want to see the earlier portions of this review, you can go to these links here for seasons 1, 2, and 3 or if you like you can go to the Reviewed Shows gadget and click on the tab marked "Inuyasha" to see all of these at once. In case you forgot, Inuyasha is produced by Sunrise, based on the manga by Rumiko Takahashi, and licensed by Viz Media. Naraku's gone missing, so slip on your walking shoes, and let the search begin!...   er...   again!...

Where's an exterminator when you need one?
When we last left our heroes (and no, I'm not even bothering to consider whether this distinction is accurate anymore, this is the last you will hear from me on this point), the Inu-nakama had Naraku on the run after breaking into his castle, nearly destroying him and almost having a fight with Sesshomaru in the process. After a few days of chilling where Kagome went back home, and present day hilarity ensued as Inuyasha experienced life in the modern era, they returned to the feudal period in order to continue the search for a villain that had suddenly become very hard to locate. (So hard in fact, that he only shows up in flash back during the entirety of this season!) So what do you do when you can't find your designated despicably evil main antagonist? Well for one, you beat up on anything that comes out in his absence. That's right, the lesser demons are now active because they think that while the big bad cat Naraku represented is away, the rats are gonna play, and play they do. Enough so that the whole first half of the season is related to the characters trying to deal with various (and often annoying) demons that are coming out of the woodwork. Naturally, such things are the stuff of filler, and yes, sadly, that's what much of this part of the season is. It seems the side-quest que wasn't quite emptied during the last season after all. At least in this seasons some of it is somewhat legitimized by the fact that they are having difficulty finding Naraku, but it can wear on you a little bit after the monster of the week formula has been in effect for the last fifteen episodes or so.

All these hijinks are funny and all,
but can we please get back to the plot?
That's not to say that we don't get some character development or some interesting side characters out of it. For instance, in one two-part story arc, the nakama was introduced to this funny old lady who was working as an exorcist and even though she was an old fraud who couldn't sense spiritual energy worth anything, she was shrewd enough in other things that she could get by just fine anyway. This worked for comedy very well when she correctly guessed that Sango and Miroku liked each other in spite of Miroku's dirtier habits. We also get to explore some interesting questions, such as: "What would happen if Sesshomaru and Koga ran into each other?" and "What would happen if someone tried to create a new sacred jewel rather than look for the old one?" or "What would happen if Kirara disappeared?" These are of interest in their own right as it was an unknown quantity whether Koga and Sesshy would pick a fight or just ignore each other. The sacred jewel question could have turned out to be a very tragic story indeed as it involves the plight of a half demon who wants to create a sacred jewel because he wants his humanity. Unfortunately, he lands on the side of evil as he plans to make said jewel by using human souls, with the Inu-nakama as the spiritual base. (Yipe!) As for the Kirara question, it turns into a whodunnit as Shippo plays detective and casts blame on everyone else which is really funny. Rin, Sesshomaru's young companion also gets a little bit of character development, and we get a riff on the traditional Yuki Onna fairy tale as Miroku is lured into a trap by a snowy demon disguised as an attractive woman (big surprise).  We also get some fun antics when Kagome goes back to the future due to a cold and Inuyasha follows, helping her deal with the illness, and then subsequently seeing his first supermarket. He also ends up having to give Sota advice about love which is totally hilarious (not to mention there's bonus points for meta-references as Kagome dresses her kid brother up like Conan from Detective Conan which ran alongside Takahashi's manga in Shonen Sunday). As fun as all of this is, it's not going to matter too much in the grand scheme of things.

Hey Kohaku, where ya been all this time?
Some things do however, such as Kikyo's encounter with an old bandit who asks her to take a lock of his hair to a distant holy sight so that he may be saved (as per the Buddhist tradition) and she agrees. Not only that but in a surprising twist on an episode involving monkey spirits that would otherwise have been totally slapstick-based, the monkey god that they find at the end of the episode tells them that he felt something really evil heading in the direction of the Ox-Tiger, which is Northeast. Hmm...   I wonder what that could be...     this also happens to be the direction from which one of Koga's new satellite characters (Ayame, the daughter of a powerful wolf demon elder) happens to be from which explains her appearance in a two-part arc at the beginning of the season where she tries to bring him back to help her tribe. Once all the players know whats up (Including Sesshomaru and Koga, and their respective parties) the journey drags it's feet the whole way, as everyone encounters more loose demons that really shouldn't be out after curfew. However, once we finally get to Mount Hakurei, where everyone seems to have gathered, things finally get serious again. Koga and his group encounter a really nasty giant calling himself Kyokotsu of the Band of Seven and ends up having to kill him, which results in the discovery that the Saimyosho are around which by default, means Naraku is in on this. Meanwhile, the nakama discover's that Kohaku is around, and that he's been working with the Band of Seven as a sort of liason to regroup everybody as they've kind of scattered after Naraku resurrected them with Jewel shards. (Yes, we have more undead wandering about).

I'll buy the flintlock rifles, and I'll buy the demons and
magic swords. Hell, I'll even allow for the evil mathematically 
incorrect half demon
, but I will not accept the medieval cyborg!
It is an abomination and must be destroyed!
As the name suggests, it is inevitable that we are going to encounter even more new antagonists for the Nakama to fight. (Which begs the question, should they really still be called the Band of Seven if some of them aren't around anymore?) Some of them are also quite flamboyant and they all apparently are fond of face paint. Especially the effeminate Jakotsu who even wears lipstick, is openly gay and seems to have this running obsession with being the one to fight Inuyasha, kill him, and what comes after... Well, I don't want to think about hypotheticals that far out. We also get Mukotsu who is a poison master (as well as a very nasty pervert who tried to force Kagome to "marry him"), Renkotsu who apparently likes to play with fire, especially fire breathing, Suikotsu, who's special thing is that he's got multiple personalty disorder and ninja claws, Bankotsu who carries around a really big halberd (which he reclaims from a castle near the end of the season) and Ginkotsu who is...  do I really have to say it? The rest of the group actually sounds somewhat cool aside from Jakotsu. ><; Okay...  fine...  Ginkotsu is...    a medieval cyborg. That's not a joke and apparently he was like that before he died. This is the feudal era right? There are NO CYBORGS in the feudal era. Sure it's a fairy tale, but this still totally blows my mind. I can understand him being a cyborg as an undead, there's actually some precedent that it might be possible within the rules of the universe, but before he died? In the sengoku jidai? We can barely even do stuff that comes close to this in present time with the tech we have now! This is made all the more annoying by the fact that all he seems to say in both voice tracks is "Gash!" The story behind these guys is that ten years ago (Not fifty years ago? Wow, I'm impressed.) they were mercs who were too good at their job so the local warlords got together to kill them and after they were behead they were entombed at the base of Mt Hakurei. Naraku resurrected them to run interference. As a result of their being out of the picture, time has moved on a bit, as has technology which allows for some time travel fin to occur. Some of the Samurai in this season are using flintlock rifles, which the Band finds interesting as they haven't seen them before. Granted, in some ways, this makes Ginkotsu even more ludicrous in his existence because later he's actually turned into an undead tank by Renkotsu. (These guys don't know about rifles but they know about advanced ballistics and circular saws? Takahashi-sama, why did you do this?)

What is it with these people and big weapons?
As a result of this new team of evil, we do get some more character development for Inuyasha as the first encounter with Mukotsu, Renkotsu, and Ginkotsu leaves Kagome, Miroku, and Sango apparently dead (but not quite) which really upsets him, and makes him aggressively more protective of Kagome in later episodes. When Suikotsu first showed up as one of his nicer personalities, he actually made things worse by jumping to the conclusion that the guy was automatically an enemy, understandably because of what had just happened. Meanwhile, Kikyo had also happened on Suikotsu as a kindly doctor (Ironic given what his other personality is) and had been staying with him because she couldn't get to Mount Hakurei because it was too holy and pure for her to tolerate. It seems at this point that the characters are at an impasse and have no choice but to chase the Band of Seven at this point, partly because there is no way to investigate Mount Hakurei without the demons and less pure humans in the party being hurt by the barrier, and partly because there are no leads. So the season ends with little in the way of a finale, unless you count the Band of Seven reclaiming Bankotsu's halberd Banryuu, which is supposed to be significant as he's apparently supposed to be one of the Dragons for the next season. As far as this season is concerned, it continues many of the trends that I had problems with in season 3 as well as the stuff we've seen above. To put it in more mundane terms, if the first couple of seasons were sirloin steak burgers from a nice restaurant in terms of fat to meat ratio with minimal filler, then this season was that gooey meat loaf nobody wants to eat. The plot points and character development are great, when they're there, but when there's so much stuff that doesn't matter, it overpowers the stuff that does which is enough to make even the most ardent fan a little bit fatigued. On the bright side, once we get back to the plot when we reach the Band of Seven things do get moving again, but it takes some stamina to get that far.

We get one new intro theme in this season, "Grip" by Every Little Thing, as well as a couple of new outro themes. "Shinjitsu no Uta" by Do As Infinity is an ending theme I particularly liked, but we also get "Itazura na Kiss" by Day After Tomorrow later in the series. In terms of voice actors we do get a number of new ones to voice the Band of Seven in both the Japanese and English dubs, many with impressive resumes outside of the series. Surprisingly the one with the fewest (non repeating) lines had one of the longest. Kyokotsu's Japanese voice actor, the late Daisuke Gori had a resume going back all the way to 1973 when he narrated for the original Cutie Honey series. He was also the Ox King in Dragon Ball Z and had roles in many other series. We have a few others such as Jakotsu's voice actor, Ai Orisaka who has done voice work for the Detective Conan series (including filling in for Mitsuhiko's regular voice actor at one point), and Mukotsu's voice actor, Testu Inada who is Nappa in Dragon Ball Z. We've also already met Bankotsu's voice actor, Takeshi Kusao, as Cless from Tales of Phantasia and Krad from D.N. Angel. On the English side of things, Renkotsu's voice actor Brian Drummond has had a number of notable roles including Vegeta in the Ocean Dragon Ball Z dub, and Allen Schezar in The Vision of Escaflowne, and of course, we just ran into Matt Hill, Bankotsu's voice actor as Kira Yamato in Mobile Suit Gundam SEED. Things have gotten a little tedious, but I hope things will speed up in season 5. In the mean time, take care everyone. See you next time.

Images taken from Inuyasha.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Fun with Japanese: The Language of Battle

What's a shonen anime without a good fight?
Some of the most awesome sequences in anime are connected to combat. We also get alternately, some of the best, and the corniest dialog, depending on the skill level of the translator, as well as the level of seriousness of the work. Whichever way a cartoon slides, especially if it's a shonen work, you're going to get some battle phrases. That's right folks, it's that time again. Today we're looking at five common Japanese words and phrases that show up on the battlefields of anime. Whether you're watching Soul Eater (pictured here), or one of the various Gundam series, these will probably come up often. So dig out your dictionaries that lets get started.

Mue la Flagga, doing what he does best,
throwing insults and being a badass. ^^
この やろう!
Kono yarou!

This is basically the Japanese version of "You bastard!", though alternately, it can also mean "Take this!" You'll see it practically everywhere and is translated in a number of ways depending on the speaker and the level of maturity of the perceived audience. There are a couple of scenarios where is can be used. It can be used when someone has been beaten down by an opponent and is cursing them out, or it can also be used as a power yell, or just when hurling generic insults or expressing frustration. Naturally, when there's an annoying mobile suit flying around you trying to shoot you down is another time you will probably here this, and that is exactly what's going on with Mue La Flagga in this scene from Mobile Suit Gundam SEED.

Before the fans attack me for doing Sasuke
a disservice by not showing all of his face,
I'm telling you, it looked like that to begin with.

This is a derivative of the verb "Yaru." When it comes to ruder situations such as fights, characters will throw around variations of this verb all over the place. In this instance however, it is being used to literally mean "Go for it!" or "Do it!" Naturally this would suggest that it is commonly used in situations where there's a team battle going down and someone just came up with a crazy idea. Either that or the leader is just giving out orders, as Kakashi is doing with Sasuke in this shot here from Naruto.

Sorry Renji, but any genre savvy person knows that if someone
who isn't the hero says this, you can almost guarantee
the speaker will end up getting creamed.
Ore ha anata wo taosu!

It pretty much means what it says. Literally "I will throw you down", or "I will beat you down." It's often translated as "I will beat you!" or "I will defeat you!" Sometimes it is shortened "taosu!", depending on how much the speaker cares about proper grammar, but the meaning is pretty obvious. Someone is about to at least attempt to open a can of whoop-ass on someone else. Whether or not this succeeds has more to do with the context, but generally success can be determined by a couple of factors, like how close you are to the hero (if you're his best bud and this is a shonen anime you are almost guaranteed to be in trouble because how else is he gonna save you?) In this case, Renji from the anime Bleach is definitely putting up a good fight, but unfortunately, Byakkuya trumps his epicness.

"Kisama ga this!" "Kisama ga that!"
It's a good thing their mother's aren't here to listen.

This is probably one of the rudest things you can call someone, literally, it means "You!" but it carries the additional inflection often attributed to "Damn you!" (as well as some of the nastier phrases where the speaker is cursing someone out). It is used for both forms about equally, and will also often be used in sentences where less impolite pronouns are used in order to inject a whole lot more vitriol. For instance, in this scene from Inuyasha, the title character and his brother Sesshomaru trade this pronoun between each other quite a lot. It clearly shows how much they dislike each other.

The dub translated this line as "Enough" but however you do it,
when you hear this, the talking is officially over, at least for the time being.

Literally, this means "Noisy!" although most often it is translated as "Shut up!" or "Be quiet!" depending on the context of the scenario. Perhaps the opponent was talking trash, or maybe just telling him the reason why there's no way in hell he's going to win. However the conversation went, this usually ends it as the speaker decides it's time to do less talking and more fighting. Such a situation occurs in this scene from Rurouni Kenshin where Kenshin was just trying to talk Sanosuke down from fighting him and Sano wanted none of that. He probably should have listened.

And that's our five phrases. See you next week folks!

Images taken from Bleach, Inuyasha, Mobile Suit Gundam SEED, Naruto, Rurouni Kenshin, and Soul Eater 

Monday, May 9, 2011

Mobile Suit Gundam Seed Season 2

Due to the fact that we're reviewing this show in two parts, there may be a spoiler or two in this review. Read at your own risk, you have been warned.

Welcome back for the second half of our review. For those of you who just joined us and want to know what the first half was like, you may still be able to find the review for the first season at the bottom of the page, or if you're tuning in a little later, I've got a link here that will take you directly to it. As with all our reviews you can also find both of these by clicking on the link on the list to your right and a little below some of the other fun gadgets on the page. So we don't forget, Mobile Suit Gundam SEED was produced by Sunrise and is licensed in the United States by Bandai Entertainment. One last thing before we start. I have tried hard to keep the spelling constant for names, but I have found so many alternate spellings for some of these it's hard to keep track. So hang onto your space helmets, the the battle between the Coordinators and the Naturals continues now.

What could be more metaphorical than a fence for these two?
I shouldn't have to explain why.
So, when we last left our heroes, Kira and the rest of the gang aboard the Archangel had just barely made it into the territory of the country of Orb after a brutal fire-fight with ZAFT forces. Thanks to Cagalli (who happens to be the daughter of the leader of Orb) being with them, they are able to enter Orb's territorial waters without being blown to smithereens. They are subsequently granted shelter at the facilities for Morgenroete (the military contracting firm that designed the Gundams in the first place) and are allowed to rest and regroup. Meanwhile Athrun and his pilot comrades sneak into Orb on recon in order to figure out if the Archangel is still there. So how do we move back into the plot? Do we jump back into the action by immediately seeing what happens with Athrun and his posse, or perhaps seeing some character development as the Archangel's crew decides what they'll do next in order to get to Alaska? Well, we do get to that eventually, but not before two whole episodes of extended recap, (Oh joy...) where we basically go over everything that has happened from the moment the shooting started at Heliopolis! That includes the stuff I just told you about. But after this, it is discovered that Morgenroete wants Kira to design a new operating system for the Gundams they are building so that naturals (normal humans) can use them just as easily as coordinators can. During this period of recovery and info-exchanges, the parents of some of the kids from Heliopolis come to visit with them at the facility, but Kira stays with Fllay because he has work and he's not ready to talk to them just yet. He also ends up meeting Athrun when his robotic bird Torii (which has been used so far as a metaphor for his friendship with Athrun) flies off and Athrun returns it through a fence near the facility. Not a lot is said but it is a very solemn meeting as the two know that the time will come when they will have to fight again. Eventually, the Archangel has to leave Orb (with Cagalli staying behind) and make the final journey towards Alaska wherein they continue to be hounded by ZAFT.

The Earth Forces top brass, as they plot on how best to deal
 with the embarrassment of having one of their ships being
protected by a coordinator.
The former half of the series spent a considerable amount of time introducing the expansive cast that has been assembled and showing who they are affiliated with and how. But now that we're in the second season, we spend a lot more time exploring what the characters do with their circumstances. Tolle, Kira's friend changes his position from a bridge hand to a jet pilot (the plane is called a skygrasper actually), and is soon killed in action. Nicol, one of the ZAFT Gundam pilots also meets his end around the same time and these two deaths result in a major face-off between Kira and Athrun who are both angered by the losses. Both Gundams are totally destroyed in the ensuing fight leaving both Athrun and Kira missing in action. Dearka (one of Athrun's comrades) is also taken prisoner after his Gundam is rendered unable to move. Athrun is eventually found by the people from Orb, while Kira is found by a new character by the name of Father Malchio who subsequently sends him to be cared for by Lacus Clyne in the PLANTs (the space stations the coordinators live on in case you forgot). However, things continue to move as the Archangel finally makes it to Alaska. It turns out that the Earth Alliance's remaining commanders have plans to move their fleet to Panama and in a ploy to strip the Archangel of it's preferred crew members they assign Flay, Mue la Flagga, and Natarle Badgiruel to other positions, leaving the rest of the crew to help defend the base in Alaska, however, in a sickening twist it turns out that they are aware of an impending attack on the base by ZAFT and are planning to use the remaining personnel as decoys to lure them in so that they can decimate their forces by blowing up the base. If it so happens that the Archangel's connection to Kira (the Earth Forces have been co-opted by Blue Cosmos by now and they really hate coordinators meaning it's a major embarrassment that the Archangel used one) is obscured by the loss of the ship he was connected to, the officers in charge don't seem to mind.

The ZGMF-X10A Freedom: Otherwise known as
Kira's sweet new ride, courtesy of Lacus Clyne.
Meanwhile Athrun is returned to ZAFT, emotionally conflicted by the experience of apparently killing his friend, while Kira recovers with Lacus as he faces the same sort of turmoil. Eventually he decides that he needs to go back and Lacus, being somewhat unhappy with the war situation as it stands, gives him a new Gundam, called the Freedom to fly back in. This gets her in a lot of trouble with ZAFT, naturally, but it allows him to pull the Archangel's fat out of the fire, though not before Fllay is captured by Rau le Crueze and taken prisoner by ZAFT, Mue returns to the Archangel of his own accord, and the base in Alaska is blown to pieces. Athrun also gets a spiffy new Gundam called the Justice, which his father sends him out in to go chase after the Freedom, but while he's back home, he is confronted by Lacus who tells him Kira is alive and gives him some interesting food for thought. Eventually, he does reconnect with Kira and the Archangel at the battle for Orb, and they discuss the situation. This final reunion will eventually result in the Three Ships Alliance, a neutral alliance between one ZAFT ship (piloted by the not-quite-dead-as-we-thought Desert Tiger, Andrew Watfeld after he and Lacus use it to shoot their way out of the PLANTs), one Earth Alliance ship (the Archangel under Ramius) and one Orb vessel (belonging to Cagalli and one of Orb's chief officers) using their combined military strength to end the war.

What she goes through in the second half of this series is more
than punishment enough for what she did in the first half.
Some may even consider it overkill...
I have been very impressed with the way the characters have developed over this particular story arc. Kira has become a much stronger character since the beginning of season two, and there have been some fascinating plot twists associated with his past and his current state of affairs as he has become more of his own man and has developed a relationship with Lacus. Athrun has gone through his fair share of storm and stress as well, and his internal conflict caused by the various factors affecting his life is very well played out too. Even the minor characters receive very high marks for development as they have become much more three dimensional in the subsequent episodes of this season. For instance, Miri and Tolle, whom I had not paid a lot of attention to previously suddenly became very important to the story (though I have to admit it felt a little bit contrived that Tolle died so soon after Nicol did, almost as an afterthought so that Kira would have a reason to lose his head and go after Athrun in his last fight using the Strike without reservations). It makes things interesting when Miri finds herself face to face with Dearka (the guy who surrendered) as it allows him to rethink his reasons for fighting and eventually convinces him to join the Three Ships Alliance as well, but not before a large amount of storm and stress. Sai becomes more of the stabilizing influence within Kira's shipboard nakama as Miri's pain over losing Tolle overshadows her previous position in that role. Mue la Flagga and Murrue Ramius, are clearly in love with each other by this point and even Natarle get's some really awesome moments especially when she resurfaces near the end. However, the character I am the most impressed with, and this might surprise you given how harshly I talked about her during the last season, was Fllay, and here's why. She goes through some pretty harrowing experiences as Rau le Crueze kidnaps her, holds her prisoner, and then uses her as a courier when he eventually lets her go. During that time, she learns what the other side looks like and it broadens her perspective on the whole hating coordinators thing. Eventually she even attempts to redeem herself later in the series. It is safe to say that I no longer believe her alignment is lawful evil. You did some awful things, but I forgive you Flay.

Rau le Creuze can breath in...   bad atmosphere!
Okay seriously, how is the atmosphere in this space station breathable?
No one has lived here in years, and sure there is atmosphere,
but unmaintained, there's no way the air could be safe to breath.
I don't even want to think about what's in those clouds.
We also get a few new antagonists this season, in the form of Muruta Azreal, the head of Blue Cosmos and a major leader for the Earth Alliance, and his team of Gundam pilots, who happen to be psychotic drug addicts. Naturally, they are scary to fight, but I can only imagine how scarily efficient they'd be if Azreal had decided he didn't need to control them with drugs. Of course, this is not to mean that the old antagonists don't still get time to shine. The Earth Alliance definitely becomes quite antagonistic after the Archangel flees Alaska because they weren't supposed to leave their post, but Patrick Zala, Athrun's father is also stirring up trouble, and le Creuze is still out there being a major enigmatic pain in the bum. He's also got some interesting secrets related to Kira and Mue, which he reveals to them at an old space station near the end of the series. I'm not going to tell you what they are, but it is a pretty awesome sequence, and will leave you at the edge of your seat. I do wish they would have shown his face though. Mue actually shot his mask off during that encounter, but we didn't even get to see it! ><

Don't write him off just because when he gets the Strike,
he's getting a hand-me-down. The most efficient way
to express Mue la Flagga is this simple formula:
Mue=Awesome. That's all you need to know.
Naturally, with all of these antagonists there's going to be plenty of fights. Oh yes, there are plenty of those, and all of them are epic. Many of them are very well put together and I only had trouble figuring out what was going on once. Naturally, as Kira and Athrun move on to better machines when they get the Freedom and the Justice, some of the other characters get a couple of promotions. For one, Cagalli is permitted to fly a new gundam called the Strike Rouge, which happens to be pink (which suddenly had me noticing how color coded many of the other girl's costumes are). Mue la Flagga also gets the original Strike. Even if some of the fights were formulaic, I found myself wanting to cheer a lot more in this season as the characters had their success, and was a lot more willing to let myself worry when things started going wrong. Like for instance, when the ability to use nukes was reintroduced in the picture. Things got really ugly. I would go into detail about how ugly, but I don't want to ruin it. As far as the ending is concerned, I am more than satisfied as the show goes off with an Earth-shattering finale. It's safe to say some people don't make it. I'm not naming names, but it will leave you on the edge of your seat. Technically, the show ends at episode 50, however, there is a short ova that is often considered episode 51 even though it's only a few minutes long which shows what happened to everybody and serves as a nice little epilogue to give some extra closure.

Athrun in the Justice as he's about to open a
can of whoop-ass on some unfortunate Earthers.
Though we start sliding slightly up the scale of idealism as we head towards the end of the show, it doesn't necessarily leave you with all the answers, except perhaps that you need to fight for what you believe you need to protect. As I got closer I was worried that it would come across as an anti-war piece or perhaps a straight up work arguing against nuclear weapons, but was I relieved to find that the writers weren't approaching the story with too heavy handed an approach though it can get a bit bogged down in questioning itself. It's a very serious piece with little comedy relief, but the drama is very well done for the most part. On the flip side though, the series does continue some of the negative trends it started in the first season, like it's tendency to waste entire episodes in flashbacks. And also, Lacus continues to sing the same song from season one whenever we get to certain points in the plot. It's totally unnecessary. I like her character, generally, couldn't she have had a little more variety in her repertoire? Oh well, that's just my opinion. I also found it a little hard to believe how fast Kira ended up with Lacus at her place in the PLANT's. I mean, how fast do those rocket ships go? They don't seem to be going at light speed and those giant space stations are at least farther out than the Moon (which would take our current space ships about three days), so how is it that he gets rushed to Lacus (by a blind man who doesn't know him from Akira by the way) in what seems like a day or so at the very least? I mean, if they were inside the  Moon's orbit we would have been able to see Earth from there right? Oh well, that's a mystery for another time. It could be they just skipped a few days without telling us.

When it comes to presentation, a lot of the stuff I said about the first season remains constant. As we go through this season there are two more opening themes used, "Believe" and "Realize" which are both by Nami Tamaki. We also get two more ending themes, "River" by Tatsuya Ishii, and "Find the Way" by Mika Nakashima. I didn't care for them as much as I like "Invoke" or "Anna ni Issho Datta no Ni" but "Find the Way" has a sweet melody and does provide a nice soft exit from the otherwise very intense latter part of the series. We also have a few new notable voice actors joining the cast such as Nobuyuki Hiyama (Hiei in Yu-yu Hakusho) as Muruta Azreal, and singer Shunichi Miyamoto (who did "Byakuya True Light" for D.N. Angel), as Shani Andras, one of the drug addict Gundam pilots under Azreal's command. Surprisingly in the English dub, we get Andrew Francis (Dilandau from Visions of Escaflowne) doing Azreal. However, from what I've heard of the English track, some of the minor characters don't really sound all that convincing. For that reason, it may be better to stick with the Japanese track if you can. There's too much in the English track that just sounds like some of the actors are just reading their lines rather than acting them. It just feels kind of wooden. The ambient music is less noticeable early on, but once you get into the heavy combat sequences it can range from soaring image songs and theme-song echoes, to some very appropriate and epic orchestral scores, especially with the space battles.  In terms of how the whole series measures up, in spite of the flashback issues and the singing issues, I give it a very favorable rating. The story is good, the characters are interesting even if they have to grow on you a little in some cases, the world is detailed, and the plot is like an exciting roller-coaster even if it does have it's moments of calm. Check it out some time if you get the chance. Even if you aren't a hard-core Gundam fan, it's worth a watch. And that's the tiger's two cents.

Images taken from Mobile Suit Gundam SEED.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Dangerous Characters: Michiko Malandro

It's the first Monday of the month, so we've got another Dangerous Character to introduce, and boy do we have a crazy one. This lady broke out of prison to find the child of the man she loved, and fought her way through police, gangs and who knows what else to get both of them to him. If cornered, she'll fight like a tiger and never takes no for an answer. So allow me to introduce one of the scariest stiletto-wearing beauties in all of anime. Let's give it up for Michiko Malandro from the series Michiko to Hatchin.

When we reviewed Michiko to Hatchin I was impressed by the tenacity with which Michiko carried herself. Granted she's done a lot of terrible things. She's killed gang members, injured cops, and heaven help you if you get in her way (she will make you hurt...   a lot), but that's the kind of tenacity that lands you here. When you aren't afraid to drive mopeds through windows, break out of prison, take police detectives hostage, and fight with gang leaders on their home turf, you're one tough cookie. of course, in the environs she inhabits (a mysterious nonexistent country in South America) you really have to be tough especially if you want to stand up to homicidal maniacs like Satoshi Batista. Thankfully, she does have a somewhat calming influence in the guise of her young companion Hatchin, but if you catch her alone, you're in trouble. So if you happen to find yourself south of the equator, you better hope you don't end up in Michiko's way. If you do, well, I feel sorry for you.

Image taken from Michiko to Hatchin.