Article: Why I stopped watching Cross Ange

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Cross Ange: Tenshi to Ryuu no Rondo is probably one of the most controversial anime series of recent seasons & one that more than a few readers have called on me to comment upon (mainly asking why I haven’t condemned it like I did Kenzen Robo Daimidaler).

The 1st few episodes of the series is all about extreme dehumanisation through violence, degradation, sexual assault & humiliation & turning a joy-filled girl into a terrified non-entity & eventually an effective killing machine.

This is all done through the worst forms of visual denigration seen outside of BDSM hentai media. In that basically the titular heroine, Ange, is beaten, stripped, abused, molested, pseudo-raped, near (lesbian raped), degraded, deprived & humiliated until all that remains of the once happy is mistrustful sociopath who is only looking to survive & get revenge on all those who destroyed who she once was.

The reason that I didn’t condemn this series like I previously (& briefly) did with the aforementioned Kenzen Robo Daimidaler) is that all the degradation has a narrative context. It exists for a purpose outside of the titillation of the (majority male) audience. That does not mean that I liked or approved of it but I understood why such acts were within the story. I did not forgive or tolerate Cross Ange for that, more like I endured it. I put up with all the nasty Fan Service & brutality because it seemed to be leading to a point of character & narrative development & had shown that dehumanisation within context shows how terribly people can be transformed &/or destroyed.

And then the series committed the Cardinal Sin of entertainment: it bored me.

At some point, all the development suddenly stopped & Ange was stuck as this angry, untrustful, violent creature who constantly had Tusk (the male love interest) constantly falling into her crotch for comic effect or otherwise getting sexually entangled with her. The Fan Service (in the form of revealing clothes, hinted nudity & lesbianism) dragged on & got worse & the plot just got itself tangled up after they began to (finally) reveal what’s going on within the narrative universe.

This is actually the least extreme example of Fan Service that I could find
This is actually the least extreme example of Fan Service that I could find

The basic conceit of the series is that humans live in a Utopia where “The Light of Mana” fuels everything & grants people magical abilities. There is no war or poverty but it all comes at a price. For within society there are women who can’t use The Light of Mana, called Norma (taken from the word ‘normal’) & there very touch actively destroys any magical field. They are scapegoated by the rest of society, degraded & hated as being violent creatures who wish to destroy the world. So as soon as they are found, they are taken from their families & removed from the world. Naturally, Ange (formerly Angelise), being the ruling princess hates them, so is in denial when it’s revealed that she’s secretly a Norma & her parents have been keeping that fact a secret from not only the kingdom but from Ange herself.

After her father is deposed for hiding the secret & her mother is killed trying to protect her, Ange is taken to the Norma prison, where she is molested, sexually assaulted & humiliated by the commanding officer of the Normas & told that she must fight the DRAGONS or die.

All the Normas are put into transforming mecha units to fight dragon-like creatures, for which they get a bounty for each confirmed killed to use on whatever they want to buy within the prison. Having never committed an act of violence before, Ange is terrified of being thrown into such a situation & her cowardice costs her team several lives. Being humiliated & isolated by the other Norma girls, Ange rebuilds herself as a vicious killer in order to humiliate those who humiliated her & eventually gain her revenge.

This character arc changes after a few episodes, when Ange begins to accept that she’s a Norma & that Normas aren’t as she was taught growing up. Being a Norma is a self-fulfilling prophecy, in that they can only become violent & anti-social because that’s what society turns them into. They are the weapons in a war that the rest of humanity is completely unaware of & one that means they can keep using their precious Mana-imbued powers.

Once they start revealing the nature of the Norma, the history of the world & the truth behind the DRAGON attacks, things start to get muddled & vexing in a form.

You’re presented with all this info as to why you’re meant to see how the dehumanisation of the Norma occurred but Ange remains a basically unlikeable & selfish character that you find it hard to support her when all of her actions are contradicting others & she keeps denying information presented to her even when the facts are to her benefit.

That becomes the problem when dealing with a narrative around dehumanisation.

It’s exceptionally easy to break a person down but it’s next to impossible to rebuild them again from that point.

I feel that’s the major problem with Ange as a character and with the series as a whole.

After spending the 1st half dozen episodes ripping Ange apart -mentally & physically- they don’t really try to rebuild her as anything other than angry & mistrustful.

I didn’t want her to return to normal, not being any mental, emotional or physical scars -because trauma is inescapable- but I did want to see her develop into someone who takes their pain, their scars & their hatred & channels into into a positive force for others.

Maybe it does go that way, I won’t know because I lost any & all engagement with it around episode 16, when they crossed over into the ‘real’ world & the truth of the DRAGONS was revealed.

From this point on, I could bang on & on about the extremeness of the hypersexualisation within the series or how the Fan Service was so blatant that it became numbing but that would be pointless. That dead horse has been flogged so long it’s not a bloody pulp beneath my mighty boots (guessing no one will get those references).

I might come back to this when they release the blu-ray version but unlike considering the back catalogue I still have to watch (over 2 terabytes on computer & dozens of DVDs/BDs).

So, lessons to take from this: dehumanisation is OK if it has narrative context & purpose & isn’t glorified in any way, shape or form; don’t bore the audience or they won’t go with you to the conclusion.

Oh, & don’t bother messaging me with your butthurt over how I didn’t like this series when I did or how you feel that it’s nothing like I depicted with the dehumanisation & so forth because I will ignore you. If you try to defend your masturbation material in the series like others have with other series I dislike, I will insult you until I get bored.

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From Harem to Humanist – Anime Critique: Sword Art Online II

Sword_Art_Online_II_Promotional_PosterTitle: Sword Art Online II
Format: TV anime
Genre: sci-fi, fantasy, cyberpunk, action, drama, harem
Series Creator: Reki Kawahara
Series Director: Tomohiko Ito
Studio:  A-1 Pictures
Series length: 24 episodes
Original Airing dates: July 5 – December 20, 2014
Reviewed format: high def download with fan subs


Synopsis:

After putting an end to the SAO incident in 2024 and rescuing Asuna in Alfheim Online (ALO), Kazuto Kirigaya finally returned to the real world to resume a normal life with his friends once more. However, when a string of deaths begin occurring in connection to a virtual reality game called “Gun Gale Online” (GGO), Kikuoka Seijiro of the Ministry of Internal Affairs enlists Kazuto to once again don his character “Kirito” and enter the virtual world to investigate the cause of the deaths. While meeting new allies, Kirito may be faced with his most dangerous challenge yet—a player known only as “Death Gun” with the ability to kill a person in the real world by killing their virtual avatar.”


Critique:

After watching the 1st 14 episode story arc, I was really worried about the direction Sword Art Online was going with its 2nd much anticipated season. I was worried that it would be nothing but annoying fan service & further building of a harem around a twat (Kirito) to rebuff the slightly yandere women who flock around him in favour of the one whom he truly loves (Asuna). The 2nd (mini) arc didn’t improve my feelings about the series because it did nothing & went nowhere in the grand scheme of things but the 3rd arc was what truly changed my opinion on the season. Bringing to the fore the complex emotions that the 1st arc had struggled with between the cleavage & box shots.

In the lower centre-left we can see a typical Box Shot in full effect. One that may become a Camel Toe.
In the lower centre-left we can see a typical Box Shot in full effect. One that may become a Camel Toe.

I’ve always wavered with Sword Art Online -through its 1st season & the fan-translated Light Novels – because it so quickly goes from awesome action, exciting tension & emotional outcomes to kinda drab design, boring situations & infuriating levels of fan service. The 1st arc of this 2nd season pushed both of these extremes by trying to blend hyper-kinetic action with a sniper’s paitence & dealing with psychological issues like PTSD with very unsubtle use of the Male Gaze.

The 1st arc (episdoes 1-14), also known as the Death Gun Arc, truly is a mixed bag but one that ended with more of the cheap sweets than the party favourites for me.

The primary focus of the Death Gun arc is Kirito & new character Sinon coming to terms with taking human life -with Kirito having killed several people whilst trapped in Aincrad (1st season, 1st arc) & Sinon for shooting a bank robber with his own gun when she was a child, which has turned into an extreme form of Hoplophobia that her classmates use to bully her with.

Sinon looking both cute & like a potential disempowered victim.
Sinon looking both cute & like a potential disempowered victim.

Basically, if she sees a gun or a gun-like object (even people holding their fingers up like a gun) she has an extreme panic attack https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panic_attack to the point of almost collapsing. In order to overcome this trauma, her classmate Kyoji (who has an unrestrained boner for her), suggests that she joins up with the Virtual Reality MMORPG Gun Gail Online (GGO for short) which uses virtual representations of real world guns within it (instead of the fantasy weapons of other games).

This brings up a few issues for me right away. The 1st being that why would her fellow students bully her over her trauma if they knew it was linked to her actually killing someone? Surely if people knew that she gets panic attacks from even the sight of a fake weapon, they’d have been told why that is, surely? The stigma of murderer or even accidentally causing a death is heavy in countries like Japan, so rumours would’ve followed Sinon like a stench. So, surely if others got wind of it, they’d avoid her as much as possible out of fear she’d go & murder them.

The other issue I have comes from the ret-conning of Kirito to having killed more people & suffering psychological trauma from repressing those memories. My issue with this is that he was pretty willing to kill in the 1st season in order to save those whom he cared about (because if you died in SAO you died in real life) & was happy to slaughter the virtual constructs of real people in ALO (1st season, 2nd arc) yet entering GGO & being confronted by someone who might be a VR ghost from SAO (Death Gun), Kirito is suddenly shaken to his core over his past actions.

Now, I’m all for a protagonist actually suffering psychological effects from their previous actions but they still have to make sense in context. It’s pointless to throw them up so long after the character’s been established just to add a new layer. It reeks of laziness & trying to shift a new focus that could’ve easily been done before or with another character.

Kirito’s trauma exists for two reasons: the 1st is to bond with Sinon & get him to win her over as an ally, as well as have her overcome her own trauma; the 2nd is up the tension with the antagonist Death Gun -who, in my view, is frankly completely uninteresting.

The reason for this in my view is twofold: the 1st being that there is too much build up to Death Gun being a threat without actually showing you what kind of threat he represents. It’s the classic issue of “Telling not Showing”. We’re told that Death Gun’s presence is enough to shake the usually unflappable Kirito but because Death Gun hints at some connection to Laughing Coffin (the murder guild from SAO I) he’s shaken to his core because it reminds him that he killed 3 or 4 members of them out of self-defence (or the defence of others). There is no real hint of Death Gun having skills that can rival Kirito’s until the end of the arc & then it’s all technobabble & Pop-Psychology jargon. The 2nd reason is that I already knew who & what Death Gun was from reading the original Light Novel.

Which in & of itself is a problem. Not the foreknowledge but the fact that they didn’t attempt to twist it around. Even the twists & revelations as to who Death Gun is & how he could commit murders in real life comes with no real sense of threat or menace. It’s just built up & then partially enacted after Kirito & Asuna (who is watching the live feed of the GGO tournament Kirito & Sinon are in) figure out the real world connection to their 2 years trapped in SAO.

Death Guns’ basic motivation is being unable to readjust to the real world from the virtual -especially after they took part in so many real life murders from that virtual space- but shifts to being acknowledged by Kirito because their own existence was never truly recognised by anyone in the real world. The means & methods of their murders are interesting but lose utter impact when so casually deduced by Sinon & Kirito whilst they are still in game. Again, this all comes back to the issue of being Told & not Shown. We are TOLD throughout the arc that Death Gun is a serious threat, both within & without the virtual world but once the rules of their murders are established, all threat is gone. This is primarily because unlike the very 1st SAO arc, there is no threat to life until Death Guns’ criteria are met so any fear of them is left as a narrative conceit rather than a genuine danger.

As fearsome as Death Gun gets really.

This is an inherent problem when dealing with a series based around a virtual world where people’s consciousnesses are projected into a computer generated avatar. When you have a lack of threat to a physical body, the risk that a character incurs has no emotional impact upon the viewer because there is no consequence upon the character. SAO I addressed this fairly well by having that if your virtual self died, the Nerve Gear system that creates the virtual experience fries the users brain, killing their real body. The 2nd arc of SAO I as well as the 2nd series negate this threat by having everything only virtual but try to have Death Gun seem like a creditable threat to one’s own mortality. Yet his comes off as clumsy & al threat is diminished once Death Gun’s MO is established.

This lack of tension combined with the Pop Psych version of mental trauma really detracts from the positives of the 1st arc -which include incredibly well rendered action & beautiful animation- but what true destroyed it was the blatant fan service & my usual bugbear: hypersexualisation.

Behold: the butt cleavage of Sinon! Plus her other design parts.

Sinon is the typical victim of this, as she wears very tiny shorts that shows a lot of butt cleavage & the camera tends to linger in sicken Box Shots (my term of camera focussing on the female pubic mount -AKA the Box). This really destroys any attempt to build Sinon as a round character with a sense of power & agency of her own. It also doesn’t help that every time she tries takes a step forward towards self-empowerment she’s dragged back to being physically, emotionally & almost sexually dependent on Kirito to find her strength rather than develop her own sense of self, using her admiration for Kirito as something to build upon. It also doesn’t help that Kirito’s in game avatar is exceptionally pretty with long hair, so I confused for being a girl -especially by Sinon when they randomly encounter outside of the combat zone for the first time. The problem with that part of the arc is that instead of using it to address typical gender roles online, Kirito embraces some of the worst aspects men pretending to be women in games so he’ll be let off easily in a MMORPG that he’s entirely new to.

The only saving grace of this whole arc is the resolution of Sinon’s issues. After she discovers who Death Gun is in real life & is confronted by them, she resolves to make herself better. Kirito, Asuna & the others from the ALO guild help with this & Sinon is introduced to the woman she incidentally save when she killed the robber & the woman’s daughter, whom she was pregnant with at the time of the incident. Sinon realises that her actions had positive consequences & vows to forgive herself, moving on with her life bit by bit but also dealing with those who bully her by showing her resolve in facing them. That she no longer has to be saved, that she can stand on her own two feet to be strong.

Naturally, she still wants Kirito’s cock, which puts her in mild conflict with the rest of the harem but this is basically resolved in the 2nd mini-arc.

To be honest, I’m not even really going to talk about the 2nd arc Excalibur (eps 15-17). It’s basically filler where the characters are stressed about something that only threatens their virtual worlds. There is no real world consequences or issues at hand. Just an excuse for action & some lame humour.

The 3rd arc (eps 18-24) is the saving grace of the entire season & marked an incredible turning point & maturity for the franchise as a whole.
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The arc -referred to as “Mother’s Rosario”- focuses primary on Asuna, who I find a bit more of an interesting character. Unfortunately in the 2nd arc of the first season, she was reduced to a basic Damsel In Distress who feel victim to some tentacles (which made me scream at the telly) but the 1st arc of that season really fleshed her out as a character. Talking about her background with all the stress & expectations that her rich family put on her as well as her inability to decompress herself -which is why she delved into the VR MMORPs.

The SAO II’s 3rd arc is a continuation of these; where Asuna is being pressured by her strict, over-achieving to leave the school she attends with the other SAO survivors who need to catch up on the 2 years that they missed with their education. Naturally Asuna is opposed to this because of her love of Kirito & wanting to do something for herself but she can’t say no to her forceful mother.

Lamenting the life they had lost in SAO, with the private house she owned with Kirito & lived in with their adopted computer program daughter Yui (long story), Asuna is told that a replica of that zone from SAO will be part of the next ALO update. Her guildmates vow to help her get her precious place back & once she has secured the house for herself, Kirito & Yui, she’s told by a guildmate about a mysterious player called Zekken (Absolute Sword) who is challenging other players to duels. Zekkan is supposedly so good that they defeated the previously undefeated Kirito. Asuna wonders if Zekkan could be another SAO survivor but Kirito dismisses this by saying if they were, they would’ve beaten the game, not him.
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To Asuna’s surprise, Zekkan is actually a young girl named Yuuki, who is looking for someone strong enough to help her guild -The Sleeping Knights- defeat a high level boss with only a few players (because boss raids typically require dozens of players to win) so they can leave their mark on the Player Monument & be remembered into the future.

Asuna proves her worth & joins The Sleeping Knights but, even though they are friendly, they keep her at arms length. She proves herself of them by helping them (with Kirito & guildmate Klein’s assistance) get past a large raid guild who used the info the Sleeping Knights acquired to try & defeat the boss themselves before anyone else can. After bonding in combat, Asuna is dismayed that she’s rejected by the others in the guild because they’ll be disbanding soon but isn’t told why. After accidentally calling her “onee-chan“) (sister), Yuuki freaks out & leaves the game before Asuna can do anything.

The reason for this distancing even though they had all become close during their time on the raid forms the emotional crux of the 3rd arc & of the entire franchise as a whole.

Each member of the Sleeping Knights suffer from various life threatening diseases -such as leukemia & other forms of cancer. They are set to disband because many fear that they won’t live past the coming Summer & want their last memories together to be joyous ones, where they leave their mark on the virtual world because they can no longer do the same with the physical one.

Yuuki has it worse of the entire, being in the late stages of an anti-viral resistant strain of HIV/AIDS  that she acquired in utero & has spent the past 3 years inside of a virtual reality machine in order to placate her increasing pain.

Yuuki's real world form, willing trapped in a machine as her life fades away.
Yuuki’s real world form, willing trapped in a machine as her life fades away.

She pushes Asuna away, thinking that she wouldn’t want to be with someone who’s dying as well as to spare her the pain of dealing with her inevitable death. Yet Asuna refuses to be cast aside from someone she grew found of (being an only child from an emotionally fractured family & all), so she helps Yuuki reach out to the outside world via a machine that Kirito was developing for Yui to use.

This allows Yuuki to return to school, even if she’s just a disembodied voice through a small camera lense, but quickly finds Asuna’s class (all SAO survivors) supportive of her, same with the teaching staff. Being on Asuna’s shoulder also allows Yuuki to find some closure in the real world, such as with her old family home which has become abandoned (the rest of her family all having died of AIDS related illnesses).

Her time with Yuuki & seeing how she faces her own fragile mortality gives Asuna the strength to finally talk to her mother, putting her own cases forward to why she should be allowed to make her own choices. Especially in regards to being put into an arranged married (the last one with an utter psycho who kept her trapped in the virtual world in SAO I’s 2nd arc) & going to a prestigious university simply because it will make her parents look good.

This can of growth seems more natural & fleshed out then simply having Asuna grow through violence. Her connection with & emotionally attachment to Yuuki is nuanced & exists upon multiple levels (despite what the hentai arts depict on various websites); showing genuine sisterly affection & connection between two people who thought that they would never be able to find a bond with anyone due to their respective lives. Whilst the arc is still action driven, it takes a comfortable backseat to the emotional journey of the characters. This driver is found to be much more satisfying then the emotional exploitation of trauma in the 1st arc because it acts as a catharsis for anyone who has suffered a linger loss. Whereas trauma is usual specific to the individual & hard to get across in a realistic fashion without being manipulative, grief & loss are universal, things that everyone experiences in their lives no matter who they are, where or how they live. Death is the only thing that truly unites all of humanity across the Gulf of Time & this is something that the “Mother’s Rosario” arc expresses truly well. In fact, I’m finding it difficult to write this part now, because I got the news today (21/01/2015) that a dear friend of mine died suddenly & I never got the chance to say farewell -such is the all-encompassing nature of grief.

The true emotional kick to it all comes with Yuuki’s final moment.

Seriously, it’s nigh impossible to make me cry -be it with stuff in real life or the manipulation of fiction- but I was genuinely fighting back the tears as I watched Yuuki’s end.

She had resolved to die alone but being able to touch Asuna’s hand gave her the courage to enter the virtual world one last time so they could say their farewells face to face. With her life fading, Yuuki is not only comfortable by Asuna but her friends from the Sleeping Nights, members of Asuna’s guild & a 1,000 representatives of all of the players in ALO who acknowledge that Yuuki was the strongest player who ever way & that she would always be remembered.

At Yuuki’s funeral, Asuna meets with one of the members of the Sleeping Knights, who’s friendship with & admiration for Yuuki helped her overcome her leukemia & strive to live her life to the fullest. A vow that Asuna also makes in order to achieve her own happiness & do all the things that Yuuki could not in her short but impactful life. This is because Yuuki always questioned why she was born if she was cursed from birth to die horrible from her disease. Yet she comes to see that the meaning of her life was to be able to make the connections that she did & live the life that she had, even if it was brief & almost entirely virtual, because being able to meet people such as Asuna give not only her own life meaning but brought meaning to those around her, who found the strength to carry on through just knowing Yuuki where they would otherwise have given up to their so-called fates.

The final twist of the series comes from the fact that the technology that prolonged Yuuki’s life & helped her find its meaning came from the same man who trapped hundreds of people in SAO for his own experiment -Akihiko Kayaba. This deepens the question as to what where his true intentions with the events within SAO for 2 years as well as the future of the virtual world (as well as leaving things open for the Underworld Arc in a few years time).

Ultimately, by ending the 2nd season with Asuna & Yuuki’s emotional journey together, the director & production team more than made up for all of their missteps during the 1st two arcs. It was great to see an anime treat someone suffering from such a terrible disease with true dignity & humanity -something which so many forms of media fail to do without going entirely po-faced or resorting to extreme emotional manipulation. The rarity of both the subject taken serious in any media as well as the respect for the characters suffering becomes entirely uplifting, even inspiring to a degree.

It was really a surprise from a season that started with the basis of harems & fan service to be able to soar so high & hit so hard with their last 6 episodes is truly fantastic. I hope it serves as an example to any future series that you can have a story that is both emotional & positive in its negative resolution because the subject is handled with dignity & compassion. I’m glad that I stuck with it all to the end & you will be too, even if you struggle with the early stages. The reward for seeing the season to its resolution goes beyond words; it’s just something that you have to experience for yourself. So I hope that you do.

Final moments filled with utterly love. Truly tear inspiring.
Final moments filled with utterly love. Truly tear inspiring.

Transformatively amusing – Gugure! Kokkuri-san

65665Title: Gugure! Kokkuri-san
Format: TV series
Genre: comedy, supernatural
Series Creator: Midori Endo
Series Director: Yoshimasa Hiraike
Studio: TMS Entertainment
Series length: 12 episodes
Original Airing dates: October 5 – December 21, 2014
Reviewed format: high def with fan subs


Synopsis:

Kohina Ichimatsu is an expressionless elementary school girl who lives alone, proclaims herself to be a doll, and eats nothing but instant noodles. One day, she plays the Kokkuri game by herself and summons the fox spirit Kokkuri-san who, upon seeing her unhealthy lifestyle, takes it upon himself to become her guardian and raise her properly. Thus starts Kohina’s new life of being haunted by various unique spirits.


Critique:

Once again, this year has proven that the best anime have been 4koma adaptations, such as Gekkan Shōjo Nozaki-kun, & now Gugure! Kokkuri-san stands a top the list of the best anime series of 2014.

The premise is simple but clever but also tricks you into thinking that it’s going to be worse -in terms of hypersexualisation & fan service- than it really is. Whilst it does rely on a bit of both, it actually twists it around a fair bit into very humorous scenarios. This is seen especially when the titular Kokkuri first appears, panting & flushed when accidentally summoned by Kohina. This is meant to make that think that Kokkuri is a stalking pervert who’s been waiting for the lonely Kohina to summon him so he can devour her, body & soul. Where, in fact, he’s been following her around because of her odd behaviour & habit of referring to herself as a doll, which turns him into her over-protective, yet doting, guardian, who only wants to correct her strangeness so she can have a happy life.
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Unfortunately, due to Kokkuri’s neat-freak & overly controlling nature, this means that he basically becomes a housewife -cooking every meal so Kohina won’t eat nothing but Cup Ramen & cleaning because Kohina doesn’t concern herself with looking after her huge yet strangely empty house.

Like all great 4koma adaptations, the humour is mainly derived from the various characters & their interactions with & reactions to each other. Kokkuri & Kohina more up the core of the series, with much of the perspective being from their point of view, but the ensemble cast is also utterly brilliant -even if they do bring in many of them late in the series.

The other great strength of the 4kmoa format is quick fire & running gags, which Gugure! Kokkuri-san does exceptionally well by being able to hark back to a joke in an earlier episode without making it seem like it’s just telling the same joke again & again like other (mainly American series) tend to do.

The one problem in talking about the jokes themselves & what makes so them funny &/or clever is that it’s like a child dissecting a frog: you don’t really learn anything & the frog dies.

What does make the jokes work however is how they are tailored or based around the various personality quirks & habits of the various characters, with the narrator often adding a little stinging tail to it all at the end.

Such as with the titular Kokkuri, who as mentioned before acts like an overprotective guardian and housewife but he is also exceptionally vain, demanding & prone to hysterics when overwhelmed by various situations or other characters. This often means that other characters, such as the sadistic Inugami, go out of their way to torment Kokkuri over his appearance (such as looking older) or getting him so worked up that his temper explodes & or he goes into an emotional melt down.

The other strong running gag in the series is Kohina’s claims that she’s not human but rather a doll. She talks in a semi-staccato almost robotic tone (another running gag is her getting dolls & robots confused & Kokkuri having to point it out). She is also incapable of smiling; whenever she tries to force a smile her face collapses, terrifying everyone around her. Only when something genuinely makes her happy -such as Kokkuri assuring her that he’ll always be by her side- is she able to show genuine emotion & her depiction changes from a stripped down semi-chibi form to a beautifully animated character.
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Kohina’s other running gag is her utter addiction to Cup Ramen (the instant noodles that you cook in the bowl-like container by pouring hot water into it); doing anything in order to collect rare types or eat them without Kokkuri finding out. This usually means some mischievous on her part, such as goading one of the others in the house into distracting Kokkuri. Her desire to eat & obtain Cup Ramen shows a certain moral flexibility on her part but she’s a good girl deep down.

The most interesting aspect of the series though the gender fluidity of the characters. That is: how some of the characters can switch their genders at will. This is one of Inugami’s primary traits, since he/she’s a dog spirit who can’t remember their own gender when they died, so even though he primary has a male form, he changes to a female one whenever the mood takes him. Kokkuri, also being a spirit, has this ability but refuses to use it because he’s a pretty woman who’s good at housework, everyone wants to marry him. Unfortunately, he’s transformed into a woman because of a spell he found in Kohina’s family store house (one basically designed to mess with people). The humour of this situation is that they keep asking him how it feels to be a woman but he still retains his vanity from his male form, so he sticks with is usual beautification routines, but it also explores some ideas of male-female interactions & emotions.

The fem-Kokkuri that laughed a million hentai comics
The fem-Kokkuri that laughed a million hentai comics

There are also random side characters that are constantly drawn to Kohina & Kokkuri’s life. Which include the aforementioned gender-swapping sadistic dog spirit Inugami -who is utterly devoted to Kohina after a single act of kindness during his original life as an abandoned puppy; yet he’ll destroy or torment all who aren’t Kohina, especially Kokkuri who thinks Inugami is a demented pervert trying to seduce a child. They are joined by the shiftless tanuki (racoon dog) spirit Shigaraki, a NEET who was Kokkuri’s former roommate who is after a free place to live -targeting Kohina because she owned a large house but was unaware that Kokkuri already was living there. Shigaraki has a habit of bringing bad luck to houses he dwells in but this is actually from his stealing money to go gambling with, yet he has a soft side, as he often uses his winning to support the orphanage where the children of the homes he destroyed ended up. More whacky characters enter the mix later in the show, such as the doll obsessed cat spirit Tama who keeps stalking & trying to steal Kohina because she believes her to be a possessed doll.

Whilst this show is incredibly funny there are a few let downs & annoyances. Aside from a bit of random fan service, which isn’t so bad compared to other shows, you don’t get any sense of Kohina’s personal history or backstory. Especially she’s living all alone in such a huge house & why she wants to believe that she’s a doll so she doesn’t have to engage in normal human interaction. This is vexing because even if you have Kokkuri’s reasons for wanting to look after Kohina, you don’t know how/why she’s abandoned in the 1st place, which means that you’re still at a distance with the character. The ending is also left open, so there is no resolution for the characters & backstories outside of a token effort to conclude things.

After those few negatives, I’d like to end with one other great positive & that’s how cute the entire series is. Each of the animal spirits has a chibi animal form, with Kokkuri turning into a fluffy golden fox & Inugami turning into a tiny wittle purple dog in a suit! So Kawaiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!!!!

cough

At any rate, even if I can’t really talk about the jokes, I can strongly recommend this series as something that is painfully funny to watch as well as being very clever in it’s visual gags. It’s a great series to watch if you are feeling low & just want to see something utterly silly to cheer you up.

fafuru fafuru!!!
fafuru fafuru!!!

Still not a way to sell your TCG – Anime Critique: selector spread WIXOSS

i0O4dk7WbjjtATitle: Selector Spread WIXOSS (selector spread WIXOSS)
Format: TV series
Genre: shojo, magic girl, fantasy, drama, trading card game adaptation, psychological, horror
Series Director: Takuya Sato
Studio: J.C. Staff
Series length: 12 epsides
Original Airing dates: October 4 – December 20, 2014
Reviewed format: high def download


Synopsis:

Tama betrayed Ruko by not granting her wish & has vanished, to be replaced by Iona -whose wish was to become the LRIG for the most powerful Selector in the world. Feeling broken, Ruko & friends try to escape the Selector Battles but find themselves still trapped within them -both by Ulith, in Iona’s former body & Mayu, the mysterious girl behind the Selector Battles. Can Ruko overcome her fate & be reunited with her beloved Tama or will despair consume all?


Critique:

The first series of WIXOSS (selector infected WIXOSS) was surprising brutal, filled with dark & tragic themes, incest & forbidden love, despair & faint glimmers of hope that could be crushed like fleeting embers under heavy boots. The 2nd season of WIXOSS continues with these themes but doesn’t merely rehash them without going anywhere. It uses the previous series as a stepping stone to new ideas, dark themes & finding resolution. It seeks to answer many of the questions & plot threads left over in the 1st season but, in the end, it still fails to sell the Trading Card Game that it’s based upon.

That, in & of itself, shouldn’t be an issue but, ostensibly, this series is designed to promote & sell the Trading Card Game. Whilst this season does explore the rules a little more, it is still focussed on the Maho Shojo (Magical Girl) aspects as well as the tragedy & despair of having your one heart’s desire denied to you.

This series is emotionally heavy & fairly brutal in what happens to the characters mentally & physically. Whereas the 1st season dealt with what it meant to be reach your goal only to have it ripped from you, the 2nd season focuses more on aspects of isolation, need, connection & struggling through negativity.

Before I move into an overview of this season, I have to make mention something that I found a bit uncomfortable to deal with -that being the victimisation, degradation & abuse of young girls.

Ever since Maho Shojo Madoka Magika brought it to public popularity again, the Magical Girl genre has returned to the physical & psychological torment of the mid-90’s. This was something that Dr Susan J Napier touched on in her 1997 work Vampires, Psychic Girls, Flying Women and Sailor Scouts & is to do with turning the Shojo into a representation of Japan in a time of economic & social crisis; one that has to be protected & saved but only after they are being physically or psychologically tormented. This is meant to stir the populace into feelings that society can be saved & redeemed, but only after it has suffered & been purged. This was a fairly common trope within the 90’s, during the bursting of the Economic Bubble, where confidence in the nation, national identity & worth of self was crushed because the traits of superiorism no longer worked when unemployment was high & the country was afflicted by natural disasters like the Kobe Earthquake -which crippled a financial centre of the country. With recent repeats of such natural & economic disasters, it is only naturally that the media will turn introspective about the ills of society (such as with Psycho Pass) or create a catharsis with which to release feelings of unease -into which the Selector WIXOSS and other similar Magical Girl series falls into.

Within this aside, I would like to make another aside.

That is, during such times we may flinch at young female characters enduring hardships, abuse & physical/psychological trauma but we don’t bat an eye when it happens to young male characters. This can be endless argued about trope & gender roles, which is a book unto itself but we have to actually address what is an ongoing cultural & social reflection of gender roles in a very rigid & role-enforced nation like Japan.

In such series as WIXOSS, the female characters much struggle & suffer in order to find empowerment at the end to overcome what afflicts them. But they are only empowered to resume the female roles that Japanese society dictates to them. They must remain cute, loving, emotionally open, accepting & so forth but they must remain women. Women who will never lead companies, join the Diet or have a role in the national spotlight unless they are an actress, idol or pornstar. Whereas when young male characters suffer & overcome they are empowered to become leaders or heroes. They can become anyone with power & authority -even if they happen to die. Their suffering is so they can overcome & conquer, whereas as female suffering is a cleansing for the ills of the world.
RBdEoSo
That being written though, the Selector WIXOSS series does something different with their cleansing meta-narrative.

The resolution does remain that everyone shall be reunited in friendship & find strength in that connection -which is the theme of almost all Magical Girl narratives- but Selector Infected WIXOSS & Selector Spread WIXOSS serve to point out a cancer within female interactions. A cancer manifest within jealousy, petty rivalry, victimisation & extreme bullying that is part of a scapegoating/victim mentality culture.

A health dose of random lesbianism. Nothing wrong with that.
A health dose of random lesbianism. Nothing wrong with that.

This is represented through 3 characters: Akira, who delights in tormenting the weak to achieve her desire; Mayu, who wishes revenge against the world; & Ulith, who is a natural born sadist who delights in the utter suffering of other girls.

In this, they work in concert, with one using the others to reach her own ends yet it is not as simple as that.

This is expressed through Akira, whose entire sense of self-worth is shattered after she loses her 3rd Selector Battle in the 1st season. This left her scarred down her face, after being attacked by a deranged fan, & her psyche fractured. Her entire identity being based upon her beauty & using that beauty to manipulate others means that she can no longer hide the ugliness that is within her -on that feeds on the misery of those whom she deems weaker than herself. With this exposed, she spirals into destructive depression, locking herself in her room because she thinks that all her value, as a model/object of beauty, & her life’s purpose -destroying Iona because of how she was born into ease & privilege- are gone.

That is when Ulith, now in possession of Iona’s body (now that Iona is Ruko’s LRIG avatar), gives Akira back her beauty (through the use of make up) & a new purpose -to expose the ugliness in other girls before crushing them. In exchange, Ulith promises to give Akira utterly love, devotion & attention but only if she can fulfil her promise to obey her commands & show the ugliness within her that takes such pleasure in tearing down others.

Naturally, Ulith is only doing this for 2 selfish reasons.

The 1st is because she needs to fulfil Iona’s wish to find powerful challengers for her & Ruko, otherwise she’ll be ripped from Iona’s body & basically destroyed (a punishment any LRIG faces if they fail to fulfil their former Selector’s wish). The 2nd is for the simple factor that she’s a pure sadist, who gets basically sexual pleasure out of destroying things -especially other girls.

Ulith’s background is covered well. In that she was a human girl who took pleasure in physically torturing & tormenting other creatures & people until she was caught & punished for hurting a classmate. From then on, she developed techniques to create extreme psychological distresses, eventually pushing some girls to suicide. Her ultimate wish is to be transformed from human to LRIG & back to human again so she can keep on destroying lives & inflicting misery in whichever form she can. She is basically using Akira to achieve these goals but doesn’t understand the limits of what someone as unstable as can do to get the love & affection that she thinks she deserves -since Ulith is leading her on with sexual & emotional promises of belonging & contentment. Even so, such setbacks down stop Ulith from trying to spread misery & malice around her.

To this end, she’s aided by Maya, whose backstory is flesh out in this series.

Without giving too much away, she was a girl who suffered from profound physical & emotional isolation due to an unnamed illness. Meaning that she never go to socialise with other children or even go outside. Her family withheld any positive emotional reinforcement from her, simply leaving her with games & toys rather than affection -almost wishing she would die so she’d no longer be a burden on them. When she’s handed a deck of WIXOSS cards, she has no one to play with, so she creates to alter-egos -a Girl of Light (Shiro) & a Girl of Darkness (Kuro)- to play the game for her. This fundamentally shows her spiral into madness but it also somehow grants her magical powers to affect the lives of any other girls who play the game in the outside world. Sending out Shiro & Kuro, she begins the Selector Battles to twist & destroy the wishes of others, so they can suffer the isolation & deprivation that she did.

It’s all dark & very twisted but ultimately is a brilliant summation for what is a truly terrible cancer at the heart of all societies throughout history. That is: that those who feel isolated & abandoned will find some way to get revenge on that society -which is pretty much how ISIL & #GamerGate got started (same with any terrorist group really & yes, I did just call #GamerGate a bunch of terrorists).

The series also (re)introduces as characters who are key to the unfolding of the events behind the Selector Battles, such as the former LRIG Fumio & her LRIG Anne, who both wish to escape the Selector Cycle so Fumio can restore the original Fumio to her human form so she can live her dreams of being an author. Unfortunately, they aren’t used much in the full series but are supposed to have time in the spin-off manga.

The other characters who get more screen time is the hyperactive but delusional klutz Chiyori & her old country woman accented LRIG, Eldora. Chiyori’s wish is to turn into a LRIG so she can experience what it’s like to have magical powers & have a life like the novels that Fumio (above) wrote. This is mainly because before she encountered Eldora, she was a friendless introvert who spent all of her time in her imagination because she was to painfully shy to connect with anyone. The main trio of heroines -Ruko, Yuzuki & Hitomi- don’t want her to experience the hardship of what it means to both win & lose battles, to suffer at Maya’s whim, but Eldora, for all of her fighting with Chiyori, would rather give herself up than to see the hyper little girl suffer -wanting her to be free & who she really is rather than adopting a personality as an escape from the real world. A world where she can make friends with the central trio & have a happy life.

Chiyori: Innocent or brain damaged? You decide!
Chiyori: Innocent or brain damaged? You decide!

It’s this notion of self-sacrifice that surrounds Ruko’s core conviction to free & restore everyone caught up within the Selector Battles. This is pushed by discovering the truth behind Tama & Iona’s origins. As well as Maya granting Ulith the use of Tama as a personal LRIG with which to make Ruko truly suffer.

This is something that I genuinely found disturbing, more than some of the other inflictions of malice within the series.

Where Ruko can fill her LRIGs (Tama & eventually Iona) with the power of light & love, making them evolve beyond normal limits; Ulith can force all of her vileness into Tama, transforming her into a twisted version of herself who delights in destruction.

The horror at the heart
The horror at the heart

The concept of corruption is what is disturbing but the fact it takes on such a sexualised connotation that is.

Ulith basically rapes Tama; forcing her will, her inner darkness into the innocent (& fairly mentally deficient) girl. The dialogue & reaction of Tama plays it out like a rape, going on about Ulith “entering her”. This is combined with Tama’s shrill voice to terribly effect. It really left me uncomfortable & alarmed but I sense that was the entire intention of such scenes. To show what happens when someone uses their power to utterly violate another human being. Fittingly, Ulith finds a hubris filled end that echoes the countless physical & emotional violations but even for such a vile creature, it was a little too much & too unexpected but plays into the idea of some people being utterly unredeemable.

Again, this hooks into the disturbing trend of making female characters suffer that I mentioned in the 1st few paragraphs of the review but it bares repeating -especially since we have other series such as Yuki Yuna wa Yusha de Aru. This is a series that I couldn’t finish watching because of a lack of decent subs but the basic rub of it is that the female characters -all a form of Magical Girl- are made to suffer when they use their powers to protect a God Tree -which in turn feeds of their suffering & creates a cycle of producing new Magical Girls to sustain itself through their sacrifices. This is just one part of a continued & disturbing trend that girls must suffer horrendous things in order to be granted a chance of peace & love. A theme echoed in several recent Shojo series, especially the utterly abhorrent Amnesia game/anime series from a few years ago -which saw the heroine killed again & again, as well as suffering other emotional & physical tortures for no real reason in each episode of that terrible series (yes, I watched it all because it was like a fucking train wreck).

Anyway, back to the critique.

Visually, the series remains a mixed bag.

With some very dark & intentionally murky -such as the battle grounds- mixed with some bright & vivid cityscapes. The animation itself is fluid, able to shift scale & action well. The use of primary colours for characters as well as the varied designs of the LRIGs is very well down; if a tad sexual at a times. Still, the designs are both unique & referencing other cultural markers as well tropes.

wixoss-10

In the end, if you can get past a lot of the emotional & physical trauma within the series, it is a rewarding end & answer to the first arc. It has a lot going for it, with many subtle messages about the ills of modern society -especially in regards to how girls treat each other as well as how the poisonous nature of some people can be overcome with an unwavering heart & the determination of self sacrifice for a positive end. Even if you can’t achieve such goals, having the support of those whom you love & care about to carry you through is enough for you to see a resolution that benefits the many rather than giving up yourself to cease your own isolation & discontent.

A smile to end the darkness
A smile to end the darkness

Oh, the title’s a pun! – Anime Critique: Psycho Pass 2

PsychoPassvol1Title: Psycho Pass 2 (Psycho Pass 2nd season)
Format: TV series
Genre: sci-fi, dystopian, cyberpunk
Series Director: Naoyoshi Shiotani
Studio: Production I.G
Series length: 11 episodes
Original Airing dates: October 10 – December 18, 2014
Reviewed format: High def download with fansubs


Synopsis:

Little time has passed since the Shogo Incident & Enforcer Kogami’s disappearance before a new incident has Unit 1 of the Public Safety Bureau’s Criminal Investigation Division scrambling for answers. Criminals are able to commit the most brutal crimes without affecting their Psycho Pass -the measurement for judging everything. Inspector Akame Tsunemori, now head of Unit 1, must guide her rookie detective, Mika Shimotsuki, and two new enforcers to find the criminal mastermind that no one, not even the ever present Sybil System, believes exists.


Critique:

To begin with: this series should’ve been much longer. It never had the time to develop & play with it’s new ideas & characters. If it was allowed to be a run of 24 episodes, it wouldn’t feel so much like Season 1.5 than a fresh 2nd season, despite the new things that it brings.

The original season of Psycho Pass appeared pretty much out of nowhere & took many people by surprise with its interesting take on a dystopian future where Thought Crimes are the Evil of the Day.

The conceit of the series is in the year 2113, in the unnamed city (which is pretty much Tokyo) citizens’ psychological levels are routinely & constantly cymatically scanned to measure their base stress, stability & “Crime Coefficient” levels -also referred to as a Psycho Pass (oh, what a clever pun!). If anyone goes above the thresholds for these is deemed a criminal & arrested for rehabilitation or, if their numbers are too high to return to normal, routinely executed by other an Investigator or an Enforcer -who is a criminal who can’t be rehabilitated but has skills useful to the system. The rub being that such a conforming system itself is a constant generator of stress & instability, so much of the population is either seriously medicated or practising various forms of Cognitive Dissonance in order not to notice the horrible things in front of them. This creates a world that, upon the surface, seems like a twisted mix of Ghost in the Shell and Brave New World.

Central to this narrative dystopia is Tsunemori Akane, an Inspector for Public Safety Bureau. She’s matured greatly since the events of the 1st season, now able to delegate tasks to her unit’s Enforcer’s based upon their personal talents as well as be able to understand the minds & motivations of criminals without being affected by them. This is the true conceit of Akane, in that she always maintains a clear Psycho Pass no matter what she is exposed to but still doesn’t let her judgement become clouded. She is also the only person to know the secret of the Sybil System, in that it is a collection of the greatest criminal minds the city has ever known who are sustain to judge the rest of the city because they are the only ones who can understand the criminal mentality.
Akane2
Akane is one of my favourite female characters in a long time, because she is not only given her own sense of agency within the narrative but she is never portrayed as or treated like a victim. It was a conscious effort on the part of the series creators not to sexualise or victimise her in any fashion as part of their Anti-Moe agenda (which is why there are more half naked men in the series than women). Of course, bad things happen to Akane over the course of both seasons but they are used as points of development to make her stronger, better, more competent. & she’s not just a Mary Sue either. She has her faults, lacks confidence to mack difficult choices, is still emotionally dependant on the memory of Kogami to help her make difficult choices (she lights his brand of cigarettes in her room so she can remember his scent) & is prone to moments of weakness. Yet all this serves to make her a more rounded & realistic character in a fantastical narrative.

Unfortunately, this development isn’t extended to the new characters, especially the antagonists.
kamui-shisui-psycho-pass
The main antagonist is Kamui Kirato, a strange figure whom the Sybil System is unable to recognise. At first, you may think that this is just a rehash of Makishima Shogo character from the 1st season, who couldn’t be judged by Sybil or the Dominators (the weapons that the Public Safety Bureau use to incapacitate or kill criminals) but they actually, & smartly, make the two characters completely different. Kirato can’t be recognised by the Sybil System at all, his existence is anathema to it, thus he cannot be judged because he cannot be seen. The reasons for this & for his attacks on the Sybil System as well as the Public Safety Bureau (who are the hands of the Sybil System) are very interesting & pretty original but ultimately underdeveloped.

Likewise is the other antagonist, Togane Sakuya, an Enforcer assigned to Unit 1 with a dark history. Rated as having the highest Crime Coefficient every recorded & is known for tainting the Hue (how Psycho Passes are rated) of every Inspector he’s ever worked with. He has an obsession with Akane & her near absolute purity of Hue &, again, the reasons why are fascinating but wasted because of the brevity of the series.

& that becomes the crux of the entire series: amazing, fairly original ideas ultimately hampered but the lack of space to develop & mature. I don’t know the reasons why they went with an 11 episode season & I’m far too lazy to bother trawling through forums, websites & Tumblr to find out why. It’s exceptionally vexing to see so many cool ideas stunted because they just don’t have the room to grow.
psycho-pass_2-600x305
On the positive side, the series is still exceptionally beautifully animated. The glowing neons of this future-scape shine through, as does how the holographic technologies acting as shields from reality. The visual-scapes of Psycho Pass have always been incredibly interesting, rich & filled with a wealth of details. The series producers said that they were heavily inspired by films such as Blade Runner & Minority Report, which shines through in the neon-billboard heavy design. The way that holograms are integrated into everyday life is also interesting. Allowing people to turn their tiny apartments into anything that they can imagine, as well as changing their clothing (when at home) & cars almost at will (for the Investigators activating the police mode on their vehicles).

Another brilliant aspect of the series is the opening theme Enigmatic Feeling by alt-rock group Ling Tosite Sigure (the lead singer of which performed the opening track from Tokyo Ghoul). This track alone will surely put the band on international music radars, with it’s complex layering & tortured multi-singer vocals.

In the end, unfortunate, this season just isn’t really developed enough to fully enjoy -despite all the brilliant ideas, plot twists & designs.

What I would recommend though is binge watching both series together, so you see how ideas & characters develop together. This way you can truly appreciate the intentions & ideas within.

Psycho-PassIIcharacters

A Delicate Balancing Act- Anime Critique: Akame ga Kiru!

Title: Akame ga Kiru! (Akame ga Kill! Akame Slashes!)
Format: TV anime
Genre: Shonen, fantasy, action, pseudo-harem, gore
Series Creators: Takahiro & Tetsuya Tashiro
Series Director: Kobayashi Tomoki
Studio: White Fox
Series length: 24 episodes
Original Airing dates: July 6, 2014 – December 14, 2014
Reviewed format: high def download with fan subs

Manga cover
Manga cover

Synopsis:

Tatsumi is a fighter who, accompanied by his two childhood friends, sets off to the Capital in search of a way to make money to assist his poverty-stricken village. After being separated from his friends, Tatsumi not only fails to enlist in the army, but is swindled out of all his money. He is then taken in by a noble family who offer him help, but intend to torture and kill him, just like they did with his friends and dozens of other people. Tatsumi is rescued by a group of assassins known as Night Raid; who are also part of the revolutionary forces assembled to overthrow Prime Minister Honest, who manipulates the young emperor for his and his men’s personal gain, leading the rest of the nation to poverty and strife.


Critique:

In my view, Akame ga Kiru! is one of those rare series that takes established genre tropes and not only subverts to a degree but comfortable balances them with other common & uncommon elements -such as humour, emotion, fan service & extreme (& I do mean extreme) violence.

This delicate balancing act is the key strength to the series -but it is also its greatest weakness to a degree- as it takes many of the ideas of your typical Shonen narrative -such as ideas of justice, self-empowerment, overcoming more powerful opponents through strength of will & ignoring powerful female characters- and skews them into something basically other to the narrative norm.
Akame-ga-Kill
Primary to this is the central protagonist, Tatsumi, who seems like your typical Shonen manga hero. In that he is idealistic, naive & stubborn in his beliefs. The way that he is set up in the beginning, as a teenager coming to the capital to meet up with his two best friends so they can make enough money to save their village which lies along the farthest boards of the empire. Even though he is rejected for the army, swindled & exposed to the corruption of the capital, he maintains his naive idealism & is eventually taken in by a young noble woman who promises to help him find his friends and get into the army with her father’s connections. When the noble girl and her family are targeted by the assassins, Night Raid, Tatsumi does his upmost to protect the girl he believes to be his saviour -even going blade to blade against the titular Akame- but when it is revealed that the girl and her family tortured & killed his friends for their own sadistic pleasure, he shows no hesitation in being the one to kill her where she stands.

This juxtaposition of being naive morality and responding to the harshness of reality is what makes Tatsumi -& the series as a whole- interesting. Because even though he wishes to be moral, freeing the citizens of the empire from the corrupt tyranny of the manipulative Prime Minister -ironically named Honest- he is aware of the practicalities of achieving this. He accepts that he must become a murderer -even if the people killed are the worst humanity has to offer- but he does not let such darkness cloud that what he does is for an ultimate good. Yet a good that must always come at an exceptionally high price as people will suffer & die, even if you have the power to stop it.

The majority of the characters are also subversion of the standard genre tropes & cliches -for the most part that is.

They often fall into the typical archetypes that we come to expect -such as the unemotional one, the tsundere, the perv and the homo (how they refer to him in the series)- yet, for the most part, the characters are given context as to why they are like they are and are even given a change for develop, so that they have an arc to journey. What gives another good twisting to convention is that this development is also offered to the major antagonists of the series -the Jaegers- so that they aren’t just cardboard cutouts being bad for the sake of it (for the most part that is).

While Tatsumi is the naive idealist who grows to accept his roll as a killer, he is never shown  having the typical weakness of trying to spare his enemies or get them to see his point of view (such as Emiya in Fate/Stay Night). He grits his sense of mercy against having to do what is right in the situation, even if that means performing a brutal or underhanded act to win. He does gain more strength and power as the series progresses, as well as gathers a kind of harem around him, which are typical of the Shonen genre yet his development is never as clear cut as it would be in a more down the line (cliched) story like Bleach or One Piece. Since the manga is still continuing, the team behind the anime made an exceptionally brave way to resolve Tatsumi’s story arc, which was extremely unexpected & whilst a lot of people will be upset by it, I salute them for such a brave way of ending.

Tatsumi isn’t the only one who undermines standard Shonen characterisation, because his friends & enemies -whilst being cliched or archetypes at time- tend to have fleshed out backgrounds to explain their personality & behaviour.
Akamegakillcast
The titular Akame seems to be the usual taciturn killer obsessed with food but because she was raised solely and brutally as an assassin she lacks social skills and she constantly needs to eat to fuel her incredible abilities; also: despite appearing utterly emotionless, she cares deeply for all of her comrades, even if Tatsumi can’t understand how she does this at first. The sniper Mine (pronounced like mine as in the game Minecraft) seems like your typical tsundere but her emotion and arrogance fuels the power of her Taiga (Relic/Imperial Arms) weapon, Pumpkin, which grows stronger the more trouble its wielder is in -as well as the fact she is a half-blood child, which meant she was ignored & bullied all of her life, so she uses her arrogance to hide her fragility. The lion-like Leone (see pun in name) seems like your typical morally dodgy hedonist, actually swindling Tatsumi out of all of his money when he arrived in the Capital, but she has an exceptionally deep sense of loyalty to her friends & believes in personally punishing those who commit the most wicked sins upon the innocent -acting both as Night Raid’s spy & powerhouse in a fight. She also has a softer side, caring for Night Raid, insisting that they all refer to her as “onee-san” (big sister), which Tatsumi dutifully does despite their 1st interaction. Lubbock is seen as your typical amoral pervert who’d do anything to see the female Night Raid members naked but he never lets himself fall for enemy tricks -especially those involving beautiful- because he will do absolutely anything for his beloved commander, Nijenda.

Unfortunately the two remaining characters, Bulat & Sheele don’t really get time to develop but do have interesting backstories.

Bulat at first is shown as the butch homo (the translator’s term for him) with flamboyant hair but he acts like an older brother and mentor to Tatsumi (who refers to him as “aneki”). Despite his pretty boy appearance, he is a powerful fighter who is trying to make amends for the slaughters he committed when he was a soldier in the imperial army. I would’ve liked to have seen him develop much more outside the tender tough guy/queer trope but, alas, media has no issue in killing off homosexuals or deviants.

Sheele isn’t deviant in the traditional sense but she also doesn’t get time to shine. She’s shown as clumsy, airheaded & a tad useless but one of the most brutal killers in the team when armed with her giant scissors (yes, scissors like you do Arts & Crafts with). She claims a neurological condition, a “twisting inside my brain”, makes her useless at everything life but fighting & killing. After saving her best friend from a brutal assault & near rape, she discovers her talent for murder, becoming an assassin before being recruited by Night Raid. Unfortunately she’s turned into a sacrifice to demonstrate the power & brutality of the series’ main antagonists, the Jaegers (German for Hunters even though Germany doesn’t exist within the series).

The Jaegers I find a really interesting set of characters, proving the axiom that for a series to work you must have deep, complex villains who are twisted reflections of the heroes. Each member of the Jaeger is given details on their backgrounds & time to develop on screen, with each not only mirroring Night Raid but also displaying the issues inherent within the corrupt Empire.
The_Jaegers
The Jaeger’s leader is the insanely powerful & brutal General (Shogun) Esdeath, who’s motto is “the strong survive and the weak die”. She also wields one of the most powerful Taiga in the series, the power to manifest ice in any shape or amount from out of nowhere. Her utter brutality lies in stark contrast to how she cares for her subordinates, even if she believes that if any of them die it was because of their inherent weaknesses (also blaming herself for not helping them overcome their weakness). She also wants to know what it is to be in love, falling for an undercover Tatsumi when he won a tournament set up to find her to perfect mate. Her devotion towards him boarders on the Yandere but she is shown to have genuine affection for him, even though he keeps trying to escape her.

The other really interesting members of the Jaegers include the flamethrower using Bols, who hides his face behind a gasmask & comes across as intimidating because of his huge, scarred body. Whereas, in truth, he is a gentle soul who cares for his team members, is a skill cooked & likes being as helpful as he can. He also has a loving wife & daughter but is fully aware of the atrocities that he has committed in the name of bringing peace to the empire -including burning an entire village to ash so to stop the spread of a plague. He knows that he will one day be judged & punished for the crimes that he has committed but that doesn’t stop him from being open & caring for everyone around him -despite his painfully shy nature & dark self awareness.

The other interesting member of the Jaegers is Seryu Ubiquitous but for opposite reasons as Bol. She’s utterly obsessed with justice & with becoming a Hero of Justice like those whom she idealised. Unfortunately those whom she idealised were either murderously corrupted -such as the Capital Guard leader Orge- or dangerously insane like Dr Stylish. Her version of justice is twisted & absolute, with no room for subtlety or reason; so she responses with extreme violence. Often using her dog-like Taiga, Koro, to devour the so-called “evil doers”. Her mentality is further twisted when Sheele severs her limbs at the cost of her own life, making her believe that “good” (herself) will always triumph over the forces of evil (everyone else). Though when she is introduced she is shown as your typical, bumbling & airheaded “ally of justice” type because that is what she believes herself to be. Except her mind is so twisted that even her comrades don’t trust her -especially Wave.

Wave is Tatsumi’s mirror. In that he is also naive & idealistic, believing that he must serve the Empire no matter how twisted it is. Because a righteous heart can heel any wound if they stick to their path. He isn’t entirely stupid, seeing the wrong doings enacted upon the populace -especially by other Jaegers (mainly Seryu)- but he still acts, along with Bol, as their anchor to normality & morality -especially for Kurome, Akame’s mentally-warped younger sister.
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Both Kurome & Akame share many similar traits, such as insatiable appetites & incredible, inhuman fighting skills. Yet whereas Akame feels the burden of all the lives that she has taken, Kurome feels their comfort. More considering that her Taiga, Yatsufusa, can turn anyone it slays into undead puppets. Her sense of being abandoned, stemming from being separated from her sister & experimented on, shows through in the use of her weapon to keep those whom she loved close to her -usually by mercifully ending their lives or murdering them when she thinks that they’ll leave her. Her character arc is minor yet interesting in how she develops outside seeing herself only in relation to her sister, especially when dealing with people as emotionally open & supportive as Wave.

There are heaps of other characters in the series too but in translated many from an on-going manga to a 24 episode series meant that they often appear, are introduced & then killed off without much fanfare.

In fact, there are several aspects & characters from the original manga that are removed or completely changed to fit with the new format but this doesn’t detract from it. I actually like how they were brave to give a solid ending to an continuing narrative rather than leave everything up in the air for a series that may never come (oh, how you betrayed me Horizon In the Middle of Nowhere!). Whilst some may quibble with the ending, I felt that it fitted for the most part but do be prepared to have your heart torn out a little if you’d grown attached to characters.

As well as playing with narratives & tropes, this series is also exceptionally violent. Surprisingly so in fact if you’ve never read the original manga. With blood spumes & dismemberment par for the course. Often shown in unflinching & uncensored fashion (unlike the TV broadcasts of Tokyo Ghoul or Gokukoku no Brynhildr). Yet the series does flinch away from the more sexually violent aspect, such as hints of rape & molestation. This is a positive in my view but it does mean that they cut out one of the best mini-arcs from the manga, where naive girls from the country are brought to the Capital, spoilt for a day before being assaulted & molested then addicted to drugs until they die a brutal death. This segment is important to show how vile the Empire has become & the lengths Night Raid go to in order to dispense their brand of justice.

Yet, as it shies away from aspects of sexual assault & molestation, it still has a lot of blatant Fan Service. Which is many cleavage on display but occasionally taut male muscle for the ladies. The Fan Service is never graphic or ogling, never really lingering or shoving your face in it but it can distract from the overall scene and series. This was also an issue in the manga but felt more satirical there, whereas the anime just has the jugs out on display (although covered up in some aspect).

TITTIES!!! Covered but still titties!
TITTIES!!! Covered but still titties!

The Fan Service and Sexualisation aren’t deal breakers or annoying but they do feel jarring out of place at time.

The fight scenes are often exceptionally well depicted, with fast paced brutal action always centred so you know what’s going on. Unfortunately, it still falls into many annoying Shonen tropes, such as taking time to explain “Special Moves” and attacks as well as every character having a hidden “trump” (turumpu) card ability that they always expound upon during battle. I personally find this trope to be overused & very annoying but the fights themselves are bloody & enjoyable (bloody enjoyable you might say, gauffered laugh).

The series is also beautifully animated, with interesting anachronistic designs that juxtapose our modern with classic fantasy -especially in regards to clothing design. With Tatsumi & Akame both wearing what look like school uniforms. It’s also vividly colourful, using lots of scenery, such cityscapes & nature, but it does look all the same after a while because they reuse the same backgrounds a lot (cash saving measure).

Overall, I thought that this was a brilliant series that translated many of the positive & transgressive aspects of the manga to the TV medium whilst still maintain a delicate balancing act of using & subverting standard tropes & cliches.

Whilst it might not be for everyone, I still found it immensely enjoyable -especially with its tender moments and quick fire humour. Some may not be able to get passed the extreme violence with it’s rivers & fountains of blood or forgive it for killing off characters whom you’ve come to love but stick through it all before casting your judgement -just like I’ve done.

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Again: why did I bother? – Anime Critique: Hitsugi no Chaika ~Avenging Battle~

Title: Hitsugi no Chaika ~Avenging Battle~ (Coffin Princess Chaika: Avenging Battle, Chaika of the Coffin ~Avenging Battle~) [2nd series]
Format: TV anime
Genre: fantasy, action, steampunk, spellpunk
Series Creator:  Ichiro Sakaki
Series Director: Soichi Masui
Studio: Bones
Series length: 10 episodes
Original Airing dates: October 8 – December 10, 2014
Reviewed format: high def download with fansubs

Light novel cover
Light novel cover

Synopsis:

“After the events of the 1st series, Chaika, Toru & their companions are still searching for the remains of Emperor Gaz. But now Chaika is beginning to question her own identity as well as her mission. Spurned on by the mysterious Guy, Chaika leaves Toru & heads to a hidden island to recover the ‘Emperor’s Fortune’ & learn the secrets of her past. Toru, unable to abandon his duty as a saboteur & realising his growing affection for the mysterious girl, sets off the save Chaika from whatever dangers she may face -even if that danger is the truth of her own being.”


Review:

I vaguely recall not being overly found of the 1st season of this series when it screened earlier in the here. In fact, my review of it was rather blunt in my general dislikes of it -especially the unresolved ending- because of its rushed yet dragging narrative, dull visuals & loli fetishisation. In fact, re-reading my original review, I saw how nice & generous I was being towards the series as a whole. No idea why but that’s how it was.

Anyway, now we have a 2nd season of Chaika, which does bring resolution to many dangling plot points & backgrounds but it all feels meaningless in a way. No matter how it all resolves, it still feels both rushed & slow. The pace is broken, the characters flat & uninteresting & motivations as murky as some of the visuals.

What it does have going for it is resolving the mystery of the various Chaika who pop up & why the character Vivi was turned into a half-Chaika at the end of the previous series (at the shock death of her beloved captain who, surprise surprise, isn’t actually dead -yeah, who couldn’t see that coming except for mister thicko over there).

Going to go into SPOILER territory right here & say that our protagonist Chaika Trabant (AKA the White Chaika) isn’t actually the real Chaika. In fact: there never was a real Chaika. They were all orphaned girls programmed with magic & reacting to certain triggers to transform into Chaika. Each pre-programmed with various skills & reasons for wishing to gather Gaz’s remains. This revelation is spread out over the entirety of the series, making it the focus of it, unlike the haphazard “collect the parts” driver from the previous. Of course, Chaika (& Red Chaika) can’t accept this but central Chaika begins to question her reasonings & resolve to see her mission through -which in turn affects Toru’s resolve & motivations.

This should’ve been a big emotion kick & play but since the characters are so poorly rendered, it doesn’t do anything. The twists to whether or not Chaika is actually the REAL Chaika don’t matter in the end.

This is because the characters are so poorly rendered, cliched & two dimensional (aside from the fact they are traditionally animated that is) that nothing that happens to them matters in the end.

Add to the fact that the entire last few episodes of the series are rushed & clumsy because they only had 10 episodes to work with rather than the 12 of the previous series & because the source material is still going. They basically pulled an ending out of their arse but unlike Akame ga Kill! (Akame ga Kiru! -review coming soon), this one feels haphazard, inconsequential & relying on a sudden, stupid case of Apò Mèkhanès Theós using a typically emotive device that evokes no emotions & a boring Good End coda to finish that also does nothing to stir the heart strings because it is entirely riddled with cliché.
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In fact, things that were once interesting become boring with explanation. Primary how magic is created & used within the series. I had complained that they didn’t really go into this in the last season but their explanation for magic & Emperor Gaz’s desire for it just seems so ham-fisted & half explicated that it becomes an entire waste of a plot point. More so with Gaz’s Treasure (also translated as Fortune) being a gundo (magical weapon) that then becomes a useless Apò Mèkhanès Theós is also a waste. Same with Gaz’s ultimate plot & resurrection, how he manipulated almost all events to achieve his goals. It was so all rushed & hand-waved through that I stopped caring.

A lot of the plot seems, again, both rushed & dragging. It had the grand ambition of wanting to philosophise on the ideas of war, human nature & what it means to be true to yourself vs. a task that you are driven to achieve but it just rings so hollow. All of these themes we have seen tackled in much better anime over the decades & it just gets stuck on such basic concepts. Mainly the idea that once someone has tasted war or conflict or been solely designed/trained for it, they cannot live in peace because they cannot change their fundamental nature. I personally find such concepts to be bullshit & utterly demeaning to those who have suffered through conflict & trauma. Saying that they can never find peace or cannot be happy unless they are killing. Some people do get trapped in such mindsets but there are those who can move on -especially when aided by others (such as I have done over the years with people I know with PTSD)

It also has to be mentioned how blandly this show is animated. There are so nice notes in the character design but the scenery & extra details are so fundamentally lacking that they might have well just reused any generic fantasy anime background. The fights are still fairly well done but lacking in excitement. The colour palate is dull, especially the toned down blood splatters.

The only good thing to note is the reduction in Fan Service & the (hyper) sexualisation of the loli-like Chaikas. They still have fetished appearances but so do most of the females in the series. I pretty much chose to ignore it this time around between it becomes “Sky blue, water wet” syndrome (stating the fucking obvious in other words).

In the end, I have no idea why I bothered with the series overall & curse my compulsion to find narrative resolution, even in things that I don’t really like or care for. Can’t recommend. Try the manga & original Light Novel, they actually look good & tell a better story.

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