The Modern Old-Fashion – Anime Critique: Sanzoku no Musume Ronya

Ronia_the_Robber's_Daughter_anime,_promo_imageTitle: Sanzoku no Musume Ronya (Ronja the Robber’s Daughter, Ronia the Robber’s Daughter, Ronja Rövardotter)
Format: TV series
Genre: historical, comedy, drama, family life, light fantasy
Series Creator:  Astrid Lindgren
Series Director: Goro Miyazaki
Studio: Polygon Pictures with assistance from Studio Ghibli
Series length: 26 episodes
Original Airing dates: October 11, 2014 – March 28, 2015
Reviewed format: high def download with fan subs


Synopsis:

Ronja, the only child of a bandit chief, grows up among a clan of robbers living in a castle in the woodlands of early-Medieval Scandinavia. When Ronja grows old enough she ventures into the forest, exploring and discovering its wonders and dangers like the mystical creatures that dwell there. She learns to live in the forest through her own strength, with the occasional rescue by her parents. Ronja’s life begins to change, however, when she happens upon a boy her own age named Birk, who turns out to be the son of the rival clan chief.


Critique:

I am pretty much in two minds over this series but one thing that I am utterly certain about is that is has the worst opening theme I have heard in simply forever. It basically sounds like the themes from the late 70’s anime that I saw as dubbed repeats when I was a kid (in the 80’s). The entire series seems to be harkening back to those early colour anime in terms of it’s art & themes yet doing in such a modernist fashion.

The mish-mash of art styles is what really bothered me about the series.

With the characters being modern cell-shaded CGI & the backgrounds being lovingly hand drawn.

Note the contrast of art styles in Ronja & the background
Note the contrast of art styles in Ronja & the background

It seems that the CGI has bothered a lot of the audience, because people came to the series through the idea that it was entirely a Studio Ghibli production & it would stick to Miyazaki Hayao’s hand drawn styles. I too thought that but knowing it was directed by Miyzaki’s son, Goro (of Tales From Earthsea infamy) I had figured that it Ghibli didn’t have their hand completely within the production once I saw the CGI -which was confirmed by some basic research.

I’ve honestly never cared much for the sort of cell-shaded CGI that they use in anime these days. It really didn’t work in Knights of Sidonia & it only works a little bit better here.

What I think really bothers me is that it can never capture the subtle motions of the mouth & eyes, rendering some expressions way too close to the Uncanny Valley for my liking. Other broader expressions it can do well, but when they try to do delicate or joyous smiles, the faces really look fake & freaky.

In contrast to CGI characters, you have these amazingly details background. The forest is exceptionally beautiful with how they’ve drawn the littlest bit of moss or gotten the mushrooms just right for the season. It must’ve taken so much work to get it looking so good & it truly speaks to the craftmanship that Studio Ghibli is famous for. Part of me really wishes that the entire series was drawn in such detail but then it probably would’ve pushed the production time & cost way out of reach of any return profit.

Ronja & the bandits nightly revels.
Ronja & the bandits nightly revels.

Despite my gripes with the graphics & the opening theme, the series itself is very solid. It’s a tried & true forum, based on a classic Swedish children’s fantasy novel –Ronja Rövardotter by Astrid Lindgren, who is most famous for creating Pippi Longstocking (which she refused to allow Miyazaki Hayao & Takahata Isao to adapt in the 1970’s, possibly because she was xenophobic). The story is genuinely like the European story adaptations that I grew up watching on ABC in the 80’s, but that’s mainly because it is adapting an old story in a very similar way.

The basic themes of it are about over coming preconceived prejudices, maturing & learning that your parents are fallible as well as dealing with the dangers of live al whilst having an adventure. These are the most fundamental staples of any classic children’s story, ones that have been seen in anime from the 1960’s & 70’s hundreds of times but still used to great effect in Sanzoku no Musume Ronya.

The central protagonist of Ronja (also spelt Ronya & Ronia) is smart, fearly & a touch precocious. Utterly spoilt by her father Mattis & his band of robbers for being the only child born to their clan (which I genuinely find strange, since it’s never mentioned why Mattis & his wife Lovis never had or tried to have other children). One the night that she is born, a bolt of lightning strikes Mattis’ fortress, splitting it in two -causing the bandits to abandon the other half. As Ronja grows, she is influenced by her Lovis’ wisdom, Old Pelle’s cunning & Mattis’ hatred of the rival band of robbers led by his former childhood friend, Borka.

In fact, the two rival bands often clash over robbery targets in the forest but whilst Mattis is completely gaga over baby Ronja, Borka also begins to disappear back to his hideout at odd times before robberies -confusing the few in Mattis’ band with wits enough to notice.

As Ronja grows, she’s allowed to explore the forest under certain conditions -such as returning before nightfall- but she’s granted utter freedom whilst she’s outside of the fortress. This often means that she has to deal with the mystical creatures of the forests -such as the beautiful yet evil harpies (face of women, bodies of birds)- relying on nothing but her wits. This all changes when she encounters a boy on the abandoned side of the fortress, who turns out to be Birk Borkason -Borka’s only son, born moments after Ronja was, when the lightning bolt split the fortress in twain. Because she has only learnt about the world from her father & the other robbers, she’s first hateful of Birk, challenging him to contests, but the boy is far more open minded then her yet goes along with her challenges because he’s still pretty smug about things.

The harpies cause many viewers to have the weirdest boners.
The harpies cause many viewers to have the weirdest boners.

From that point on, the relationship between Ronja & Birk becomes the crux of the series. As it goes from hatred to curiousity to kinship & eventually a form of love. The catalysts for how it begins to change is routed in Europe folklore, mixed with some Japanese ideas of what that is. Primarily it’s Ronja almost falling victim to the Other Folk (pretty much elves or fae), who try to spirit her away (a common theme in almost all folklore across the world, probably connected with murderous paedophiles kidnapping children) but Birk holds her back until their spell wares off. Her also helps her against the Harpies of the forest -large eagles with the face of beautiful women but are spitefully & violently jealous of anything prettier or more interesting then them -which is namely Ronja & Birk.

Hey, gurl, I've come to charm your pants off.
Hey, gurl, I’ve come to charm your pants off.

Keeping the traditional folktale elements in the story does really enrich the narrative, because they represent forces beyond the children that they must confront & overcome (or at least watch in wonder). For example there are the owl-like Grey Dwarves, who love to terrorise humans but will run away as soon as they see that the human is not afraid of them. Ronja’s encounter with them & subsequent rescue by her father shows her that no matter how scared she may be, she can’t show it less she begins to panic. They are basic moral lessons that don’t beat the audience over the head but they are still well done for the most part.

The folktale morality also plays into the familial relationships but not in the way that a Christian morality tale would -with the parents always being right & a child suffering until they learn this. In the story, Mattis is a super-strong man child whose emotional reactions are always out of proportion with the situation & his physical reactions always too extreme. He wants Ronja to remain his ever loving little girl but his behaviour means that Ronja sees him as fallible & not a source of childhood pride. Lovis is strong & stoic dealing with this side of her husband, letting Ronja grow at her own pace & make her own mistakes, even if it causes Mattis to have a temper tantrum. Similar, the other bandits are all pretty much over grown men-children, with the exception of Pelle, who is a cunning old trickster who wants a better life for Ronja outside of being forced to become a bandit.

In the end, this a very old fashioned story that is so in the vein of Miyazaki Hayao’s work. In that it has strong female characters, is about maturation & moving away from being the person your parents are combined with accepting those who are different from you or supposed to be your enemies, so you can approach them with friends &, eventually, love. It is not as though Goro is trying to ape his father’s narrative style but rather he is demonstrating the inherent power of this classic, non-agendarised moral style of storytelling. Ronja is empowered but vulnerable, only able to grow but realising that she can rely on other people. It’s also about the fallibility of parents, in that they are not an absolute authority who must be followed unquestioningly (maybe Goro is working out his own paternal issues with that). Rather they make mistakes & can do great harm -even if unintentionally- because they are human & prone to misjudgement & overbourne emotion.

Whilst the series does drag at points & the CGI animation does detract, it’s still the perfect series for a family to watch. It’s great entry level anime & am I’m surprised that the English dub hasn’t been rushed forward. For every misstep the show makes, it amends in other ways. If you are craving an anime that isn’t about sexy superpowered ninja cyborg magical girls fighting angelic demons who transform into foxes (all the anime cliches!), then I highly recommend this series.

the moe factor in CGI
the moe factor in CGI

Revenge is cute – anime critique: Shirobako

Shirobako_Promotional_PosterTitle: Shirobako
Format: tv anime
Genre: slice of life, satire, comedy, drama
Series Director: Tsutomu Mizushima
Studio: Warner Entertainment Japan P.A.Works
Series length: 24
Original Airing dates: October 9, 2014 – March 26, 2015
Reviewed format: high def download with fan subs


Synopsis:

The story follows a group of five best friends, Aoi Miyamori, Ema Yasuhara, Shizuka Sakaki, Misa Todo, and Midori Imai, who all go into the anime industry after their experiences in the animation club of their high school. The series depicts the daily troubles and hardships the five experience in their respective jobs, as well as their efforts to overcome them, largely focusing on Aoi and her fellow staff at animation studio Musashino Animation as they work on two anime television series.


Critique:

Whoever wrote & created this series was doing three things:

1: show a fanciful yet realistic depiction of what goes into creating anime by showing the drama, tension & creative issues behind the scenes of an animation studio.

2: pack in as many references to their favourite series, creators, directors & artists as they could by altering their names & general depictions but still letting the audience know who & what they are talking about.

& 3: getting revenge on people by depicting various characters as incompetent idiots or selfish, lazy or generally scumbags. Truly, the people behind this series are taking the opportunity to put the boot into as many people as they feel fucked them over during the careers -from uncooperative authors to over-confident but useless P.A.s, artists who can’t meet deadlines & directors too wrapped up in themselves to be able to finish anything.

All three points are references heavily throughout the series & that just makes it an utter joy to watch -especially the depictions of people as feckless to get revenge on someone. Brilliant!

I truly adored this series, knowing nothing about it when I started watching it.

Like so many comedy-dramas, it’s about people finding their goals in life & working towards their dreams but unlike so many other series out there, Skirobako focusses not on teenagers overcoming the struggles of adolescence into maturity but rather on the daily struggles of young women -either at university or have graduated from it- as they try to realise what they want from life & deal with whatever obstacles may get in their way.
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Like so many protagonists in such series, Miyamori Aoi is indecisive about what she really wants to do with her life. Her love of anime lead her, along with most of her friends from her high school anime society, into a job in the animation industry but she’s unsure if she has the ability or passion to move beyond being a simple Production Assistant. This lack of confidence extends over to her 4 friends as well; with Ema questioning whether she has the talent for drawing animation; if Misa should stick with a secure job in 3D graphic design or take risk with an unsecure job; Midori wandering what it takes to be a writer; & Zuka fretting over if she should continue trying to be a voice actress after so many failed auditions.

The questions of confidence & ability extend into the extremely extensive supporting cast. With many characters questioning if they have the talent to be working in the animation industry whilst others, like the exceedingly & purposely annoying Takanashi, being over confident in their utter lack of ability or understand. Yet Takanashi, despite all his many many many annoying (many) traits, has a dream that he wants to achieve & sticks to his guns no matter how useless he is.

The recurring themes of confidence, talent & ability -whether natural or practised- is a constant within anime & manga. This is often depicted that those who have a natural talent for something as being inherently superior because they don’t have to work at anything, where in reality it is always the opposite. With those working hard to get better often being more talented than those for whom it comes naturally because they often get bored with the lack of challenge.

Upon the surface, Shirobako seems to fall into the former camp of praising the naturally talented but in fact the series goes on to show that those whom people proclaim to be “geniuses” or naturally talented in fact worked, struggled & fretted over their own abilities & talents to reach where they are. The use of the term -& characters whom embody- genius is used in the show to demonstrate how people can be dismissive of others &/or themselves for not fitting moulds that they don’t understand. More so if someone outside of the specific field judges everyone by the standards of whom they consider a genius yet are entirely ignorant of what goes into achieving any success in that field.
Shirobako15a
Which is, in turn, another major conceit of the series. That is: exploring (almost) every facet of creating anime.

The series delves into the many roles & jobs that goes into making a TV anime series, even down to the most obscure & seemingly perfunctory ones. That is because, in the creator’s mind, every role in the series is important. Which the director Kinoshita keeps saying to every member of the production team; that they specifically are the most important part of the series they are creating. & to show the importance of pretty much every job in the animation industry, they feature an exceptionally large cast of characters; many of whom make a single appearance & then aren’t seen again until the final episode. Which is actually fine, because they exist to explain what their actual jobs are or to make references to past techniques, productions or figures involved in animation.

Complimenting this job are Aoi’s two imaginary figures -her goth loli doll Mimuji and her bear Roro (Lolo)- who act as Aoi’s subconscious. They’re function is to work through the dilemma or stress that Aoi has or explain to the audience the various tasks that Aoi is doing. The flashback to how they came about as figments of Aoi’s imagination is very cute, basically involving her older sister using them to talk to Aoi whenever she felt stressed or depressed.

In fact, the turns of imagination are some of the best parts, such as when Kinoshita envisions himself flying or enacting parts of one the two series he directs. Better yet is when the series forgets reality entirely & throws in one of the best Ryu from Street Fighter references that has ever been!
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The arc of the series encompasses Aoi’s life as she works at an animation studio, Musashino Animation, that is trying to regain it’s former glory after a string of failures. Likewise, the overweight & emotionally immature Kinoshita is trying to regain confidence after his last anime series Boing Boing Paradise (a reference to hypersexualised fan service mega-breasted anime like Eiken) but is constantly reminded of his failures & falls into slumps of laziness & depression. Similarly, most staff or external workers for the company all have their own issues that they are trying to overcome in order not to lose face. Or, like Takanashi, are completely lazy, over-confident or shirking their work to do other things.

It's not fan service if it's mocking fan service.
It’s not fan service if it’s mocking fan service.

The series begins with a perfect tribute to Initial D, as Aoi races to beat a rival animation studio PA from recruiting a freelance animator Segawa Misato. This is important because Musashino Animation are trying to regain their reputation with a new original anime, Exodus (a reference to Magical Girl idol anime stuff) & goes into details the struggles with writing, getting people onside & the daily grind of animation production; all whilst Aoi & her 4 friends try to figure out what they want to do.

The 2nd arc is Musashino Animation, having gotten kudos for their work on Exodus, managing to score the rights to adapt a highly sort after manga, The Third Girls Aerial Squad. This shows Aoi being promoted to the head of the Production Desk (basically, running all the day to day operations & managing the other Production Assistants as well as liaising with & recruiting other freelance workers). This arc goes into more depth of the politics involved when dealing with other creators, publishers & sponsors -all of whom want to control or add their own little bits or do what they want because it will make their companies look better. It really shows the struggle with trying to please everyone but stay true to your own artistic vision. Couple with individual characters personal struggles.
Shirobako-4
The characters are truly what makes it work, even with such an extensive cast. They all have their distinct visual styles & personalities as well as little quirks.

This is very much a moé series with touches of hypersexualisation. Yet these are not for fan service but rather referencing how fan service is used. A few of the female characters are really sexy but they are not sexualised. They are not lingered upon or ogled by the camera. Their beauty is there as part of the moé experience. All of the characters are designed to be cute or interesting in some way; each with their own visual signature or clothing style but are dressed differently episode to episode -for the most part that is.

Over all, the quality of the animation is superb. With vibrant colours, clear lines & very well rendered action. It even throws back to more classic styles of animation when they flash back to a past series such as Anders Chucky (kinda like Kimba the White Lion or other similar cute animal series from the 70’s). It even through complete Gundam & Neon Genesis Evangelion reference in for good measure, even using their animation styles for the posters & back ground clips playing on things. A lot of love has gone into the designs & animation, making sure you know who is who & what is going on -even as they mix in the meta-series that they are working on (both with their own unique styles). The series even goes into detail about how CGI is used in modern anime series & how this can cause conflict with those who wish to be more traditional.
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In the end, this is a series with so very few faults. I utterly adored it. Finding it clever, touching & exceedingly funny. There are so many references & great moments buried within it that it bears watching again & again if you can. I do wish that I could talk about it more, but that would just spoil all the little things that you’ll pick up in it. Some characters are designed to really piss you off (Takanashi primarily but there are others too) but once you realise this was someone getting their revenge on people who had pissed them off, it makes the series all the more greater!

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Who Judges the Judges? – anime critique: Death Parade

DeathparadevisualTitle: Death Parade
Format: TV anime
Genre: drama, supernatural, philosophical
Series Creator: Yuzuru Tachikawa
Series Director: Yuzuru Tachikawa
Studio: Madhouse
Series length: 12 episodes
Original Airing dates: January 9, 2015 – March 27, 2015
Reviewed format: high def download with fan subs


Synopsis:

Whenever two people on Earth die at the same time, they are sent to one of many mysterious bars run by bartenders serving as arbiters. There, they must participate in Death Games with their lives on the line, the results of which reveal what secrets led them to their situation and what their fate will be afterwards, with the arbiters judging if their souls will either be sent for reincarnation or banished into the void. The series follows Decim, the lone bartender of the Quindecim bar, whose role in judging these souls changes when he meets a curious black-haired woman.


Critique:

In my review of Isshuukan Friends from so long ago, I mentioned the condition of “the kick that never comes”, wherein you’re expecting the worst but it’s that’s expectation that causes you to suffer rather than the eventual happening (such as a kick) itself. In Death Parade, we very much have the opposite phenomenon because we are lulled into expecting something more light hearted & fun, only to be hit by the heavy club of the Human Condition.

One reason for that is the excellent & upbeat opening theme Flyers by J-rockers, Bradio.

Such an exciting, joyous song can’t help but lead your expectations of this serious into believing that it is what it’s not. & that theme does it every week.

What we expected is an entertaining look at human nature as people play games against each other but what we get is an exploration of the darkest recesses of the soul as inhuman Arbiters deconstruct all that it means to be human in order to judge where they go in the afterlife.

PARTY TIME TRICKERY!!!
PARTY TIME TRICKERY!!!

This is what makes the series so powerful & so masterful, because it utterly twists our expectations. You never know what’s coming or how things will resolve. It’s not afraid to truly hit you right in your emotional centre yet it’s not melancholy or brooding. Blending the harsh with the humourous is also what makes the series so great, as well as bringing unexpected characters & scenarios. Like Akame ga Kiru! it brings a delicate balancing act & delivers the unexpected & the brutal without flinching yet is not afraid to be introspective on the subject of life & death.

Unflinching truly is the watch-word of this series because even though it looks at them in a hyperbolic fashion, it doesn’t shy away from the subjects of murder & suicide, especially what drives individuals to commit both. Yet, despite the trappings of the series, it doesn’t really judge those who commit the latter as somehow being defective. Rather it looks at individuals who inflict that final wound upon their mortality as people who have somehow lost their ability to perceive the world & those around them. They are not broken or pathetic people, they merely suffer from a misconception of themselves, their lives & what it truly means to live.

Each episode deals with this differently & is done in a fairly neutral, almost passive, perspective.

That is because the main protagonist, Decim -like all other Arbiters- is a construct solely built to judge the lives of humans through various means. Primarily is hiding the fact that they are dead from them and then attempting to induce enough psychological stress that it “exposes the darkest recesses of their souls”.

"Welcome, valued customer"
“Welcome, valued customer”

Here in I have my only real problem with the series.

Without being explicit, the series seems to be based on a Japanese Buddhist version of the Afterlife, where souls are sent to various Arbiters to be judged based upon the deeds that they invoked during their mortal years. If they have found to have lived a life worthy of redemption, they are sent to be reinacarnated. If they display evil in their intentions (especially to their judges), they are sent to actually oblivion -an eternal void with nothing but their consciousness to suffer until they repent & are revoked back to Samsara. This is very much a hang over from early A.D. Daoism that arrived in Japan with the first waves of Chinese people who displayed the original aboriginal populations. There are also other references to Buddhist mythology, as Decim recounts the story of a Bodhisatva (a Buddhist version of a saint) who saves a spider & when he is sent to Hell by a demon wishing to know the Buddha’s secrets, the spider sends him a thread to pull him & guide him home. There are hints that Decim is possibly that spider, with his threads & inclinations, yet nothing is ever explicit about it being a Buddhist or even a truly religious form of Afterlife, yet it still has so many trapping of judgement gods & the living wishing punishment beyond the grave -which ties into the only punishments being reincarnation or oblivion.

Now, despite being a proper indoctrinated Buddhist (meaning that I belong to a real temple & have taken oaths of faith) I have no truck with Buddhist Afterlife & Reincarnation doctrine. It has no real logic to it & stories of how karma & Afterlife judgement make no sense what-so-ever.

Yet this is something that the creators of the series seem to think too -after a fashion. As Decim begins to question his role as an Arbiter & what it means for the unhuman to judge the lives of mentally & emotionally complex creatures such as humans when they cannot even begin to fathom their experiences & motivations.

To this end, Decim is introduced to the mysterious “Black-haired Woman” (how she’s referred to in the credits), a human who wasn’t judged & remains in the Afterlife. She acts a bit like Jiminy Cricket to Decim’s Pinocchio -providing him with a human perspective & a form of conscience as he pushes the visits to his level of the Afterlife -the bar-longue Quindecim- to their emotional extremes.

At least she's prettier than Jiminy.
At least she’s prettier than Jiminy.

This relationship seems to be the creation of the cunning, Nona, the supervisor of the Tower that consists the Afterlife. She’s often seen pushing a plan or agenda, at which lies the Black-haired Woman & the taciturn Decim as they push their customers (the dead) to play games within Quindecim by saying it’s for their very lives (because they are unaware that they are actually dead).

Nona near facepalm I think.
Nona near facepalm I think.

It is their games that are the crux of each episode that features them. For seem so mundane yet are twisted in a way they are create physical & emotional pain in those who are forced to play them.

This is demonstrated in the first episode, where a newly married couple are forced to play a game of darts but each section of the board is linked with an organ in their partners body. So if they score a hit, they inflict the other with incredible pain (which shouldn’t happen since they’re dead but the series does explain it very well). This means that if they truly love each other, they would intentionally lose in order not to inflict any further harm. But humans are seldom so simple or so noble & these games are designed to bring out the trauma surrounding their lives & deaths. Usually this involves rage at the indignation of their own mortality, so they lash out. In the case of the newlywed couple within the first episode, the husband suspects that his wife has been cheating on her, so willing inflicts pain on her -claiming it to be an accidentally- until she reveals something that is either the truth or a clever lie to save her from suffering at his hands.

"Ah! My spleen!"
“Ah! My spleen!”

Unfortunately, I think this series comes down heavy-handedly on the actions of women within it -especially a few either been seen as manipulative cheaters or utterly vile in other aspects. Yet that is not the entire truth of it, once Decim has the truths of human nature expounded to him by the Black-haired Woman. This seems to show the hypocrisy within society, as women are judged & condemned for acts that seem to be more able to get away with.

Though yet again, that is twisted around, as the series expands its roster of characters; introducing another Arbiter, Ginta, who has far more loathing for humanity & is less questioning about judging them. Almost relishing the punishment games that he gets to inflict upon them. Yet his perceptions of humanity is affected by his meeting with Maya, a seemingly delinquent high school student who is utterly devoted to the male popstar Harada -whom she ends up in Ginta’s Viginti with. Harada thinks that he can manipulate Maya into losing for him but she wants to impress him. When they are put into what they perceive to be a life threatening situation, Maya chooses to sacrifice herself in order to save Harada, who, in turn, remembers part of the events leading to his death -the suicide of one of his many short term lovers- & doesn’t want anyone else to die because of him.

This isn’t seen as nobility, but rather a form of self-satisfaction, that both Maya & Harada can actually find meaning in & redemption for their lives within these possibly final acts. Yet in doing so, they begin to challenges ingrained views of human nature, making him slowly question what & why he judges in the fashion that he does.

Parallel to these games is woven a subplot involving a story of children’s book, Chavvot, which is about a little boy trying to befriend a deaf girl & find the best way he can express his love for her & her eternal, optimistic (& creepy looking) smile. This is an allegory for how humans connection, which is an external subject within anime (if you watch enough of it really). The main trust for this series is how human’s connect with & understand each other -even if it seems impossible because all we can know is the tiny universe inside our own heads.

That’s the main drive for the Black-haired Woman’s plot & itself ultimate irony as well because she came to Quindecim through her inability to connection & understand other humans. Yet that is what she constantly pushes Decim to do. Making him question his own judgements as she forces him to understand the complexities of human existence & the impossibilities of knowing why people do & say what they do.

Unfortunately I found a huge part of her character arc spoilt by a tiny throw away reference in the opening credits, which is a huge pity because they tease it out so well over the course of the series. The climax of her arc is a genuine kick in the guts & evokes a lot of hard emotions & questions -which I applaud it for.

If I have one final complain about the series it is that there is not enough of it.

I thoroughly enjoyed this series, more than I have many others of late (or even recent years) & it seems that I was not the only one -as they rushed through the English dubbed production to match the series by a week or so of release.

This, in my opinion, is a good trend because it means that anime is reaching a wider market & being taken seriously by distributors in the West.

I genuinely hope that they have a 2nd series for this because, despite wrapping up a lot of it, they still have a lot to explore with the side characters who don’t get as much screen time as they deserve. There is also a lot to be explained about who really created & controls the tower of judgement, because it’s forever hinted that even those within who think that they are the masters are in fact the puppets of others.

There isn’t much more about it that I can say, so I shall leave you how the series left us every week. That is with the end theme, Last Theatre, by NoisyCell -which is quickly becoming one of my favourite songs.

This is a series that I cannot recommend highly enough because of how it attempts to explore the human condition & human connection, as well as the amazing visuals & stories that it has. If you haven’t seen it yet, do yourself a favour & get a copy right away.

& so, without further adieu, here is the song:

Still failing its Social Links – Anime Critique: Persona 3 The Movie: #2 Midsummer Knight’s Dream

Persona_3_The_Movie_2_Midsummer_Knight's_Dream_Promotional_PosterTitle: Persona 3 The Movie: #2 Midsummer Knight’s Dream (Gekijoban Perusona 3 dai ni sho)
Format: movie
Genre: video game adaption, action, drama, mystery, supernatural
Series Creator: Altus
Series Director: Tomohisa Taguchi
Studio: A-1 Pictures
Original screening date: June 7, 2014 (Japan)
Reviewed format: high def download with fan subs


Synopsis:

Immediately following the events of the last film, Yuki Makoto and the rest of SEES team are making headway in their battle against the Shadows & the Dark Hour but 3 strangers with similar powers confront them, making them question whether or not they want to truly destroy the Dark Hour & give up all that makes them special.


Critique:

In my critique of the first film, I recall that I was fairly harsh with it because it lacked any proper development of scenario & characters, wasted potential, threw in too many aside references to the original games, et cetera. Well, the 2nd game pretty much does that but also adds in a ton more sexualised Fan Service for good measure.

Waiting for it to get good. Have Been here a while.
Waiting for it to get good. Have Been here a while.

That is being a little unfair, because the 2nd film does have more character development -especially for the Tabula rasa protagonist Yuki Makoto- as well as bringing other characters into the fold -such as the reluctant & angry Shinji & the broken young boy, Amada Ken. More importantly it introduced the protagonists of the 1st arc, Strega, to set up a sense of tension. It also brings in the other Tabula Rasa character, the combat gynoid Aegis, who’s raison d’etre is to be close to & protect Makoto, yet no one does not understand why.

Raison d’etre becomes the key theme for this film.

Why characters do what they do, what do they fight for, do they have any other meaning to their lives aside from wielding their Persona against the Shadows & so on & so forth.

Raison d’etre should not encapsulate a character as a whole but should form the basis from which they grow & change over the course of the story. They should question it; reflect upon it; fight those who challenge it; any number of things but all within the context of “why?” & “how?”.

Raped in your sleep by a gynoid. What a sad way to go.
Raped in your sleep by a gynoid. What a sad way to go.

Unfortunately, this is where the movie -like it’s predecessor- fails.

It sets up a few characters’ raison d’etre but it does not challenge or evolve them. It gets stuck at the stage of questioning reasons & motivations but it never moves passed them.

A less cynical critic might say that this is so they can push the character development in the next film but a cynic such as I will just say it’s a waste of potential.

This is because the movie already wastes so much potential & screen time by sticking the date formula & showing Makoto doing his Social Links in montage, when it could’ve been using the same amount of time actually developing the bonds & relationships between the characters & establishing their individual motivations -more so for Aegis & Makoto, who are hollow reflections of each other. You get some token development from Fuka, saying that hunting Shadows is all that she really has because her parents only care about her academically & you get a little from Junpei as he seeks to grow from being an idiot. Yukari also gets a brief moment on centre stage, as she comes to terms with her personal connection with the disaster which created the Dark Hour but all of those moments are rushed over for the sake of fitting into the time limit.

My main complaint & critique from the 1st film carries over in: in that these movies really should’ve been a 25 episode TV series. This meant you could stick to the rigid video game date formula but you also get character development.

Most of the development in this movie is for the newly introduced character of Amada Ken, the orphan boy who found that he can wander around the Dark Hour. His exploration is done in relation with & contrast to Shinji, who made an appearance in the 1st film as a former SEES member trying to escape his past. Ken & Shinji’s fates are intertwined because of the events that orphaned Ken & caused Shinji to leave the SEES but they really aren’t developed enough to have the emotional impact that the director seems to have been aiming for. Again: this is an issue with the format & trying to cram two entire character arc into a space of 50 or so minutes (the time the characters have in the film, not the total running time of it) instead of spreading it over 4 or 5 22-minute episodes.

That, in a nutshell, is still my greatest gripe about the film series as a whole. Since they stick to the game formula of following events & day, you either lose too much or connections & development just doesn’t happen. Makoto is still case in point although he has progressed more along then in the previous film, he still is a character who basically does nothing but everyone puts faith in. He’s the opposite of what Yu from Persona 4: The Animation became. Makoto still exists only as a player character but since we aren’t controlling him, we can’t invest ourselves in his struggle to understand his motivations & why he’d destroy the only thing that gives him a sense of connection to those around him. If you don’t give the audience something to understand & invest in, they won’t. Adding another blank character like Aegis doesn’t help because Makoto doesn’t use her as a reflection as should be the case.

The animation in this film is a touch better than the last but it’s still very murky & mucky to look at. This is partially because the majority of the action takes place either at night or during the Dark Hour -which twists things, giving them a festering alien feel to it. But it’s all for naughty if you can’t really see what’s going on. When you have something with scenes that dark, you need to have bright open scenes to perfect the juxtaposition of them, enhancing both. This is yet another critical failing of film. Of equal fail is the lack of clarity in the action scenes, where the combat becomes a bit of a mess. There are some nice individual battles, such as Aegis stepping in to save Makoto & Yukari from some Shadows but any group combat fails to look in any way good.

In the end, this second of I think 4 films makes so many missteps on top of failing to address the ones that it made with the previous film. It’s a huge let down for all but the most devoted fan but even they might find it a little disappointing after the bright, vivid glory of two Persona 4 anime series. It’s not a bad watch but terrible if you have any expectations for it what-so-ever.

LOOK AT THIS HAPPY WITTLE FACE! LOOK AT IT!!!
LOOK AT THIS HAPPY WITTLE FACE! LOOK AT IT!!!

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.
asuna_yuuki
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.
saoii19
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.
kokkuri-san-10
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.
Gugure-Kokkuri-san-gugure-kokkuri-san-37842385-1920-1080
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.
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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