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
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It’s the Anti-Gundam Mech series – Anime Critique: Aldnoah.Zero

60263Title: Aldnoah.Zero (Aldnoah Zero, Arudonoa Zero)
Format: TV anime
Genre: mecha, sci-fi, action, war
Series Creator: Gen Urobuchi
Series Director: Ei Aoki
Studio:  A-1 Pictures, TROYCA
Series length: 12 episodes (first series half)
Original Airing dates: July 5 – September 20, 2014
Reviewed format: high def download with fan subs


Synopsis:

In 1972, an ancient alien hypergate was discovered on the surface of the moon. Using this technology, humanity began migrating to Mars and settling there. After settlers discovered additional advanced technology, the Vers Empire was founded, which claimed Mars and its secrets for themselves. Later, the Vers Empire declared war on Earth, and in 1999, a battle on the Moon’s surface caused the hypergate to explode, shattering the Moon and scattering remnants into a debris belt around the planet. Cut off from Mars, the remnants of the Vers insurgents established several massive orbital space stations within the debris belt and a ceasefire was established. 15 years later, in 2014, an attack on the Vers princess during a peace mission causes the Empire to launch a new attack on Earth, this time determined to conquer it once and for all.


Review:

Ever since the original Mobile Suit Gundam franchise launched in 1979, most mecha anime series have stuck to a simple formula. A powerful militaristic force attacks a pacifist nation/colony/organisation seeking hidden super technology, male teen who is passionate yet otherwise conflicted over the war is drawn into battle by having to rescue someone, male teen discovers hidden super powered prototype mecha which immediate responds to him, male teen fights to save home by killing enemy, male teen is taken by the military unit who originally ordered the mecha despite his reluctance to fight/kill outside of initial rage fuelled hissy fit, male teen becomes good at killing, male teen is driven by conflict & teen angst to become a better person & gets over trauma of killing people, teen male wins overall war.

The Heavens Fall
The Heavens Fall

It’s all pretty simple & so many other series (such as the afore-reviewed Buddy Complex) play on variations of this. Changing the circumstances of how the uber mecha was discovered or their individual reasons for fighting. Yet Aldnoah.Zero is one of the few series which almost completely scrapes this formulaic construction, replacing it with a slightly more original narrative.

It still deals with the tropes of invasion to a superior force that permeates the genre (a lingering remnant of Japan’s loss at the end of WW2) as well as some pretty standard character archetypes. But these are nigh inescapable factors within the mecha & sci-fi based war genres. They can be overcome with a good creator but they do stand for a lot of narrative shorthand for the audiences. Despite these tropes & cliches, Aldnoah.Zero does strive to be as far from the Gundam formula as much as they can.

Inaho is the one in the middle with the bondage choker.
Inaho is the one in the middle with the bondage choker.

In place of the passionate, driven conflicted hero in his uber mecha, we have Kaizuka Inaho -who is cold, calculating, detached & attached to his basic orange student Kataphracts (also spelt Cataphracts, the series name for humanoid mech units). Instead of using guts & fiery testosterone driven passion, Inaho uses cool intelligence & team work to destry his enemies. Weighing risk & reward, making solid plans based upon observation of the superior enemy Kataphracts; beating them with his basic unit & superior tactics.

In fact, only the enemies have super powered Kataphracts & the explanation as to why the Terran forces can’t steal is woven well into the overall narrative fairly well -even though the separation of the Terran & Mars/Vers humans is a touch confusing at times since not enough time had passed to allow for an entirely new cultural identity to be formed as well as new social structure to emerge in the Vers kingdom.

Unfortunately, in this half season so far, because Inaho is so cold when don’t actually get much access to him as a character. You just get the smarts on the surface, not the emotions below as well as his overall motivations. He comes off as apathetic, doing what is best in any given situation. Lacking any drive & passion. Usually in such a genre I’d find this a welcome change but unfortunately we don’t get to see anything deeper within him.

This is a general issue of the overall characters & their tropes.

You have the loyal servant/friend, looking to find the truth behind what confronts him. The idealistic princess who hides her pain & naivety behind her smile as she hides her true identity from those around her. The taciturn girl looking for revenge. The over-loyal assistant who ends up revealing too much because they believe too strongly in decorum & social rank. The bubbly female friend who secrets loves the hero & will fight by his side. The loud male friend who wants revenge but is too distracted by a pair of tits to be serious. The overprotective big sister who’s devotion borders on the incestuous. The outwardly cold commanding officer who is devoted to saving all under her command. The able but slightly thick 2nd in Command. The fallen hero, hiding his pain & humiliation in bravado & drink. The overly noble villain looking to right all injustice. The true villain who actually can justify his cause. Et cetera, et cetera.

These are merely the surface affectations of these various characters. There is more to most of them, since they are given some motivation & personal agency. The trouble is that they aren’t given enough time to develop or shine -apart from a few of the Vers nobles. Who are given a bit of context but since the background of Vers is kind of flubbed over, it’s hard to ground them in your mind & understanding.

I do truly hope that the 2nd season develops the characters & the universe they inhabit a lot more. Because it’s very interesting, with humans leaving Earth to take control of alien technology & finding that with all of their new found power, they are still helpless in the face of an uncaring universe.

Smashy! Smashy!
Smashy! Smashy!

The motivations for the Versian aggression actually speak close to the reality of how wars begin. Leaders scapegoating other people, blaming them for the lack of resources & all the hardships that the soon-to-be aggressors suffer under. All to placate, distract & stir up the populace so they won’t look at the real causes of their misery -such as the failings of their political system, environmental issues & overall inequality. It honestly reflects Japan in both its past & present -with echos of how the Japanese military stirred up the people to march out in invasion as well as showing how the current government under Prime Minster Abe are sabre-rattling with China to distract from many national economic & environmental issues.

The political stuff aside, the series tries to bring the macro down to the personal in terms of motivation. Using justifications for revenge as an impetus to whip people into a bloodied frenzy -even if they have to stage these justifications themselves. This all plays into the class system of the Vers people as well as the seething resentment of the Terrans after the Moon was destroyed by unknown means & the environmental chaos that followed.

Ideas of justice play strongly into the ploy of the series. With the motto under the title being taken from the old Latin phrase “Fiat justitia ruat caelum” –Let Justice Be Done Though the Heavens Fall. Basically, it means that justice must be sought out anywhere, regardless of the damage that hunt may do. All must be answerable before the greater Law.

Yet Justice does not equal Revenge & visa-versa.

Even if one does confuse & conflate the two, Justice must stand above the pettiness of Revenge. All must be answerable for their actions.

It is this ideal to which the characters become polarised. Inaho & his mirror/rival Slaine Troyard stand for justice & exposing the truth, whilst there are entire political machines build to perpetuate the ideology of revenge -be it personal pride or some sense of greater, invented injustice for a near crippled yet still superior people.

The other good thing about Aldnoah.Zero is that is doesn’t bog you down in endless political diatribes, but rather makes the ideas of Justice & Revenge more personal for the individual characters (those who are allowed to develop).

It all plays back into the notion of Fiat justitia ruat caelum. Because the idea of heaven falling isn’t a metaphor but a reality of when the fragments of the Moon rained down upon the Earth, killing Terran & Versian alike. All being equal under the Wrath of Heaven.

The animation is good, if a little dull in terms of colour palate. It fuses traditional cell animation for background & characters with CGI for the vehicles & Kataphracts. The designs of the Terran mecha are pretty bog-standard but the Versians have some interesting designs, especially how they use their weapons. Unfortunately you kind of get a villain of the week formula, so you don’t see many Versian mechs in the space of the 12 episodes but how they are dealt with are as well rendered as their designs.

The soundtrack is also well done. With Kalafina providing the opening track & another group providing the inspiring semi-pop song (alla KILL la KILL) during some of the battle scenes. It’s been doen before but it’s still highly affective.

Overall, Aldnoah.Zero is a great antidote from a lot of what plague the overburdened Mecha genre. It is unfortunately that is is more focussed on it’s beautiful battles then any character development but I honestly hope this will be remedied in the 2nd half of the season (which screens the start of 2015). There is so much to recommend this serious, over its aforementioned failings.

If you love light sci-fi war anime as well as the Mecha genre, this is your best bet for something truly original in a long long time. If you aren’t so invested in those genres, then why are you reading this critique when you could be out there doing other things?

Truly, like the Fist of an Angry God!
Truly, like the Fist of an Angry God!