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.
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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.

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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

The Kick That Never Came – Anime Critique: Isshuukan Friends

mpage001Title: Isshuukan Friends (One Week Friends)
Format: TV anime
Genre: slice of life, romance, drama, tragedy
Series Creator: Matcha Hazuki
Series Director: Tarou Iwasaki
Studio: Brain’s Base
Series length: 12 episodes
Original Airing dates:
Reviewed format: high def download with fan subs


 

Synopsis:

High schooler Yuki Hase notices that his classmate Kaori Fujimiya is always alone and seemingly has no friends. After approaching her and becoming acquainted, Kaori reveals that she loses every memory of her friends each Monday. Despite learning this, Yuki endeavors to become her new friend every week.


 

Review:

There is an old saying that goes “the worst kick is the one that never comes”.

The basic meaning of it is the more you dread something bad coming, a kick or other such physical assault if you will, the worse it will be in your mind than the actually reality of it because the fear & expectation has made you build up something far more torturous (more torturous than my allegories to be sure).

This is the pall that hangs over Isshuukan Friends.

The constant dread that you are going to be hit by something monumental emotionally painful yet, it never comes, making that dread all the more worse.

Although that might be my expectations from watching anime that delights in really kicking you in the guts once you think you’re going to be blessed with Sweetness & Light.

The reason you are waiting for this phantom kick is from the central conceit of the series, that being amnesia. A very old chestnut indeed in terms of media tropes -especially in Japan- yet within Isshuukan Friends it stems more from plot driven psychological & physical trauma then some mere need for a character to begin as a Blank Slate.

The major praise that one can give this series is that it attempts to handle such a fanciful contrivance as emotionally realistic as they can -without the central idea feeling too contrite or merely there to heighten the drama or emotional reactions from the audience.

Yet you do not come here to see praise painted upon the page, so I shall return to the (fairly bitchy) critiquing.

The plot of the series revolves around Hase Yuki’s relationship with Fujimiya Kaori, who is the quiet withdrawn girl in his class. He initially approaches her so to get to know her but she coldly rejects his offer for friendship. He is persistent in trying to get her to open up to him so it is soon revealed that Kaori loses her memories of people whom she considers friends every Monday when she wakes up -the exceptions being her family & people she is merely acquainted with. Despite this handicap, Hase persists in trying to become friends with Fujimiya, starting each week with the question “Will you be my friend?”

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When I 1st heard Hase vow that, I was worried it the story would turn fairly stalkery & possessive but it only turned mildly stalkery. Narratively, it is understandable that Hase gets jealous when the formerly cold & quiet Fujimiya starts to open up to others in their class -mainly through the intervention of ditzy pixie Saki, who wants the responsible Fujimiya to baby & look after her because she (Saki) has issues with her own memory (in that she is forgetful).

After watching the 1st couple of episodes, part of me wanted to hate this series -mainly because it kept refusing to go dark like I thought it would- but also because it is so awkwardly cutesy.

All the characters -but especially Fujimiya & Hase- looks as though they are sponsored by a rouge producing company (the makeup, not the D&D class, you bloody dyslexics). Always with red blush patches under their eyes.

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The general art syle & design is light & cutesy too. Skipping a lot of the more moé & sexualisation tropes. More focussing on a sweet kind of soft cute in the characters. In fact, unlike other series this season, there isn’t anything remotely close to a tit or panty shot. Some of the usual awkwardness after falling leaves characters in compromising positions but this is quickly glossed over with humour rather than used to demonstrate masculine dominance, reward the male gaze or a let a protagonist get a quick grope in.

Yet, despite the cutesy looks & lack of narrative darkness, the story is actually pretty good & emotionally mature. In that it’s people reacting to a difficult situation as well as failing to voice their concerns or wishes out of fear of misunderstanding or hurting those around them. So, it follows the standard forms of Japanese dramas, with the inability to communicate less it destroy consensus society as a whole.

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Nevertheless, Isshuukan Friends does handle a lot of the drama in a respectful & grownup fashion, even though it shows some weird relationship tropes. Such as Fujimiya making lunch for Hase everyday & only allowing him to talk to her outside of the class (such as on the roof at lunch) because she doesn’t want bad rumours to spread about him. That bullshit is stopped with Saki’s spoiltness meaning she just speaks to Fujimiya whenever she wants to & isn’t perturbed by her memory loss -Saki thinks its similar to her absent mindedness. Fujimiya & Hase also develop ways for Fujimiya to deal with her memory loss, such as getting her to keep a dairy so she can keep track of events & drama comes along in one episode when she accidentally loses her dairy as well as the poster on her reminding her to read it every Monday yet she lost it on a Friday, so found it odd she didn’t realise it was gone over the weekend when her memories were still intact.

Each episode follows a basic formula of a week in the life of our protagonists as they struggle to deal with Fujimiya’s ongoing condition, Hase’s feelings of helplessness & selfishness at the situation as well as interactions with other characters & Fujimiya slowly opening up to those around her & not being afraid to make friends. Some edges appear, when classmates believe that Fujimiya is dating Hase’s best friend, the cranky & taciturn Shogo, & say nasty things behind her back (yet within earshot); Hase has to also overcome his feelings of jealousy towards Shojo for becoming friends with Fujimiya & the chance of losing her.

True drama comes late in the series with the appearance of Fujimiya’s former childhood friend, Hajime, who moved to Hokkaido with his family at the same time as Fujimiya began to lose her memories. When her remembrance of him causes her memories to completely reset, so she forgets everything that she had build up until that point & Hase to almost abandon the friendship out of frustration. When that moment comes along, there is no longer an expectation of a kick or anything else apart from a quiet resolution. Tensions remain between the two protagonists for the last few episodes after Fujimiya starts to build herself back up to how she was before Hajime arrived but that’s mainly from everyone learning the cause of Fujimiya’s amnesia (stems from a form of bullying from her supposed friends at a young age) & Hase’s fear that he might cause it to happen again. But mostly the tension in the last few episodes comes from the fact that the protagonists -& anime characters in general- can never express their love without being pathetically awkward or borderline retarded.

In the end, this is a light teen drama that deals with a difficult issue in a mature & responsible way. It has some humour & cuteness but doesn’t kick you when you are down. Your response to it depends on how much you personally engage with the genre &/or subject. For my part, I found it enjoyable & a pleasant balm to the hypersexualisation of other series that I shall be writing about over the week (or just copy pasting random complaints about hypersexualisation in other series) but each to their own. I do hope that you, the reader, take the time to watch the series & take from it what you will.

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