Category: film and animation

Anime Autobiography – Endless Delinquency and Despair

<– Previous: Anime Autobiography – Into the Bowels of College

Sometimes, one discovers the right show at the right time. In high school, I found Azumanga Daioh, early at university I found Genshiken, and early in 2009, the second half of my junior year, I found Welcome to the NHK!, about a seemingly hopeless shut-in who dropped out of college. Having already noticed a pattern in the shows I watched, I thought, “Is this what I have to look forward to?”…

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Anime Autobiography – Into the Bowels of College

<– Previous: Anime Autobiography – Anime Clubbin’

Going into 2007 and ’08, the combination of university, work, and commuting between them destroyed the vast amounts of free time I’d enjoyed in high school, though having my own car and a decent income for a college student did take some of the sting off that. My hobby of collecting hobbies, though, had to go. I dropped the time-consuming video games, especially the RPG’s I liked, as well as my attempt at learning to play guitar. Literature remained, and though I did as much leisure reading as I could manage, as a literature major I got most of my fill of that in class. Most of my leisure reading, in fact, consisted of graphic novels.…

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How Do We Judge Anime?

Recently, my sister and I were talking about our favourite anime, and she said that she finds it difficult to separate her top three, Madoka Magica, Gurren Lagann, and Mushi-Shi. Now, ‘favourite’ is a subjective term, so there’s no need to try to be scientific about it, but this did get me thinking about how one would objectively judge between works that, though in the same medium, are so different from each other. Obviously, art will never be mathematically precise, but it is possible to make some judgements of quality. So, as a little exercise, I thought I’d consider these three.

Typically, of course, one would begin by looking at technical skill. In this case, all three of these shows have detailed artwork and fluid animation, though as I recall, Mushi-Shi was the most stiff and Madoka the smoothest. Madoka also seemed to have the most detail and used the widest variety of animation techniques.

Here we run into a problem, though. Madoka benefited greatly by using different styles of animation, for example the paper-cutouts for battles with the witches. However, neither Gurren Lagann nor Mushi-Shi suffered for their relatively more conservative approach. For Mushi-Shi, especially, with a generally more sedate atmosphere, wildly divergent styles would likely only distract the viewer, and it actually benefits by presenting the supernatural mushi in the same style as the everyday. Subjectively, I prefer Shaft’s approach to Madoka, but objectively all three have a style that fits their themes and narrative.

What about themes? Gurren Lagann seems like a clear-cut coming-of-age story, about a boy trying to live up to his mentor. He does this by the end of the first season, and though the second season doesn’t really go beyond that and is thus probably unnecessary, the concept is simple but well-executed. On the other hand, Madoka takes a more complex approach, juggling a few subplots supporting a Faustian theme. Does the added complexity make Madoka superior? Though there’s certainly some merit to simplicity, as with, say, folk music, who would say that Woody Guthrie is therefore greater than Ludwig van Beethoven? Both series do what they set out to do, but I think it’s fair to give more credit to the more ambitious project.

Mushi-Shi, though, complicates things. As an episodic series, it does have its themes, but they’re developed across disparate narratives, and each narrative arc is necessarily short and fairly simple in itself. A single, longer arc allows more change in the protagonists and more subtletly in plotting, but in these particular cases neither Gurren Lagann nor Madoka have a lot of subtlety. I wouldn’t say that episodic series are ipso facto  better or worse than series with a single narrative, so I suppose it’s just something to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

What about originality? Gurren Lagann and Madoka are original works, while Mushi-Shi is an adaptation from a graphic novel. There’s something to be said for originality, especially if we’re discussing historical significance. Now, I would follow Ezra Pound who, in a discussion of poetry, distinguished between ‘innovators’ and ‘masters’. They’re not the same, but a lot of credit should go to those who can do both. Though I do think a work should be judged primarily on its own merits, in a case like these three series we should note that Gurren Lagann and Madoka created something new (albeit within well-established genres), while Mushi-Shi merely translated an existing work.

So, where does this all leave us? All three excel, but Gurren Lagann‘s undoubtedly entertaining but thematically mostly dead weight second season makes it the weakest. For the other two, since Mushi-Shi is a very straight adaptation, while Madoka is original work that also has a more visually interesting presentation, I’d make Madoka my first choice of this bunch.

Obviously, I didn’t go into a lot of detail, and maybe a closer analysis would’ve changed my mind on that. However, I mostly wanted to have a little intellectual exercise, as I find that I enjoy what I watch and read more the more I think about them.

Plus, if my sister comes to a different conclusion, I like being able to show her that she’s objectively wrong.…

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Anime Autobiography – Anime Clubbin’

<– Previous: Anime Autobiography: A Rental Hobby

I began university in Fall 2006, and lived on-campus the first semester. Very quickly, I joined two clubs – the Newman Club, where I’d spend most of my time, and of course the anime club. At the time, I don’t think I realised just how little anime I had actually seen, and though one of my roommates was also a fan, he was just a casual fan like me. So, now able to watch several different shows a week, my experience with anime would expand rapidly.…

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What’s Up with Anime Fans?

A recent conflux of posts on blogs I follow has me thinking about the place and perception of animation in the United States. On Friday, Yumeka over at Mainichi Anime Yume wrote about introverted and extroverted fans. An excerpt:

At first glance, it seems like anime should be a hobby one indulges in in an introverted way. After all, in our society it’s not typically considered “normal” for adults to be really into foreign animated shows. […] Like other so-called “nerdy” hobbies, in both Japan and elsewhere, anime tends to be associated with anti-social geeks/otaku who have few real-life relationships and stay at home all day on the computer – a prime example of introversion.

Coincidentally, Akira at Moe Fundamentalism, whose “12 Years of Anime” is part of what prompted me to write my own recent retrospectives, wrote a post “On Shame,” worth reading in its entirety, but here’s an excerpt:

I am very uncomfortable with the vast majority of otakudom. […] As someone who’s sold merchandise at booths for many years now (think yaoi paddles), I have seen some truly outrageous behavior at cons. I have often said this, but being an otaku at a con does not give one free license to stop observing basic standards of social decency. It is never acceptable to randomly hug strangers, nor is it acceptable to scream out loud when you see some doujinshi that you want. You’re buying pornography, for God’s sake— have some tact.

To round all this out, Proph over at Collapse: The Blog, which typically covers more serious cultural and political material, also wrote about the anime subculture. Though he admits his experiences with anime and its fans are relatively brief and anecdotal, he does share a few observations:

I confess to having watched very little anime in the past, most of which I was forced to watch by an anime-loving friend. I’ve been mixed about what I’ve seen.[…] I don’t get the appeal, perhaps because of my instinctive dislike for the idea of being a grown man sitting around watching cartoons all day. I think what turned me off most was just the casual and unquestioned weirdness of it all. It’s not even divergent enough to be surreal, because it takes itself too seriously.[…]

So I suppose it’s a good fit for people who are themselves casually weird, the kind who grow greasy, patchy beards and wear oversized coats with way too many pockets and chains and collars and all that crap.

If you read the whole thing, you’ll see he pulls no punches in his description of the fans he’s met. Neither does Akira, for that matter, and I can’t really disagree much with either of them. So, is there something inherently weird or childish about animation? If not, why does it attract the sort of people Akira and Proph describe?

To the first question, I can easily answer “No.” Though most American cartoons are for children, outside of a few comedies like South Park or The Simpsons, we needn’t even leave the West to see animation can facilitate serious films. France, after all, has produced Persepolis and The Illusionist. A look at Japan furnishes plenty of examples of shows that are neither for children nor comedies. Though even the best animation does not quite reach the levels of older media like literature or music, ambitious works like Akira or Neon Genesis Evangelion indicate that it’s likely just a matter of time before the field matures enough to produce a classic. Some would argue that some creators, usually Miyazaki Hayao or Kon Satoshi, already have, and maybe so – we’ll see how they stand the test of time.

The only reason I could see for considering animation unsuited for adults is that it is a level farther abstracted from reality than live-action productions. I may grant that animation may be less suited to grittier genres like war films or noir, but this abstraction is animation’s strength. It facilitates the audience’s suspension of disbelief, very helpful for science fiction or fantasy works like Mushi-shi, as well as comedy like Cromartie High School, and allows effects that would be too jarring in live-action, like the paper cutouts in the witch segments of Puella Magi Madoka Magica, for example.

So, it would seem that the only reason to look down on animation in general is that it’s an uncommon interest. This does, I think, have some merit. For a society to function, some degree of cohesion is needed, and culture, including popular culture, provides a set of common experiences that facilitate that. I do think that every American, for example, should know how to play baseball, have read a Mark Twain novel, and seen a couple Disney cartoons. I’ll add that, if Western nations produced as wide a variety of animation as Japan, I would probably focus on those and only watch the best of the best that Japan produced.

That said, though, individuals do each have their own interests, and though it’s polite not to “flaunt” them, one shouldn’t need to hide them, either. My boss and coworker, for example, know that I like anime, and out of politeness even ask about it occasionally. For the same reason, I’ll occasionally ask about my coworker’s hunting and fishing trips, even though I’m not very interested in these myself.

So, why feel embarassed about anime?…

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Anime Autobiography – A Rental Hobby

<– Previous: Anime Autobiography – serial experiments lain

Moving into 2005, though lain had inspired me to seek out more anime, I faced a couple roadblocks that prevented me from fully immersing myself right away. First, I lacked time. Though I had loads of free time in high school, I’ve long had a hobby of collecting hobbies, so anime had to compete with comics, video games, literature, guitar, film, and whatever else grabbed my interest.

Second, and more critically, I lacked funds. This was 2004-6, and most anime series came out on multiple discs, each costing at least $20, and I just could not afford spending that much, especially sight unseen. Many would’ve just pirated what they wanted to watch, but I’ve always felt uncomfortable with piracy. Besides, it would’ve been difficult to justify using up that much bandwidth on the family computer.…

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Anime Autobiography – serial experiments lain

<– Previous: Anime Autobiography – Pokemon and Spirited Away

Though I had already seen Pokemon and Spirited Away, I would consider serial experiments lain my ‘first’ anime, because it was the first show I sought out because it was anime. In October 2004, I worked my first job as a one-week temporary employee, for which I received the seemingly massive sum of around $350. I don’t remember what else I purchased with that bounty, but one of my first priorities was lain, which I think I ordered from (and which, I learned a couple years later, was bootleg!).…

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Anime Autobiography – Pokemon and Spirited Away

I’ve been in a bit of a nostalgic mood lately, looking back at my experience with anime and reminiscing on my development as a fan. So, I thought it may be interesting to start a series of posts outlining that evolution.

Like many fans my age, Pokemon gets credit as the first anime I ever watched. Actually, video games probably sparked my interest in Japanese media in general. As a huge Nintendo fan, most of my favourite games have always been Japanese, and even as a child I enjoyed reading about the people who made the games I enjoy, which made me amenable to other pieces of popular culture to cross the Pacific.…

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Jurassic Park (film)

Yesterday, I watched Jurassic Park for the first time in a solid twelve years or so. It was a favourite film of mine as a child, and also one of my family’s the most memorable theatre moments, at least for my parents. Little five-year-old me was apparently so terrified I almost crawled over the back of the seat, but I still got my parents to take me to see it multiple times after that (they’d learned their lesson, though, and we sat in the back row on future visits). On VHS, I watched the film constantly, bought lots of the toys, and overall it was a defining film for my childhood.

So, when it came out on glorious blu-ray, I had to watch it again. I did have some apprehension, though – often, things I liked as a child don’t stand up to an adult’s more refined taste. Luckily, Jurassic Park stood the test of time brilliantly, and I found I still love this film. I still get excited at the sight of dinosaurs, and I found that I appreciate the film more than I did as a child. Things I didn’t care about then, like character motivations or plot structure, impressed me this go-around. For exmple, I didn’t used to really understand, or care, why the guests were brought to the island, that Malcolm occasionally hit on Sattler, that Muldoon seems obsessed with the raptors, etc.

On the downside, I also noticed a few flaws, but they were mostly minor things. For one thing, genetics does not work that way! Also, that tyrannosaur really gets around. He shows up seemingly out of the blue during the stampede scene, and again during the finale comes out of nowhere indoors to surprise the raptors. How did neither the raptors nor the humans notice a giant tyrannosaur coming in through the back door? Were tyrannosaurs stealth hunters? The CIA needs to get in touch with that thing!

The film looks great on blu-ray, and the special effects still impressed me. It helps that many of the dinosaurs were animatronic, rather than computer animated. I’m far from the first to say this, but most films just look a lot better when there actually is something in front of the camera.

Of course, now I’m also curious about the novel. Michael Chrichton was my favourite author when I was younger, but I haven’t read anything of his in years. Just another thing to add to my backlog of books, I suppose.…

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The Mystic Archives of Dantalian

Damn it, Gainax.

That’s the three-word version of my review of The Mystic Archives of Dantalian. To expand a bit, I did actually enjoy the anime, though that makes the disappointment of the last episode worse. To start with the good, though, the art was well-done, the animation fluid (a few static scenes excepted), and the music was excellent. I really liked the opening and ending sequences. Others have described the show’s atmosphere as its strongest point, and I agree. Edgar Allan Poe would probably approve. Really, all I wanted going in was Gosick with a better plot, and that’s what the first episode or two seemed to promise. A similar atmosphere but with an adult, competent protagonist in Hugh Anthony Disward and a more tolerable tsundere (or whatever word you want to use) in Dalian. Add an interesting premise with the phantom books, and as long as the writers come up with a competent plot, we have an excellent series.

Unfortunately, the plot’s the problem.

Up to the last episode, Dantalian‘s main problem was simply that it didn’t really go anywhere. Gainax took an episodic approach, which is fine, and most episodes held my interest, though there were a couple serious missteps. In episode three, for example, there’s a half-episode story about a group of children exposed to the phantom book The Book of Wisdom, which turns them into a bunch of geniuses. Their teacher (who gave them the book originally) leads Hugh and Dalian to a shed where they’re all hanging out discussing philosophy and politics and such, and they tell our brave heroes that they plan… not to do anything. Because plotting to take over the world or whatever would be futile or pointless or something. So, they’ll just continue to hang out and keep to themselves.

I guess that episode did subvert my expectations, but it hardly makes for a satisfying story and is the most flagrant example of episodes that fail to progress anything. Again, though, most episodes are good enough to at least make Dantalian a B-level endeavour. That is, until the finale.

In episode eleven, we briefly meet the Red Biblioprincess Raziel and her keykeeper, who’s just called the Professor. In the twelfth and final episode, they plan to create a zombie army in London by using newspapers as phantom books to turn the readers into zombies. Several problems come to mind. First of all, the whole idea seems silly and rather cliché. Second, they’re assuming everyone or almost everyone in London will read their newspaper. Third, what’s their motive? I don’t have a clue, and here’s where the episodic approach falls apart. This story arc really needed at least a couple episodes to develop.

Fourth problem, there’s a small flaw in the plan. As one NicoNico commenter sarcastically despaired, “If only newspaper could be easily destroyed by fire or liquid…” As it turns out, Hal and Flamberge, another keykeeper/biblioprincess duo, show up and do destroy the newspapers with fire. These two had an entire episode (ep. six) devoted to them, but that was all we’d seen of them so far, so their appearance (and quick disappearance) seems almost random. As for the Professor and Raziel, after seeing their newspapers burn they just give up and go home in about as bad an anticlimax as I’ve seen, on par with the genius kids from episode three.

We also get more of the Madokami look-alike, but honestly Gainax lost me if they ever explained what place she’s in, what relationship it has with the real world, or who she is. Hugh also gets to have an Evangelion moment (think Shinji sitting on a chair introspecting).

All that said, I’d still probably buy a Blu-Ray release, if it comes out in the US. It’s pretty enough to look at to justify that. I’d also be willing to try out the light novels the show’s based on. For now, though, it’s time to start on the new anime season (oh yeah, and I was one of the proud few who finished and enjoyed Cat God, but I doubt that’d be worth a separate review).

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