Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Select reviews from Manga: The Complete Guide

A while back I asked Jason Thompson (the driving force behind Manga: The Complete Guide) if I could reprint some of the reviews I wrote for it here. I wanted to share them with everyone and also promote the book a little.

Not only was he kind enough to give permission, but he also took some time out to pick his favorites. Here are his selections.

Adventure Kid (Adventure Kid) (アドベンチャーKID) • Toshio Maeda • Manga 18 (2002) • Brahman (2001) • 4 volumes • Straight Adult Manga • X (explicit sexual content)
A kid is next to a computer when it explodes and before long he and his girlfriend are sucked into the digital world and dumped into the past – in the middle of a World War II battlefield. A bunch of delinquents follow them in and fight off the evil, lecherous American soldiers. It turns out the computer was haunted by a mad scientist and the only way to escape is to go back in time and stop him from entering the machine. But then all the dead solders start moving again – they’re zombies! Meanwhile, the kid’s fat father has sex with a bunch of women. Back to the action! The kids are transported to a fantasy realm based on a video game where they fight/seduce demons to escape! As you can probably tell, this manga is more interest in not making sense than anything else. There are plenty of sexy women and frequent (but brief) sexual interludes, but really it’s just a weird mix of video game references, zombies, yakuza-wannabees, and demon sex.
3 stars

Battle Binder Plus • Rulia 046 • Antarctic Press (1994-1995) • 1 volume • Straight Adult Manga • X (explicit sexual content)
It might start as a sci-fi story of cyborg combat and rampant lesbian sex in the future but Battle Binder Plus quickly leaves all the sex behind. The first few chapters feature our heroine getting naked and engaging in sexual show-downs with a variety of beautiful female criminals before transforming into a giant armored robot and killing everyone, but eventually the whole sex pretense is abandoned entirely in favor of getting right into the cyber-suit powered armor combat. Lots of bystanders and big buildings are destroyed in the process, of course. Not that there aren’t plenty of nude reaction shots, but it’s more about blowing things up than blowjobs by that point. The mechanical and environmental designs are rather good but the humans just don’t measure up (and the artists skips more than one frame, jokingly apologizing for being lazy). In the end, the entire thing was probably just written as an excuse to draw a destroyed skyscraper on the moon and have a hot chick in power armor fight and kill herself.
2 stars

Fantasy Fighters • Koh Kawarajima • Manga 18 (2002) • (1998) • 1 volume • Straight Adult Manga • X (explicit sexual content)
Everyone knows that the rich rape the poor, but rarely has it been so graphically (and absurdly) demonstrated than here. A poor girl’s father is nearly killed after a fight with some mutant delinquents and is now only kept alive by a coin-operated life support machine. How does his daughter pay for it? By being the sex-slave for the evil rich boy that led the gang of mutants. That’s when things get interesting. The girl’s father is used in an experimental program to create supersoldiers for the rich (androids for the bourgeois – thus he’s a “bourgeroid”) so he escapes to rescue her. But it turns out that the father of the rich boy tried to stop his son from defiling her and committed suicide in atonement – only to be brought back as a bourgeroid himself! Now the two old men/cyborgs must fight (after traveling through a secret tunnel hidden in the bathtub) – and it is revealed that they were friends as children. Thankfully, the cyborg dad has angelic wings, so he can fly to safety. “The hidden power of the wretchedly poor has defeated me!” The art may be a cheap copy of Satoshi Urushihara and the sex boring, but the bizarre story and sheer absurdity of the dialogue gets high marks,
4 stars

Love Touch • Akira Gatjou • Studio Ironcat (1999-2000) • Vision Publishing (1993) • 1 volume • Straight Adult Manga • X (explicit sexual content)
Another entrant into the category of terrible fan-art that somehow got published, Love Touch begins with a sense of humor but quickly loses amid jumbled, incompetent storytelling and art that degenerates to the point where it is almost impossible to distinguish characters form each other. Even more puzzling is that the series also becomes more focused on relationships as it progresses instead of just straight-up sex (though it never really did that particularly well either). The art is basically pretty simple, but still manages to end up a cluttered mess without any real sense of eroticism, aside from the fact that people are naked and (might) be having sex.
1 star

Oh My! (Iya!) • Protonsaurus • Sexy Fruit (2002-2003) • Izumi Comics (1996) • 1 volume • Straight Adult Manga • X (explicit sexual content)
The best that can be said about Oh My! is that it is cute, once or twice. Everything else is terrible. Stories of incest and inappropriate student-teacher relationships might be worth the time if the art wasn’t entirely abysmal, amateur sketches – and if it didn’t go to such great pains to try to convince the reader that the clearly underage girls are eighteen and just about to graduate college. The sex is fine, but no one should care when it looks like this.
1 star
Manga: The Complete Guide is available on Amazon. Jason Thompson is a cool dude and available on LiveJournal.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Robbers

This comes highly recommended by the quality Kaiju Shakedown, and the trailer certainly looks like it could be cool, so I'm interested.

Monday, September 8, 2008

some concerning trends/tidbits

Apparently FUNimation's share of the anime market is even bigger than I had thought:
The market share info, provided by FUNimation from VideoScan data, showed FUNImation at 32.7% in the first half of 2008. It’s worth noting that VideoScan numbers do not include Wal-Mart, which may sell as much as 30-40% of all anime in the U.S. If Wal-Mart were included, it’s likely that FUNImation's market share would be larger than the number provided here due to the company's significant presence in the country's largest retailer.
While I'm happy for FUNimation's success, I don't actually think that's a good thing. It would be much better to have several mid-sized companies than one big guy and then everyone else. For a wonderful example of how screwed up an industry can be when you have one company that's just orders of magnitude larger than everyone else, look at the hobby game industry.

I also worry that FUNimation will have a repeat of the ADV choking-on-their-own-success story. That's another danger when so much of the market hangs on one company - when it falters, everyone's start crying "ADVpocalypse!"

And then we also have the Big Guys from Hollywood still stepping in to kick some anime shit around:
Sony has acquired the U.S., Canada, Latin America, Australia, and New Zealand rights to Production I.G. anime feature The Sky Crawlers.
I suppose that's a bit dramatic, but I find it kind of annoying when a "real" studio steps in and licenses some anime.

Why? Because they don't really do anything special with it (it's not in more theateres or doesn't really get more exposure or anything) and they're a giant, impossible, pain-in-the-ass to work with to get screening permissions or do anything special with. They come with all the baggage of a giant studio with none of the benefits.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Mad Detective

Johnnie To has been everyone's darling for a while now. Election and Exiled garnered a great deal of attention and were heralded as revitalizing Hong Kong cinema. Johnnie To was bringing back the heyday of good ol' HK flicks. Mad Detective has also been very widely (and highly) praised and it very much lives up to its reputation.

To's love for the great movies of the 80s and 90s is clear in the rough, unpolished feel of the film. Effects are kept to a minimum and the cops-on-the-edge with their tiny pop-cap guns woudl have been just as comfortable walking through scenes 15 or 20 years ago. The atmosphere is set with billowing smoke, dirty windows and grainy film.

The tone is similarly brutal, blunt and nihilistic as well. The movie is ostensibly about the unsolved mystery of a missing cop but the classic story of the eccentric, insane detective with a unique insight into the mind of criminals comes across as much more ominous and disturbing. The "eccentricities" quickly spiral into raw, paralyzing madness, seemingly tainting everyone around him. It quickly becomes clear that the movie is more about the instability and multitudes within everyone. The film's spots of surprising and effective humor serve to reinforce its overall tone instead of undermining or diluting it.

Mad Detective is definitely recommended to fans of Asian cinema. Johnnie To takes a pat, cliched story and manages to make it engaging and unnerving, though the rough and unpolished feel may make it difficult for newer fans to really get into.
based on a screening during the Seattle International Film Festival : Wikipedia : IMDB : YouTube

Monday, April 7, 2008

Hatenkou Yuugi

I tried to give it another chance (the fun banter between the leads lured me back) but the episodes simply continue to get worse. Predictable, trite plots made worse by ridiculous scripts intent on saying instead of showing just make it unbearable despite often very fun chemistry and bishonen boys who are just so ridiculously over the top it's impossible not to laugh at them.

So I'm done. Not recommended to anyone, unfortunately.
based on 4 episodes : ANN : Wikipedia : YouTube : Crunchyroll

The Skull Man

The Skull Man is, in many ways, a very typical BONES production. Gorgeous, stylish, evocative, and compelling with amazing bursts of action. It's also riddled with loose ends and unanswered questions and full of a supporting cast that are far more interesting than the "main" characters, many of them clearly gifted with incredibly deep back stories we never get a glimpse of. It manages to simultaneously be surprising and tritely predictable.

The first few episodes suggested some kind of anime mixture of Batman and The Count of Monte Christo from the point of view of an outsider, a reporter trying to track down a brutal vigilante with hints of supernatural power. Add in some anime tropes of a spunky female sidekick and a mysterious old man who seems to know everything that's going on but refuses to say anything straight out and you have a pretty standard concept with the usual high production standard from BONES. I was expecting a formulaic and probably episodic show that would peter out mid-way through.

The show had an oddly compelling character to it, however. Maybe it was the somewhat retro feel to it with character designs that were clearly an homage to old classics or the strange, anachronistic pseudo-alternate history setting but the first several episodes manage to maintain a surprising momentum despise a startlingly slow pace (in hindsight). Very little is revealed about the histories of the main characters or the Skull Man himself. The supernatural elements of the show even come racing into the forefront when people start transforming into man-beast hybrids and having big knock-down, drag-out fights but the show still manages to maintain silent on what's really going on.

When it does start spilling the beans, though, it doesn't stop. The cast is fleshed out and the pacing picks up quickly, but more importantly The Skull Man keeps the audience guessing with a constant stream of red herrings and twists and turns that throw the original premise on it's ear, only to throw out the new premise as well. Conspiracies appear and collapse only to be replaced by another organization. Secrets are revealed - and then exposed as fakes themselves. This never feels cheap; instead, it keeps the otherwise simple, standard anime hero fighting monsters fresh and interesting.

Not everything gets resolved in the end. In fact, the ending is a huge, gaping hole begging for a sequel. The core storyline does get wrapped up, but many subplots receive little attention and some of those conspiracies introduced are clearly a platform for a further chapter in the series. Looking back, The Skull Man doesn't quite add up to more than the sum of its parts and it isn't really anything new, but it is all put together in a rather fresh way and is a great deal of fun.

Definitely recommended in general, especially for anyone who likes a bit of atmospheric action, likes guessing at what's "really going on," and can handle a very open-ended "conclusion."
based on full series, 13 episodes : ANN : Wikipedia : YouTube : Crunchyroll

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Skull Man, episode 2

Set in an alternate history Japan that doesn't seem to be too divergent yet, The Skull Man comes across as Batman from the other side: a reporter returns to his home town on the trail of rumors about a "Skull Man" who attacks people in the night, leaving a trail of bodies behind him. Aside from a brush with the mysterious figure during a brief fight, it has yet to get very supernatural or even feature much of the titular character. Instead we follow the reporter as he tries to track down leads on the vigilante and runs across a variety of people with their own agendas and interest in whatever is going on in the town.

Being a BONES show, it is of course wonderfully animated. The designs feel a bit retro, but work well enough and are really the only thing that really the only thing that seems vaguely "alternate history" so far, inconsequential backstory notwithstanding. So far its been content to build rather slowly, however, and hasn't been particularly flashy.

That relatively reserved pace means that there is little to gauge the show on so far, but it's been pretty solid, again, like most BONES shows. It remains to be seen whether it will ultimately come together better than many of their past works or if it will end up feeling like a bit less than the sum of its parts, full of great characters (often with the supporting cast being far more interesting than the main characters) and bad-ass fight scenes but never really quite gelling for some reason.

For now there is some novelty to be had in having no information about the vigilante and his quest for vengeance, learning everything along with the reporter. The characters have shown glimmers of depth beyond their archetypes as well, and BONES is always good for a ride at least, so I'll give this some time to play out.
based on 2 episodes : ANN : Wikipedia : YouTube

Oh! Edo Rocket, episode 2

There's just a little bit of everything in here. A cast of ridiculously wacky characters sporting designs from a spectrum of completely different anime live in the poor district in Edo, trying to scrape a living with their "frivolous" trades: dancers, doll-makers, entertainers, fireworks makers - they've all had their passion and livelihood either banned outright or heavily discouraged by a controlling state and overzealous magistrates. Into this mix jumps a gorgeous woman (Sora) who also seems to be some kind of supernatural beast. She wants to build fireworks that will fly all the way to the moon.

Oh! Edo Rocket is definitely a frenetic, crack comedy. The jokes come fast and furious, and the show is happy to shift setting, tone, and art style just as quickly. Computers and TVs are pulled out in ancient Japan for dramatic effect whenever it'll help with a punchline. Flashbacks are re-enacted in the present. Whatever it takes.

Oddly enough, though, the most intriguing part of the show are the "pokemon fights" between Sora in her beast form, some other supernatural monster and a collection of armored ninjas every bit as eccentric as the poor entertainers. There's some plot about the other monster killing people and Sora getting blamed for it and the ninjas hunting them down but it's still very vague. The fact that it's interesting, however, and not just an interruption in the constant comedy stream bodes well for it developing into something worthwhile, however.

Recommended for comedy fans and for anyone able to keep up with the pace and style. Those character designs in the screenshots aren't their chibi or SD forms - that's how they look all the time. I'm enjoying it so far. It's another one of those titles I've been meaning to catch up on for the longest time.
based on 2 episodes : ANN : Wikipedia : YouTube

Hatenko Yugi, episode 3

It's not entirely clear what's going on in this show. Rahzel is kicked out of her house with just a blind-folded teddy bear and a command to "see the world." She comes across an oh-so-myseriously-sexy albino-with-issues (and a gun) named Alzeido. They go on random adventures together (inexplicably joined by the playboy Baroqueheat) and learn the value of friendship and true love. Or something. Also, she has vague magic powers that seem to involve shooting generic energy blasts and the playboy can turn his hand into a... sword... thing. And don't worry about keeping any sense of time or space or tension during the fights, 'cause there is none.

It's got all the classic shoujo elements: a cheerful heroine, a silent-but-sexy type, and an overly affectionate hunk. The meandering "plot" and the lack of any distinct setting, per se, makes it difficult to follow - as do the stilted and heavy-handed references to Mysterious Pasts for both the bishis - but the actual dialogue was surprisingly sharp enough for me to give it a little time to develop. Our heroine isn't a swooning ditz, she's a reasonable bad-ass in her own right and her exchanges with both her gigolos are surprisingly entertaining. She's got a sharp tongue and so do they. Perhaps even more importantly, they don't insist on continually denying obvious feelings for each other. While they all certainly enjoy putting on the act that they don't care about each other, they all ultimately admit it and that gives Hatenko Yugi a leg up on my female harem shows.

Unfortunately, that's not really enough to overcome the show's central flaws. The hunks (and even Rahzel herself) are set up with intensely dramatic, mysterious and tragic backstories and we know this because we are told so. Flat out. Repeatedly. Usually by Rahzel herself. The accompanying heavy-handed metaphors drag whatever episodic plot they're foisted upon, giving everything a childish feeling at odds with the often dark and brutal subject matter. The undeniable gravitas is just shoved down the viewer's throat. It's possible it might have worked with some kind of central plot to hang on to, but instead it all collapses under its own meandering weight.

It's a shame, as I wouldn't have minded seeing more of Rahzel bickering with her man-whores. Fans of shoujo with a high tolerance for "Isn't that tragic?" who are looking for something a little different will probably find something to enjoy here, but everyone else can probably give it a pass. It could develop into something good, but with the level of storytelling presented thus far, it'll likely come at a high price.
based on 3 episodes : ANN : Wikipedia : YouTube

Bokurano, episode 10

It's a classic "only in anime" premise. A group of kids on a summer learning vacation think they're all signing up for an advanced video game but it quickly becomes clear that the giant robot they were riding in to fight alien invaders is very much real. What's worse, they learn that each of them will be required to pilot in turn - and only once, because once they defeat the enemy, the pilot dies. It's a classic giant robot battle, but the young kids all know that they will die once they get behind the controls.

We still haven't found out what exactly this invading threat to the world actually is - monsters show up and the kids are summoned. The pilot is decided by whoever personal chair gets picked and they are thrust into battle, though they usually have some time when they know that they've been picked but before the actual fight begins. That's why we get a look at their life and how they spend their last few days. What they say good bye to and (ultimately) why they choose to fight instead of running away.

Obviously, the show has a rather dark tone to it. Not unlike the creator's other manga-turned-anime, Shadow Star Narutaru, the show gets rather surprisingly dark and brutal, putting it's children through the ringer. The difference here is that the show is expected to burn through the cast at a steady rate and punches don't need to be pulled since it can just move on to the next kid. Without anyone to stick around and have to take all the abuse, the tragedy doesn't really pile up to unbelievable levels either - aside from the basic "giant robot pilot sentenced to death" conceit. Perhaps it's because I haven't ready the original manga, like I did with Narutaru, but Bokurano doesn't seem to feel as stifled or constricted in fully exploring what's going on with its characters.

It's unclear whether this will all build to something cohesive and it is admittedly rather formulaic so far: a new pilot is picked, they muse about their life and we get a glimpse of everything that was going wrong around them (and sometimes what was going right) and they ultimately decide to fight to protect something they love - or they screw up horribly and we find out that they should have been protecting someone. There's also the looming specter that the director of the anime came out and said he hated the original manga and ended up getting canned from the project for it. Not exactly inspiring a whole lot of confidence, but it's still an enjoyable show with a lot of potential. Any show willing to kill children gets some points.
based on 10 episodes : ANN : Wikipedia : YouTube

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Mnemosyne, episode 2

Well, we got an explanation, but I'm not sure I want it anymore. Apparently our buxom, bad-ass, hard-drinking (and in this episode, a raging lesbian) heroine Rin is immortal because her body absorbed a "time spore." Her loli partner is also immortal, by the way. But only women become immortal - when men absorb a time spore, they turn into superhuman beasts driven only by their base instincts. And they're called "angels." Female immortals have an uncontrollable sexual attraction to these angels, only to be "embraced" and then eaten alive by them.

Astounding. I have to admit I'm a little impressed. It takes a lot of creativity and chutzpah (mainly the chutzpah) to take that many ridiculous cliches and throw them out there with a straight face. There also some plot about a girl's brother turning into an angel and some assassin who demands to be paid in rare stamps, as well as some more indulgence in pain porn, but the exposition is the real point of this episode.

I'm half-tempted to continue with the show just to see how ridiculous it can get (and because it is gorgeously animated), but episode 2 managed to remove just about everything of interest from the show and replace it with cartoonish lesbianism and a monster that would have been embarrassed to be in Devil Man. It's basically hentai without the sex. What's the point in that? Not recommended unless that's what you want.
based on 2 episodes : ANN : Wikipedia : YouTube

Gunslinger Girl -Il Teatrino-

Under the guise of a "Social Welfare Agency," the Italian government gives young, terminally ill girls a new lease on life by turning them into combat cyborgs and using them to quietly dispose of dissidents and terrorists. They're kept under heaving conditioning, losing their memory and identity before the operation. Each has a handler that they are given an overwhelming attachment to, one which manifests differently from girl to girl. The pair could seem like father and daughter, brother and sister, or even lovers. Queue lots of girls brutally killing dudes and waxing about the transience of life.

I'm a big fan of the original series. It managed to combine slick animation with a completely fan-service, pandering concept and somehow turn it into a rather compelling tragedy. Both the manga and the original anime had a wonderful atmosphere. The juxtaposition of delicate young girls toting around assault weapons and remorseless murdering anyone they were ordered to was honed even further with the razor-thin line they all walked between following orders and losing all control in their mad obsession with their handler. The characters were all given surprising depth, despite clearly being from a checklist of "character traits to include in successful anime production."

All that the sequel manages to retain of that comes from direct references to its predecessor. It clearly had no budget for animation, substituting shaky still images and speed lines for quality production. Nor does it have any solid writing, either, feeling the need to state the obvious that was left simply understood before. There are no tactics, no questionable morality, no smiling children murdering each other, no real attention to detail or subtle charm. Just schoolgirls with guns and mental problems shooting totally eeeeeevil Italian terrorists.

Gunslinger Girl -Il Teatrino- is, bluntly, just about everything the original was criticized for being without any of the redeeming elements I found in it. Not recommended for anyone, unless poorly-animated middle schoolers with machine guns is really enough to get you going.

Kinda makes me want to go back and re-watch the original to actually lay out a good defense for it...
based on 5 episodes : ANN : Wikipedia : YouTube

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Ghost Hound, episode 13

Ghost Hound continues: questions are answered but (of course) mysteries only deepen. The kids continue experimenting with astral projection and achieve greater control over their spiritual forms. The link between projection and memory appears to be deepening, with Taro delving into his own mind, it seems. Meanwhile the Ogami family hints are dark secrets and Masayuki's father seems to be getting himself into some complicated trouble with a romance with one of Taro's doctor. Miyako is briefly possessed by some spirit talking about leading both good and evil to its end with but a word...

There's really little point in trying to summarize the events in recent Ghost Hound episodes. If I'm not going to sit down and try to pick it all apart, it won't make much sense. Like the audio beauty of the show, it's really an experience. It's still unclear how everything will tie together, or even what the fulcrum of the show itself will end up being, but it is clear that the kids are at the center of a growing storm and the threads of their family's histories are weaving together tighter and tighter.

Strongly recommended for any anime fan who likes something to think about and ponder. A rare show with subtle, power and depth, Ghost Hound stands up to examination and masterfully continues to dole out just enough information to keep the viewer satisfied while constantly adding new mysteries and hinting at far more than it says flat-out.
based on 13 episodes : ANN : Wikipedia : YouTube

Mononoke, episode 5

The unstoppable visual power of Mononoke continues strong through the "Umibozu" ("Sea Monk") arc, revolving around the revelations of a prestigious monk's dark past and repressed regrets, played out on an unbelievably ostentatious boat trapped in a "Bermuda Triangle" of monsters and ghosts.

It follows the same formula: everyone acts a bit suspiciously, a terrible monster shows up and is barely fought off, there's lots of talking and hinting about the true nature of the tragedy that formed the monster and the truth is only dramatically revealed when the monster reappears and is poised to strike. There are some hints at something deeper going on, however: the myserious "medicine sellers" seems more interested in banishing ayakashi than in saving anyone (and he seems to enjoy it), and he goes through some mystical release/transformation to fight the monster this time.

But, as I've said before, boiling Mononoke down to its basic formula does it an injustice. It's the style and (especially) the incredible visuals that form the core of the show. Once again it deftly deals with dark, tragic material through suggestion and imaginative symbolism. It may be difficult to follow at times and risks the same sensory overload that drove people away from Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Christo but that's exactly what makes it so riveting.

An otherwise rudimentary (if refreshingly dark) ghost story is given a whole new dimension and depth with the show's visual style. Highly recommended.
based on 5 episodes : ANN : Wikipedia : YouTube

Hakaba Kitarou, episode 6

Based on a classic old manga about an amoral and somewhat grotesque boy (Kitaro) who is the last remaining descendant of the "Ghost Tribe" of yokai (aside from the spiritual remains of his father, who is just an eyeball with a little body), Hakaba Kitaro does an impressive job of capturing the old-school look with a modern polished sheen. Somewhat episodic, it generally revolves around a hapless human encountering a yokai or monster and suffering horribly or it - usually while Kitaro watches on, not bothering to help anyone unless its to his own benefit.

Kitaro is indeed a callous little brat and he lack of interest in saving anyone around him, no matter how undeserving their persecution at the hands of one or another disfigured monster, was rather surprising, as I was under the impression that Kitaro was a classic character who had always fought for peace between humans and yokai, rising above his own tragic origins. Instead, he openly wonders why he should bother saving any human and only gets motivated when its to his own benefit. The basic formula of the show is to have some human stumble into a monster and get cursed or attacked, with Kitaro taking action only when it affects him. If the human is saved (which is rare) then it's purely coincidental. All the while, the monster child is more than happy to sponge off a hapless man whose fate got wrapped up in his own.

Sharing an art director and animation style with Mononoke, Hakaba Kitaro is certainly visually impressive. The papered texture and patterns, combined with the retro character designs, create a strong feeling of age, fitting the venerable source material. It makes for a very odd mix impressions, seeming both modern and dated at the same time. The designs may well put off some viewers.

The aimless predictability of the show makes it hard to really get behind. A lot is said about Kitaro needing to survive, as he's the last of the Ghost Tribe, but it has little effect on the story. It's also difficult to empathize with him or find justification for his behavior - he certainly has a tragic backstory but it's delivered with just enough humor to diffuse any real gravitas (as are the rest of the horrific incidents humans suffer). It's not consistently funny enough to be a comedy, but neither is it really serious enough to be effective horror, despite the dark subject matter. That's a very tough line to walk, and I don't think that Hakaba Kitaro will be able to pull that off.
based on 6 episodes : ANN : Wikipedia : YouTube

Spice and Wolf, episode 9

They've managed to escape one city and are on their way through the wilderness again. Bumping into a shy little girl who claims to be able to control dogs/wolves, they hire her as a guide and have an uneventful trip through some infamous woods. Pretty much all the "action" of the episode is found in Horo's reaction to the shepherd girl and her relentlessly teasing Lawrence about it. Clearly something is being set up for yet another conflict with the church, likely revolving around the aforementioned shy shepherd.

My friends seem to have pretty much given up with the show at this point (or with episode 10 - which I'm somewhat dreading), having gotten fed up with the somewhat rough, unfocused nature of the show. Despite being surprisingly subtle for an anime and gifted with a unique premise, it never really seems to quite gel and reach the next level. It has it's fair share of tense moments, but has a habit of getting side-tracked with brief economic lessons or getting stuck in a comfortable rut.

That might be my biggest gripe with the show. The broad plot is a classic fantasy cycle of being chased by powerful bad guys and being forced to flee into the wilderness, but in the details that doesn't seem to quite carry through. After a narrow escape from the Church in the last arc, Horo and Lawrence are back up into a sturdy cart and trading, business as usual. They don't seem any more paranoid about being discovered again, nor is there a greater sense of urgency about reaching Horo's northern homelands. The characters have potential for incredible depth and emotional power, but if they (and the show itself) remain static, they will never realize it.

Either way, right now I'm still enjoying the show, though I have a suspicion that it'll end up as good, but disappointing as opposed to grrrreat!
based on 9 episodes : ANN : Wikipedia : YouTube

Shigofumi, episode 9

Fumika, a laconic albino loli, delivers letters from the dead to those still living. Encapsulating what they simply couldn't say while still alive, the letters invariably lead to further complications (and often violence). Fumika watches on passively, lamenting the foolish nature of humanity - then moving on to the next delivery. That's how it starts, at least. As it progresses, more is revealed about Fumika's own unique history, as well as for some other characters.

At first, there was a strong vibe that Shigofumi desperately wants to be Boogiepop Phantom with a cloaked, impassive girl usually sitting back and watching people brutalize and use each other, only acting when it impeded her own mission. There are even some genuinely horrific moments (Fumika interrupts some thugs beating a man for impregnating their "merchandise" to deliver a letter to "daddy" - it's just a bloody baby's hand-print) and surprisingly risque material (sexual and deep psychological abuse of children, teen suicide - material strong enough to merit multiple edits to content before broadcast). It never seems to handle the dark topics with the weight you might expect, however, and comes across as rather formulaic: Fumika shows up in the middle of some crazy situation to deliver a letter from someone who had just died (and thus precipitated said crazy situation) that only serves to further complicate everything until everyone just accept the death/information in the letter. At which point Fumika leaves, dropping some wise comment about how broken humans are and how they constantly hurt each other and can only find the courage to say what's important after it's too late.

It's very tempting to dismiss Shigofumi as a darker version of Ballad of a Shinigami and that wouldn't be entirely off the mark. As the series has progressed, however, its shed a bit of his formulaic, episodic format and allowed the characters to grow somewhat. Fumika loses her air of mystery but gains a great deal of empathy. Combined with voice acting that somehow managed to from annoying-as-hell to wonderfully-endearing, the show manages to almost succeed despite itself.

I've been writing this show off every episode. Giving it just one more chance to add up to anything, and each time I find myself coming back again. It's hard to say why - there's nothing really solid or amazing going on here. A growing attachment to the characters just keeps bringing me back in the hopes that they'll do something worthy of my attention. It seems unlikely that'll happen any time soon, however, as the show is already near its end. Recommended only if you're happy with something that will meander and never really face anything head-on, especially if you have an appetite for little slices of melodrama packaged with a "humans are so flawed" emo atmosphere.
based on 9 episodes : ANN : Wikipedia : YouTube

Seto no Hanayome, episode 6

Harem anime aren't known for pushing the envelope and trying new things - don't expect anything shocking here. Nagasumi (a run-of-the-mill, white-button-down-shirt-wearing, soon-to-be-pimpin' boy) is saved from drowning by a mermaid (San) - but any human who finds out about mermaids is killed, along with the mermaid. But wait! There's a loophole! If they get married (and join the mermaid family) then they're spared. What's more, the mermaid are all Yakuza thugs who rather liked the idea of eating a landlubbber. Cue the wackiness waiting in the wings.

Arranged-marriage hijinks are a prominent sub-strain of harem anime (despite generally focusing on one girl, they still remain in the family by keeping with the twin pillars of Nothing Ever Happens and There Are Always More Hot Girls, even if they're just toss-away) and Seto no Hanayome doesn't break any stereotypes, and it suffers from a core romance with little actual chemistry. There is hope, however, that Japan have finally realized how to revitalize the boring and indulgent genre: have a male lead the audience doesn't hate more than they envy.

Nagasumi a pretty nice guy and he does a stand-up job of acting like a dude a chick might actually care about, but more importantly he's also a complete nut and the animators go hog-wild with his reactions. He's constantly swinging from dopey lovey-dovey to scared-to-death to completely dead at the drop of a hat. He pinballs around the cast, bouncing off each character with increasingly colorful reactions, and the show follows suit with wildly divergent animation styles. The fact that his bride's family are all over-protective Yakuza more than ready to chew the shit out of the scenery provides Nagasumi more than enough to freak out about.

The humor and variety of animation keeps the show fresh and fun, even when you want to write it off. Recommended for anyone looking for an amusing and kinetic romance. Highly recommend for anyone with a soft-spot for cute girls speaking with a Yakuza snarl. Like me. Don't bother looking for deep thought or romance or anything beyond the basic "high school kid gets engaged to a Yakuza mermaid" joke.
based on 6 episodes : ANN : Wikipedia : YouTube

Nagasarete Airantou, episode 3

A straight-up harem anime, our hapless hero Ikuto runs away from home and ends up washing up on a island populated entirely by beautiful female ninjas (who all want a man, of course). Predictably, Ikuto can't just sit back and enjoy his new life in the world of porn film premises, but he's stranded there by the ring of whirlpools that surround the island. So he ends up loving/hating being the focus of every girl's attention and wackiness ensues.

Nothing ground-breaking going on there, but I have to admit that there's a certain appeal to the show that keeps me from just writing it off. It's become something of a guilty pleasure for me. Ikuto's obsession with proving that nothing is impossible makes him a bit more active than the standard harem hero - he's just standing there batting of beauties all the time. Having the island full of female ninjas also allows for lots of colorful, wacky characters with crazy habits and powers. The girlie he's going to obviously "end up" with (Suzu) also manages to walk that line of just brain-dead enough to be amusing, as opposed to deserving a good slapping. The character designs are be a bit bland, but nice an expressive in motion, especially for Ikuto.

This isn't really anything new, and neither is it really anything good, but it's a pleasantly amusing harem anime (more due to avoiding an annoying "hero" or women). Recommended if you like the pretty girlies and want to indulge in a bit of a harem fantasy. If you want something with really any substance, look for something else.
based on 3 episodes : ANN : Wikipedia : YouTube

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Mononoke, episode 3

A spin-off series born from the Goblin Cat arc of Ayakashi - Samurai Horror Tales, Mononoke follows the same "medicine peddler" as he travels around Japan, exorcising and banishing dangerous spirits after exposing their form, truth and regret. Invariably this involves exposing the shocking, sordid histories and tragedies of everyone around him. People act suspiciously, he makes cryptic comments, a monster appears, someone dies brutally, everyone denies wrongdoing - only to confess before meeting their own brutal end. And then he kills the monster and the cycle repeats with a new cast of sinners.

Miraculously, Mononoke manages to be anything but predictable and stale, despite rigidly following a clear formula. The fantastic visual style keeps the viewer engaged, demanding constant attention. Nearly every shot could be framed and mounted on the wall with incredible explosions of color and patterns, all seen through a filter that makes it look like crinkled paper. The show looks like an animated shoji screen and shares a lot of elements with other recent titles like Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Christo and Hakaba Kitaro.

The show is also startlingly brutal and callous, pulling no punches with stories about torture and systematic abortion. Such powerful and revolting topics are made even more unsettling by the deftly subtle (and frequently surreal) visuals. We aren't show abortions or dead fetuses - we're show dolls and red cloth, and we hear the laughter of hundreds of children who were never born blend together into one voice overflowing with resentment for the living.

The meshing of expert visuals with brutal and despicable sin elevates Mononoke far beyond the traditional formula. The structure may not be new, but the blunt honesty and dark content certainly is. Highly, highly recommended to anyone who can handle the subject matter or has an interest in visual design, anime fan or not.
based on 3 episodes : ANN : Wikipedia

Strait Jacket, episode 1

Based on a light novel (is it just me or is that becoming more and more common now?), Strait Jacket is a very straight-forward mix of magic and technology. After a scientific experiment allows mankind to bring the power of magic from fables into the real world, there is a predictable flood of techno-magical marvels for medical, consumer and (of course) military use. This all comes at a high price, however, as prolonged use of/exposure to magic turns people into monstrous (and nigh-invulnerable) demons. Such outbreaks are apparently on the rise and licensed sorcerers are few and far between, so a perky and earnest young female bureaucrat is forced to hire a mysterious and smart-talking wandering bad-ass to save a hospital full of people from a rampaging demon. It's only after he is deployed that she finds out he has a reputation for going a bit too far, causing significant collateral damage.

Sadly, "tactical sorcerer" really just means "techno-magic mecha pilot" and refuses to really do anything new. The monster shows up, looks menacing, and is ultimately completely obliterated in a huge energy blast that destroys a few nearby buildings - it is very nicely animated, however, and satisfyingly bloody. It takes full advantage of being an OVA. It also manages to set a pretty good mood. The city is nice and gloomy, straight out of some steampunk horror story. The techno-magic gear is gorgeous, with enough nice flourishes and design details to almost make up for the lack of actual tension or suspense. Everything requires ominous incantations to activate and the magical armor and guns eject spent magic shells whenever a big power is used.

Ultimately, Strait Jacket is only mediocre show with a shiny coat of techno-magic paint. Aside from some eviscerations and nice mechnical designs, it could be forgotten among the crowds of action anime starring brooding, mysterious anti-heroes using incredibly over-kill powers against monsters that could pop up anywhere. The post-credit sequence where the perky heroine shows up with all the paperwork necessary to register our hero and get him legit only cements this anime-by-numbers. Wacky adventures are bound to ensue.

It's certainly not bad, but not something to really seek out. Recommended for fans of 'splosions and techno-magic gadgetry. Perhaps future episodes will try something different - or at least provide more fun magical toys.
based on 1 episode : ANN : Wikipedia

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business

Wired has a fascinating article on the economics of giving products away for free: Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business

It doesn't have a magic solution for the challenges faced by the music, movie, and anime industries (otherwise I imagine the author'd just go make a fortune himself) but it's a very interesting examination of what it means for economics when the perceived value (and costs) of products drops to zero (or near to it).

Recommended for anyone curious and speculating about the future of business in the digital age.

Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, episode 5

The world fills with Itoshiki-sensei with despair, his class is filled with mutants, and each episode takes everything to its ridiculous, illogical extreme, constantly driving the teacher into the comforting oblivion of suicide. While not as hyper as traditional crack-comedy like Excel Saga it's just as - if not more - random, constantly taking impossible-to-predict-but-hilarious turns. The unique visual style of the show is similarly varied, with art style and color palette changing as rapidly as the tone and ridiculous storyline.

It's no surprise that the director had previously worked on Pani Poni Dash!, as both shows share the same uncontrollable randomness. His work on SoulTaker also shows through in the wild shifts in perspective, lighting and color. While it's not as cute or quite as anime-typical as either, it does manage to avoid being weighed down by a massive cast with more distinctive character designs - and frequently not really expecting or needing you to remember who's who. Sayonora Zetsubou Sensei seems to draw from smarter source material with sharper (and more risqué) jokes. It's not just loli-con snipes or running gags; it keeps building as more and more screwed up students are introduced.

This is one of those titles I'd watched one episode of and knew I was going to like it, so I put it aside for quite some time. Now I've gotten back into it and I'm at a loss to really explain why I didn't keep up with it. Really brilliant stuff, one of the best comedy anime in quite some time. Highly recommend to anyone who doesn't need their anime to constantly make sense.

based on 5 episode : ANN : Wikipedia