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

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Ghost Hound, episode 9

A subdued, subtle show that seems into your mind through your ears, Ghost Hound is as much a soundscape as it is piece of animation. The sound design is nothing short of brilliant, accomplishing more with a few moments of audio than most anime can with hours of dialogue. And it has a lot to say, too. It's Production I.G's 20th anniversary project and boasts a pedigree that includes Serial Experiments Lain, Texhnolyze, Ghost in the Shell, Jin-Roh, Kino's Journey, and Hell Girl - there is certainly no shortage of stunning style mixed with philosophical pondering that is always just beyond reach.

Sitting squarely in the realm of mind-fuck anime, Ghost Hound clearly has a lot going on behind the scenes and dribbles the hints out slowly. It succeeds where earlier shows such as Lain may have lost some viewers by constantly evolving, expanding or event changing the mystery as it progresses. The viewer isn't left out the dark, the questions just keep leading to more, deeper issues. What starts as 3 boys who all have some connection to death in their childhood leads to out-of-body experiences and creepy visions of insect-like spirits covering everything. That soon veers off back towards the mental trauma you would expect these kids to be carrying around - and that leads to ruminations on memory and the dead, tying back into the spirit world the kids stumbled into. It's a coil that takes you deeper and deeper without really realzing what's going on, but its kept grounded by realistic characters with a plethora of real-world problems and flaws - and that most un-anime of character traits: a willingness to actually talk to those around them about what is happening.

Even with all that, however, it would just be good anime. What takes it beyond that and into the realm of truly great is the execution. The visuals are top-notch. This is a Production I.G show, after all, so the animation and art-direction is unmatched. The character designs might strike some as plain or blandly generic, but just like the show itself, quickly reveal themselves as intricate, subtle and remarkably expressive without relying on the usual flashy tricks. The supernatural bits are handled with a flair that becomes increasingly disturbing and ominous, building the sense of tension. But again, it's the sound design that really steps up as remarkable. There is very little music in the show, the creepy atmosphere is wrapped around the viewer using ambient noise and effects. Sounds fade into each other and are distorted so masterfully that they quickly serve as storytelling tools as deft as direct dialogue or full animation.

Ghost Hound has a lot it wants to get off its chest and manages to do most of it with a glance and the sound of a heartbeat fading into footsteps in gravel. When it does talk, it answers your questions by revealing that you were only seeing the tip of the iceberg before and now you have to re-evaluate everything.

Highly recommended to anyone who wants more than a robot and a cute girl in their anime.
based on 9 episodes : ANN : Wikipedia

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


There's the way-too-kind-and-pretty older sister, the smart-mouthed younger sister and the overly-exuberant-and-dumb middle sister. Wackiness ensues. The slice-of-life comedy Minami-ke isn't really breaking any new ground at all but has an undeniable endearing charm to it and is just funny enough to keep from being simply an exercise in laid-back adorability. Very much in the vein of both Azumanga Daioh (but less straight-out wacky and with a tighter cast) and Strawberry Marshmallow (but with older characters and more focused on humor than "aren't little girls just the most adorable things?"), the expressive, dynamic character designs and animation are strongly reminiscent of Kamichu! (without the supernatural schoolgirl-become-a-god complication) as well.

As a slice-of-life show, there's little-to-no ongoing plot. Exaggerated characters are just thrown at each other in a variety of ridiculous situations and you laugh at the fallout. Animation is top-notch and used to great effect to bring everything to life. It's hard not to laugh along with the over-the-top antics when the younger two sisters start going at it.

It's virtually impossible not to draw comparisons with Azumanga Daioh, as it largely established the genre for American otaku. Minami-ke has a smaller cast (which may mean you might not find that one kind of girl you just love) and isn't quite as overtly cute (like Kamichu!, it's somewhat subtle its cuteness attack, letting it sneak around and jump you from behind when you aren't paying attention) but does feel somewhat less disjointed. It's less obviously a sequence of humorous skits sewn together by merit of sharing the same characters, even if only by virtue of each skit/sequence being longer.

Definitely highly recommended for anyone who is a fan of either cute girls just doin' stuff or heroin-comedy (Azumanga Daioh, as opposed to the crack-comedy of Excel Saga).
based on 6 episodes : ANN : Wikipedia

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Mnemosyne, episode 1

The premise of a private investigator with some kind of mysterious past stumbling into some big conspiracy why trying to save a stranger from some evil thugs certainly isn't anything new, but with slick character designs and a bad-ass hot chick (Rin Asogi) as the PI the whole things comes across as more old-skool fun than tritely unoriginal. The hook is that Rin's apparently immortal, opening up the door for incredibly bloody scenes. Unfortunately, that might also be the show's downfall as it skirts a close edge with near-fetishisation of pain.

While I'm all for brutal combat and I loved the tempura-frying scene in Ichi the Killer, torture for torture's sake gets old real fast. Add in a dominating lesbian with a piercing fetish and it gets mildly uncomfortable as well. It's not particularly explicit or disturbing, but it feels like the pain is being showcased as fanservice, and that's very disconcerting.

The plot's also rather weak as well: something about clones and implanted memories that somehow ends up resulting in an army of attack zombies. This is only the first episode of an OVA, though, so it can very easily develop into something better. I'm willing to give it a chance to develop so long as it doesn't dip into Saw/Hostel pain-porn.
based on episode 1 : ANN : Wikipedia

H2O ~Footprints in the Sand~

The initial promise of a blind protagonist tossed into an inbred, warped village in rural Japan and forced to confront the casual brutality that is everyday life there... has evaporated. In its place are big-eye, fat-headed kids whining about anything is possible as long as you believe and some plot about a kid forced by her grandfather to impersonate her sister after she died as a child. All of the surprising and disturbing innuendo that intrigued me so much in the beginning turned out to be me just reading into everything.

Let me spoil it. Here's what was really going on: Hinata Kagura dies as a child and her little sister, Hotaru, is forced to take her place by an abusive (and prestigious) family. They tell the village that Hotaru died. Meanwhile, the powerful Kohinata family abuses the village, taking advantage of its wealth and doing horrible things like refusing to give medicine to the poor. Hinata Kagura and Hayami Kohinata become friends - only to be torn apart when the Kaguras lead the village to overthrow the Kohinata's, burning down their houses and scattering the family. Hayami is forced to live in squalor in the woods and the townsfolk regularly abuse her, both verbally and physically. But then the Promised One shows up: the blind Hirose. The "Spirit of the Sound of Time" (who turns out to be the ghost of the real Hinata) shows up, cheerfully (and prophetically) cures his blindess and he obstinately - but passively - sets out to just make everyone get along.

Turns out there was no The Lottery or any creepy, weird small-town with some kind of brutal, human-sacrifice superstitions. Instead, we just get a grand collection of idiots who are more than willing to take the abuse and blame for things they didn't do, and a town full of people more than happy to abuse - and then just as happy to be all nice-nice once an I'm-blind-but-now-I-see hapless loser shows up and asks "Why can't we all just get along?"

Recommended only for moe-taku and anyone with an unhealthy love for insipid harem anime that have pretensions of a deeply tragic plot.
based on 7 episodes : ANN : Wikipedia

True Tears, episode 6

It's amazing how mediocrity can ruin an entire genre. True Tears is an almost archetypal harem show: an average kid is surrounded by beautiful girls who all desperately want him but he really just doesn't notice. Wackiness ensues - or at least it would if they hadn't put the effort into giving all the characters actual traits and writing them like real characters. A slight dose of melodrama and top-notch art direction clinches the deal, making this a solid anime soap opera/guilty pleasure. An obsession with chickens helps too.

The first surprise was to find Shinichiro, the hapless object of just about every woman's desire, actually had real character traits - and a spine. This gives the women a reason to be interested in him: they're impressed with his art, he stood up for them (instead of the traditional Japanese habit of standing nearby and watching), or he's just a genuinely nice guy that they've seen try to help people. It really is shocking to find that you can actually root for (or even like) the kid. Actually having definably traits shouldn't prevent nerds from associating with him, though - we've all done the "I like the girl, but she likes this other guy, so I'll help them get together" thing.

The girls have actual personalities of their own as well, from the Ideal Girl to the Long-time Friend to the Weird One, they all actually manage to transcend their obvious stereotypes to one degree or another. Further, the art direction and animation is stunning (aside from the unnerving CG crowds in distant shots) and as things seem to warm up, the show injects a bit more melodrama, adding some more tension beyond simply "Will he get the girl? Which girl?!"

Highly recommended for anyone who can stomach anime romance, or teen romance in general. If you're willing to try, give it a chance. I was expecting to completely dismiss it after an episode and I've been unable to quit it since.
based on 6 episodes : ANN : Wikipedia

Spice and Wolf, episode 6

It may be moving a bit slowly and I might just be wanting to like it more than it really deserves (as a friend of mine thinks with this latest episode), but I'm still very much enjoying Spice and Wolf.

The premise is unique: Horo, a wolf-god of prosperity, enters into an agreement with Lawrence, a medieval merchant, to travel north to her ancient homeland. Things get complicated when a young merchant who clearly has complicated feelings for Lawrence shows up hunting Horo to turn over to the church and usher in a new era so her village no longer needs to rely on the god's whims for prosperity. The glue that holds the show together, though, is the interaction between Lawrence and Horo - it's surprisingly compelling and sublte for an anime.

Things have progressed rather slowly so far, though, and I suspect that's part of general sense of dissatisfaction. Most of the "action" has involved economics and manipulative trading and it's taken six episodes to resolve what seemed like a minor story about currency devaluation with a climactic revelation of Horo's "true" form - and for the leads to finally commit to each other. It's the team-building scene when constantly bickering travelers can finally admit that they really do want to travel with each other, no matter what pretense they insist on.

The animation isn't particularly impressive either. Horo's giant wolf form ripping through the catacombs was pretty nice, but mainly due to subtle touches like the wind of her passing or her wantonly tossing bodies around. With a better budget or tighter direction, that scene could have been positively bone-chilling.

Spice and Wolf remains a solid, well-written and original anime, however. At worst, it can feel like it's not living up to all it could be, but I think it's really still just trying to find it's feet. It's taken a bit, but I suspect it'll be worth it in the end.

Even if she looks more like a Firefox-tan cosplayer than a big, bad wolf.

ANN : Wikipedia

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Armored Trooper Votoms: Red Shoulder Document - Roots of Ambition

This prequel to the military sci-fi classic Armored Trooper Votoms tries to give some explanation of Chirico's past, shedding some light on both his time with the infamous Red Shoulder brigade but also the tragic childhood he had forgotten. Unfortunately, half-assed answers and recycled dramatic footage aren't as interesting as the faint air of mystery he had in the original series.

Red Shoulder Document - Roots of Ambition (also translated as Roots of Treachery) suffers much the same muddled and nonsensical plot as the modern prequel The Pailsen Files (which is supposed to immediately follow). The Red Shoulder brigade (the best of the best) essentially live in a prison and are routinely tossed into live combat just to see who survives, all as part of some quest to cull an immortal soldier who has luck/destiny on his side. This, of course, is Chirico. After proving he is immortal, they send him to the front lines to try to kill him once and for all. He's apparently too dangerous to be left alive.

There are a few glimmers of the tactics that made Chirico such a bad-ass in the TV series, but plot holes are large enough to run a mech through and what plot is there seems completely impenetrable without an encyclopedic knowledge of Votoms trivia. Recommended only for fans hardcore enough to watch a full hour for a few shots of a baby covered in goop floating in a vacuum with a terribly disturbing stare (at least judging from the other character's reactions).

based on full 60-minute OVA episode : ANN : Wikipedia

Armored Trooper Votoms: Pailsen Files

Despite fond memories of the original Votoms as military hard sci-fi that spanned from gritty realism on a futuristic battlefield to galactic conspiracies about super-soldiers, this shiny new prequel falls flat. The bad-ass hero Chirico is less stoic than effectively brain-dead and completely passive and the plot meanders around long-overused territory: the military brass keep sending Chirico and his misfit squad into ill-conceived suicide missions to test just how much of a super-soldier he really is.

While the retro-styled characters are inconsistently animated, the all-CG mecha are very well-done - making it all the more of a shame that very little is done with them. Most fight scenes come across as amateurish staging of WWII movies with giant robots.

A well-worn and aimless plot combined with suspense-less combat adds up to a terrible spin-off that arrived too late to ride on the success of a classic franchise. Recommended only to the most die-hard Votoms fans who will be happy just seeing the mecha animated with modern CG.

based on episodes 1-4 : ANN : Wikipedia

Anime DVD sales down, manga still OK

(from ICv2, commentary also available at ANN)

It seems that anime DVD sales have dropped 20% in 2007 (the number of releases also dropped by a similar amount, so I wonder if the direct statistic is that bad). Manga sales are apparently still strong, but no longer enjoying that ridiculous rate of growth that shocked everyone a few years ago.

This certainly comes as no surprise. Geneon, Bandai, ADV... those were the surprises. I'd hesitate to guess what this statistic would actually mean, though. The video industry as a whole is certainly in massive flux and anime is even worse.

Blu-Ray has one the HD format war, but I'm skeptical as to whether that's going to lead to any kind of resurgence in the DVD market, like it was back it's heyday. I just don't see HD driving as many sales. It's simply too expensive and complicated for similarly wide adoption.

And I still think that the digital distribution model is really the future anyway, but that's a can of worms people need to figure out: how do you make money on something people can find for free.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Manga: The Complete Guide

So the post with the Bondage Fairies reviews reminds me that I should probably do a quick, obligatory post about my involvement in Manga: The Complete Guide.

My friend Jason Thompson (who I ran into way back when because we were both big into the Kult RPG - still such a shame that died again) asked me to work on it a while back now. He was putting together this massive book to give brief reviews of every manga published in English and he wanted me to help.

Specifically, he wanted me to review the hentai manga.

Apparently he'd been reading my reviews/rants on my livejournal account and wanted someone who could write something funny (and often snarky) but still be able to actually consider the books for what they were: porn.

A waist-high stack of hentai manga later, I became an "expert on Japanese porn comics." A very illustrious title, I know. All it really did, though, was give me a frightening peak at the repressed Japanese id and enamor me of the short, 500-words-or-less review. Helped inspire me to get around to doing this blogination as well.

Bondage Fairies reviews

I wrote these two reviews for the Bondage Fairies series (Anime News Network, Wikipedia) as part of my work on Manga: The Complete Guide, but ended up not being used. They were rather negative for such a historic property, so they got a second opinion. I got permission to repost them here, so enjoy my snark.

The Original Bondage Fairies (Title) (Kanji Title) • Kondom • Mangerotica (1999) • Japanese Publisher (1993) • ## volumes • Straight Adult Mnaga • X (explicit sexual content)

Going way beyond just an X-rated Tinkerbell, Bondage Fairies is an unsettling mixture of lesbian sex, BDSM and a heaping helping of bestiality featuring scantily clad women who fit in the palm of your hand. There’s plenty of simple girl-girl coupling in the series, but much of it also involves domination and rape/torture, spiced up with just every kind of animal or (more frequently and disturbingly) insect the author could work in: worms, beetles, bats, slugs, etc. Industrious readers can read whatever they would like into the fact that beautiful elfin faerie girls repeatedly receive the attentions of hideous male beasts. Perhaps the most disturbing thing, however, is that Kondom renders the female form in a simple and alluring manner. It’s undeniably attractive, making the sinful acts that later occur with vermin and insects all the more grotesque.

1 out of 4 stars

The New Bondage Fairies & Bondage Fairies Extreme (Title) (Kanji Title) • Kondom • Mangerotica (1996-2003) • Japanese Publisher (1996-2000) • ## volumes • Straight Adult Mnaga • X (explicit sexual content)

The sex-crazed fairies continue their adventures, though the stories stray further away from fairie-on-fairie action to include a wider variety of insects and other talking critters getting it on with the tiny bewinged beauties. Fairies serve as the police force in the forest, but “protecting the weak” and “upholding justice” invariably involves having sex or harvesting “fairie nectar” or getting raped by some giant beetle or spider. The art is just as good – if not better than – the original series, but the increased emphasis on girl and insect coupling makes it even more uncomfortable. The short breaks for humorous stories about the author’s encounters with the diminutive nymphos are a welcome escape.

1 out of 4 stars

Monday, February 11, 2008

Eastern Standard, issue 4

Eastern Standard, issue 3

Eastern Standard, issue 2

Eastern Standard, issue 1

This is the first issue of the magazine I created with Eric and got our friends Doc and Joe to help write articles for.

I'm testing out a web site that allows you to create a flash interface for an PDF you have. Seems to work pretty well - just click on the magazine and a full page viewer will open up. Then you can browse through that and click on any page to zoom in.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Shigurui (full series)

The first thing that struck me about Shigurui was the incredible lighting and sound design. The show is incredibly stark both visually and aurally with blinding washes of white over a landscape of stillness and silence punctuated by brief and incredibly brutal bursts of shocking violence. Muscles tense. Warriors size each other up. A foot shifts here. A hand clenches there. Someone's head goes flying and everything is drenched in blood.

In many ways very appropriate for a samurai story; it certainly hearkens back to the great scenes in older samurai movies where more time is spent on the stare-down than the swinging. Since this is from from the director of Texhnolyze, this should come as no surprise and tell you all you need to know about the show's "deliberate" pacing.

Ostensibly, Shigurui starts out as a standard samurai anime, albeit much more realistic than most. There are no ninja powers or fireballs here, it's all about the tiny details in the fighter's stance or their grip on their sword. With it's indulgence of combat minutiae and relative lack of actual action-packed sword-slinging, it seemed to be just a samurai anime for samurai otaku with far more style that it deserved.

We even have all the stereotypical pieces: a prestigious dojo, a chivalrous top student in line to inherit it and marry the master's gentle daughter, and a conniving rival who not only fights dirty but has the fall to try to run away and hide when the tide turns against him. Everything begins to take a much darker, more sinister bent as the truth is slowly spooled out. The master is a raving madman with only brief moments of lucidity, during which he's a heartless, evil bastard. The chivalrous student is doggedly obedient, following his master's every command, no matter how inhuman. The manipulative rat seems to be the only one with any human dignity - or is it all an act?

Combined with the non-linear and obtuse storytelling that isn't afraid of leaving loose ends and unanswered questions, Shigurui quickly becomes a baroque tragedy of warped, in-bred privilege and how the fires of revenge, greed and ambition will burn everything around them to ash. It's a clear condemnation not only of the samurai (and their fetishization) but the paths of vengeance and power-and-any-cost in general.

There are no heroes in the show, only monsters and shattered victims (sometimes one and the same).

Sadly, that's not to say it's for everyone. Even beyond the bursts of starting gore and nudity, the glacial pacing will make it nearly impossible for some viewers to really get into it. Shigurui does manage to reach (and maintain) an almost palpable boiling tension, but it takes some time to get there. The "ending" is also profoundly unsatisfying. Having taken a leisurely pace through the first 10 episodes, the last two are surprisingly rushed and somewhat hard to follow. They contain some of the most gruesome and moving scenes of the entire run but leave huge gaps, most significantly how the Gennosuke Fujiki (the chivalrous student) loses his arm. When the anime opened, he faces off against Seigen Irako (now a blind cripple) for a final showdown - but it closes without showing how he lost his arm.

Definitely recommended for those who want something a bit more cerebral and can endure the pacing and don't mind having only hints to go on to get to it.