Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Media Diary: Utena Interlude

Here's some more stuff I did instead of screencapping Utena.

Star Driver has some of Utena's campy charm, but inherited almost none of its strengths and actually managed to worsen its flaws. Takuto is an even more one-dimensional and boringly invincible protagonist than Utena: once you get used to the Zero Time set design the fights stop being interesting to look at, and his constant victories feel completely unearned. Forget physical danger, he's never even in emotional jeopardy. The supporting cast can't pick up his slack either, there are so many characters fighting for screen time that people vanish for long stretches of the show, or get written out entirely if they threaten to become too interesting. Sugata in particular is just criminally underwritten, which actually totally sabotages the ending.

I enjoyed the pirouetting robot kiss through the glass goofiness for a good long while, but the show lost all goodwill during the final stretch, when it went into serious business mode without bothering to build to a climax or shed any light on the cryptic backstory or jargon, and actively going out of their way to avoid having a final villain with any kind of dramatic weight. You can't expect me to care about characters you forgot to characterize, guys. This show plays out like a first draft, and I got annoyed watching it just flounder around bungling basic story beats until we hit episode 24 with characters and plot that'd barely progressed since episode 4. I was fine with Star Driver not having a brain, but it turned out to not have a soul either. I expected better.

On the other hand, I had much lower expectations of Afterschool Nightmare, and ended up pleasantly surprised; I can see why this was a darling of the manga-friendly comics blogosphere. This one also brought Utena strongly to mind, with its highly symbolic fight scenes, deeply damaged characters, and sex & gender fluidity; the main character is intersexed, and the center of a love triangle between a boy and girl attracted to opposite sides of his/her nature. It also shares one of Utena's primary flaws, in that the protagonist is the least interesting character in the entire story. I like Utena herself fine, but Mashiro here is really more interesting as a piece of symbolism than a protagonist.

I want to kind of damn this with faint praise; the story tends to stay within the bounds of heart-tugging shoujo melodrama, but manages the occasional genuinely nasty moment. Similarly, the art is not especially great on the whole, which makes the more imaginative visuals all the more striking. So overall, there were just enough interesting bits to keep me reading through to the end, which is where Mizushiro really steps up her game, and manages to explain just what the hell was going on in a way that makes perfect sense of everything. Afterschool Nightmare isn't going to be one of my all-time favorites, but it does have that special something that keeps it on my mind, even if I'm not entirely sure why. Check it out.