juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)
Doctor Strange film, 2016, dir. Scott Derrickson
A strange mish-mash, and there's little distinction between the bits I loved and the bits I didn't care about. I like the resolution (it was spoiled by a friend, and the reason I watched)—I've never seen time travel/narrative looping played quite that way, and it was clever. The mirror universe and unfolding, kaleidoscopic visual effects are phenomal—Inception didn't look this cool; it's such a finely rendered, dense, evocative aesthetic, and I could watch it all day. But the magic (as ... sparks, I guess?) effects are uninspired, and: the acting! the character arcs! the sense that no one in the film want so be there or is taking it seriously, including Swinton, whose presence was already unjustified but who I at least expected to live it up (as she has elsewhere, see: Constantine). I find Marvel boring, and this Marvel is no exception (and the humor's awful), but the bits I like, I sincerely love. Bless that we have the technology for effects like this now, for worlds folding and unfolding, for dense particle physics and shattered glass.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier, film, 2014, dir. Joe Russo, Anthony Russo
I watched this for Bucky and I remain true to type: I loved him—the only Marvel character I've ever much loved, and for no especial reason but that dark, tortured, mask-wearing, augmented and/or disabled, brainwashed but the face of the one he loves can save him are tried and true trash tropes for me. But, honestly, this is one of the more successful Marvel movies I've encountered, thanks to its smaller, interpersonal focus. I guess there was a larger plot, and I hate the use of Hydra as a Nazi metaphor that manages to wildly miss the point, and the pacing and resolutions were predictable, and there's still not two women to run together (in other words: a Marvel movie); but the characters sold me and it has emotional payoff, which is what I've retained.

Captain America: Civil War, film, 2016, dir. Joe Russo, Anthony Russo
This, meanwhile, was vaguely embarrassing. Civil wars in comics are gratuitous by nature, and this is no exception. It makes effort to avoid "bad communication = plot," only to settle for "bad self-control = plot," which isn't much better. The cameos are corny and reference characters/films that I don't care about (Spiderman was the adorable exception, and felt comfortable within the campy tone; I also liked the introduction of Black Panther). That said, the larger cast does means there's room for more than one entire lady! how novel. It also creates short, sweet, relatively successful character scenes within the supporting cast. So: a hot mess, but occasionally cute.

Ajin: Demi-Human, s1-2, 2015-2016
I love love love Polygon Pictures, and 3DCG is such a good fit here: it allows for dynamic human animation and microexpressions, which are particularly productive in developing the protagonist's character, and the ajin are fluid and intricate and disconcerting. This series is a slow-paced action-thriller; lots of big fights, surprisingly gradual plot progression—layered against psychological themes that almost-no-quite insist on being understated because they get overshadowed by the momentum of the action. That makes it weird to reflect on (not much happened, I guess? lots of interesting characters got almost no screentime?) but engaging to watch. Mostly, I wish Polygon would animate everything; I know some people have a hard time adjusting to 3D animation but the payoff is intense.

Blame!, film, 2017, dir. Hiroyuki Seshita
This was ridiculously good. I'm absolutely biased: I love generation ships, love this aesthetic—like futuristic Dark Souls, everything vast and inhuman and inhospitable—and love the themes, the devolution of society and society's stubborn, changing persistence. I haven't seen a generation ship narrative quite like this, where the ship's breakdown isn't human-triggered, via forgotten history or social divide, but ship-triggered, and it makes the ship feel larger and refreshes the trope. (I also love to think of this as canonical entertainment within Knights of Sidonia, another generation ship setting—it localizes/contextualizes both narratives.) The art design is great, the monsters are great, the action is great; as above, I want Polygon Pictures to animate everything, but they're an especially good fit for something that would need a lot of CG effects regardless, and it further allows intricate character and design details. The pacing is superb, the length just right, the frame narrative effective. I was just hugely impressed by this, in every moment, and already want to rewatch it.

(You don't need to be familiar with Knights of Sidonia to watch Blame!, so you should watch it, and talk to me about it.)
juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)
Please help me, I am forever so behind on these, & what I do not record I will forget forever.

Time of Eve, anime, 2010
This has an ideal runtime and microformat. The individual vignettes aren't particularly in-depth exploration of speculative concepts/worldbuilding/the laws of robotics; they're equally fueled by pathos and the human condition, so the short episode length gives room to develop those things without allowing them to grow maudlin—a good emotional balance. The effect is cumulative—not especially cleverly so, it's pretty straightforward "interwoven ensemble with overarching character growth," but it's satisfying. I wish this pushed its speculative/robotics elements further, but, frankly, I'm satisfied with the whole thing, it's engaging and evocative and sweet and I sure do like androids.

A Series of Unfortunate Events, season 1, 2017
I'm surprised to find I enjoyed this more than the book series—and I didn't love the books, but didn't expect them to improve upon adaptation. The weakness of the books is how much depends on the meta-narrative and how little of that there actually is; rewriting it with a better idea of what that narrative will be, and with more outside PoVs, makes it more substantial and creates a better overarching flow. The humor is great, the set design is great, it feels faithful without merely reiterating, a condensed "best of" the atmosphere and themes; a sincere and pleasant surprise. I'm only sad that the second season isn't out yet, because the Quagmire Triplets were always my favorites.

The Great British Bake Off, series 6, 2015
They finally got rid of the awful, belabored pause before weekly reveals! That was the only thing I ever hated about this series, and I'm glad to see it go. This is a weird season: weekly performances are irregular and inconsistent and vaguely underwhelming; the finale is superb. It makes me feel validated in my doubts re: whether the challenges and judging metrics actually reflect the contestants's skills, but whatever: it has solid payoff and this is as charming and pure as ever. What a delightful show.

Arrival, film, 2016, dir. Denis Villeneuve
50% "gosh, the alien/language concept design is good"; 50% "I really just want to read the short story" (so I immediately put the collection on hold). Short fiction adapts so well to film length that it makes me wonder why we insist on adapting novels: the pacing is just right, the speculative and plot elements are just deep enough to thoroughly explore, there's no feeling of being rushed or abridged or shallow. What makes this worthwhile as a film is some of the imagery, alien design (the language really is fantastic), and viewer preconceptions re: flashbacks as narrative device; it's awfully white and straight and boring as a romance, though—underwhelming characters with no particular chemistry, although I like Amy Adams's pale restraint. If I sound critical, I'm not; I thought this was a satisfying as a 2-hour experience.

Interstellar, film, 2014, dir. Christopher Nolan
I have a lot of feelings, and most of them are terror: wormholes! black holes! water planet! time as a dimension! space, just as a thing in general!—I find all this terrifying, in a fascinated by authentically panicky way. The imagery and plot does a solid job of making these concepts comprehensible and still vast (save perhaps for the fourth+ dimension—the imagery there almost works, but it's so emotionally-laden and interpersonal as to, ironically, make it feel localized, small). But Blight-as-worldbuilding is shallow, and a lot of the human element is oppressive and obvious, which deadens things; I wish more of it were on the scale of Dr. Brand's love or the effects of relativity: private motivations for the characters, sincere and intense but with limited effect on the setting or plot. But as a speculative narrative, one within the realm of the plausible but intentionally alien, distant, and awe-inspiring, this is effectively the space version of the disaster porn in a disaster flick—space porn, is that a thing? It's captivating in a nightmareish way, which, I suppose, is exactly what I wanted.

Legend, complete series, 1995
One of Devon's childhood shows, which he got as a birthday present, so we watched it together. It's honestly not as awful as I expected. The frontier setting is less idealized or racist than it could be, but still has a great atmosphere; the character dynamics are hammy but sincerely endearing; the mystery plots are episodic but decently written. Not a new favorite, shows its age, and the mix of tone and science fantasy Western makes it understandably niche, but it exceeded expectations.
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir, season 1 and Christmas Special, 2015-2016
This has a strict episodic framework—repeated sequences, reiterated structure, etc. But it also begins with all aspects established, from supporting cast to superpowers—a mild in medias res. Subplots, small details, and the natural evolution of relationships explore those background aspects and add narrative depth, and the occasional deviation from the repetitive format has nice narrative flair. I'm normally ambivalent about the format of kid's cartoons, so I'm surprise by how well this worked for me on a structural level. And the protagonists's relationship! it's a star-crossed miscommunication-driven will they/won't they/of course they will hetero romance, but I love it anyway, thanks in large part of the way that Ladybug controls their dynamic both in and out of combat. There should be nothing for me to love here, but I found myself taken with it anyway; it's charming and unexpectedly compelling. I look forward to the next season. (I did find the webisodes frivolous, and skipped them. I prefer the French dub immensely, and wish Netflix weren't missing some of the audio tracks.)

Re:Zero — Starting Life in Another World, anime, 2016, White Fox
I came to this explicitly because a friend spoiled the protagonist's character growth (or, more specifically, the reveal that Subaru is a "nice guy" and that the narrative calls him out on it). I'm glad I went in knowing that, both because it's interesting to track the foreshadowing and because it helps justify such an awful protagonist. His later character growth is artlessly exaggerated, but it's still rewarding to see his behavior condemned and corrected. The plot, meanwhile, has an iterated/Groundhog Day-style structure (one of my favorite tropes) which is just clever enough to work and which sells the danger and violence—and that's a good thing, because something needs to counteract the anime styling at play. I would have liked this better had it shed its anime clichés—but I still found it incredibly engaging, cathartic, and satisfying. (I'm not sold on the ending, but my impression is that it works better in context of the light novel, as a yet another bait-and-switch happy resolution.)

The Great British Bake-Off, series 4, 2013
As calming and as sweet-hearted as ever, but I found myself more critical of the judging structure this time (I don't think judging week-to-week without taking into account cumulative performance is representative of real quality; I'm troubled by the cultural/educational bias implicit in the technical challenges), and of significantly less patience with the pacing of the reveals (so corny; just skip them). But even if my initial wonderment has passed, this remains such an endearing show, pure and lovely, engaging food porn and light reality TV, but without the pettiness that fuels so much of the genre.

Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor, anime, 2007-2008, Madhouse
The pacing here isn't as successful in Akagi—it's more strung out, teetering towards the repetitive and stretching the tension and metaphors too far. But! it's still so good! (Within FKMT caveats: no female characters; funny noses.) Such a fantastic foil to Akagi: this protagonist who doesn't want to risk, who isn't looking for the experience; who keeps landing himself in trouble and manages to scrape through almost despite himself. Like any good predicament porn, it's equal parts indulgent and discomforting, the perfect balance that pushes "dim ratbag victim of masochists" past the point of humor and enjoyable tension and into the realm of sincere, albeit frustrating, sympathy. I look forward to continuing with the next series.
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
Erased (Boku dake ga Inai Machi), anime, 2016, A-1 Pictures
Time-traveler solves the disappearance of a fellow student from his childhood is a deceptively big concept with a deceptively small, interpersonal execution, and the truth is somewhere in between: the speculative elements are scaled down, secondary to the relationships that fuel the plot, but that plot grows increasingly convoluted and suspenseful. It's an ambitious effort, and successful in large part because of the way the many elements balance once another. (And I will never be over that fantastic gimmick with the opening credits.)

Voltron: Legendary Defender, season 1, 2016
I'm surprised by how much I enjoyed this, but it's not perfect. The animation is fantastic, which gives the action and characters so much life; I genuinely love everyone except Lance (I wish the default protagonist weren't the male-gaze asshole) and every inter-character dynamic (even those with Lance). But after the overlong establishing sequences, the plot grows episodic and goes nowhere—it feels like watching any other serial SF show, with predictable premises and storylines. Against that stagnation, the sudden uptick in plot and the ridiculous cliffhanger at the end of the season feel like an insult. But while I normally have a hard time with "made for kids, accessible to all audiences" because I can't switch off my criticism (and can never tolerate comic relief), Voltron engaged me. I'll absolutely watch season 2. (That all said, I could never not laugh at Voltron's cat fists and fuzzy cat slippers and cat hat, I know this is the design Voltron has had forever and that they are being faithful to the source material, it still looks ridiculous, I'm sorry.)

Zootopia, film, 2016, Disney
Charming animation and worldbuilding, great dialog, and I'm a sucker both for mystery plots and cop buddy dynamics. But I'm not sure I loved the themes—"the disenfranchised also foster social unrest/aim to benefit from inequality" is a common trope that creates a false equivalency between the targeted hatred of oppressors and the justified anger of the oppressed, and while I think it's the exact opposite of the film's intended message, it's present and it's gross. This was a fun watching experience, but invites critical viewing it can't stand up to, and left me uneasy.

3%, season 1, 2016
I love survival games and in a similar way understand the appeal of dystopian meritocracies—but I hate the YA tropes/poor writing/unbelievable worldbuilding they tend to come packed in. 3% has pieces of all of that, and yet I sincerely enjoyed it. Television is a better format for this series than a book or film series because there's more room to flesh out the characters without constantly trying to reinvent the plot. That the competitors are 20 years old also helps—it's an appropriate age for the personal growth tropes and some of the interpersonal dramas of the genre, but sheds the adolescent-love-triangle tone. But maybe the best divergence is that there are so many people of color. This is less glamorized than most examples of the genre it hails from, despite maintaining a lot of genre concepts and tropes; I don't think it's necessarily revolutionary, but it's absolutely more successful. I'm glad to see Netflix diversifying the work they produce, and will watch season 2.

Yuri!!! on Ice, anime, 2016, MAPPA
As a sports anime, this isn't groundbreaking; as queer sports anime, it's not ideal representation—but I understand the source of its limitations and I think it navigates genre conventions and "appears subtextual, is actually textual" better than not. It does a lot in little space, with surprisingly clever plotting and details, but what really sold me is the sincerity of the character development and the romance. Yuuri's anxiety and its effects on his performance and interpersonal relationships mimic the emotional dramas of other sports anime, but have a more sincere, sympathetic arc; the central romance engages a number of queerbaiting tropes and then sidesteps them to explore sincere passion and how people build relationships and romantic intimacy. It's really just ... heartening to watch, not super angsty but emotionally accessible. I sincerely enjoyed it.
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
Death Parade, anime, 2015, dir. Yuzuru Tachikawa
Ending spoilers: Read more... )

The two core characters are phenomenal; the world is unique and strange. The rules of the universe immediately appear unfair and fatally flawed, so it's rewarding to discover that's exactly the point of the show. The actual execution is a bit rough, especially the middle episodes and the wildly inconsistent tone, but by the end everything coalesces on an instinctual level. But, for me, the reveal of the protagonist's death sours that emotional payoff.

Awake, season 1, 2012
An engaging effort that doesn't hold up to, but does invite, close scrutiny. Speculative procedural is a unique combination, but it's a lot to manage. The episodic crimes are simplistic, not unforgivably so; but they want overarching characterization to sustain them, and that, too, is unfortunately episodic, especially in the son. The parallel universe concept is intriguing, especially the uncertainly of its validity or cause, giving the show a fragile, subjective atmosphere. But it would have been more successful if they'd known it would be just one season: the last episode feels more red herring than resolution, but there's no time to explore it. I am the ideal audience for this genre crossover, and I'm glad I watched it, but it could have been better.

The Machine, film, 2014, dir. Caradog W. James,
So much potential, not quite realized. There's some neat underlying ideas here: how to teach a robot to pass a Turing test; the evolved language. And there's some nice imagery, only a little ruined by the predictability (eyes: always the indicator of strangeness) and the gendering and body of the machine, feminine, blonde, nude, beautiful, potentially vulnerable. But the interpersonal aspects are so simplistic and the plot so predictable that the potential has no chance to shine.

Experimenter, film, 2015, dir. Michael Almereyda
Wouldn't it be neat if a biopic that makes a point of discussing race, the effects of race, and the erasure of race didn't cast a white person in the role of its Jewish subject? Yeah, that'd be neat. But Sarsgaard is strong, and the film is otherwise enjoyable—the subject and the sympathetic portrayal of Milgram's reactions to criticism of his work more than the experimental staging. In pieces, those elements work well, especially Milgram addressing the camera; but the effect entire, and the green screen in particular, is obtrusive.
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
You're Next, film, 2013, dir. Adam Wingard
I admire this film's dedication—the violence is messy, imperfect, and keenly human; the ruthless body count makes for lively pacing and a dogged gallows humor. But the emotional register is flat. No doubt the estranged family is meant to be obnoxious, but they're still awful to watch; the motivations and reactions to stress are both lackluster. This worked for me up until the kitchen scene deaths, which tip the balance into outright ridiculous—I needed less horror staging and more content. The competent final girl is an interesting play on the trope; otherwise, this isn't interesting at all.

How to Get Away with Murder, season 1, 2014-2015
I kept waiting for this show to disappoint me, and it never did—which says a lot about both its early buildup and its late-game followthrough. HtGAwM shows a commitment to season(/series)-long writing which I rarely see in television, and while it can tend towards the dramatic that still makes for utterly satisfying character and plot arcs. In premise, this reminds me of Donna Tartt's The Secret History (and where the premise is less romanticized and intimate, the authority figure is more directly engaged—a worthwhile trade) with a dash of serial crime; high-stakes social elements played against murder make for rich character drama, supported by the phenomenal casting, particularly Viola Davis; the script is tense and clever, especially the non-linear first half of the season. (It also reminded me of Damages, but it's significantly more fun to watch.) It's obvious, but I adored this.

Creep, film, 2014, dir. Patrick Kack-Brice
Too many jump scares, too early and often, destroy any buildup; but the real drawback is that this is predicated on the belief that we will be surprised, or at least interested, to discover that an affable white male adult would turn out to be dangerous or creepy. The horror elements are so unsuccessful as to be bland, and the aforementioned creep is merely off-putting and never compelling. Give this a miss.

Upstream Color, film, 2013, dir. Shane Carruth
The first third of this film is deeply disquieting and effective; the rest is laborious, steeped in indie cliché—the mumbled dialog, the minimalist aesthetic, the long blank stares, the cryptic and pretentious emotional reactions resting on vaguely sexist gender roles. The concept beneath that is tenuous but interesting, but honestly, who cares: the wrapping leaves too much to be desired.

Puella Magi Madoka Magica The Movie: Rebellion, anime film, 2013, Shaft
Spoilers, be ye warned. The pacing is all over the place, but it works—and, honestly, that near-idyllic opening is almost as good as the twist that follows. I have mixed feelings about this film: as a continuation, Homura's labyrinth is almost too small and her rewriting is certainly too large. I prefer the former, because PMMM is one part interpersonal and one part apocalyptic, and Homura had the most interpersonal investment and want for exploration/resolution. To end that story on a purely happy ending would have been rewarding, but tonally insincere. To end it instead on such a large, bitter scale is in line with series ethos, but cheapens the phenomenal end of the anime series through sheer redundancy. So much is right, here: the far superior art quality, the fantastic aesthetic, Bebe!!, the reveal of Homura's fate and the worldbuilding that occurs around it, Kyubey's characterization, the emotional release of the aborted Good End. But part of me feels it was unnecessary, no matter how financially sound, to revisit this world.
juushika: Photograph of the torso and legs of a female-bodied figure with a teddy bear. (Bear)
Following, film, 1999, dir. Christopher Nolan
I love the initial setup, the dehumanization/violation that comes from an desire to be intimate with strangers; likewise, the character growth that follows the path of this obsession. But as a thriller, the twists are too neat—it's competent, with engaging non-linearity and good pacing (although the final twist is predictable), but it's too traditional and the thriller aspects overshadow the far more interesting relationships that fill early parts of the film. In short, exactly what I'd expect of Nolan's first effort.

WataMote (Watashi ga Motenai no wa Dō Kangaetemo Omaera ga Warui!/No Matter How I Look at It, It’s You Guys' Fault I’m Not Popular!), anime, 2013, Silver Link
This is one of the better depictions of social anxiety that I've seen. It also has some circumspect trappings, but—to give the show the benefit of the doubt—that may be because Tomoko lacks awareness, failing to question her own internalized misogyny in particular: unfortunate without narrative context, but realistic. WataMote frequently feels like it's on the edge of failure: too painful, too exaggerated, too crass, at moments even too optimistic. But the humor serves both to lighten the mood and to explore the pessimism that piggybacks onto anxiety, and when the show looks towards a hopeful ending it does it without dismissing the Tomoko's ongoing problems. I'm frankly thankful that this imperfect little story exists.

K, anime, 2012, GoHands
The larger than life ensemble cast color-coded for your convenience reminds me strongly of Durarara!!, but K's not as half clever. Still, I enjoyed it. I have a few quibbles: the fanservice is real and it's miserable; the first few episodes are funnier than they need to be and slow the plot. But the large cast creates a number of fantastic characters and compelling dynamics, and even the aspects that aren't particularly complex have satisfying emotional appeal. This is more engaging than it is intelligent, but there's nothing wrong with that.

Wakfu, animated, season 2, Ankama Animation
The only real downfall of Wakfu's fantastic first season was that it took too long to develop momentum. I'm disappointed that the second season has the same flaw: there's too many episodic episodes—with (heavy-handed) foreshadowing, to be sure, and each is fun individually, but they slow the pacing. Otherwise: amazing. This has one of my favorite ensemble casts, and I remain in awe of the strong characters and their dynamic, meaningful interactions. And when it gets going, the plot is great—the last ~4 episodes are worth the wait. There's some disappointing off-color humor in this season, but despite that and other quibbles I honestly cannot recommend Wakfu too highly. Give it a try, it may surprise you.

The House of the Devil, film, 2009, dir. Ti West
Insufficient. The slow-burn suspense almost works, but the end doesn't pay off—the frantic pacing of the climax should be effective, but there's no substance: little cultural or personal framing for the evil, no relationship between villain and victim, it just doesn't say much. I suppose narrative purpose isn't essential to horror, but I prefer it—especially in something that requires investment rather than simple entertainment, as Ti West's films usually do. At least I liked this more than The Innkeepers!

Once Upon a Time, season 4, 2014-2015
The messiest season by far, this one just rolled off of me. There's good bits in the Elsa storyline—although the Frozen girls feel particularly out of place even in this hodgepodge (although not as much as Cruella!)—it's sensitive and surprisingly good-willed, a nice change from OUaT's "dark" retellings. The Heroes and Villains arc is less successful: Belle's moment of definitive bravery is fantastic, but it's undercut by the plot that follows; inverting heroes and villains makes for messy storytelling rather than anything meaningfully subtle. At its heart, this is just more OUaT, with all witless storytelling and bad makeup and interesting character dynamics you'd expect—but this is my least favorite season so far.
juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)
Guardians of the Galaxy, film, 2014, dir. James Gunn
Oh, Marvel, I am so tired of this setup. Fridging a woman to create backstory, a cast of varied dudes with a token smurfette, a single female evil villain sidekick to counterpoint the smurfette, and pretending that raising an eyebrow in self-aware mockery of your tired tropes erases the fact that you're just ... reiterating tired tropes. Marvel has been wearing on me for a while, and this is a particularly reiterative example. It's still a lot of fun, lively and with a miraculous soundtrack, but that's not enough for me.

Mirai Nikki (Future Diary), anime, 2012, Asread
Oh, the unspeakable degree to which I came to care about this show. It's not unlike Death Note: a high concept, overcomplicated by additional rules, working often to explore but sometimes to overshadow interesting character dynamics; it's too heavy-handed with its psychotic characters and most plot twists exists to create sudden and insubstantial character growth (most especially, the inexplicable fridging of any character who has made a sudden redemption), and its size and complexity run away with themselves. But the Yukki/Yuno dynamic is fascinating. I came to this expecting formative yandere, intriguing in premise but exaggerated in execution—but what makes the show work is Yukki's feelings for Yuno: how swiftly he transitions from taking her as a necessary companion to having feelings for her, despite, even because of, the worst of their situation and her personality. There's a surprising subtlety, and the dynamic is often convincing. Also a slick, clean style with a great run-length. I'll probably read the manga someday, and was unexpectedly satisfied with everything Mirai Nikki had to offer.

Kuroko no Basuke (Kuroko's Basketball), anime, season 2, Production I.G
The pacing and narrative of this season is particularly predictable, but it's worth it finally see more of the generation of miracles. The character arcs are predictable, too, but they're so satisfying that it doesn't matter—Aomine's in particular, but also Kagamine's and, always, Kuroko's. This is the very sportiest of sports anime; it's almost surprising that Kuroko is so ridiculous—the magically developing new skills that are key to each win is particularly tiresome, and exist more to create tension than characters. But under the exaggerated special moves and sports bonding, there's some surprising finesse in the characterization, in Aomine's passion and Kuroko's anger, which I truly enjoy.

Paradise Kiss, film, 2011, dir. Takehiko Shinjo
My life is spent crying because of ParaKiss. This film is probably the worst of the three versions, but I still loved it. Some acting is stiff, the costume and character design are insufficently over the top (Arashi and Miwako, especially); but there's a charm and magic to seeing everything in live action, especially the studio. The manga ending is far superior, but this toned-down version of George works well to deliver a happy ending—and the moments which are most important, at and after the fashion show, are flawless. ParaKiss is one of my favorite stories of all time, and I loved revisiting it.
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
A Simple Plan, film, 1998, dir. Sam Raimi
A straightforward but effective take on the premise of a small, uneasy group forced into a conspiracy. It's discomforting to watch for exactly the right reason: everything feels justified yet is obviously unacceptable, and that tension provides significant immersion and momentum. The ending is overwrought and hinges on coincidence, but to be honest I didn't much mind. If you can overlook the limited scope and obvious flaws of the film (the all-white, nearly all-male cast among them, although there's some interesting class dynamics at play), this entirely satisfying.

Jupiter Ascending, film, 2015, dirs. Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski
This reminds me of YA literature: consumable trash filmed through a female lens—which doesn't make it magically non-problematic, but does make it a refreshing take on wish fulfillment. I don't care for the amount of spectacle; the action scenes in particular grow wearisome. But to my surprise, I love the my-love-interest-the-bodyguard dynamic, male as powerful and useful but subservient to female choice—full disclosure, this is a trope I adore (see: my love for Enslaved), but I'm still surprised that Jupiter Ascending pulled it off so well; I shipped the hetero leads and, let me tell you, that never happens. Anyway: not great, but a different and much improved variety of trash, and worth two hours of my time.

Big Hero 6, film, 2014, dirs. Chris Williams and Don Hall,
This should feel like merch bait, and it's so emotionally heavy-handed, and the antagonist(s) are shallow and I could do without the manpain motivation, and the end is predictable. And yet: I cared; I cared immensely. It's manipulative but effective, the character design is simplistic but charming, and Baymax is phenomenal. This is how to do mascot characters! Make them adorable and a little silly but also make them central to the story, make them the emotional lynchpin as well as the comic relief. (Great soundtrack, too.)

Kill la Kill, anime, 2013, Trigger
I loved Gurren Lagann, which was successful because it looks a simple concept and spiraled (ahahaha) it larger and larger—it was a deceptive, brilliant, effective device. Kill la Kill isn't simple and it certainly isn't brilliant. It's so energetic and ridiculous that it takes some time to adjust, but I did—and I enjoyed the show. To my particular surprise, I like the emotional and interpersonal arcs; they're hamfisted and obvious but have just enough underlying nuance, and the result is endearing. (Most especially, Mako.) But the plot's a mess. Spiral Power is an entire show worth of fridge brilliance; clothing-is-evil-except-not-also-fanservice lacks cogency and purpose. Is it unfair to compare this to TTGL? Probably, but oh well. Kill la Kill had bits I liked but as a whole was an unsuccessful successor.

Higurashi no Naku Koro ni (When the Cicadas Cry), anime, 2006, Studio Deen
Let's all take a moment to appreciate just how well the When They Cry series handles bad ends. They become tools to explore how a limited cast reacts to wildly different stressors, to explore multiple permeations and sides of the same story, and, best of all, the cumulative effect of the bad ends is the whole point. There's no frustrating dissonance between persistent viewer memory and reset character timelines—instead, the gap between them is the core the plot. Of course, the series originated as a visual novel—but games screw this up all the time! When They Cry is an aware, engaged, utterly satisfying take on the trope. (I've talked about this in length on Tumblr.)

The art is simplistic. The empty-eyed psychopathic tendencies of apparently all schoolchildren can be repetitive, although Keiichi's paranoia is a compelling change of pace. Higurashi isn't hugely refined, to be sure. But the scenery-chewing is its own delight, and what this series gets right I simply adore.
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
In Your Eyes, film, 2014, dir. Brin Hill
The premise is engaging and its execution is often successful, thanks in large part to the casting—there's a convincing, lively bond between the protagonists. But their romantic hurdles grow tedious, existing purely for the sake of plot and doing little to progress either characters or relationship. This has the feel of Whedon: missed potential, accessible but unsubstantial high concept, and watchable.

Deadman Wonderland, anime, 2011, studio Manglobe
A lot of high worldbuilding, a lot of cliché characterization, and some loving, creative violence. If you go in for psychopaths and gratuitous violence, there's enough here to keep you entertained—it did me. But Deadman Wonderland cleaves to the standards of its genre to its detriment; the dearth of modulation and creativity render it pointless. Don't waste your time.

Four-Faced Liar, film, 2010, dir. Jacob Chase
The thing is, this isn't awfully unconventional. I love the messiness of the relationships and the refusal of a neat conclusion, but its monogamy and under-explored gender conventions, especially atop the stereotypical roles of the main couple, leave something to be desired. Still, a likable film—a little glib, but engaging and well-intended. It's just not as good as it could be.

In Her Skin, film, 2011, Dir. Simone North
If this didn't seem to have the family's blessing, I'd say this film rides the edge of exploitation: a little too slick, not awfully subtle. The only part which feels underwritten is Caroline Reid Robertson, but Ruth Bradley is phenomenal, knitting together Caroline's fragmented story into a compelling, unsettlingly sympathetic whole. In Her Skin holds interest but never sits easy, and not for the right reasons. The content is discomforting, sure, but the execution is moreso.

Stranger by the Lake/L'inconnu du lac, film, 2014, dir. Alain Guiraudie
Out of curiosity, Franck , what did you expect would happen? I loved this in concept, but less in execution. The dynamic felt splintered: Franck in fear vs. Franck in lust, with not enough to illustrate the fragile and strange bridge between the two. All the rest, I like: the concept is unique, the execution unflinching, and the cast is great. But, despite the premise and loads of sex, this isn't as compelling as it could be.
juushika: Drawing of a sleeping orange cat. (I should have been born a cat)
Top of the Lake, miniseries, 2013
Called in to investigate the pregnancy of a twelve year old girl, Detective Robin Griffin soon finds herself enmeshed in the small-town politics of Laketop, her childhood home. Top of the Lake is reminiscent of an early Tana French novel, inexpertly rendered. The New Zealand setting is in turns breathtaking and haunting, and the twisting plot is often compelling despite the show's slow pace. But the writing feels desperate: Griffin's confrontations with her past are unsubtle but effective; the surrounding town and plotlines, less so. The scale is so personal as to feel petty, the tone verges on crass, and the proliferous secrets which underlie Laketop push the plot into distortions. Top of the Lake is in some ways almost too finely rendered, slow and cold and haunted, but its plot badly wants refinement.

Supernatural, season 8, 2012-2013
Or: Dean has relationships, and for once I care. This season has a smaller scale than many previous—the stakes are meant to be high but rarely feel so, in terms of either the antagonists or the apocalypse of the year. But the smaller scale suits the development of nuanced, intimate relationships, namely those between Dean and his friends—"friends" being a concept with which the character has long had problems, and so it's fascinating to watch him develop sensitive, faceted, friendly relationships, and to see others progress towards decay. As always, the show is in prime problematic form: Felicia Day reprises as Charlie Bradbury and her character improves with exposure, but all the other sympathetic women in the show are disposable means for achieving male character growth. Despite utterly predictable flaws, this quiet, small season has been one of my favorites so far.

Another, anime, 2012
Kouichi Sakakibara's new middle school has a strange secret: bizarre deaths have plagued class 3-3 for more than twenty years, and this may be because one of the students is a ghost. Another has a surprisingly cogent plot; its delivery relies on clichés (cliffhangers, camera as unreliable narrator), but it has a rewarding sense of progression that suits its short runtime and is necessary to balance the fantastic but over-indulgent atmosphere of haunted middle schools and rainy, aging shrines. But it wants more character development in the supporting cast (I hear the manga provides this, and assume the novel does too) in order to give weight to the tragedies that befall them, the optimistic tone of the ending is wildly out of place (although the post-credits scene helps to counteracts this), and the doll-like proportions of the art style are a little comical. Flawed but compelling, satisfying, and intensely atmospheric. In both setting and content, it reminded me of Corpse PartyAnother is more murder-mystery, Corpse Party more horror, but each successfully plays emotive setting against sudden violence.

No. 6, anime, 2011
As a boy, Sion and his family were stripped of most of their privileges for harboring a fugitive, a child named Nezumi (rat). But it's not until Sion and Nezumi are reunited four years later that Sion begins to discover the truth behind his home, the insulated, utopic No. 6. Sion and Nezumi are true heart of the show, and the shifting, combative, intimate dynamic between them is phenomenal—and incredibly indulgent, of course, but that's part of its charm. The quality of the supporting cast wavers, but No. 6 is a character too. This makes for strong worldbuilding and compelling relationships between the city and the citizens who know her best, but turns problematic when it becomes a literal plot point; the plot grows increasingly symbolic, and the ending hits the right emotional notes but has slipped into the realm of science fantasy at best. No. 6 fails to fulfill its potential, but what it does best is gratifying.

Kuroko's Basketball (Kuroko no Basuke), season 1, anime, 2012
Or: STUPID SPORTS ANIME. Prince of Tennis and Big Windup (Ookiku Furikabutte) make a pretty baby: the large cast, lighter emotional register, relatively realistic approach to its sport, and central focus not on a protagonist but a relationship all come together to be exactly what one would expect from the sports anime genre—in a fairly lighthearted and well-paced iteration—without allowing its tropes to stagnate. Specifically, it's relationships that give the show momentum: between odd couple Kuroko and Kagami, between aces and their teams, between players and their sport, relationships create complexity and emotional motivation which gives purpose to the ever-enjoyable sports games. Kuroko's Basketball is a familiar but welcome addition to the genre, utterly—even predictably!—satisfying without feeling redundant. Want complete second season now, please.
juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)
ufotable, Gen Urobuchi, Type-Moon, 2011-12
25 episodes

Seven mages summon seven Heroic Spirits to compete in the 4th Holy Grail war—the prize for which will grant any one wish, no matter how impossible. Emiya Kiritsugu, skilled more in assassinating mages than fighting mage wars, will do anything to win the Grail and fulfill his unlikely wish.

I came to Fate/Zero because fanart told me I would love Ryuunosuke. A serial killer who discovers a purpose for his hobby?—of course I would, and did: his arc is fantastic, and ends perfectly. But in the end, I stayed for the entire cast.

Every single last one of them.

Fate/Zero begins slowly, because it has a large cast and complex premise to introduce. Initially its art is merely average, competent but unremarkable, without much in the way of style. Both pacing and art improve with time—the former when the various battles begin because, despite the fact that they're initially abbreviated into mere teases of forward progress, they're beautifully choreographed action and rich with character interaction, bringing life to the intrigue-rich plot; the latter is a gradual change, but is in evidence as soon as Berserker (a computer animated character within a cell-drawn anime, therefore preternaturally slick and smooth) is introduced. Eventually, the entire cast is distinct, the plot has vast forward momentum, and the art style improves such that the climactic final battle is thoroughly satisfying.

There's a few ways you can work with characters. You can define them, make them distinct and unique. You can develop them, show them progressing through an arc that impacts and changes who they are. You can have them interact with other characters, perhaps in ways that the relationship between characters almost becomes a character itself. Fate/Zero does every single one of these things with almost every single one of its characters—and the one or two dead-end characters at least have the grace to die in ways that develop the rest of the cast. I can't overstate how impressive this is, or how fantastic it is if you're me and you feed on character motivation and character relationships. The four confusingly similar brown/black haired dudes each become real people by the end. The whiny schoolboy in a ridiculous relationship with a burly dude actually drove me to tears. There are multiple strong female characters, one of whom offers up perhaps the creepiest scene I've ever watched*. My favorite character interaction was actually a four-way mess of motivations and desires and rivalries and fascinations**, and was pretty well flawless.

Which is not to say Fate/Zero is that, by any stretch: a slow beginning, initially shallow/cliché characterization, art which never excels, roadbumps in story delivery (worst of which is a long flashback), a bit of characterization by way of women in refrigerators which is handled with comparable grace but remains problematic, all plague it. These weaknesses are generally counterbalanced by the show's various strengths, or at least serve enough of a purpose to excuse them, but they linger.

But I have never cared so much about such a vast cast. It's Durarara!! levels of large-cast mayhem, but (so help me) even more of them are even better realized, and the level of complexity is towering. It's not the sort of attachment that makes you beg for happy endings, which is good: there are few happy endings, here. It's the sort of attachment that makes you want to see everything, good and bad, development and climax, fallout, reactions and changes—because so many lives hang in the balance, and much more than mortality is in jeopardy.

* The end of Irisviel, Jesus me, it's like End of Evangelion just got creepier.

** Gilgamesh/Kirei/Kiritsuju(/Kariya) LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT MY FEELINGS. No really, if you have read or watched this please let us talk about how this interaction is pretty much the definition of perfect, please.
juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)
Umineko no Naku Koro ni (When the Seagulls Cry)
Studio Deen, Chiaki Kon, Ryukishi07, 2009
26 episodes

In October 1986, the Ushiromiya family gathers on an isolated island to discuss the future of the family's fortune—but their family conference is interrupted by a typhoon that traps them on the island and a slew of bizarre murders which threaten all of their lives. Battler, one of the youngest in the family, pits himself against Beatrice, a powerful witch, in order to solve these murders—or else they will repeat indefinitely.

Umineko no Naku Koro ni (When the Seagulls Cry) is, in a word, strange. It's a murder mystery that the viewer can't solve (because the solution is a constantly moving target when it exists at all), it's a paranormal event which denies the paranormal, a horror story filled with frivolous humor, a character drama chock full of overacting and off-the-wall artifices. Yet despite and often because of this mishmash of strange and incomprehensible aspects, Umineko is also a surprising success. By engaging and then rejecting murder mystery conventions, by indulging in but constantly questioning the paranormal, it transcends the limits of its genre—and the result is unusual and thought-provoking. The mood whiplash between humor and horror often serves to make the horror elements that much harsher and darker by comparison, and the excessive plot twists and strange story conventions orchestrate interesting character developments and interactions, sometimes to great emotional effect. It's still a strange story, but like the gratuitous violence that's rather the point: if you're not there for the creepy child, maniacal witch, and silly overacting, if you haven't come for the impalings and strewn entrails, then you're in the wrong place. But if you have, Umineko transforms this mishmash into something delightful: it's over the top but authentically creepy, absurd but surprisingly meaningful, and always a thrill to watch. To the right sort of viewer I recommend it with glee—I found Umineko as enjoyable as it is strange.
juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)

Gundam 00
Sunrise, Seiji Mizushima, Yosuke Kuroda, 2007-2009
50 episodes

In 2307 A.D., mankind has harnessed solar energy via orbiting solar power collectors and has coalesced into three governing superpowers, but continues to wage zero-sum wars for power and energy. Celestial Being is an private military organization dedicated to ending war by using Gundams to attack aggressors. Gundam 00 is almost exactly what you'd expect it to be, and as such it's quite satisfying. A group of unique young men with a variety of angsty backgrounds (and altogether wonderful character design) gather, using giant mecha (of interesting, but hardly iconic, design) to fight a rebel war for peace. Political machinations, battles, and upgrades abound, balanced by intelligent character development and interactions. A spiritual successor to Gundam Wing, even taking on the same underlying question—is it possible to win peace through war?—Gundam 00 sometimes feels redundant, but for the most part it's a successful, if familiar, iteration of the Gundam series: philosophical, political, character-driven, with mech battles aplenty.

Gundam 00's first season is awash with intriguing gray morality, and the plot (especially in the second half of the season) is smart and unrelenting. The second season has a rocky start and never quite reaches the standard set by the first—in part because increasingly blatant black and white morality strips away much of the intriguing ambiguity, in part because it falls victim to a number of clichés like excessive powerups (where every thing is better than the previous thing, just because they say so) and death fakeouts (where core characters seem to die, but return again to resume the same cycle of battles) which deaden the show's believability and impact. Still, the second season is rich with wonderful character growth and has substantial emotional and psychological impact despite its faults, and the series as a whole comes to a satisfying conclusion. That's what this anime is: it's not quite remarkable, but it throughly meets expectations and it's constantly engaging and enjoyable—which is to say, it is satisfying. Fans of Gundam, in particular Gundam Wing, would do well to give it a try.

Beware spoilers in the comments!
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)

Toei Animation, Kenji Nakamura, 2007
12 episodes

In Japan's Edo period, a medicine seller travels the city and countryside to peddle his wares—but in his journeys he encounters a number of supernatural events caused by spirits called mononoke. By discovering the identity, history, and motivation of these mononoke, the Medicine Seller can destroy them. Mononoke's plots are murder mysteries with mythological bents, and its art is vividly colorful and highly stylized. Despite its brevity the series manages to offer an mysterious protagonist, a number of intelligent and confrontational stories, and a truly unforgettable art style. So, while it has its flaws, Mononoke is an unequivocal success—if the style and themes appeal to the viewer. I recommend it.

Mononoke is a bold experiment of style and story, all the more desirable in that it's also a success. The art resembles traditional Japanese art. Its exaggerated character art and plentiful still-frames can be disorientating and may turn away some viewers, but they function to highlight emotion and action and to mimic traditional art. But at its core Mononoke's visual masterpiece is color: sometimes in bold riot, sometimes in dramatic accents, always remarkable and perfectly at home in the series's unique style, the colors are unforgettable and add plentiful drama and depth to the stories. Those stories are a combination of murder mystery, Japanese mythology, and drama, providing satisfying plot alongside surprising emotional depth and horror as the Medicine Seller's investigations of the mononoke reveal the darkness and desires within the human heart.

The show's episodes are only thirty minutes, but with two to three episodes per story arc there's plenty of time to go in depth with each one. It's a fine balance between complex plots and an adequate number of them, but the series achieves it; each arc is fascinating, but there are enough that the mere 12 episodes still provides satisfying variety. The downside to the story arc format is that the arcs vary in quality. For the most part they only get better, such that the series grows increasingly magical, disturbing, and well-wrought throughout—except for the final arc, which takes place in a more modern era (approximately the 1920s) and may be the weakest of the series. The arc's themes are still strong, and the modern setting turn the Medicine Seller into a timeless, universal figure, but both plot and setting clash against the show's traditional art style. Even if this contrast is intentional, it's a little too disconcerting, and so the series ends on a low note. But even with this weakness, Mononoke is exceptional. If the style appeals to you, I highly recommend it. It's a combination of visual delights and meaningful story, and there's nothing like it out there—a statement which has perhaps never been so true as it is for this bold, successful experiment.
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
Summer Wars
Madhouse 2009
Directed by Mamoru Hosoda

Math-wiz Kenji is roped into visiting his upperclassman's family home, but when he's there a disaster occurs: an artificial intelligence hacks OZ, an online world which stretches so vast that by controlling it, the A.I. is able to bring the real world to a grinding halt. With the help of his new friends, his classmates, and his math abilities, Kenji must wrestle control of OZ out of the A.I.'s hands.

Summer Wars begins with a clichés aplenty: a smart but socially-inept protagonist caught in an awkward situation with an attractive female classmate. But the film's very first scene is an introduction to the colorful, cartoony, vast world of OZ, and this sets the tone: Summer Wars is not your usual seinen coming of age. Instead it finds character development through a slew of brilliant aspects: a vast and vivid cast, fine emotive animation, a setting which comfortably straddles the minutiae of daily life and the magical, digital world of OZ, and best of all a plot that balances character development against well-paced action. The film is sometimes a little too funny, but that prevents the plot from becoming too dire; similarly OZ is sometimes too cartoony, which while visually striking doesn't make for the most realistic worldwide digital universe. But for the most part, Summer Wars is faultless.

In fact if I had to make one complaint, it's that the film is a little too perfect. Plot points tie together too nicely, everyone does just the right thing at just the right time, the end is too happy—there's a slight excess of good and awesome in the film. Nevermind the digital world that's the setting of half the plot, it's this abundance of perfection that makes the story tend towards unbelievable. I begrudged this not at all while watching, but as the final scene of celebration drew to a close I felt a bit cheated, like it had all been too easy and too neat.

That issue isn't enough to distract from a wonderful film, though. And Summer Wars is: smart, fun, detailed, colorful, imaginative, clever, and altogether wonderful, this is a movie to rouse cheering and a pleasant choked-up feeling. The only version I've been able to find online was fairly low-res and has soft English subtitles over hard Korean subtitles, but if you can put up with those inconveniences I highly recommend you seek out Summer Wars. And if you can't, keep it on your radar: when a clearer sub is available, you will want to see this film.
juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)
Kuroshitsuji (Black Butler)
Based on the manga by Yana Toboso
24 episodes

In Victorian-era London, Ciel Phantomhive is the 12-year-old head of the noble Phantomhive family. He runs a toy manufacturing company, investigates mysteries at the behest of the Queen, as is set to revenge his parents's murder—all with the aid of Sebastian Michaelis, a demon who is sworn to serve as Ciel's butler in exchange for Ceil's soul. Kuroshitsuji is a supernatural mystery, a dark comedy, and the perfect excuse to combine Victorian aesthetic, incompetent grim reapers, underage crossdressing, dinnerware used as projectile weaponry, plots inspired by Sherlock Holmes, and gratuitous bondage into a surprisingly enjoyable, intelligent series. It starts off a bit superficial and comedic for my tastes, but Kuroshitsuji matures into a beautiful, intriguing supernatural drama that never takes itself too seriously, and I recommend it.

The first half of the series tends to be episodic, or at least conscribed to short plot arcs. These do a decent job of introducing the wonderful cast, in particular the coldy intelligent yet vulnerably young Ciel, and Sebastian who hides dark humor and an intriguing demonic nature behind the veneer of the perfect butler. It also holds the viewer's attention in a series of kidnapping cases and murder mysteries, but these limit plot progression and are heavy on the humor. I have a narrow sense of humor, so take with a grain of salt that much of the comedy in Kuroshitsuji did nothing for me: I adored the dark humor, but the all-out farcical elements like reaction images and chronically incompetent servants left me cold and clashed with the darker and more serious aspects of the show.

But as Kuroshitsuji continues it builds an overarching plot around the mystery of Ciel's past and the demise of his parents. The plot grows stronger, the story more intriguing, and Ciel and Sebastian become ever more fascinating as the history and nature of their bargain comes to light. There's a certain subtly to the characterization that makes it delicate and believable despite the supernatural setting, with just left unsaid to capture the viewer's imagination. Meanwhile, farce is toned down as secondary characters gain depth. The humor that remains is enjoyable dark comedy mixed with exaggerated characters and just a touch of farce—it actually becomes quite charming and balances out the show's darker elements. I found the first half of Kuroshitsuji entertaining, but the second half was absolutely fascinating: it may not be top-tier entertainment, but the Victorian aesthetic, black comedy, and ambiguous, unusual characters all delighted me and I was sorry to see the show end.

Really, nothing sells Kuroshitsuji better than its concept: if a 12-year-old dandy in a Faustian contract with his battle-butler seems like your kind of show, give Kuroshitsuji a try. It's stylized, exaggerated, supernatural, but also has surprising smarts and subtlety in its characterization, a combination which keeps the reader engaged as well as intrigued. I've never watched anything quite like it, and enjoyed it immensely. (On a similar note, I wish I could find something similar—know of any other anime that might suit? Recommend me! Manga are also welcome for future reference, but for now I'm looking for something to watch.)
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)

Ergo Proxy
Manglobe, Shuko Murase, 2006

In the distant future, in the vast wasteland of the world, stands the domed city Romdo, a utopia where humans and androids, called AutoReivs, peacefully coexist under the ever-watchful eye of the ruling government—until some AutoReivs are infected with the Cognito virus and become self-aware. A series of murders results and while investigating them, Inspector Re-l (pronounced Real) Mayer, working alongside her AutoReiv partner Iggy, encounters a mysterious, unbelievably powerful humanoid lifeform called a Proxy. Meanwhile, immigrant Vincent Law, charged with hunting and disposing of infected AutoReivs, flees Romdo for the wastelands beyond, and Cognito-infected child companion AutoReiv Pino follows in his wake. Re-l's investigation leads her in pursuit of Vincent and to a journey where she must discover the truth behind the domed cities, the Proxies, the role of self-awareness, and her own existence.

I have been meaning to write a review of Ergo Proxy since I watched it some months ago. Now, at [livejournal.com profile] circle_of_ashes's prompting, I've been reminded to do so. Ergo Proxy is a post-apocalyptic/pre-apocalyptic/post-cyberpunk/steampunk/scifi anime with a slowly-revealing plot and a heavy emphasis on character motivations—almost as hard to categorize as it is to summarize. In many ways it resembles Ghost in the Shell, investigating similar concepts of self-awareness: what makes a human being? at what point does an AI become human? does self-awareness create free-will, or are our actions still predetermined? Ergo Proxy's pre- and post-apocalyptic setting presents issues of self-awareness on both a personal and a global scale. Re-l's journeys within and without Romdo bring her face to face with a number of individuals struggling with issues of self-awareness and freewill: Vincent Law, who is running from his past; Pino, a doll who is becoming a real girl; finally Re-l herself, as she discovers that her family and her past may both have engineered to put her where she stands now. Meanwhile, what Re-l learns about the role of the domed cities and the worlds outside of them puts these personal struggles on a world-wide scale: the whole planet is struggling to balance self-awareness and freewill with safety and fate.

These issues are of course couched in a show entire. The plot unfolds in arcs: at first confusing, then revealing itself, then becoming confusing again as a new layer is drawn. This confuse-and-reveal pattern allows for a number of surreal events (at one point, the entire cast is duplicated; at another, they become lost in a living theme park) that allow for even more introspection into character mindset and motivation, all the while resolving to a more logical science-fiction-based plot. The overarching plot and various themes are balanced against half-hour episodes that are reasonably self-contained, as well as moments of humor, romance, inter-character interaction—all number of little things which make each episode interesting and satisfying, and keep the story and characters grounded despite the reach and gravity of the show's themes. All of this appears in the show's distinctive style, a combination of 2-D and 3-D animation, high-contrast with selective saturation, and somewhat stylized, particularly in the almost-human AutoReivs and Proxies. Character design is distinctive and intentional: Re-l's hair style and eyeshadow, both of which become plot devices, Pino's adorable bunny suit, and most of all Vincent Law, whose narrow eyes widen through the course of the story. The settings and background details are similarly intentional, giving a gritty steampunk/post-cyberpunk detail to the post-apocalyptic world and a deceptive sparsity and shine to the would-be-utopias.

In fewer words, Ergo Proxy is a brilliant show that is both watchable and meaningful, mixing plot and introspection, science and philosophy, localized characters and generalized themes. It has a distinctive, beautiful style, skillful pacing and script, and achieves a great deal in its mere 23 episodes. I would compare it to similar introspective sci-fi anime like Ghost in the Shell and Neon Genesis Evangelion, although it has its own style and flair as well and its own particular answers to the same questions of self-awareness, identity, and freewill. Likewise, I would recommend it just as strongly as I would GitS and Eva—to scifi anime fans, but to others as well. It's unique and may take time to adjust to, but in the end the show's specific style is one of its best features. I'm glad to have seen it and plan to rewatch it—I expect that there is even more depth the second time around.
juushika: Drawing of a sleeping orange cat. (Default)
Gunslinger Girl

In modern day Italy, young girls left in critical condition from illness and near-death experiences are surrendered to the Social Welfare Agency. Publicly, the Agency saves and rehabilitates human lives; privately, young girls are selected by adult males to be partners in a fratello, given names, provided with medical treatment, and given experimental, new cyborg bodies and mental conditioning. The new "mechanical bodes" that the SWA creates become disarming, obedient, incredibly strong, deadly assassins for the Italian government. However, when not working as assassins, the mechanical bodies are still young girls, living together in a dormitory and trying to experience the simple joys of life. Meanwhile, their cyborg enhancements and mental conditioning begin to destroy their minds and their bodies, bringing them ever closer to death. Gunslinger Girl glimpses into the lives of six young assassins and their handlers, examining the intense emotional relationships within the fratellos, the interests and desires of the girls themselves, and the dichotomy between their minds and bodies, their childhood and their jobs. The anime is rich, emotional, disturbing, mysterious, and, on the whole, wonderful. While no coherent plot runs through the thirteen episodes and the ending is therefore more localized than climactic, the art is amazing, the stories compelling, and the concept downright twisted. I highly recommend the series to anyone who can get their hands on it. It has recently been licensed by FUNimation who may or may not butcher it completely; fansubs are out there (try YouTube). It runs for thirteen half-hour episodes and there is also a manga series which I have not read. More information about the show is available on Wikipedia here, but beware spoilers.

An anime about gun-wielding young girls could easily deteriorate into a slew of action sequences and striking but somewhat repetitive images; Gunslinger Girl, however, concentrates on the personalities and relationships of the young girls and so avoids becoming a superficial, although perhaps striking, anime. Don't get me wrong: the images of corrupted innocence and surprising violence are still there, and the animation (by Madhouse, the animators of Ninja Scroll, Trigun, Perfect Blue, and Cardcaptor Sakura, among others) is sleek and detailed. Visually, the anime is astounding, realistic, and gripping. But the anime offers more than animation: over the thirteen episodes, the series looks at six different girls (left to right, top: Triela, Angelica; middle: Henrietta, the main character; bottom: Rico, Claes; not pictured: Elsa, a more minor character), sometimes their "birth" as mechanical bodies, sometimes their deaths, and almost always their relationships with their handlers. Each handler treats his girl in a different way, some viewing the mechanical bodies as mere tools and relying heavily on mental conditioning, some investing time and emotion in their girls and limiting mental conditioning to a minimum. For their part, many of the girls admire their handlers, sometimes going so far as to fall in love. Each girl and fratello has a different story to tell, therefore allowing a glimpse into all sorts of relationships, personalities, and repercussions. Some of the stories are sweet, some melancholy, some depressing, some terrifying, but all of them are told with a surprising amount of fresh, honest, bittersweet emotion. By the time the series reaches its mildly-climatic ending, the viewer has a partial understanding of both the benefits and risks of the cyborg bodies and fratello partnerships and a certain amount of respect, or at least regard, for all of the characters.

Personally, I found the concept of Gunslinger Girl horrible and fascinating, and the iconic images of these young girls with big guns really stayed with me. The music (opening and ending credits) are in English and Italian, skillfully written and performed, and truly haunting. The opening alone was enough to catch my attention, and I suggest you watch it if this show sounds interesting but you need some convincing. The show is interspersed with just a touch of humor and a few light scenes with keep it from getting overwhelming, but it never skimps on the "dark side" of the mechanical bodies and the work that they do. To be honest, Gunslinger Girl kept me up with a stomach ache and mind nightmares until I finished watching it—it truly is a haunting show, the music stays with you, and the characters are so enduring/admirable/honest/recognizable that it's a hard show to turn away from. I wish that the series were longer and perhaps encompassed a larger plot rather than being more or less a series of vignettes, but for what it was Gunslinger Girl was very, very good. I recommend it highly to those willing to deal with the violence, creepiness, and melancholy. It's beautiful, intense, and hard to forget. This anime is wonderfully done.
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
Chobits: the manga, the anime, and the series in general.

Although it's been some years in the making, I am a huge fan of CLAMP, the creators of Cardcaptor Sakura, Magic Knights Rayearth, and numerous other manga. Chobits is one of my favorite series, but with a male protagonist and as part of the seinen genre, Chobits is different from their usual work. It is also contains more mature content, including references to sex and masturbation, than their usual series. Hideki, the protagonist, is a repeat student studying to retake college entrance exams in Tokyo. Raised on a farm, he is new to the city; he is also a mediocre student, poor, and technologically illiterate. When he finds a beautiful abandoned persocom (the powerful humanoid personal computers of the future) his life changes: Chii, the persocom, has no memory of her past, knows nothing, and appears to run without an operating system. As Hideki lives with and teaches her, it becomes increasingly apparent that Chii is immensely powerful—she may even me a Chobit, persocoms of legend who are, supposedly, capable of independent thought and true emotions. The mysteries around Chii only grow and Hideki and his friends investigate; meanwhile, Chii acts as if she is in love with Hideki and he begins to have unusual, strong feelings for her.

I just finished watching the anime, and I recently reread the manga, so I have some opinions to offer on both and on Chobits as a whole. In general, I absolutely recommend Chobits in any form. It may be a change of pace for CLAMP, but the series is still skillfully done. Characterization is strong throughout, and even minor characters have their own stories and command interest. Love is the subject that CLAMP knows best, and it is a theme throughout the series as Hideki begins to have feelings for Chii and those around him to come to terms with their feelings for friends, family, teachers, lovers, and even persocoms. Interpersonal relationships really are the highlight of the series, the manga in particular: they are emotional, thought-provoking, sweet, romantic, and adorable. The science fiction is secondary to the relationships but still interesting: how the persocoms work and what they can do, but more importantly why they were created and why they look like humans. The final resolution to the series is satisfying, explaining away all confusion without sacrificing characters or personal interest. All in all, the series is enjoyable and skillfully done.

That said, most of the above applies best to the manga, while the anime focuses more on humor, science, and filler. The manga is truly wonderful, one of the best series by CLAMP. I reread it often and enjoy it a lot. The anime pales in comparison, and while not bad in and of itself it is nowhere near as skillful or as enjoyable as the manga. The manga art is detailed, in particular the Gothic Lolita dresses that Chii and her sister wear, and more realistic than most of CLAMP's work, with round eyes, clean lines, and fairly average, normal proportions—some of the detail is, obviously, lost in the transition to anime, but the general style is preserved. While there is humor in the manga, much of it sexual or based on Chii's innocent, uneducated personality, it is minimal and unexaggerated—in the anime, humor is overemphasized, takes up more of the show, and is a much more slapstick and annoying. There is absolutely no filler in the manga, and it instead takes its time with the characters, exploring personalities, glimpsing back stories, and gradually leading up to some sort of love story (platonic, familial, and otherwise). The anime, however, was released alongside the manga and so there are a number of filler episodes between manga publications. Not all of the filler is bad, but is slows the story and leaves less time for the characters and relationships in the long run.

Perhaps the biggest difference between manga and anime is this filler: while the manga moves slowly and steadily through characters, plots, and relationships, the anime alternates between plot episodes (Hideki finds Chii, Chii is kidnapped, etc), relationship episodes (Shimbo and Sensei, Minoru and Yuziki, etc), and filler episodes (recharging persocoms, the trip to the beach, etc). The division of plot, relationship, and filler makes the anime choppy and a bit boring (especially midway through, when there are a number of filler episodes in a row), but the filler provides some interesting insight into persocoms. Hideki, who knows nothing about persocoms or technology, remains largely illiterate throughout the manga and so we never learn how persocoms work, how they recharge, what they can be exposed to, or really anything else scientific or technical. The anime tackles some of these issues in its filler episodes, revealing that persocoms are solar powered and resistant to saltwater (but require some maintenance), for example. For a true Chobits fan, these side details and explanations can be an interesting addition to the Chobits universe. While not as fulfilling as the steady, skillful combination of plot and relationship in the manga, the anime can be a fun side note and minor addition to the series.

In the end, I really do recommend Chobits. It is an interesting change from the sort of work that CLAMP usually produces, a fascinating study of love, and truly a beautiful, adorable, enjoyable series. The manga is much better than the anime: it flows smoothly, builds up to its conclusion very well, and combines serious issues, humor, and romance very evenly. The anime has its moments but functions best as a lighthearted and science-fiction-focused addition to the manga—be aware that the humor is a lot more prevalent and annoying in the anime. There are 8 volumes to the manga and it was released by Tokyopop (in the originally unflopped version with Japanese sound effects and minimal editing). The anime covers 27 episodes, including two summary episodes and one special OVA episode, and is currently available on YouTube through Keiichi Anime Forever.


juushika: Drawing of a sleeping orange cat. (Default)

September 2017

345 6789
1011 12 13141516


RSS Atom


Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags