Sunday, May 10, 2009

Seirei no Moribito (Guardian of the Sacred Spirit)

There are arguably two kinds of epic story-telling. Code Geass is epic in its cast of nearly forty characters, countless political factions and worldly scope of events. Seirei no Moribito is the polar opposite of epic: its pacing and animation budget dictate a weight overloaded with subtext and self-awareness, like the path of an iceberg.

Production IG developed this series (based on a book series of the same name and premise,) and while it was already released last year in Adult Swim, it quickly sank. Thankfully, Seirei returns to Adult Swim this summer for the entire series. The big guns were brought out for this one, such as Kenji Kawai orchestrating a subtle score that could challenge John Williams’ resume. Kawai’s credits include the live-action Death Note movies, Ghost in the Shell, Patlabor, Gundam 00, Ranma ½, Skycrawlers – did I mention he’s been around? The staff member to keep an eye on is young and ambitious Kenji Kamiyama. His current project, newly released Eden of the East is…I can’t talk about that now without drooling. Let’s stick with feudal-era spear-wielders, shall we?

The panoramic eye-candy, from snow-crested mountains to rural rice paddies to treacherous forests, is rewarding in itself. Even the village episodes hold such detail you almost choke on the dust rising from the streets. Every episode looks like Miyazaki could have inked it himself; that’s how high-budgeted this project is.

The story is simple enough. Balsa, an experienced spear-wielding bodyguard, is charged to protect the second prince of a feudal empire, Chagum. The prince incubates the egg of a water spirit that could summon either rain or drought. As Balsa hides the prince from pursuers from the palace, he is instituted in the school of simple, peasant life, becoming his own man. On the way we learn the vast details of this world, a macrocosm/mélange of nearly every Asian culture, from ancient Chinese Dynasties to Shinto/Taoism fusion. It’s a pleasing aesthetic, almost achieving a visual zen in background art. These details flesh out the world, its countries, landscapes and cultures with magnificent detail, giving World of Warcraft writers a serious run for their money.

Our main character, Balsa, is unlike any protagonist I’ve ever encountered. For starters, she’s in her thirties. I KNOW, RIGHT?! Second of all, she has no sword. IS THIS ANIME?! And the series goes without flashbacks until five episodes from the end. THAT’S IMPOSSIBLE! The fight scenes (all five of them) are fluid and kinetic and framed in real-time, making them visceral, gritty and real. They are brilliantly choreographed and stunning to watch, it’s almost a letdown when they end, like eating the cherry off the sundae before the ice cream gets to melt.

Seieri’s supporting cast is diverse, though distant and dry. Shaman Torogai is old, vulgar yet wise. Her apprentice Tanda is reserved and…that’s about it. He makes herbs. The palace’s master astrologist, Shuga, spends much of the series in research, as we never quite understand every detail to the egg inside Chagum nor what to do with it. The eight assassins sent after Balsa are the most well-coordinated criminal-investigators/ninja ever. They’re like Law & Order meets Ninja Scroll. However, the mood of the series and monotonous voice directing take away a lot of the passion and interest from the characters. In any other cast, the most expressive character in Seirei would probably be cast as the tree, even in other reserved series like Ghost in the Shell.

With twenty-six episodes to develop this year-long tale, it spreads itself pretty thin in order to properly develop the world and the handful of essential characters, which can be enough for some, but a turn-off for many viewers.

The pacing of Seirei no Moribito is the most prominent element in this series, and it has to be properly addressed. Sluggish at times, comatose at others, it’s hard to watch this series one episode at a time. Many chapters revolve around a single dialog that will weigh little or no consequence, or if they do, the subtlety is so intense you lose track of what you’re watching. Sometimes the pacing simply embellishes the lavish and meticulously-detailed backgrounds, which you need in order to show off just how beautiful they are. However, there are several stretches of episodes where NOTHING happens, maybe Shuga researches or Chagum delivers a public lecture on game theory, but these episodes are a battle against your eyelids.

Pacing problems set aside, this is a simple tale beautifully animated, and when it decides to be an action series, it’s on par with the fights of Cowboy Bebop and the boss fight from Grenadier. Solid story-telling with a memorable cast. 3.5 out of 5.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Shikabane Hime (Corpse Princess) Season 2

Shikabane: human spirits whose regrets in life cause them to return as vengeful monsters.
Shikabane Hime: young (usually hot,) undead women employed to seek and destroy shikabane.

A few months ago, I reviewed the first season of this supernatural/horror/drama/fan-service extravaganza by GAINAX with great delight. The cliff-hanger ending of episode twelve gave me plenty of motivation and desire for more.

To recap, there are monsters, and there are strike teams of monks and undead teenage girls who fight off said monsters. Ouri, an inclusive youth with a fascination with death, has been following his adoptive older brother, Keisei and his partner, Makina Hoshimura. In a critical moment of defiance and selfless sacrifice, Keisei finally lays down his life for Ouri and Makina, setting the stage for the second half of this passionate drama.

In season two, we turn our attention to the Seven Stars, a team of untouchably powerful shikabane who seek the utter destruction of the Kougon Sect and their shikabane himes. With a clear central villain and a clear conflict of interests between central characters, you would think the story has plenty of steam to keep this freight train on the move.

Then the middle of the series comes, and with it the mid-season-two-drag. We fall into the shallow grave of flashbacks, recaps and tertiary character development, but only to emerge stronger than ever.

Somehow during the transition of acquiring Ouri as her new contractor monk, Makina has developed a curse, a super-power that gives her unlimited regeneration at the cost of shortening Ouri’s life. This twist is more for dramatic effect then an actual plot point, as she continues her regular Shikabane Hime duties of monster-mashing and self-loathing. Although it does lend itself to some pretty impressive fight sequences.

Some support characters are developed for the sake of cautionary tales between Ouri and Makina, while some new characters are introduced for the sake of fan-service. Not to say that Shikabane Hime loses any of its dark, morbid charm. Most of the fights leading up to the final conflict with the Seven Stars are downright cruel to viewers. Bravo. All that was lacking was development on the Seven Stars: a majority of them are not given memorable names or even discernable powers. Come on, guys, you had 25 episodes, gimme a back story!

Eventually, the Seven Stars and Akasha, the “traitor monk,” get their acts together and start causing mayhem on a grand scale. By using their young leader, a seemingly brain-dead girl named Hokuto, the Stars wreak Left 4 Dead-style havoc on Tokyo. The potential for mass-slaughter is ignored for a handful of “I’m-gonna-follow-my-path-no-matter-what” speeches, but I can overlook them.

The series caps out at twenty-five episodes, and while the plot does not resolve entirely, the characters’ resolve is set in stone, and we leave the series with a satisfying acceptance of life over a peculiar fascination with death, and the changing of the guard, passing of the torch is complete.

A huge part of Shikabane Hime’s appeal was its convenience. Using Hulu, I was able to watch the entire series at my leisure with about a minute of commercial interruption. Besides the obvious mid-season-two-slump, Shikabaane Hime delivers and pushes its characters to develop their motivations, not just their powers, (something you might want to take note of, Bleach.) Keep up the good work FUNimation. A sinister and grimly earned 4.0 out of 5.

Monday, March 23, 2009

White Album

You’ve probably caught on that Japanese drama is very slow, very dense, and very gradual, like the pacing of a Harold Pinter play. White Album turns its pages very delicately, inter-lacing love and politics, commitment and heartbreak, dreams of success and responsibility. This is a subtle, realistic story about holding onto what you love in a world that gives you no control.
Touya Fujii is the kind of main character who can put you to sleep (mainly because it is debatable if he ever is awake in the scenes.) He works at a café, tutors fellow students, and sleeps a lot. However, his isn’t the interesting story; his girlfriend, Yuki Morikawa is on her way to becoming a rising pop star (like Brittany.) Her career begins to put serious strain on their relationship until Touya gets a lucky break: becoming a personal assistant for the current pop sensation, Rina Ogata. Red haired and fiesty, Rina is a diva with a heart of gold and a big sister role-model to Yuki. From here, a quiet love triangle begins to take shape, vanishing and reappearing almost to its own accord, like Brittany Spears’ talent.
Rina’s manager/older brother is fixated on Yuki being the next big thing and begins sacrificing his sister’s career. It feels that Touya has literally no say in anything that happens. A lot of time is spent on the bare and empty rooms and buildings in the scenes; people are very often alone to an excruciating degree. Many scenes revolve around missing phone calls; the pop stars are stuck in the studios and only touch the outside world through their box phone (like Brittany).
Touya has many women other than Yuki who become his “goddess of the day,” a term of endearment who those who help him out, though he spends all his time helping women to various degrees. While this may seem like the set-up to a harem or dating-game anime, the female characters are too complex for such a restrictive label. Younger sister, girlfriend, mentor, all the other characters have an essential element that Touya (like Brittany) lacks: drive and passion. Well…as much drive and passion as can be allowed in such a molasses-paced series.
A narrative technique that gives this series its charm is Touya’s internal monologue, displayed as poetic subtitles across the screen; thankfully these terse verses give us insight into the complicated drama beneath the surface (like Brittany’s psychiatrist.)
Another aesthetic that externalizes Touya’s feelings are the depictions of the various women as goddesses, a pastel shading of the girl that is misleadingly soft and warm. Flowing and trapped behind a soft-focus lense, these moments add a personal quality to a very stand-offish drama.
It’s hard to pitch this series to non-anime fans (unlike Brittany,) and nearly impossible for younger people because of its maturity in tackling issues like political manipulation, fame and sex. This is a dispassionate series and whenever emotion is shown, you realize how it long it has been building up. It’s like Chekov as an anime.
White Album digresses and develops its side stories musically, flowing between Yuki’s career and her struggle to hold her relationship with Touya. Commitment is hard to keep during a career, the isolation seems maddening (like in Perfect Blue.) Soft, light, romantic, but the subtext drives you crazy. Yayoi is Yuki’s driver/assistant and takes Touya to a dam to tell him, in so many words, not to date Yuki anymore so she can focus on her career. She then offers herself to Touya dispassionately to distract him. The narrative is never clear if he does or doesn’t take the bait.
A unique story, which is a good and bad thing. I recommend White Album to older fans who want a series to share with their significant other. Sadly, the complete 26 episodes have yet to air, so we can only wait for this story to conclude happily, or at least co-hosting the VMA’s…like Christina Aguilara. Anigamers gives this series a solid 3 out of 4, beautiful art, great story and script, but pacing of a hundred-meter dash for Brittany after a night at Boston Market.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


“Will you kill someone you love because of love?” No: it’s more fun to torture them.

When you have thirteen episodes to develop a show, good writers stick to one story, great writers can multi-task. With Ga-Rei-Zero, Yomi and Kagura’s friendly sisterly rivalry turns bittersweet the intervention of Oedipus’ good buddy, Fate. The story’s road takes a clever fork as one sister’s coming-of-age is achieved at the cost of the other’s fall from grace.

When the story begins in medias res, you feel like you’ve missed something big. Characters appear and emote without context, and I found myself rewatching episodes in chronological order to feel the full impact of each major battle. A clever bookend, though it leads you in the totally wrong direction, considering the entire cast of episode one is dead by episode two. What begins as Ghost in the Shell-esch dialog with demons becomes schoolgirls with demons…without tentacles.

Basic premise: our world today is being attacked by invisible spooks, monsters, the whole nine yards. Only a handful of families possess enough spiritual energy to see and slaughter said monsters. One such team is the covert Special Tactical Squad Section One. Their newest member will soon be Kagura Tsuchimiya, though there is little a traumatized ten-year-old can do for herself, let alone the world. It is up her to uncle and adoptive cousin, Yomi, to save her from despair. They both use swords to combat the undead (and deadish) as well as inherited beasts of their own. Yomi has Ranguen (manticore on steroids), while Kagura’s father bears the family legacy of burdening his soul with the white, fluffy chain dragon of unspeakable horror, Byakurei.

The animation is magnificent, with smooth movement, flashy fights and great weather effects. Whether in a forest, underground sewer, or on the streets of Tokyo, I believe this world, which is why the 3D graphics of some of the monsters are so disappointing. Many of the monsters are stock (or unionized, it’s hard to tell with animated monsters) and the fights are disappointing one-sided, although seeing Yomi fight with a holy water-spraying iron at one point was pretty grand.

It is not all skirts and flirts, though. There are several comedic moments in the series (including a Comedy of Errors episode) that is uniquely humorous. Master Michael – I choose to say no more besides, “yes.” The humor is very well-spaced and does well to soften the next emotional impact. As Yomi descends into darkness and eventually becomes an adversary, she becomes a walking massacre in a skirt that really ends up tugging your heart. Her fights with Kagura (especially episode eleven) redefine swordplay…and arm-drills.

While Ga-Rei-Zero has intriguing domestic insurrection, the majority of the series revolves around Kagura and Yomi’s reactions to both of the series’ major events, which if you know anything about anime, usually means the passing of the torch, passing of legacy. The series is masculine in its gritty nature, but very feminine in its habit of focusing too long on Kagura crying, or lamenting, or grieving. If I had to give this anime a song, it would have to be “All The Things She Said.”

The main problem with this season is its waiting-for-a-sequel ending, which to me dismisses Yomi’s purpose as a character beyond the threshold guardian for Kagura. Do I want more? Not without Yomi. As the first two episodes indicate, Yomi becomes the bad guy. Her descent is slightly more believable than Anakin Skywalker’s, but far too easy. The nameless main villain corrupts her far too easily. Yomi was a great ally and a supportive, loving sister, which made her such a sinister villain, but to have her switch gears so easily feels like a quicker 180 than Will Smith in I Am Legend. Go ahead and watch, but tell me if you disagree with the “puppet-master” treatment of Yomi.

A cool story of sisterly love and the hardship of legacy. It is hinted with political manipulation and topped with fun monster-slaying; Ga-Rei-Zero was a nice surprise, though I can’t imagine it generating a large following.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Shikabane Hime (Corpse Princess

You’re pretty much aware of Funimation’s desire to bring us fresh, crispy, brand-new anime NOW. Shikabane Hime is the first in what may be a long trend of anime released online, fully subtitled, through an American company. True, you can buy high-quality subbed episodes right now through Itunes, or watch them on Youtube or Hulu, and it’s perfectly legal. But we’ll hold off on the legality for a law firm podcast.

For now we’ve got guns, demons and boobies to discuss.

Studio Gainax picked up this supernatural action series from a moderately popular manga. Shikabane Hime follows Makina Hoshimura, an undead soldier who must slaughter 108 fellow shikabane (vengeful zombie/spirits) in order to achieve Heaven. Fighting alongside her is her contract monk, Keisei Tagami, a modern man using old-school methods. The real pull of the story is through his adoptive, detached younger brother, Ouri. Ouri’s fascination with death is a moth-to-the-flame archetype that is destined to leave him burned. The situation quickly reaches the clichéd catch-22 of “we both want to protect each other, but we’ll both get killed in the process,” as Ouri includes himself in many of Makina’s missions.

Gainax flexes their muscles with the opening animation, whipping zombie arms and bullet casings like they were party-poppers at a New Year’s party. The fluid animation paired with the distorted close-up angles bears the proud badge of the studio that gave us Evangelion. Shikabane Hime tones down most of its colors to create the eerie atmosphere we’ve come to associate with modern Gothic stories. It’s dark, almost macabre coloration reminded me of Blood + without the whiny characters. It is strange how the camera holds Makina in frame: her ice-cold beauty and violent passion is quite hot. Almost all of the backgrounds and scenery are unmistakably grim, however, lacking in any major light source.

Sadly, at times the overbearingly grim tones leads to flat, professional supporting characters that do not elicit much sympathy. Even so, director Masahiko Murata tries to interject slapstick humor and innuendo comedic relief…but to no avail. If anything, the jokes are so forced and out-of-place they distract from the task at hand: shooting up zombies. Still, I’d hate to think of how dull this series would be without Keisei’s closeted otaku-tendencies.

Gainax’s staff brought out their big guns in letting Shou Aikawa handle the script. His ear for corrupted morality can be heard in the FMA movie, Rahxephon, Wrath of the Ninja, and the OVA of Vampire Princess Miyu. In short, a very experienced man with one foot firmly planted in the realm of the fantastic.

Beyond the gripping stories of people resurrecting as powerful monsters only to be mowed down, I was most invested in the political struggle of the monks’ hierarchy. Indeed, the tethering of shikabane himes (corpse princesses) to fight off monsters is a no-win situation of fighting fire with fire. And boy do they use fire. Makina’s firearms are a beautiful, bouncing pair of…Uzis. Another corpse princess fights with her fists, another with a big-ass hammer, and another with a sniper rifle. This team of living corpses perpetually argues among themselves and with their contracted monks, leading to a more fitting, subtle (though definitely black) humor.

As the story exhumes the mysteries surrounding Makina’s death and Keisei’s involvement with the Kougon Sect, it is clear that Ouri’s involvement with the himes will only pull him deeper. I will not spoil the end of the first season, but I will remind you to stay tuned to Funimation’s youtube channel, as Shikabane Hime: Kuro, or season two, is already in post-production and ready to launch here…in America. It turns out that Gainax is keeping themselves quite busy between this production and both the Gurren Lagann movies. They are clearly not going to let Studio Bones have all the fun.

Shikabane Hime is an all-around decent action piece that dictates a black-and-white arguement on using monsters to blow away other monsters. Nothing ground-breaking, but much better than your run-of-the-mill zombie film. A solid three out of five.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Gurren Lagann

It’s Gainax. Of course there are going to be giant robots and bouncing boobies.

From the very beginning, Gurren Lagann is a story of reaching new heights and climbing higher. Simon (pronounced See-moan) is a measly digger, one of the countless humans living in despair beneath the Earth’s crust. Banished to never see the sky above, mankind is truly at its lowest. If it were not for his inspirational and testosterone-exuding gang-brother Kamina, Simon would be almost deprived of confidence and willpower. Change is set into motion as Simon discovers a mechanical face buried in the soil, and the tiny drill that activates it. From there, destiny spins itself out of control as Simon and Kamina aim their sights for the grand, unexplored world above their tunnel city.

Halfway through the first episode, a giant robot falls from the ceiling, as does a beautiful, rifle-wielding tom-boy named Yoko. Once Simon pilots the pint-sized Lagann to victory, Team Gurren’s journey truly begins. Upon reaching the surface, Simon and Kamina learn that mankind was driven underground out of terror of the Beastmen and their giant robots. They join up with Yoko’s village and begin living to the fullest, leading a full-out war against the Beastmen and their terrifying Spiral King.

I have waited a long time for an anime like this. I remember being a hot-blooded teenager, thrilling over Dragon Ball Z, Ronin Warriors and, yes, even Sailor Moon. When a character wanted something, they yelled louder, lights appeared from nowhere, and they achieved the impossible. It’s that moment in anime when willpower and desire are personified, and every hair on your arm stands up on end. If it weren’t for the visual barrage of colorful characters and hypnotic robot battles, Gurren Lagann’s predictability and formula would murder its potential. But it’s almost too good to dismiss as another kids show overloaded with toy company fodder.

From there, the formula is set in place. Just as good as it is bad, you cannot shake off Gurren Lagann’s almost cop-out ability to drill through every obstacle imaginable the same way every time. Whenever there is a chance of emotional development and a deep meaning, a bigger robot appears and the human’s flagship mecha, Gurren Lagann, makes an even bigger drill, penetrates the enemy robot, and pounds its way to a lightshow of victory.

Gainax’s stylistic choppy animation style that was embraced during FLCL adds a level of spunk and pep that compliments the chromatically intense visuals. Staying on the visuals, the eye-catchers are some of the…catchiest I’ve seen since Cowboy Bebop, in that they stand out with a raw and colorful style on their own. The fights are way over-the-top and can easily lead to an epileptic breakdown without proper lighting or medication on hand. Lagann’s animators use old-school cell-paint techniques, which are severely lacking these days in anime; I’m getting tired of bland and depthless 3D rendered backgrounds. And because this is a Gainax anime, no drill-to-penis innuendo is too low nor too overt; in fact very little is spared. Yoko provides the essential “Gainax-bounce” and her fiery brassiere top becomes a character on its own.

Take the fan gushing with a grain of salt: Kamina’s unlimited “fighting spirit” becomes obnoxious quicker than expected. The over-the-top ego drills on your nerves, but it all leads up to the more fascinating and challenging second part of the series. Without any spoilers, I will say this about the second season: think Watchmen, Squadron Supreme, when the righteous make the wrong choices for the right reasons.

A fantastic dub from ADV. Steve Blum goes way off-character to play Leeron, the effeminate tech-head. A-lister Kyle Hebert does a great performance as Kamina, bringing full bravado and macho suave to the all-around badass Kamina. This cast was very carefully put together, and the precision of voice director Tony Oliver paid off fantastically. For more details, check out our podcast episode that Evan recorded at New York Anime Fest – still jealous over that, Minto!

But suspension of disbelief set aside, Gurren Lagann is worth it. Without any doubt. This wasn’t the smartest anime, nor the deepest, but it never tried to be. It just tried to be a good ride with robots – and even a bitter, jaded fan like me fell head-over-heels for it.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Sky Crawlers Premiere in NYC

Anime director Mamoru Oshi (Ghost in the Shell, Patlabor, Blood the Last Vampire, Jin-Roh: the Wolf Brigade) has been off the radar for quite some time. On Friday night, December 12th, the Lincoln Center of NYC became the only place in the country to check out his newest piece, SKY CRAWLERS.

Based on a novel, Sky Crawlers is a story of perseverance and the banality of an existence centered on combat. There is a war, a struggle between two nations happening in the skies above us - but it's not our problem. Yuichi Kannami is a top fighter pilot who has just transferred to a new base. New plane, new missions, new crew to meet. And, like every other pilot there, he is a Kildred: an immortal who will never grow up. These genetically-engineered living dolls trudge through their day-to-day routines, repeating tasks and only feeling the thrill of life while fighting in the skies.

Peter Pan references set aside, this movie drags at the pace of a coma. Harold Pinter himself would admit the film's minimalistic approach is a bit too slow. Even the dog-fight scenes between the fighter planes seems to lack immediacy and drive. On top of that, Tetsuya Nishio's (Naruto, Jin-Roh) symmetric and almost flat character design gives little complexity to the film's aesthetic. The coloration is bland, holding an almost salt-worn quality, which only drives Oshi's point home about how dull a Kildred's life is. Without the aerial combat, this film could have been made live-action in the 1960's and no one would have known the difference.

On the big screen, the fighter plane sequences are dazzling. The sharpness of the 3D is so well done, it's easy to forget you're watching an anime. Every bullet shot tears across the screen, and for the first time, bullet-time met air planes: Max Payne would be pleased.

Yet, pacing set aside, Oshi has created a fascinating proposal: a world that uses a never-ending war as a means of keeping the peace. The lackluster nature of the immortal Kildreds only smooths out their passion and personal drives, keeping them willing to fight. As the story progresses, Yuichi becomes close with his mysterious captain, Kusanagi, and the two develop a strange cat-and-mouse/friendly fire relationship as they delve into the others' past secrets. All of their questions and searching lead back to their mission: to fly until shot down, until confronted by the mysterious and untouchable Teacher.

Subtext and subtlety are more important to this film than the amazing plane fights. The bare minimum script leaves small clues in an almost "Memento" style, that does not need to be pieced together in order to follow the film. What matters in the symbolism. The children cannot surpass the Teacher, the "father" figure who taunts them silently from above. The Kildred's lack of drive for life causes them to shut down their hearts, blur their memories, and live half-consciously just to stave off their immortal boredom. If only they'd take the cues from every vampire story every written: IMMORTALITY IS BORING.

This film could only be made by Mamoru Oshi: cryptic, distant and profound. Again, he has created a piece that provokes analysis and discussion rather than cosplaying fangirls.