Anime Secret Santa 2015 – Patema Inverted

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Some time in the near future, a scientific experiment involving gravity goes horribly awry. As a result, gravity becomes reversed for many people; rather than being held to the ground, these “Inverts” are now pushed away from the Earth’s surface, forcing the survivors to take refuge underground. Generations later, the surviving population is divided into two separate societies: the underground society of the Inverts, and Aiga, the totalitarian surface city.

Patema Inverted begins, like these stories tend to do, with a precocious teenage girl who has little time for adult-imposed boundaries on exploration. Patema, the daughter of the Invert chieftain, has a habit of wandering near a large chasm called The Danger Zone (get your Kenny Loggins jokes out now). Unbeknownst to her, this chasm leads to the surface, and to the non-inverted people of Aiga. One day, a scuffle with a “bat man” (a black-clad Aigan soldier who is exploring the tunnels and, from Patema’s perspective, walks on the ceiling), Patema falls through the chasm and onto the surface. Before she floats away into the sky, however, she is saved by Age, an Aigan boy who wants to follow in the footsteps of his father, a would-be explorer who once tried to defy the fanatical government and see what lay outside the city.

If the broad strokes of the story described so far feel familiar, they should. Once Patema Inverted‘s two teenage love interests from different worlds have their first magic moment together, it’s no challenge at all to predict the path the story will take to its end. Our rebellious teen heroes meet, fall in love, and face adversity from ignorant authority figures, only to then discover secret knowledge about their fantastical world that they will use to bring their two divided communities together. None of the turns of the plot, or the secrets Patema and Age uncover, will come as much of a surprise. And it’s a credit to Patema Inverted‘s charms as a story that it can tread such familiar ground and still be as enjoyable as it is.

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Like writer/director Yasuhiro Yoshiura’s previous work, Time of EvePatema Inverted uses a fantastical premise to explore the way societies create barriers between people, and how overcoming those barriers creates empathy and, ultimately, understanding. In Eve, humans discover that when they encounter their android servants in a social setting where both hold equal stature, the differences between man and intelligent machine become harder to discern. In Patema Inverted, the Inverts and the Aigans view each other as freaks who could never fit in with “normal” people like them. When Patema and Age first encounter each other, they view the other with a mix of wonder, horror, and confusion, which eventually give way to mutual respect and compassion. Once you get to know someone, the fact they think the ceiling is the floor doesn’t seem like such a big deal after all.

The moments where characters from the two worlds interact are the obvious highlights. The scenes where Age and Patema walk through an open space, awkwardly clinging together to keep the other from “falling” into the sky, are all particularly beautiful moments for the way they capture a simultaneous mix of simultaneous emotions. They are confused, amazed, scared, and excited, all at once – all the things one feels when encountering something unknown, depicted through the act of trying to walk while holding on to an upside down person. Patema Inverted succeeds as a movie because it fully embraces the metaphorical meaning of its science fiction premise, which gives Yoshiura the opportunity to indulge in the movie’s most effective directorial flourish. Rather than maintain a fixed position as to which characters are upside down, the perspective from which the characters are portrayed changes depending on their emotional state and the power dynamics between characters; just because a character is standing on the floor doesn’t guarantee that they will be the one right side up in the frame.

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In most cases, Patema Inverted overcomes its utterly predictable story by injecting a surprising amount of life and emotion into the relationships between its characters. And its worst moments come, unsurprisingly, when it fails to do so. The most obvious weak spot comes in the form of the antagonist, Izamura, the leader of Aiga. While the rest of the characters experience conflicting emotions, Izamura feels just one: the need to be a cackling supervillain. He sneers, he plots, he torments the innocent, he makes Mr. Burns finger steeples without a hint of irony – and he never amounts to anything more than the panto villain he appears to be at first glance.

Patema Inverted is a movie of few surprises and simple pleasures. If you prefer your sci-fi to be philosophically heady and complex, then to you it will most likely feel insubstantial. But as a simple coming of age story and an earnest exploration of the experience of encountering the new, it’s perfectly satisfying.

Look Up in Anger – The Righteous Indignation of Maria the Virgin Witch

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Maria the Virgin Witch is an angry show. At first it may have looked like just an affable sex comedy about a prudish teenage witch and the horny succubus who wants to get her laid, but the longer it goes on the more its seething anger boils over. Mostly gone are the jokes about awkward teenage horniness and cherry popping, replaced with pointed condemnations of the ugly, tangled mass of religion, blind doctrine, and power dynamics that make up the medieval Church, as well as the ways the people who wield its power use their weight to push people around. It’s a far cry from when the highest stakes conflict was whether or not Maria’s incubus familiar would ever get a schlong of his own.

Thankfully, Maria the Virgin Witch is also an intelligent show. It would be easy for it’s brand of anti-authority, “leave me alone” anger to come off as flailing and immature, especially when directed at a target as big and as tempting as the Catholic Church of the Dark Ages. But Maria‘s anger isn’t the yelling kind that comes from hatred and bile; it’s the kind that comes from bitter disappointment. The show’s villains – the zealot Inquisitors, feudal politicians, and violent thugs who profit from war, promote ignorance, and vilify Maria – aren’t cartoonishly evil mustache twirlers who were born bad and laugh while the world burns. Their evil is the most mundane kind: they’re jealous, small-minded, self-centered, and desperate to maintain their lot in life, naturally afraid of anything that challenges their worldview or takes power out of their hands. It’s the kind of evil that people commit reflexively, without thinking, while still being absolutely sure that they’re in the right. That kind of evil seems small, but it’s the most pervasive kind of all, and often it’s the most destructive and the hardest to combat.

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Which isn’t to say that Maria herself is perfect, or that she doesn’t have many of the same flaws. Maria is pig-headed, naive, quick to anger, and at the start of the show was just as self-centeredly convinced of her own righteousness as Bernard, Galfa, and the other agents of the Church, State, and the Heavens who oppose her. Despite her blessed name and her virginal status, Maria is far from pure. But that doesn’t stop her from trying to improve the lives of the people around her and make the world a better place, whereas her opponents use their energy and influence to wage war and control thought.

Why the difference between them? What separates the flawed, humanized hero from the flawed, humanized villains in the world of Maria the Virgin Witch? A shallow reading would say that the difference is purely a choice of religion – the pagan Maria vs. dumb, violent, witch-burning Christians – but there’s much more to it than that. What director Goro Taniguchi and writer Hideyuki Kurata (who was also the scriptwriter for the thematically similar, but much more hyperbolic Now and Then, Here and There with director Akitaro Daichi) have repeatedly emphasized as the problem is not the spiritual validity of the Christian faith, but the way the people and institutions that claim their power through it use that power. Maria the Virgin Witch isn’t interested in debating whether or not Jesus died on the cross to redeem the world’s sins, or if the old-world pagan spirits are the true religion; it wants to know why the beings vested in the Christian God’s authority can’t seem to live up to their own precepts. If faith in Jesus is the light that shows the truth, why are his followers so set in their obvious ignorance? If God is love, then why does his Church promote intolerance and revel in judgement? If He weeps for people’s suffering, why doesn’t He do something to stop it?

Church of the Earth

Maria the Virgin Witch may not have a good answer for, “Why does God let people suffer?” (who does?), but it definitely has an answer for why His servants have such a big hateboner for Maria herself: they cannot control her. What the Church represents most of all in Maria the Virgin Witch is those who gain power, status, and self-worth through the position of being able to control others (even the soldier Galfa, who is of much lower social status than the rest of the villains, derives his self-worth from being a tool of the system: he lives for the violence, plunder, and glory that being his rulers’ strongman brings him). And to the people in charge of maintaining the current order, someone who refuses to listen to them or to recognize their authority is the ultimate threat to their existence. As functionaries of a misguided and oppressive power structure, Maria’s enemies don’t just hate her; they can’t even comprehend her.

It’s the blinding, morally stultifying effect of being a part of a corrupt authority that Maria is most angry about. The men who abuse and condemn Maria aren’t evil by nature. They do evil things because they can’t see outside their own sheltered prism, because they insist that everyone else see things the same way, and because they use the power they have to force their will on anyone who doesn’t. Maria the Virgin Witch wants you to be angry at these people, not because they are inferior, but because they should know better.

Maria Be Myself

Emotions Are For Losers – Aldnoah.Zero and the Heroic Virtue of Being a Robot

Aldnoah.Zero season 2’s opening credits sequence has one of the most unintentionally funny moments so far in anime 2015. Recapping season 1’s bloodbath of a final episode, the opening images show protagonist Inaho and the Martian princess Asseylum being parted by the sudden violence that left her in a coma and cost him an eye. The animation in the sequence would have you believe that the trauma of losing Asseylum has had a profound emotional impact on Inaho; his face contorts with grief and his eyes appear close to shedding tears as the image of her before him disappears. The irony of this, of course, is that Inaho has never once displayed anything close to this amount of emotion in the actual show.

Sad Inaho
Pictured: false advertising

In the show itself, Inaho isn’t so much a person with human thoughts and feelings as he is a supercomputer made of meat, one that’s programming allows him to comprehend or perform no interaction with humanity beyond numbly reciting useless trivia and stiffly correcting people for not being factually correct or logical enough. Despite the Aldnoah.Zero‘s repeated insistence that he and Asseylum forged a deep, emotional bond over the course of season 1, it’s impossible to think of any moment where Inaho expressed anything remotely resembling human affection for her, before or after she was shot. Equally impossible is coming up with a single moment where Inaho interacted with another human being in a way that would leave any of them with the impression that he was anything but the most awkward and closed off person they had ever met. Inaho does not laugh, cry, cheer, or frown, no matter the situation. Whether he’s dryly lecturing the people around him about the atmospheric effects that make the sky appear blue or blandly reciting the overly complex way he’s figured out to defeat the latest nigh-invincible super robot to cross his path, Inaho faces every situation with the same dead-eyed, emotionally vacant expression.

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The many emotional states of Inaho

And yet, nearly every character who meets Inaho is instantly impressed with him, drawn in by some phantom magnetism that only the characters in the show can even begin to comprehend. His blank, inhuman nature isn’t off putting or distancing or even a barrier to communication; it’s something that everyone around him loves and respects. Any time someone doesn’t understand him or disagrees with him, it’s never because Inaho can’t express himself properly or because there is room for disagreement. Failing to understand Inaho is always caused by the other person’s silly emotions and lack of natural supercomputer calculating power keeping them from being able to get on his level of pure, unbiased logic. Inaho is never once wrong, about anything. Even when he makes decisions that might seem questionable, the plot twists itself to make sure that everything he does is justified (remember when he shot down Slaine’s plane in season 1 for no good reason, even after Slaine fought on his side to help him? Don’t worry, the show forgot about it too). Every action that Inaho takes is the perfect result of flawless calculation that only ever goes wrong because someone else had to have their silly feelings and mess it all up.

If Inaho has strong feelings about anything that can’t be mathematically calculated or quantified, we certainly haven’t seen it. Despite being the central figure in a war for Earth’s survival against a genocidal enemy and the many near-death experiences he and his crew mates have gone through, he doesn’t even seem to feel much concern about any of their suffering or the atrocities being committed around him. If half his compatriots were to die in the next battle, Inaho’s response would likely be to suggest the survivors skin the corpses to make sleeping bags, and then be confused as to why anyone would find such a logical suggestion the least bit creepy.

Inaho Cloud Nine

But still, time and time again, Aldnoah.Zero has hammered home that the true source of Inaho’s heroism is that he is cold, logical, and smarter than everyone else, something the show has gone so far out of its way to establish that Inaho isn’t so much a character as he is a walking plot device, a magic problem solving tool that instantly overcomes every obstacle he is pointed at without having to so much as furrow his brow in frustration. He is heroic because he has no emotions, and for no other reason. Not because of his personal character, his empathy, his passion, his dedication, his resilience in the face of overwhelming odds, his values, or anything else that is generally used to demonstrate a character’s heroic virtues. Inaho doesn’t even struggle to be the perfect creature of logic, and thus the most perfect and powerful person in the show. Being an emotionless robot is effortless to him because it’s all he is, and yet he is constantly rewarded for it and held up as the ideal all others are inspired to imitate. Inaho isn’t heroic because he’s a better person; he’s heroic because he’s a better robot.

The counterpart to Inaho’s perfect roboticness is, of course, Slaine Troyard, Inaho’s rival for Asseylum’s affection and Aldnoah.Zero‘s favorite whipping boy. Unlike Inaho, Slaine is driven by feelings and his relationships with other people. His involvement in the conflict is personal and complex, and it causes him to react emotionally on many occasions. And every time he does, he is punished for it. For Slaine, the first season was nothing but one physical and emotional trauma after another, with every person he forges a personal bond with either dead, in coma, or having betrayed him by the end of it. Despite Slaine and Inaho supposedly being rivals, the Slaine from season 1 can hardly be considered any real competition. Inaho’s lack of humanity gives him all the power he needs, while Slaine’s emotions render him a useless non contender whose only role is to be brutalized, fail in all his goals, and lose the love of his life, first to an emotionless automaton of a person and then a bullet. Even when he shoots someone through the eye at point blank range, he fails; all those silly tears of his must have messed with the bullet’s trajectory.

Before...
Before…

Cut to season 2, and what’s this? Suddenly Slaine is no longer a failure. In just a matter of months, he’s gone from being the universe’s punching bag to a certified superbadass, from futureless vassal to duly appointed Knight in service of Mars, from perpetual victim to serious political player, from crybaby weakling unable to kill a man from 3 feet away to the most fearsome enemy of all Earthlings, who can mow down any number of foes without breaking a sweat. Turns out that after all the horrific trauma from season 1, Slaine decided put all that silly empathy and emotion he used to feel away and decided that he can be a cold, emotionless badass too. Turns out all he needed to unlock his hidden potential was to stop feeling those dumb feelings.

Slaine Has No Dreams
…and after.

No longer overcome by emotion, Slaine has been liberated from the shackles of humanity and become a true rival for Inaho. Season 2 has so far been framed by the conflict between the two, and that conflict has been entirely defined by Aldnoah‘s “emotions are for weaklings” philosophy. Despite being hated rivals, the greatest amount of feeling the two have managed to display for the other is robotically repeating each other’s names and emotionlessly commenting on how superhuman the other’s tactics are. You would think that two men with so much reason to hate each other would show the least bit of anger when the other one appears, but the duel of destinies between them is entirely one of two cold, blank faces trying to out-supercalculate each other. And since strength in Aldnoah.Zero comes not from the content of your character but from how much like a machine you can be, both characters have gained new, overwhelming power from being given powerful machines: Slaine now pilots an invincible robot that can perform calculation so advanced it can effectively see into the future, and rather than having any sort of emotional crisis over seeing his girlfriend being shot and having his left eye blown out, Inaho has been rewarded with having an actual computer implanted into his head, because apparently he wasn’t robotic enough before.

Inaho Computer

But naturally, Slaine eventually has to lose. He’s just pretending to be emotionless, and only pilots a perfect, logical supermachine; Inaho is a perfect, logical supermachine. And unlike Inaho, Slaine still has things he cares about. He’s on a personal mission to reform the government of Mars. He has a new vassal he seems to like, and is taking care of a brand new Princess who will surely soon die to make him feel sad. In other words, Slaine still has things he cares about, things that can throw him off his balance if anything happens to them. Those connections could cause silly feelings to happen again, and once you have feelings you’re no match for Inaho, who still shows no real concern for any of the people or things he’s fighting for. After all, this is Aldnoah.Zero, where emotions are for losers.

Anime Secret Santa – Xam’d: Lost Memories

This post is part of the Reverse Thieves‘ Anime Secret Santa project.

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Xam’d: Lost Memories begins in the fictional country of Sentan, a small island situated between two larger countries at war. What seems like an ordinary day for high school student Akiyuji Takehara and his friends quickly turns out to be anything but, when a strange, white haired girl detonates a bomb aboard their bus. A green light appears in the wreckage of the explosion and enters Akiyuki’s arm, transforming him into a Xam’d, a powerful, pale-skinned monster with powers he struggles to control. After being attacked by frightened soldiers, Akiyuki only survives with the intervention of a mysterious girl named Nakiami, who manages to return him to human form and promises to help him control his new ability, if he he has the will to survive and will come aboard the postal ship on which she is a crew member.

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Xam’d makes a strong first impression, with it’s catchy as hell opening theme song and its lush, beautiful animation from studio Bones. “High school boy gets mysterious, uncontrollable powers that transform him physically” isn’t exactly a new, refreshing concept for an anime, but the first two episodes pass by pleasantly, especially during the energetic chase and battle scene between the newly born Xam’d and the pursuing army. The choreography has a great tension and energy, and it’s when the Xam’d is in motion that we get strongest sense of the creature’s strange, fleshy texture. The animation does a lot of work to make Xam’d and the other magical elements that appear feel truly alien, which gives them a disruptive, unsettling quality that makes them seem truly distinct from everything around them. The show’s visuals, which stay remarkably vivid and detailed for a television anime, are easily its greatest asset, and that precedent is set from the very beginning.

Unfortunately, the rest of Xam’d doesn’t live up to the impressive animation. The first half of the show, which mostly details Akiyuki’s time with the postal ship’s crew and his lessons in Xam’ding with Nakiami, is only remarkable for just how unremarkable it is. It’s a standard “boy aboard a spaceship” anime plot to compliment the standard “boy gets transformation powers” anime plot, and the characters all hew exactly to stereotype: the brusk and emotionally closed off Captain, the goofy junior crew member, the grouchy old mechanic, the lovable (read: really, really obnoxious) children. Despite spending 12 episodes on board their ship, it’s hard to remember anything distinct about the postal crew beyond their basic appearances and the rote roles they fill.

Those first 12 episodes of Xam’d reveal the host of problems that inevitably make Xam’d nothing more than a pretty, but derivative and messy, misfire. The reliance on dusty old cliches goes well beyond the postal crew and the transforming protagonist, to the point that Xam’d often feels like nothing more than a patchwork of borrowed ideas awkwardly sown together. If you asked someone to record the most generic idea of a Miyazaki heroine possible, you would get an exact replica of Nakiami, from her air glider, to her role as the chosen one of a closer-to-nature tribe caught between two larger nations at war, to the little nature spirits that show up from time to time to point her in the right direction. While Akiyuki is off on his postman adventures, his former classmates become robot pilots (er, excuse me, “humanform” pilots) in the escalating war around them, because of course they do. There’s love triangles, tragic backstories revealed, evil plots by shadowy authority figures, generic bits of wisdom delivered in vague platitudes and obvious metaphors, End of Evangelion-esque grotesques floating in the sky and merging with each other to resolve their existential crises while vaguely explained mystical mumbo jumbo causes the apocalypse, and it turns out hate is destructive and war is bad. The longer it goes on, the less Xam’d can hide that it may not have an original bone in its body.

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Aside from not being very unique, Xam’d also doesn’t seem to have a very good idea of what to do with all the pieces it’s swiped. If having obvious influences was Xam’d‘s biggest crime, ticking off a list of its derivative elements wouldn’t be particularly insightful. But Xam’d never seems to be fully in control of its own story, and the further it goes on the worse it is at getting from one point to the next in a way that doesn’t reveal just how slight and flimsy the whole thing is. The problem is less apparent in the show’s first half, which is mostly content with dwelling on smaller character stories while the bigger war/apocalypse conflict hangs, half formed and occasionally mentioned, overhead. Once both Akiyuki and Nakiami leave the postal ship to each go on their own separate journeys, though, the focus continues to expand outward up until the very end, adding ever more characters, factions, conflicts, and mythology. As the scope gets bigger, the signs of strain only grow, and the muddled story and fitful character development only become more apparent. Sci-fi/fantasy shows of this kind, which build their stories on magical hoo-doo and completely fictional setups, run the risk of their conflicts and plot developments feeling arbitrary or overly convenient. If they’re not tied to relatable themes and emotions, magical goings-on and made up wars between made up peoples not only don’t have clear stakes, they often don’t make much sense. Xam’d tries to link the magical McGuffins and overly complex political machinations to the personal lives of its characters, but it’s in those attempts that it falls down the hardest. Both Akiyuki and Nakiami are far too bland for their sudden changes of heart or fateful decisions to have that kind of load bearing responsibility. When, during the last episode’s climactic scene, Akiyuki describes his name as, “the one thing that defines me,” it’s hard to know whether he’s being poetic, or just being honest.

The assorted pieces that Xam’d freely borrows and builds itself out of all have enough potential for something interesting built into them that it takes longer than it should to become apparent just how little Xam’d has to add, and the animation gives the story much more weight and flash than the script. Xam’d isn’t hard to watch, but it is hard to love.

First off, thanks to Reverse Thieves for putting the Secret Santa together and doing all the work to organize it. Second, thanks to whoever my Secret Santa was for the suggestions. Third, sorry this took a bit longer than expected to be published – work and family over the last month kept me from being able to get it done as quickly as I’d hoped to. But, I’m glad I got to take part, and I look forward to doing it again next year!

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12 Days of Anime #6 – Shiki’s Coming to Your Town

Shiki is one of those shows that few people have seen, but that almost everyone who has loves. Unlike a lot of anime horror (and horror in general, really), which often caters solely in schlockly gore and cheap shock tactics, Shiki thrives on actual substance and atmosphere. Which isn’t to say it skips out on the gore or shock. The difference is that Shiki earns its gore and brutality. It takes a while to get there, but Shiki’s last few episodes are shocking, bloody, and brutally cynical, and also one of the most memorable things I watched in 2014.

WarningSpoilers for Shiki to follow

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If you’ve ever lived in a small town, it won’t take long for you to pick up on the particular set of emotions that 2010’s vampire horror anime Shiki taps into. Peaceful Small Towns are some of the most idealized places in many cultures, often portrayed as oases of serenity, simplicity, and moral superiority away from crushing life in the corrupt big city. You don’t just find this attitude in fiction, either; talk to any Proud Small Town Resident, and they’re likely to have that exact attitude about their perfect little home town. Some of them say it so convincingly and so politely that it’s easy to miss the arrogant superiority and reactionary distrust toward anything from Outside, if you haven’t lived through it yourself.

Shiki understands small towns, from their simplistic concerns to their conservative distrust of anything new to the resentment hiding behind the smiles of neighbors who know too much about each other but are too polite to speak their minds. As the residents of the show’s fictional Japanese town, the isolated mountain village of Sotoba, fall sick with a mysterious illness and die one by one (spoilers: the strange new family that’s moved to town are a coven of vampires), all of those simmering tensions start to rise, until the town’s idilic facade collapses under the strain.

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Shiki starts slow, wallowing in an atmosphere of uncertainty and dread as townspeople are picked off one by one. As the nature of the threat becomes clearer, the boundaries between monsters and regular folks start to blur. Panic and fear show Sotoba’s residents to be callous beasts ready to turn on each other at the slightest suspicion once their passive existence is threatened. Meanwhile, the family of ghouls are revealed to be complex, relatable people who just want what most people want: a family and a home. This inversion of sympathies is complete by the story’s final act, an orgy of brutality that sees the townspeople devolve into the monsters they’ve been threatening to reveal themselves as since episode one, and that only ends with the town in flames and the entire population with blood on its hands (and also on their lawnmowers).

The bloodbath that is Shiki‘s final episodes is inevitable. It’s slow pace and reliance on atmosphere over forward momentum, especially in its first half, all call for an eventual crescendo into a final explosion. But unlike many other horror stories, the climax isn’t a cathartic purge, or a return to normalcy through the driving out of the corrupting, foreign Other that upsets the perfect balance of the world. It’s an explosion of savagery that marks the final collapse of all the pretenses that once held a community together. The horror that Shiki deals in isn’t the horror of outside corruption invading a small, peaceful town. It’s the horror of that small, peaceful town revealing the corruption inside itself at the smell of blood.

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12 Days of Anime #5 – /Fiction

 

Unlimited Blade Works

At the beginning of 2014, Type Moon’s Fate/ franchise was an inscrutable thing that I had no interest in exploring. Twice I’d tried the first episode of Fate/Zero, the anime adaptation of the prequel novel to the visual novel that already had multiple other spinoffs and adaptations, and twice I’d given up after being confronted by a wall of dry, rambling exposition about an impenetrable mythology that unfamiliar characters pontificated on while walking around each other in circles. At that point my impression of all things Fate/ was that it was an overly complex mix of fantasy worldbuilding and RPG elements adapted into nominal story form, and Fate/Zero‘s first episode did nothing but reinforce that opinion.

Fast forward three months. After being goaded by friends and people whose opinions I trusted enough to take the leap, I pushed through the first episode of Fate/Zero one more time so that I could finish the series. Once I made it through the show’s slow, move-the-pieces-into-place first half and arrived at its sturm und drang bloodbath of a finale, I finally got it. I got what people saw in the story. The clash of ideals. The exploration of different ideas of heroism. The Holy Grail-based mythology that tied it all together. It made sense to me. The show wasn’t without its flaws, but they didn’t really matter when measured against its accomplishments.

RIP. Never Forget.
RIP. Never Forget.

Fast forward another three months. Now I’m completely confused again. Having been converted by Fate/Zero, the next obvious step was to dive into the original Fate/Stay Night visual novel. When I did, I was incredibly disappointed. All the familiar stuff was there: Grail Wars. Thoughts on heroism. Servants and Masters. What I wasn’t expecting was all of this to be hidden inside a bloated, poorly written mess of a story thats appeal completely escaped me. There were plenty of promising ideas, but they were far too easy to forget about when wading through hours of purple, circular prose, endless momentum-slaughtering meal scenes, painfully unfunny bits of sitcom comedy, and protagonist Shirou’s obnoxiously creepy and patronizing thoughts every time he encounters a woman.

F:SN Sex Scene 1
Not to mention the pure erotic poetry that is the sex scenes.

Fate/Zero no longer felt like an entry point into something special; it seemed like a salvage job that had found bits of treasure under a sea of flotsam and bilge. The willful ignorance it would take to overlook the game’s faults was too much to ask, given the weight and volume of those faults to compared to everything else. Once again, whatever it was that inspired such passion in so many people was obscured behind a curtain that no amount of lengthy examination or judicious squinting could penetrate.

But…skip to the end of the year. A new Fate/Stay Night anime is airing, and I watch it religiously. Between my aborted attempt to read the VN and the new adaptation premiering, I’ve continued to read summaries, spoilers, and other info on what happens in the story. It’s been a regular topic of conversation. With a little distance, the story’s strengths have become a lot clearer and easier to appreciate. That the new anime has done some serious editing and streamlining of the material, trimming the excessive fat and sanding down the weirder digressions, makes it even easier (also: holy shit, they made Shirou likable!).

F:SN Ideals

I doubt I’ll ever be a died-in-the-wool Type Moonie. There’s too much wrong with the original source for me to ever love it, even if I’m starting to appreciate it, and I have no interest in most of the side series, spinoffs, and other franchise ephemera that fills Fate/ devotees demands for more. But after a year of fits, starts, and dead ends, I finally get it.

I think.

12 Days of Anime #4 – Surprise X Surprise

Hunter X Hunter 4

I’ve never been a fan of long running shonen series. Even as my fellow nerdy, socially maladjusted middle schoolers were all drooling over Dragonball Z, it didn’t do a thing for me. I’ve sampled a few other series since then, but none of them ever impressed. The genre that is so many people’s entry point into anime and manga always left me cold. It wasn’t that I hated them; I just couldn’t seem to care.

I tried Hunter X Hunter on a whim. I was curious to try something new, the right people were saying great things about it, and I had the some time on my hands. If I’m being honest, I planned to give it maybe 12 episodes, at most. Instead, I ended up watching nearly 150 episodes as quickly as I could consume them. I was addicted. And the show only kept getting better, growing from a fun adventure story with a likable cast to a surprisingly mature, sometimes quite bleak exploration of complex moral and existential issues faced by increasingly nuanced characters, while still never losing track of its action roots. Stories like this that go “dark” often mistake slathering on violence and death as all a story needs to be “mature,” without ever growing in any of the ways that demonstrate actual maturity. Hunter X Hunter‘s “Yorknew City” and “Chimera Ant” arcs bucked that trend spectacularly, balancing out harrowing levels of violence and despair with a surprising amount of insight into an ever-growing cast and empathetic portrayals of even the most monstrous of its characters.

I started watching Hunter X Hunter in June or July of this year. By the time the last arc started, I was all caught up and watched it as it came out. When the final episode aired, it was probably the show this year I was least ready to let go. Not bad for a show that I never expected to care about.

Hunter_Exam_Arc

But seriously, we better get a continuation series.

12 Days of Anime #3- No Jojoke

Remember when Crunchyroll announced they had licensed Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure on April Fool’s Day? And everyone was afraid it was a joke?

Seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it? Just over six months later, Jojo’s has gotten a simulcast, reissued manga volumes, and a partial English dub (that we’ll hopefully be hearing more about sometime soon). And now a campy, endlessly-running shonen series about goofy, superpowered muscleheads and characters named after old rock musicians that began in the 1980s is suddenly the darling of American anime nerds. Old fans are finally seeing their baby get the love it deserves, and new fans (like me) finally get to see what those old fans have been so excited about all this time.

Tequila Joseph
If only I had known sooner…

At this point it’s hard to remember that up until earlier this year, Jojo’s was looked at as a show that would never get licensed, a tangled nightmare of music licenses and naming rights that no company would be brave or stupid enough to bother with. It seemed so unlikely, many were more ready to believe they were being pranked than believe that the show was actually coming out legally in the US. Things sure look a whole lot different now than they did back then.

 

12 Days of Anime #2 – Ping Pong

Ping Pong 1

Ping Pong was this year’s Flowers of Evil, a weird, stylistically experimental cartoon that immediately stood out from pretty much everything else around it, and that quickly attracted a fervent crowd of boosters and fans. It’s the shows like these that really make being an anime fan exciting: adventurous, interesting little slices of creativity that allow auteur creators to stretch their wings and express themselves in their own, unique voices.

Ping Pong isn’t just another one of director Masaki Yuasa’s artistic triumphs. It also seems to be the one that has finally made an impact on the American audience beyond the small but enthusiastic cult that constantly talks up Yuasa’s work, but that has never been big enough to get Tatami Galaxy released on home video in North America (cue bitter tears and disappointed sighs). Every time a new Ping Pong episode came out my Twitter feed would fill up with excited praise, and it was recently announced that the show had overcome the dual handicaps of being both a Yuasa show and a sports anime, and will be getting a home video release through Funimation. That unique shows like this get made in such a conservative, cautious marketplace is exciting enough; one of those shows finding an audience big enough to justify getting a release from the big name North American licensor is even better.

Ping Pong Peco

I’m sure Ping Pong‘s success means we’ll be getting that Tatami Galaxy BluRay aaaaaaaaany day now… right?

12 Days of Anime #1- Aldnoah.Zero (Out of 10), or: Slaine’s Delicious Tears

Apologies to Keikakucat for stealing his joke for the title

Aldnoah.Zero was an interesting ride. One of the growing number of anime marketed on writer Gen Urobuchi’s name despite his limited involvement in the show, the show started strong only to slowly descend into mediocrity and disappointment. I hung on to hope that the show would recover its footing and end up being something worthwhile longer than most of my friends did, but by episode 9 or 10 even I had given up. For all its promise and ambitious intentions (producers from Aniplex mentioned in preliminary interviews that the show was meant to compete with the venerable Gundam franchise), Aldnoah.Zero was a dud that squandered its potential on bad plotting decisions and ignoring the development of its best characters in favor of its most boring ones.

And then episode 12 happened.

Shocked Slaine

They say that if you start strong and end strong, people will usually forget about a disappointing middle . Aldnoah Zero certainly got the starting off impressively part right; its ending , on the other hand, isn’t so much “strong” as it is “crashing the ship into a flaming wreck with all hands aboard.” And by the time it was over, I had completely forgiven the show for making me put up with the ho-hum doldrums that were its middle episodes. AZ‘s last episode isn’t good by any measure, but it is definitely memorable. The heights of insane tragedy porn that the last few minutes reach are so overwrought that it makes the show a more memorable experience than a last minute save by a competent finale ever could have.

In its final minutes, Aldnoah Zero went from being a disappointment that I likely would have completely forgotten about within a month to one of the most enduring shows this year, starring one of the most hilariously tragic characters around in Slaine, 2014’s whipping boy of the universe. Slaine was Aldnoah‘s most promising but underused character, a poor dope who spent the entire show helplessly careening from one traumatic personal disaster to the next, only to then get shat on by life so hard that you have to wonder if the gods of the Aldnoahverse have some sort of grudge against the guy. Maybe he kicked a lot of puppies in a previous life?

Whatever the reason for Slaine’s endless misfortune, the amazing spectacle of watching Aldnoah.Zero turn itself into a giant, smoldering crater just so it could unjustly punish the poor bastard one last miserable, glorious time made enough of an impact to change my perception of the show. It was no longer a disappointment that I only stuck with out of inertia and misplaced hope; it’s now something I’m dying to see more of. I’ll be watching the second season when it comes out in January 2015, just to see how it recovers from the complete disaster of its first cour’s ending and what new hilariously incompetent mistakes it will make next. And most of all, I’ll watching with a big bowl in hand, to catch more of Slaine’s sweet, sweet tears.

Slaine Wants To Die