Category Archives: Reviews

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.

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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The Problem (so far) With Psycho-Pass 2

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Spoilers for Psycho-Pass and Psycho-Pass 2

I tried to keep my hopes up for Psycho-Pass 2. Sure, the show lost its original writers, director, and even animation studio between seasons, but there was still a chance that another creative team could find something interesting to do with the material it inherited. Sadly, the longer it goes on the more obvious it is that Psycho-Pass 2 has no idea to do with what it’s been given, and will most likely continue to make bad decision after bad decision all the way to the end.

It’s hard to argue that the original Psycho-Pass was subtle. It was built out of a collection of well-worn sci-fi staples like dystopian future societies, humans giving up management of their lives to technology that strips them of their agency, and human brains living in jars. Many episodes were full of brutal murders, exploding bodies, and other bits of shocking violence. On top of that, the writing barely tried to hide its surface influences. The premise owed obvious debts to the likes of Mamoru Oshii and Phillip K. Dick (and movies like Minority Report that Dick’s writing inspired), and the show’s characters would often reference and discuss authors, philosophers, and their works by name for extended periods.

Yet Psycho-Pass worked its pulpy and outwardly derivative elements into something much more compelling than it originally appeared it would be. The original Psycho-Pass was a success because of the way it used its high concept and genre elements as building blocks for an allegory that explored the relationship between individuals and societies, and how those individuals confront the cruelty of flawed, exploitative systems and negotiate their peace with living under them (or don’t). Beneath its pulp and cynically violent exterior was a series of surprisingly thoughtful moral dilemmas dramatized through fiction, played out by a cast of varied and interesting personalities and world views.

Psycho-Pass 2, on the other hand, shaping up to be a pale imitation of the original. In some ways, it was at a disadvantage from the beginning. The first season explored the major implications of the Sybil System, gave resolutions to the major character arcs, and told all the obvious stories that the show’s concept allowed for. That left little for the second season to do except choose between retracing the first season’s steps, or breaking everything and starting from scratch. So far season two has stuck to the first option: the plot once again revolves around Inspector Akane Tsunemori and her Public Safety Bureau colleagues hunting down another outwardly charming but malicious villain who can go undetected by the Sibyl System’s criminal potential scanners, whose terrorist rampage is slowly exposing dark secrets at the heart of the system that Akane and co. are charged with protecting.

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Sticking to familiar ground could have been an underwhelming but innocuous choice, if Psycho-Pass 2 was able to show that it understood how to use the material it has to work with anywhere near as well as its predecessor did. Unfortunately, the more the show goes on the more it appears that the second shift crew in charge of the sequel isn’t up to the job. Beyond having much more pedestrian direction and the animation taking a noticeable dip in quality, season two is in the hands of writers (Tow Ubukata on plots with Jun Kumagai writing the scripts, taking over for season one’s Gen Urobuchi and Makoto Fukami) who have a poor grasp of what it is that made the first season work.

Psycho-Pass 2‘s problems came into clear focus in its fourth episode. The largest portion of the episode deals with a hostage situation in a mental health facility, where an elderly man is holding an MWSPB inspector and a group of patients waiting in line to fill their prescriptions as hostages. As the kidnapper rants about the emotion-nullifying effects of the drugs being fed to the populace, he forces his hostages to strip to their underwear and then beats them with a baton while telling them how he was saved from the system by Kamui (season two’s behind-the-scenes manipulator antagonist), and how his victims should let themselves feel terror again to rediscover their natural, uninhibited states. The area stress level rises to dangerous levels as the terrorized victims lose their composure, but the officer in charge of the police response, rookie Mika Shimotsuki, is paralyzed by inaction and orders her subordinates not to respond. Eventually all the hostages (including the kidnapped Inspector) are terrorized to the point having their psycho-passes reach levels that mark them for instant execution, just in time for a new MWSPB unit to arrive and take command. The prisoners escape and run terrified from the building, only to be gunned down in a mass of bloody explosions as they flee. Akane arrives just in time to witness the carnage, and discovers that Kamui has left his trademark message, “WC?” (“what color?”, referring to the Sybil System’s color-coded grading of people’s emotional states), written in blood at the crime scene.

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Season one of Psycho-Pass had similarly carnage-filled episodes, including one of the villains using random acts of violence against innocents to drive up the cowed populace’s stress levels and force the Sybil System to overreact. The hostage scene from season two is also similar to the first episode of season one, when the fresh-faced Akane’s belief in enforcing the law was confronted by the Sybil System’s fundamental contradiction of judging terrorized victims’ broken states of mind more harshly than the cruel intentions of their victimizers. Like the hostage scene from season two, those scenes were unflinchingly, almost sadistically violent, and they didn’t shy away from painting the Sybil System’s methods as harsh and unfair. What those scenes in season one lacked in subtlety and grace they made up in exposing the flaws of the system that the show’s heroes were risking their lives to defend in a way that tested them, driving a wedge between their own sense of morality and the values the system required they believe. The scenes of terrorist violence and overbearing police response raised the stakes, pushed the characters closer to their snapping points, and reinforced just how flimsy the peace that the Sybil System offered was.

Psycho-Pass 2‘s hostage scene is clearly supposed to serve the same purpose as the similar scenes from season one. The villain and his lackeys terrorize civilians in order to force the Sibyl System to take action, and Sibyl’s unbending, utilitarian methods cause innocents to be harmed in the process. Unlike season one, however, these scenes don’t provide any insight into Sibyl’s rule or escalate the conflict between Sibyl and its protectors. Unlike Akane, who struggled against her belief in the system and the inhumanities she saw it inflicting, new Inspector Mika doesn’t make any decisions or come to any personal realizations; she simply stands around mewling helplessly and snapping at everyone who gives her suggestions. Not only that, but by the next episode it’s not even clear if the massacre of a colleague and a dozen civilians had any kind of affect on her. By the next episode she’s back to her previous role of spending most of her time complaining about Akane ignoring procedure. Despite witnessing an atrocity that was partially her own fault, committed by the system she trusts, Mika goes right back to playing her previous role of the system’s shrill, irrational defender with a massive bug up her butt.

Psycho-Pass 2 doesn’t have much to say about the Sibyl System, either in terms of the metaphor the first season built around it or as a system that the characters live under. As much as it pays lip service to being about the theme of society’s collective guilt under an oppressive system (Kamui’s “What Color?” messages, a taunt challenging society to examine what its true emotional state and level of guilt are), it’s far more interested in talking about and expanding upon minor world building details and inventing arbitrary new rules for the Sibyl System in order to justify each new story development. Instead of forcing the characters and the audience to dwell on the ethical issues that Sibyl presents like it predecessor did, season two largely ignores deeper meaning and metaphor in favor of building a puzzle box conspiracy thriller plot. But even when looked at as just a potboiler Psycho-Pass 2 is a failure, because all of its mystery and suspense are built around nonsensical fictional conceits that have no meaning or purpose beyond throwing another twist into the plot, as well as having its characters make choices that only make sense if their motivation was to make sure the story could be stretched out to twelve episodes.

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Psycho-Pass 2 seems to be working under the assumption that the more labyrinthine its villain’s scheming gets and the more made up fictional details his plot includes, the stronger its story is. On that front, it’s gravely mistaken. For all the subterfuge season one’s antagonist Makishima used and for all the fronts from which he launched his attacks, the heart of his plan was very simple and had a clear thematic purpose. Taking advantage of his immunity to Sybil’s judgement, Makishima tempted others to act out, pushing them over the edge so he could observe how the responders reacted in order to learn the weaknesses in the system’s reaction to insurrection. The basic idea of Kamui’s plan is largely the same, except the details and execution of his plan are much more convoluted and silly than anything Makishima ever dreamed up, including brainwashing multiple people, taking control of multiple government agencies’ security systems, turning commercially released video games into weapon control systems without anyone playing that game noticing, replacing public officials with perfect duplicates, making his followers immune to Sibyl by giving them organ transplants, and perfectly executing a series of ridiculously complicated traps on the MWSPB.

As Makisima’s plan advanced and its details became clearer, the moral dilemmas he represented became less cut and dry even as they became more immediate for the people chasing him. As the details of Kamui’s plan are revealed, all that happens is that they get more complex and absurd. Where Makishima was a serpent in the garden, Kamui is a guy who somehow got ahold of the Psycho-Pass Strategy Guide and turned on all the cheat codes. At times it feels like season two’s writers developed Kamui from a game of My Dad Can Beat Up Your Dad:

“Makishima can’t be judged by the Dominators? Well, Dominators don’t even notice that Kamui exists!”

“Makishima is a master manipulator? Well, Kamui is the personal savior to a cult of worshippers!”

“Makishima can spend years on a hidden crime spree without being caught? Well, Kamui can do that too! And he’s a master hologram programmer! And he can use the Dominators! And he…”

All of the complexity of Kamui’s plans, however, can’t cover up how little any of it means beyond piling on twists and flourishes in an attempt to make his machinations seem deeper. In another example of a scene that calls back to a moment from the first series, season two’s sixth episode climaxes with a scene of Akane finally coming face to face with Kamui, but being unable to take action outside they system to stop him. Akane’s first confrontation with Makishima played out very similarly, but unlike her meeting with Kamui it was a climactic event, and her inability to act against him had immediate and devastating consequences. Her confrontation with Kamui, on the other hand, feels surprisingly low stakes and uneventful. Deciding not to stop him has no immediate consequences on her or anyone else, reveals nothing new about Kamui or his plan, and feels incredibly anticlimactic for what’s supposed to be such a big moment. Even if only judged by its own merits, Psycho-Pass 2 is an underwhelming and poorly thought out series. When compared to the story it’s supposed to be continuing, its flaws and mistakes become even more apparent.

Space Pirate Captain Harlock (2013)

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Space Pirate Captain Harlock is the newest version of manga writer/artist Leiji Matsumoto‘s space opera adventure starring the titular Captain and his crew, who sail the spaceship Arcadia across the cosmos and battle the forces of interstellar tyranny. Harlock has had multiple anime adaptations since the 1970s, and this time around has been given the theatrical movie treatment, directed by old anime industry warhorse Shinji Aramaki.

Space Pirate Captain Harlock is the latest of the CGI animated movies that Aramaki has been churning out for the last decade, usually to dubious results. It’s always been clear that Aramaki had ambitious plans for his computer animated movies, but the technology and expertise available weren’t able to deliver on it, resulting in stiff, plastic-looking, and often poorly executed animation.

CGI technology and the knowhow necessary to use it well have developed in the last ten years, and Harlock certainly looks better than any of Aramaki’s previous computer animated movies.There are some impressive cosmic starscapes and spaceship battles, and the scenery has a great amount of depth and detail. Still, Aramaki’s chosen medium has some obvious limitations, particularly when it comes to character animation. The human figures are sometimes stiff and floaty, a shortcoming of subpar CGI that stands out even more when characters are given the detailed and realistic textures they have here, and even with a decade of experience Aramaki and his crew still can’t capture the look and movement of hair. As much as Harlock‘s animation seems impressive compared to its predecessors, it never looks any more impressive than what can be found in a cutscene from Starcraft II. It also doesn’t always match up with Matsumoto’s design aesthetic. While most of the characters have the cartoonier elements of Matsumoto’s trademark look removed in favor of more 3D-friendly realism, a few character designs stick too close to the originals, looking too lumpy or too willowy for such naturalistic rendering.

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Bad animation is only the first of many problems. Space Pirate Captain Harlock’s story is made up of nothing but a series of increasingly ridiculous contrivances, trite philosophizing, and mystical mumbo jumbo. Most of the characters don’t have enough personality to have any real presence or impact on events, but those that do frequently make nonsensical decisions and change motivations as the twists of the plot demand; protagonist Yama changes sides not once, not twice, but three times in the middle section of the film, sometimes for the flimsiest of reasons. With each new use of unexplained super-technology and space-magic hokum used to justify every ridiculous turn and development, things go from being specious and silly to a complete mush of poorly conceived nonsense.

Harlock always fell on the side of space opera that’s more fantasy than anything resembling real science, but this newest iteration abuses genre conceits and fictional mythology well past the breaking point. An unnecessary new supernatural layer is added to Harlock’s backstory, as are ill-fitting design elements nicked from obvious sources like Star WarsMass Effect, and Warhammer 40,000 miniature figures. It’s possible to imagine a lighter, less self-serious version of all this nonsense being a pulpy spectacle that is at least fun to watch. Unfortunately, the movie’s pompous, ponderous tone keeps it from being even enjoyably silly.

For many older anime and manga fans, Captain Harlock is a beloved icon of an old aesthetic that faded away in the last few decades. Aramaki and his crew clearly know this, and even end their version of his story on a note meant to elevate Harlock to the level of an actual myth. Space Pirate Captain Harlock tries to be an argument for both Harlock’s timelessness and relevance, but it fails as both a nostalgia vehicle and a modern revival of a classic character.

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Space Pirate Captain Harlock is available streaming on Netflix in both English and Japanese, under the title Harlock: Space Pirate. Unfortunately, the only available subtitles for the Japanese version are a transcription of the dub script by Steven Foster.

Review – Gundam Reconguista in G Episode 2

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We’re heading into a new anime season, and this time around one of the most buzzed about anime is Gundam Reconguista in G, aka G Reco. Gundam shows are always greatly anticipated simply by virtue of being part of a legendary 35 year old franchise, but G Reco is also notable because of its writer and director, Yoshiyuki Tomino, the original Mobile Suit Gundam‘s co-creator and director.

One thing I should make clear from the beginning: I’ve never been a Tomino fan. The man is a legend of the industry who deserves recognition for impact alone, but when it comes to his work itself I’ve found it to be at best frustrating, and more often than that to be inscrutable and unwatchable. His famously terrible OVA Garzey’s Wing is still a well-known punchline among anime fans, and its rambling dialogue and haphazard plotting aren’t an anomaly in his catalogue so much as they are a slightly more extreme demonstration of all the faults his work has had for decades. Tomino’s defining characteristic in my mind will always be dialogue made almost entirely of exposition that fails to explain much of anything, punctuated with the sudden blurting of confounding philosophical non sequiturs. It doesn’t help that his characters are usually stiff and unlikable, and that his casts are overloaded with prickly, antisocial men and jealous, bitchy women.

This is the way Tomino has written consistently for decades, and it seems clear that that G Reco will be no different. The first scene of episode 2 is two characters expositing back and forth about incidents that have already taken place, and still failing to clearly convey to the audience what the hell it is they’re talking about. For nearly the entire half of the episode, characters toss around names, locations, events, and undefined jargon with abandon, and yet for all the details the dialogue goes into it leaves only a muddled, vague impression of what’s going on. The second half of the episode then has the requisite scene where nearly ever Gundam series kicks off, with an enemy attack, the intrepid boy hero laying claim to a Special Robot to fight off the invaders, and lots of frantic running around and character introductions in between.

In other words, G Reco is a Tomino Gundam show through and through. There’s the prickly boy lead. The jealous female friend. The enemy pilot shouting about his emotions and beliefs before being quickly dispatched with a laser sword. Characters saying and doing inexplicable and strange things, like threatening to shoot strangers in the butt with rocks and shouting about how the Earth should be covered in solar panels. G Reco is a haphazard mess, in a way that’s completely predictable. As expected, I found it to be incredibly frustrating.

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And yet, there was still something appealing about G Reco. Part of it was amusement that Tomino has changed so little, decades after evolving styles and maturing tastes have made his once cutting edge game plan a relic. But G Reco‘s real strength was just how energetic it was. As confounding as the characters were and as confusing as the dialogue was, they didn’t stop the show from bouncing along at a brisk pace that made it pleasant and easy enough to watch even when it wasn’t clear what the hell was going on. When they’re combined with this kind of sillier, more lighthearted tone, the Tominoisms feel goofy and charming, rather than turgid and unjustifiably self-serious like they do in more somber stories like Z Gundam and Char’s Counterattack.

As familiar in format and execution as G Reco might feel, that fun energy sets it apart from not only most Gundam (Tomino-helmed or not) but most recent mecha anime. Compared to recent shows like Argevollen and Aldnoah ZeroG Reco avoids somberness entirely and, if anything, overplays its characters’ emotions in every given scene. It’s bright, lighthearted, and doesn’t seem to be taking itself too seriously; despite being a war story that has already had casualties, the closing credits feature the cast enthusiastically dancing together in a kick-line. It also stands apart in its round-edged, colorful production design, which gives the show a warm look that compliments the enthusiastic energy.

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I wouldn’t go so far as to say I liked the first two episodes. The scripting was too rough and the characters were too unformed to create any real connection. In a way, though, I did enjoy the act of watching them. There were confusing, anachronistic, and the show has the potential to go nowhere fast, but it so far isn’t unpleasant to watch. After the initial feelings of confusion and frustration passed, I was actually looking forward to seeing the next episode. It’s a long shot it will be enjoyable, but so far it’s at least been interesting.

Angry Penis Haro
I’m also hoping there’ll be more robots that look suspiciously like angry penises.

Review – Hunter X Hunter Episode 148

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If there’s one show that makes me wish I had started writing this blog sooner, it’s Hunter X Hunter. The show genuinely surprised me many times over its 148 episodes, and was always enjoyable and entertaining on top of that. For a show that’s meant to be “just” an action show for young teens, it constantly demonstrated a startling amount of depth and maturity in its characters, its themes, and the tone of many of its story arcs. I’ll almost certainly watch parts of the show again when I find the time, and when that happens I’ll probably write about them (I’ve already got at least two potential essays I’ve been blocking out in my head for months). But until that happens, I’ll let this review stand as my definitive statement on the show.

Hunter X Hunter 2

“You should enjoy the little detours. To the fullest. Because that’s where you’ll find the things more important than what you want.”

This episode had a big task in front of it. The final episode of a nearly 150 episode-long journey that started out as a fun adventure and grew to encompass stories about urban terrorism, apocalyptic survival horror, tragic road-to-hell revenge arcs, and even more in between, it had to put an end point on a sprawling, massive narrative that included many characters, settings, subplots, and tones. It succeeds in that task as well as any one episode could be expected to succeed, and the above quote, spoken by Ging in his first ever real conversation with his son Gon and then repeated as the episode’s final line, perfectly sums up the show’s ethos and the central message that ties all its disparate elements together.

Ging’s celebratory speech about the joy of discovery and the way the unexpected brings meaning and happiness to people’s live is one side of Hunter X Hunter‘s central theme, the other side of which is last episode’s somber, intense discussion of cycles of violence, stubbornness, hatred, and reincarnation. The belief that happiness and success come from people’s connections with others and their ability to learn to see from new perspectives, and that evil and failure come from alienation and the inability to let go of destructive desires, has been constant in every one of the stories that make up the whole of the show. This idea has manifested itself in ways big and small, from the framing of even minor conflicts as puzzles that require finding new ways of looking at things to be solved to the show’s occasional use of overt Buddhist imagery to symbolize characters finding redemption through moments of personal enlightenment. Gon originally set out on his journey so that he could meet his father, but by the time he finally finds Ging all the other encounters, challenges, and adventures he had along the way have made him a better, stronger person than simply finding his father ever could have.

It’s appropriate then that the meeting between father and son doesn’t play out like the climactic end of Gon’s journey, but like a reward that Gon has earned through all his other, more meaningful accomplishments. What Ging tells Gon about how life should be lived isn’t a parent teaching his son something he hasn’t already learned, but instead an adult reassuring a child that, yes, what you’ve learned through growing up is true, and you’re on the right path. Instead of dwelling on this long in the making meeting as a destination, the episode treats it like the introduction of another new detour in Gon’s life that he never could have expected. That the audience isn’t shown whether or not he takes that detour doesn’t matter; we know that he will.

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In keeping with this tone, the episode unfolds fairly leisurely. There’s no question whether or not Gon will reach the top of the World Tree to meet his father, and all the big climactic emotional moments already came in earlier episodes. From the opening silent, swooping shot across the ocean toward the island Gon first set out from in episode one, to the emotive orchestral arrangements of the show’s theme songs that play as Gon climbs the World tree and tells his father about his adventures, to the ending montage of the show’s many characters and locations, the episode firmly establishes that its only mission is to be the final coda at the end of a long story.

As an ending to the plot, Hunter X Hunter‘s finale isn’t perfect. That’s not too surprising given the show’s cast of dozens and dozens of characters and multi-arc story structure, but the lack of resolution to some of the story elements is noticeable. The most glaring example is Kurapica’s complete absence, aside from some short, wordless appearances in the concluding montage. Kurapica last truly appeared nearly half the show ago, but he was once a main character, and of all the costars his unresolved story threads are the most important. Leorio and Killua may appear in this episode as little as Kurapica does, but they at least got proper sendoffs before the show’s conclusion.

Even with this unfinished business, though, this episode still serves as a strong, satisfying final note. Like Gon and Ging’s meeting restates and reenforces the show’s themes, the montage that ends the episode includes most of the show’s characters and locations in order to revisit the journey they were all a part of, reaffirm how much it’s changed them, and be a reminder of how unexpected and surprising much of that journey was.

Hunter X Hunter
This wasn’t fair, Hunter X Hunter, and you know it.

If Hunter X Hunter has to end here, this is as strong and meaningful an ending as possible. While it leaves room for more theoretical episodes to be made, it doesn’t let leaving that opening prevent it from also serving as a final celebration of the show, it’s characters, and the story so far. It’ll be a shame if the rest of Gon and his friend’s adventures are never animated, but even if the journey continues only in spirit, this episode was as good a place as any for the audience and the characters to part ways.

Hunter X Hunter 4

Review – “Mushishi”

Mushishi is the story of Ginko, the white-haired, one-eyed traveling mushishi (“mushi master”) of the title, who wanders a fictitious 19th century Japan. Part folk doctor, part primitive scientist, Ginko travels from village to village solving the various problems that occur when human beings encounter mushi, ethereal spirits that exist halfway between the physical world and the spiritual one. Mushi exist mostly unseen and unfelt by humans, and only appear when something in nature is out of balance or when the universal law of averages dictates that it’s time for some poor sap to be really unlucky. Unlike most people, Ginko has a special connection with the mushi. Not only can he see them, he also attracts them. This connection to the ethereal keeps him from being able to stay in one place, out of fear that the flood of spirits that’s always flocking to him will negatively impact the people around him. Unable to settle down, he travels from town to town, only staying long enough to solve whatever mushi issues may be happening there before moving on again.

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Based on a description of the series alone, Mushishi‘s feudal setting and stories about magic spirits make it sound like a fantasy series. Despite those trappings, Mushishi‘s main concern isn’t the supernatural. Mushishi is a mostly interested in humanity, and it’s episode long vignettes serve as dramatized studies of the relationship between people, their communities, their environment, and what happens when those things become out of sync with one another. Episodes of Mushishi deal with topics such as distrust in a community, conflict between generations, dealing with famine, and fear for one’s family. The mushi and their supernatural effects take the form of dramatic metaphors for those conflicts, leaving Ginko and each episode’s supporting cast with the task of dispelling the mushi by resolving them (or in some case failing to do either).

Mushishi follows a case-of-the-week story structure that may not sound like anything novel and, like simply describing it’s premise, doesn’t truly articulate that Mushishi is one of the most unique anime TV series in recent memory. Thanks to its subdued production design, its moody and atmospheric direction, and its Eastern spiritualism-inflected worldview, what could have been an unremarkable procedural is instead something stunning and original. It’s not often that there’s an anime series that feels this unique.

The show’s uniqueness is apparent from the very beginning. Anime is a medium that’s most often thought of being loud: garish colors, flashy character designs, heightened emotions. In almost every way, Mushishi defies those trends. Its animation is lush and beautiful, but is also much more subdued than the usual anime fare. Its character designs are fairly realistic, and its palette consists of soft, muted earth tones and natural greens that are occasionally punctuated with more vivid, glowing colors. The more brightly colored moments usually come in the form of the spirit-like mushi, which glow and pulsate with light in a way that gives them a unique appearance and makes them stand out from the rest of the world. The effect heightens the spirits’ alien, ethereal quality, and creates the impression of otherworldliness better than any dialogue could. It’s a stunning use of the medium’s visual tools, and the effect contributes greatly to the show’s striking, hypnotic style.

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Mushishi doesn’t just create a unique visual world. It transports the viewer into that world fully. The show is propelled almost entirely by its brooding, mesmerizing atmosphere, which it accomplishes so well that many of the show’s moments feel not just visual, but tactile. This is even more remarkable because of how alien the show’s world is, both in location and cosmology. Not only is the show set in a foreign, feudal location, but it also spins its episode-long fables out of a mythology that feels vastly different from the magic and fairy tales of Western tradition. The show’s strangely named creatures and Eastern animist philosophy could have been very disorienting to Western viewers, and could have made Mushishi an interesting but ultimately alienating experience. Instead, the show’s world still feels approachable and inviting, and its atmosphere carries the viewer along with it into a place they may not be familiar with when they enter, but which they will quickly understand.

Considering whom the show’s director is, the fact that Mushishi is a triumph of atmosphere isn’t surprising. In between the two seasons of Mushishi, director Hiroshi Nagahama also directed the similarly styled Flowers Of Evil. Anyone who’s seen the controversial Flowers Of Evil is familiar with the slow, deliberate style that Nagahama has taken to using. Mushishi‘s pace isn’t as glacial as Flowers Of Evil‘s, and the atmosphere it gives off is much more somber and occasionally meditative than the latter’s thick, sticky miasma of teenage angst and despair, but both shows succeed thanks to Nagahama’s control of tone and ambiance and his ability to suck the audience into the story almost through mood alone. By themselves some episodes of Mushishi‘s individual plots are underwhelming, but thanks to Nagahama’s stylistic control even the weaker written episodes still pulse with the energy and life.

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Musishi isn’t just an overwhelming sensory experience because of its visuals. It’s sound design is incredibly subtle, but it’s an important factor in the show’s success. The soundtrack is filled with haunting, simple cues orchestrated for traditional Japanese instruments. Some of the songs are so sparse they are more ambient noise than hummable tunes, but the simple, elegantly crafted music design fits the visual style so well that the two blend together into a complimentary, holistic combination. From the opening themes “Sore Feet Song” and “Shiver,” both soft, warm ballads, the show’s sound invites the audience into the show and then holds them there. The voice acting fits this sonic profile as well. In place of the usual over-emoting and theatricality of anime voice acting, Mushishi‘s cast give much softer, naturalistic performances that fit the subdued ambiance, including the casting of actual children for many of the younger roles.

The show’s production design may be its greatest strength, but it would all be pretty wrapping on an empty box if the stories didn’t work. Mushishi‘s episodes are fully formed mini-dramas with a completely new cast of characters, the wandering Ginko the only constant (aside from a few recurring minor characters in cameo appearances). And with each episode, a new cast of characters and their unique dilemmas are introduced and explored. Despite not having the benefit of being able to build up its characters over multiple episodes, every episode of Mushishi establishes its characters, conflicts, and themes well enough to give each self-contained story impact. Some of the stories may not be very substantive, but many more pack a surprisingly strong emotional punch. Despite having a formula that it sticks to with nearly every episode (Ginko passes through a town, notices a disturbance involving mushi, and then tries to figure out what’s causing it), there is still enough variety in how each story plays out that the show avoids feeling stale.

Mushishi is a special series, both unique and powerful. Many shows that try to stray as far from the norm as Mushishi does are interesting curiosities, but fail to fully come together into something truly compelling. Mushishi doesn’t have that problem. It is both a triumph of ambition and a joy to watch.

“Captain Earth” Episode 24 – The Show That Couldn’t Explain Itself

Everything Will Be Obvious Soon

If it was ever in doubt before, episode 24 shows once and for all that Captain Earth has some serious problems.

The episode is the beginning of the climactic battle. Preceding episodes set the stage and the stakes. Like most of writer Yoji Enokido‘s other work, Captain Earth‘s main concern has been self-discovery, of teenage characters coming to grips with their own identity and overcoming existential paralysis to become their true selves. Throughout the show, the most meaningful part of the battles that Daichi and the Midsummer’s Knights took part in were their internal struggles. The emotional arc of every act and chapter of the story was the characters looking inside themselves to find strength, identity, and the resolve to stand up to external threats. The lead up to the climax had hammered home a clear message: victory and growth is achieved by finding personal resolve. The strength that matters is the strength inside of you, and the people close to you can help you find it.

So then why is episode 24 all about the temptation of inhuman power and the beginning of a fight to kill God?

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Episode 24 of Captain Earth ends by finally revealing the Killtang’s robot ally Puck’s plan: to ascend to godhood by taking over the minds of every living thing in the galaxy. This fits well with the thematic arc of the episode, where the Killtang mock Daichi and the Midsummer’s Knights for being small and insignificant for lacking their power, and then offering to share that power with them and make them immortal. What all this doesn’t fit well with is the thematic arc that’s run through the rest of the show. Instead of  “will Daichi find the strength within him?” episode 24 suddenly asks “will Daichi succumb to the temptation of being offered power?” instead.

Before this episode, Daichi’s arc has never involved the threat that he would be tempted from his path by power. The Killtang have never once showed any inclination to offer their power to him or anyone else before. And although it had long been clear Puck had a hidden motive, the majority of his onscreen time was spent being curious about and exploring the joys and pitfalls of being an individual human consciousness (emphasis on “individual”).

The shift in theme could have been a natural progression, if Daichi’s journey of self discovery led to arrogance or overconfidence and his battle with himself switched from overcoming doubt to overcoming conceit. Or if the main obstacle to self-discovery turned out to be the power structures that keep people in their place (which is ground that Enokido has covered before). But none of this ever came up in Captain Earth before now, leading to an incredibly ungraceful swerve from one message to another. Episode 24 doesn’t feel so much like a natural thematic evolution for the show as it does like someone changed the channel from an adolescent existential angst-themed Bones robot show to Let’s Play footage of the final God-slaying boss battle at the end of a JRPG.

Even the set design for the scene of the final confrontation looks like it came out of a video game.
Even the set design for final confrontation scene looks like it came out of a video game.
As does the staging - both sides stand in opposite facing lines and jump out one by one to smack each other.
As does the staging – both sides stand in opposite facing lines and jump out one by one to smack each other.

It’s entirely possible that by next episode, Captain Earth will have returned to it’s normal setting of Daichi looking inside himself to overcome his timidity and win the final conflict. In fact, it wouldn’t be out of character for the show to introduce a new element in the front end of the finale but then abandon it before it finished at all. Episode 24’s tonal messiness is an example of Captain Earth‘s continuing issues in microcosm: the show isn’t very good at telling its own story.

This isn’t a case of Captain Earth not knowing what it wants to say. It knows exactly what it wants to say, but it isn’t very good at saying it. It’s introduced characters, tones, ideas, and now themes it’s had no idea what to do with once they’ve been put in play:

Remember Tepei’s father (the show sure doesn’t)? How about the giant crystal on the moon’s surface?

Why did half the show have to pass before even introducing Hana’s character arc and defining personality traits?

If the show felt the need to spend an entire act of the story giving individual Killtang their own episodes, why did none of that development matter afterward and the entire Killtang gang all but disappear for most of the rest of the show? Especially when putting the Killtang center stage meant that the at that point still barely developed Midsummer’s Knights had to tread water for six episodes while this mini-Black Rose Arc played out?

If Kube’s only real importance in the plot was eventually being taken over by Puck, why did he get so much screen time that ultimately went nowhere?

If Puck’s ultimate goal had nothing to do with him wanting to gain individualism and a (singular) human consciousness, what was the point of the show spending so much time showing him doing just that and nothing else?

Why introduce the idea that the Livlaster’s are interdimensional beings and then do nothing with that idea for so long?

If any of these questions are going to be addressed in the last episode, why were they left unanswered for so long?

Captain Earth 24

The longer Captain Earth has gone on, the more hanging questions, loose ends, and clumsily handled pieces it’s accrued. Many parts of the show still feel vaguely defined, half formed, or not properly addressed. The shows constituent pieces have never properly gelled, and the thing they form together feels rough and shaggy in many places as a result. Excellent animation and strong production design, all presented in a vibrant and colorful palette, have often made the show easy to watch in spite of this, but the more of the show that passes the more obvious the problems become. At first it took several episodes for larger issues with Captain Earth‘s tone, construction, and character development to come into focus. Now that the endgame has begun, it’s all been made starkly clear in one individual episode.