The Problem (so far) With Psycho-Pass 2

Psycho Pass Title Card

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.

Mika

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.

Psycho Pass Hostages

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.

Question For Society

 

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.

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Space Pirate Captain Harlock (2013)

Harlock 1

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.

Harlock 3

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.

Harlock 2

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.

In Search of Heroes of Justice; A Brief Investigation into Anime and Tokusatsu

Isn't It Electrifying?

bahamut faces 2

Two of my favorite shows this fall are Rage of Bahamut: Genesis and Garo, the newest projects by daring animation studio MAPPA. They’ve proven themselves to be excellent in the past week or so, but what drew my attention even before they premiered wasn’t necessarily the associated studio, or even the directors, but the writing talent involved. Garo is written by Yasuko Kobayashi, who adapted the 80s cult classic Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure to the screen along with current mega-hit Attack on Titan, and who a few years ago worked on Shigeyasu Yamauchi’s revisionist epic Casshern Sins. In comparison, the writer of Bahamut, Keiichi Hasegawa, seems considerably less experienced writing anime, with only a handful of episodes of children’s shows such as Astro Boy and Zoids under his belt. Even paid writers on Anime News Network thought as much, saying that Bahamut’s quality was unexpected considering the writer’s…

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Fall 2014 – Part 1

A new anime season is here! Which means it’s time for pleasant surprises, deflating disappointments, and waiting for shows to go flying off the rails in glorious third act train wrecks. Of course, it also means it’s time for wading through a host of new shows and picking out the worthy from the rest of them, and then putting those findings into list form.

I’ve separated the shows I’ve watched so far into 3 categories: “The Good Stuff,” “The Bad Stuff,” and “The ????? Stuff.” Bad stuff has been dropped, good stuff I’m watching enthusiastically, and the rest I’m watching but still making up my mind on. Shows in each category are listed alphabetically by English title. If it’s not on the list, I didn’t watch it.

The Good Stuff

Chaika: The Coffin Princess – Avenging Battle

Chaika

Back in Spring, Chaika‘s first episode impressed me more by what it *didn’t* do. Namely, it introduced a fantasy world, its characters, their backstory, and (most impressively) a system of magic without resorting to long, awkward monologues or exposition tangents that drown the audience in completely extraneous detail and bring the progress of the story to an sudden halt so that the writers can dump information they couldn’t figure out how to gracefully integrate with the action. That kind of awkward storytelling is endemic in anime, especially anime like Chaika that are based on Light Novels and made squarely for the worldbuilding-loving otaku audience. Of all the fantasy anime on this list, Chaika is definitely the most otaku-y, from the moe-girl title character to said title character’s magic anti-tank gun. But as the first season of Chaika proved, the quality of a show has far less to do with who it’s aimed at than how well it’s made. If the plot is compelling, the characters are charming, and the storytelling is strong, then you don’t have to be a member of the target audience to find it entertaining.

Like with the previous season, Avenging Battle‘s first episode strikes a balance between giving all the necessary details while still getting on with the action. It recaps the past season’s events, reintroduces the characters, and tells a fun story all at once. And Chaika is, above all else, fun. It’s first season was a well-told fantasy adventure yarn with a likable cast of weirdos at its heart, and based on its first episode the second season will be more of the same.

Garo

Garo

The word I’ve seen people use most often to describe Garo is “metal.” Which makes sense. It’s quite possible the only reason we ever started using the word “metal” to describe things was so that we would one day have an adjective with which Garo could properly be described. Witch burnings, magic armor, evil demons, boobs, bloody medieval executions, man-eating vaginas… Garo is what you get when a Ronnie James Dio song performs an occult ritual to transform itself into animation, and then jumps on stage to shred an epic guitar solo on a Flying V carved from the bones of dead rock stars.

Ok, that’s a slight exaggeration. But Garo is definitely rude, violent, trashy fantasy, and it’s a lot of fun. I have a weak spot for dark and bloody fantasy ala BerserkGame of Thrones, and Attack on Titan, and Garo seems like it will scratch that itch just fine.

Gugure! Kokkuri-san

Violence Breeds Sadness

What do you get when you combine a living, emotionless doll, a down-and-out fox spirit who decides to move in with her, and a very dry, sardonic sense of humor? You get one of the genuine surprises of the season. Kokkuri-san doesn’t have much of a plot beyond the above description, but so far it doesn’t need one. Gag-driven comedies often have a hard time maintaining momentum even over just one episode, let alone a full season, but Kokkuri-san‘s first episode is strong enough all the way through that the show appears to have a strong enough grasp on its material to carrying itself to the finish line. It has just the right mixture of odd couple character friction, absurdism, wryness, and a slight edge of cutting mean-spiritedness, and all of them in just the right amounts. It also has what may be the best end credits gimmick imaginable: promising the audience cat videos after every episode.

Parasyte

Parasyte

The story of a teenage boy and his relationship with his right hand gone terribly wrong, Parasyte makes an incredibly strong first impression by pouring on gobs of goriness and body horror grossness right out of the gate. It’s all stunningly animated by Madhouse, but just as important as the animation is the sound design for Migi, the alien creature that’s taken over a part of protagonist Shinichi’s body. The noises he(?)/she(?)/it(?) makes are simultaneously disgusting and hilarious, and the voice used by voice actress Aya Hirano effectively straddles the line between disturbing and cute. The combination of the two is incredibly off-putting, and not at all what I imagined the creature would sound like when I read the first volume of the manga many years ago; it’s also pretty much perfect. A show like Parasyte can get by for awhile just on shock and premise, but to keep from sputtering out it needs more than that. From the standout production design to the smartly updated story, Parasyte has a lot more than just gross-out spectacle going for it. And Parasyte‘s gross-out spectacle is pretty great to begin with.

Rage of Bahamut: Genesis

Bahamut

Bahamut is the third stand out fantasy series this season, and the second by studio Mappa (the other being Garo). Not only is it unusual for there to be this many good fantasy shows at one time, it’s also noteworthy that all three of them manage to have very distinct identities that distinguish them from one another. No one is going to confuse Bahamut with either Garo or Chaika, and vice versa.

Unlike Garo‘s boobs n’ demons low fantasy stylings, Bahamut is a swashbuckling adventure, starring a roguish hero whose careless bragging gets him roped into a situation much more dangerous and grand in scale than his usual bounty hunting and boozing. Bahamut effortlessly combines comedic antics with a looming high fantasy backdrop, and the first episode dashes along at a breezy pace while promising more serious turns in the future. But regardless of how serious things may get in the future, as of now Bahamut is one of the most fun shows of the season, starring the season’s most memorable lead, the brazen, drunken, yet somehow charming ass, Leone. Despite ostensibly being marketing for a card game, Bahamut keeps the magic system/card mechanics as background details and instead favors the cast of likable and entertaining characters. If they keep that balance where it is going forward, Bahamut will probably the most pure fun show this season.

The ????? Stuff

Celestial Method

Celestial Method

Celestial Method is a show where the production makes very clear exactly what emotion every scene is supposed to inspire in its audience, and yet it’s never clear why the audience should be feeling those emotions. Not only is the premise so far incredibly vague (girl with dead mother, forgotten friend with magical powers, swirly UFO thingy in the sky), but the character relations are far too ill-defined to sustain the intensity of feeling the show wants to make people feel.

By the end of the first episode, Celestial Method‘s evocative animation, soaring score, and tearful reunion confessions have cranked the Feels Meter up to “end of Makoto Shinkai movie” levels, which is an oddly high peak for a show’s first episode to end on. Where do you possibly go from there? We the audience barely know the characters and we sure don’t yet understand what the hell’s going on, but we’re already being asked to turn on the water works and believe that the barely established friendship has truly touched our souls. It’s a bit disorienting, but also strangely intriguing. Whether or not Celestial Method will ever manage to solidify the vague, etherial relationship at its center isn’t yet clear, but it’s good enough at being evocative that I’ll give it a couple more episodes to find out.

Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works

Fate:Stay Night

If the first episode of Fate/Stay Night makes anything clear, it’s that UFOTable can animate the hell out of a duel between mythical heroes. The first episode was a bit of a slow build with perhaps a bit too many instances of teenage sorceress Rin telling herself things she already knows in voiceover, but the fight scene payoff at the end was more than worth it. Which isn’t to say that the rest of the episode didn’t have anything worthy in it: it introduced the conflict in a way that makes it seem intriguing and compelling, and establishes an amusing and charming relationship between Rin and her magical servant Archer. Unlimited Blade Works‘ first episode (technically episode 0) is a strong debut that makes a great first impression.

That said, I’m still not entirely sold on the show. I do have a lot of hope for it. I’m a fan of UFOTable’s previous Type/Moon adaptation, Fate Zero, and I’d love to see it get a worthy sequel/continuation. But while my experience with the visual novel version of Fate/Stay Night isn’t complete, the bit I’ve seen was more than enough to give me a less than stellar impression. While the idea of a battle between mythical heroes over the holy grail is a compelling one, the VN is full of overwritten and awkward prose, and also spends far too little time on the Grail War conflict so that it can pad itself out with directionless scenes of characters eating, endless prattling about every extraneous detail of the world’s magic system, and protagonist Shiro complaining about how he feels threatened by women and describing all the ways the women in his life should change so that he can feel better about himself (which basically amounts to “be more demure and submissive, and also have sex with me”).

In other worse, Fate/Stay Night is material that is begging for a great adaptation. With just the right amount of tweaking, the heavily flawed source material could become a great starting point for something much better that can still please its existing fans and bring in newcomers (and maybe even convert skeptics like me). It’s still too early to tell whether or not Unlimited Blade Works will pull this off. But if the first episode is any indication, it’s on the right track.

Gundam Reconguista in G

G Reco Toilet

I already talked about the first 2 episodes of this show in a previous post, but after watching episode 3 I’m even more confused than I was before. It’s not surprising that a Tomino show is messy, tonally inconsistent, or has baffling moments strewn throughout it (episode 3 is notable for, among other things, random shots of what seems like every other wild animal within 20 miles of the main characters running/flying/swimming across the screen). But even expecting Tomino-brand oddness didn’t prepare me for the pilot seats inside G Reco‘s robots being actual toilets, or for an episode ending with the main character quite literally taking a shit in the Gundam’s cockpit.

G Reco, in other words, is really weird. Weird in a way that makes me want to watch more simply so that I can see where the hell it’s going. The rambling and unclear dialogue certainly isn’t very good at giving any indication of where this is all headed, nor is the wildly inconsistent tone. It’s still too early to tell if G Reco is just aiming to be a freewheeling and somewhat irreverent take on the standard Gundam war story, or if all this strangeness and sloppiness is the prelude to it being a baffling train wreck. I don’t know. My money’s on the latter, but I’m really not sure. But I am interested in finding out.

I Can’t Understand What My Husband Is Saying

Otaku Husband

This season’s 3 minute gag anime with a title longer than its episodes, So I Married An Otaku has so far been pretty charming. Some of its jokes feel like they go by too quickly to have full impact, but when it comes to a show with as basic a sitcom premise as “woman marries a nerd,” struggling to fit in all the material is a much better sign than stretching jokes too long and too thin in a desperate struggle to fill time every week. My Little Husband Can’t Be This Nerdy also seems to have found the perfect position for pulling back the curtain and poking fun without being malicious and degrading to its subjects. The jokes come from a place of genuine sympathy and genuine criticism alike. It understands otaku, has sympathy for them, but also isn’t afraid to point out how silly they are. It’s hard to get much of an impression from one 3 minute episode, but Recently, My Marriage Has Been Super Dorky seems to have potential.

Psycho-Pass 2

Psycho Pass

A show changing hands between two distinctive and different creative voices is always a tricky proposition. Psycho Pass season one’s head writer, Gen Urobuchi, has an incredibly distinctive voice and some very particular writing ticks, and the show’s identity was very firmly rooted in them. It’s flaws (a somewhat meandering first act, a few too many digressive conversations about philosophy and literature) and its strengths (using genre fiction as the foundation for an exploration of the relationship between individuals and society, a fictional world built on moral ambiguity and existential cynicism that still contains a small kernel of hope that its characters struggle to navigate themselves toward) all came directly from its writer. But for the second season, writing duties have been passed off to Mardock Scramble‘s Tow Ubukata, a much different writer than Urobuchi. Both writers obviously love their sci-fi, and both of those series have their share of philosophical tangents (Mardock Scramble‘s 30 minute segment in a casino where two characters discuss game theory is more of a momentum killer than any of Psycho Pass‘s “Have you heard of Phillip K. Dick?” and “What would ____ philosopher say about this?” conversations), Ubukata isn’t so much interested in using genre as the launching point for explorations of the place of hope and morality in an uncaring world as he is in using it as a launching point for sick-ass shootouts with future-tech guns, talking about how much he loves cyberpunk concepts, and badass lady heroes being badass. Both approaches have their merits, but it’s not hard to see how the two can come into conflict.

The change between the first two writers is already somewhat evident. The first episode of season two has far more scenes of characters posing stylishly with sci-fi guns and slow-mo shootouts with Ghost In The Shell-esque robotanks than season one ever had, and protagonist Akane has changed from the morally conflicted and existentially overwhelmed Urobuchi character she was before to a laser-focused, ice-cold badass who doesn’t blink in the face of moral decisions or sweat a single drop when bullets and wreckage come flying directly toward her face. It makes sense for the character to have grown in the time between seasons, and it’s definitely nice to see Akane being more confident and certain, but in some ways the change feels less like natural character development and more like two different writers morphing the same character to match their own personal peccadilloes.

But other than these surface elements, it’s still far too soon to say just how different Psycho Pass‘s two seasons will really be. The world is still the same place, and the conflict for this season seems like it will be much the same as the first (Akane discovers a plot to undermine the Sibyl System and has to choose between letting it happen or defending the status quo). And while the first episode is passably entertaining, it doesn’t give much indication about whether following episodes will be anything more (or less) than that. It took quite a few episodes for the first Psycho Pass to grow into itself and fully reveal its hand, and it seems like Psycho Pass 2 will be much the same. What that’s going to look like, and how much the two seasons will resemble each other in the end, is still very much up in the air.

The Bad Stuff

Akame Ga Kill

Mt Fake

Akame Ga Kill was my “this show terrible, but I’m watching it anyway because I make terrible life decisions” show of Summer 2014, and it will be losing its place in my viewing schedule now that it’s Fall. AKG certainly had a few moments of ironic amusement, and I was able to write a post I’m proud of thanks to watching it, but the show’s “angry, hacky rantings of a sexually frustrated 14-year-old boy with violent fantasies and a video game obsession” aesthetic has exhausted all its entertainment value and learning opportunities. Though it was very polite of the last episode that I watched to provide further evidence proving my thesis about it correct.

Terraformars

Terraformars Face

Two episodes into Terraformars, it’s already obvious that this show never had a chance. Word was that the production was troubled from the start, with episode two begun only weeks before its scheduled air date. Having now seen the first two episodes, I can believe it. The director gamely tries in at least a few scenes to cover up the abundance of shortcuts and rushed animation with something approximating stylistic flourish, but it doesn’t take long for it to become clear that all the tilted angle closeups, heavy shadows, and conspicuously out-of-frame faces aren’t there out of artistic consideration. And nothing can cover up the ugly, occasionally malformed character animation or how flat and boring the show’s largely gray and brown color scheme is. To put it frankly, the show looks pretty crap.

But more than just looking bad, Terraformars is boring. Even the show’s selling point, the violent encounters with unfortunately designed neanderthal bug men (when they eventually happen), have so far been pretty dull (partially because of such censorship bars so intrusive they dilute most of the impact). The characters are boring and impossible to care about, the concept is sub-Attack On Titan survival horror that has yet to distinguish itself in any way, and the story is plodding and padded out with boring dead childhood friend backstories and uninteresting characters telling each other which other uninteresting character’s naughty bits they’re interested in touching. It’s hard to say how much of Terraformars‘ problems are due to its rushed production and how much are from sub-prime source material (I haven’t read the manga, and I don’t have any active plans to do so), but whatever the source of the problems as of two episodes in the show is a total dud.

When Supernatural Battles Became Commonplace

Supernatural Battles

This is the one that I had the hardest time putting in the “bad” section. But I couldn’t really put it in the “I have no idea what to expect from this/who knows how this will turn out” category, because Supernatural Battles is the kind of show where you know exactly what you’re going to be getting before the first episode is over: a group of high school weirdos sitting around in their clubhouse acting silly and getting into mildly genre-aware magic-related antics. Sure, there will probably be some other plot laid on top of it, but “wacky antics” is clearly this show’s main selling point, and I just didn’t find the characters’ antics amusing. I don’t really have any critiques to level against the show aside from “I didn’t find this very funny,” but that’s more than enough reason for me to drop it one episode in. If “slightly self-aware anime high school antics with magic” sounds appealing to you, then you’ll probably enjoy it. If it doesn’t, the show doesn’t really have anything else to offer.

 

And that’s it! I may check out more first episodes later, but seeing as I’m currently watching 10(!) shows my platter is for now quite full.

Think I’ve missed something? Think I’ve made some sort of terrible mistake? Just have something to add? Let me know in the comments!

Review – Gundam Reconguista in G Episode 2

Gundam_G_no_Reconguista_Episode_1_Preview

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.

Can-Can Gundam

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.

A Handy Dandy Guide to Space Dandy, Season 1

Isn't It Electrifying?

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“Space Dandy is a dandy in space. He is a galaxy-wide alien hunter. On a journey of adventure to new worlds, he searches for unknown extraterrestrials. These are the spectacular tales of these alien hunters!”

Hey you. Yeah, you, the person staring at the computer screen. You might have heard of Space Dandy, a recent high-profile project by beloved (at least in the West) director Shinichiro Watanabe. You might even have been excited for what looked like another series in the tradition of Watanabe’s earlier successes, Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo. But after those first few episodes, you dismissed Space Dandy, didn’t you? After the humor in the first episode was more hit than miss, after lukewarm coverage in the New York Times and AV Club, after you realized Watanabe really wasn’t kidding when he said it would be twenty-six episodes of “Mushroom Samba.” So I…

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Review – Hunter X Hunter Episode 148

Hunter X Hunter 1

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.

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“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.

Hunter X Hunter 3

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

Akame Ga Kill – Kill the Video Game Narrative

Akame Ga Kill Header

I’ve watched every episode of Akame Ga Kill so far for a single purpose: I figured there had to be something in it worth writing about. A show this clumsy, this lunkheaded, and this downright offensive had to have something about it worth exploring and discussing, right? It took me awhile to find the topic, but once I keyed in on it, it became obvious and made the cause of many of the show’s storytelling problems easier to see.

There are a lot other things about Akame Ga Kill that I could have written about. It’s rampant sexism, for instance. It’s constant homophobia. The nihlistic undercurrent of self-righteous sadism that the worldview it espouses is built on. The black-and-white childishness of that worldview. The show’s equally immature belief that hyperviolence and gore alone make it more serious and adult. It’s stupid use of the “Kill the ____” gimmick for every episode title (at least that provided me with a handy title for this essay)…

I decided not to write about any of these things at this time because most of the discussion of Akame Ga Kill has been about all those issues. They’re all worth talking about, but I also felt that all the discussion of the ways the show is offensive and obnoxious was possibly distracting from another of its series issues: it’s storytelling is downright abysmal.

It’s been obvious from Akame Ga Kill‘s first episode that video games are one of its main inspirations. This is hardly the first instance of a TV show having a strong video game influence; video games have been a part of the culture for a very long time, and video game-inspired stories or references in nerd-targeted shows and movies have been common for years. But even taking this into consideration Akame Ga Kill‘s indebtedness to the video game medium (particularly RPGs) stands out. From episode one it has been relied on the storytelling cliches and terminology of video games, always to its detriment.

Not every part of Akame Ga Kill is directly inspired by video games, and not every one of its many faults can be blamed on it’s over-reliance on video game storytelling tropes, or its misunderstanding of how different mediums rely on different narrative tools. Despite that, video games are still a clear inspiration on the show, and examining how that influence has shaped the show’s narrative both explains some of the show’s compromising structural problems and helps reveal others.

The most obvious sign of Akame Ga Kill‘s video game influence has been in the dialogue. Despite taking place in a vaguely European fantasy setting, the script has tossed around video game slang and terminology from episode one. Characters describe growing stronger as “leveling up,” and the strength of the random monsters they encounter are described by what “level” and “class” they are (“high level,” “multi-level,” “dragon class,” and other terms obviously pulled from RPG video games have all been thrown around liberally by the show’s script). But the influence goes deeper than just vocabulary. It’s had a large impact on the shape of the narrative as well, and the first half of episode 12 has one of the clearest examples.

After their base was discovered in a previous episode by an enemy agent, the members of Night Raid (they’re called that because they perform raids. At night.) are forced to relocate. From the moment they arrive in their new location, it’s is described as if it were a level in a video game:

High Level Danger Beasts

This is the only information about the new location that the characters discuss or that is shared with the audience: 1) It’s title (and through it’s name the type of terrain, though this is completely incidental)  2) The “level” of the monsters, aka “Danger Beasts,” that inhabit it (Danger Beasts would be the easy winner for dumbest-named thing in an anime for 2014 if Akame Ga Kill didn’t also have a class of monster called “Evil Birds”). In other words, this new location is introduced only by the information that would be relevant to describing the next stage in a video game: what it’s called, and the difficulty of the enemies located there.

In case the connection wasn’t clear, Night Raid’s leader Najenda then describes her purpose for bringing them to this location:

Level Up 1

As mentioned previously, this isn’t the first time that the phrase “leveling up” has been said before in the show, but it’s usage here is particularly relevant because of the scene that follows. Immediately after the scene where the discussion about how Night Raid has moved to a new stage for the purposes of increasing the characters’ skill levels, it cuts to a scene of Night Raid members Tatsumi and Leone fighting Danger Beasts. After the discussion about how it’s time for characters to level up, the narrative immediately jumps to characters grinding to gain experience points. Aside from the random monster fighting, nothing else happens in this scene: two characters fight monsters (for the explicitly stated purpose of gaining experience), and one (Leone) talks about how the other (Tatsumi, the show’s protagonist) has grown stronger since the beginning of the show.

If the correlation between this scene and fighting random monsters for XP in an RPG wasn’t clear enough, the fight ends when Leone stops the Danger Beasts from respawning by killing the level boss:

Boss Fight 1 Boss Fight 2 Boss Fight 3

And after Leone and Tatsume return to base, this is Najenda’s response:

Leveled Up 2

Anyone who has played an RPG will recognize this sequence of events: move to a new stage, then grind for XP to raise your characters’ stats. In a video game this progression of events makes sense: in order to progress in the story, the player’s character(s) have to reach a high enough level that they can survive increasingly difficult stages.  Where it doesn’t make sense is in a serialized television story (or even in Akame Ga Kill‘s original medium of manga). Characters training in order to grow stronger and overcome challenges is a common plot element in non-video game stories, but unlike with video games, where the purpose of these beats is for the player to play as the character and gain the experience points necessary to then allow them to reach later beats in the story, in non-video game narratives these sequences are supposed to also include character or story growth. The character who’s training in a TV show or a movie doesn’t just go through the motions of training or fighting, they also learn something about themselves: they overcome some personal fear, learn to look at something from a new perspective, or at the very least they have to accomplish something else in addition to working out or beating up random enemies. This is as true for Rocky as it is Akame Ga Kill‘s shoenen-action brethren like Hunter X Hunter and Naruto.

In Akame Ga Kill‘s “leveling up” scenes, none of this scene-justifying character growth is present. Instead they all play out the same way. Characters talk about how they should kill monsters to get better at fighting. They then kill monsters, and they also talk about how at some point in between these scenes of them killing monsters they got better at killing monsters. Any Danger Beast scenes that don’t involve characters grinding for XP are instead about characters gathering food to recharge their energy (another element taken from video games). Like the “leveling up” scenes, these events have no consequence to the story other than “characters gather food to regain energy.” All the dialogue in these scenes involves either the characters talking about how they are collecting food to regain energy, or characters discussing things that are happening or have happened elsewhere and that aren’t being dramatized through their current actions.

The result of this is that large portions of Akame Ga Kill‘s running time is taken up by pointless, tensionless scenes that advance neither the narrative nor the characters. These kind of narrative beats make sense in a video game, where they take place between the points in the actual narrative progression. In video games the player is an agent in the narrative, and their playing ability and decisions on how to use the characters they control affect whether or not the story gets to progress. In a television show, however, there is no player; there is only a viewer. Viewers don’t have that same agency, and the characters and plot develop completely independent of their involvement. As a result, what are necessary stages in the progression of a video game become dead air on TV.

This is made all the worse by Akame Ga Kill’s nonexistent character development, another symptom of its slavish adoption of video game formatting. The show’s character’s don’t really learn anything or grow in any meaningful sense; even Tatsumi’s decision to become an outlaw in the first episode isn’t a change in his personality so much as it is him gaining knowledge that he didn’t have before and then acting accordingly. The characters make decisions and learn new facts, but there’s never any sense that there’s anything more to them than what they were at the moment they were introduced: an incredibly broad personality coupled with a set of special abilities.

This is another case of what works in video games failing to translate to a different medium. Akame Ga Kill‘s characters are formulated and introduced according to the information a player would need to know about them if they were playable characters in an RPG: by their abilities, and by them having just enough personality to have a place in the game’s framing story. Because video game characters are played and not just observed, the player experiences the characters’ growth by acting as those characters. The player moves the characters through an interactive environment, and exercises their agency in the game’s narrative through those characters. When this element of control and participation is removed and the characters are required to exist inside the narrative independently, the criteria of what makes strong and functional characters changes. Akame Ga Kill‘s characters have the features they need to be the starting point of a playable RPG party, but not ones that allow them to stand on their own in a non-playable narrative.

Talent For Killing

Once you realize just how beholden to video game tropes Akame Ga Kill‘s storytelling is, many of its questionable plotting and character decisions become clearer. They certainly don’t retroactively become better, but they do become explainable. A good portion of the story beats in an episode of Akame Ga Kill don’t happen because they make good televisual storytelling, but because the writer has obviously played a lot of video games and often doesn’t know how to translate that inspiration into another medium beyond simply copying the narrative beats as they would play out if the story actually was happening in one of those video games.

To give another example of how this manifests, let’s look at the subplot involving Night Raid member Bulat deciding to train the then-newcomer Tatsumi. Bulat announces that he is going to teach Tatsumi to become stronger. There are then one or two scenes in the next few episodes showing the end of training sessions, and even more instances of characters talking about how Bulat’s training is helping Tatsumi level up (once again this is the terminology that is used). In episode 8, Tatsumi and Bulat are involved in a fight in which Bulat is mortally wounded, but Tatsumi is able to put on and use his mentor’s high-level magic armor, Incursio, something that it was earlier stated that Tatsumi would not be able to do with the experience and strength he had at the beginning of the story. Bulat then dies, but not before commenting that Tatsumi has grown stronger.

The way this subplot plays out feels less like a television character’s dramatic arc than it does a series of cutscenes or between-fight dialogue exchanges from a video game with all the actual gameplay (and thus character development) cut out. Without that connective tissue, Tatsumi’s progression from newbie to badass feels completely unearned. The audience is told what’s going to happen, and is then later told that it has already happened at the point the story required it to have occurred. In the same way, Tatsumi being able to use Incursio doesn’t feel like an accomplishment for the character that the progression of the show’s narrative has been building to. Instead, it feels like what happens when an RPG party member dies: another party member picks up the fallen character’s items and uses the ones that his class and experience levels allow him to.

There are even more examples of this kind of badly translated cross-media storytelling, going back all the way to the first episode. Not only is the first scene of the show a random monster encounter, but the way the plot of episode one plays out is incredibly similar to what a player would expect to find when their characters enter the first city in an RPG. Many of the interactions Tatsumi has when he reaches the Capital (that’s the city’s actual name, by the way; just the Capital) involve him running into incidental characters who simply decide to start describing the country’s history, who the important people are, and what the show’s themes are going to be. Using incidental characters to give establishing information is another storytelling device that isn’t unique to video games, but the sheer number of these characters (travelers, guards, barkeeps, etc.) and the graceless way these characters dump unsolicited information through dialogue feels distinctly like the kind of thing you usually get through NPC encounters. Once again, it’s the kind of thing that makes sense in a video game, where the player has to move their character to these encounters and often perform their own exploration/investigation through an interactive environment in order to get information, but makes no sense outside of that specific context.

The most egregious example of this NPC-ification of the background characters and explanatory dialogue comes in what is still Akame Ga Kill‘s most awkward bit of storytelling. It comes at the end of episode one, during Tatsumi’s first encounter with Night Raid, when said group of outlaws stages an attack on a corrupt aristocratic family. During the attack, a guard (who is never given a name and is only introduced in this scene) is killed. As he dies, the guard gives the following monologue:

Rotten Soul 1 Rotten Soul 2

This kind of dialogue, where a character offers up random facts about themselves without solicitation, isn’t uncommon during encounters with video game NPCs. But once again, this kind of information delivery doesn’t work the same across different mediums. When they happen during gameplay, the playable characters often choose whether or not to run into the NPCs and thus hear the information they have to share because the player has to actively guided them into the encounters. It’s debatable that this particular bit of scripting wouldn’t be awkward even in the context of a video game, but it would certainly make more sense coming from a dying NPC that the player can choose to have their character speak with. What in one medium could be a passable bit of background flavor and discoverable content becomes an example of laughably incompetent storytelling in another.

Because of its faulty and misguided adherence to storytelling methods that don’t translate to its medium, Akame Ga Kill has a fundamentally compromised narrative structure. It may not be the show’s only major flaw, but in terms of storytelling at least it’s the most important. This one problem has been present throughout the show, will likely be present throughout the rest of it, and will be one of the biggest roadblocks in the way to it ever becoming a properly functioning story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Hannibal,” “Millenium,” and the Macabre as Art Design

The currently airing NBC series Hannibal took many people by surprise. When it was announced, there wasn’t much excitement around it and most people assumed it would just be another unremarkable entry in this entertainment era’s remake, reboot, and reimagining craze. But once the show debuted, it immediately started generating strong buzz and attracted a cult audience. And for good reason.

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Listed in the credits as being based on Red Dragon, Thomas Harris’ first book to feature his famous cannibal psychiatrist, Hannibal takes place in the time before Dr. Lecter’s unmasking as a serial killer and subsequent arrest. Aside from taking place during a period that none of the other Lecterverse (do people call that? I don’t actually know) material has covered, the show has quickly established a unique identity for itself. The show overcame its first obvious challenge, finding a new Hannibal that can replace the iconic Anthony Hopkins, by casting of Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, whose detached and cooly aristocratic Hannibal contrasts with Hopkins’ famously snide, sneering portrayal yet still manages to capture the character’s weird, off-putting charm. It also managed to escape the dual trap of being just an exercise in brand recognition and yet another network police procedural, using the familiar characters and scenario of the Hannibalverse (still not sure what to call it) and the recognizable format of cop shows as jumping off points to tell an engaging, long-form story of psychological torture and the darker side of human behavior. And perhaps most noticeably, developer/executive producer/writer/director Bryan Fuller and his production team gave the show a unique, striking design that makes it one of the most interesting looking TV shows currently airing.

All of the previous entries in the Cannibalverse (fuck it) had distinctly different looks from their counterparts, and this newest one is no different. Hannibal makes excellent use of set design and staging not just to establish it’s own a visual identity but also to very effectively enhance atmosphere. The team making the show obviously pays very close attention not just to having a wide variety of looks to the sets, but also to how those sets affect the blocking and placement of actors, which in turn affects the mood of a scene. Hannibal has some of the best use of space in a television show. As just one example, Lector’s psychiatry office seems to be designed so that characters often seem to be just too close or just too far away from each other, creating a visual representation of Hannibal’s duel settings of aloofness and intruding into others’ personal space. And of course there’s the show’s most noticeable visual feature: a shocking amount of beautifully rendered gore.

When Silence of the Lambs introduced Hannibal in 1991, it was with that famous slow pan across the lower levels of the insane asylum that finally stopped when Hopkins’ smirk and unblinking stare were in center frame. In the television show, Mikkelsen is introduced quite differently: the first part of him to appear is his hands. Specifically, his hands as they chop, massage, season, and otherwise lovingly prepare a tender looking cut of meat as he stands in his kitchen, preparing what by all appearances will be an incredibly sumptuous meal. The food is the main focus of the scene, and it is filmed with a gourmet’s eye, every shot further accentuating the impression of a truly mouthwatering meal in the making. The show never tells us exactly what it is he’s cooking. It doesn’t have to. Any audience watching Hannibal already knows about Lecter and his dietary habits, and the horror that comes with knowing that we’re almost certainly watching a murdered human’s carcass being prepared for consumption stands in vivid contrast to the alluring presentation. The scene is inviting and grotesque at the same time. It not only introduces the show’s title character, it also introduces Hannibal‘s main visual modus operandi: turning the macabre into the beautiful.

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It’s not just Lecter’s meals that have this dichotomous element. The murder scenes that the show’s cast of FBI investigators find every episode are presented in the same way: horrifying yet alluring. Murdered and mutilated bodies are staged in increasingly disturbing but strangely beautiful ways. Corpses hung on antlers like hanging pictures, a tower of dismembered bodies, bee hives growing out of emptied skulls. Hannibal‘s gore content is surprisingly high, especially for a primetime network show. Yet it’s presented in a way that’s not just meant to be shocking, but also intriguing and in many cases uncomfortably pleasant to look at, even as viewers recognize it for what it is. This not only increases the horror value of the show, but it also mirrors the storyline of characters entering the mindset of the deranged, murderous, and twisted in order to catch them only to find that they can’t quite make their way back out.

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If Hannibal‘s gore-as-art approach has any direct antecedent on network TV, it’s the late 90s Fox show Millennium. Created by The X-File‘s Chris Carter, Millennium was a much moodier, gorier affair than Carter’s other, more famous show. It also didn’t last nearly as long and never attracted anywhere near the same audience numbers as The X-Files, probably due to both it’s incredibly bleak style, subject matter, and content, as well as its schizophrenic nature. Millennium lasted for 3 seasons, and each one could have been from a different show. Season 1 was the closest in content to Hannibal, a nominal procedural that was really an exploration and meditation on the darker side of human nature, but with a focus on the vaguely occult as well as the cultural anxiety that permeated the late 20th century. Season 2 switched to an ongoing storyline that made it something like a much bleaker, focused, and ambitious X-FIles, with religion and apocalypse cults instead of aliens and an and incredibly pessimistic outlook on the future (technically, Millennium took place in the same fictional universe as The X-Files, but the concrete ties between the shows were few and tangential). After the experimental Season 2 failed in the ratings, Season 3 tried to have the middle ground. It kept the shadowy religious cults in the background while largely reverting back to a case-of-the-week format, but failed to do as well creatively as either of the previous seasons or to pull in the ratings needed to keep the show on the air.

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Hannibal and Millennium are two incredibly distinct series, yet they share many things in common. Though they were created nearly 20 years apart (Millennium debuted in 1996, Hannibal in 2013), they are both very much products of transitional times for television, and as a result were both able to push the boundaries of what could appear on network TV. Hannibal comes at a time when the old networks are facing declining ratings due to both a rapid increase in the number of available channels and the subsequent increase in quality (and edginess) of the content available there. Millennium ended in 1999, the same year that The Sopranos first started airing, and was part of a crop of shows that were forerunners to the HBO era. Shows like Millennium and Homicide: Life on the Street (another supposed police procedural that, with its Baltimore setting and participation of David Simon, can be seen as a direct ancestor of The Wire) may not have gotten away with what the HBO, FX, and AMC shows of today can get away with in terms of content and breaking standard TV show formula (or, in some ways, what Hannibal can get away with on modern day NBC), but they were constantly pushing against the constrictions of what network shows were allowed to do.

Like HannibalMillennium was sometimes shockingly grotesque in its depiction of murder and mutilation, yet also brought a strong sense of presentation and art direction to its gore and violence. Also like with Hannibal, Millennium gleefully forced its main character to explore depths of the human mind that are better left unvisited knowing full well he might not recover from doing so.

At first glance, Hannibal‘s protagonist, the neurotic and jittery Will Graham, might not seem very similar to Millennium‘s older, morose family man Frank Black. They both share a profession as psychological consultants for the FBI (Millennium has the distinction of coming from a time when the criminal profiler was a new and novel thing to have in a TV show), but in age, looks, and personality they’re quite different. But the journeys that their respective shows put them through are very similar.

Top: Will Graham (Hannibal)
Will Graham (Hannibal)
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Frank Black (Millennium)

The overarching story of Hannibal‘s first two seasons has been Dr. Lecter’s systematic mental manipulation of the psychologically vulnerable Will. Will’s ability to wholly empathize with any mindset, including those of deranged killers, makes him incredibly adept at analyzing and catching psychopaths and serial killers (it also makes him a subject of Hannibal Lecter’s curiosity, whose interest takes the form of a months-long campaign of mental torture). This ability to slip into dangerous and homicidal frames of mind makes him psychologically unbalanced and unable officially join the FBI, and he instead has to settle for a teaching position and being hired as an independent consultant. In Millenium, Frank Black is a former FBI agent who now works for an independent investigative firm, after years in law enforcement that ended with a mental breakdown. Able to adopt the point of view of serial killers and other deranged people, Frank quit his job after a stalker began threatening his family. Obsessed with finding the stalker and unable to shut off his ability to think like him, Frank’s inability to catch the man led to a nervous breakdown, and then a move across the country. He’s since returned to investigations, but tries to keep his new, ideal suburban yellow house a sanctuary from the horrors that he deals with on a daily basis (with less and less success as the series goes on).

Exploring the similarity between the criminal mind and those who investigate it is hardly unique to either Hannibal or Millenium, but it’s not hard to see the similarities between the two. An older Will Graham would probably share a lot in common with a Frank Black. Both shows also represent the way both characters see the violence and horror that their mutual job subject them to, and how they find it both repugnant and familiar.

The two shows share another common element in the use of fantasy sequences to represent when their lead characters are peering into the minds of others, and how the experience of doing so affects them. Both shows use this dramatic technique, but have differing approaches that highlights the ways each use the gore-as-art aesthetic. Will’s visions are long, clearly lit, and usually involve recreating every detail of a scene in slow motion. Frank’s, on the other hand, have a dark, grainy look that wouldn’t be out of place in the music video for Nine Inch Nail’s “Closer.” They’re also quick, usually lasting less than a second. They’re impressionist flashes, rather than Will’s detailed reconstructions.

The differences in the two styles of fantasy sequence also relate to each show’s individual approach to art design. Hannibal looks incredibly modern, and often sets its action in sleek-looking, well lit rooms and polished metal labs. Millenium has a distinctly late 90s approach to portraying its air of darkness and anxiety, with an emphasis on heavy blacks, smudged browns, dirty yellows, and nighttime settings, brought to life with a much more limited late 90s TV budget.

While still allowing that Millenium and Hannibal are in many ways distinct from each other, the two of them do share a common legacy in the use of the macabre as a key part of art design. Both came about at a time of transition in TV entertainment, and the freedom that allowed them resulted in leaps forward in the design aesthetic for mainstream TV.

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.