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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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