The Trap Door: A Man, His Dream, A Girlfriend, Her Revenge

Otaku No Video (1991)

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Ah, what would we do without Gainax? Well, for one, there would be fewer traumatized English fans of the studio *cough, ahem, Evangelion, cough* but we also wouldn’t have the studio's early trademark: an energetic, 100-mph pace of filmmaking. The folks at Gainax were always experimenting with what constituted anime, and one of those experiments was the hybrid anime/live action OVA Otaku No Video. It’s ... different.

Ken Kubo is a successful young man, he’s got a great girl who he loves, he plays tennis, and if he keeps this up he’ll have a good job, money, cars, and a happy home life. One day he comes across an old high school friend, Tanaka, who's now an otaku. No, that’s not fair, I should rephrase: Tanaka is an OTAKU. He’s got a circle of fellow otaku and though initially Kubo resists going back into his teenage pursuits, the lure of that sweet, sweet otaku life eventually seduces him back into the wicked ways of the pop culture hunter. Gone is his lovely girlfriend, Yoshiko, gone is his life of business. Now he dedicates his life to becoming the ultimate otaku, the OTAKING. Soon, he’s opening model shops, creating factories in China, and making lots of money, but he’s only interested in becoming a kind of Akihabara ÜberMensch. Along the way he encounters his old girlfriend, a new rival, and the destruction of his empire. Can he rise one more time to realize his destiny?

It’s best to warn you upfront: if you’re coming to this show with the above as your guide, oh boy do I have a bomb for you. Normally, this is where I tell you the show is terrible or it doesn’t pan out the way it’s set up, but in this case, that’s exactly what happens. Otaku No Video is the granddaddy of all subsequent otaku series: Genshiken, Welcome to the NHK, read Maniac Road, etc. When AnimEigo released this back in the day, people on this side of the world didn’t know what a Japanese otaku did for fun or recreation. This show gave us something of an insight. The characters are somewhat autobiographical, but I'll get to that in the second half of this review. On a more personal note, when we see Kubo and Tanaka become excited about figures or the show that they’re planning, I see myself in their enthusiasm. They like anime for the sake of liking anime. You can argue about their, er, tastes but they're certainly passionate.

The second part of the show is where the real fun is. For no good reason except that Gainax could, the film has “interviews” with otaku types. All of them are typical nerd archetypes, all of them are live action interviews, all of them have their faces covered in mosaic, and if you haven’t figured it out yet, all of them are fake. The masterstroke of the OVA is that the interviewees are all Gainax employees or folks who hung out with the crew from the studio. They're also all are terrible human beings because they are the real-life versions of the shut-ins that we laughed at in the earlier animated segment. Now, when we see a guy who tapes TV programs for other people but can’t see a reason to watch the stuff he tapes (hm, the whole videotape thing is an explanation for younger readers in and of itself), it’s not funny anymore. I think that director Takeshi Mori did this deliberately to show that for all the joking in the animated bits (with references to Gundam, Macross, and Gatchaman), they are actually saying “Yeah, we know this is really a waste of your time, but you just bought this so who’s the bigger fool?” I can’t get across properly how embarrassing and funny it is to watch these segments as they convincingly stumble through their questions. It’s all so charmingly sloppy that it's hard to believe it was done by anyone professional.

The show proper wraps up in a way that only Gainax can pull off. In an emotional moment (well, they are crying), Kubo and Tanaka reunite in a post-apocalyptic Japan where their friends have put together a super robot for them to escape the Earth. Really, I’m not making that one up. In any case, on display throughout is Gainax’s animation style from their early days. By which I mean, they were out to beat everyone else at their game. It’s too niche for me to recommend to everyone but it gets to stretch its legs outside of the Trap Door with manly tears, watching its favourite maid show and wearing its Char uniform with pride.

I have wanted to do Otaku No Video for the last two years but for whatever reason, never got around to it. I hope you go out and find the AnimEigo DVD’s as they have wonderful liner notes to go with their release.


On the 25th of every month in "The Trap Door," Phillip O'Connor tackles one forgotten anime title to find out whether it deserves to be rediscovered by the anime community. Click here to check out previous entries in the column.

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Ani-Gamers Podcast #048 – Writing About Anime and Manga (Anime Destiny 2014)

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After being a guest on Mike Toole's "Writing About Anime for Fun and Profit" panel at Otakon 2014, I hosted a similar panel at tiny college con Anime Destiny back in December. The guests are Nate Ming from Crunchyroll News and the Crunchyroll Newsletter and YouTuber Nick Robinson, formerly of Revision3/Fandom Beat, Anime Vice, and Unwinnable. Topics include how to get noticed, our inspirations, and the importance of puns. Yes this podcast took forever to come out, but if it makes you feel better, it only took me a couple days to edit it and release it once I got my hands on the file.

DIRECT DOWNLOAD - RSS Feed - iTunes - Send us Feedback! - More episodes 
 
(Runtime: 59 minutes)

  • Opening Song: "Kill Me" by Lame Drivers
  • Our guests are Crunchyroll News' Nate Ming and Nick Robinson, formerly of Revision3/Fandom Beat.
  • Otaku USA Magazine: Evan is featured in the new anime-only special issue (Fate/stay night cover), where he wrote about Studio Trigger and Hayao Miyazaki's Porco Rosso.
  • Nate writes for Crunchyroll News.
  • Nick hosts videos on his personal YouTube channel, plus he used to write for Anime Vice and Unwinnable. He also hosted anime videos on Fandom Beat on his now-defunct show, Behind Anime Lines.
  • Twitter: Ani-GamersEvan, Nick, and Nate (he doesn't use it)
  • Email us at podcast@anigamers.com!
  • Ending Song: "Kill Me" by Lame Drivers
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What's It Like to Work in the Anime Industry? Read My Guest Post on Organization ASG

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If you've been paying attention on Twitter, you may have seen that I recently wrote a guest post on Organization Anti-Social Geniuses about my experiences working at Crunchyroll as a software engineer over the past year and change. In the article, I discuss my experience before joining the industry proper, the importance of anime fandom at Crunchyroll, and the varied ways that employees contribute to the anime fan experience you see on the site.

If you're interested in a behind-the-scenes look at the jobs that make the industry work, check out the post (as well as this one from former Tokyopop editor Lillian Diaz-Przybyl). Big thanks go out to Justin Stroman of OASG for inviting me to be a part of this feature!

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Drunken Otaku: A Taste for It (Kaiji)

One is never enough and always too many

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Because it’s easier and friendlier (and thus less off-putting and more profitable) to depict the cartoonish buffoonery of casual or heavy drinkers, realistic portrayals of what the voluntary ingestion of even a drop of alcohol does to an actual alcoholic are seen with lesser frequency in most mediums. Even rarer are such scenes evoking that inherent torture and inevitable betrayal of resolve via extended metaphor. As a standout example of how this can be done, allow me to introduce you to Kaiji, a character brought low (literally) by his own addictions and likewise consumptive habits in Kaiji – Against All Rules.

Abstaining from drinking, while far from easy, incurs far less mental anguish than attempting to drink in moderation. For true alcoholics, drinking stops when (and only when) the pockets, like the container — bottle, can, flask, jug, etc. — of opportunity, are emptied, or the means with which to procure one more round are no longer available, or the drinker simply passes out. So a single can of beer, like a sip of water to someone dying of thirst, becomes a fresh cell for a predatory disease. After so much deprivation, the allowance of such slight indulgence — a trigger for the memory of taste tied to relief, that blessed numbness brought on by sweet, sweet alcohol — is a nigh irresistible force that coerces and then subverts rationale into a mired meandering in excess.

Kidnapped and placed in an underground hell (a forced labor camp) to work off his ¥10,000,000 debt, Kaiji faces fifteen relentless years of hard labor if he saves every single perica (a fictional currency worth a fraction of a yen). He makes do on the table scraps supplied daily between work and sleep, but the introduction of payday, after having no other choice but to spend an entire month sober and free from temptation, sparks Kaiji’s torment by way of the catering cart (pun intended).

Money not directly deducted from his paycheck, while a truly paltry sum, goes directly into Kaiji’s hands. But by abstaining from indulgence, Kaiji can save up this pittance over the course of a mere five months to procure a one-day outside pass — a worker incentive he intends to abuse in order to gamble his debts away and free himself from this hell. But the foreman, team leader Ootsuki, keeps wheeling that catering cart into the workers’ barracks after each hard day’s thirst-inducing labor.

With purchasing power in hand, the smell of food wafts all the sweeter and the pops of the cans call that much louder. Still, Kaiji abstains until Ootsuki offers a free beer. This taste is the gateway, a classic drug pusher tactic, but one that’s all the more effective on those who’ve already been addicted and managed to quit. Just as soon as that beer is consumed, the smells and sounds around Kaiji combine with a reawakened, vivified lust for a break from an all-too sobering reality. Kaiji’s brain starts rationalizing.

Calculations allow for 40,000 perica for “play money” without pushing back the savings date for the one-day outside pass, so what’s another beer, another package of yakitori, some chips and nuts, as a reward for what he’s survived thus far? It’s a snowball, and anyone who’s tried to drink in moderation after deciding to abstain from it will tell you failure is as inevitable as it is humiliating. This one-time indulgence, which turns convenience store fare into a gourmet banquet, ends up draining Kaiji’s first paycheck by inspiring subsequent binges and threatens to dig into his future pay, still one month away, by way of a proffered personal loan.

Even though this situation directly involves alcohol, the moment is meant more to dramatize the struggle of self-control uniquely brought on by the deprivation of crippling poverty and the suddenly affordable opportunity for escapism. It just so happens that said struggle directly parallels that of a recovering alcoholic reintroduced to alcohol and thus works as extended metaphor. Taking that first drink after being dry (sober) for any length of time might feel like betrayal, but not more so than ordering another. Doing so inevitably brings about an admission, an acknowledgement of the broken bonds of self-restraint. Because as sad as looking down into quicksand is, it’s nothing compared to the despair of being aware of that descent while already thinking how damned good the next can is going to taste.


Kaiji is streaming on Crunchyroll.


On the first Friday of every month (or occasionally on the hazy, hung-over Saturday directly following), Ani-Gamers blogger Ink tackles an anime, manga, or video game through the theme of alcohol in our column "Drunken Otaku." Look out for "Beer Googles" (reviews), "Great Drinkers" (character profiles), "Drinkin' Buddies" (interviews), and "Great Moments in Drinking" (more or less). To read previous entries, click here.

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This Weekend: Panels and More at Animation on Display (AOD) 2015

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This weekend — January 31-February 1 — I'll be at Animation on Display, a convention for "anime, video games, cartoons, and other fun and geeky stuff," based out of Burlingame, CA, a.k.a. San Francisco Airportland. Last year I just attended and wrote a con report, but this year I'll be on three panels! First is How Anime Gets Made (Saturday at 1pm in Events 4), my presentation about the Japanese animation production process. I believe I'll be sitting out the Crunchyroll Industry Panel (Saturday at 2pm in Events 2) this time, but you can probably find me in the audience there. Then I'm doing The Rise of CG Anime (Sunday at noon in Events 4), which is about the history of computer animation in anime. Finally, I'll be on Crunchyroll's Working in the Anime Industry panel (Sunday at 1pm in Events 2) once again, discussing what it's like to work for an anime company!

Outside of panels, I'll also be helping out at the Crunchyroll booth on and off during the con, so you might see me manning the booth or on the livestream. Keep your eye on the latter if you want to see what my coworkers and I are up to without attending the con, and check out CR's official site news post for more info on our panels and livestream. 

I don't have a press badge this time, but depending on the panels the convention has to offer, I may write up some panel reports.

Anyway, if you're in the Bay Area, please stop by and say hi!

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The Trap Door: It's Not Finished! You Have To Do Better!

Animation Runner Kuromi (2001)

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Since Shirobako is doing the rounds at the moment, I thought, "what better time to remind you about an anime that nobody will watch because it’s too old?" Ah, that’s a bit harsh, but nobody talks about this show anymore. It’s directed by the same guy who did Fruits Basket (have I got ya yet?) and it was released by Central Park Media (have I lost ya yet?). It is the one and only Animation Runner Kuromi.

Mikiko Oguro is starting at the fictional Studio Petit and she's ecstatic, as she’s been in love with the place since they did Luis Monde III (also fictional). Shame that the director, after showing her around, gets sick and leaves her in charge of the production of their latest show, Time Journeys. OK, she’s in up to her neck and really needs to keep it together. Again, shame that the key animation staff are losers, weirdos, showoffs and apathetic whiners. Plus, Kuromi (the nickname given to her by the director) has a deadline of "yesterday" to get the episode finished. Thankfully director Akitaro Daichi throws the whole thing into a blender and pushes the Go button.

Kuromi Image Splash 1

What makes Animation Runner Kuromi is that the cast are so different and wild: Kuromi looks like a normal person, but when she wants something badly enough, she drops the normal conventions and does whatever it takes. Artist and ridiculously attractive bloke Mizuho Tanonaka seems like he’s got it together, but he’s a total time waster. He answers Kuromi with a kind of “Aha-ha-ha! Right you are, old chum!” attitude that rubs animation director Hamako Shihonmatsu the wrong way. I suspect he’ll end up being a director on his own project before he's 60. As for Shihonmatsu, she’s such a weary, cynical person that when Kuromi breezes in, she's like “Really, kid? You’re happy to be here? Whatevah!” Shihonmatsu does really know her stuff but she’s been working in the industry for so long that she can’t remember why she got into the game to begin with. With a cigarette in her mouth and a pen in her hand, she mercilessly skewers anyone who crosses her path. Aoi Fukami is a gentle soul who gets put down by her daily life so much that when Kuromi innocently asks her about her incoming workload, Aoi starts and there’s no stopping her. Mai Horaguchi is a preening madonna who wants to hear only sweet nothings from Kuromi. The less said about mountain sized Seiichiro Haryu the better. With his anime figures, posters, hentai (probably) and wall-to-wall apartment that I wouldn’t want any woman near, he’s as close to living the otaku dream as possible while coming with his own warning label.

Kuromi Image Splash 2

As Kuromi coaxes them out of their shells, these misfits start filtering into the studio rather than working at home. Pretty soon the scale of the problem becomes apparent to even the most flaky of the staff. That’s when the real fun starts as the snowball down a mountain freaks everyone out and Kuromi is racing across open bodies of water to kidnap surfing animators or holding Haryu’s toys and figures hostage until he finishes his work. She panics about failing so badly that even the TV news reporters attack her in her dreams. The animation on display veers from the characters screaming at each other to Kuromi barreling down the highway in a car that loses two wheels but just keeps going. People melt down in every single way imaginable. There’s a gleeful insanity to the proceedings that the creative staff know you’re going to enjoy, so they keep putting up the eyecatches for fictional shows Time Journeys and Luis Monde III to keep you on your toes. In the English dub, every time the announcer intones “Time Journeys!” it gets louder and more excited. That Time Journeys seems to be a more racy ripoff of Tatsunoko Pro’s Time Bokan or that Luis Monde is only two steps away from ripping off Lupin III just makes the joke itself sweeter.

Kuromi Image Splash 3

While Animation Runner Kuromi is a farce in its heart of hearts, we do learn the ins and outs of the anime production industry, and it’s not pretty. Animators work long hours and get very little attention outside of their jobs. They’ve all got their lives but animation is what they love. We learn little bits about Shihonmatsu and how her journey was similar to Kuromi's. Meanwhile, Kuromi infects her and the rest with a breath of air that they didn’t realise they needed. Kuromi herself wants to be involved with the studio that made Luis Monde, so she sticks with this hellish schedule. Eventually, her drive and love for the job gets to the other staff members. All in all, the OVA is a nice little cake to have with your metaphoric tea while you’re waiting for something more serious to come along. The DVD of the first OVA is getting really hard to find online so I’d ask friends or family to grab it for youif they spot it in thrift shops or bargain basement places. The second OVA can be found for cheap right now and it’s more of the same in case you’re curious. The first one is taking a rest from animating after escaping from the Trap Door with no key frames to collect before the deadline. 


On the 25th of every month in "The Trap Door," Phillip O'Connor tackles one forgotten anime title to find out whether it deserves to be rediscovered by the anime community. Click here to check out previous entries in the column.

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Snapshot: Impossible Force (Kite)

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Director’s Cut material aside, Yasuomi Umetsu’s KITE is an action movie through and through (and through). Young assassin, Sawa, carries out various hits interspersed between scenes with plot points advancing her revenge tale. There are gallons of blood, lots of screaming, disembodied body parts galore, excessive explosions, and some pretty swell fight choreography too. But amidst all the adrenaline is one scene with action so impossible that, intentionally or otherwise, it elicits laughs and deserves a standing OVAtion.

To set the scene: a massive explosion, one which punches a hole through the wall high up in a skyscraper, appears to clear all remaining unfriendlies from the cramped bathroom in which Sawa was fighting. As Sawa stares down at the streets below, she’s grabbed from behind by one last standing foe who then forces her off the building. They fall.

The scene:
Sawa latches onto a hefty, protruding sign. It gives way. She and the gunman clinging to her leg fall (again). During their descent, Sawa manages to crouch on top of the man and braces for inevitable impact. The pair hit the top of an enclosed bridge between buildings. They fall through, crushing the roof of a traffic-mired automobile. The force from the fall, along with the weight of Sawa, the gunman, and the upper bridge piece, makes the car fall through the asphalt and bridge base, all of which puts a serious dent in the gridlocked tanker truck directly below and makes Sawa’s momentum crush the gunman’s innards; blood and teeth erupt like a slow volcano. There's a slight pause hosting the ominous sound of cracking asphault. Then the truck starts to sink and falls through the street (and numerous layers of solid Earth) into the subway below. The concerning silence is anticlimactic; Sawa’s shown safely clinging to the side of the hole made by the tanker. Then the sign, a huge arrow pointing straight down, falls through the hole (narrowly missing Sawa) and ignites the tanker below. Sawa’s blown out and up and across the street into a building through a storefront window and onto a show bed.

Wile E. Coyote’s constant canyon falls were amusing because the character was out of sight—a speck of dust riding a slide whistle all the way down. Good ol’ Wile E. was abstracted. The cloud of smoke let viewers know when the fall stopped, and then the coyote reappeared in bandages that disappeared in the next scene. Comedy.

Homer Simpson’s infamous gorge jump in “Bart the Daredevil” is a direct and gruesome Wile E. parody. During his descent, Homer hits every extended crag and branch on his way down and gets bloodier and more tattered the further he falls. It hurts, but the scene’s comedic for using realism as a sort of hyper-aware commentary on the pain at which we laugh so lightly.

Blending aspects of both of the above scenarios, KITE takes an absurdly realistic-looking fall and endows it with a physics-defying momentum that presses the tickle button every time un-believability is compounded. Simultaneously, the progressively bloodying bad guy embeds a bit of realism and empathy. The down arrow sign falling straight through the hole and igniting everything is the punchline, the big cartoon laugh, and Sawa’s flight through the air and bed-cushioned landing are the disappearing bandages.


Kite is currently streaming on Netflix and available for purchase on RightStuf and Amazon.

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Staff Picks: Our Favorite Anime of 2014

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Welcome to our third and final Staff Picks post for 2014! After listing our favorite games and manga, as selected by our staff contributors and guest writers, we're bringing it home with our main focus here at Ani-Gamers: anime. First off, we'll list off our collective Top 3 anime from 2014, then list our individual favorites for each writer.

– Evan Minto, Editor-in-Chief


 

Ani-Gamers Anime of the Year

#3: Ping Pong: The Animation

Ink: As if the personal drama in this sports anime isn’t enough of a draw, add powerful visual storytelling under the direction of Masaaki Yuasa, visual development/background art by Kevin Aymeric, and one of the most amazing punk-infused OPs ever and you have a tour de force of fun with some of the ugliest beautiful you’ll ever have the pleasure of watching week to week or in a quick five-some-hour marathon. Ping Pong: The Animation adapts the seinen manga by Taiyo Matsumoto. Although I’ve never read it or seen the touted live-action adaptation, what makes the anime so special is that it can break all the rules by combining aspects of all mediums. The camera angles alone, in both their mimicry of live action and unbound capability therein, make the series worth watching, while the realistic and surrealistic depictions of very human characters as they lose and find themselves via the sport of table tennis ensure rapt attention. I don’t remember many week-to-week or episode-to-episode cliffhangers, but every episode was thoroughly engrossing thanks to the way the animation complemented the times and trials of the cast.

 

#2: Space Brothers

Jared Nelson: In this year full of fantastic shows, one stood out for me above all others: Space Brothers, based on Chuuya Koyama’s award winning astronaut manga. I have never watched a show where I cared more about the characters in it (not even Chihayafuru, y’all). To be fair, its a show that started in 2012 (and was even nominated by Ink in that year). And yes, Space Brothers had 87 episodes to build up its world, plotlines, and characters, but in its final cour this show gave us something different and it was more emotionally evocative than anything else I watched last year.

Stories about people struggling to achieve their dreams appear often in anime. Most of the time, heroes become legends, or find their one true love, or score the game winning shot. And for most of its run, Space Brothers was no different. But in its final cour, Space Brothers becomes a story of people desperately trying to hold on to the reality of their achieved dreams, and that isn’t something you get from most anime. For that reason, and for memorable characters you can’t help but cheer for, Space Brothers is my top show of 2014.

 

#1: Kill la Kill

Evan Minto: As it was still running at the end of the year, I deliberately left Kill la Kill out of last year's Staff Picks. My two picks from last year (Inferno Cop and Little Witch Academia), however, were the closest substitutes, as they also happened to be the first two projects from anime studio Trigger, creators of Kill la Kill. So, at long last, let’s give Trigger its due for Kill la Kill too.

From its first moments, the show hits like a jolt of animated electricity. Our hero, Ryuko, is a tough-as-nails transfer student on the hunt for the woman who killed her father, and Satsuki, the totalitarian student council president at Honnouji Academy, is her only lead. The clash between these two headstrong young women, which weaves in superpowered school uniforms, nudist secret societies, and sewing machine guns, ends up being a really great show through a bizarre concoction of self-aware anime stereotypes and a scratchy, in-your-face visual style. The nudity may scare you away (and, indeed, it’s likely motivated by typical otaku fetishism despite its accidental potential for feminist readings), but give it a shot and you’ll quickly be swept up in its escalating series of high-flying battles and jaw-dropping plot twists. Kill la Kill is pure, unapologetic entertainment, and it is our collective Anime of the Year as well as my personal #1 choice.

DISCLAIMER: I work for Crunchyroll as a software developer, but my positive opinion of Kill la Kill (which is streaming on Crunchyroll) expressed here is my own — it does not represent, nor was it prompted in any way by, my employer.


 

Evan "Vampt Vo" Minto

#3: Ping Pong: The Animation

[See writeup above]

 

#2: The Tale of Princess Kaguya

Studio Ghibli movies often leave me with a giant smile on my face, but not since Isao Takahata's tragic WWII masterpiece Grave of the Fireflies have I left a screening of a Ghibli film as overpowered as I did after The Tale of Princess Kaguya (also directed by Takahata). A seemingly simple adaptation of a classic Japanese folk tale, the movie follows the life of a girl born from a bamboo shoot and raised by a humble bamboo cutter. As our heroine goes from country girl to princess, we watch conflicts between her desires and the expectations heaped upon her due to her station as depicted through both charming Ghibli hijinks and surreal dreamscapes. All of this comes to a head in a climax that avoids an obvious chance for tragedy in favor of overwhelming, painfully sincere emotion on the part of its characters. Princess Kaguya reaches for a far more stirring, spiritual experience than most anime (including those in the Ghibli catalog), making the closest comparison Osamu Tezuka's eight-volume manga epic Buddha. The whole thing is also rendered in a breathtaking, painterly animation style reminiscent of traditional Japanese artwork, something we rarely see in anime. I'll give it some time before I make any declarations, but Kaguya may end up being one of my favorite Ghibli films of all time.

 

#1: Kill la Kill

[See writeup above]


 

Ink

#3: Space Dandy (Season 2)

When Space Dandy was announced at Otakon and members of the "press" got further insight via a jam session with Watanabe, I immediatley envisioned a Samurai Jack-type scnerio. Season 1 of Space Dandy was true to its premise — different animation directors handing individual episodes or alien/world designs — but, for me, fell short on the original promise. Every episode seemed to follow the map too closely. There was still enough variation to make for grand entertainment, but nothing that struck me as truly exceptional. Then Season 2 premiered (and continued), and my socks were blown off. The pinnacle had been reached. The episodes varied so widely in execution, focus, and animation styles that I never knew what was coming next, which is everything I ever wanted out of Space Dandy

[Read more in Charles's full season writeup below]

 

#2: Space Brothers

[See writeup above]

 

#1: Ping Pong: The Animation

[See writeup above]


 

Charles Dunbar

#3: Knights of Sidonia

Giant robots used to be my thing. Gundam, Mekton Zeta, Xenogears? Yup, give me more. And then one day these shows stopped meaning something to me. How many times can I watch the same battle sequences, the “arms race” to build the biggest, baddest metal man in the galaxy, or watch plots unfold like a cartoon soap opera? 

Knights of Sidonia slips nicely between the mecha tropes I’m used to, and the general sense of exploration and “dread” that I want from my SF shows. And yet, I still can’t figure out exactly why I liked this show so much. It hooked me somewhere in the third episode, and refused to let me stop watching until everything was done. It had the obligatory battles, the flashy speed of space combat that felt like a full-mechanical Attack on Titan, but there was a heart there as well, an emotional connection rooted in the exposition and character interactions, that tugged at me. I felt bad when characters died. I pulled for relationships that were cut short too soon. Much like Gundam Seed, there is a sense of real loss in Sidonia — recalling an influence from Battlestar Galactica, we stand together, and fall as one.

 

#2: Space Dandy

So what’s the good word about this dandy guy? Why should anyone be so interested in what looks and feels like an anime reboot of “Homeboys in Outer Space?” Especially with so much competition this year from so many other, quality series? Is it the space part? Did they forget to mention the space part? So much wonder...

But truthfully, Space Dandy is a fantastic exercise in anime for the sake of anime. No need for deep plots (even if the show tried at some point to insert them late-season), since a heavy reliance of irreverence, and the quirks of the aforementioned Dandy Guy (in SPACE, did we mention?) carry the show from implausible situation to impossible outcome. It conjures an essence of speculation and discovery that the SF genre used to possess, before giant robots and climatic battles became the new normal. The show manages to build on the same energy as Cowboy Bebop, but infuses enough ridiculous situations and culture references to hearken back to an early era of South Park or Family Guy ... and ends before its welcome is worn out. Space Dandy is a creature of his own era, and that era is wacky, fun, ridiculous, and satisfying because it is all those things. Dandy indeed. 

 

#1: Kill la Kill

[See writeup above]


 

Jared Nelson

#3: Gundam Unicorn

2014 was in many ways a Gundam renaissance with the very successful Build Fighters show and its sequel, as well as Vertical’s release of the outstanding Gundam: The Origin manga. But the standard bearer for Gundam in 2014 was Gundam Unicorn, a showcase of beautiful animation and an exemplar of the hopeful spirit that underpins the Gundam mythos. Unicorn was sort of a dream come true for longtime Universal Century fans because it felt like watching a Gundam show from the '80s (right down to the awesome throwback character designs) but with modern, high definition animation.

The final episode of Gundam Unicorn has a valedictory tone and it could be an excellent ending to the original Universal Century storyline if ever Tomino retcons the mythos (again). If you’ve never seen Gundam and want to watch something that serves as a representative work for the franchise, you could do far worse than Unicorn. If you’re a long time fan of Gundam, Unicorn is an excellent reminder of how great Gundam can be when done right.

 

#2: Kill la Kill

[See writeup above]

 

#1: Space Brothers

[See writeup above]


 

Katriel Page

#2: Inari Konkon Koi Iroha

Truth be told, this was one of my favorite series in 2014, and slipped under many peoples' radars: it was simulcasting in the Spring season via Funimation, which was where I found it.

Inari Konkon Koi Iroha (shortened to just Inari Konkon) is a tale about a lonely goddess, the goddess Uka-no-mitama also known as Inari by mortals, who rewards an insecure girl named Fushimi Inari with the ability to transform into any other human. This in effect grants Inari-the-girl with some of Inari-the-goddess' power, and their lives start intertwining in ways that could not be expected: from Inari-the-goddess wanting to find out more about human lives and hobbies, to Inari-the-girl's relationships with her friends, crushes, and even other gods.

It's not on the same tense level as Attack on Titan or Kill la Kill, but helps provide a breather between such tense and action-packed shows. It's soft and warm like a blanket, only animated, and if you are watching it for the first time, an excellent series to watch during the winter with a cup of hot cocoa by your side.

 

#1: Kill la Kill

[See writeup above]


 

And there you have it! The best stuff of 2014 in all three categories we cover. We hope you enjoyed reading our writeups in the past couple days. If you'd like to chime in with your own picks or your feedback for our writers, leave us a comment on any of the three posts. Thanks for reading!

More Staff Picks: Manga Staff Picks 2014Video Game Staff Picks 2014

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Staff Picks: Our Favorite Manga of 2014

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We're back with more Staff Picks, our list of the best stuff of 2014 as selected by our contributors and guest writers. Two days ago we tackled video games. This time we're taking a look at manga, and we actually have enough consensus to select two overall Manga of the Year picks. As usual, we've got our thoughts for each title below. Enjoy!

– Evan Minto, Editor-in-Chief


 

Ani-Gamers Manga of the Year

#2: Showa: A History of Japan

Charles Dunbar: 2014 will go down as the year I read a whole lot of “textbooks.” Mostly related to Japanese identity and culture, reactions to world politics, and the postwar period. So who would have expected the best of the lot to be a manga? Okay, given that it was written by one of the best manga-ka ever to walk the earth, maybe some folks. But when I started in on Showa: A History of Japan (Showa-Shi in Japanese), I had only a bit of an inkling of what I would encounter, and devour.

Japanese history books tend to either treat the war as a “mistake” (apologizing and glossing over some of the atrocities committed by Japan) or as a valiant effort showcasing the honor of the soldiers on both sides (and just outright ignoring them). And more frequently, they seem to fix the war as a single entity, removed from time and social situations. Showa-shi does none of this. Told partially as autobiography (with copious notes for the serious buff), the series breaks down the war on the home front, how the Showa period evolved, the difficulties of being Japanese at the time, the shortcomings of the people and government, and how the war was just one piece of an already complicated Japanese era defined by loss, devastation, and eventual recovery. And it does it frankly, fairly, and evenly — a rare achievement, especially for a Japanese book by a Japanese author. Mizuki Shigeru having lived through the era, lost a great deal to the era, and eventually became one of the leading voices after it was said and done, gives him insight, but also credence, to speak on these times and make sure the story remains told. Showa-shi tells that story on two fronts: the upheaval on the nation, and the ripples jarring the life of one boy who experienced it. It’s manga like you’ve never read before.

 

#1: The Flowers of Evil

Ink: This is one of the few manga I began reading before its anime adaptation appeared. As soon as I saw that the manga took its title from the symbolist work Les Flures du Mal, I decided on reading at least the first volume. And even though this shonen title by Shuzo Oshimi didn’t have a lick of poetry from its namesake book within that first volume, I found myself engrossed by its uncomfortably open account of awkwardness portraying the peak of pubescence. It’s a quick and easy read despite the masterfully layered storytelling. This is owed, in large part, to Oshimi’s frighteningly precise use of visuals which immediately evoke an extremely tense tone via setting. Like moods that waver, the imagery intermittently gets more daring and abstract in later volumes without detracting one iota from the very concrete world that exists within the pages. Similarly, the use of space and rendering of emotional reaction via subtle facial expressions make each volume poppable candy while letting the all of the content slide effortlessly into readers’ brains. So despite the quick pacing, nothing feels amiss. And if you’re wondering if its 11 volumes are worth finishing, let me just say this.


 

Evan "Vampt Vo" Minto

#2: A Silent Voice

When Crunchyroll launched their Manga service last year, A Silent Voice — not Attack on Titan or Fairy Tail (also on the service) — was the talk of the town. The manga's subject is highly atypical, but its take on emotional insecurity and the growing pains of adolescence is spot-on. A deaf girl named Shouko transfers into Shouya's middle school class, and before long he and his friends have started a merciless bullying campaign against the poor girl. But soon the class turns on Shouya and bullies him too. Years later, in high school, his life is hell, and as depression takes hold, he reconnects with Shouko and tries to make up for lost time. Nothing goes quite as planned, however, and over the course of 7 volumes, the characters (including former and current classmates) wrestle with loneliness, guilt, and even suicide on their quest to transform their shared tragedy into something meaningful. The goings-on occasionally border on the melodramatic, but by the end, A Silent Voice proves to be a surprisingly rich experience filled with young men and women from all walks of life struggling in different ways to find a place for themselves.

DISCLAIMER: I work for Crunchyroll as a software developer, but my positive opinion of A Silent Voice expressed here is my own — it does not represent, nor was it prompted in any way by, my employer.

 

#1: OPUS

You would think I could say “Satoshi Kon made it, therefore it’s my Manga of the Year,” but the previous posthumous release from the late manga artist-turned-anime director, Tropic of the Sea, didn't impress me all that much. OPUS shows us a far more well-developed side of Kon, which is ironic, since it’s actually unfinished! Manga artist Chikara Nagai is struggling to finish his sci-fi action title Resonance when he suddenly finds himself inside the world he created. As his own characters become aware of his status as their creator, things get weirder and weirder, with heroes literally running off the page and a villain seeking to challenge the creator’s level of control over the world. Like most Kon works, this one treads the line between fiction and reality, but focuses much more on the roles and responsibilities of creators. Despite all the grief over Kon’s unfinished final film, The Dreaming Machine, I may be more disappointed about OPUS, which remained unfinished throughout a decade of his anime work. Here is an early Kon already wrestling with complex issues of authorship and the nature of reality. Oh well, half a masterpiece is still better than most other manga out there.


 

Ink

#3: Higurashi no Naku Koro ni

The endless June of 1983 is finally over! Watching the anime in no way spoiled the reading of this title. If I’d “played” the original visual novels, I doubt doing so would’ve kept me from eagerly flipping each printed page. Normally I’ve a problem with reading manga in that I never stop to smell the roses blooming in every panel of the page, but my experience with this title was different. The panel framing was engrossing, the portrayal of the characters fully evoked every necessary bit of their duality exactly how and when it was called for, and the use of different artists on specific story arcs, for better or worse, kept things visually interesting strictly through slight interpretive and stylistic differences. In and of itself, Higurashi is a screw-with-your-mind page-turner. (The Cotton Drifting Chapter and corresponding Eye Opening Chapter always manage to trip me up.) The power of the manga, compared to the other mediums, can be likened to reading a really good ghost story by candlelight on a chilly night while wrapped up in a white knuckle-gripped blanket.

 

#2: Mysterious Girlfriend X

Ridiculous is the perfect adjective for this seinen manga by Riichi Ueshiba. It’s ridiculously inventive and ridiculously tender despite being ridiculously frustrating and ridiculously repetitive. No matter how odd/gross/disturbing the concept (emotional and visual telepathy via drool ingestion between destined lovers) is, the story is one steeped in nostalgia for falling in love as a teenager and being in a developing relationship. While I think my review of the last volume says it all regarding the pros and cons of this manga, I don’t think I ever really spelled out who this title targets. Simply put: the romantics. Sure the notion of swapping spit sans liplock may be beyond the stomachs of most, but watching the main characters get to know each other and legitimately grow with one another as they try to understand their respective inner workings is more than a nostalgia trip to times of simpler puppy love. It’s an apology to all past loves for all the screw-ups along the way and a love letter detailing how we wish things could’ve been.

 

#1: The Flowers of Evil

[See writeup above]


 

Charles Dunbar

#1: Showa-Shi

[See writeup above]


 

Jared Nelson

#3: Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches

One of Crunchyroll Manga’s launch titles from 2013, Miki Yoshikawa’s Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches has gone on to be my favorite comedic manga in 2014. Ryu Yamada, high school slacker with a fearsome reputation, trips and falls down a flight of stairs, landing on ace student and school idol Urara Shiraishi. He wakes up later to find they’ve swapped bodies! Magic-fueled hijinks ensue. Add in a supernatural studies club in search of answers, student body council that runs the school, and six other witches with powers of their own and you get a sense of the craziness that is this manga.

I usually find myself getting bored with comedic manga because they tend to repeat similar gags or storylines over time, but not only does the cast of Yamada-kun grow and continue to stay fresh, but there’s real character development as the storyline evolves. Yoshikawa’s talent for combining dialogue and art to hilarious effect makes all that possible, and I’m looking forward to seeing where she takes things in the coming year.

 

#2: Vinland Saga

Vinland Saga, by the celebrated Makoto Yukimura, follows the journey of Thorfinn, son of Thors across the battlefields of pre-Norman England as he seeks to avenge his father’s murder at the hands of Askeladd, a vicious and cunning mercenary captain. Thorfinn spends a decade as Askeladd’s captive and sort of protege, eventually becoming a fearsome warrior in his own right. At its heart, Vinland Saga is a story of fathers and sons, war and peace, life and death, and brutality and redemption.

Yukimura doesn’t sanitize the Viking age in this work. The world of Vinland Saga is bloody, savage, and gruesomely immersive. His attention to detail drew me in until I could smell wood smoke and hear battle cries on the air. Each volume of Vinland Saga is published in hefty hardbound format, but I frequently couldn’t pull myself away until I finished it in one sitting. If you’re looking for a historical manga to join your collection, Vinland Saga is an excellent choice.

#1: The Flowers of Evil

[See writeup above]


 

Katriel Page

#3: From the New World

Shin Sekai Yori, published by Vertical Inc. under the title From The New World, is a science-fiction (and arguably, horror) manga that seems to initially mislead you: the covers are bright, cheerful, and promises plenty of fan service. The covers lie. I devoured the first four volumes back in June, and immediately wanted to know when Vertical was releasing the rest!

This manga is not so much about “the world” around the characters as the characters' relationships between each other, and volumes 3-6 — encompassing the remainder of the series — hammer this home. The setup between the Mole Rats and the humans who can use magic, the line between who are regarded as “monsters” and “saviors,” really pays off, and hits hard with suspense and terror. While the plotline may be somewhat predictable, there is a reason why the original Japanese novel won the 29th Nihon SF Taisho Award (a prestigious science fiction award similar to the Nebulas) and you see that reason in the concluding volumes. While there is some fan service, it only serves to drive home a particular plot point: how can you even trust your own thoughts and feelings? Who are we, really?

 

#2: Jobs

Unfortunately, this manga does not have an English release: simply because the “English release” would be Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs!  In Japan though, the biography was released in two volumes, and the publishers arranged for a manga version for easy reading as well. This illustrates that manga is more of a medium than a genre: here, we have the story of Steve Jobs' life, illustrated in image and dialogue by Mari Yamazaki, the same artist who you might know from works like Thermae Romae.

Volume 2 of the manga begins in the 1970s when Steve Jobs was trying to find himself by traveling, meditating, and going to ashrams: this quickly segues into the Homebrew Computer Club, the establishing of Apple Computer as a company, and the birth of Apple I and Apple II. Of all the as-yet-released volumes to pick up, this may be the volume that resonates with computer history the most: but it seems that this biographical manga will continue on with the story of “the man who changed the world” until it's done, in a fitting worldwide tribute to someone who changed how people used computers.

 

#1: Showa: A History of Japan

[See writeup above]


 

Another category bites the dust! Just one left, and it's a big one: anime. That should be up later today. Meanwhile, if you haven't already, go check out our thoughts on the best video games of 2014.

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Staff Picks: Our Favorite Video Games of 2014

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As usual, the Ani-Gamers team isn't quite punctual enough to get our end-of-year posts out by the end of the year, but just because 2014 is over doesn't mean we can't celebrate some of the great titles that came out last year! This year we're switching up the format of our loose "Staff Picks" posts to give them a bit more structure.

Here's how it works: I asked our staff writers and some of the guests who have contributed pieces this year to list their top 1-3 titles in each of three categories: anime, manga, and video games. We tallied the votes in each, and if there were clear winners, we created a collective Top 3. Whether or not a collective choice emerged, though, we had everybody write up their thoughts on all the staff picks.

We'll be lumping those writeups together by category in the next few days, starting with this video games post. Since we had very little agreement on our favorite video games this year, nothing emerged as a clear winner, so if you're looking for our Game of the Year, well ... we don't have one. What we do have is a number of exceptional titles, including perennial franchises, massively popular multiplayer games, and educational experiments. Enjoy!

– Evan Minto, Editor-in-Chief


 

Evan "Vampt Vo" Minto

#2: Nidhogg

I actually never bought Nidhogg, but a few nights at SF Game Night (a video game event at a local San Francisco bar) were enough for me to fall in love with it. The game is simple: two monochromatic, pixelated fencers face off, each attempting to reach the goal on the opposite side of their opponent. The twist is that only one player can be on the offensive at a time, which means one must hunt the other down and kill them before they can start their own side-scrolling mad dash toward the goal. Tight, twitchy controls and creative map design (with doors, tall grass to hide in, and more) make the experience surprisingly rich, and invite lots of rowdy matches, especially when players are so closely matched that each one continually snatches victory away from the other. I was so impressed by Nidhogg's ability to create a competitive atmosphere among people watching it (let alone playing it) that I wrote a whole column about it!

 

#1: Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS/Wii U

Sure, it's probably an indicator that I didn't play enough games in 2014 that Smash Bros. gets my top spot, but let's give credit where credit is due. The fourth iteration of Super Smash Bros., released on 3DS and Wii U* this year, is ridiculously fun. Not only is there the usual roster of new characters (including my new favorite, Duck Hunt), but the games also introduce a number of new wrinkles to the formula. The ability to create Mii Fighters and custom movesets means I can create the entire Earthbound party and have them fight each other, which is possibly the only thing you need to get my Game of the Year spot. Wi-Fi play between 3DS's means I can start up a game of Smash Bros. anywhere, and support for up to eight players broadens the game's appeal as a true party game. Sure, there have been connectivity issues with both local and internet wireless play, and the custom movesets barely get used, but if the past few months have been any indication, my friends and I will be playing a lot of Smash in 2015 and beyond.

*OK, I'm kind of cheating by giving the spot to BOTH games, but I love them both and they're so closely related it's tough to rank them separately. 


 

Charles Dunbar

#1: Persona Q

While I spent most of 2014 screaming at the masses about how awesome Kill la Kill was, that series actually had to share my “fandom spotlight” with an already established franchise I have a deep-seated love for: Persona. I’ve played the latter two installments multiple times, attempted a tackling of the second one, and defused cerebral battles between my two “waifuz”, P4’s Chie and KLK’s Satsuki. 

Like the games that spawned it, Persona Q is part dungeon crawler, part school simulation. But in this case the dungeons are longer, harder, and require far more planning, thanks in part to Atlus’ use of its already brutal (and popular) Etrian Odyssey engine. Stat balancing and careful monitoring of enemies movements are required this time around, as blazing through the carefully designed labyrinth stages can result in one slaughtered party. Each one of them is also its own, self-contained environment, from the airy Group Date Cafe to the creepy Evil Spirits Club. Creatively, Persona Q shows the series at its best. 

But the real joy of Persona Q is that it’s canon fanservice, plain and simple. By blending the already popular characters of Personas 3 and 4 in the same “room,” it acknowledges the fandom's need for “shipping” and throws them multiple bones as the stories move on. Interactions between the blended parties answer a lot of “what-ifs” the fans have, and lead to plenty of humorous interactions over the course of the 90 hours of gameplay. Mysteries might be revealed here, but its the fact that Atlus was willing to go along with its rabid fanbase that really stands out.


 

Jared Nelson

#3: World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor

WoW is a 10-year-old game but you wouldn’t know it from its latest expansion, "Warlords of Draenor." This expansion has you revisit an alternate timeline 30 years in the past, around the time of the first Warcraft RTS game. WoW’s graphical overhaul, primarily in the form of updated character models, gives it the look of a new MMO despite its age. I have to admit, when I saw my Paladin’s new model after returning to the game, I was hit by a sudden and acute burst of nostalgia for the game’s glory days.

With Warlords, Blizzard has finally succeeded in creating a single-player experience that’s every bit as rich as a standalone RPG. You really do feel like the main character in the story as you level through the questing storyline. The addition of the Garrison feature to the game lends it a bit of that old school Warcraft feel that so many of us cut our teeth on and keeps you coming back after the main questline has been completed.

 

#2: Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft

Collectible card games (CCG's) are legion in the online space, but Hearthstone’s pedigree sets it head and shoulders above the rest, including Magic’s own Duels of the Planeswalkers. Like other Blizzard games, Hearthstone’s gameplay is easy to learn and fast (unless two warrior decks are going at it, in which case get comfortable). Being an online CCG, there’s never a “banned” list of cards since the developers can hotfix cards on the fly when balance issues present themselves. And while that’s not exactly revolutionary, for a former tabletop card gamer like myself, it makes me feel like I’m never going to have wasted money on cards I can never play (*cough* chaos orb).

Hearthstone sets itself even further apart from the pack by not only drawing on the lore of World Of Warcraft, but even feeling a bit like that game. In its first year, the game has released an “Adventure Mode” that mimics WoW’s Naxxrammas raid, as well as its first full expansion, Goblins and Gnomes, which added a heavily random element to the game, thereby making it even more distinct from other traditional and online CCGs.

 

#1: Dragon Age: Inquisition (PC)

Dragon Age: Inquisition marks a return to form for Bioware after a disappointing sophomore effort with Dragon Age II. Inquisition not only demonstrates that Bioware has learned from their own mistakes, but also from the success of their rivals. DAI is easily the most open-world fantasy game I’ve played since Skyrim, yet it still has the deep and immersive storytelling that Bioware became known for with hits like the Baldur’s Gate and the Mass Effect series. The gameplay feels quite a bit like Dragon Age II, with the ability point system being almost identical. An updated top-down tactical camera makes a welcome return for players who enjoyed that view, though I found myself using it much less than I did in Dragon Age: Origins.

And of course, there are the romances. With Inquisition, Bioware has attempted to set a new standard for inclusiveness in games; the range of in-game romance options available provide more choices for players interested in pursuing LGBT relationships. With all of the turmoil in gaming fandom last year, I found this to be a refreshing and welcome development in the evolution of the series and I hope it becomes a new standard for Bioware in future projects.


 

Katriel Page

#3: Influent

Influent was partly funded through Kickstarter and partly through a MEXT grant (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, and Technology in Japan). It's a language learning game that helps you learn everyday vocabulary: you collect items such as a poster, or laundry basket, and click on them to hear/see what the word is. The more items you collect, the more words you unlock, and you can unlock quizzes, achievements, and more.

When I bought the game, the game user interface was available in Japanese or English: that has since expanded to English, Japanese, Russian, German, Swedish, and French.  Impressive indeed!  When you buy the game for the first time you pick a target language to learn (for example, French or Japanese), but additional language packs are available for it, including the usual suspects of Spanish, French, and German but also languages like Mandarin Chinese (which comes with support for both simplified AND traditional writing!), Russian, Latin, and Bulgarian. Fun, playful, and helpful!

 

#2: Depression Quest

This one isn't so much a game as a piece of interactive fiction, and one whose goal is stated outright: to help portray what living with depression is like. This is a difficult game to review not only because of that, but because of what happened this year surrounding it: its producer, Zoe Quinn, is a targeted victim of a long running harrassment campaign. And yet, works such as Depression Quest exist and try to help people come to terms with the severity of a misunderstood condition.

This game can be frustrating. It has left me in tears, even, once or twice, simply because the simulation hits too close to home. But I recommend it to people because of those traits: depression is not easy. It's not “being sad”. And living with it, seeking treatment, can be difficult.

Depression Quest is pay what you want (including free), with proceeds going towards suicide prevention. More information can be found at the official site.

 

#1: Elegy for a Dead World

During the Kickstarter campaign for this game, it was billed as a tool to help people write: a sort of visual writing set of exercises, meant to encourage creativity and problem-solving. And the Kickstarter succeeded: thanks to a mixture of factors (Staff Pick choice, hype, LOTS of literacy/education folk mentioning it), which goes to show that there is interest in writing, even if people might not know how best to spark their creativity.

Now that Elegy is available on Steam, widening its audience, I think that this game is great for people who need a quick reminder about creativity. This is not a game you can sit down, min/max, and marathon: this is a game where you must wrestle with your own imagination and see if you can get some sort of blessing out of it. Can you write yourself something that fits what you find in the world? Can you write stories from large to small — and then go out and publish them for others to see? The game includes a publishing function as well, so I can see this being a wonderful gift game that encourages interaction. It's also a must if you are interested in making your own games, as this helps you take the first step into narrative building.


 

That's it for our video game staff picks for 2014! Keep your eyes on the blog in the coming days for our manga and anime picks.

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Drunken Otaku: Laughing at Innocents (Mai Mai Miracle)

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Breaking the ice is never easy, especially when part of the mob responsible for the oft cruel childhood friendship initiation ritual of teasing tries to suddenly reverse gears with extended hands and kind words. But no matter the age, according to Mai Mai Miracle, nothing’s better for loosening tension and opening hearts than the introduction and subsequent consumption of Good Ol’ Alcohol!

Third-grader Shinko, her little sister Mitsuko, and new friend and classmate Kiiko introducing their livers to the concept of failure, unlike the fun found in Panda-kun’s external corruption, is a humor of pure reflection. Many kids have an early encounter with the then foul-tasting elixir of life which their parents tout as pure ambrosia. And be it by accident, the child’s own curiosity, or parental insistence, the resulting “YUCK” is almost universal. What makes this particular moment in drinking so great is that the kids, forsaking their own taste buds, soldier on and begin acting like drunken adults.

Sweetness dulls the sense of taste, so it’s no wonder these youngsters keep unwrapping bottle after tiny bottle of liquor-filled chocolate. Kiiko heists this gift from her father’s desk but “doesn’t know” there’s alcohol inside. But when the three tasters find out, that fact certainly doesn’t stop them! Even the youngest, Mitsuko, begins to enjoy the flavor, and all three start to enjoy each other’s company.

With their inhibitions unbound, the three very quickly loose their lips and start sharing personal stories that would never be told otherwise, say a secret about one of their mothers lying about being single, and overreacting to everything. (The traumatic description of a fatal case of pneumonia ironically sends the room into hysterics.) And that’s where Shinko’s mother and grandparents find the little drunks: sprawled out on the floor, gasping for breath from alcohol-induced laughter. But the moment doesn’t end there. Oh no.

This is a moment of reflection, so it only stands to reason that, upon seeing their tiny relatives (and their friend) in a state of intoxication, worry ensues. And it does … momentarily. That which was consumed, after all, were but drops of alcohol inside a much larger dose of sugary chocolate. As they stare down in disbelief, perhaps remembering their own first encounter with the sauce, Shinko’s mom and grandfather clink the last two remaining chocolate bottles and toast the hilarity.


Mai Mai Miracle, despite the silliness of this column's particular focus, is spectacular. If you missed out on the Kickstarter, jump on any chance that presents itself to watch this movie (preferably via purchase).

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Happy New Year from Ani-Gamers, Plus a 2014 Retrospective!

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On this sleepy New Year's afternoon, it occurs to me that it might be worth the effort to write up a little retrospective for 2014 at some point before the year 2016 rolls around. I've already missed my chance to do it in 2014, but 1/1/15 still feels appropriate. Anyway, 2014 was an exciting year for anime, manga, and games, and I know I had a blast covering it with the team here.

Not only did we produce our typical range of reviews, convention reports, columns, and sporadic podcasts, but this year we also brought on some new guest contributors, who have worked with us to produce fascinating analytical pieces in their spare time. Below I've listed some of my personal favorite Ani-Gamers articles from 2014, highlighting the work of the volunteer writers who keep this site going year after year.


 

Review: Puella Magi Madoka Magica the Movie Part III: Rebellion

Resident Madokaphile David Estrella started the year on the right foot with a review of the contentious third movie in the Puella Magi Madoka Magica franchise, which he calls "a shameless monument to self-evisceration, an all-or-nothing gamble to get the audience to launch into hyperbole upon leaving the theater, once more, for old times' sake." Somehow, though, it turns out that he liked it. Go figure. Also, the sub-headline on this post is the final form of our long-running accidental meme, and I love it.

Drunken Otaku: Fable III: Heavy is the Hungover Head which Wears the Crown

Ink has spent three years now extolling the virtues of alcohol in anime, manga, and games, but few posts in his Drunken Otaku column are as perfectly appropriate as this Fable III writeup, in which he marvels at the world created by his simple choice, as king, of lifting an alcohol restriction in the fictional kingdom of Albion. "'Everyone, everywhere, is drunk,' [the King] exclaims." Yes indeed.

Going Gonzo: Genericon XXVII

Years of same-y con reports can take a toll on even the most steadfast blogger, so this year Ink decided to take a different approach for his Genericon writeup. Rather than try to attend all the events and produce a straightforward writeup, he wandered my old college convention for 48 hours without sleep (technically 36 before his one-hour nap) and recorded his thoughts in a delirious report filled with Most Dangerous 3 AM video room choices, single-digit temperatures, and cosplay hallucinations.

Life of Ledo: What Gargantia can tell us about the challenges facing Japan's youth

Ani-Gamers reader Jared Nelson decided to take a stab at guest writing this year, and wrote us a fabulous piece comparing the giant robot series Gargantia to the plight of young Japanese students going out into the workforce. It's a fascinating perspective informed by Jared's personal experience teaching in Japan, and something we don't often get to show in our reviews.

Snapshot: Coming Down the Mountain (Kill la Kill)

Lately I've been meaning to incorporate my interest in the Japanese animation process into my writing on the blog, and this particular scene from the first episode of Kill la Kill provided an excellent chance to do so. Essentially a written version of a section from my Beautiful Backgrounds of Anime panel, this Snapshot column analyzes the unique mix of 2-D and 3-D art in the scene that creates an exciting, seamless zoom to introduce the main character, Ryuko.

The Battle Royale Slam Book: Essays from Beyond the Program

Our buddy Charles Dunbar, known for his popular anime convention panels mashing up modern anime and ancient Japanese mythology, contributed another guest post this year: a feature taking a look at the Battle Royale Slam Book. The book is a compilation of essays about the controversial cult novel/film/franchise Battle Royale — famous for its story of Japanese students placed on an island and forced to kill each other, and created long before The Hunger Games. Charles's own experience in academia provides a useful lens for him to critique the approaches of the authors of the book, and the feature acts as a great introduction for those interested in checking it out.

Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves: The (accidental?) feminism of Kill la Kill

Once again Jared Nelson contributes an excellent article taking a critical look at a popular anime series. This time the subject is Kill la Kill and its bizarre take on nudity. Jared argues that Kill la Kill may not have been created as a feminist work, but it presents a number of female characters in positions of power who act based on their own desires, not the desires of the men of the story or the men in the audience.

Ani-Gamers Podcast #047 – E3 2014 and a Mitch Dyer Reunion

For a time I was actually rooming with my old Ani-Gamers Podcast co-host Mitch Dyer, so we finally got around to recording a podcast together before I moved out. And look at that, we actually talked about video games instead of anime!

AnimeNEXT 2014: Studio TRIGGER Interview

Jealousy courses through my veins as I tell you about how you need to read Ink's interview with Hiromi Wakabayashi and Shigeto Koyama from Studio Trigger. Two of the team members behind Kill la Kill and Inferno Cop discuss the wacky goings-on at their animation studio, and future projects like Ninja Slayer.

Review: Chihayafuru

Ani-Gamers poet-in-residence Ink finally lives up to his destiny and reviews all of the Chihayafuru anime, start to finish, upon the request of one of our readers. It's a thorough analysis of what makes the series so effective, with a focus on the way that expert staging and composition is able to transform a mostly static game about cards with poetry on them into a series of exciting emotional and physical battles.

Review: Kantai Collection (KanColle)

Immediately after Ink graced us with a detailed review of his beloved series Chihayafuru, David reappeared after a brief hiatus to drop a bomb in the form of a review of Kantai Collection, a.k.a. KanColle, a.k.a. that game where the Japanese battleships are represented by teenage anime girls in various states of undress. As usual, David's take is self-aware and cruelly funny. Plus it actually makes a reasonable case for this niche game.

Umineko: When They Cry – More than just a murder mystery: a mirror to humanity

In our final guest post of the year, Katriel Page provides us with an in-depth look at the themes in murder mystery franchise Umineko. Starting with the most obvious, surface-level interpretation, Katriel delves deeper and deeper, reading more and more into the macabre story of Umineko.

Review: Depression Quest

Remember that time when a vocal minority of angry video gamers started a massive harassment campaign against women in video games based on flimsy evidence of a feminist conspiracy? Ah, 2014, you were the best. Since the so-called #GamerGate "movement" was so riled up about indie developer Zoe Quinn and her free game Depression Quest, I gave it a try, and reported back with this review. Turns out it's pretty great!

Review: Helter Skelter – Fashion Unfriendly

On a whim, I checked out Helter Skelter, a josei manga that Vertical published in 2013, and was blown away by its pointed critique of the fashion industry. I enjoyed picking apart the social commentary of the manga for this very belated review.

The Trap Door: I Put Coins In and Stupid Fell Out – Sword For Truth (1990)

At long last Phillip's quest for weird anime in his Trap Door column has led to one of my favorite bad OVAs, Sword for Truth. But unlike previous Trap Doors, where our columnist is content to sit back and marvel at the trainwreck on display, this time Phillip can't handle just how nonsensical the film is. "Don’t watch this unless you genuinely hate yourself," he says. A fair assessment, though for my money I don't think I'll get tired of watching it.


Naturally, we're not done being nostalgic for 2014 just yet. "Staff Picks," our annual list of our favorite anime, manga, and games of the past year, should be up sometime next week, and this year they'll feature not just our regular staff, but our guest contributors Jared, Katriel, and Charles as well!

Before I close out, let me give a heartfelt thank you to all of the volunteer staff and guest contributors at Ani-Gamers who contributed content this year: Ink, Phillip, David, Uncle Yo, Jared, Katriel, and Charles. And of course, thank you to our readers for continuing to check our stuff out and for leaving us your occasional comments and tweets. We appreciate every single piece of feedback we receive from you guys. Here's to more good times in 2015!

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The Trap Door: Lupin, he's a nice man. But he's cool, you know?

Lupin III: Bye Bye Lady Liberty and The Hemingway Papers (1989/1990)

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Lupin Specials Splash CoverI’m going for a two-fer on this review, as Discotek released these two Lupin the 3rd specials about two months apart this year and that is some kind of record for North American Lupin releases. Both of them are directed by anime legend Osamu Dezaki (Space Adventure Cobra), and both of them stay as close to the original formula as possible. Let’s start with the first one: Bye Bye Lady Liberty.

Lupin has decided to retire after the sophisticated police computers (of INTERPOL!!!) that the forces of law and order use start collating data on him as well as his gang and allies. After trying to steal it from underneath police nemesis Zenigata (of INTERPOL!!!), he gives up his life of crime, and not even his friend Gigen can coax Lupin back. But when Gigen and an old friend’s plan to steal a crystal from the Statue of Liberty goes tragically wrong, the gang are back together to stop the Three Mason group from getting their hands on the crystal and help a lady Goeman is protecting get away from the clutches of the group.

The story takes a while to set up but once it does, it flies along at a breakneck pace. The parts that make up the story (Lupin and Gigen, Michael the young computer whiz, Isabel the beautiful socialite, Fujiko and her scheming) all come together and gel as Dezaki uses his trademark Harmony moments—moments of action or crisis freeze framed, watercolored, and repeated at different anglesto advance the story while keeping a grip on needing to hit certain marks. Jigen and Lupin have to get a chance to climb into a vehicle and destroy stuff, and this they dodestroying a New York warehouse and yard while trying to run over the Three Mason’s minions. Fujiko has to be in on it at some point, and she is by seducing the number two in the organisation while looking for jewels and gold. Of course, with a weird organization like this, we have to have an ancient leader, and Dezaki decides to loot Star Wars and give us Number 1: a Sith Lord, if ever there was one, complete with mind powers and a super computer. I kid you not. If you started watching a crime caper film, would you suspect that at some point the gang would steal the Statue of Liberty? No? Well, it happens, and I couldn’t help but chuckle and say, “Of course, he was going to steal it! I mean, what else would he do?” At the same time, Goeman actually uses his trusty katana Zantetsuken to slice through an Apache helicopter. Now I can say I’ve seen him chop down anything. I don’t mean he clips the copter, I mean he slices it into bits. Just wow is all I’ll say.

Lupin Bye Bye Liberty Splash Images

There are elements of the film that just don’t work. I can’t believe young Michael would just wander around without anyone protecting him. He also carries around the bulkiest computer/McGuffin I’ve ever seen, and it has things like high-speed processors, GPS, push notifications, and vibrate modes long before Steve Jobs cornered the market. If you ask me, he shouldn’t bother looking for a super virus, he should just sell to Apple. Speaking of that Super Virus, it gives rise to one of the weirdest moments of the whole shebang: a character communing with the computer in the Three Mason’s HQ, using said crystal, to upload the virus from their memory. Ooookay. None of this stops you from having a good time, and as Lupin adventures go, it’s a bit easier to take than say Mystery of Mamo. Bye Bye Lady Liberty is the caper genre distilled to its most potent essence.

The Hemingway Papers take an urban legend about the eponymous writer and adds the elements of a whodunnit and a treasure hunt at the same time. Lupin finds out about a treasure that the writer Ernest Hemingway supposedly wrote about on the island of Colcaca (which is supposed to be in the Mediterranean) and decides to check it out. At the same time, Goeman is working for “President” Cansano, a local militant who’s fighting with warlord Carlos, who happens to have his own hired gun, namely Gigen. Into this, Lupin glides. I mean that. He really glides in after flying over the island. I love that, as the pilot starts to leave the island’s airspace, Lupin keeps saying, “I want to get off, please” in a quiet and polite manner. When he gets nowhere, he simply jumps out of the plane without any thought, planning, or even so much as a precautionary glance, he changes his briefcase into a glider and plummets thousands of feet to the ground. Lupin lands with a slight bump but no worse the wear. Damn, even Bond can’t pull off that kind of cool. Once there, he hooks up with Maria, who owns a bar that is located in the middle of the island and inexplicably has enough cashflow to order beer on a regular basis despite not having any customers. She seems to have both Cansano’s and Carlos’ men as her customers, but I doubt it. Also, for a bunch of gun nuts playing at soldier, they are going through cash like crazy. Driving everywhere in jeeps and APC’s (gasoline), ordering in tons of equipment (ordinance and tanks), and hiring numerous mercenaries (Jigen, Goeman, Crazy Mash) has got to add up, and by the time our heroes arrived, they still hadn’t even found the treasure! What, were they independently wealthy or something? An arms dealer with his secretary in tow (it’s Fujiko, naturally) is only going to ratchet up the price, but Dezaki doesn’t bother with these details. but honestly, doing so would only ruin things for me. Also, why has nobody noticed that Zenigata is still locked in the arms dealer’s limo? Zenigata got treated like dirt in Bye Bye Liberty, but here, he really gets it in the face. After waiting for days to be fed, he storms right through a trapdoor dungeon gate, runs a full flight of stairs, and accosts the nearest guard for food. Fujiko spends this one looking after number one and even has time to be jealous of Lupin hanging out with Maria.

Lupin Hemingway Papers Splash Images

Dezaki really was made for these specials, and here he makes Lupin shine like the proverbial hidden diamond. Lupin is a bragard and womanizer and drinks like a fish, but he’s also quick on the draw, has no trouble finding a fight if he wants it, and generally comes through for his gang. Likewise, the gang goes to extraordinary lengths to save him, and even Fujiko is less avaristic than she usually is. In Mystery of Mamo, the gang takes time to get their groove together and fight Mamo while at times looking fractured. Here, the gang might have their own side projects but, first and foremost, they’re in it for the adventure. The money helps, but the adventure is what it’s all about. Brilliant work by Discotek for bringing these out, and top marks for bringing in Reed Nelson of Lupinthe3rd.com and ANN’s Mike Toole (of the Internet) to give commentary tracks for both films. There a bunch of liner notes to explain some of the minutiae of the Lupinverse, and both films make it out of the Trap Door in time for Christmas.

That’s it for another year at the Trap Door! Hope you liked my eventual Lupin content. I might have time before the new year to squeeze one more title in, but that is dependant on my free time (as you can imagine). Coming in January, we’ll be settling into the last five titles or so of the column before our secret Trap Door final project gets unleashed. We’re hoping it will be around April or May but we’re bringing in help (hopefully) on this last one. I’m going to try some more modern titles in the final five and see if whether I can finish it out without inflicting more Odin-style pain on you. But I can’t promise anything ;-)


On the 25th of every month in "The Trap Door," Phillip O'Connor tackles one forgotten anime title to find out whether it deserves to be rediscovered by the anime community. Click here to check out previous entries in the column.

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Secret Santa Review: They Were Eleven

Gender Nonconformance as Threat

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Seeing as Phillip just reviewed this title (and I know you read his Trap Door column religiously … or at least you should), I’m going to leave the formal review to him and tackle They Were Eleven a la Ink: overanalyzing one particular aspect (prejudice as related to gender identity) and having fun with possibility. But first, the obligatory backgrounder:

In the distant future, humanity’s exploration of and expansion into space results in alien alliances and a stable, cooperative peace that fosters edification on a galactic scale. Such a prestigious education ensures graduates positions of influence within their respective planet-nations. To be worthy of this opportunity, however, applicants are required to pass a rigorous series of examinations, the last of which is an isolated field test to be completed by groups comprising ten individuals. There’s only one problem: when the ten students of one particular group arrive on their assigned ship, there are eleven of them.

While the immediate and intentional context of this situation is one of intimidation and anxiety brought about by territorial intrusion and presence of the unknown, the latter finds its way into the plot and takes advantage of the title in a much more interesting way: through the prejudices regarding gender identification. This is embodied, pun intended, in Cosmo Academy hopeful Frol, a member of a race whose members are forced to conform to one of two genders at a predetermined age. Frol has yet to reach that age and thus has not been made to ascribe to any particular sex/gender association. Because Frol appears female but identifies as male, the other would-be cadets suspect Frol is untrustworthy and might be the dreaded eleventh.

Omitting the fact that there are, in truth, 11 people present, the movie could still be made with 10 characters while keeping the same title if Frol, who is described in dialog as a hermaphrodite, is considered both male and female. The animosity associated with “the eleventh,” then, would be the result of that character’s challenge to cissexual assumption. This is reinforced by the fact that there is one other crew member from a race whose members also develop their sex/gender association later on in life and that said character is the only one who does not immediately harbor suspicions due to Frol’s nature. Since it is not an unknown, there is no fear or suspicion—only possibility: one entity that could be either sex and is therefore both or two.

Even if this entire postulation is preposterous given the actual character count, the fact that They Were Eleven deals with sexual association and what that means in society is not. Evidence lies in the main character’s, Tadatos, proposal to Frol—specifically that he’s willing to accept his developed feelings for a person regardless of their gender ambiguity. His actions make the proposal more a statement on the fact that it is the who that matters and not their sex or gender. The sentiment is tainted by the male-as-white knight role, however, as Tadatos is effectively rescuing Frol from an imposed marriage. Further sadness comes from Frol’s offer to remain a woman at the end, because doing do propagates conformance to cisgendered roles. But the actual ending, the fade to black without an answer to Frol’s question from Tadatos, is something worth praise … something oh so smartly not even ruined by the epilogue.

Not unrelated, especially given Frol’s adamant opinion on becoming male as the optimal station in life, is the commentary on the prejudice against women in a so-called age of progress — no doubt meant as an allusion to present day (at the time, 1980's [EDITOR'S NOTE: or the 1970's, when the manga was published]). This harkens back to the initial surprise of the other 10 applicants regarding the assumed presence of a woman at this stage of an infamously difficult test. One crew member actually says (out loud) something to the effect of “even woman are capable of passing the test.” This fact should be taken for granted, but the movie feels the need to expose the character's ignorance. The movie thus makes its point about just how socially integrated sexism is when it comes to academia judging mental acuity. But that’s not all that’s judged, and the cisgendered males aren’t always the one doing the judging.

Asides, monologues, and dialogues between the entirely male/male-identified cast reveal early on the perception of females as incompetent eye candy (not aided by Frol’s constant clumsiness, sheepish actions, and emphasized lack of strength),  but Frol — the physical representation of female — also adds to the negative perception of femininity. Frol constantly compares their physical self to that of Tadatos: hand size, stature, gait, skin toughness, strength. Any physically observable trait is scrutinized, and the more “manly” the outcome the better the status. Frol has reasons for this of course. On Frol’s planet, women are so numerous (outnumbering men in something like a 6:1 ratio) and afforded so little opportunity that they can only serve as harem-kept breeding/pleasure machines for the men. Exceptions are made only for those who excel (like passing the Cosmo Academy exam) before committing to a sex/gender association. Add all of this together, and the message is clear: Frol’s world, by emphasizing male importance, devalues women to the point that those facing their sex/gender choice pine for the privilege of male status.

In real life, however, one's sex is not a choice. So anyone watching this movie should be disgusted with how Frol is being forced into an identity (body) not complementary to their mind, that their planet points to or mandates any direction at all instead of affording opportunity to all. That planet may have well been Earth back in the 1980's and, sadly, could still be taken for many parts of the modern world. This is why They Were Eleven is priceless. It’s a seemingly simple sci-fi story of suspicion that introduces an argument into society’s subconscious. Doing so, if that was the intent (and I believe it to be so), is daring and an example of not only what art should do but how it should be done as well.

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DerpyCon 2014: The Panels

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While work, New Jersey rush hour traffic, and street-snarling protests delayed my Friday evening arrival at DerpyCon, I had time enough to at least stay for one panel. Luckily, said panel was the one I most wanted to attend for its potential meta-ness: THE COMPLETE HISTORY OF THE HISTORY OF JAPANIMATION IN JAPAN. (I was really REALLY hoping for a trainwreck retrospective of anime history panels.) Unfortunately, the title on the website and in the Pocket Guide turned out to be a typo, and the non-meta title in the Program Guide didn’t warrant me straining my consciousness or risking my safety on the drive home thereafter. So what follows are descriptions of the Saturday panels I at least partially attended in the year of our derp 2014.

Girls in Space

Ciara Powell and friend, who also present the delightful “Anime for Couples” panel, categorized and explored anime and manga that featured, you guessed it, girls in space. Together, the panelists isolated the setting to look at how it’s used by different themes. Titles fell into a number of categories, including magical girl, transported worlds, romance, workplace drama, and (my favorite) “Space Cadets.” Clips and frames were peppered throughout, and the panelists expounded upon why each cited title excited them personally or was a good example of the running theme. There was nothing heavy here — just a light, laid-back panel with some good recommendations and perhaps some insight into the familiar. A pretty grand way to start a Saturday.

Poetry in Anime: the Power of Words in a Visual Medium

My panel, Poetry in Anime, has been confirmed for Castle Point Anime Convention (CPAC) 2015. Don’t miss it!

How to Make Your Characters Believably Sick and Twisted

Presented by D. L. Carter, this panel was an exercise in reading too much into things. (Needless to say, I loved it!) Though to be fair and specific, the panel was about using reverse profiling to concoct and flesh out a believable backstory for realistically “evil villains and sick heroes.” I was a tad apprehensive when Carter mentioned the TV show Criminal Minds as an exemplary reference point for process, and that feeling wasn’t exactly alleviated when she started making quick, vague/loose claims regarding several Looney Tunes characters’ supposed categorical pathologies in quick succession. But when she started reverse-engineering Sylvester, everything started to click. Clark knew how to engage the audience to keep things interesting and had a wonderfully twisted sense of humor that made everyone leave with a Joker’s smile carved into their face.

My Little Pony Bellydance: Derpy’s Big Day

What I’d love to deem an egregious act of cultural appropriation was, in actuality, just plain uncomfortable in just about every imaginable aspect. It didn’t have to be this way. Why, mommy? Why was the half-naked man portraying Discord undulating so? Why were men well past 30 years old the only ones taking video of young women dressed in pony-fied harem outfits? Why on God’s green Earth was the “appropriate” way to applaud the belly dancers’ feats by screaming like Xena the Warrior Princess (a la mock Arabian battle cry)? Performed by Antipode AT ONE O’CLOCK IN THE AFTERNOON, I was actually hoping this would define the con as a sort of family-friendly mascot event. After five minutes, I just had to leave for fear of my immortal soul.

Bucking the Mainstream: Genre-Bending & Riding the Ragged Edge of Disaster

After wandering around in a trauma-induced daze brought upon by bare-midriff-ed ponies, I found solace in a room with chairs where people were talking calmly. Even though I wasn’t that late, I seemed to have missed the presentation by Steamfunk Studios. All that seemed to be happening was a recurring grammatical formula not unlike nineteenth century word games (think “similes” from A Christmas Carol). Presenters asked for the name of a show or genre from the crowd and then described them using naught but other show titles and genres (thereby associating their concepts). This went on for some time, and the panel was scheduled for an entire hour. My life was scheduled elsewhere.

Indie Gaming Showcase

I’d heard about the Oculus Rift but never seen one … until DerpyCon! Evan wrote about a much more involving game than the one that was available here, but it was still a fun toy and addicting game. Diatomic Number, developed by The Sheep’s Meow, is a game of observation and control. The player uses one hand to pan about a screen with like objects that jitter and glow similarly. Hidden amongst these is one variation. The goal is to find and keep centered the object exhibiting that abnormality until it bursts off the board. As levels progress, the behaviors of the objects get more intricate and the colors vary with increasing speed and lower intensity. It’s absolutely engrossing to minds such as mine obsessive over minutia.

In the more traditional electronic gaming department, fellow attendee Vinnie and I were solicited to play a multiplayer brawler called Skyhook. The game plays like a stripped-down version of Smash Brothers and is epic levels of fun specifically for that same simplicity. Each player, who can choose to play as one of four in-game characters, is armed solely with a grappling hook that serves as weapon and arena navigation tool. There are also floating airships with massive cannons, but nothing is invincible. It’s as fun to die as it is to fight as it is to win in this game, and the multitude of available maps provides just enough variance to keep things interesting during several sequential rounds.

 

Original Mecha Animated Series: Shattered Heaven

Adam Tilford, author of the Shattered Heaven novels, decided to animate his own works. If a picture is worth a thousand words, those are bazillions of words I never need to read. It’s easy to mock the awkward first steps of someone following their dream, but it’s also admittedly kind of heartwarming to see community collaborate for the sake of having fun. Done on the cheap and in-between job and other obligations of livelihood, this project involves those donating their time and varying degrees of talent whenever possible. Tilford brought the audience through his process and tools and stressed the fact that he is a writer not an animator. This would have softened the blow of that which he so graciously screened for the audience if certain scenes weren’t either ripped off from various anime (he stole a famous Fullmetal Alchemist burial scene!) or atrociously paraphrased rubbish. Tilford also admitted to visually basing some of his scenes directly after shows he’s seen and insisted that didn’t matter. This is true. Once you watch the scenes, it’s obvious that the amateurish nature softens the blur of offense via unintentional parody.

JoJo’s Bizarre Fan Panel

Defying all dreaded expectations, this was not an ask-a-character-in-costume panel! VA Kira Buckland and a dedicated JoJo’s scanner ran the audience through the entire storyline of the JoJo’s Bizarre Adventures manga (sans spoilers). They touched on the defining traits of the main and supporting characters, explored the strengths and weaknesses of the various story arcs, examined rights issues as a hindrance to stateside publication (as well as how things have been changed to sidestep that), and passed around copies of the manga as well as art books. The love for the series was evident via the elated presentation and constant back-and-forth behind the microphones. Overall, this was a great 101 made all the brighter via informed fans and structured exuberance. They knew what they wanted to cover and did so with contagious enthusiasm.

History of Mayhem: Fan Parodies Throughout the Ages

So much more than a clip show, Scott Melzer’s panel was a time capsule of yuks narrated from the fondly reminiscing pages of an aging diary that’s never been forgotten. Melzer ran through the various editing, process, and distribution methods. In doing so, he touched on common jokes and indicators used in the parodies as well as why they were included. Melzer also explored how advancing tools have changed not only content but expectancy and appreciation. In an aside, he mentioned audiences tend to leave during the older clips, but I have to say that I still found them a riot. Well, I am past my mid-30’s I guess. Other aspects in the presentation included the still strong sense of community among editors as well as content creators and the barriers technology and ingenuity are breaking to this very day. This two-hour panel flew by like nothing thanks to Melzer’s solid mix of experience and storytelling aptitude.

Ninjas, Spider Monsters and Cyber Criminals: Yoshiaki Kawajiri 101

Not much has changed since I reviewed this panel’s Otakon 2014 version, but I have to say one thing: if within the first five minutes your choice of content makes a man in the audience say “I feel broken,” you’re doing Kawajiri proud (and in style)!


For more Derp, derp here.

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Con Report: DerpyCon 2014

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Brand new cons are exciting for all their possibility, but I imagine starting out has got to be tough. Even with the multitude of cons from which to draw inspiration or ask advice, defining the identity of a new one — deciding the not only the what, but how that what is to be offered — must be a difficult process. The inaugural DerpyCon, which took place at the Hyatt in Morristown, NJ from December 5–7 in 2014, chose to name itself after a small, mentally challenged horse. While this self-proclaimed multi-genre sci-fi con more than owned the adoption of its namesake in a few ways, the con itself was (for better and worse) not nearly the horror I was expecting and has a lot of promise depending on some crucial future decisions.

Location (Putting Its Best Hoof Forward)

Morristown is a great location for a small con. Not only does the Hyatt, walking distance from a train station, offer free (validated) parking, but the venue is surrounded by all types of eateries in a pedestrian-friendly, skyscraper-free, Chicago-like downtown. A bit of bad luck: Friday and Saturday were 24-hour periods of precipitation. This, mixed with the bitter cold, kept everyone inside the hotel and did not allow much chance to properly explore the surrounding area in order to catch a breath of fresh air (so to speak). This wouldn’t have been too bad if there were more distractions available at the con other than the hotel bar.

The venue itself was more than spacious enough to comfortably accommodate the con’s 727 attendees. (Whether or not that count was due to the aforementioned weather is anyone’s guess.) The panel rooms were tiny, with the smallest seating 15–18 people at most, and rarely full. In fact, many panelists spoken to cited empty rooms for multiple presentations. This could have been because of the general layout, which was initially a little bit befuddling for its rooms scattered between floors and inside and outside of the main registration area, but spending so much time inside at least fostered acclimation pretty quickly.

Organization (Not Derping Around)

Things seemed to be handled admirably for an inaugural event. My own experience with a vanished registration was handled professionally, courteously, and relatively quickly. Less could be said for details which really should have been ironed out well before the con got started, like — as I overheard while waiting for my registration issue to be resolved — whether the con’s dance was to be formal or casual. (It ended up being “optionally formal,” whatever that means, in case you were wondering.) DerpyCon provided attendees with badges, pocket schedules, and guidebooks that were of a quality on par with those of veteran cons. Signage was, for the most part, clear and abundant and branded to the nines, and staffers were very helpful and friendly in answering any other questions throughout the weekend. Despite its schedule's incompatibility with Windows phones, I’ll also praise DeryCon’s website, which was fully fleshed out with forums and an interactive schedule that let visitors check off and isolate events of interest. This did not seem like the effort of a first-year con.

Allocation of space in a small venue can be tricky. While sticking the sole video room between the Panels 4 and 5 seemed a poor decision in concept, the arrangement ended up being of little consequence in the end. Bleed-through from the sound systems in each room was minimal. Actually, I heard more sound from Panels 4 in Panels 5 than I did anything from Video 1 in either of the other two rooms. (I cannot speak to the effect of a similar arrangement of the karaoke room right next to the manga library.) Main Events, where the concerts and “Dance Party” were held, was situated well away from most goings on and thus very audibly isolated despite the obvious amperage (and at least one blown-out speaker).

Programming (The Big Derp)

Even though DerpyCon took its name from and was heavily branded after the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (MLP:FiM) character Derpy Hooves, the programming was not focused on that cartoon. There were pony panels and events, of course, but they were vastly outnumbered by those dedicated to other fandoms. Despite my hopes and fears that this con would be overrun with psychotic pony proselytizers, DerpyCon felt more like an all-inclusive nerd con. While I’ve no complaints about this, other than the sheer disappointment of not being able to poke fun of MLP:FiM fanatics, I will take a second to rail against some of the presenters I encountered.

I wouldn’t even have to use my toes to count how many good panels I attended at this con. While most were either innocuous or offensively bland, a few were presented by incendiary personalities. The worst of the latter that I encountered: a presenter who went out of his way to emphasize his pseudonym ending in “-fag” (conveniently omitted from the con guide/website description) during a consequently uncomfortable and subsequently unfunny MST3K-ing of the Equestria Girls movie, and a group of presenters who were asked to clear the room but refused to “until they kick us out” despite the next presenters and audience members already waiting in the halls. There’s no real way to prevent the former, but it speaks to what was chosen for the programming tracks. As for the lingerers, con staff should have stepped up and evacuated the room. Tough skin comes with time though. And, obviously, I could not attend all the panels, so saying there was a total lack of interest is unfair. What sounded interesting to me, academic panels and their ilk, seemed lacking, however, and I spent a large part of the con trying to kill time.

Stuff and Junk and Stuff (When in DerpyCon, Derp as the Derpers Derp)

Mingling amongst the usual wares of the Dealers Room were a few unexpected rarities. There was a money pit offering figures (12 in. and othersize) from Space Battleship Yamato, die-cast Mach 5 replicas, and other classic bits of nostalgia at insane prices. Another vendor offered some absolutely gorgeous, Sailor Moon-inspired tree ornaments that were laser-cut from wood and olive oil-cured with scorch accents and intricate cut outs. Artists Alley, in addition to a ton of stuffed sushi, offered a decent representative mix of the usual fan/original prints as well as official DerpyCon merch. The standout offering here consisted of large feathers made into quill pens featuring painted images on their lacquered surface.

Something a little more unique to this con was the Traveling Pony Museum, which promised “exemplary works by talented fans.” The tour guide for this 10 x 10 ft. room — lined and filled with tables featuring plushes, paintings, prints, and other works of (fan) art inspired by MLP:FiM — also promised works based off of both the old and new My Little Pony series. While there was plenty of fan art inspired from MLP:FiM, the sole example of art from the original series was a lone(ly) record of the soundtrack. A record player, I was told, would be in the following day (Sunday) to play the sultry sounds of Danny DeVito. As Artist Alley-typical as this all sounds, there was actually one piece of real magic: a handmade storybook; one page was ceremoniously turned every hour on the hour.

From indie games that employed everything from standard controllers to the Oculus Rift to standard FPSs and LAN-party brawls on more recent consoles and mobile platforms, the video game room was a small but successful offering. I’ll cover the games I played during the Indie Games Showcase in the forthcoming panel report. Working my way from the electronic to the primitive, I did spend a decent chunk of time in the tabletop room … throwing rocks. The game was Attraction, which is akin to marbles but with magnetized rocks. Sometimes it’s the simplest of things that are the most addictive. Or maybe desperation is the best spice. Either way, people were constantly in the tabletop room, which offered a decent selection of distraction for all manner of traditional gamer.

So, Should You Go? (The Lowderp)

DerpyCon had the weather working against it from the start, but bad weather cannot be blamed for what was otherwise a pretty trying con experience for a panel-hopper such as myself. Guests were better than what is expected for a small, first-year con, but more high-profile fan panelists might be better in terms of content and draw (and economy). On a similar note, I’d like to see a small con do away with “Ask a Character” panels but also realize that those types of panels may be the necessary evil for initial attendance growth. Either way, stronger panel choices would be appreciated. As a panelist and panel attendee, I’d also advise 10–15 minute breaks between panels for setup/breakdown and travel time. Also, kudos must be given for opting for live music via two actual bands. (Related: sympathies to the bands and DJ that played to crowds of 10–20 people.)

I had a decent enough time at DerpyCon, but there just wasn't enough content to compel me to make the 1.5 hour trip a third day in a row. The con’s heart is in the right place and its framework is solid, so all that's left is for the organizers and the fans to come together to build it year by year with increased focus and more appealing/targeted programming. It's close enough that I'll check back in 2015 with high hopes.


For more Derp, derp here.

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Snapshot: Humanity in Brief (Parasyte)

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Parasyte revolves around mysterious, well, parasites that fall to Earth one night. As their eggs hatch, the parasites instinctively seek out the nearest compatible bioorganism and take over its brain. Upon successful antibiosis, hosts lose their free will/consciousness. Their flesh sacks, however, gain strength and agility and the ability to morph. The main character, a human named Shinichi, manages to stop his would-be intruder halfway up his right hand. This and similar interruptions to the gestation cycle, which prevent the host's neural network from being hacked, forces the parasites to assimilate whatever body part they entered and live on as part of a symbiotic relationship.

Many will loathe me for making the comparison, much more so for doing so in a favorable light, but Parasyte, much like Alien: Resurrection, contemplates the definition of humanity via attribution. Is what we each consider self our electric thoughts? Is it the blood pump upon which we poetically project our emotional vulnerabilities? Our blood itself? Is it the skin we cannot take off without bleeding and the common shape the bones beneath lend its silhouette? How much of that, exactly, could be cut away or changed while leaving something distinctly and universally identifiable as human? Ironically, Parasyte answers this with a single question posed by a foreign body.

Cut off from its life-sustaining host by a mere symbiote, a fully evolved parasitic amalgam has precious seconds worth of consciousness left. It doesn’t shriek in pain. It doesn’t curse its killer. It asks one simple question: why.

The nature of the question is largely irrelevant. The organism isn’t looking for the meaning of life or trying to ascertain where its consciousness might be headed after the unshakeable blackness takes over. This is about simple cause and effect. Desperate curiosity. With its last bit of bodily sustaining fluids, the organism needs to know. Will the actual answer matter? In the immediate sense: no. What does matter, however, is that some answer is given.

Whether aggressively or passively so, humans are curious and persistent problem solvers by nature. If a question that really matters to its asker is left unanswered, a lack of response is bound to rattle around the brainpan until answered by someone else or some suitable logic is settled upon.

Since the lack of time in this case rules out the possibility of thorough rumination, a decisive answer is needed to prevent regret. With the assailant’s simple, factual explanation (abbreviated in the screencap series to the left to avoid spoilers), the inquisitive organism can die at peace with circumstance. Since this being was at least partly human by way of components, its curiosity begs the question of just how much more the parasite might have leached from its host than it intended. At the very least the scene asks us if the need for answers is a fundamental part of being human.


Parasyte is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.


 

Snapshots is a monthly column in which one of our writers reflects upon a particular moment from an anime, manga, or video game. New entries are posted on or around the 15th of each month. To read previous entries, click here.

 

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Drunken Otaku: A Consumption More Important than Murder (Speed Grapher)

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Meet Captain Hibari Ginza of the Tokyo Police Department. She’d make a great drinker if it weren’t for the fact that she’s usually only drunk with the euphoria that comes from the pursuit of fulfilling her detectively duties. Ginza, unfamiliar with not being in control, thus looses what little inhibitions she has and exacerbates her blatant selfishness when she chooses to imbibe. Well, I shouldn’t say “chooses.” After all, drinking is much less a choice than it is a destination when insecurity persistently proposes the possibility of a cheating lover and pictures of his presumed plaything are plastered city-wide. Add to this a crime wave threatening to flood her beat, and this great moment in drinking should be one all too familiar for those feeling overwhelmed by life.

While off screen and off the clock in Lips and Lies, there’s nothing to divert Ginza’s glare from images of her assumed rival in love — a loli held aloft in lingerie — on every product and billboard in town. So Giza, like anyone trying to forget, tries to take refuge by numbing herself with a few rounds. But as we all know, life is not so kind as to allow such a respite. A call about an alley murder interrupts Ginza’s self-pity session, and she races down in hopes of finding something interesting.

What she finds, however, is an irritatingly cheerful rookie who pretty much already has a handle on this random attack. Ooooh, multiple stab wounds, he seems to croon as he tries to engage his callous coworker. Ginza’s rotgut-ravaged mouth hisses her disinterest up his nostrils. After the shit she’s seen go down and heard about — men of rubber, women of diamond, decapitations, gruesome mutilations, underground explosions   —a random killing (even with multiple stab wounds) just seems banal and irksome for so being. With the crime scene pretty much figured out without her, Ginza leaves to do what every drunk, interrupted mid-drunk, does: drink.

While this is obviously not great behavior in any respect, it is a fairly accurate account of the contemptuousness and selfishness inherent in the human mind addicted to the depressant known as alcohol. You wanna feel low and wallow in that sorrow? There’s no better friend than a bottle whose warm embrace lets you sink into the Yangtze. Giza’s consumed by a sense of passion recently awakened by jealousy and exploited by circumstance, so the only thing left is distraction.

But when everything around is a reminder of that which is trying to be forgotten, be it a mundane existence or those pesky human emotions, eliminating some neurons via bittersweet poison is an oft-sought method of self-medication for many. Under its guiding influence, consequences seem less palpable, and all that really matters is the next drink. And as any drinker will tell you, signaling for another round, refilling the glass, or taking another swig from the sweet open lips of the bottle before you is, perhaps, one of the most comforting simplicities of this often wretched world.


Speed Grapher is streaming on FUNimation.com and available via FUNimation's Store, RightStuf, and Amazon.

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Impressions: Day of the Devs 2014

My take on three games at the indie showcase

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A couple weeks back I attended Double Fine's "Day of the Devs" event in San Francisco, a showcase for a number of in-development indie games. I only stuck around for an hour or two, but I did get to play a couple of pretty cool games. Below, check out my slightly belated impressions of three of the titles.

GNOG

The first game I played, a puzzle game called GNOG (pronounced "nog"), was created by the experimental game design collective KO-OP. The main thing that drew me to GNOG was its art style—a bit like Super Mario Galaxy, with bright colors, matte textures, and a slight glow around the edges of some objects, but a developer at Day of the Devs told me the lead artist was planning to change the art style soon to make it slightly less cartoonish. Technically, GNOG is about vanquishing monster heads called "gnoggins." Instead of fighting them, however, you turn them around to reveal rooms inside of them and then solve puzzles on both their face and their internal room to get their mouth to open up. It’s a kind of surreal concept that doesn’t really make a ton of sense, but it’s fun to tinker around with the environments—clicking on objects to discover how a lever on one side affects the position of a pipe on the other side. Essentially, GNOG is a series of desk puzzles and has a similarly absentminded appeal. GNOG is supposedly coming out "later this year" according to the official website, though there isn't much time left for it to make that deadline.

 

Please Don't, Spacedog!

Please don’t confuse him with Nintendo’s resident spacefaring fox. Please Don't, Spacedog! is a bizarre Oculus Rift game that mainly exists as an experiment in minimal in-game communication. The developers present you with a physical control panel on a table with nearly a dozen knobs and buttons that correspond to those within the in-game spaceship. Once you boot up the game and take a look around your neon-colored ship, you’ll notice the titular Spacedog, panting happily in the copilot’s seat, sitting upright, wearing … an Oculus Rift? (This recursive Oculus reality was surreal enough to consume my analytical capability for the majority of my time with the game.) Without any direction on how to use the control panel, you have to figure out what causes what and use the inputs to launch your ship and escape from an Andross lookalike. The lack of feedback showing my hands’ positions in the game made it hard to figure out what knob I was using. As a result, I fumbled around like an idiot for most of the game. The developer demoing the game explained that different players had different amounts of trouble with the lack of hand-eye coordination afforded by the game. Spacedog isn’t exactly “fun” in the way we expect games to be, but the developers explicitly intended it as a psychedelic puzzle where the biggest mystery is the control scheme itself. In that sense, it's an interesting experiment. Unsurprisingly, this is another KO-OP production. It's only available in installation form, so if you see it at an event, give it a try!

 

Night in the Woods

Night in the Woods was the highlight of my time at Day of the Devs. You play as Mae, an anthropomorphic cat wandering around your sidescrolling hometown, interacting with townspeople, and scurrying across the rooftops and along telephone wires. Mae's got a lot of personality too — she's a sarcastic college dropout who dryly reminds her mother early on, "Mom. Mom. MOM... I'm 20." For the 10-15 minutes I played, nothing particularly notable happened, but discovering the delightful world of Night in the Woods was satisfying enough for me. You can break mailboxes by jumping on them (at which point your surly neighbor yells at you), there are birds all around that scatter when you run past, and there are tons of hilarious side-stories and bizarre characters to find. In general, there’s a lot of attention to detail that makes the world fun to simply exist within. Lurking under the surface is what seems to be a bleak coming-of-age story; Mae takes notes in her journal on the direction of her therapist, who is trying to treat her for previous violent episodes. Imagine Ghost World but with animals. It seems like there’s a lot more to discover here, and the self-aware angst in every line of dialogue is some of the funniest stuff I’ve seen in a video game in a while. I’m looking forward to the game’s 2015 release.
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The Trap Door: And I Love You So

They Were Eleven (1986)

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They Were Eleven Splash DVD coverThere’s something about the works of the Year 24 artists. Banding together to make stories for themselves after reading other authors' work like Osamu Tezuka, they were one of the first groups of all-female creators in Japan. One of them, Moto Hagio, would carve out a career writing stories that both challenged and refined the ideas of gender and sexual equality. One of the stories she wrote that was adapted into a full theatrical film is an amazing look at paranoia, self-reflection, and one of the most tender love stories it’s been my pleasure to witness in anime. It is the incomparable They Were Eleven.

Set in the future, They Were Eleven is about 10 students of a galactic academy who are taking their final test before graduating the school. This school teaches only the best and brightest, future leaders of men and all that. So the pressure on the students is enormous. Tada, a slightly telepathic human, is part of the group. When they arrive at their assignment, a giant space hulk that has seen better days, they realise there are 11 people in the group. Without any time to process this, they are thrown into their assignment by means of a temporary crisis. Then the academy test is laid bare: they must survive for 53 days. They must all work together to survive and if one of them fails the test, they all fail. They can call for help if they are really stuck but once they call, they also fail the test.

The film itself is a very tense And Then There Were None-style story except here, nobody is dying one after another; they will all die if they don’t learn to work together. We find that the people onboard come from all walks of life. Princes, scientists, thinkers. All of them are a cut above the rest of the galaxy. But while they can figure out how to defuse bombs and reduce the heat build up, they can’t ignore the nagging suspicion that the eleventh person in their group is up to no good. As the film moves from one crisis to another, directors Dezaki and Tsuneo Tominaga deliberately take a higher ground, never showing the eleventh person as malicious or evil. Rather, this might just be a test to see what the students do. We do have a moral center in the form of Tada. A bright lad, his village elder helps him grow as a person and instills in him a sense of moral courage to do no evil intentionally if he can. Tada tries his best to keep his comrades in good spirits and comes between people when tensions run high. He worries that he’s not good enough but his test is whether or not he can do his job and still make the right choices during the test. The character of Frol sparks rankling in the students for her brash manner of speaking and acting around people. The others put that down to where Frol comes from, but I can see that if I were Frol, the fact that I come from somewhere shouldn’t be the deciding factor in whether I’m a good person. By them declaring her to have no graces just by her manner, the students who initially look down on Frol are all the more shamed when she displays the right stuff when the going gets tough.

They Were Eleven splash 1

Frol is the most interesting character in the bunch outside of Tada and I’m also not discounting the amazing stories and development the others go through, because they really do get enough time to express themselves. Some get more than others, but we learn enough about them to see that they are good people, but this test is driving them nuts and making them see shadows that aren’t there. Back to Frol. She's described, designed, and portrayed as a girl because that’s what she thinks she is (from what I can tell she is described as a hermaphrodite but that is the characters description not mine), but here's the kicker: if she passes the test and graduates, she has a chance to undergo gender reassignment and become a man (this is something she wants for reasons that I can’t go into here without spoilers). She doesn't want to be a girl as on her world, women don't have the opportunities that men have. For the others, failing just means repeating the exam. For Frol, failure means being made to be a woman. But meeting Tada changes both of them in interesting ways. She thinks of him as a wimp and when she's a man, she'll be tougher than him. But he takes Frol as she is, doesn't change his mind about her. Even when they discover her reasons for taking the exam, Tada still treats her the same way. There is a moment, not saying where, when the two characters lay their cards on the table, and the result is as tender as it is shocking. The ideas presented in Frol and Tada's relationship say as much about the interchangeability of hetero and homosexual love is as it does about the blurry lines between genders. I guess what I’m getting here is the film gives an amazing account of why who you love is not nearly as important as why you love them. It makes me ache to get my hands on the original manga and see how it was portrayed originally (given that it’s been made into a one-shot TV drama, this film, and a theatrical stage production). What makes Tada and Frol work so well together is that the film’s resolution doesn't hang on them falling into sync with one another, but their own resolution does. 

They Were Eleven splash 2

Some might say that there are too many plot holes and to be fair, there are a fair number of coincidences in where the test is, how the ship goes from one crisis to another and how Tada has an answer for everything. The beauty of the film is that as we go along, not everything is coincidence and not everything was planned that way. Plus, the people who laugh at the film's gaps miss how the film boils itself down to a gut wrenching decision and all the jokes, drama and bits bolted on fly away. This for me, makes They Were Eleven all the better that it had the courage to do this. Setting out into the film, neither the cast nor the audience would have believed the decision they reach. 

They Were Eleven splash 3

The cast do a fantastic job  getting across that these characters are real people. The Japanese cast features some heavy hitters in the form of Norio Wakamoto,Tesshō Genda, and Toshio Furukawa, with Tada and Frol being played by Akira Kamiya and Michiko Kawai. Kamiya and Kawai work so well together that I was afraid to listen to the English dub. But this is a CPM dub handled by Animaze (it no longer exists at the time of this review) so Curtis Jones is Tada in English and none other but Wendee Lee is Frol. Jones plays Tada with some reserve and a tiny bit of shyness at the beginning, growing into the character as he goes. Wendee Lee plays Frol with a US Southern accent and is all bluster and mouth giving way to a small amount of insecurity as the film progresses. When she breaks down, my heart kind of breaks every time. For my money, they pull off the roles perfectly. Bringing up the rear, vets like Steve Blum, David Hayter, and Dorothy Elias-Fahn fill out the rest of the students.

They Were Eleven is the type of film that rarely, if ever, gets made. Told from a completely innocent point of view, the film shows the reality of suspicion, the loneliness of fear and the liberating power of true, honest and healthy love. Not just between two people but between all peoples and all walks of life. Wrapped up in the shawl of a sci-fi, it has the elements that make up a wonderfully powerful drama. At only 90 minutes, it’s over too soon but lingers long in the memory. It arrives back from testing and passes with flying colours from the Trap Door.


On the 25th of every month in "The Trap Door," Phillip O'Connor tackles one forgotten anime title to find out whether it deserves to be rediscovered by the anime community. Click here to check out previous entries in the column.

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Snapshot: Rich with Color, Deep in Shadow (Your Lie in April)

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The world of Your Lie in April promises one simple but very effective premise—a balance of color and lack thereof as measurement of an individual’s passion. According to the series, the surrounding world blossoms with color when viewed through the eyes of someone in love. Without that spark of infatuation—betrayed by a particular twinkle in the beholder’s eyes reflective of enchantment with something or someone—every garden, every mosaic, every sunset is but different depths of black and white. While the show doesn’t exploit this notion nearly enough, there are a series of images in Episode One worthy of pause and awe for their contrast and all that conveys.

Kousei Arima, trained from a very early age by his mother to be a classical pianist, is currently a fourteen-year-old in middle school. His father is currently away on business, and since Kousei’s mother passed away three years ago, the only accompaniment he has in the house is a piano that refuses to speak to him any longer. It’s a grand, dark thing that’s covered in dusty books in the same dim room which holds Saki’s memorial shrine. When Kousei comes home from school, he enters this not monotone but very cold, color temperature-muted room and says “I’m home.” By the way the shots are juxtaposed and the camera is positioned, it’s as if Kousei is addressing the piano.

Kousei hates the piano. He lost his ability to play at eleven years old, after his mother passed, and hasn’t played a piece since (save for checking the sound of select bits and bobs of pop song transcriptions he does for work). Mired in regret for not being able to fulfill his mother’s desire for him to reach the prominence of the European stage as her successor, Kousei clings to that grief as if it’s the only palpable essence his mother left behind. To him, life is a monotone existence. The physical scars from his mother's beatings might have healed, but her verbal abuse fills Kousei’s empty shell with an ugly, perpetually echoing resonance.

How ugly? First let’s consult the nature of the images the series uses to portray Kousei’s training as a young boy with mother. Saki keeps time with brusque shakes of her cane from her wheelchair. Kousei plays mechanically, his face hidden, at the piano bench with a booster box underneath the pedals so his feet can reach. A wide shot reveals Saki sitting behind Kousei in a position reminiscent of a carriage driver behind a horse. A pale, beaten child, colored but by cuts red with hurt and eyes blue with tears, forces a smile while looking up and clenching a leg of his shorts with his right fist as he promises to make his mother’s dream come true. An overbearing, larger-than-life upwards pan reveals Saki's legs, rigid in the wheelchair, and her cane thrust maliciously forward. And then there’s this.

Contrary to everything in the episode thus far, even the muted shrine/piano room, those few images just described are purely portrayed in monotone and shadow. Why? Because this world Kousei recollects, this time ingrained within his memory, is colorless … loveless. But at the same time, it’s all that Kousei seems to have known of his mother, so her wish and the steps she took to make them come true are all he has to cling to. This is why the ending shot of the “empty” wheelchair is so important. Did you notice? Isn’t that shadow a bit more than it should be? And doesn’t Saki’s ghastly shadow, coupled with the wheelchair's, resemble, if even only faintly … suggestively, a piano?


Your Lie in April is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

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Drunken Otaku: Takumi of Hida (Folktales from Japan)

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Name: Takumi of Hida
Series: Folktales from Japan
Episode: 129 (The Box that Doesn’t Open)
Usual: Sake
Favorite Dive: His work tent
Type of Drunk: The Prestidigitator, The Vagrant, The Idiot Savant

A small, shrine-less village in-between two mountains wants to build a shrine, but no-one who lives there is capable of doing so. Rumors of a master craftsman, one who builds houses that never fall over no matter the storm’s strength, circulate among the proffered suggestions as to whom the village should contract. Thus the village headmaster leaves to retain the services of this famous architect, this Takumi of Hida. The villagers’ collective faith waivers, however, when the headmaster brings back a staggering, flush-faced, dancing drunkard.

Swearing off any offer for outside help and secluding himself beneath a gigantic work tent, Takumi gets to work after a brief rest from his journey and welcome feast prepared by the villagers. He starts by whittling dozens of little dolls from wood, who then end up doing all the shrine building for him as he snores through a series of sake-induced sleeps that last all atrocious Asuka- or heinous Heian-era workday long. The shrine gets completed in no time at all, the villagers celebrate, and Takumi of Hida wonders off — either back home or to the next village that will keep the sake flowing.

To those without any skill regarding architecture or woodworking, any inkling of competency can appear divine. So Takumi of Hida hides behind a tent whilst dolls imbued with the essence of the god in the wood from which they were carved do all the work, his efforts thus serving as a rabbit pulled by its ears out of an empty top hat, an eternal chain of handkerchiefs drawn from a 35 inch sleeve, a … you get the idea. The end effect is real, but the in-between is unseen. Therefore the shrine’s construction and strength are revered not just because of their timelessness but for the mystery inherent in the process behind its actualization. After all, Takumi of Hida is but a man for all his notoriety. How should he be capable of such marvels?

To comprehend “Takumi of Hida,” it must be first understood that the drunkard portrayed in this episode is a personification of a group of master woodworkers/builders/carpenters. The Hida region of Gifu Prefecture was originally a region poor in most resources but abundant with trees, its citizens—woodworkers, carpenters, and builders by trade—were regularly sent into the capital to offer their services. The skill for which they became known earned the laborers the collective title as “Hida no Takumi”1 or Hida’s Master Builders2. Due to demand, Hida’s talented masters were constantly on the move. Thus the rendering of one of the Hida no Takumi as a lush makes Takumi of Hida’s wanderings pure vagrancy.

Supposing God made man in his own image, let us consider this great drinker, Takumi of Hida, a reflection of said God. In so doing, we acknowledge that the entity known as God did not create the universe alone or firstly. Instead, this wanderer first molded helpers to manifest abstracts concocted from seeming omniscience. In this, God is both prestidigitator and savant to those created and, honestly, a little more realistic (read: human) for this delegation of effort and skill. So what’s wrong with knocking back a few and falling asleep with your head on a sake jug and a saucer at your feet, while trusted employees manipulated by divine essence carry out your bidding? As long as the shrine stands, nothing … nothing at all. Kanpai!


Folktales from Japan is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.


 

On the first Friday of every month (or occasionally on the hazy, hung-over Saturday directly following), Ani-Gamers blogger Ink tackles an anime, manga, or video game through the theme of alcohol in our column "Drunken Otaku." Look out for "Beer Googles" (reviews), "Great Drinkers" (character profiles), "Drinkin' Buddies" (interviews), and "Great Moments in Drinking" (more or less). To read previous entries, click here.

 

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Review: Flowers of Evil Volume 11

The Final Bloom.

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One day after school, Takao Kasuga steals the gym clothes of his crush, Nanako Saeki. Unbeknownst to him, he’s seen by his fellow classmate and outcast, Sawa Nakamura. What begins as Nakamura blackmailing Kasuga over his depraved act descends into a twisted love triangle that nearly destroys them all. Nakamura and Kasuga are separated from each other, and they begin new lives in new towns. Years later, Nakamura continues to cast a shadow over Kasuga’s life, particularly regarding his relationship with his current girlfriend, Aya Tokiwa. Kasuga eventually learns of Nakamura's whereabouts in a chance encounter, and in order to free himself of the shade of his past, Kasuga and Tokiwa seek her out…

We've followed Kasuga down into the abyss, watched him burn in the fires of teen angst, and seen him sift through the ashes to rebuild his life. Now we see him finally confront his past and his fears...with somewhat surprising results.

The fateful encounter between Kasuga, Nakamura, and Tokiwa has been building ever since the start of the second story arc, and all of the tension and emotion roiling under the surface of Kasuga and Tokiwa's relationship comes to a head when they finally meet Nakamura. Time has changed Nakamura more than either Saeki or even Kasuga. Saeki wasn’t able to move on from her past, succumbing to bitterness. Kasuga ran from his past, until Tokiwa convinced him otherwise. Nakamura copes with her past in a third way that is deeper than it appears. Gone are her trademark glasses and short, dyed hair. Also gone are the wild swings in emotion or behavior. As the end of volume 10 suggested, she seems to be at peace with herself...at least on the surface.




Kasuga's and Nakamura's long-anticipated reunion is both bittersweet and uncomfortably savage, with Oshimi again displaying his rare talent for blending the beautiful and the profane in a single scene. In fact, there's a multi-page splash that follows a certain exchange between Nakamura, Tokiwa, and Kasuga that is perhaps the emotional peak of the entire series. I can't say too much without giving things away, but it's a powerful, somewhat twisted, even joyous moment. The climax of the series settles the remaining questions surrounding the relationship between Kasuga, Nakamura, and Tokiwa decisively, which I found to be big relief. I found the denouement to also be immensely satisfying and a fitting end to a story about the perils and turmoil of puberty and adolescence. The final chapter serves as a coda that displays Oshimi at his very best--surreal and visceral.

While many found the style of the anime adaptation to be unappealing (I’m not one of them), I think one would be hard pressed to find fault with Oshimi’s art style in this (or any) volume of the manga. I especially love the way he draws eyes, which he imbues with a level of characterization rare in manga. I think he could draw a chapter that’s completely dark except for the eyes and I’d still be able to tell the characters apart.

I have been a fan of this series since I discovering it through last year’s anime and I’m sad to see it go, but all good things must eventually come to an end, lest they overstay their welcome. Fortunately, Flowers of Evil ends on a strong note.  At its dark heart, it is a powerful coming of age tale that takes you deep into the shadows of the adolescent soul and beyond to a place both expected and unpredictable--adulthood.

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The Trap Door: I Put Coins In and Stupid Fell Out

Sword For Truth (1990)

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Sword For Truth DVD CoverYou invest yourself in a lot of media based on what you read or see beforehand. "Oh, this film will be great because my favorite actor is in it." "This game will be amazing because this studio made it." Now, if you’ve ever liked Johnny Depp, you know Dark Shadows isn’t his greatest film. Likewise, you're well aware that 343 Industries is responsible for Halo Wars. So your wishes for a film/book/game/TV show don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world. So it is with me and Sword For Truth, a samurai adventure in which nobody acts like a samurai except the ones who end up dead and there really isn’t much adventure. I need a drink.

It is the era of the Tokugawa shogunate in Japan. People vie for power and influence amid armies killing each other in the name of their lords. Too bad that, in this world, we’re stuck with the crappiest fight for a virgin princess and a sacred sword. I don’t know where to begin, so let’s just start at the beginning and go from there. Shuranosuke Sakaki is a wandering samurai who kills for money and not much else. Just as a giant white tiger attacks the Nakura clan and their princess comes under separate attack, Sakaki happens to wander by and takes it upon himself to kill the tiger. In the confusion, however, Princess Mayu disappears. So the Nakura clan hires Sakaki to get her back. After having sex with a random stranger who tried to rob him, Sakaki heads off and starts slaughtering the Seki Ninja who took Princess Mayu. Of course, finding her doesn't stop Sakaki. He continues slaughtering Seki Ninja after he gets the princess back. If it sounds like I’m shortening the hell out of the movie, that’s because I am.

Sword For Truth 1

This film is the pits. I thought The Humanoid was bad. I thought Garaga was boring. I slept through Zeorymer. Sword For Truth features action that amounts to five frame panels and speed lines. I am not joking. The animation (and I’m insulting the medium by calling it that) for the Nakura clan charging at their enemies … is the same pan and speed lines. I couldn’t believe that someone had OK’d this as proper. It’s like they saw Fist of the North Star and said, “Yeah, we can do that, but we’ll use samurai!” When characters die, the animation shows them being cut in half … a whole lot. Plus entrails. Got to have entrails. The bloody tiger jumps in size from the length of a pagoda roof to the size of a large tank to normal—all in the same scene. All the character models are wild and varied, but, hey … wait a minute, every ninja and samurai has the same eyes. I’m not kidding you; they just copied and pasted the eyes. The only difference is when they get killed. THEN we see detail. When guns fire at the tiger, it’s a still drawing of a gun firing with the SFX of said weapon repeated over and over again. There is no known way for me to adequately prepare you for how crap everything looks. Think of all the amazing, dynamic scenes from Ninja Scroll. Now think of the scenes in Ninja Scroll where people were just walking. That’s what Sword looks like.  Sakaki goes through his trials at night. (What is with crappy anime and setting it at night!?) This means that while it might sound amazing that he kills people after we get to see him hate-screw the pickpocket (she tries to kill him mid intercourse, but he just loves her up until she cracks), it’s the murky, shadowy world of … oh god, I can’t keep talking about the animation. I might come back to it. Let’s move on.

Sword For Truth 2

The characters do things that make no sense. After finding out that he is a complete badass-supercop-samurai, the idea that Sakaki would wander into the attack on the Nakura compound by accident is bullshit. Yet every time he’s attacked or looks like he’ll be attacked, Sakaki’s always one step ahead of the game. So why does he take the job to begin with? He seems to know that he’ll be killed when he brings the Princess back, so why not let the clan get wiped out? Regarding the Nakura clan's chief retainer who hires Sakaki: if he couldn’t kill the tiger that wiped out his clan but Sakaki could, what makes the lieutenant think he’ll be able to kill Sakaki upon his return? Ugh. Princess Mayu. Ok, she's an interesting one. With our narrator gravely intoning, we watch as Mayu is pumped with opium and then loved up by a female Seki Ninja. They have sex until her mind breaks. (Really, Japan, you have to stop with this notion.) After this, Mayu agrees to help them get the Ginryu sword that belongs to the Nakura clan. Then, when she is being handed over to Sakaki in exchange for the sword, she doesn’t try to betray him at all. So what was the point of the lesbian mind break scene? Oh, I give up. Again, we go back to the chief retainer of the Nakura clan. He wants to protect the princess with his very life, but his retainers keep stopping him. Shame, because if he had thrown his life away, his men would run away and not stayed around to get ordered into battle against a furry killing machine. Okay. Oren, the pickpocket who tries to rob Sakaki and who loses her clothes in the process, is written as a quick bang and then never comes back. Sorry for being crude, but there you are. She tries to kill him because any man who would sleep with her must be cold hearted and therefore must die. What? She isn’t seen after this but, wow, what character development. There's also Dogen, leader of the Seki Ninja. He's a big man with a talent for survival who gets stabbed in the neck and a lot of other places. He likes to talk, which isn’t really a good trait for a ninja master (but there you go). There's also a government official and a professional assassin disguised as a messenger called Marouji. They engage in playful banter, until the official notices who "Marouji" really is. When they fight, the official is killed. I swear that this exchange is more skilled and even-tempered than any other scene in the film. It also has no bearing at all on the film’s “plot.” What the hell?!?

Sword For Truth 3

The film plays out like a undercooked trial by fire for Sakaki, who fights ninja, trained killers, the Creature From The Black Lagoon (not joking), a dead Seki female ninja, and then the whole of the Nakura clan. He never breaks a sweat, never looks worried, and gives some pithy remarks on the nature of existence and how much of a bastard he is. I knew he would survive the film after seeing him for two seconds. This wasn’t an exciting story, this was an excuse to sink someone’s tax write-off into an anime project. As I watched it, the other members of my audience stared on in silence. They kept waiting for something to happen other than what they saw and had a permanent scowl on their face. I suspect I might have had one too, but I know I have one on my face right now. Nothing in the plot looked even remotely exciting. I knew the princess would try and fall in love with our amazing swordfighter, the Seki Ninja were going to be mustache twirling monologuers, and Sakaki would eventually just walk off into the distance. I wish I had beaten him to it and run for the hills.

Sword For Truth 4

I swear to Jesus and all that's holy, the animation in this defies explanation. Men are shown running somewhere and speed in indicated by a triple dissolve zoom out. Want proof? The second image in the second lot of images in the review is the proof. When people talks, their lips move but nothing else does. Well, maybe an eyebrow. When people get stabbed, blood sprays out in areas that weren't even stabbed at! The blood seems to pass behind Sakaki and in front of him while this goes on. Look above at the third last image for the evidence. The only way this kind of painful animation could be improved is if they turned it into something like Inferno Cop, which, I hasten to add, is a better use of your time. There it's done for laughs. Here in Sword, it's just a joke. People change size all the time except the lead character. So Dogen looks seven feet tall in one shot, and in another, he looks thirteen or fourteen feet tall. Don't get me started again on that human munching moggie. Let's just call it Battle Cat and be done with it.

Sword For Truth 5 

I don’t have the Japanese dub on the disc I own, but the English dub is pure pain. Nobody, especially the actress playing Oren, can say Sakaki’s name properly. They keep saying Sa-khaki … as in the color. Princess Mayu is called May-Yu instead of Mai-yu or Mi-yu. Every actor sounds … like … they … ARE … reading … their … LINES … like … William … Shat-NER! and nobody tries to sound in the least bit excited. Again, the most stunning moment comes between the official and Marouji as everything slows to a crawl and offers up some amazing dialog … which doesn’t even impact the main story. I am informed that this was supposed to be a TV series and that Sword For Truth is the pilot. If that’s the case, with all the gore, decapitations, soft core sex and lesbianism, violence, and nudity, I want to see the channel that was going to pick this up. From its terrifying animation techniques to its crappy lines and its pointless ending, Sword For Truth is not getting out of the Trap Door at all and will now be killed with fire. Don’t watch this unless you genuinely hate yourself.

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KITE vs. KITE

The nurtured natures of revenge

Topics: , , ,

Spoiler Warning: The following feature compares and contrasts various aspects of the 1998 anime and the 2014 live action film. Spoilers regarding both will be abundant.


Despite all the anime titles fans actually want to see get live action adaptations, we get KITE. Actually that does make a good deal of sense. Yasuomi Umetsu’s 1998 OVA focuses on a corrupt cop carrying out his hypocritical vigilantism via two youths he “adopts” and trains for use as his own gloved gun hands. Since the story takes place in a pretty normal city spiced up but by relatively simple pyrotechnics and gore, the budget would be much more producer-friendly than something like Cowboy Bebop. Also, the action-packed and bloody nature of KITE seems a no-brainer pitch to excitement-seeking theater-goers. However, since certain story elements in the anime were either production-, marketing-, or audience-unfriendly, the live action film does a few things differently.

An English professor I once had stated, in so many words, that using a direct quote from someone else to initiate or conclude a personal statement is an admission of one’s own failure to make a good argument. As if taking his advice, Ziman’s KITE leads off lightly by revealing one of its main characters and a little bit of the neglected downtown (Johannesburg, South Africa) setting. Only after is the audience treated to a relatively faithful reproduction of the elevator scene familiar to fans of the anime. Everything that follows thereafter is more akin to a parallel word rather than a replication, and there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation as to why.

The anime runs approximately 45 minutes, which many would consider far too short for a theatrical presentation, and it’s not like the additional 15 minutes of explicit sex in the director’s cut add much more substance from which the live action film could draw. In the anime, the story mostly focuses on the tensions between and actions of the main characters: Sawa, Akai, and Oburi. Since the world in which these three live, kill, and die is more or less relegated to the status of a relatable backdrop, Brian Cox set about adding some color and depth to his KITE script by flushing out the city’s story and thereby defining the context of its inhabitants’ lives. Naturally, this leads to some big differences between the anime and the live-action film.

In his script, Cox originally sought to carry over the emotional tension established by the anime (without actually building any) to complement his more characterized world. This is a tough thing to do, however, especially when Cox renames Sawa’s “handler” (Akai becomes Karl Aker), completely changes the nature of Oburi’s relationship with Sawa, and turns Sawa into someone who actively forgets instead of actively remembers. A name change is one thing, but the other two decisions carry massive ramifications.

In the anime, Oburi was unaware of Sawa and vice-versa until they unwittingly carry out a job together. As they discover some semblance of normality by getting to know each other away from the office, an intimacy forms. Oburi turns out to be a recruited assassin, just like Sawa, who also considers Akai his guardian and employer. This shared, unsavory relationship lends massive weight to Sawa revealing something as personal as the meaning of her name (sand you wouldn’t hold, feather in the wind) to Oburi. After becoming closer, they end up helping each other out of binds a couple of times, promoting an air of equality. This stands in stark contrast to the movie, where Oburi, who is now a childhood friend, shadows Sawa on his own in order to come to her aid in moments where she gets in over her head. This relationship is weighted to one side and in Oburi’s favor. Sawa’s no longer capable; she’s someone who needs saving. The kicker? Sawa doesn’t reveal her name to Oburi in the live action movie; she reveals it to the emir (the villain behind the flesh trade) … for no particular reason and no effect whatsoever.

In the live action KITE, Sawa doesn’t remember Oburi’s childhood friendship (or her parents’ deaths), because she’s constantly taking a memory erasing drug supplied by Aker. Thus the film uses the erasure of memories for manipulation. Visually, this is represented by Sawa’s longer hair that constantly obscures the earrings featured so prominently in the anime. Unfortunately, not much is made of the earrings until more than halfway through the movie, so there’s no real emotional attachment or investment stemming from the fact that they’re made from pieces of a chandelier broken on the night of the murder of Sawa’s parents. The anime uses reminders of memory as manipulation. This is accomplished mainly through the earrings, which are filled with the blood of Sawa’s parents (one from mommy and one from daddy) and always feature prominently due to Sawa’s short hair. Aside from visual reminders, the earrings serve as the motivation that makes Sawa cross the line from innocent to assassin. (Akai was threatening to destroy the earrings he made for her if Sawa did not carry out a test execution.)

In part, this is a wonderful way of seeing how Sawa’s revenge plot is consequently linked more tightly to the mechanics of the world rather than the drama between the main characters. Since Sawa initially bears no grudge against Aker, her puppeteered actions strike against the harsh reality of the world in which she lives — namely the flesh trade (gangs abducting youths and selling them to cartels who sell them to The Emir who sells them for shipment to be “enjoyed” elsewhere). And while the selling of flesh is new to KITE, the abduction and abuse thereof is not. The anime sets up Sawa’s relationship with Akai as one of suffering via mental and physical abuse. Sawa’s never forgotten just who took her in and (for whatever reason) bides her time lying in wait for her chance to strike back. The only insight into the world around them is that Sawa’s often sent on missions to kill those who abduct/abuse children. Since this is reflective of her own situation and really only speaks only to actions between characters and not the surrounding world, the anime is pure interpersonal drama.

In the same sense, environment affects how live-action Sawa acts while on missions. Since she has to be told about Aker’s involvement in her parents’ case and thus does not initially carry her anime counterpart’s hurt and rage regarding Akai, Sawa somewhat freely lashes out at the world Aker tells her to blame for her parents’ deaths and looks upon Aker’s apartment as a safe house. In the anime, every assassination job is handed down personally by Akai or his partner, and Sawa never goes beyond carrying out those instructions. There are no clues to find, because there’s no mystery. Sawa carries out only that job (unless complications arise) and usually returns at her leisure but only to get paid; staying longer has certain … consequences. It’s a cold business made even colder by the hovering history and associated abuse.

Who the bigger abuser is, between Akai and Aker, is definitely debatable. On the anime side of things, Akai is a child rapist, a cold-blooded murderer, and a corrupt cop. He also lies to Sawa about looking for those responsible for the murder of her parents. Aker is also a corrupt cop; commands (or at least holds sway with) one of the nastiest gangs in the area, flesh-reapers called the Numbers; and gets Sawa addicted to a memory-erasing drug. Then he passive-aggressively makes Sawa feel ashamed for using, while he uses her synthetic amnesia to have her kill off the scum of the city as his vicarious vigilante. True, Akai’s obviously the bigger scumbag, but the subtlety of the portrayal of Aker’s perverted sense of justice and manipulation of Sawa is a close second.

Regarding the other characters, there are some fun differences. Take anime Oburi: he uses explosives during missions to create distractions so he can take out his target without being noticed. Live action Oburi also uses explosives to create distractions. But since this Oburi is not an assassin, he mainly uses said distractions to help Sawa out of jams or sneak in/out of dangerous places. Speaking of, Sawa is not quite her animated self in the live action film. I mean India Eisley (live-action Sawa) looks a lot like anime, but her voice actor sure needs some coaching concerning the delivery of those witty just-before-I-shoot-you lines. There’s also the issue of her survivor ratio. Live-action Sawa leaves witnesses all over the place. This leads to suspicions about Aker, who punishes Sawa with a little lecture and guilt. Animated Sawa, on the other hand, hardly ever leaves a witness standing. If she does, there are beatings and worse in store.

As for the actual visuals in both, I’ve no complaints. The use of the lines (bars, building edges, taut wires, signs) in shots as well as the play between light and shadow are only enhanced in the live action film. And as for music, while there isn’t as much of it in the anime, the live action spices action scenes up a bit with what I’m probably wrong in calling fuzzy techno/rock. Paying homage to the anime, at least the live action film still manages to work in the inappropriately smooth sounds of some soft alto and soprano sax.


So those were all the differences and similarities, but how did they work as a film? To find that out, read Ink's full review of KITE (2014) on The Fandom Post.

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