Saturday, June 19, 2010

Spring 2010 - Angel Beats!

If the name "KEY" rings a bell from your exposure to the anime industry, you've probably been paying quite a bit of attention to dating-sims and visual novels for the past decade, if not playing quite a few yourself. After all, they have been responsible for games (and eventual shows) such as Kanon, AIR, Clannad, and Little Busters! and have set standards for idolatry to new heights. The initial games were strictly for the "adult" and otaku crowd (to the point that they heavily pushed products at yearly Comic Markets to capture those audiences).

However, KEY's success has also drawn competition from other visual novel titles (the Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni and Fate/stay night franchises), as well as a forced evolution away from adult-themed games. While Kanon and AIR were initially eroge (erotic games), the overall swing towards character popularity and the need for a new target audience may have shifted attention towards non-erotic titles like Clannad. However, KEY's ventures always started with the game and resulted in other media; this time, KEY has opted to create the animation first for their next title, Angel Beats!, a cooperative effort with Aniplex, Dengeki G's Magazine, and P.A. Works.

Angel Beats! starts with our amnesia-struck protagonist, Otonashi, waking up in the middle of a stand-off in school grounds. While he's unsure of why the students are fighting with guns and weapons, he's told by Yuri, leader of the SSS (Shinda Sekai Sensen or "Afterlife Warfront"), that he must joint them as a fighter in this purgatory to keep from being claimed by God. After all, he, like all of the others, is already dead, a hypothesis proven when he wakes up hours later, still "alive" after getting a blade through the neck from "Angel", the apparent terminator in the afterlife.

So what's to do in Purgatory? Well, apparently it involves keeping up appearances as a student in the unnamed school, attending classes with "non-player characters" while planning strategies on how to keep Angel at bay. This war on school grounds involves plenty of heavy artillery, but the SSS's secret weapon is an all-girl quartet called "Girls Dead Monster", a rock band who distracts the NPG's and Angel with music. That's not to say that Angel herself isn't talented, as she appears to fight well on her own with computer programs, but what exactly are the sides fighting for if the other side's death isn't the means of victory?

Angel Beats! seems to involve a very complicated formula comprised of other visual-novel concepts. Not only are the students forced to fight a war unseen by regular students, a plot seen in Fate/stay night, but they can apparently do it without the bodily definition of death, which was also explored in the Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni games and anime. Therefore, you're likely to get tons of serious death scenes, only for them to appear later on as if Bludgeoning Angel Dokuro-chan was constantly reanimating them. It's an interesting concept to have the characters fighting against fate and resisting acceptance of death, but there just seems to be some sort of underlying script rejected from Lost being used for the show--we even get flashbacks of how the characters "died" in the past.

I do want to recognize Angel Beats! as something trying to stand up as a talented story, as there are some well-animated sequences (especially the opening theme with Angel playing a piano) and consideration towards a unique background, but the framework just leaves something unfulfilled, and the characters seem somewhat...familiar. The fact that we have the "SSS" fighting in an alternate dimension against an emotionless girl piloted by computer programming, all while being fueled by an all-girl band, screams the obvious.

Take a good look at Yuri and compare her to another well-known figure in anime:
I'm not saying this is a blatant rip-off, but...come on! It's the SOS-dan with guns!

It really sours to see the commonalities between The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and Angel Beats!, as the latter had potential for a really good anime without having to resort to character types and devices that existed in the former. The story may eventually drive the series past these obvious similarities with its questioning of a just God's existence, but even that direction could lead to territories explored by other sensô-gokko ("pretend war") shows such as Full Metal Panic and Kämpfer. Angel Beats! does merit more watching with its philosophies on religion, but it just feels we've been led down this road before...

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Spring 2010 - Saraiya Goyô ("House of Five Leaves")

Traditionally, the samurai-centered anime has followed two paths that could intersect and overlap at times. One path is taken by the classic samurai—a rugged Yagyû clashing swords with a rogue rônin in a sugegasa hat, likely leading to the victor flinging blood and tallow off of his blade. The other path recently cleared of bamboo is taken by the new-century samurai, a glamorized hyper-color version (Rurôni Kenshin, Samurai Champloo) forced to battle modernized, machinated (Samurai 7) or alien forces (Gin Tama).

Whether it be the historical or modernized versions, both images of the samurai have been surrounded by the romantic image of violence. Blood or no blood, the fight has been the attractive aspect of samurai drama, while inside dealings have been the lurking motivations. However, a question does come to mind—what about the survival of the gullible and meek yôjinbô? What role do they play in a society where the samurai are held to a different level of class worship?

This is one of the major focuses that drive the plot for Sarai-ya Goyô ("House of Five Leaves"), a samurai drama running on Fuji TV's "noitaminA" television block and Funimation's YouTube channel. Animation is handled by Manglobe, who worked on the Samurai Champloo comedy-drama. Directorial duties are handled by Tomomi Mochizuki, who has extensive credentials as a director (Here is Greenwood, Twin Spica, Princess Nine).

The series takes place in Edo Japan and revolves around two primary figures with two very different personalities. We first meet Masanosuke, a samurai by trade with a good skill with his sword and pride in his profession, but his good conscience and wavering indecisiveness causes more troubles for his employers, and he usually wakes in the morning without a job to fall back upon. It isn't until he stumbles into the presence of Yaichi, a calm and collected gangster about town, that he is able to get a stable job. However, Yaichi's motives come after a stand-off with rônin warriors—he's actually leader of the "House of Five Leaves", a group that kidnaps for a living.

As Masanosuke fights his accidental descent into crime as a bystander, he meets other members of the House—Otake, a sultry woman with only a fleeting affinity for sake; Umezô, an innkeeper whose daughter is the "reason" behind the House; and Matsu, a town artisan who hardly talks to the group. The House itself appears to be torn on allowing Yaichi the constant coddling of such an inept samurai, and the slow draw of Masa into the House's ranks brings more guilt to the honest samurai's own heavy head.

Watching such a samurai drama like Sarai-ya Goyô is surprisingly calming. The series itself is pretty close to the artistry from the manga produced by Natsume Ono, as the wide-lipped characters are drawn with a style that almost seems more genuine than your prototypical puffy-eyed anime design. The music is placid and drifts along with the quiet motion of the plotline, almost to the point that it might make the more eagle-eyed viewers drowsy. This leads to perhaps the one strike against it—you're not going to get the fiery battles from the usual suspects. If anything, this series might be meditative and therapeutic.

With all of the serenity to the series, I started to ask myself if Sarai-ya Goyô was a smart thing to animate—after all, there was nothing difficult about the animation itself—but perhaps it was my own stubborn nature that branded the series as something that couldn't be animated due to its simplicity. However, after much consideration, it seems that the quiet nature of the characters and gentle portrayal of such underhanded jobs in Edo Japan would make it difficult to film it as a live-action drama. By putting emphasis on animation, I think the show actually becomes more aesthetically pleasing than if it had been done with human emotions trying to carry the situations.

Hunt through the samurai dramas and comedies out there, and you'll manage to find that aura of cultural ease, the feeling of watching falling leaves while eating powdered dango snacks by the river, in almost all of them. Sarai-ya Goyô manages to initially capture all of that in its series while telling a story that potentially hasn't got that pleasant vibe in the end.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Maegaki: RIN-NE

[The Japanese term "maegaki" (前書き) refers to the preface of a book, literally meaning "before writing". Maegaki marks AniMaybe's first trek into print-media reviews and will cover everything written down on flat surfaces that cover anime and/or manga.]

Disclaimer: I'm a total Rumiko Takahashi fanboy. Card-carrying member since '92.

There has been no attempt for me to hide my love for all things Rumic in this world (including the adjective itself). So far, my Twitter avatars have both been Takahashi-based characters (Godai from Maison Ikkoku, Daisuke from Ranma 1/2). I actually loved the Mermaid Saga stories, and One-Pound Gospel is perhaps one of the most understated of her works. InuYasha threw me for a loop, but I found myself appreciating its animated run in Japan and consistently watched it while I was there.

It was unfortunate to hear of InuYasha's ending, since that moment signaled the first time where I questioned if it truly was the last we'd hear of Takahashi. Her works were so extensive, almost spanning decades at a time, and she is easily one of the wealthiest mangaka in Japan. What other mountains were left to climb? However, we also forget the fact that Takahashi should still have lots of fuel left in her tank. She is still only 52; she started Urusei Yatsura when she was 21 in 1978.

When Takahashi brought out her latest creation, Kyôkai no Rinne ("Rinne of the Boundary", titled RIN-NE in the U.S. release), the fans likely had to take a step back to breathe. Much like she did with Urusei Yatsura (oni), the Mermaid Saga series (ningyô), and InuYasha (yasha), Takahashi is turning to the mystical traditions of Japan, although she has opted to focus on the shinigami figure that has been the mainstay in stories such as Soul Eater, Death Note, Yû Yû Hakusho, and (most prominently) Bleach. While there is some crossover with the "obakemono" traditions of Japan, this story focuses more on the relatively comical passing of spirits to the underworld, led by the fiery-haired Rokudô, a high-school student born from the intersection of human and shinigami bloodlines.

His accidental meeting with Sakura—a girl who has the power to see spiritual beings thanks to her own temporary "spiriting away"—during one of his exorcisms is not as accidental as it may appear. While the other students can't see him when he has on a haori coat from the Underworld, Sakura can, and she gets wrapped up in each of his attempts to send the school's spirits to the other side. Additionally, being a human shinigami has its limits both spiritually and financially, and the purchase of such goods to free these ghosts and rescue Sakura are not cheap to a dirt-poor student such as Rokudô. Throw in a cat-demon who is similar to Shippo from InuYasha (but less annoying than he ever was) and Rokudô's cougar age-defying shinigami grandmother, and the episodic comedy actually has a place to go.

All in all, that's the relief that comes to mind after reading RIN-NE. With the drama of InuYasha gone, it's nice to have Takahashi returning to her roots. While she can tug on a heart-string every now and then, Takahashi's expertise is in comedy, and it's good that she's returning to what's made her so successful. The artwork remains simple, and the angle of each character's profile rarely changes from the fixed side-view, but that allows Takahashi to remain focused on her stories and characters.

There may be arguments that Takahashi and Shônen Sunday are attempting to copy the success Tite Kubo and Shônen Jump achieved with Bleach, but I'm not so sure that Takahashi even wishes to fully copy herself. While Kubo has opted for focus on a plethora of angst-ridden characters and endless fighting sequences, Takahashi has actually pulled away from tension by focusing on cooperative efforts between Sakura and Rokudô. While there is little doubt Takahashi will not stray from her past devices (foes becoming friendly rivals in the end), Sakura and Rokudô are not your typical Rumic couple—no arguments, no relationship pressures, and no difficult emotions cloud their association in the beginning, and that could be a refreshing change of pace that makes this lighthearted comedy about the Afterworld even lighter.

It's hard to say how the new shift to digital media and the weakening of the manga industry will affect Takahashi's works, Viz is already banking on a mix of the two, providing online translations of chapters the week they are released in Japan and eventual transitions of the volumes to paper print. While opinions on the Shônen Sunday page appear mixed, I feel confident that RIN-NE will do better than expected due to the Takahashi name alone and its appeal to fans of works in the past.

RIN-NE. Vol. 1 on sale through Viz Media. 200 pages, $9.99.