Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Fall 2010 - Fortune Arterial

Belated birthday wishes go out to Vampire of the Coast, the silent movie that spawned a genre that has been haunting theaters for a little over a century. It is all thanks to its release in 1909 that we got the likes of Dracula, Rasputin, and Edward Cullen romancing female victims into submission for...

Actually, hold the phone there, chief. The first "vampire movie" was Nosferatu in 1922, followed by Dracula in 1931. The earliest "vampire" movies were actually misnomers, as they involved the Kipling definition of the term, referring to "femme-fatale" characters as "vamps". Perhaps that slight misunderstanding of the definition was much more pronounced in Japan, as the manga and television series Vampire, a story developed by Osamu Tezuka himself, was actually about werewolves and other humans that change into animals.

That's not to say that Japan hasn't been able to provide their interpretation of the creature from European folklore—the first Japanese vampire film Onna Kyûketsuki ("Vampire of Women") was released in 1959, seven years before Vampire. However, the concept just hasn't seemed to catch on completely in Japan—as Daryl Surat pointed on the Otaku USA website, vampires in anime "(mostly) bite and suck". We've already seen a handful of vampire-based anime shows in the past year alone (Bakemonogatari, Dance in the Vampire Bund, Shiki), and these haven't been half-bad, so it has given some hope towards Japan finally getting the point about vampires.

The submission from software company August and animation studio Zexcs, Fortune Arterial: Red Promise, is surprisingly not the only vampire-themed show that originated from a visual novel this year (Hakuôki). The show, currently running on Crunchyroll, centers its story around the final move of Kohei Hasekura, a fifth-year student at Shuchikan Academy who once lived in the area as a child. His arrival reunites him with childhood friends Haruna and Kanade, but Kohei has garnered the most attention from the student council and its charismatic president Iori.

Like most visual novel games and shows, Kohei ends up befriending plenty of females, ranging from the sweet and innocent Shiro to the cold and quiet Kureha, all while trying to live his high-school days to the fullest. However, his friendship with the popular Erika is one of the most tenuous in the show—while he has been able to work well with Erika when it comes to council activities, he's shocked to discover that she and Iori are a variety of vampires who have survived dozens of classes.

And...that's about it. Vampires in the classroom? No big whoop.

Sure, there is some conflict in Erika as she worries she cannot repress her urges for blood and some initial fright when Kohei watches Iori dine on some maiden's neck, but Fortune Arterial lacks the panic that ought to come from a vampire story. Instead, we get filler that has no place in advancing the story, and there's no emergency from the initial discovery. Kohei is all smiles as he becomes a B.M.O.C. by helping plan the sports festival and swimming meets, but there is so much nichijô ("every-day") to this show that it makes it appear mundane.

Despite the lack of concrete direction, this show can be saved by a twist, especially with Iori and the student council pulling the strings so easily in the background. The show is good as an adaption of a visual novel—the vivid color in the characters is there, the stable personalities are there, even the possibility of everything collapsing on itself is there. However, as a story about vampires, it seems that there just aren't enough...vampires.

Does Fortune Arterial want to be a dark drama? Does it want to be a lighthearted comedy? Considering the show involves aspects of both, it's trying too hard to be both. The comedy does not get funny enough, and the drama is neither emotional nor emo. Fortune Arterial needs to target its audience and give that majority what they want to see; sitting on the fence will just lead up to disappointment.

I won't go so far as to say Fortune Arterial is unwatchable. There is potential for a good story under the average script, but if it continues to fiddle with stories that have little to do with vampires, I'll find myself agreeing with Daryl in the end that vampire shows suck.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Fall 2010 - Togainu no Chi

The barrier of social organization is usually the one hurdle standing in the way of a story without inhibitions. Mad Max saw its dystopia through the end of oil supplies. Rollerball, Deathrace 2000, and Demolition Man required economic uncertainty and global corporatism. Ultraviolet required a virus to get out of hand, while Tank Girl needed a comet to create its wasteland.

Regardless of the cause and despite the need for survival, the outcome often results in a new playground for humanity. Japan's entries have usually involved more of a duty towards reconstruction (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Appleseed), but we've also seen moments where any rehabilitation attempts are damned by gang warfare (Battle Angel Alita, Fist of the North Star). We've also seen recent shows and movies that require survival over all other counts (Battle Royale, Highschool of the Dead).

The visual novel franchise Togainu no Chi, however, uses the battlefield as a playground for neither recovery nor exclusion—it's all how the bishônen play with each other.

Developed into an animated series by Aniplex, Togainu no Chi (running at the Anime News Network website as "Bloody Curs") still takes the idea of post-apocalyptic nihilism as a means of competition. In this interpretation of the Third World War (called the "Third Division"), Japan has been split by war and the resulting anarchy. Tokyo has turned into an abandoned wasteland known as "Toshima", occupied by seedy gangsters and drug lords.

Steely-eyed Akira is one of the silent fighters in Japan's legalized "Bl@ster" fighting rings, but his freedom is revoked when he is framed for a murder. His price to pay for escape is an entry fee into the corrupt Igra fighting game, a loosely-organized competition in Toshima where competitors wear dogtags branded with playing-card decals as a sign of participation. Once the competitor completes a winning hand, he can challenge the declared "Il-re" for the position, and the victor becomes the "king" of the competition until the next challenge.

Unsurprisingly, Togainu no Chi's story develops much like the visual novel—Akira is the central figure, forced to figure out how to clear his name, while also involuntarily drawing attention from the other characters like a yaoi magnet. His friend Keisuke tags along despite his lack of involvement in the game and fighting prowess. Akira's reputation also brings challengers to the fold—a katana-wielding non-participant, an effeminate fighter, a chain-smoking bystander, and the judge/jury/executioner of the game itself, personified by the drug kingpin Arbitro and his lackeys.

With all of its pieces laid out for battle, you would think that Togainu no Chi would move at a war-march pace that Kenshiro moved in Fist of the North Star, the battles defined by the finishing moves of the fighters. However, the show seems to play more like a chessboard, the pieces moving slowly while the experts contemplate movement. Perhaps it is a lack of real character development that is at fault—we manage to get some concern from Keisuke for his friend's safety, even some one-sided attraction towards Akira from the boyish Rin, but it seems that all of the fighters are just sitting around, waiting for something to happen. Akira himself is probably the weakest of the links, shrugging off help and conversation from all comers and letting the sub-characters define what his role and personality will be.

This isn't to say that Togainu no Chi is devoid of merit—the undermining plot is put together with some interesting angles, and the dramatic tone of the show has the occasional ability to trump the lackluster art. Fan service is held back in order to let the drama take over. However, an unemotional star can really drain the plot dry, as Akira gives a performance that is more Schwarzenegger than it is Bruce Willis.

It's probably fitting, since Togainu no Chi comes out a lot like The Running Man—man is blamed for a crime, man is introduced into a game for his freedom, man fends for his life. However, the end is guaranteed to have no kiss between hero and heroine, which is probably what will draw its target audience to the show. Togainu no Chi is a yaoi love story set in a dull slab of concrete—unmoving and gray to most, appealing to those who came to the museum to see it.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Fall 2010 - Tantei Opera Milky Holmes

Detective shows can be hit-or-miss when it comes to anime and manga. While the genre tends to work well when given more than one chapter or episode to tease the reader or viewer about the criminal and his or her modus operandi (Meitantei Conan, The Kindaichi Case Files), they fail to appeal if all of the action was left to one episode. However, if the show tends to have a common criminal and detective—a Professor Moriarty to one's Sherlock Holmes, if you will—it has potential to carry interest even with shorter cases and even develop a fandom for the criminal (Lupan the 3rd).

Currently running on Crunchyroll, Tantei Opera Milky Holmes tries its hand at the latter formula with a small twist. Instead of a developed teen genius detective like a Nancy Drew or Encyclopedia Brown, we're provided the Sailor Moon version with four colorful teenage debutantes trying to educate their way to fame as detectives. In a society filled with great sleuths and equally great thieves, the climb is bound to have some pitfalls.

The four friends that make up the Milky Holmes detective troupe (Sheryl, Nero, Elly, and Cordelia, all derived from famous detectives) at the Holmes Detective Academy make up a new class of detectives, as students at the academy each have a supernatural ability known as "Toys". During a struggle against a particular team of thieves, all four suddenly find themselves unable to use their Toys. According to Henriette, the Student Council President, not having one's Toys is grounds for expulsion, and she gives the team three months to get their abilities back.

Easier said than done.

It turns out that this team of klutzes doesn't particularly know much about their abilities, but that doesn't stop them from trying to solve mysteries. While the "Gentlemen Thieves" start to plunder more museums, Milky Holmes still chases them down, often butting heads with the "Genius 4", the city's best police unit. What both teams don't know is that the "Gentlemen Thieves" are masquerading as students and employees in the academy, the leader of the Thieves being Henriette herself!

Considering the director of Milky Holmes is Makoto Moriwaki, known for his madcap styles in Oruchuban Ebichu and Hyper Dolls, the show tends to go for quick jokes without much of a care for the consequences. There aren't many pauses in the comedy, as the action is about as fast as an Excel Saga episode without as many in-jokes. Needless to say, that means that a lot of the plot doesn't make much sense either, and it left me wondering about the holes in common sense in the story:
  1. Why does Henrietta and her team slap down Milky Holmes so easily, only to help them out in the end?
  2. Why does Milky Holmes not recognize the Gentlemen Thieves for who they are in school? The Clark Kent Syndrome is rampant here.
  3. Why is the leader of the Genius 4 such a dunderhead?
  4. Why isn't the U.N. on the case at Holmes Academy? Apparently, not having your Toys abilities means you have to revoke your human rights.
The one thorn that really sticks in the side is that Milky Holmes can't decide whether to be cute for the purpose of drawing girls to the show or to be cute for drawing otaku to the show. The designs are saccharine sweet in color, perhaps intended to mesh with the radio show from which the anime blossomed, but the situations are brutally adult. The Gentlemen Thieves are hardly timid in their actions, attacking the group with swords and bombs, while "Twenty" goes into full stereotypical gaijin-mode with his flamboyant English and his stripping shows. Hardly the stuff you see in shows like Magical Doremi.

The biggest flaw that Bushiroad didn't consider when developing Milky Holmes as an anime is that there is no underlying development of the characters. We are thrust into the story, expected to know and identify with the characters and their abilities without any background. The heroines are all immature in personality, forcing their unlikeable counterpart villains to carry the show. Milky Holmes ends up suffering as a show without direction and character balance, and its lack of actual sleuths reduces the show into a colorized Keystone Cops fracas. In the end, there certainly is a mystery here—we need to hire a gumshoe to investigate who came up with this mess.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Fall 2010 - Kuragehime

There is something to be said about the current societal demographic in Japan. While the "Boomer" generation is approaching their retirement age, some of their "Boomerang" children are still hovering between employment and slacker status. Whether it be the half-hearted interest in part-time jobs by the "freeter" circles, the extreme apathy towards a career by NEET's (Not in Education, Employment, or Training), or the "acute withdrawal" from society by hikikomori, there is a lurking fear regarding the perception of the future in Japan.

We could spend an entire column on a discussion of attachment in Japan, but we are a blog on entertainment and review, foremost, and a source of critique next. This concept of societal withdrawal in Japan is a very real problem in negativity that has been both mocked (Sayonara, Zetsubô-sensei) and embraced (Genshiken, Otaku no Musume-san) in popular culture. However, it has mostly been a masculine addiction, and the perception from the opposite gender's point-of-view has not been a popular subject. If you consider the "parasite single" in Japan, women are steadily turning away from marriage and turning their attentions to happier pastures in self-enjoyment.

This brings us to the fictional case study on the female otaku in Kuragehime ("Princess Jellyfish" according to the Funimation translation). The story centers around a particular boarding house in Tokyo and the eccentric women that live there. Each is a derivative of the "parasite single", having managed to live on the allowances of their Boomer parents and bury themselves in the appreciation of hobbies (i.e. trains, kokeshi dolls, Records of Three Kingdoms figurines). All of the occupants of Amimizukan have a strict policy regarding the outside world—fashionable women are to be feared, and men have no place in their apartment!

The youngest of this group is Tsukimi, a plain woman in her early 20's who dreams of life as an illustrator and obsesses over jellyfish. During a skirmish at a pet shop, Tsukimi frets over the health of a particular jellyfish in the window to very little avail, only to have a stylish pink-haired hime-gyaru ("Princess Gal") rescue her by demanding it be given to Tsukimi. Appreciative of the gesture, Tsukimi can't do much when her new acquaintance horns in and stays the night at her place, but she's shocked when the morning comes—that stylish Shibuya-ite is actually a cross-dressing male!

The plight of the cross-dressing Kuronosuke brings a new dimension to the "nunnery" Tsukimi inhabits. Not only is he suddenly forcing flamboyance into the apartment, but he is also the son of an influential politician in Tokyo, the hobby of dressing up being his resistance towards inheriting his father's mantle. All he wants to be is a master of fashion, but weaving that magic on an "ugly duckling" like Tsukimi only makes his older brother Shû fall for the swan he creates.

Kuragehime provides an interesting analysis on all of the pressures being forced onto Tsukimi. While past shows have often portrayed the main character under the weight of parental focus, much like the pressure put on Kuronosuke to become a proper Japanese male, we don't get that gravity on the ladies at Amamizukan from their lineage. However, we do get a good glimpse of the two-sided push against Tsukimi from society—not only is Amamizukan under the microscope of traditional Japanese societal perception, but it is also under the implied general gaze of the Buddhist "three-obligations" policy ("obey the parents, husband, and children"). It will be interesting to see if there is any pressure that eventually comes from the parental units and the force-back (if any) that comes from their otaku children.

Kuragehime itself is not necessarily a plain anime, but one where it clashes plainness against brilliance (depending on your perception of both sides). There are some overused metaphors (Tsukimi and her friends turn to stone when overly shocked) and some clever trips past the fourth wall (Tsukimi's jellyfish Kurara addressing the viewer to explain things), but this anime's forte is in the story itself. Instead of depending too much on sexual comedy, the show focuses more on situational comedy and could easily become a live-action drama in Japan if it succeeds under an animated format.

Because it is being piloted by the story and not merely by accidents, Kuragehime is able to construct very enjoyable characters that are absurd yet quite possibly real. Kuronosuke isn't getting into ladies' garments for the sake of being some pervert that wants to sneak into the women's room, while Tsukimi and her friends exhibit some real symptoms that come from fandom. We should be seeing quite a bit of our own otaku complexes in this story without having to resort to overwhelming the psyche (MM! being a prime example).

Lately, the noitaminA block has been providing some strong titles that all have a commonality. Along with the recent likes of Shiki, Moyashimon, and Tatami Galaxy, Kuragehime could very well be part of a revolution in animated storytelling. We may even come across a rift—unlike many of the episodic high-school shows, these shows contain a well-developed plot to stitch the episodes together and less of a high-school setting in order to provide a more mature story. Considering that the yearly number of total noitaminA episodes has doubled, something must be going right for the concept. Let's hope that Kuragehime becomes part of the standard and not the exception.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Your Guide to the Winter 2011 Anime Season!

Once again, before we can even settle down with the delicacies of the current anime season, the Winter shows are presented to us like a scrumptious dessert tray. At some point, we're going to be too stuffed to eat another bite, but it couldn't hurt to just nibble a little. (Don't forget your diet! - Ed.)

Information for the following shows have been compiled from translations at the Moonphase website. Each entry is provided with a link to its Japanese website, its romanized titles, and a description of the show. (The date of its first episode is provided in parentheses with its classification.)

(More information can be found at The Cart Driver's website.)

TV shows slated for Winter 2010:

Haiyoru! Nyaru-ani: Remember My Love (Craft-Sensei)(這いよる!ニャルアニ リメンバー・マイ・ラブ「クラフト先生」)
(Comedy - December 10) A normal high-school boy is being chased by aliens until a Cthulhu by the name of Nyarlathotep ("Nyaruko") comes to the rescue and takes form as a silver-haired girl.

Starry Sky(STARRY☆SKY)
(Romance - December 23) Based on an otome game. Tsukiko is the first girl to enroll in Seigatsu Academy, known for its specialties in astronomy. She befriends twelve of the male students, each a representative of a sign of the Zodiac.

Kimi ni Todoke - 2nd Season(君に届け 2NDSEASON)
(Comedy, Romance - January 4) A continuation of the original series, the dreary, quiet Sawako continues her efforts to become a brighter part of her class and better friends with the cool Kazehaya.

(Mystery, Horror - January 7) Set in fictional 1920s Europe, a Japanese exchange student meets a quiet blonde girl in a library and discovers her uncanny ability to solve her brother's cases in the police force.

(Action - January 7) The second show from the combined minds of Marvel and Madhouse features the gruff Adamantium-clawed mutant from the X-Men in his own story.

Cardfight!! Vanguard(カードファイト!!ヴァンガード)
(Action, Fantasy - January 8) Card-fighting anime to run in conjunction with the new card game developed by Akira Itô of Yugioh R fame and Duel Masters developer Satoshi Nakamura.

(Science fiction - January 13) One of the two shows to run on the popular noitaminA block. The adventures of a boy as he tries to locate his best friend and learn the secrets of the "Fractale System" that keeps his island continent alive.

Wandering Son(Hôrô Musuko 放浪息子)
(Slice-of-life - January 13) The other half of the noitaminA block. A realistic story covering the gender-identity concerns of a boy and a girl in elementary school and their later anxieties regarding puberty.

(Comedy - January 2011) Oga's the meanest delinquent at school, only to find himself the new caretaker for the infant son of the Devil King and his demon maid. Shônen Jump's entry for the season.

Dragon Crisis!(ドラゴンクライシス!)
(Action, Comedy - January 2011) Ryûji is enjoying his quiet high-school life, despite his nosy cousin Eriko, only to save a blonde-haired girl who is a human vessel for a legendary red dragon.

Dream Eater Merry(Yumekui Merry 夢食いメリー)
(Comedy, Fantasy - January 2011) Yumeji Fujiwara has the power to see dreams and an inevitable war versus a feline enemy, only to meet a girl who came from that world of dreams.

(Action, Comedy - January 2011) An alien attack puts all of mankind's hopes on a partnership between genetically-altered females called Pandoras and male "Limiters" who can control their abilities.

I Don't Like You At All, Big Brother!(O-niichan no Koto Nanka Zenzen Suki Ja Nai'n Dakara Ne! お兄ちゃんのことなんかぜんぜん好きじゃないんだからねっ!)
(Comedy - January 2011) Nao loves her brother Shûsuke to the point of taboo, only to learn she's only his adopted sister. The only thing in the way now is Shûsuke's old girlfriend Iroha...

Infinite Stratos(インフィニット・ストラトス)
(Science fiction, Comedy - January 2011) Ichika is the only male who can pilot the "Infinite Stratos" mechanical operation system and must attend an academy dominated by girls to control it.

Is This a Zombie?(Kore wa Zonbi desu ka? これはゾンビですか?)
(Fantasy, Comedy - January 2011) High-schooler Ayumu ends up dying from a serial killing, only to be resurrected from the dead and become a zombie servant in a world of magical girls.

Level E
(Comedy, Science Fiction - January 2011) Earth has been populated by thousands of aliens without us humans knowing. One particular alien prince moves into a high-school student's home.

Mitsudomoe - 2nd Season(みつどもえ・第二期)
(Comedy - January 2011) The Marui triplets are back with eight more episodes of elementary-school hijinks and torment for their teacher, Mr. Yabe.

Puella Magi Madoka Magica(Mahô Shôjo Madoka Magika 魔法少女まどか★マギカ)
(Magical girl - January 2011) An original "magical-girl team" story from Studio SHAFT and director Akiyuki Shinbo. That's...all we know so far.

Rio ~Rainbow Gate!~
(Comedy, Action - January 2011) The card-dealing female from Tecmo's pachinko-slots game gets her own animated television show.

(We shall provide descriptions of the OVA and OAD titles to be released at a later date.)

While most of these shows have yet to be finalized for the dates of their release, it does appear that the Winter 2011 season will be one of relative dormancy and hibernation. Aside from the second seasons of Kimi ni Todoke and Mitsudomoe, nothing familiar seems to really jump out and grab the viewer. Some shows continue to dare censors to stop them—another "incest" show shows up after so many this year—while more females fall into the laps of ordinary male students. On the bright side, Wolverine does look to have more energy than the plastic Iron Man anime that came out this season. If you want a surprise pick, it may be good to put stock in the two noitaminA shows (Hôrô Musuko, Fractale) and Gosick, as well as Studio SHAFT's apparent amalgam between Card Captor Sakura and Hidamari Sketch.

Everything said, however, it might also be smart to set your alarm clock for March.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Fall 2010 - Motto To Love-Ru

Once again, a warning in advance is needed. I'm running the risk of either sounding like an old codger or a huge hypocrite with what I'm going to write in this critique. I shouldn't even be saying it, due to a personal philosophy that we should respect other cultures for their differences. Despite the need for understanding, I would say the following through a bullhorn if I could.

For the sake of anime, someone please stop Saki Hasemi, Kentarô Yabuki and Xebec from making any more To Love-Ru shows.

Run, or else Lala's cooking eats you first, Rito.

Motto To Love-Ru, the follow-up to the original series, could very well be one of the most dangerous anime shows out there for two particular reasons. Reason #1: To Love-Ru was known for being unabashedly unashamed of revealing any sort of nudity. It's been the staple of Yabuki's last two manga efforts (he also drew Mayoi Neko Overrun!) to have females shrieking in embarrassment and laying into a male who sees them naked. Reason #2: despite the nudity, we've reached an unheralded step in anime ennui. The show returns to once again unleash one of the dullest main characters in the history of fandom.

I'm not necessarily referring to overall boredom in anime, as there are still plenty of exciting frontiers to explore and stories to tell from those travails. The line between fantasy and reality is distinctly drawn, as all of the titillating sexual situations have been and likely always will be a characteristic of anime. What I'm referring to is the unfortunate progression of the dullard in "harem" anime, specifically the lack of concrete personality development when it comes to the central character keeping an anime together.

We know it's an accident, but why hasn't this kid been arrested?

Before we get too far into the topic, here is a quick Cliff's Notes version of the To Love-Ru concept. Rito Yûki is your typical high-school student, smitten over his classmate Haruna, but unable to confess to her. However, somewhere along the line, the bubbly Lala, an alien princess from the planet Deviluke and part of the universe's ruling family, ends up landing on Earth (specifically, Rito's bathtub) and falls in love with him. From that point on, characters continue to stumble into the scene and make Rito's love dodecahedron more complex; a shape-shifting golden-haired bounty hunter, the school's arrogant rich girl, the rule-abiding class representative, and an alien suitor of Lala's that changes into a girl when he sneezes are just some of the crazies that get shoved into Rito's daily rituals.

Motto To Love-Ru requires prior knowledge of the series, but the stories are episodic in nature with little continuity so far. What does happen is fairly commonplace:
  1. Rito finds an invention of Lala's and ends up hurt or embarrassed by its side-effects.
  2. Rito encounters an alien presence and ends up hurt or embarrassed by the ordeal.
  3. Rito encounters a cast member in a typical daily event or common scene, only to get hurt or embarrassed when someone gets stripped partially or fully through an accident.
You're guaranteed to go through a point in each seven-minute arc where a girl gets flustered from some form of sexual deviancy and ends up laying the hurt on Rito.

Case in point: Yami and Rito, the human football.

This brings us back to the topic at hand: Rito himself. Historically, there have been some pretty bland and unexciting main characters in harem anime shows. Some have argued that the genesis in this evolution is Kyôsuke Kasuga from Kimagure Orange Road, an esper from the Eighties who tended to be quite wishy-washy in his decision to love one of two female protagonists. Some have argued that Tenchi Masaki from Tenchi Muyô! is the driest of them all after being constantly dragged into space operas by the attractive aliens that seek his hand in marriage. Others have labeled Keitarô Urashima (Love Hina) and Kyon (The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya) as the template, and I've even heard some arguments for and against Rumiko Takahashi's characters (Godai, Maison Ikkoku; Ataru, Urusei Yatsura).

Granted, all of these characters are dull in their own way, but I would argue that all of them have at least a little merit to them. Kyôsuke was a unique character in a dull setting from twenty-five years ago, back when even dry anime was fun to watch. Tenchi ended up having talent and a spine, even if he couldn't make personal decisions regarding love. Keitarô and Kyon both ended up at least trying to fit in with the oddballs around them, making them appear brave in the end.

Rito, however, brings a new definition to boredom—he doesn't change with the environment. He's thrust into perverted situations by Lala, never to put his foot down in protest. He's still too ashamed to tell Haruna how he feels, even with all of these already-embarrassing situations. He's not smart in class. He has no hidden talent. He is merely a combination of a punching dummy and a mannequin.

Seriously, give this kid a break (or at least a towel).

To put it simply, Kyôsuke and Tenchi had no spine, and Keitarô and Kyon had no talents, but Rito has none of these things, making him the most uninteresting anti-hero in the world, even with the most interesting things happening around him. Sadly, since the story is built around him, there will be absolutely nothing constructive that he will bring to the plot. Each episode ends the same way it begins—with sunlight censoring the naughty bits that belong in hentai, girls screaming in panic, and nothing established during the unorchestrated sexual chaos that will change the lives of anyone in the story.

To put it simply, I argue that Motto To Love-Ru is an example of the "I-novel" (watakushi-shôsetsu) being corrupted by the use of non-realistic situations. By creating exciting fantasy that surrounds dull central characters, Hasemi and Yabuki have attempted to create an "everyman" that can be the reader's stunt-double. What happens to Rito is something that will not happen to the average viewer, yet his plainness provides an identity similar to the viewer where there is a possibility of sexual hijinks ensuing.

Dream on, young viewer. These things will never happen in your dull life. All the more reason to avoid the vapid nature of Motto To Love-Ru.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Fall 2010 - OreImo

Translation: "My Little Sister Can't Be This Cute."

You guys remember Gobots, those less-advertised precursors to Transformers? Back in 1984, I got my first Gobot toy for Christmas, and I couldn't have been happier. It was also the first memory I have of when I was truly enraged at my youngest sister, as it was also the first time one of my toys had been broken just minutes after unwrapping it. As I looked at the broken Cy-Kill in my hands through teary eyes, I told myself that sisters were not cute at all—in fact, with three of them tag-teaming against me, I'd be in a verbal war with them for years.

While I've reconciled long ago and have been good friends with my sisters since high school, I've come to understand that personal hobbies seldom mesh well with younger siblings. Unless you both discover your interests at the same time, there's a good chance that your anime fix or your manga shopping sprees will just make your younger sister or brother roll their eyes. It's also a likely given that they won't call you "Nii-sama!" either.

Kirino on the phone. Remind you of your sister?

That's the reality we face in the new show My Litter Sister Can't Be This Cute (Ore no Imôto ga Konna ni Kawaii Wake ga Nai, abbreviated into OreImo). Typical of many brothers his age, Kyôsuke doesn't see eye-to-eye with his middle-school sister Kirino—he's just jumps through the hoops at school in a plain fashion, while Kirino is more of a hipster girl, big on fashion and talking on the phone. However, an accidental discovery of an anime DVD case holding an erotic visual novel suddenly forces the tsundere Kirino into an awkward admission—she's a total closet otaku for anime and erotic visual novels.

Kyôsuke comes to a jarring realization that he knows very little about Kirino—after she floods his senses with her knowledge of the moe anime Stardust Witch Meruru and lolicon games, he discovers her need for guidance, as she's not even sure how she started enjoying them. Kirino does admit one thing; this is flat-out NOT some latent big-brother complex she has for Kyôsuke, despite the piles of "little-sister" games she has. While Kyôsuke could easily freak out, he opts to help her out as an older brother in order to keep his high-school life peaceful and to help Kirino be a little more comfortable with her lifestyle.

Does your sister react to eroge this way?

The light novel's illustrator Hiro Kanzaki has been retained for character designs, and the softer pastels brought to his characters add some good life to a colorful supporting cast. As Kirino is introduced to the Akiba subculture, she's also led out of the shadow of online communities and into more public forums. She starts to interact with two female otaku—Saori, a swirly-eyed meganekko who embraces her nerd lifestyle with colorfully-archaic language, and "Kuroneko", a lolita boys'-love fan whose own icy nature clashes with Kirino's.

Both side characters and the supporting cast do a good job at creating stability with their arguments for and against Kirino's obsession, as the story definitely needs some sanity to keep from hurtling off at a scary tangent. The precarious "Brother-X-Sister" relationship has been skirted in the likes of Durarara!!, AkiSora, kissxsis, and Yosuga no Sora already this year, so OreImo is already tap-dancing on a pretty active landmine. When presented with these taboos, both Kyôsuke and Kirino sensibly react the way that brothers and sisters should react.

Kirino and Kuroneko.

One technical thing that ought to be mentioned: this series was picked up by Anime News Network and was subjected to a premature leak, leading to its delayed release. That being said, I still prefer ANN's media player to those used by Crunchyroll and Funimation. The switch between raw Japanese and English subtitles is clear, and the transition between commercials and show is smoother. The screen may be smaller when embedded into the website, but the image doesn't get shifted like it occasionally does at Crunchyroll. It certainly helps that OreImo contains an art style that is certainly gentler on the eyes.

There. Sibling rivalry. That's more like it.

Is OreImo realistic? Perhaps the series is two steps closer to reality and one step back from it. Kirino is still the moe mascot of the series, acting mad at the world, only to soften from the effect of her fandom. This series is more to sell the point that otaku are not necessarily the overweight male stereotype, as the gender ratio is starting to balance a bit more, but such a maneuver only appeals more to that exact male stereotype they're trying to avoid.

OreImo paints a clever story through a fun-house-mirrored view of fandom, but there are signs that we're still watching more of the same. The show deserves to be watched, if mostly to observe the dynamic of anime fans interacting against their own hobby in the anime medium itself, but there's still danger lurking. Depending on the direction the show chooses to go, OreImo can either succeed at lampooning itself or fail by becoming its own target. Hopefully, it tells its story without depending on incest.

Yes, incest. There. I said it.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Fall 2010 - The World God Only Knows

While the recent progression from concept to anime has been dominated by stories powered by light novels, there are still a good number of them that have first originated as pick-your-poison visual novel games. Its typical genre being the bishôjo game (also known as a "galge"), the underlying goal for the Japanese visual novel is to capture a particular character, either romantically or sexually. The Fall 2010 season alone has three particular adaptions to anime—a dating-sim (Fortune Arterial), an otome game (Hakuôki), and a boys'-love game (Togainu no Chi).

For many fans, however, it's not enough to merely finish the game with one character's adoring love—the game isn't over for them until every character and their corresponding ending scenes are collected. In addition, the dating-sim otaku has often been viewed stereotypically as a socially-inept person, dependent on two-dimensional characters to build up confidence. Those stories about someone marrying an anime character? Total fact.

That sort of relationship with virtual reality is what brings us The World God Only Knows (Kami nomi zo Shiru Sekai, shortened to KamiNomi), the latest Shônen Sunday manga to hit television and the Crunchyroll website. Keima Katsuragi, the otaku refusing to wake to reality in this story, is a professional at galge, dubbed Otoshi-gami ("The Capturing God") on the Internet for having "captured" the hearts of ten thousand female characters. He's hardly godlike in school, but as long as he has his trusty PFP hand-held, he's not one to care much for the girls there.

When one particular on-line challenge comes to him, Keima sees nothing particularly special about it, only to find that he's actually signed a unique contract with Elsie, an oddly cute demon from Hell. Elsie's job is not linked to any of those typical nasty demonic acts—instead, she has to locate spirits that have lodged themselves in the hearts of females and bring them back to Hell. Keima's interest is only with the simplicity of 2D girls, but he's still forced to get those girls to fall in love with him, as failing to do so will cost him and Elsie their heads.

KamiNomi has united a rather powerful team of directors and writers for production, with script writing from Hideyuki Kurata (R.O.D., Excel Saga), character designs by Akio Watanabe (The Soul Taker, Bakemonogatari), and direction from Shigehito Takayanagi (Galaxy Angel). The animation and pacing are both crispy done, and the story is quite open towards parodying itself, unafraid to call itself a dating-sim as Keima's past proficiency at games plays a major role in getting female characters to bend.

Ironically, it's probably Keima's confidence in galge that makes KamiNomi unlike dating-sims. There is no first-person perspective at the situations, and while the purpose of capturing souls is an excuse normally seen in sims, Keima's not some neutral nameless character without a personality. Hiro Shimono gives a pretty solid performance to make Keima both assertive and comical when interacting with Elsie's clueless nature.

The World God Only Knows is a dating-sim turned harem anime, despite each conquest conveniently forgetting Keima's confessions to them. For the meantime, it means that the show is more a Pokemon for galge otaku than Love Hina, the goal not to collect but to save each subject. KamiNomi does this with tongue-in-cheek parody of the genre, so it's hard to guess if true-blue galge otaku will react positively or be offended. Either way, KamiNomi deserves a save point, since it would be worth it to continue watching it.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Fall 2010 - Otome Yôkai Zakuro

While there are species of supernatural beings that are not only found in Japanese folklore, the yôkai—the Japanese term for odd monsters and creatures that defy human understanding and often possess paranormal power—are certainly rooted in history. The word was first witnessed as a Japanese term in the 8th-century Shoku Nihongi scrolls, but the Edo period was the age when the yôkai reached a renaissance, often featured on ukiyo-e paintings and kibyôshi prints. The term is usually used for various Japanese monsters, but the most common beings known as yôkai have some sort of mix between humanity and beast (i.e. kappa, kitsune, tengu).

There is no doubt that the yôkai achieved their greatest recognition in printed culture through the literature of Lafcadio Hearn (known as Yakumo Koizumi, Kwaidan was written after he gained Japanese citizenship) and the manga works of Shigeru Mizuki (Ge Ge Ge no Kitarô). In animation, Studio Ghibli has given more power to the yôkai by binding them to nature (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoro), while recent television shows have encouraged secretive interaction with high-school students (Kanokon, Omamori Himari).

However, Otome Yôkai Zakuro ("Demon Girl Zakuro" on Crunchyroll) is one of the rare shows that address the unhidden negotiations between yôkai and human societies, presenting a "What If?" scenario. While the Westernization of an alternate Meiji-era Japan is proving beneficial to Japanese citizens, there is still contempt, especially with the spirits. In order to restore harmony between the two worlds, the government develops the Ministry of Spirit Affairs, an agency comprised of human lieutenants from the army and half-yôkai maidens who have the power to quell spiritual uprisings through ritual song and a mystical blade that can banish evil and confusion from yôkai.

While there is gentle unease between the timid Susukihotaru and the stoic Yoshinokazura, as well as comic gold from the doting interactions between pipsqueak Hanakiri and his partners Bonbori and Hôzuki, the main protagonist Zakuro wants nothing to do with influence from the West. Feisty and tomboyish as a maiden, she is initially smitten by the charm of head-lieutenant Kei Agemaki, only to return to her stubborn ways when she learns that Agemaki is terrified of yôkai. While the partnership between Zakuro and Agemaki is rocky in the beginning, the peace between human and yôkai appears even more tenuous, and someone out there seems to have eyes set on Zakuro herself.

There is a lot about Otome Yôkai Zakuro that is both admirable and unsteady, mostly through its placement in an era of Japan that was both revitalized through cultural immersion and rocked by the opening of its harbors to the world. The original manga is drawn by Lily Hoshino, a mangaka who has often worked on "boys' love" stories, so her composition of attractive characters from both genders adds to the mystique of the Meiji era and its drama. It is this grace that makes the story different from other shows—while prior stories may have centered on the extermination or salvation of a yôkai through aggressive encounters, Otome Yôkai Zakuro focuses on ritual purification of the beast.

Surprisingly, OYZ also does a capital job on incorporating comedy into the situation. By introducing yôkai as members of society, a lot is said about the xenophobia of the times, but it also introduces comic characters to torture poor Agemaki's phobias. There is a finite amount of comedy coming from the unease between human and yôkai partners, but the gems come from Mamezô, a fang-toothed brown rabbit that doubles as the sheathe for Zakuro's knife—when Zakuro refuses to talk, Mamezô interjects himself into the situation by being too clingy with the terrified Agemaki.

When an anime attempts to retell the past through a different tangent on the time-space continuum, sometimes it can turn out to be a rough ride for people who appreciate historical accuracy. However, Otome Yôkai Zakuro comes at a time where the Japanese setting needed to change—instead of bringing the oddities to a normal modern landscape and forcing them to adapt, OYZ brings the normal and the abnormal to a neutral field, a formula that has worked in Hayao Miyazaki's films.

So far, Otome Yôkai Zakuro has the makings of a worthwhile story and has lots of potential to introduce imaginative characters. While it may be no Ge Ge Ge no Kitarô, it may be the perfect show to reintroduce the average anime fan to the world of the yôkai.