Sunday, February 27, 2011

Kore wa Zombie desu ka? (Episodes 4 - 6)

(For a review of Episodes 1 - 3, click here. Some spoilers may be lurking.)

I'll admit that the first three episodes of Kore Wa Zombie Desu Ka? has given me some concerns. When it comes to intended comedy, I sometimes fear that putting conflicting personalities under the same roof, as if attempting a scenario we often saw in reality shows like The Real World and Big Brother, won't equate to actual success. We've seen some success when the supernatural is forced to live with each other in the BBC show Being Human, but I've wondered if it would succeed in anime.

While those worries were appeased by the steadfast behavior and rather Kyon-like approach by our main character Ayumu, there's still that nagging feeling that we're looking at a harem situation. Plenty of fan service in the beginning, but I was hopeful that the underlying current of a serious plot might make this show steady and less situational.

I just wasn't expecting a dark comedy, an animated version of Death Becomes Her. Seriously. I haven't seen this much comedy surrounding blood and death, followed by reanimation and more blood and death since Hyatt from Excel Saga.

When we last left Ayumu and his crew, he was still lost when it came to determining his killer, but a clue had been left by another girl injured by the attacker—apparently his own savior, the necromancer Eucliwood, may have been behind all of the killings. However, it is through the words of a doberman Megalo that we discover how Eu works as a necromancer. Much of the healing she does has such an adverse effect on her own psyche, and the magic she casts is so unstable that even one word from her could lead to untold chaos.

The best thing about this three-episode arc is that you get plenty of action in the process, even with the extreme spill of blood. Yes, we do get tons of fan service from lip-locks between Haruna and Sera, comedy from badly-cooked food, and bathtub nonsense, but each episode seems to have a two-sided personality. Each facepalm comes with an entertaining battle in the process. For the record, Ayumu's transformation into a "magical girl" is hardly a one-time joke, as he uses his powers as a zombie to unlock the extreme potential of Haruna's powers, once again drawing out jokes about him being a pervert.

However, what we did not expect is for the killer to reveal herself so quickly and to reveal herself as Kyoko, the girl who was supposed to have seen Eu as the killer. In reality, she is a magical girl gone rogue, driven mad as she holds onto the lives she has taken from her victims. She even manages to push her own bounds of human capability, shredding the skin on her arms from magic use and busting her eardrums to keep herself from hearing Eu's words. However, just when it appears Ayumu and the rest appear to have Kyoko down to her own life, we realize there are other people piloting this magical girl for their own purposes.

In terms of surprise, I can't say that I wasn't expecting what these episodes provided the viewer—there had to be some connection between magical girls, zombies, necromancers, and even vampire ninjas if they were to all organize as an evil-busting union. It's also quite refreshing to see a magical girl go mad in the process (this season has already had its share) and to exhibit that madness in such a destructive behavior. What I wasn't expecting was for the death to be so dramatic and bloody. These scenes are not for the faint of heart (seriously, you're going there by having Ayumu destroy a giant whale Megalo?), but can also get pretty creative.

In the end, the show has its drawbacks with its occasional split-personalities, pushing for plot creation while destroying some in the process when the girls do what harems do. One moment, mindless comedy turns into numbing drama, as the concept of death is tossed around so easily. However, this split-personality also gives the episodes a clever two-toned feel to them. It's like you're watching two 12-minute episodes in one, closure given to one scenario only for another to present itself.

Is KoreZom a parody of sorts, especially the magical-girl genre? Probably not, but it's having fun rewriting the standards for them. This isn't some Kampfer situational comedy where the male actually becomes a girl to become a magical girl in the process. This isn't a Sailor Moon Sailor Stars where the women masquerade as men before they transform. Mashing all these characters into the same box to produce an undead male "magical girl" has created a brand new monster, and so far it's working.

This show might be the best comedy of the season so far, if only by default. While Puella Magi Madoka Magica may have become the best "magical girl" show in the past few years, KoreZom is certainly fighting to get the title of "Best Magical-Girl Comedy", if it in fact fits into any sort of category in the first place.

Monday, February 21, 2011

GOSICK (Episodes 4 - 6)

(For a review of Episodes 1 - 3, click here. Some spoilers may be lurking.)

Upon watching the first three GOSICK episodes, I was certainly glad to see a show readjust how mysteries are to be seen in anime. We've had our share of modern-day genius teenagers and tykes beating the adults to the culprit and playing them like a game of Clue, but it was about time that we had someone attempt the Holmes/Watson formula back in a time period further from Milky and closer to Sherlock.

Placing the show in the fictional country of Sauville has done wonders for the story, as long as it didn't interfere with actual events that took place in Europe. With the setting well in place, now that we have seen the pint-sized Victorique in action with her self-appointed assistant Kazuya Kujô, it's time to see how the characters are to develop amongst one another, and that requires the addition of a new character.

While Kazuya has managed to adjust himself to school life overseas, he's still a lightning rod when it comes to gory murder and criminal activity. After having escaped from the sinking Queen Berry with Victorique, he suddenly finds himself witness to a murder, as a random motorcycle rider gets his head severed from his body in the middle of a ride. While the murderer is easily deduced by Victorique, Kazuya's reputation is again sullied by rumor as the "Spring Reaper".

The arrival of an English transfer student, the bright and cheerful Avril Bradley, does turn Kazuya's spirits around temporarily. Avril shares some of his interests in ghost stories, and she may have an apparent interest in Kazuya himself, but he can't get over the fact her hand is bandaged like the girl who murdered the motorcycle rider. On top of that, a corpse falling out of the local catacomb before a funeral and a haunting voice calling for help at a deserted warehouse makes things even more mysterious, especially when Avril is spotted snooping around all of the locations, including Victorique's library.

There's no doubt that the mysteries are easily solved by Victorique's prowess, but an additional mystery suddenly takes its place, one with a special connection. A plate is stolen during a bazaar by a nun, only for the Sister to show up during a trip to Horovitz taken by Victorique and Kazuya when they answer a call advertised in the local newspaper. Somehow, this is connected to the "Grey Wolves" in Horovitz, as Victorique has taken this rare opportunity to leave the study. Her mission is to prove the innocence of her mother, Cordelia Gallo, who was blamed for murders in Horovitz.

GOSICK may not necessarily be an exciting anime when weighed only for its action, but the suspense surrounding the mysteries is quite valuable to the plot. While each arc of two or three episodes has a general mystery to solve, each episode has a smaller crime that requires its own solution. Victorique may be solving them a bit too quickly for the viewer to react with their own possible solution like one might see in a Meitantei Conan episode, but it is nice to have mysteries that mean something for a change.

Perhaps the best thing we're getting out of GOSICK's first six episodes is the interplay between Victorique and Kazuya. There's no doubt that Kazuya is getting sick of being mocked by the "little squirrel" moniker the vain Grevil has given him, but there's also that part of him that is thankful he's being useful to Victorique, even if she acts as a little kid about the smallest things. It's comforting to know that Kazuya and Victorique have that sort of detective/assistant dynamic between them, and the arrival of other female characters doesn't turn this story into a harem anime.

Granted, the pace of the show may be a little uneven, as action is sparse, but it is good to see the attention paid to the time and location of the show. There are no modern devices that come into play, and GOSICK follows its temporal location well, creating mystery in items and places
unique to its era and European landscape. In other words, we're not seeing steampunk robots or out-of-place tropes we'd normally see in Japanese high schools—the aspects of the show fit its location in history relatively well.

Six shows down, it's also refreshing to see GOSICK is to last two full seasons. There may be little dynamic on the surface between Victorique and Kauya, but the opening animation definitely indicates more to the story than simple murder mysteries. The art is clean and crisp, the characters are providing some stable drama scattered with bits of humor, and the general plot isn't boring.

In short, I'm not sick of GOSICK at all, and I won't be for a while.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Dragon Crisis! (Episodes 4 - 6)

(For a review of Episodes 1 - 3, click here. Some spoilers may be lurking.)

I think it's time to get a hold of National Geographic for a serious study on the kemonomimi girls in anime. There must be such a thing as "harem magnetism" between the human male and the subspecies female. Scientific proof is there—once a female as affixed herself to an ordinary male in anime, it will only draw the attraction of other females to the male, regardless of the other females' feelings towards the male.

In Dragon Crisis!, we've already seen an attraction between Ryûji and the red-dragon girl Rose, so why stop there? Why not include more girls in various embarrassing poses, situations, and states of undress? Why not include Murphy's Law in the equation when it could be perfectly fine without any more additional variables?

Now that Ryûji has become a strong-enough "breaker" on his own and has defeated the black-dragon male Onyx through some sort of synchronization between himself and Rose, you'd think that everything would be peachy. There shouldn't be a problem with going to the beach and summer festivals with his friends (and the introverted Misaki, who still can't fully express her adoration for Ryûji), but it not only draws Eriko and Rose into the mix after they decide to tag along, but it also draws unwelcome attention—there are other dragons also watching.

The first unwanted guest, a white-dragon princess named Maruga, comes to the crew to ask for help retrieving her own Lost Precious, an ice sword called "Ice Rage". However, its current holder, George Evans, a chivalrous priest from England, holds it with the idea of using it to wipe the evil scourge of dragons off the face of the earth. Of course, when George meets Maruga and is smitten without knowing she's a dragon, the crew has to somehow get the sword without letting hell break loose. (Wait a minute—why is George, a priest, falling in love in the first place?)

Once that trip to the beach is in the books, Ryûji and Rose are then subjected to more attention after being invited to a party held by other "breakers". The unwelcome crasher this time is a thieving wolf-girl, appropriately named "Odd Eye" for her heterochromatic eye colors, who is after the Lost Precious artifacts held by society members and Eriko's "True Love" earring. The group manages to neutralize Odd Eye in a series of sexual innuendos, but who is behind Odd Eye's stealing ways?

Considering the star power that Dragon Crisis! brought to the table, I thought I would appreciate having Hiro Shimono and Rie Kugimiya as the voice actors behind our hero and heroine. Perhaps that was blind faith in the smooth-talking villain Onyx being taken away from the plot—the two have just turned into whiny characters when placed in typical harem situations. When Ryûji is accidentally wrapped up in some gadget scenario going haywire, mostly due to Eriko's manipulations, he complains. When that situation draws a girl to Ryûji, Rose complains. (And when both of them are complaining, I tend to complain. Loudly.)

There just doesn't seem to be enough action in next three episodes of Dragon Crisis! to justify it as an action show, as the writers and producers seem content to make things as emotionally awkward as possible. Bathtub scenes, beach booty, dissolving bikinis, wolf-girls going all fluttery when their tails are prodded, involuntary bondage—you'd think that the show wouldn't have had to pull out all of the stops used in harem shows, but it just doesn't stop. There's just no desire to see what happens after Ryûji has met Rose, nor is there a desire to see Misaki, Eriko, or any of the other females interfere with the relationship.

Perhaps the relationship between Ryûji and Rose can be easily classified as that of Belldandy and Keiichi from Oh! My Goddess, Kaoru and Aoi from Aoi Yori Aoshi, or (perhaps the closest in similarity) Kôta and Chizuru in Kanokon. These are already well-established relationships that have concrete ties between the two main characters. Hey, you writers and producers—stop trying to force wedges between the two and fooling with the laws of magnetism! The more you try to cram more female butts and breasts into the idiot box, the less we're going to care.

That is the disappointing aspect of Dragon Crisis! at this point halfway through the series—no matter what important discoveries are made or what unexpected twists are placed in the plot, as long as Ryûji and Rose are still whining from the fan service, I'm going to continue not caring. Dragon Crisis! had its chance to win me with spicy substance, but now it's lost me with its stifling vanilla flavor.

Friday, February 18, 2011

REJECTED! - Cardfight! Vanguard

You know, I totally understand the idea of the collector, and I refuse to condemn people for the things they collect. Stamps, coins, comics, dolls figurines...heck, if you're going to go as far as a Mitsudomoe dakimakura, it's your prerogative. A weird prerogative, but we're all collectors of something, whether it be as a hobby or as a career.

That's why I didn't have many qualms with Yu-Gi-Oh! when it came out. It didn't start out with the idea that it would transition over to a card-collecting game—at least, it didn't appear that way on paper. Yûgi had his own demons to figure out in the process, playing games through his split personality until it finally led to the worldwide phenomenon known as "Duel Monsters". The card game was spawned by the success of the franchise, and I can live with that.

However, the opposite does not necessarily work; a fictional card game won't lead to a real franchise. You can't plant an anime into the community, use it to tell people how to play the card game in some cryptic way, and guarantee that it will send consumers to toy stores when the cards hit shelves. In the case of Cardfight!! Vanguard, a show spawned by the collected minds of Yu-Gi-Oh!, Duel Masters, and card-corporation Bushiroad, this inverse of the sales formula is not only displayed, but it reveals that you simply can't rehash a show to regrow card sales and hope no one notices.

Apparently, in the world of Cardfight!! Vanguard, "Vanguard" is the card game that everyone has been talking about for years, even though it hasn't even been released in actual stores yet (the Vanguard game comes out February 26th). All the cool kids play this fantasy game where the combatants are merely spirits fighting on a mystical planet, and their means of survival involves summoning monsters and warriors through cards. One of the uncool kids, a quiet blue-haired kid named Aichi, has a particular card taken from him, and instead of letting it go, he chases the culprit.

However, his "Blaster Blade" card has, in turn, been lost by the bully and claimed by Kai, one of the strongest Vanguard fighters in town. Aichi timidly takes on Kai to get his precious card back, and this sends us on a two-episode primer covering everything about the game—something about twisting the card and using it to protect others, then drawing from the card pile to figure out some other sort of exotic math. (I wasn't really paying attention, as all of the Super-Saiyan hair was distracting me.) In the process, we come to find that Kai was the one who first gave Aichi his "Blaster Blade" card, and when it looks like all hope is lost, Yûgi Aichi removes a miracle card from his pack to defeat Kaiba Kai with the combined efforts from his "Blaster Blade".

You can't blame me for mistaking the characters from this show for the two main combatants from Yu-Gi-Oh! Intimidated pipsqueak taking down a confident fighter who later teams up with said pipsqueak? Yeah, we've heard it all before, Bushiroad, but the last time we were able to understand the rules of the game after we got to know the characters completely. This time, you're just trying to drive propaganda into fooling the viewer that this is the coolest thing since the last card game you tried to shove down our throats (which was Milky Holmes, for the record, so don't think we haven't forgotten that bitter pill).

Really, there is so little creativity to distinguish it from previous games and so much difficulty to understand how the game works that Cardfight!! Vanguard ends up putting us through a show that could have easily just been lumped into another Yu-Gi-Oh! spinoff. There's nothing about this show that interests me in the least, and that includes the non-traditional, all-serious female lead and a JAM Project opening theme that is severely out of place.

Here's a novel idea—take those Yu-Gi-Oh! cards that you've forgotten you've had for so many years and shuffle them for a while. It'll be just as exciting as watching Cardfight!! Vanguard, except you won't have the eye-strain in the end.

(Cardfight!! Vanguard is simulcast on Crunchyroll every Friday at 7PM EST.)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Puella Magi Madoka Magica (Episodes 4 - 6)

(For a review of Episodes 1 - 3, click here. Some spoilers may be lurking.)

As fantastic a spin Shaft and director Akiyuki Shinbô can put on the sheer artistry of animation, their shows have had the plot of a manga to follow. No matter how creative and exotic the style of the show may be, there was always knowledge of the general direction. Twists in plot and in-jokes would be seen coming from a general distance, even if it was lovely to watch.

I'm hardly saying this is a downfall or criticism of the Shinbô/Shaft paradigm. I'm merely indicating that there's a pattern to the madness. If you followed the manga to a T, you had an inkling of what to expect. Perhaps that is part of the success we saw in Evangelion; without an end to pursue, the means has weight.

This idea of the "blind finish-line"—that split second before someone charges through a door without knowing if there would be a wall or salvation—is giving their current series Puella Magi Madoka Magica some hefty expectations. However, that lack of a clear-cut denouement is making the series so much more palatable.

To say that the spirit of the show is different in the second three episodes than the first is an understatement. The initial excitement that Madoka and Sayaka had about discovering the "magical girls" has faded (for obvious reasons), as the tone of the series has taken a much darker turn. However, while Madoka continues to be afraid of the responsibilities of being a magical girl, Sayaka seizes the moment—when Madoka finds herself tormented by a witch, she is rescued by Sayaka, who has used her wish to help the injured Kyôsuke play the violin again.

The sudden chaos surrounding territory becomes the focal point of this miniature arc. While Homura continues to warn the others about the dangerous role of the magical girl, and Madoka still requires cryptic advice from her career-striving mother, Sayaka's new position brings both relief to her relationship with Kyôsuke and a new challenge for her survival in the form of a new magical girl who wants the turf. Kyôko Sakura, voiced appropriately by a sassy Ai Nonaka (Kafuka, Sayonara Zetsubô-sensei), challenges Sayaka for the spot left by Mami.

The resulting battle between Kyôko and Sayaka is one that never finishes and never starts a second time. During a lapse of judgment when Madoka tries to separate Sayaka from her Soul Gem, the group is shocked to learn that the Soul Gem is a source of life for magical girls—being 100 meters away from it leaves Sayaka prone and lifeless.

The curve ball thrown by Shinbô and Shaft is reflected not only in the drastic change in tone that the series takes, but primarily in the sudden use of plot to drive the story. The use of cut-out animation is still fascinating yet suppressed, as the studio uses more background art to strike visual awe. However, there is a lot more focus on the tension between the magical girls and the uncertainty reflected in Madoka's character. While the other girls debate the role of the magical girl through conflict, Madoka is caught between her mother's reason and Kyubey's candy-like offerings of wishes.

Actually, it's quite surprising to find that Madoka is the last to consider becoming a magical girl, the one thing I wasn't expecting from this story. Unlike many shows that thrust the role of the magical girl onto the main character, the consequences are presented to Madoka for her to make her decision. While her choice is likely fated, wouldn't it be a sultry smack-in-the-face to fandom if the title character of a magical-girl series...never becomes a magical girl at all?

Madoka Magica is a terrific show to follow, but a torturous show to second-guess. With so many traps laid by witches and catches untold by Kyubey, it's hard to tell just who is the villain so far: the moppet who seemingly means well or the actual runic witches driving people to despair. If the show continues a magnetic pull on darkness, the similarities in character design between Madoka Magica and Hidamari Sketch will be trivial, and the show will distance itself from other magical-girl tropes. With the show just about half-over, one can only wish for more.

(Did someone say "wish"? /人◕ ‿‿ ◕人\ )

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Rio: Rainbow Gate! (Episodes 4 - 6)

(For a review of Episodes 1 - 3, click here.)

Some have referred to it as "nuking the fridge". Perhaps even "razing the hospital" may make it into the televised vernacular of the future. However, no matter how you rewrite the series, its downfall will always be gauged as the point where the series has "jumped the shark".

Its origin comes from that agonizingly-long time in a particular episode of Happy Days for the Fonz approach a ramp to jump over a shark with a relatively-slow set of water skis and a perfectly unblemished leather jacket. Aerodynamics and primal instincts be damned—the Fonz jumped the shark.

Meet Rio's breast best friend Rina.

I bring this up during an anime review to emphasize a particular flaw in the "Jumping the Shark" theory—sometimes the show is so ridiculously inept in its plausibility from Square One that "jumping the shark" actually helps the show stay memorable, despite all of its other flaws.

Case in point: so far in Rio: Rainbow Gate!, we've seen our share of cases where our main character Rio has won her matches out of sheer luck. A metaphorical journey through a house of cards results in Rio winning poker with a pair of twos. A hallucinogenic volleyball game breaks out during a "bowling roulette" challenge, in which the opponent loses thanks to a band-aid coming loose. A game of craps is won when a ghost's possession is thwarted by spicy habanero chicken wings.

"Me wa horrible stereotype desu!"

Despite all of these ridiculous games and unrealistic finishes, the series now decides to unfold with plot, as Rio is reunited with her long-lost "sister" Rina, who has been hired to become a dealer at Howard Resort. While Rio is excited, there's definitely something uneasy about Rina, as she is not only ruthless in her competitive spirit and deflating when it comes to customer luck, but she seems to have her eye on the "Gates" Rio has collected so far.

To test the limits of the show's over-the-top stretch towards implausibilities, the casino's owner Tom Howard goes beyond the beyond, introducing the island's tourists to the first flying casino. It is here that Rio is forced to fight against two more Gate Holders; one in a lengthy water-slide race against the ship's chipper female android Linda, and another in a too-realistic game of "Space Pinball" versus a telekinetic kid promised freedom from his boss in he were to win. Both games pit Rio's team against the conniving Cartia, a vamp who plans to take Howard Resort by force.

Seriously. She should be dead by now.

Rio: Rainbow Gate! is obviously in it to tantalize the viewer with cheesecake and costume changes that get Rio into skimpier and skimpier situations. Logically speaking, there really should be no reason at all to follow the show. The plot is limping to the finish line as characters from the pachislo games crash the party with hardly a reason—we get an overweight cowboy who speaks in "You wa SHOCK!" Japanese and an Afro samurai with a severe losing streak, but neither factor into the major battles. So why have them there in the first place?

Like Fonzie's jump, there's just nothing that makes sense. Why is the ship's android not getting electrocuted by a water-slide race? How in blazes does the "wind from the excited customers" affect the trajectory of clay pigeons in a shooting contest? How can holograms be so realistic that a meteorite could smash the glass of a viewing room and drag Rio's stalker friend Mint towards a black hole? It's like monkeys are hammering this show's script out with typewriters.

And as far as the "jumping the shark" analogy goes, Rio has taken that approach a step further. By Episode 6, "Roll Ruler", she's actually jumping onto holographic space sharks. Seriously. I'm half-expecting a dinosaur to be reconstructed and the crew to travel back in time, all for the sake of a Gate Battle and a costume change that shows more of Rio's mother-of-pearl breasts.

I'd like to see Henry Winkler do THIS in a leather jacket!

It's this unfortunate mockery of all reality that makes the show so much more of a car crash to watch. There's nothing exceptional about the characters. The acting is shoddy. The art is forgettable. The only thing keeping the show from oblivion is the anticipation that the next episode couldn't be any worse than the next one.

In fact, the show is so bad that it continues to be good due to its badness. The formula cannot be changed from here on out. It's best the show continues to jump sharks; if Rio: Rainbow Gate! ever gets serious and gets dramatic, it's all downhill from there.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Wandering Son (Episodes 1 - 3)

Last December, the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly passed a revised amendment to the Tokyo Youth Healthy Development Ordinance. The revisions focused on the content of anime and manga, particularly on the depiction of sexuality between minors and adults. During the conflict, Tokyo Governor Shintarô Ishihara’s war on inappropriate content also caught Japan’s LGBT community in the crossfire.

In particular, Ishihara feared that Japan has been too unregulated when it comes to the presence of homosexuality on television. When asked to clarify his statement later in the month, he noted that he felt “[homosexuals] are missing something. Maybe it has something to do with their genes. I feel sorry for them as a minority.”

While the genetics behind homosexual and transvestite behavior require more study, this period where tension between Ishihara and the LGBT community is thick is perhaps the best time to study what adolescents really do experience when it comes to curiosity towards these behaviors. Even better, the new noitaminA series Wandering Son (Hôrô Musuko) has been exploring these questions in the media form that Ishihara probably doesn’t want it—anime and manga. Considering that the series was created by Takako Shimura, who has written the Aoi Hana manga and Boku wa Onna no Ko ("I'm A Girl"), a prequel to Wandering Son, this attention to LGBT issues is bound to be amplified.

If you already know of the Wandering Son manga, you may be a little disoriented, as director Ei Aoki (Girls Bravo) has actually begun the show at an accelerated clip. While the original manga begins in elementary school, we meet the characters as they enter junior high school. We're introduced to a quiet boy, Shûichi Nitori, and a tomboyish tall girl, Yoshino Takatsuki, as they meet new classmates and old friends. However, the first day of class turns awkward as a girl named Chizuru rebelliously comes to school in a male uniform.

While this gets Chizuru laughs and glances in disbelief, it does bring up the real crux of the situation like a scraper gets to the paint underneath the fresh coat—both Shûichi and Takatsuki wish they were able to be their opposite gender.

For the first three episodes, we get some glances into the duo's past, as both have knowledge of the other's secret. We understand the pride coming from Saori, a haughty girl with a crush on Shûichi and his cross-dressing hobby. During the class's attempt to put on a play about gender-reversal, we witness the concerns from Shûichi's friend Makoto, whose own cross-dressing desires may apparently hide his deeper emotions regarding homosexuality. We may occasionally get confused by which character is which (convenient chart alert!), but this is a story about the gender-torn Shûichi and Takatsuki as both stare puberty and social influence square in the eye.

There are no real disappointments in Wandering Son, other than its short eleven-episode schedule—everything else in the show is just brilliant in a minimalist sense. Shimura's story, albeit shuffled to a spot further in the books, is one that has been given a great place to shine, relying on minute flashbacks to tell the story of the rickety love-triangle between Takatsuki, Shûichi, and Saori. The art doesn't dress characters in blinding colors, depending more on reflected sunlight and brighter outlines to make the characters glow. Some of the scenes are bathed in so much light it feels like they're still waiting to be finished.

You're not going to get much in vocal and audio volume either, but once again lesser is better. Voices are immature yet learning how to cope with maturity—Shûichi is actually voiced by Kôsuke Hatakeyama, a 13-year-old male actor who has yet to hit his own puberty, and Takatsuki is voiced by Asami Seto, another newcomer who manages to give her character an unstable voice. Even the soundtrack is built on brittle cherry blossoms, often performed by a slow hopeful piano.

The strength of Wandering Son, appropriately, comes from its realistic portrayal of gender-identity disorders and the psychology that accompanies it. In his own review of the manga, Anime News Network's Carlo Santos pointed out that the transvestism acts as "the actual heart of the story" and doesn't try to club the reader over the head with "gender reversal as a goofy plot device". For so many other transgendered shows, the goal is more to see the chaos from the character's love for the opposite's clothing, and it's mostly done from a male-to-female perspective. In Wandering Son's case, not only are the characters uncertain of themselves, but the perspective is shared by both sexes.

It is this softened view of gender-identity disorder that may ultimately get misguided attacks from conservative politics in Japan. A manga and anime written and composed by adults about pre-adolescent kids who talk and think about homosexuality and taboo subjects in a world also inhabited by adults? There is no doubt that the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly will have this show on their minds when they finally put the Ordinance into effect. They may even consider it to be dangerous to children for encouraging transvestism.

If people see Wandering Son as smut deserving of censorship, then I feel sorry for them as the minority.

(Wandering Son is simulcast on Crunchyroll every Thursday at 1 PM EST.)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

GAME DAY! (Japan edition)

In a few hours, over 100 million people will plunk down in front of TVs, radios and computers to witness tonight's S*per Bowl (not paying those royalties, NFL!), but many will argue that soccer (real football) has the biggest sports audiences in the world. Granted, both sides have over-exaggerated their followings (some are estimating soccer generated 250 million for the World Cup, but both sides will claim a billion), but this isn't to say that Japan hasn't had some exposure to football (the American kind).

Witness the popularity of Eyeshield 21, which ran for seven years as a manga and three as an anime. Its influence has driven the popularity of its sport, as people have claimed that the number of Japanese kids playing American football doubled between 2002 and 2006, with the manga selling 16 million books for its first 25 volumes. Believe it or not, this isn't the first American football manga; does anyone remember No Huddle?

However, this isn't to say that Japan hasn't had any exposure to American football—it just never made the cut in terms of popularity in a country where baseball, soccer, and sumô have dominated. Here are some things that come to mind when it comes to American football in Japan:

The Atomic Bowl

As tasteless as the name may appear now, there was such a contest, and yes, it was played in Nagasaki in 1946. Granted, the game was strictly played by the Marines in Occupational Japan, but about 2,000 of them saw the game played by units serving in Nagasaki and Isahaya. After the Nagasaki Bears took a 13-0 lead, the Isahaya Tigers scored twice to win the game 14-13. A second game was never played.

This bowl game is played by teams from the Japanese collegiate system since 1946 and is played at Kôshien Stadium, the site of the two yearly high-school baseball tournaments. While there are not many colleges that participate in the league, there is still a pretty good following, and the game even gets national attention on sports shows. While Kansei Gakuin University and Nippon University have dominated for years, winning 19 and 18 of the the championships, respectively, this year's Kôshien Bowl had the Ritsumeikan University Panthers demolishing the Waseda University Big Bears, 48-21.

The "X League", Japan's semi-professional American football league, takes its structure much like the J League has its structure, but the road to the "Japan X Cup" is a little rockier. There are four "X Division" tiers, with the top tier ("X1") competing for the title. Each of the top three divisions are divided into three groups, with each division holding 18 teams. Interestingly enough, however, the groups are not static within the X1 division, and teams in the "East" and "Central" blocks can be shuffled. This year, the Obic Seagulls defeated the Panasonic Denkô Impulse in the 2010 Japan X Bowl, 20-16.

Mind you, we're not exactly seeing athletic perfection here; the Nagoya Cyclones scored a total of three points the entire season (in 5 games, they were outscored 109-3).

Hard to believe, but the Rice Bowl does exist. Actually, in a game that would perhaps never be played in the United States, the Rice Bowl pits the winners of the Japan X Bowl and the Kôshien Bowl against each other. That's right; college vs. professional.

The bowl itself used to be played as a college all-star game in 1948, but starting in 1983 the game was played between the best teams in the college and professional ranks. Unbelievably, there have been three teams that have won the Rice Bowl four times, and two of them have been collegiate teams; Kyôto University and Nippon University.

This year, Obic became the first professional team to win the Rice Bowl four times, defeating Ritsumeikan University, 24-0.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Beelzebub (Episodes 1 - 4)

Tatsumi Oga is not a good person.

Perhaps it’s his environment—after all, he’s a freshman at Ishiyama High, Tokyo’s mecca for delinquents—or perhaps someone who can knock out any of his peers with a sharp punch doesn’t need to learn social skills like patience, friendliness, or respect. Come to think of it, that seems to be how everyone at Ishiyama High socializes. Oga is just especially skilled at it, and that ends up landing him in trouble, but not with the authorities at the school (which is run by a fellow who would rather trim his garden than discipline his students) or with any particular gang of delinquents, since Oga is more than capable of swiftly handling any challenge.

No, in Beelzebub, Oga’s problem is that he suddenly becomes a surrogate father to the spawn of the devil.

The Great Lord of Darkness is too lazy to take care of his own son and passes that responsibility to two demons: the fashionably gothic nurse Hilda and a “dimensional transfer demon” Alain, who looks like a former member of the Village People. For reasons that weren’t entirely clear, they need to find a surrogate father on Earth to watch over little Baby Beel, and after seeing Oga easily manhandle several thugs, Alain thinks they’ve found the perfect match. Baby Beel thinks so too—attracted to Oga’s ability to quickly dispatch other thugs, he instantly becomes attached to Oga, making our hero the new caretaker of the Next Great Evil Destined To Destroy The World, whether he likes it or not.

And he really doesn’t like it. Like any human baby, Beel is temperamental, whiny, difficult to please and always hungry. The gulf in difficulty between raising a human baby and Beel, though, is massive. When Beel gets especially upset, he discharges lightning from his body, zapping anybody nearby. Oga isn’t happy about this and devises a plan to get rid of his Satanic bundle of misery—find someone meaner, stronger, and more brutal than himself. Since Ishiyama High is a school filled with delinquents, this shouldn’t be too hard, right? In a nice twist on the old Shônen Jump formula, Oga is now on a quest to find someone who can beat his ass, while learning the crazed particulars of raising a demonic baby.

There is not a lot of anime that can grab my interest just by its concept. Some of this is because of how often the same story ideas are recycled over and over again in anime, but some of this is because just describing a series’ concept rarely does it any justice. For example, Cowboy Bebop is about a bunch of bounty hunters in space and loud jazz music. Urusei Yatsura is about a magical girlfriend alien and her crazy friends. Azumanga Daioh is about a bunch of high schoolers doing high school things with their high school friends.

Beelzebub is one of the rare exceptions to this pattern. Your senses have to be iced over with cynicism if you don’t find “tough-juvenile-delinquent-suddenly-becomes-a-surrogate-father-to-the-Devil’s-baby” a fun idea. This isn’t so much because it’s a new idea, but because it’s a clever riff off the old “magical girlfriend” formula, with the creepy baggage that follows close behind it removed. Shônen shows are usually about the gimmicks, and this one has a doozy, but what made shows like Cowboy Bebop great was in the details—it was a carefully-made anime, filled with great characters and stories that were woven together with careful attention by a master craftsman. Beelzebub doesn’t have any kind of attention to detail—it is broadly made, conceived, and delivered.

There’s nothing wrong with that. I enjoy a gag comedy where a shotgun gets stuck in a baby’s dimensional diaper as much as the next guy. It also has such highlights as a cast of juvenile delinquents whose insanity falls just short of Sakigake! Cromartie High School, an amusingly “all tsun, all the time” Goth sidekick, and a baby who is more delighted with skulls as a toy than bouncy balls. However, most of the characters feel cut from reliable stock than conceived in an original form, and in four episodes, it hasn’t done a lot to develop its idea, making it a comedy with few surprises.

This means the only way to describe the quality of this series is with something that sounds like a backhanded compliment, and that is never a good thing. That said, the rule of Shônen Jump is as follows—it always takes a few episodes to get really good. For now, I’m content with what it has, and I am looking forward to see where it will go.

(Yes, that's a baby's penis. It's funny in Japan. - Ed.)

Stray Thoughts
  • When was the last time we had a series about juvenile delinquents in a juvenile delinquent school? For that matter, since the high school you go to in Japan is based on merit, do places like this actually exist?
  • Episode four was pretty good. I like that it took an obvious joke—Baby Beel peeing at a terrible time—and went crazy with it. This is the kind of thing that makes cartoon comedies good, and hopefully we’ll see more of it.
  • So it looks like we’ll be seeing Oga fight some more juveniles, tournament style. I don’t know how I feel about that.
(Beelzebub is simulcast on Crunchyroll every Saturday at 7 PM EST.)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Dream Eater Merry (Episodes 1 - 3)

The realm of dreams is a theater that fiction writers and aficionados have constantly attended. Whether they encourage inspiration in the artwork of a painter or cartoonist, serve as a medium for the story itself, or amplify fiction appreciation through silent lucidity, dreams are both revered for their ability to mystify humans and feared for their ability to expose the fears of the dreamer.

While there have been stories about dreams long before the comic-strip or manga media, there perhaps hasn't been any as surreal in its travails as the likes of Windsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland, the one-page comic from a century ago involving Nemo and his attempt to find the princess in his dreams before he wakes up. While I'm unsure if there were any stories that explored this bridge between dreams and reality before it, Little Nemo certainly seems to be the prototype where a real-world hero clashed with the critters in his dreams.

So what happens when the dreams try to invade the real world?

Yumekui Merry ("Dream Eater Merry"), a manga written by Yoshitaka Ushiki, explores a possible scenario where the creatures in the dream world seek our side of the fence. Directed by Shigeyasu Yamauchi (Crying Freeman, multiple Dragonball and Saint Seiya films) and animated by workaholic studio J.C. Staff, Yumekui Merry covers one particular "Nemo", Yumeji Fujiwara, a high-school kid with a cool trick—he can view a person and divine what their dreams will contain that night.

On a particular trip home, Yumeji ends up with a mysterious girl landing on him, only to watch her scamper off on a hunt to find her hat. The meeting is a foreboding one, as Yumeji somehow ends up stepping into the nightmare that has haunted his sleep. His escape from a horde of talking cats and their leader, a masked killer entity known only as "Chaser John Doe", looks fruitless until the girl he met before interferes in the fight. She introduces herself as "Merry", a "dream demon" looking to find her way back home.

This introduction between Yumeji and Merry opens up a whole new can of worms—John Doe's attack was just one of many going on between dream demons and humans. Apparently, to leave the dream world and enter reality, a dream demon needs a human vessel. Merry, however, is an exception, as she exists in the human world, but has no idea how to return home. Perhaps Yumeji may be her ticket home, but for now she can only use his help to encounter other dream demons and enjoy the, donuts of the real world.

There are some creative characters in Yumekui Merry, most of the main ones voiced by relative newcomers, and that seems to provide some refreshing changes of pace when coupled with a veteran like Jôji Nakata, the voice of John Doe. Merry's a rather tomboyish character, but unsure about her surroundings, making her explosive personality fiery but not tsundere. It's also good to see some of the plot revealed by characters unrelated to Yumeji—we see a horrific episode when a cheerful girl's dream demon is consumed by a hunter, leaving the girl wandering hopelessly in the real world.

The unfortunate thing Yumekui Merry may have going for it is timing. The jump from real world to dream world is relatively devoid of transition, and the general art surrounding the dream world is less imaginative than the show's character designs. Perhaps it is an aftereffect that comes from the stellar art we see in the transition and secondary worlds of Puella Magi Madoka Magica—the land of the surreal is produced so much better in Madoka Magica that it butts heads with Yumekui Merry's own attempt. It's a bit unfair to compare apples to oranges, but J.C. Staff's pales in comparison.

That being said, Yumekui Merry doesn't look like it will be boring at all. It's refreshing to see a show that isn't depending on antagonism between the main characters to sell itself, and there could be some good plot advancement coupled with some exciting choreography. The designs have potential to leak outside the box and explore creativity a bit more, and the dynamic between Yumeji and Merry could make a cohesive unit instead of an abusive one.

Perhaps one final detail is minor to some, but seeing the characters with expressions on their faces that show a tug-o'-war of emotions gets me interested in the characters themselves; some smiles are delivered with lines containing more than one curve. I like that attention to detail, and I hope such details also translate into attention to the entire work as a whole. Yumekui Merry could be a wild card this season if it can fight off further comparisons to its competition and be the fun action series it appears to be.