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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Kaiji Review

I’m usually never caught without an anime series on my “To-Watch” list, but recently I’ve been slacking off. As such, I found myself speeding through databases searching for anything ranked reasonably high that also looks interesting. And stumble across a little series known as Kaiji I did.

Here’s what I knew about Kaiji before going in. It features some deadbeat street-punk as its protagonist, it centers around underground gambling, and it’s more of a psychological thriller than anything else. Well so far, it’s right up my alley so I gave it a whirl. Nothing could have prepared for what I was in for, however, which is a great metaphor for how the protagonist, Kaiji, feels not more than one episode into this dark, dark series.

Story

Just to hammer it in to the point where I can hear skulls fracturing, Kaiji is a very dark series. And not in the Lain or Paranoia Agent kind of way. Kaiji is ostensibly a show with an extremely pessimistic outlook on life. At the very least, it will be hard to walk away from the series without acknowledging that Knights in Sour Armor are entitled to their viewpoint on how bleak society really is. That’s right; Kaiji explores the very authentic and terrifying darkness that dwells in the hearts of human beings and the center of a brutally stratified society. And it does so by focusing the spotlight on those unfortunate enough to be engulfed by said darkness until nothing left of them remains.

I mentioned that Kaiji is different from something like Paranoia Agent, which arguably attempts to convey similar messages. The difference lies in the presentation. Kaiji is far less cerebral and symbolic, preferring to go for “show” rather than “intimate.” Some might say Kaiji is wholly Anvilcious in its approach, but a straightforward, no-nonsense method of delivery works tremendously to Kaiji’s advantage. It allows the series to bathe the audience in an unrelenting tempest of raw, unfettered emotions, ranging from paranoia to fear to despair to courage. And since Kaiji is so direct, the sense of connection to the series and its characters is unparalleled.

The story starts off with the introduction of our hero, Kaiji, a downtrodden, useless bum who has no place in society whatsoever. He barely manages to make ends meet by gambling on a daily basis. One day, he is approached by a Yakuza member who forces to pay off a debt of nearly 4 million yen, which he had consigned for one of his gambling partners. The man offers him a choice: work tirelessly for the next 11 years to pay off the debt in monthly installments, or enter an underground gambling competition aboard a luxury cruise ship where it’s possible to completely wipe out his debt over the course of a single four-hour game. However, there’s much more at stake than an increased debt if Kaiji loses. In fact, he has no idea that what awaits him on this ship is far less of a tournament and more of a struggle to survive. The path to freedom, it seems, is littered with pitfalls that lead straight into the abyss of complete destruction.

Who knew Rock-Paper-Scissors could be so intense? Much like how Poker champions come out on top every time, the game itself is not where the battle is fought. Kaiji quickly realizes that the key to victory lies entirely in psychological warfare. It may seem that the outcome is determined by luck, but no one in their right mind would entrust their entire life to a game of chance. Thus, the stage is set for a mind game like no other. It’s much more like a free-for-all deathmatch than a bit of back-and-forth psychological dissection.

Despite all appearances, Kaiji is much more than just “I know that you know I know” repeated ad nauseum. It becomes quickly apparent to Kaiji just how far a person can manipulate this “game of chance.” It’s not just about a player’s ability to perform some fancy mental footwork to get his opponent to deal scissors; it’s about being able to look at the big picture. For example, teaming up can be incredibly beneficial as it allows for pre-determined matches where neither person takes a loss, ensuring safety for both players.

Or does it? How confident can you be that your “friend” will play as discussed? Is he planning stab you in the back? And if so, when, and how can it avoided? Wait, what if you stab him in the back first? After all, betrayal is inevitable, right? But if you do, will that mar your reputation? And how severely? Being ostracized means that you’ll be marked as an outcast and everyone else will be mercilessly gunning for you, meaning you’ll never get a chance to befriend anyone else…and use them as a stepping stone to salvation. These are all questions that Kaiji faces every second he spends on this nightmarish cruise that he voluntarily booked.

Animation

The animation in Kaiji is appropriately dirty and grungy. Super-thick lines result in very rugged and gnarly character designs, but also allow for exaggerated character expressions. And boy, are these guys ever expressive. Perfectly understandable when one is gambling with one’s life. Every ounce of anguish, grief, or deviousness is etched firmly and horrifyingly clearly on their accentuated faces.

Sound

The music for the most part is extremely subdued and is used to help create an unsettling atmosphere. The voice-acting is superb as Masato Hagiwara really breathes life into Kaiji as he sweeps the extremes of the emotional spectrum more than a few times and usually over the course of a few minutes. I have to admit, however, that I really hate Norio Wakamoto’s incessant, booming narration as he is prone to thunderously interjecting at the most inappropriate of times, thus ruining the mood.

Characters

What is the defining feature of Kaiji? Two words: emotional investment. This is the sole reason why every moment of the series is so heart-poundingly intense. The connection with Kaiji himself is undeniable. You might as well be right there at his side every step of the way. Every step he takes, you take. Every card he plays, you play. Every time he wins, you cheer just as loudly as he does. And, of course, every time he falls, it feels like your heart has just shattered into a thousand pieces. It’s as if your fates are intertwined. He is such an iron woobie with a heart of gold that you want him to succeed as much he does. Now if that doesn’t define unapologetically deep emotional investment, then what does?

Kaiji is the series, hence the title. The rest of the characters pale in comparison to him, although anyone he befriends is adequately sympathetic (unless they betray him, in which case they are adequately contemptible), and the villains Kaiji faces are sufficiently smug bastards just asking to be taught a lesson.

Overall

Here’s the deal. Life is not all sunshine and flowers. Sure, you could make the argument that Kaiji’s overall Aesop is “don’t gamble.” But it’s so much more than that. Kaiji seeks to shine light onto just how unforgivingly harsh life can be and does an impeccable job. The series demonstrates just how oppressive money can be and the lengths people will go to for a chance to restart their failed lives. It shows the depths of depravity and treachery that the higher-ups who strive to keep the dregs of society groveling at their feet will sink to. And it raises the question of whether or not it is the fault of society that these poor people turned out the way they did and have consequently been denied a fair shot at redemption. For nail-biting suspense and psychological showdowns splashed with corrupt cynicism, look no further than Kaiji.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Baccano!

A few days ago, I received the recently released Baccano! complete series boxset and thought I’d reacquaint myself with one of 2007’s best shows. At the time, Brain’s Base was (and in fact could still be considered) a budding animation studio and most people were expecting just another forgettable action extravaganza that wouldn’t even be able to set off a measly spark. In an unpredictable twist, Baccano! ended up being such a tremendous runaway success story that it ultimately earned its rightful place among the legendary anime of our time. That’s right, not only the one of the best shows of 2007, but of this entire decade.

What makes Baccano! so fantastic? To start, the series knows how to cast that crucial initial hook. Right off the bat, it’s pitched as high-octane mafia brawls in the 1930’s mixed with a timeless feud over immortal alchemy. To follow that up, Baccano! sports a cool, jazzy opening tune that stacks up to Cowboy Bebop in terms of irresistible catchiness. That saxophone is a killer!

Then there’s the plot, which is ambitious and intriguing. It’s the 1930’s and turf wars are erupting all over gangster-riddled America. It is during these tumultuous, Great Depress-ing times that an age-old struggle for an ancient secret breaks out. It’s a traditional gangster yarn in the sense that there are separate mafia families all vying for power. The story kicks off in full force, however, when a crew of motley, colorful characters from all walks of life, each with their own burdens to bear, crosses paths aboard a speeding train known as the Flying Pussyfoot. Yeah, they have no idea they just booked a one-way ticket for an unforgettable night on the Demon Express. All the while, sinister forces are at work in the shadows, but even these manipulative masterminds may find themselves thrust into conflict with one another before long.

Accompanying the zany premise is a frantic and schizophrenic opening episode that is actually composed of events taking place at the end of Baccano!’s timeline. Hey, it worked for Haruhi Suzumiya and it does wonders for Baccano! by imparting the haphazard nature of the show onto the audience right from the get-go. Part of the fun comes from trying to figure out how every one of the characters’ stories are intertwined as the series likes to jumble events from different points on the timeline (spanning about three years) together and present the story in a very fragmented fashion.

Our heroes: Isaac and Miria
Assisting Baccano!’s aberrant antics is the series’ unbridled energy. It’s encapsulated quite nicely in the form of two plucky, Cloud Cuckoo Lander criminals known as Isaac and Miria who never miss an opportunity to steal the show. The two share a predilection for coming up with absurd schemes that have no grounding in conventional logic whatsoever (such as stealing the door to a bank because the entire bank would be too difficult to steal) and then pursuing said plans with infectious, Speedy Gonzales-esque gusto. Crazy and hyperactive does indeed sum up the series perfectly.

Speaking of the characters, another huge strength that Baccano! leverages is its kaleidoscopic cast of scatterbrained lunatics. Besides the lovably wacky Isaac and Miria, there’s psychopathic sadist Ladd Russo, who I would consider to be anime’s answer to the Joker. His unrivaled love for killing and guns is blown ridiculously out of proportion, ensuring that the audience gets as much of a kick out of watching him slaughtering everyone around him as he does. He approaches every encounter as if he were meticulously sculpting a masterpiece, relishes every ounce of blood he spills, and favors killing unsuspecting victims because “it’s much more fun when they don’t see it coming.” Oh, Ladd, how I adore thee.

As joyous as Ladd is to watch frenetically tap-dance on the top of fresh corpses, kicking up quarts of blood, it’s hard to say that he alone owns the spotlight. In fact, no one does as Baccano!’s overall cast is quirky and strong.

For example, the shirking Jacuzzi Splot (what an awesome name) is prone to expelling a fountain of tears at the slightest misfortune, yet is someone who is not to be messed with. He’s accompanied by Nice Holystone, a badly-scarred, yet sexy delinquent with a fetish for big explosions. Then there’s Firo Prochainezo, a brash, arrogant child prodigy poised to succeed his family with a lightning-fast blade-arm and a penchant for flashy footwork. A number of other dysfunctional kooks round out the cast such as a hammy psycho-for-hire with an incomparable lust for melodramatic bloodshed, a devilishly creepy child whose very presence chills to the bone, and a beautiful mute assassin out for revenge. To bring it back to Ladd, however, there’s Lua Klein, a meek masochist that Ladd has understandably fallen head over heels for.

Jacuzzi and Nice

Firo

The visuals aren’t actually anything glamorous themselves but the animation (specifically the gleeful action sequences) boosts them up to favorable standards. While the fight scenes are a blast, I feel it necessary to point out that the series has an unusually strong fascination with violence. The sheer amount of gore and on-screen mutilation will catch most viewers off-guard and have them questioning whether or not this is the same series that occasionally trains the camera on the happy-go-lucky Isaac and Miria. Aside from lots and lots of blood, for example, the sight of bones gruesomely cracking backed by a melodiously sickening crunch is all too common.

Don't tell me you honestly think that's face-paint.

The very fact that Baccano! can indeed successfully transition from fluffy and fun to sadistic and spooky at the drop of a hat speaks volumes about how seamlessly the series is strung together, despite all appearances to the contrary.

Baccano! is a non-stop thrill ride. It manages to be irreverent, screwy, and soaked in gratuitous amounts of blood while remaining classy and sophisticated. Highly appropriate, considering the era and setting. What is disjointed at first slowly becomes intelligible by the end in a stroke of storytelling genius. Above all else, however, it never loses sight of having a good time. It’s like a kid wildly thrashing around in a sandbox; messy fun, but still controlled by loosely-defined boundaries. And at times, the mounds of sand may even roughly resemble artistically masterful sculptures if you look closely enough.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

MAGFest 8

Happy New Year everyone. It's only three days into 2010 and I've already completed my first ambitious adventure. I must say that attending MAGFest was an exciting experimental undertaking. As such, I have decided to recount my underwhelming journey into the heart of video game nerdom.

The Hilton was a fine choice as far as locales go for a convention of moderate size. Parking was an absolute nightmare and the utter lack of accessible meals was frustrating, but I don't really want to dwell too long on logistics. The rooms accommodated the panels and recreational activities nicely and the whole shebang never felt too crowded or vacant.

I arrived at MAGFest on Friday afternoon just in time for Team Four Star's panel featuring a guest appearance by honorary member LittleKuriboh (the main reason I even decided to attend the convention in the first place). The Q+A portion was mildly intriguing, but the finale was something else altogether. It kicked off with MasakoX's exclusive debut of a side-project he had been working on known as Kampfer Abridged.

I'll make this abundantly clear. Kampfer is stupid and has no right to even exist. What was supposed to be an “ambitious” spiritual successor to Ranma ½ turned out to be lame, pointless, fanservice-laden garbage. Of course, all of this makes a series like Kampfer the perfect fodder for abridgification and who better to tear it apart with scathing, self-deprecating humor than Team Four Star?

I was higly impressed with the quality of humor in Kampfer Abridged. There was nary a second where the entire room wasn't laughing uproariously thanks to some of the most clever satire known to the Abridged universe. Some of my favorite gags (from just one episode nonetheless) included the “I have an irrational fear of buses” duck-out line, Akane's voice and personality (yes just the voice and personality), and the TF2-style ending shot. If the first episode was this phenomenal, this gag-dub will undoubtedly dwarf the series itself like all sublime parodies do, much to our appreciation.

The panel concluded with a live, impromptu reading of a chapter of the Dragon Ball Z manga. In particular, LittleKuriboh decided to ad-lib and demonstrated his firm grasp on improvisational humor. By far the best drop-in line was “I detest those who repeat themselves!” followed immediately by a deadpan delivery of “...I detest those who repeat themselves!”

The first panel yielded positive first impressions. Next up, the console room. The spacious ballroom had been transformed into a moiling sea of consoles, screens, and projectors as far as the eye could see. Almost every console was on display, from SNES's to TurboGrafx's to the current-generation staples, to obscure Japanese drum-set arcade machines. Given the sweeping variety, it's impossible to list all the games featured, but the competiive spotlight titles being broadcast on the projector screens included rhythm games such as Rock Band or Guitar Hero Metallica and beat-em-ups such as Street Figher IV or Super Smash Bros. Melee and Brawl. Oh, and of course there were Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and Halo 3 tables set up all over the place.

I elected to sit back and catch some of the Smash Bros. Action. It was interesting to see all those advanced techniques performed live and it was readily apparent that anyone signed up for the official tournament meant srs busness. I'm more familiar with Melee than with Brawl, but I could still tell that no casual player would stand a chance against the flurry of combos that these seasoned vets had up their sleeves.

The marketplace was located just outside the console room and was rather insubstantial. Half of it was occupied by a cluster of arcade machines and the other half consisted of a few shops that sold meme-tastic shirts, retro/rare video games, original artwork, or cute plushies. Oh, and PEEEEEEEEEEEEEELS.

In the evening, the Video Game Improv troupe performed Whose Line Is It Anyway?-esque sketches based on video game trivia and once again I was surprised at how geuninely funny it turned out to be. The room was packed (for good reason) making it ridiculously hot and stuffy, but it was worth it to see the finest video-game humor performed live.

Day 1 of MAGFest concluded with a trip to the concert hall to sample the “music” part of the Music and Video Games Festival. I found the performances rather uninspiried but appreciated the video-game slant.

Day 2 began bright and early with LittleKuriboh's Yu-Gi-Oh: The Abridged Series panel, the highlight of which was the primerie of Episode 46, aka the Season 2 finale. The best part was the ending, which revealed that not only would the series continue, but that LK was finally opening up his show to the rest of the Abridged Universe that he had singled-handedly birthed back in 2006. Yes, the Season 3 filler arc will feature a variety of Team Four Star members, thus putting an end to LK's exclusively omnipresent voice. Season 3 should turn out to be an interesting collaboration between some of the greatest Abridged minds and I'm totally looking forward to it. I couldn't go without mentioning that Kroze's on-the-fly (mis)handling of technical difficultes were unceasingly amusing. KROZE...KROOOOOOOOOOOZE!!

The last panel I attended on the second day before milling about was the Voice Acting: Pro vs. Not-Pro featuring some top-notch video game voice actors in addition to our unprofessional (but most definitely not untalented) crew of independent Internet-project voice actors including LK, MasakoX, and Kirbopher. It was pretty interesting to see the ins-and-outs of voice acting at both a causal and professional level and I really got a sense of how demanding and rigorous the audition processes can be.

I finally got a chance to meet LK personally on the third day when I successfully answered a Kingdom Hearts trivia question at the Yu-Gi-Oh: The Abridged Series marathon and won a Yu-Gi-Oh themed mini-binder signed on the spot by LK himself. I'll admit I was both nervous and excited as hell and I literally couldn't stop my legs from shaking, as cliché as that may sound. Hey, this guy is a legend! He pretty much invented an entire genre.

After almost fainting from the electrifying contact with LK himself, I attended the Angry Video Game Nerd panel which was absolutely packed to the brim. Not unexpected considering that this convention was a celebration of music and video games and the Nerd is one of the most well-known Internet celebrities in that respect. Even with a room dangerously close to overflowing, the Q+A session proceeded smoothly as James made sure to answer each question not only quickly, but thoroughly and tried to give as many people a chance as possible. The session ended with a live performance of both James's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles rant and the Angry Video Game Nerd theme song by Kyle Justin.

MAGFest wrapped up with MasakoX's voice acting panel, which was highly informative. It was refreshing to get a wildly different perspective on the world of voice acting. Independent projects are immensely helpful when trying to get one's foot through the proverbial door. Thus, tips from the guys who deal with (acclaimed) independent projects on a daily basis are invaluable. This is the advice you want to be getting: straight from the source, pure and undiluted. And of course, what better way to end an awesome trip to an awesome convention than with an encore showing of Kampfer Abridged? If this project truly was just a litmus of MasakoX's writing and directing skills for spoof humor, then I'd say he passed with flying colors. So far, the series is shaping up to be pure comedic genius. And I mean it.

Overall, MAGFest was a blast. The atmosphere was lively and the people were nice for the most part. There were, of course, some cocky, trigger-happy, competitive douchebags at the gaming tournaments but even they were in the vast minority and could be spotted from a mile away. I learned an awful lot from the panels and every single guest was incredibly humble and considerate. Above all, however, meeting LK is something I'll never forget. All I can say is: What a way to kick off the new year.