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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Usurp and Upbraid: Clannad

I’m starting a new line of pseudo-analysis pieces dubbed Usurp and Upbraid where the plan is to take a series that has been raised to uncontested acclaim and yank its head out of the clouds for at least a few fleeting seconds. And if the series happens to have as many starry-eyed adulators as vigilant crusaders as bilious cynics, then all the better.

Oh hey, look what’s on tap for today.

Now, there’s a lot of unjustified clamor about this wonderful little series on both sides of the pond. Far too often do people dismiss it as superficial moe-mania even though it is tasteful enough to be an evocative teen-drama. And then there are those who will vehemently defend it to the death, saying that anything less than unconditional love will not do the title justice.

As always, the truth is that Clannad’s quality lies somewhere in the middle, though definitely in favor of those who proclaim it to be a masterpiece. Personally, I have not seen as many churlish fanboys white-knighting Clannad as snooty hype-averters refusing to give it a fair shake. So I thought, hey, why not explore just what is it about Clannad that makes it so dealbreaking?

The most egregious problem with Clannad is the pacing. For those with limited patience, Clannad is an utter snore-fest. Yes, the brilliant comedic bits foster alertness, but the story, particularly in the first season, is really damn slow. Unlike Lucky Star or Azumanga Daioh, however, you’d be hard-pressed to call the series empty or inane. If a situation, interaction, or conversation isn’t being played for laughs, it’s distinctly progressive and pertinent. Still, this doesn’t stop the series from being a yawner at times.

Now, I’m pretty sure the next complaint is something that every stubborn skeptic will lodge with great fervor. And I really do hate to butt heads with them because, as much as I love Clannad, they do have a point.

Truth is, the traditional visual-novel adaptation formula can easily be interpreted as morally questionable and indulgent. It’s a format that flourishes in its freedom from the cage of reality.

Why exactly is it that a scruffy, good-for-nothing delinquent like Tomoya has girls flocking to him at every turn? Yeah, he’s a nice, genuinely-selfless guy under all his snide snarking but even his admirable altruism comes off as forced and exaggerated. With his reputation, it’s hard to believe the lengths he goes go to help a girl in need. Shouldn’t he be like community role-model-of-the-year or something?

But of course the most glaring flaw with the formula is how Tomoya is, without fail, precisely the person most suited at relieving whatever ails the troubled girls he crosses paths with. It’s the aura of messiacness that keeps eye-brows cocked and skepticism soaring. That, right there, is the internal inconsistency that everyone labels as a morally repugnant pipedream; a no-name everydude who, out of nowhere, decides to play Good Samaritan and instinctively finds himself to be the panacea to the scores of Broken Birds surrounding him.

Now, I personally have nothing against this and disagree with this point completely. But I can totally see why people would flout such a childishly-convenient fantasy of a scenario.

Then there’s Tomoya himself. While he’s definitely a far cry from the traditional harem lead in that he feels like an actual human being rather than a hapless cardboard surrogate, he’s sorely lacking in character development, even though his characterization is rich and complex. And yes, in the context of the series, it’s true that he skirts the boundaries of Marty Stu from time to time, which feels like the series is reluctant to break free from its harem-roots (such a problem is remedied brutally by the end of the second season, however).

As for the rest of the cast (i.e. the girls), while I personally adore them, they’re definitely not without their fair share of flaws. For one, while they are emotive and articulate well, they’re still married to same tired anime clichés. Kyou is the tsundere du jour. Kotomi is the shirking violet prodigy. Tomoyo is the rebellious bruiser. And Nagisa is the innocent, pure-hearted Yamato Nadeshiko. Don’t get me wrong; they’re about as complex and enjoyable as these roles allow them to be and are positively glowing with personality. It’s just that characters can only go so far when within the confines of their banal stereotypes.

Finally, the ending. No, not the one to ~After Story~. That miserable cop-out of a conclusion could give Neon Genesis Evangelion a run for its money. In retrospect, the ending to the first Clannad was fairly negligent as well. Though very emotional, it took things just a step too far and came off as overwrought. While people like myself have no problem with the climax of the Drama Club arc, those wearing the Jade-Colored, “Tomoya-is-a-messiah-to-all-these-girls” Glasses will be writhing in their seats at the cheesiness of it all.

To be fair, a lot of Clannad’s flaws and pretensions to harem get smoothed out by second-half of the sequel when Tomoya and Nagisa’s relationship reaches its halcyon days. Even the most embittered of cynics would find it difficult to deny the unbridled emotional beauty that ~After Story~’s back-half has in spades.

Problem is, those who can’t stand Clannad for the aforementioned reasons will find it challenging to drink down 30+ episodes worth of slow, school-related affairs just to get to the tantalizingly juicy bits. And I can’t blame them. Clannad doesn’t truly get universally tasteful until halfway through ~After Story~, and that, my friends, is why there is such a dire disconnect between vociferous fans and haters.

So, no, Clannad is does not sit in at the pinnacle of perfection nor at the bottom of the senseless moe dumpster. There’s a lot of unblemished, wholesome drama to be had here, but I won’t deny that it reeks of moe just strongly enough to ward off the uninitiated.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Addicting Anime

When you got this moment in Code Geass, you couldn’t stop watching. Admit it, you knew you were in the long haul as soon as exasperating scenes like these started to close out every other episode. And it got worse. Case in point:

I’ll be blunt. We need more of this. Thrilling, explosively ambitious storylines. Brutal cliffhangers. Plot twists that contain skull-caving amounts of Wham. In other words, we need more shows that are unforgivably addicting.

Obviously, Code Geass might as well be the poster child. Its cliffhangers were such a defining feature of the series that the producers went the extra mile to painstakingly carve one into the end of every episode of the sequel, no matter how unsightly or unwarranted.

But even when such catastrophic cliffhangers were shamelessly shoehorned in, they worked. They kept use glued to our monitors week after week purely out of anticipation. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

It wasn’t just the cliffhangers, gripping as they may have been. So long as the series wasn’t shooting the breeze with a breather episode, unwavering suspense was literally leaking out of every cavity. Look at the Mao arc of Season 1, for example.

I mean holy crap. Nary a moment of respite in sight! Shirley crossing paths with a sickeningly manipulative mind-reader, Lelouch trapped at gunpoint by the girl whom he was quite fond of, Mao getting his comeuppance for messing with Shirley, and the white-knuckled desperate race against time to rescue Nunnally which culminated in Lulu and Suzaku emerging victorious, against all odds, thanks to Lelouch’s devious, yet brilliant maneuver.

So why exactly does Geass sit heads and shoulders above all the other pretenders? There are two criteria to be fulfilled in order to qualify as a truly addicting series and Geass just happens to have done its homework and satisfied each requirement.

First, the series must keep our attention over the course of an episode, meaning minimal downtime and maximal volatility. Second, each episode must end leaving us craving more, whether it be by cliffhangers or the thrill of the unknown pushing us further and further into the abyss.

Now it’s obviously not as straightforward as it seems. In order to keep the audience captivated, a series must make us feel for the cast. This means crafting characters that are likable and emotionally engaging to the point where we actually give a damn about them were a tragedy to strike. And finally, to avoid coming off as contrived or inane, the ever-present harrowing situations or whiplashing plot twists must be smartly written, well-timed, and plausible.

As I mentioned, Geass fits the bill quite nicely. It strives for unpredictability at every possible turn and doesn’t let up. It first shovels an ensemble cast of interesting, likable characters into our craniums and then proceeds to dangle our beloveds precariously over the edge of a cliff, laughing madly at the fact that we’re powerless to stop it.

You see, in Geass, there are no incidents of Like You Would Really Do It. The fact that the series is unafraid of burying a few innocents to make that point abundantly clear (much like Zero himself) is established quite early on. Additionally, the consistent lack of clumsy execution or outlandish rationalization is what truly separates mesmerizing spectacle from un-buyable, frustrating wall-banger. Stuff like Bloodstained Euphie is just sensationalist enough to slacken our jaws without causing us to stop and ponder the plausibility of it all. It strikes that elusive balance of surreal and believable, skirting the borders of sophistry, with the end result etched firmly in our minds as the nuclear bomb of Wham Episodes.

While Geass is undeniably addicting, it doesn’t strive to shake things up terribly much. It’s got a lot of style and a wonderfully merciless protagonist, but there are ways to further tweak the formula and wring a bit more investment out of the audience. Enter Death Note.

Like Geass, Death Note has got one hell of an elegant foundation crafted. Compelling leads, superb writing, and lots of unpredictable, yet not implausible swerves to keep us on our toes. However, it does one-up Geass by introducing the concept of competition.

Death Note is sort of like watching a sports match where the two sides are duking it out with words and internal monologues alone. No, really. The series is so well-written, the mind games are so intricate, and the melodrama is concentrated at just the right consistency that every decisive stratagem executed feels like a stunning play out on the field.

The most cunning ploy, however, is that the series has the game rigged in such a way that you don’t know who to root for. As a result, every tide-turning, game-winning, mind-blowing play leaves you equally as awestruck since your allegiances will always lie with whomever’s brilliant scheme just came to fruition. I’d almost call it sneaky and underhanded if the effect weren’t so damn satisfying. Compound with a supernatural angle on the age-old tale of cat-and-mouse detective drama and Death Note most definitely keeps you gobbling away.

And then there’s Kaiji. Whereas Geass goes for style and grueling cliffhangers, and Death Note gives a nod to the spirit of competition, Kaiji takes emotional investment to another level, as I’ve stated in a previous blog post.

In Kaiji, the empathy is so palpable that you might as well be standing right there alongside the characters. Their fear and apprehension at the coming calamity cuts to the bone. In fact, it’s scary how often you’ll ask yourself what you would do if presented a path to redemption, no matter how many landmines lay hidden beneath the cobblestones.

Again, Kaiji nails all the elements of an addicting show with ease. The scenarios are just realistic enough, despite being splashed with a coat of sensationalism. Truth is, no one has trouble realizing that the plot of Kaiji could have very well been a defining chapter in their own lives were they placed in such a desperate situation. That, above all else, makes Kaiji a series that leaves you craving more; it makes you feel as if you’re just as much a part of the never-ending cycle of despair as Kaiji himself is.

Outside of those three series’, however, I can’t honestly say that I’ve found a series that I’ve been unable to put down after the initial boot. It’s kind of disheartening as a lot of shows are but one step shy from reaching such an illustrious pedestal. Eureka Seven, for example, could have used tighter pacing and the plethora of adrenaline-pumping action shows like Darker than Black, Claymore, or Gundam 00 just needed a beefier cast, emotionally speaking.

Now, obviously the vast majority of series’ don’t go out of their way to actively seek the mantle of “addicting show” and that’s perfectly fine. After all, being addictive is far from a criterion of being a great show. But for all the ones that do, it’s surprising that only a handful have managed to truly succeed.

We need more shows that make us feel like this during the wait for the next episode.

I know that anime in general isn’t fast-paced or deftly gripping from the get-go, but I’d like to see more shows, specifically anything action-oriented, try their hand at giving Code Geass or Death Note some healthy competition in that regard. After all, such shows are inherently poised to really sell the “drug” aspect of the “gateway drug,” thus making the medium of anime more accessible and enjoyable for all.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Gintama Swan Song

I’m in the same boat as all the diehard Gintama worshippers out there. March 25, 2010 was a sad, sad day for us all. After four years and 201 episodes of cheers and jeers, the Yorozuya have finally shut their doors on the animation side of the pond.

Now, it isn’t the end of the world quite just yet. Hideki Sorachi is still furiously inking away week-after-week, bringing us tales of the silver-haired samurai and his eccentric entourage. In fact, as of this writing, I hear that the series is in the middle of another one of its brilliant “serious” arcs, concerning the four leaders of the Kabuki district. And of course, the Benizakura movie is still set to premiere in late April.

Still, my heart does weep faintly at the thought of not being able to kick back with my favorite, frenetic, featherbrained crew every week. But at least the series ended on a high note and for all the right reasons. I’m glad Sunrise decided not to forfeit Gintama’s integrity by flooding the series with mediocre filler, as is par for the course with every other long-running shounen-action series to date. It’s not that the Gintama can’t pull off good filler per se; it’s more that creating filler for a unique series like Gintama is a grueling ordeal. As it’s based off an ongoing manga, every filler gag used robs the mangaka of potential material in the future.

For example, Episode 166, which forced Gintoki and Hijikata together by way of (double) handcuffs, had me howling with laughter at every turn. From the café scene to the painstakingly-elaborate bathroom-configurations to Gintoki and Hijikata wiping out an entire warehouse full of thugs in spite of the literal bind that they’d been placed in, everything was perfect. Hands-down one of my favorite episodes of the series. And yet it was filler.

Problem is, Sorachi can no longer pen a chapter based around any of those truly hysterical antics. While it was probably simple enough to get his consent on the handful of gags used in that one brilliant filler episode, just think of how unreasonable it would be to ask for 50 episodes’ worth of original material upfront!

So I totally get why Gintama had no choice but to stop. It’s bittersweet in every sense of the word. Gintama fans, myself included of course, won’t have our hearts broken seeing the series’ reputation get dragged through the dirt. Sunrise gets to take a break and promote their movie. And Sorachi gets to continue cranking out chapters of his opus uninterrupted. After suffering through some short-term withdrawal, it’s easy to see that everyone wins.

With that out of the way, the time is ripe to rifle through our scrapbooks full of great Gintama memories. To start, I personally was hooked from the very beginning. The concept of a comedy-action series that involved aliens invading Edo-period Japan was way too wacky and haphazard to pass up. It’s truly Anachronism Stew at its absolute finest.

But there were also a wealth of factors that kept me stranded in Edo for months to come. For one, Gintoki himself was endearing and engaging right from the get-go. And while I consider him groundbreaking and one of the niftiest characters to date, I harbor unconditional love for the rest of the cast as well. Together, they form one incomparable group of screwballs.

Secondly, the series really has a firm grasp on the Sliding Scale of Seriousness Versus Silliness. The comedy bits are absolute genius. The material is as smart as it is ambitious (see the boundary-pushing Neon Genesis Evangelion ending sequence or Nausicaa parody) and the relentless deluge of references and shout-outs is unceasingly entertaining. And when the time comes to sober up and get dangerous, Gintama eagerly jumps at the call, nimbly going from mirthful and jovial to grave and somber with nary an awkward tonal shift in sight. I often refer to Gintama as the Ouran High School Host Club of shounen-action in the way it both mocks and pays homage to the genre.

"Congratulations"

But enough of the qualitative stuff. This is supposed to be a relaxing look back at a series that has already proved itself a modern-day classic after all. Starting from the beginning, the first pivotal arc is where the series started to catch its stride.

Benizakura reminded me of the episode where Hajime Saitou made his appearance in Rurouni Kenshin in that it was a grim, jarring departure from the lighthearted hijinks that we were all accustomed to. Benizakura is where Gintama finally got to strut its stuff; the fight between Gintoki and Nizo was a crude, sword-clanging fracas and all of the staples of shounen-action (i.e. the unwavering determination, heroic quips, and inseparable ties holding the nakama together) were showcased at their best without feeling like they were poured on too thick.

“Take a good long look at this sword your sister forged…and see how well it cuts!”

Oh, and Katsura’s back-to-back badass with Gintoki was nothing short of epic.

Speaking of the Sliding Scale of Silliness Versus Seriousness, the Mitsuba two-parter was a shining example of how to switch over from laughs to tears without succumbing to Cerebus Syndrome. It proved that Gintama is right up there with shows like Ouran in terms of pumping out solid, sentimental character development. Never had it been clearer that the Shinsengumi was an organization forged by unbreakable bonds of loyalty and friendship.

“We’re lucky, you know that? To have such lousy friends.”

Hijikata flourished in his oh-so-badassery by stating that he falls more on the side of Noble Demon rather than Demonic Vice-Commander, then hacking his way through a dock full of terrorists all on his own. Also, who could forget Okita settling the score with his sister’s corrupt suitor by slicing his car cleanly in two? And finally, the unbelievably heartrending scene of Okita and Mitsuba saying their goodbyes. *sniff*

The Shinsengumi discord arc. Oh, where do I begin? Without a doubt, my favorite lengthy arc of the entire series, the Shinsengumi discord arc was a multifaceted, moiling rollercoaster ride from start to finish.

As always, the arc started off inconspicuously and innocuously with Hijikata’s possession by a demonic sword that housed the spirit of an otaku. It wasn’t until Treacherous Advisor Itou proclaimed his bid to usurp Kondo that things really started to spiral out of control.

From there, the rest of the arc flew by in a blur of head-spinning insanity crammed full of Crowning Moments of Awesome. Okita blenderizing a train carriage’s worth of Shinsengumi traitors, Hijikata breaking the curse through his irrepressible loyalty to his commander alone, and Bansai Kawakami trading blows with the White Demon himself.

The revelation of Itou’s tragic backstory was perfectly placed and again, took what would normally have been a flagrant foible of shounen-action and presented it in a manner that was satisfyingly poignant. And after the requisite reconciliation, Gintoki did layeth the smackdown on Bansai by delivering an impressively charismatic and charged Shut Up Hannibal to our misguided musical assailant; a speech that took first place in Gintama’s best quote’s compilation.

“Then and now…what I protect HAS NEVER CHANGED!”

Yoshiwara-Shangrila was also quite a treat. Granted, Knight-of-Cerebus Shinsuke Takasugi was absent, but the introduction of psychotic Blood Knight Kamui more than made up for it. More than anything, however, this arc made me realize how much I love Gintoki’s fantastic snarking during his Big Damn Hero entrances. He even engages in some chummy foul-mouthed bickering with Tsukuyo in the middle of the climactic battle with Hosen, the lovably smart-alecky rebellious spirit.

And speaking of Gintoki vs. Hosen, yes it was a balls-tighteningly spectacular fight. I’m still surprised at how worked up I get watching the showdown, specifically the conclusion where Gintoki spits another one of his scornful retorts at Hosen, then proceeds to drive Lake Toya right through the dastardly mob boss, blasting him out of the arena and into the sunlight.

“Gin-san!!! Burn the chains off…the King of the Night!”

Aside from the major arcs, there are simply too many epic episodes to list. The two with Sakamoto were unforgettable, mostly due to Shinichiro Miki’s hyena-laugh. Video game-centric arcs such as the Ow-wee arc, the Screwdriver arc, or the Tama arc were all clever, high-brow, sublime parodies. Seriously, making fun of video games in an intelligent manner is tricky business and Gintama might be the only series that has done it successfully, i.e. without looking pathetically misinformed. And as someone who views the Saw franchise as a guilty pleasure, I was positively smitten when I saw Hijikata and Okita chained together in a chilling death trap masterminded by a puppet-masked villain (or so it seemed).

If I had to pick out a favorite mini-arc besides Mitsuba’s, I did enjoy Okita’s Death Flag arc, which brought out more and more sides to our rebellious little sadist. But I’ve got to give it to the Ryugu palace arc, which had an ending that mercilessly yanked at the heartstrings. It still amazes me how Gintama can take something that would normally be eye-rollingly hokey and turn it into something unaffectedly heartfelt.

I was fully expecting Gintama to get an unceremonious send-off as the Exorcism arc wasn’t the most fulfilling way to end an incredible journey. And then when the series started the Santa arc, things kept looking bleaker and bleaker. However, I’m glad to say that the final episode turned out to be an incredibly satisfying way to end the tale of our intrepid Odd-Jobbers.

Instead of pulling out all the stops and descending into the usual rhapsodical ramblings that the series is infamous for, Gintama decided to go for the most low-key, “shootin’-the-breeze” kind of ending ever with Kagura’s final words of “Happy Merry Last Episode!” being the only reference to the series’ departure.

It really brought a smile to my face. All too often does a series based off of a manga crash clumsily into its finale, leaving us wracked with disbelief at how half-baked the ending was. Great Teacher Onizuka, Soul Eater, and even Ouran to name a few. While there was no closure in Gintama’s case, the series definitely went out smoothly and demurely and for a series that’s as polemical as it it trollemical, a humble bow as the curtains fell was the best way to go.

I hear the series is slated for a comeback in the future and I yearn for the day Gintama returns to wow us on a weekly basis. ‘Til then, though:

SEE YOU SILVER SAMURAI