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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Hinagiku Katsura

Almost a year ago, I plowed through both seasons of Hayate no Gotoku! and loved pretty much every minute of it (even the filler, which kept its referential edge razor-sharp). With some time on my hands, I decided to catch up on the ongoing manga and, much to my surprise, I’m finding that the source material completely eclipses the anime adaptation.

Anyway, revisiting the bizarre world of the battle butler in-debt and his interactions with the students at the illustrious Hakuou Academy, which apparently acts as the training ground for admittance into Gintama U, has been nothing short of a treat. In particular, it’s fully rekindled my interest in the lusciously pink-haired student council president of Hakuou, Hinagiku Kastura.

I seem to have abruptly catapulted headfirst onto the Hinagiku-bandwagon because I’ve been converted, practically overnight, into a staunch devotee of Hinagiku-ism. Heck, I’ve even eschewed Senjougahara in favor of Hinagiku fascination and judging by the results of the series’ popularity polls, it’s already gone into style.


So just what is it about this portrait-of-perfection, pink-haired bombshell that’s so damn fascinating? Like any other character worth his/her weight, she embodies a lot of anime character tropes without being defined by them. She’s a badass adorable tsundere (though pleasantly more dere than tsun) with a fiery competitive streak, but her personality is burnished by traits that are identifiably Hinagiku as opposed to being reduced to nothing more than, say, Shana with a wooden katana.

It also helps that she’s a very developed character (just not horizontally-speaking, much to her dismay) who manages to strike that elusive balance between novel and conventional. As Hayate no Gotoku! is built on toying with every anime stereotype in existence, Hina certainly received her fair share of earmarks from the anime-trope lottery, thus comfortably anchoring her to the cornerstones of the medium. But it’s the remarkable way that she adaptively cycles through her varied arsenal that truly makes her a flushed diamond in the rough.

For example, instead of strictly adhering to the Deadpan Snarker blueprint, Hina is only deadpan when the situation demands (usually anything involving Yukiji, Risa/Izumi/Miki, or yet another silly Hayate foul-up). And unlike a pure-tsundere like Shana, whose only reaction to everything seems to be scoffing incredulously and unleashing a flurry of blows, Hina only lets her lethal sword arm slip when she’s been backed into a corner, like when she and Hayate were trapped in the school’s clock tower on that one unforgettable evening. Likewise, while Shana seems to go dere at the slightest provocation, Hina’s emotions are kept carefully under lock-and-key, just like any self-conscious high-school girl.

I hope you see where I’m going with this. Hinagiku elegantly dispenses with the hyperbole and/or rote of all of our lovable anime character tropes, essentially taking said tropes and rarifying them into something more believable. She’s as realistic as can be while still exuding that distinctive fragrance of anime fantasy.

Yes, she puts up a Mary Sue-ish fa├žade as the incomparable paragon of a student council president, but she’s inwardly overflowing with teenage insecurities, making her adorably sympathetic.

It also helps that Hina is incredibly adept at wringing every ounce of fun out of the tropes she’s been dealt. When she’s sweet, she’s like a pristine box of expensive chocolates and when she’s angry, you do not want to be within reach of that wooden katana. She can strut that alluring Tall Pink-Haired and Bishoujo front with astonishing confidence by constantly swooping in to save the day with an unconcerned smile, but also grudgingly performs perfectly as the poster-girl for parody.

Revolutionary Girl Hinagiku

Hinagiku Clyne...my life is complete. OTZ OTZ OTZ

And since she’s beyond the reach of prosaic exaggeration, her authentic reactions to the neverending exasperations surrounding her are unfailingly hilarious because, as we all know, it’s funny because it’s true. She’s an Unfunny who has accepted her fate and has even gone so far as to embrace it, if unenthusiastically.

But it’s more than just Hina’s reactions that are authentic, because when the series finds itself hurtling down serious street, her inner-monologuing and reasoning behind every action she makes is honest and elaborate. For example, whenever she’s faced with the question of how to cope with her feelings for Hayate, expect development to skyrocket as muddled thoughts slowly disentangle and form layers of complexity stacked upon an increasingly fascinating foundation. Any emotional climax involving Hina is automatically a highlight of the series such as when she and Hayate share a breathtaking view of the city at night from the clock tower.

Or when she finally breaks the news that she loves Hayate to Ayumu in a Ferris Wheel carriage overlooking the school. Or when she goes on a date with Hayate and drops her emotional barrier as a train zooms by with auspicious timing, completely masking the confession.

Or this scene, where Hayate confesses his love for Athena, the bastard.
*Insert Rage Face here*

It should come as no surprise that Hinagiku was the prototype-protagonist for Hayate no Gotoku! given the exhaustive care put into molding her character. Her infectious, relatable charm could jockey the series all the way to the finish line. I suppose it’s ironic that she’s deathly afraid of heights seeing as she sits on a pedestal that’s broken clear through the stratosphere.

Move over Amu Hinamori, because another “cool and spicy” dynamo has taken over as the divine leader in the pink-haired powerhouse district. Come to think of it, maybe I just have a thing for wooden katanas.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Durarara!! and Me

My relationship with Durarara!! is a complicated one. In the middle of our weekly, sweet, passionate love-makin' the name Baccano! is accidentally hurled out and is naturally followed by an agonizing awkward silence before she bolts upright and storms out the door. And I feel this has happened 17 consecutive times.

Fact of the matter is, there was a time where I couldn’t help but feel that not only was Durarara!! the spiritual successor to Baccano!, but by virtue of its unoriginality when compared to Baccano!, it shouldn't have been allowed anywhere near the former's blood-soaked legacy. Baccano!'s unconventional storytelling mechanism was nothing short of pure genius, its action was dismemberingly visceral and the Mafia/Great Depression backdrop added an incredible amount of personality to the plot. Even if it was penned by the same author, how could Durarara!!, a series set in present day Japan with a strictly linear plot progression and subdued violence, ever turn out to be more than just a lame pretender?

As much as I hate to admit it, Durarara!! is poised to pass Baccano! or at the very least crank out a photo finish during the pivotal final stretch of this race.

You see, while Durarara!! is not as energetic or innovative as Baccano!, it takes the coarse, crude formula that made Baccano! successful and refines the whole shebang, giving it an elegant makeover while leaving the core integrity intact. Whereas Baccano! was a kid thrashing about wildly in a sandbox with no rhyme or reason, Durarara!! is like a kid erecting a full-fledged sandcastle.

I'm not here to thoroughly analyze Durarara!! No, I just want to give an idea of what I think it does better than Baccano! and why it deserves equally as much love and maybe more if the upcoming finale can deliver something earth-shattering and memorable.

For one, the setting of Ikebukero is well-defined, compelling, and familiar whereas in Baccano!, there is no central location to act as an infinite fount of supernatural shenanigans. Ikebukero is lively, organic, and atmospheric, thanks to the fact that paranormal elements such as headless Dullahans on motorbikes and hive-mind sword sisters are constantly ping-ponging off each other like free radicals. As a central hub overflowing with ominous weirdness while also maintaining the appearance of a tidy, unassuming cosmopolis, Ikebukero serves its purpose to the story almost too well.

For two, the characters receive much more focus here and are thus more interesting and easier to get behind. Don't get me wrong; Baccano!'s eclectic characters were a lot of fun, but, barring the incomparable Isaac and Miria, I'd love to kick back and chill with some of the mainstays of Durarara!! before any of Baccano!'s ensemble cast.

Celty is Badass Adorable; friendly and approachable while also alluringly shrouded in both black mist and mystery. And she's a tsundere. Shinra is also someone I'd like to chat with; maybe we could swoon over Celty while I watch him get flogged by shadowy tendrils for leaking too much private information.

Then there's Izaya, who is an earmark of author Ryohgo Narita in that he's cheerfully loopy and LOVES ALL OF HUMANITY while secretly seeking to pull the earth out from underneath the entire city. Not only is Izaya like the kind of troll that's so good at what he does that it's impossible not to like him, but he actually is a troll in the show as he poses as a girl in online chatrooms, flaunting his whimsical flippancy for all of cyber-Ikebukero to see. Oh, and he trolls Shizuo by balancing soda cans on his shoulder when he's not looking.

Speaking of Shizuo, he's my favorite character in the entire show. I fell in love with him after that absurd episode focusing on his upbringing and there's just something about the way he sidles through life casually chucking vending machines every which way while asserting that he is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, a peaceful person that's ridiculously charming in that tongue-in-cheek sort of way. It also helps that his verbal tics are hilariously quirky (Kill it, kill it, kill it...) and his one-track mind focused on the death of Izaya makes him someone I'd love to tag along with everywhere. Not to mention the fact that said one-track mind is so simple and his demeanor so nonchalant that he's the only one who is free from Izaya's sweeping, manipulative grip, making him one sharply-dressed, disrobing-punch flinging, GAR-ly spanner in the works.

Most significantly of all, Durarara!! has mastered the idea of a spectacle show. If Baccano! is like a rollercoaster ride through gangster-riddled New York, Durarara!! is akin to hopping on the bus for a guided tour of Ikebukero. Yes, the pacing is not as frantic, but I think giving the pot of supernatural oddities time to marinate while passing all the mind-bending aberrations at a reasonable pace gives ample time for the eerie mood to set in, jaws to sufficiently slacken, and crazy theories to be spun. Watching the mystery of Celty's head, the origin of the Dollars gang, the birth of the daughters of Saika, and the maturation of Izaya's malevolent plan unfurl at a carefully measured rate was far more rewarding than blowing by all the major plot revelations and occult craziness at breakneck speed.

Granted, as of this writing, I'm only 17 episodes into the series, but the show has already blown my mind. I've already gotten over my tsundere attitude towards the show and fully acknowledge that it has the potential to outshine Baccano! if it takes advantage of its enormous strengths for the final third. Here's hoping the now-trifurcated Ikebukero can rally together to put an end to Izaya's scheme once and for all.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Gintoki Sakata

“Listen up! Let's say you drink too much strawberry milk and have to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. But it's cold outside your bed. You don't want to get up, but the urge to urinate is just too strong! You make up your mind to go! You run to the bathroom, stand in front of the toilet, and let loose! You think that all your life has led to this moment! But then you realize! It isn't the bathroom! You're still in bed! That feeling of lukewarm wetness spreads like wildfire! But you don't stop! You can't stop! That's what I'm talking about! That's the truth of the strawberry milk! Do you get it?!”

Not quite the rousing speech one might expect, eh? With this silver-haired samurai at the reins, it becomes quickly apparent that shounen-action will never be quite the same. Whereas protagonists such as Ichigo Kurosaki of Bleach churn out excruciatingly corny one-liners such as:

Zangetsu: "Do you want to fight? Or do you want to live?"
Ichigo: "I want to win!"

the klutzy hero of Gintama spends time busting his balls to enlighten us about the humble wonder of calcium-rich beverages laced with sugary strawberry syrup. Because that’s just who he is.

FAAAAAAAAAAADE IN!!!

Gintoki Sakata is has become quite a name in anime ever since his series debuted in April of 2006. In fact, during Newtype’s decade-sweeping popularity poll, he placed 8th in the 2000’s male bracket. And unlike glitzy pretty boys such as Kira Yamato, he actually earned such a vaunted position, instead of sailing to victory on the pedigree of a face-crunchingly popular franchise.

So why is it exactly that the sweet-toothed samurai deserves to carve trace with urine his name amongst the anime icons of yore? As I mentioned in my eulogy to Gintama, Gintoki is one of the niftiest, most fascinating, and most groundbreaking characters to date, even moreso due to his genre of choice. He puts such a delightfully unpredictable spin on a tiresome, oft-maligned archetype that he towers above the competition with his dead-fish eyes peeking out from underneath those deliciously white-permed bangs.

First off, Gintoki owes a lot to his excellent character design. As crazy hair is revered in anime circles, that unkempt, wavy silver-hair is a distinctive cornerstone. But equally so is his aforementioned strikingly unamused gaze. His default disgruntled expression could be a result of sheer indifference, but it could also mean that maybe, just maybe, this guy’s got his reasons for being fed up with life.

Likewise, the half-draped-on kimono could be indicative of Gintoki’s pure apathy on maintaining a tidy appearance. But it also shows that he’s only half-willing to let go of his samurai roots. Or maybe that old bushido code is something that will forever cling to his person and he’s just given up on shrugging it off. Isn’t it nice when a design can be not only iconic and distinctive, but also articulate?

I’m sure plenty of people picked up on the handful of similarities between Gintama and the 1990s sword-swingin’ samurai hit Rurouni Kenshin and it’s easy to draw comparisons between pacifistic wanderer, Kenshin Himura and silver samurai, Gintoki Sakata. They’re both wayward, disillusioned spirits who reject yet are constantly followed by their destructive pasts where they each garnered a deadly reputation on the battlefield.

However, Gintoki is far from an expy of Kenshin. I believe the reason Gintoki is so well received is that he is, in fact, not so much of an upgrade of Kenshin Himura, as an update of our favorite ponytailed, retired manslayer.

You see, back in the day, Kenshin’s "speak-softly-and-carry-a-reverse-bladed-sword" badassery was the norm for gutsy action shows. In present day, however, we’re still weathering the onslaught of school or small-community-based series’. It’s not too far-fetched to suggest that, nowadays, we react better to characters we can identify with and this desire is not lost on the part of the creative design team.

As of recent, shounen series’ seem to be leaning away from shining the spotlight onto plucky, wide-eyed peaceniks and towards molding their protagonists into audience surrogates. It’s a new paradigm for a new age. Just look at Ichigo. He’s a character that the demographic can relate to; a brash, reckless high school student. Because, you know, it’s cool to be independent and incorrigible at that age. Well supposedly, at any rate.

Gintoki, on the other hand, definitely embodies a lot of what makes up your typical high-school/college otaku. He’s precisely the vicarious vessel that we want our heroes to be; cool, but in that flaky, smart-alecky sort of way, while also feeling very real and relatable. Unlike Ichigo, whose deeply-ingrained heroic streak benumbs his alleged rebelliousness, Gintoki is genuinely lazy, apathetic, and obsessed with shounen manga. He shares the same laid-back, no-frills attitude that most, if not all of us content ourselves with whenever real life starts rearing its ugly head.

And like Kyon of Suzumiya Haruhi (whose voice was also provided by Tomokazu Sugita starting in the exact same week of the exact same year), Gintoki is rife with inherent charm because he’s a fantastic deadpan snarker who constantly bemoans the fact that the weight of the world is too much for him to bear. I know it’s a given, but he’s really good at it. And for the exactly same reasons, i.e. because his unforgiving sarcasm is invitingly incisive; well-written and realistic to the point where the old saying “it’s funny because it’s true” holds considerable weight. Gintoki’s an unrepentant smartass, on par with Kyon, whose dry comebacks and lemony commentary overclock the comedy processing unit.

I think this overgeneralized math equation says it best:
Gintoki is the best parts of Kyon, the best parts of Kenshin, and the sweetest part of L. He’s snide, smart-tongued, and wrapped up in trying to shoo away all the unpleasant eccentricities that keep knocking at his door, thus fulfilling the role of The Unfunny almost too well (as the head of an Odd Jobs business in an alien-inhabited 1860’s Japan, did you really expect much else, Gin-chan?) while also having the ability to get downright dangerous and lay some serious beatings on anyone who messes with him.

It’s true that he sobers up and kicks ass during all the climactic showdowns as shounen tradition dictates. But unlike all the rest of the shounen heroes who invariably get devoured by all the groan-inducing theatrics, Gintoki maintains his supremely wry, maverick edge even when he’s forced to flaunt the usual shounen schtick.

For example, during the Itou arc, he refers to his ties with the Shinsengumi as “obnoxious bonds” and refuses to state just what it is that he has always fought for. I mean, his unwavering devotion to his nakama is pretty obvious, but the fact that it isn’t explicitly spelled out is quite a refreshing twist.

We’ve seen this sort of attitude before, but, as mentioned, that spectacular snark combined with the fact that he is the main character as opposed to the Lancer or the Aloof Ally in a shounen-action series is very much the strawberry-on-top.

He’s truly the best of both worlds. Unmotivated, sardonic, desperate to obtain the newest Weekly Shounen Jump, and generally a derisive jerk to everyone around him. But at the same time, honorable, skilled, and willing to go to any lengths to help a person in need, be it those in his beloved nakama who he is inwardly affectionate towards or complete strangers.

No, seriously. He’ll do anything to help a troubled soul, whether it be taking a sound beating to bring the son of a Yazuka boss to his senses, tackling a cult of onmyouji and demons to bring the smile back to a weather girl’s face, or challenging, one-on-one, the mob boss of the strongest alien race in the galaxy just to reunite a scruffy pickpocket with his long-lost mother. Remember, Gintoki still upholds the old bushido code, which has the stunning effect of making him an impertinent, covert chevalier.

In essence, all of the admirable parts of a traditional shounen hero with none of the inane cheesiness and a healthy drizzling of goofy, cheeky chutzpah. Gintoki serves as both an excellent touch-point for the otaku crowd while also playing the role of untouchably cool, wooden-katana wieldin’ warrior.

Is he this decade’s Kenshin? Of course not. Gintoki Sakata is a remarkable being unto himself; the luminescent silver-lining to the hoary cloud of shounen action.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a tall glass of strawberry milk awaiting my undivided attention.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

I Will Kill You

AKA Mobile Suit Gundam Wing

Gundam Wing is to the great peace-and-war debate what Neon Genesis Evangelion is to psychological analysis. That is to say, shockingly and stupefyingly under-researched garbage. It's all spark and no substance; paper-thin proclamations of bringing peace through specious means and feeble attempts at explaining how ginormous mechs represent the future of humanity.

Now, Gundam politics or "Sunrise politics" have never been known for classy, though-provoking intrigue. But Gundam Wing seems to go out of its way to make that point painfully apparent by queuing up one political/philosophical pratfall after another on a conveyor belt feeding into the forge of frustration. When I say the politics are painful, they are painful as in irrelevant, sophomoric slush on a stick. Most of the time, it has to do with the fact that everyone preaching peace right out their highminded bumflaps while simultaneously ordering the deaths of thousands. Seriously, watch closely, and you'll hear characters contradict their own ideals in the same bloody episode. It's dogmatic drivel at its absolute worst: immature and horribly inconsistent.

Possibly the worst offender right here

No one, and I mean no one (including the leaders of antagonistic factions), has any motivation that couldn't be described as laughable for any of their actions. It's just kind of hard to get behind the characters when their trains of thought are about as anchored as the Flying Pussyfoot.

That being said, if you just shut out all the shrill political and philosophical bleating, there's one hell of a fine action show to be had here. The characters are relatively stock, but are lively, expressive, and well-rounded.

Heero is proto-Sousuke Sagara with his all-business hypercompetence making him grade-A spotlight-material. Duo is delightfully brash with only the merest hint of arrogance. Trowa says one line per episode, thus playing the silent-badass-with-a-heart-of-gold card perfectly straight. And Quatre is the requisite angst vector, but luckily his fount of whine isn't exaggerated to the point of irritation like we see all too often. Pretty decent crop for a bunch of bishounen ace pilots.

Except for Wu Fei. Yeah, he's basically a contemptible, misogynistic prick who seems unable to form a sentence that doesn’t consist of the words "strong" or "weak." I don't give a toss about you, Wu Fei. Please go die.

How I feel about Wu Fei

Okay, so admittedly, these pilots are emotionally frail and underdeveloped, but that's par for the course for anything out of the Gundam franchise because, as always, the cool-factor swoops in to save the day. And speaking of the cool-factor, yes, the action scenes are sharp, clean, and intense, especially when backed by a satisfyingly operatic, rousing, epic score.

But what's tragic is that the series doesn't play to its strengths of dynamic action and instead stubbornly shoves politics to the forefront; presumably to artificially lengthen a ramshackle-plot that only the overcredulous would buy. I, for one, was definitely more interested in the little day-in-the-limelight stories that crop up whenever our heroes get separated from one another than the dippy political struggle literally hemorrhaging hot-air and fluff out of its bloated frame. The human element is there, but it's unfortunate that it doesn't receive the attention it so richly deserves.

Gundam Wing is a show where the limit as brain approaches off equals two thumbs up. While minds may find themselves unwelcome at this party, eyes, ears, and heck, maybe even hearts will be gorging themselves silly on what is viewed as the matriarch of mecha, State-side in the 1990s.

So yes, I thought it was good. Happy?