Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Top 10 Characters

Following the trend birthed over at THAT Anime Blog, I decided to scrape something concerning my favorite anime characters together.  The gist of Ghostlightning's postulation was that there are two categories under which favorite characters can fall: “Complex” and “Admirable.”  Other bloggers hastily appended two additional categories: “Entertaining” and “Relatable.”  The point being made is that the criteria for choosing a favorite character are vastly different from the criteria for choosing a favorite show in that personal appeal far outweighs technical merits or “Liberal Humanist” values.

Personally, a strong cast of characters can and most likely will cause me to overlook a wealth of glaring, detrimental flaws, so I fully understand the means by which a favorite character can come from a not-so-great series.

10. Senjougahara Hitagi (Bakemonogatari) – Complex

I almost went with admirable here, but that would mainly be from a perspective removed from the confines of the show itself so I think complex works better both within and without.  And Senjougahara is indeed complex, so much so that while she seems to be in complete control over every scathing quip delivered with a beautifully-framed sultry sideways-glance, she's really just as confused and crippled as her unfortunate victims.  It's a defensive mechanism that's triggered involuntarily and the fact that she is just starting to struggle against it is what brings her down to earth and makes her nothing more than a frail teenager in need of a friend.

Okay, okay, yeah, it's great fun to see her flay Araragi senseless with her sharp-tongued trolling.  Probably her most impressive feat is her uncanny ability to string her boyfriend along mercilessly whilst keeping him enamored with her.

9. Mogami Kyouko (Skip Beat!) – Admirable

If nothing else, Kyouko's got guts; so much so that she could teach a platoon of hardened frontline soldiers a thing or two about determination.  When she loses her cool, there's not a single person who isn't intimidated and for damn good reason.  Who would have thought that the flaming pillar of courage that towers above the battlefield and reduces all other contenders to soot would come from a shoujo-comedy series?

But while her feisty Fem-GAR makes her admirable, she's just a lot of fun in general.  She can be innocent and airheaded (which in fact is her default persona), yet sympathetically cute when overwhelmed by emotions that aren't anger.  Heck, she can even wax Badass whenever she's called upon to adopt a role (in fact, it's the picture I went with just because of how cool she looks).  Compare Kyouko the student to Kyouko the actor to Kyouko the jilted harbinger of revenge and you'll have three completely different people on your hands.

8. Allen Walker (D. Gray Man) – Admirable

I'm not a fan of shounen-action and found Fullmetal Alchemist's pint-sized lead “mildly compelling” at best, but Allen just sort of clicked with me from the moment I fired up D. Gray Man.  Maybe it's 'cos he's the antithesis of the traditional shounen hero in that he's meek, soft-spoken, and heck, even cowardly at times, yet still manages to pull off posh, leather-clad badassery (seriously, just look at that Crown Clown) when it's crunch time.  And while I dare not wander into the territory that is shotacon (in addition to being completely straight), I have to admit he's adorable enough to evoke an omochikaeri~ every now and again.

I went with admirable here because while Allen's a far cry from your typical shounen protagonist, he still retains all of those admirable cornerstones such as unwavering dedication to one's friends and sharp-as-steel courage.

7. Miyazaki Nodoka (Mahou Sensei Negima!) – Admirable

Aww...she's so adorable.  Cute and meek may be, but recent chapters have proven that Nodoka will have easier time victimizing you, if you mess with her or her friends.  That's right, she took so many levels in badass all at once with the line “My counterattack starts here!” that not only was just boosted to the level of memetic badass, but it was directly lampshaded in the series itself. 

Aside from that, the main reason Nodoka resonates with me more than the legions of Shrinking Violets in anime boils down to relatability.  I myself am withdrawn and reclusive but my dandere tendencies do inspire me to open up, just like Nodoka.  But more significantly, I love hanging around at bookstores and drowning myself in trivia, manga, fantasy epics, you name it.  How could I not feel inherently destined for a girl nicknamed “Honya-chan”?

6. Sakata Gintoki (Gintama) – Admirable

It's hard to pin Gintoki down, but I'd like to think he's the inspirational brand of admirable.  That is, someone the otaku audience can identify with and aspire to (if they had his kick-butt wooden-katana prowess that is).  He's snarky, solitary, short-tempered, and an unremitting jerkass...unless you happen to be a person in need of help.  In which case, he'll unhesitatingly break every bone in his body to rescue you from the depths of despair.

I once described Gintoki as a “covert chevalier” in that even he, at times, forgets how much of a Good Samaritan he is.  Yeah, he's a lazy bum who constantly gets his balls twisted by this little thing we call life, but that's why we love him.

5. Suzumiya Haruhi (no Yuutsu) – Both!

The only character on this list that I couldn't properly classify.  She's complex because not only is she the embodiment of a dizzying wealth of character tropes, but she's also got a relatable edge: the titular melancholy.  Put simply, it's a severe case of I Just Want to be Special, but she conveys her regret in such an understandable fashion that, well, we all know exactly how she feels.

And what's not to love about her genki, gung-ho attitude of tackling life head-on and never pausing for a lull since our time on this planet is so very fleeting? Her energetic free-spirited-ness could only be described as admirable and is so powerful that it needs its own anchor, namely Kyon, to keep Haruhi from taking the SOS Brigade straight to the stars.

4. Sagara Sousuke (Full Metal Panic!) – Admirable

Sousuke may very well be the only exception on my list seeing as categorizing him as admirable is merely a formality.  While he is admirable and complex, I think entertaining works best for our short-fused, hyperparanoid sergeant.

While Sousuke's dangerous(ly hysterical) naiveté makes him, in my opinion, the funniest character in anime, his character is still humbled by a rather grisly upbringing and the ability to be exceptionally competent on the few occasions where critical situations do worm their way to Kaname Chidori's front door.  But, really, none of that holds a candle to watching him instinctively detonate a bay of gym lockers or interrogate teachers at gun-point with their arms locked behind their backs.

3. Vash the Stampede (Trigun) – Complex

It's hard to argue with the classics.  Even today, Vash is one of the most complex characters in all of anime, while still remaining insanely goofy and likable.  Pacifist may be, but his status as the God of Marksmanship is a good indicator of how much of a badass he can be.  Plus, he can play comic relief and miraculously not come off as an insufferable twat.

But the reason Vash is so remarkable is because of his engrossing backstory and the way it's subtlety revealed throughout the course of the series.  Even during the earlier, lighthearted episodes, hints are dropped that this fun-loving wanderer is the result of something sinister, something tragic, something taboo. Vash plays every one of his roles to perfection, be it womanizing clown, spot-on sharpshooter, pacifistic mediator, nomadic martyr, or messiac savior.

2. Ryougi Shiki (Kara no Kyoukai) – Admirable

One of the most beautiful cases of an Ice Queen defrosting, Shiki's story is a tale of self-discovery, both old and new.  Over the course of Kara no Kyoukai, she gradually overcomes the mental blockades that she herself instituted to cope with her loss in order to pursue a relationship with someone she had truly fallen in love with.

What makes her truly admirable is, again, her acceptance of who she is.  Years of mental conditioning, a harsh, isolated upbringing, an inveterate thirst for combat and killing, heck even dissociative identity disorder; none of it means jack to her after Mikiya enters her life.  Now that's admirable.

1. Katsura Hinagiku (Hayate no Gotoku!) – Admirable

Allegations of Mary Sue be damned, because this girl is a bonafide Parody Sue and is loving every minute of it!  As I mentioned in a previous post, Hinagiku's got everything; she's admirable in her upstanding heroics, complex in her tangled web of emotions, entertaining in her being the only straight man in the crowd of idiots surrounding her (plus her propensity for parody), and relatable in her underlying teenage insecurities.

But to be honest, I just love how good she looks at whatever she does, be it heading up the student council, acting like the tall, aloof, bishoujo she wishes she could be, playing mom to her older sister, sweeping up the whoopsies of twit-trifecta, Risa/Miki/Izumi, berating and/or spazzing out in front of Hayate, or stuffing her wooden katana down the nearest Eldritch Abonimation's windpipe.  She's just too damn awesome.

So the final breakdown of this list is as follows:
Admirable – 7
Complex – 2

If I had to assign Haruhi to a category, it would have to be admirable, so my list ends up being rather admirable-heavy.  I guess the disconnect between character and series is more significant than I thought seeing as I'm unrepentantly clamoring for more sophisticated, intricate narratives when it comes to anime, yet seem to be leaning away from the more sophisticated characters.

But then again, most of my favorites are a healthy mix of both traits with a splash of enjoyability and a pinch or two of relatablity on top so it's hard to say.  Looking back, I seem to have a thing for multi-faceted creatures, particularly in the case of Kyoko, Vash, and Hinagiku. In any case, this has certainly been a fun, eye-opening little exercise so thanks, Ghostlightning, for the impetus!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Peace Offering

Metal Gear is a series that Hideo Kojima just can't seem to leave well enough alone. He said he would throw in the towel after Metal Gear Solid 2, then again after 3, and once again after 4. 4 in particular was confirmed to be the final title starring gaming icon Solid Snake so it looked like Kojima would actually be out the door for good this time around. Then came Peace Walker.

Now, in my opinion, Metal Gear Solid 3 was by far the best game the franchise has seen. Metal Gear's most outstanding achievement has always been its portrayal of realistically complex, yet profoundly imaginative characters and not its pretentious Kudzu Plots that are nigh-on impossible to keep up with. MGS3 raised the bar by focusing on the complicated relationship between Naked Snake aka Big Boss and his mentor, The Boss, and never lost sight of the fact that it was a rich character drama unfolding on the battlefield.

And yes, the finale of MGS3 is the only time I have ever teared up at a video game. The story of Big Boss is truly one of the most touching and tragic tales to ever grace the budding medium of gaming.

So when Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops was announced, I was naturally overjoyed. After all, it seemed that Big Boss still had plenty of reserves left to mine in that labyrinthine cranium of his. Once the credits rolled, however, I emerged underwhelmed.

Sure, Portable Ops answered a few lingering questions such as the identity of “the man with the same codename as Null” or the ultimate fate of the Philosopher's Legacy and how it tied in with Ocelot's manipulative machinations. But the central struggle, the one between Big Boss and newcomer Gene, felt irrelevant. Its only contribution to the Metal Gear timeline was how the seeds of Big Boss's Outer Heaven were sewn. Sure there were some nifty cameos (Roy Campbell) and corollaries (Big Boss and Gene are “brothers” like Solid Snake and Liquid Snake), but overall, it erred on the side of filler.

Fast-forward to present day. It's been two years since MGS4 put an end to the saga of Solid Snake, but apparently there's still one link left unconnected: the one bridging Portable Ops and the original Metal Gear. And so, Big Boss's swan song came in the form of Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker.

Spoilers ahoy, naturally.

The plot of Peace Walker revolves around an ensemble of military refugees in South America, all of whom are destined to become the founding members of Outer Heaven. Peace Walker focuses on the shift of Big Boss's ideals from steadfast patriot to incorrigible mercenary leader and exactly what it was that ran his militant vision of morality through the wood-chipper.

Right off the bat, Peace Walker hits us with a doozy. Namely, the return of the Boss, or rather an AI based off of the legendary hero, which would later serve as the progenitor of the Patriots AI system. It is through this AI that Big Boss confronts his mentor once more in order to uncover the truth behind her sacrifice and whether or not she turned her back on not only her country and her mission, but the very ideals that she imparted onto her “son.”

Peace Walker does little to avoid the foibles that its predecessor, Portable Ops, had in spades. Sure, surprise guests-of-honor such as Huey are always welcome, but keep in mind that they're little more than cameo appearances seeing as there's only so many new characters you can cram into the established canon before it explodes.

Neat (but pointless) newcomers Huey and Strangelove.

The only character that truly matters in Peace Walker aside from Big Boss himself is Miller as he was one of the mainstays of the first few games in the series. Everyone else feels like little more than diversionary fodder, from icy scientist Strangelove to bubbly waif, Paz. Paz, in particular, might as well be Elisa from Portable Ops after a shot of sunny optimism, which just goes to show how inane and unimaginative filler-y interstices are.

However, all else being equal, Peace Walker triumphs in the one area where Portable Ops failed completely: Big Boss himself. Whereas every other character could phase out of existence the moment the final credits roll and the canon wouldn't even blink, it is Big Boss who undergoes a dramatic, yet subtle transformation. As mentioned, over the course of Operation Peace Walker, Big Boss again crosses paths with The Boss and questions not only his loyalty to his country and its crooked ideals, but also his loyalty to her. Or rather, her loyalty to him.

The act of The Boss betraying the very troop that followed her into combat, of sacrificing her legacy, of sacrificing her life to carry out her final mission...and then laying down her gun at the very end and leaving the world, in her words, “not as a solider, but as a woman” was an ideological curveball that shattered Big Boss's perceptions of his beloved mentor, whom he had nothing but respect and admiration for. Simply put, Big Boss felt betrayed; the kind of seething, deep-seated betrayal that only worsens as time marches on and values grow more twisted and distorted.

Unsure if he could even trust the woman who raised him and taught him everything, Big Boss emerged from Operation Peace Walker a broken man whereas he left Operation Snake Eater merely shaken. He felt nothing but disgust towards The Boss and would only reconcile with her in his final moments some 40-odd-years later at her gravestone with his son by his side.

Peace Walker's significant contribution to the lore was the rationale behind Big Boss's Face Heel Turn. MGS3 ended hinting that it was his contempt for his country for essentially giving The Boss a death sentence that drove him to turn terrorist but it wasn't too convincing of an explanation given the man's hardened and unwavering nature. Peace Walker, on the other hand, shattered his illusion of the one person he thought he could believe in and left him an embittered, wayward spirit with an army without borders known as Outer Heaven at his fingertips. He was a changed man, who, unlike The Boss, vowed to never leave the battlefield and so took it upon himself to exact his vengeance in Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake before meeting his supposed demise at the hands of his son.

It should come as no surprise that Big Boss is my favorite video game character of all time and Peace Walker satisfyingly capped off his tragic story with a bang. Was it a worthwhile addition? I would say so, considering how important the aforementioned question concerning Big Boss was. And I definitely felt saddened upon realizing that his chapter is now closed for good and only his legacy remains. Here's to one of the greatest heroes (and villains) of all time.

“From now on, call me Big Boss.”

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Angel Beats

Back in 2005, a budding animation studio known as Kyoto Animation joined arms with visual novel developer Key in a partnership that would cause a colossal wave of moe to bury everything in its sugary path for the next four years straight. In 2009, KyoAni decided to test the theory that “absence makes the heart grow fonder” and started dabbling with experiments such as K-On! and franchise-dismemberment (Haruhi 2009). Unfortunately for Key, KyoAni then decided that sculpting elegant, meaningful works of art out of the moe lumps of Play-Doh wasn't worth the effort when they could just stick four ditzy school girls in a light music sweets club and call it quits for the foreseeable future. Thus, Key turned its attention to yet another budding studio known as P. A. Works for the production of creative guru Jun Maeda's newest brainchild: Angel Beats.

It's pretty obvious from the get-go, however, that Angel Beats is going to be a completely different beast than anything like Clannad or Kanon. The series opens with a confused high school student named Otonashi blinking into existence right behind a mysterious girl staring down the sights of a high-powered sniper rifle and firing at a white-haired albino girl who is referred to as “Angel” 'crost the way. The sniper girl, known as Yuri, tells Otonashi that he's dead and that the world he's in is some sort of Purgatory for lost souls. For some bizarre reason, Otonashi gets over his bewilderment in about five seconds and dismisses this lubricious scenario as trivial by waltzing towards the white-haired girl who's in danger of being turned into Angel Food cake and trying to talk things out. She then stabs him and he dies.

Yes, if there's anything Angel Beats knows how to do, it's how to cast that initial hook, because while there are already blatant lapses in logic, the series is unforgivingly gripping right from the outset. Otonashi eventually recovers from his untimely demise because people don’t stay dead for long after they’re…well, already dead and is recruited by Yuri into an organization known as the SSS with the goal of bullying Angel through asinine high school antics presumably until she needs to see her guidance counselor for some psychological TLC.

You might have realized that the first distinction between Angel Beats and Key series #1064 is that there's already a central storyline in place and it's not going to involve curing supernatural ailments through messiac intervention. It certainly helps obscure the stench of moe and shake things up a bit from the usual grind, so thumbs-up, say I. As for the rest of the distinctions...not so much.

Harp on Key series #1064 all you want, but at least those series possessed and made the most of a cast of well-rounded and highly-imaginative characters, emotionally-exhausting highs and lows, and a plot that wasn't as f*cking hard to follow as the bastard child of Neon Genesis Evangelion and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya.

If Durarara!! had the direction sense of a leaf in the wind, Angel Beats is a leaf in a Category 5 Hurricane. You could be chuckling at the dorky pratfalls of a group of teenagers embroiled in a prank parade one moment and be lassoed into a pool of melodramatic tears the next with little to no warning or justification. The series is just so obnoxiously inconsistent that trying to get yourself immersed is like trying to swim across a f*cking moat to reach a barricaded stronghold as boiling stupid is being dumped on you from the battlements.

And I swear the series has a thing for shoehorned emotional climaxes if I hadn't stressed that to death. A character who shows up for five minutes gets a Shower of Angst as a welcoming present and later on, a character who up until that point had been played completely for laughs receives a heartwarming tribute out of nowhere before getting unceremoniously booted out the door. Even the last episode, which is where caught myself actually giving a toss about some of the characters is guilty of forcing valentines down our throats in a way that left me half teary-eyed and half glazy-eyed.

That's not to say there aren't some touching scenes sprinkled throughout. Anything dealing with Otonashi's backstory such as his little sister was sufficiently sentimental, mostly due to its relevance to the plot and the fact that the atmosphere was both soothing and emotionally striking, which should be second nature to the Key production team by now. But it's just not enough and the way it's clumsily incorporated makes uncovering it like sifting through a trough of cow manure to find a gold-encrusted earring.

The general consensus is that 13 episode was simply not enough to contain a properly structured story, and maybe Angel Beats's overambitious, labyrinthine coil would have unraveled more elegantly in 26. As it stands, however, the series is an exercise in mental multitasking like no other; it's like playing Bully on the PS2 with one hand and scrolling through a visual novel with the other while someone tickles your feet and applies eyedrops every ten seconds.