Tuesday, December 28, 2010

2010: A Monolithic In Memoriam - Part 5

 2010 Cleanup

Stray musings about what I may have missed over the past 365 days.

Hanazawa Kana

Whew!  It’s sure been one hectic year for this talented starlet as she seemingly managed to voice a character in every series that aired this year.   I’m not going to say whether the HanaKana overload was good or bad; just that it was doubtlessly noticeable. 

The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya
Not worth talking about.  Seriously.  With the impending DVD release, there are about to be a billion reviews flooding in.  Let’s just say that “masterpiece” is an understatement and that Endless Eight x 8 would still not have been enough to diminish the grandeur of what will surely stand as Kyoto Animation’s magnum opus for years to come.

Star Driver
Why yes, I do get a very strong Utena vibe from this series, but the problem is it continues to lack focus and coherence.  Even from the beginning of Utena, there’s the feeling that something ominous is on the prowl, but in Star Driver, everything is just chucked to the wind haphazardly.  If the series manages to successfully coalesce by the end, however, I will watch through all of it, but for now, it’s a feeble, whispering string-quartet to the majestic symbolic-symphony that is Utena.

Since Bakuman is an incredibly slow series it’s probably better to give it time to marinate before making incisions here and there.  The premise of breaking into the entertainment industry is, oddly-enough, shoujo at heart, but here we see it tackled with a shounen¬-bent.  Again, Bakuman hasn’t really had a chance to leave the ground, so we’ll have to wait and see.

The World God Only Knows
A very solid entry to the Fall lineup that sadly received a lukewarm welcome due to the eclipsing behemoth that was Oreimo.  And solid is definitely the perfect word to describe TWGOK; the plot is charming and original enough, but aside from that, everything else is several steps displaced from outstanding.

House of Five Leaves
A very curious, dialogue-heavy period-drama drenched in an air of disarming tranquility.  There was simply far too much on my plate during the year for me to give this series a chance, but it certainly looks like it’d be right up my alley. 

Onward to 2011!


The Yorozuya are back, baby, and better than ever!  Rumor has it that the series will air in 26-episode “seasons” starting in April from this point in order for there to be some breathing room.  The return of Gintama is accompanied by the epic Four Emperors arc so expectations are soaring.

Hayate no Gotoku! 
It’s been over year since the second season ended so this was a pleasant surprise for Hayate fans.  Everyone’s been clamoring for the Athena arc and I’d be shocked if that wasn’t the centerpiece to this silver-screen adaptation.  In any case, film-adaptations of anime satirical/parodical comedy are quite scarce, so this offering will be a fun little experiment.

And that’s really all I have to say.  Farewell, 2010.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

2010: A Monolithic In Memoriam - Part 4

Welcome to the dark side.

Fastest Reversals of Fortune

Instead of reminiscing about the year’s big stinkers, which can easily be happened upon by playing roulette with the lovingly-constructed seasonal airing charts, I figured I’d focus on the series’ that were built-up to be some of the year’s greatest hits, but turned out to be colossal disappointments.  Stealth-stinkers, if you will.

A show about a group of prisoners banding under one mentor to escape the confines of an abusive reformatory.

You know how some of the younger-oriented shoujo fare can come off as having ingested so many packets of sugar that a technicolor deluge of vomit is what ultimately spews forth?  Well, Rainbow is like that only with gluten-free, angst-ridden melodrama replacing sugar, sweet-and-low, and everything nice.  If you can bear imbibing the heavy amounts of rain-soaked brooding, however, then there's bound to be at least a bit of inspirational goodness at the end of this grime-encrusted rainbow.

Dance in the Vampire Bund
A show about vampires stepping into the limelight of the world and all of the political and societal hoopla that comes with it.
I actually didn’t make it past the first three episodes of this series because while I love Studio Shaft, I’m not a fan of having my time wasted.  Maybe the captivating Kon-esque opener set my expectations unreasonably high, but Vampire Bund seemed to have all too quickly fell prey to nervously puttering about instead of plunging deeper into, well, the wellspring of political and societal drama that it had drawn a course for. 

Occult Academy
A show about dabbling with matters of the occult by casually rubbing shoulders with the local supernatural phenomena.

Speaking of putzing aimlessly about, Occult Academy similarly busted out of the gate by presenting itself as the pitch-black, whimsical Sam Raimi-esque counterpart to Highschool of the Dead, and then suffered from a plot that was so unfocused that it felt more disjunct than a traditional episodic series.  I’m pretty sure that locating the key to the destruction of human civilization and stopping it from going critical falls under “fire-under-ass-lightingly urgent” so why was it that the paranormal crisis management crew were busy spelunking or helping ghost girls find their way home, à la Bakemonogatari?  And yes, treating the occult-loathing tour de force of a heroine progressively like a bland, one-note lump of paper-maché reeked heavily of betrayal, Occult Academy.

Black Rock Shooter
An OVA about an inexplicable, psychedelic showdown in a dimensional-milieu designed by MC Escher punctuated by incongruous scenes of pedestrian high-school life.

Describing what went wrong with the animated adaptation of the skull-stompingly popular Black Rock Shooter phenomenon is actually quite simple, for there exists an excellent analog.  This little cream-of-the-crap OVA can be likened to your run-of-the-mill fighting game or FPS.   It’s no secret that the vast majority of game developers have treated and continue to treat writing, dialogue, and the integration of a proper narrative like an optional feature which receives less development time than ensuring that the main character’s rugged, sweat-slicked facial stubble is rendered in all its glistening glory.

BRS, on the other hand, lacks the whole game aspect that acts to triage the story-marginalization.  What do these two stories have to do with each other?  Who are these characters and wherefore are they fighting each other?  Sure, this yuri-subtext-laden throwdown is pretty, dazzling even, but without even the slightest bit of context, it’s not too different from watching two A.I. opponents duke it out in Guilty Gear or Blaz freakin’ Blue

And it’s sad, really, as this whole endeavor has once again proven that X-to-anime adaptations, where X is something inherently ill-suited to a narrative-reimagining, will continue to flounder until those in charge learn to allow their stories to be composed by writers rather than a room full of fingerpainting pre-schoolers.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

2010: A Monolithic In Memoriam - Part 3


Heck, why not?  In an era overflowing with characters having as much personality as a sheet of drywall, we may as well look to the few gems that break the mold.  Divided by gender for the sake of convenience.

Kumashiro Maya (Occult Academy)

If you find matters of the occult interesting in the slightest, I would suggest running for the hills, because this formidable, temperamental bombshell is going to shove those mystical artifacts where the mana don’t regenerate.   Assertive, imposing, and razor-sharp, Maya doesn’t take crap from anyone, alive, dead, or otherwise.  She’s a force to be reckoned with as her mere physical presence is enough to send cracks in the Earth slithering towards and cleanly-bisecting the nearest mountain range.

Well, that is, until the series decides to tone her down by replacing her alluring, bitter dark-chocolaty core with the bland oversweetness of white-chocolate. Essentially, she went from dominatrix to doormat over the course of a few episodes.  Shame, really.

Ayuzawa Misaki (Kaichou wa Maid-sama!)

It wouldn’t be too farfetched to suggest that Misa is the sole driving force behind Kaichou wa Maid-sama! as the juxtaposition of her merciless drill-sergeant persona and the serene, submissive façade she puts on for part-time job is where the series’ gets most of its comedic and even narrative mileage.  Spunky, spicy, and downright destructive, Misa is refreshingly not one to turn to mush at a moment’s notice, nor is she in need of a guardian angel as anyone who attempts to confront her would attest to.  The fact that she looks stunning in a maid outfit is merely the personalized-decorative ketchup on top.

Celty Sturluson (Durarara!!)

A svelte, sexy motorcyclist clad in a skintight leather jumpsuit that sports a kitty-cat-ear helmet and wields scythes made of shadow?  I’m think I’ll side with Shinra here in that I find the lack of a head only adds to Celty’s mystical allure. 

But the coolest thing about Celty is that there’s so more to her beyond being a badass biker babe.  For one, she’s a creature of folklore whose origins are shrouded in mystery.  For two, she’s oh-so-adorably terrified of space aliens.  Most importantly, however, in searching for her missing head, she’s fighting to cope with her identity, her place in society, and how others perceive her, giving her character dimension and depth.  

Okay fine.  For four, she’s half-tsundere and all-S when it comes to her relationship with her kinky co-habitant.

 Heiwajima Shizuo (Durarara!!)
‘Nuff said.

Katsuragi Keima (The World God Only Knows)

Having long since discarded the need for three dimensions when two are more than sufficient, Keima has become what most gamers can only dream of: God.  Asocial, withdrawn, and coldhearted, Keima’s wake-up call comes when he is forced to act as the conduit between the real and the virtual. 

What’s great about Keima is that each successful capture slowly chips away at his critical disillusionment as a part of his own galge-infused soul is similarly-purified.  His significant, gradual character growth may signify the end of his reign as the Divine Overlord of the immaterial, but all that really means is that girls of the real world had better watch their back.

Watashi (The Tatami Galaxy)

The Edward Norton of anime, the narrator of The Tatami Galaxy wants nothing more than to suck every morsel of opportunity out of his college experience from the moment he sets foot on campus.  It is this over-ambition that sends him spiraling down morally-questionable routes that inevitably lead straight to the underbelly of the university. 

Watashi is quite remarkable in that he fits the definition of a “walking-contradiction” to a T.  He’s simple and ordinary on the outside but a bizarre labyrinthine underneath.  He has total control over his desires and priorities while simultaneously being unable to make up his mind about any of them.  He acknowledges his feelings of love, but refuses to acknowledge that he’s…refusing to act upon them.  He regards his only friend as a duplicitous demon in plain sight, yet accepts him as a staunch wingman.  And what’s more, the audience is exposed to his every illuminating thought through his light-speed dynamo of internal-dialogue.

He isn’t the easiest character to pity, but, in keeping with his contradictory nature, he manages to be perfectly relatable despite being a waffle-factory that’s clicking on all cylinders.  Without Watashi at the helm, the journey through college could not have been the unforgettable voyage into our own personal 4.5-tatami galaxies that it was.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

2010: A Monolithic In Memoriam - Part 2

The Good

While they didn’t exactly fly under the radar, 2010’s cream-of-the-crop admittedly did little in the way of making themselves known in the moe-saturated landscape.  And that’s a shame really, considering the creaminess of this year’s crop.  In any case, here is my list for 2010’s Top 5, joining the ranks of so, so many more.

Kaichou wa Maid-sama!
A show about a misandrogynistic student-council president whose secret of working a part-time job at the local Maid-Café is discovered by a flawless Casanova whom she considers a perverted space alien.

Quod erat demonstrandum because naming your series “The Student-Council President is a Maid!” is advertising it as schlock that is so unabashedly cheap and exploitative that you run the risk of even the target audience being offended.  Actually, come to think of it, that’s kind of ingenious in a satirical sort of way.

But seriously, this romantic-comedy is invitingly fresh and sunny, sporting solid humor, a slightly-contrived, yet nonetheless-engaging plot, and lead characters that are much, much stronger than they need to be.  Maid-sama! is truly a worthy addition to the shoujo hall-of-fame alongside hits such as last year’s overlooked Skip Beat! 

A show about a family-restaurant and the day-to-day exasperations faced by the members of its eccentric staff.

I’m well-aware that the fanbase for this show is diminutive, but teeth-bearingly devoted and that its appeal is rather niche.  But it’s such an adorable, energetic lil’ firecracker that I couldn’t help but smile contentedly at the goofy, wacky antics of the spaceiest group of co-workers around.

I can see why the mainstream market wouldn’t regard Working!! as anything more than an amusing, dispensable little time-waster, but, as mentioned, those who do embrace the lightweight, colorful, totally-off-the-rails sitcom for what it is have a hard time letting go, myself included.  To all the naysayers, Working!! might neither be popular nor good, but to us, it’s good because it’s Poplar.

Durarara!! is like Baccano! all grown-up.  It takes Baccano!’s raw sandstorm of energy and distills it into something more textured and sophisticated, all while allowing its chaotic heart to shine through the lacquer.  And like Baccano!, Durarara!!’s strength lies in its eclectic cast of cuh-razy oddballs from all walks of life, all of whom are just as lovable as they are lovably unhinged. 

The rough edges may have been smoothed out, but like the chaos, the gnarl is here to stay, as proven by a sinister and thrilling narrative dealing with what goes on behind-the-scenes in this bizarro version of Ikebukuro, all to the rhythm of snapping spines, clanging blades, and fiery-mouse clicks.  And yet, the magic of Durarara!! is how the series  pulls it off so casually and humbly, with a suave smile that somehow manages to thoroughly captivate while simultaneously screaming ‘stepford.’

A show about a circle of reclusive, obsessive female shut-ins and how their lives radically change once a crossdressing man enters their lives and attempts to liberate them.

There’s not a damn thing about Kuragehime that I don’t love, but let’s just go with the most obvious.  Kuragehime is pure genius for the fact that it completely and enthusiastically shatters the illusion of women in anime.  Just look at how the series so unconcernedly eschews conventional beauty as if to say upfront, “Let’s cut the crap; this is what’s really going on.”

This is a series about laying the issues of societal withdrawal, severe escapism, and otaku-obsession bare for all to see without dabbling with all of the distracting, wanton nonsense that exists only to curry favor à la Oreimo.  Yes, Kuragehime is a lighthearted affair, and yes, most of its cast is composed of loony, overblown caricatures, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s consistently meting out some very enriching and illuminating ideas about femininity, isolation, otakudom, xenophobia, and the realization of one’s potential in life.

Also, those silly little exploratory jellyfish intermissions are the cutest things.

The Tatami Galaxy
A show about the exploits of a starry-eyed, fiercely-determined college student and his attempts at making something out of his college life.  The twist? He seems to have been given the real-life equivalent of 1Ups.

Surprisingly, it’s not all that difficult for me to convey just what it is about The Tatami Galaxy that has propelled it all the way into my top ten five FOUR series’ of all time!  I’ll just jump straight into the run-down.  For one, it’s got a wicked, anachronistic narrative style, the likes of which have been glimpsed elsewhere (Higurashi and ugh… Haruhi '09), but have never felt so natural and ungimmicky. 

For two, it’s intellectual without feeling inaccessible, pretentious, or mind-rending, partly due to the subtle nicking of the heartstrings in order to stimulate emotionally as much as mentally, but mostly thanks to the fact that it actually makes sense and savvily invites interpretation without being too abstract or murky.

Most importantly, however, The Tatami Galaxy is relevant.  As a university student, watching Watashi’s struggle to find and grab hold of that ethereal sense of belonging is a plight that I can relate to without even trying.  And even if college isn’t up your alley, Watashi’s journey is a very pointed look at life in general as well. It’s about discarding those rose-tinted glasses, taking a withering look at the gray panorama of reality, and realizing that to succeed you must color not your vision, but the world around you itself.

And it is the point at which a series can be dubbed “life-changing” where choosing to add it to the zenith of what one has experienced is met with a resounding “Duh!”   Make no mistake, The Tatami Galaxy is indeed 2010’s best offering by a landslide.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

2010: A Monolithic In Memoriam - Part 1

The turn of a new decade can be a scary thing, but anime fandom has been doomsaying from the top of Mount Fuji for years now so the wholesale heralding of the apocalypse is nothing new.  “Grizzled” fans continue to espouse the halcyon pre-2000 era and even newer fans can easily see how the post-2005 moe-boom has transformed the landscape of the industry into something nigh-on unrecognizable from its early-2000’s-counterpart.  It all seems to have gone downhill after the powerhouse that was 2006 with each successive year consistently dipping in terms of overall quality.  Truly, these are the end of days, no?

Well, if 2010 is any indication, I’d say that the future for anime has never been brighter.  And this is coming from someone who would be the first to call 2009 a putrid, stagnating cesspit.  2010 turned out to be such a dizzying one-eighty that even I was wracked with disbelief at the sheer brilliance of some of the stuff that was coming off of the assembly line.

Without further ado, let’s put all the alarmist notions of the death of cutting-edge, quality anime to rest.

The Popular

Simply put, this is precisely where most of the disparity stemmed from.  Almost every innovative, exceptional, and just plain kick-ass series’ that aired was flattened under the heels of the populism brigade as they proudly marched forth, waving their banners of controversy.  Not that there’s anything wrong with mainstream appeal in general, just so long as it doesn’t cross the line into shameless pandering; a line which 2010 did, in fact, toe on more than one occasion.

A show about a bunch of high-school girls who are purportedly part of a light-music club, when, in reality, all they do is meet up to scarf down sweets.

I’m sure Kyoto Animation’s stance on the moe-boom is fairly clear; K-ON! is nothing if not a license to invest in an Olympic-sized swimming pool full of money.  We all knew that K-ON! wasn’t going anywhere after the franchise crossed the realm into animated-territory back in 2009, but a full-blown 26-episode sequel in under a year guaranteed it a spot on the controversial chopping-block, specifically from disgruntled Haruhiists.

But was K-ON!! any good?  While I’ll still chastise the franchise ‘til my dying breath for not actually being about the music, the second season was a significant improvement on the first as it decided to flirt with solid, realistic, yet charming character development to the point where the occasional whiff of genuine emotional fragrance emanating from the depths of the music club room no longer came as a shock.  Admirable, really.  Sure, barriers aren’t being shattered and sure the series has never truly deserved the stupid amount of exposure it’s gotten and continues to receive, but just the fact that K-ON!! started to smack of Azumanga Daioh towards the end is worth more than however many strawberry parfaits one is unable to stop.

Highschool of the Dead
A show about the zombie-apocalypse from the perspective of a motley group of Japanese high school students.  Oh, and there are lots of breasts.

You’re telling me that a series centered on oodles of panty shots, gratuitous, gooey violence, and shambling corpses being sent corkscrewing through the streets of Japan served on a slice of slick animation somehow managed to hog the spotlight for the entire summer season?  Okay, okay, here we have a case of a series that’s fairly decent fanservice fare mixed with not only electrifying evisceration, but a shockingly sturdy cast of characters that are infinitely more likable than the your typical crew of thick, hapless tossers.  Highly-enjoyable, but should have been tossed aside as the piece of diversionary fodder that it was.

A show about a bevy of supernatural elements clashing in present-day Ikebukuro, Tokyo.

It’s worth remembering that once in a while, something will, in fact, stand as proof of the increasingly-defective adage “It’s popular because it’s good,” and Durarara!! still proves that a series  need not forfeit artistic integrity nor originality in order to fan the flames of hype.  Indeed, this was one of the year’s most talked-about series’, because nothing stokes conversation like snappily-dressed bartenders launching vending machines at deranged parka-clad, parkour-certified trolling demigods as a headless motorcycle-riding fairy attempts to unravel the mystery behind a legion of mind-controlled, psychopathic knife-wielders.

Angel Beats!
A show about an ordinary high-school student suddenly waking up in the afterlife and joining a brigade of other similarly-deadified high-school students to take down a petite, villainous albino girl.

Studio Key does Neon Genesis Evangelion meets The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya in Purgatory on the eve of the invasion of the Heartless from Kingdom Hearts.  Seriously.  Is a more eminently-curious-sounding, anime-related threesome even possible? 

While it would have been neat to see Angel Beats! live up to such an inconceivably lofty premise-part of me believes that accomplishing such a feat would result in something that the human race is nowhere near prepared for-this, again, turned out to be pretty good as it dared to dance a jig with creativity and was a commendable little experiment courtesy of Jun Maeda, dodgy pacing aside.  Calling Angel Beats! one of 2010’s best is giving it way too much credit, but  it’s certainly more than worthy of being called the year’s most ambitious.

Ore no Imouto ga Konnani Kawaii Wake ga Nai
A show about your average typical teenager who discovers that his otherwise model-student of a little sister is obsessed with anime and all manner of eroge.

By far, THE most hotly-debated series of the year, despite airing not more than three months ago, Oreimo takes discussion and transforms it into something akin to finding the elusive eroge-game in the needlestack.  Swimming in disquieting simulacra may be, but at least Oreimo offers a glimpse into what stirs us otaku from our slothful slumber; it’s nice to see such frenzy, fervor and, dare I say it, passion being ignited over the integrity of our mutual pastime.

But I suppose controversy marches on and anime fandom takes another towards puzzling obscurity as the industry proves that the prospect of being hailed as a girl-capturing God is significantly less appealing than being able to brag about having a cute little sister who’s married to her otaku merchandise and lifestyle.  Oh, Japan.