Wednesday, October 31, 2007

It's All About The People

Hey everyone, as promised this is the second article for my criteria for shows. I did sneak in a show review so you already know what the categories are, and I'll probably do another review sometime this week.

But on with the show.

Category: Characters.

When most people stay at a job, they might say it's because of the job. But really how many of us have that dream job where we can do exactely what we want to do and everything is just peachy. And how quickly can that dream job turn into a nightmare because you happen to be sitting right next to the speakerphone guy or are berated by some person about how their neighbor's let their dog poop in their yard.

It's enough to make me cry. And anime isn't any different.

Characters are the single most important aspect of any series. Good characters can compensate for a slow plot, bad animation and half a dozen other things. And almost all of the series in my top eight have excellent characters.

Take Wolf's Rain. Now yeah, I know the series has got some mixed reviews. I know somebody is going to come over to my house in my sleep and spit on that series for me. But honestly the entire series is elevated to greatness by one character: Hub.

For those of you who don't know the series, let me give you the run down. Wolf's Rain largely follows the quest of four wolves to try and find Paradise. To do it, they need the flower maiden. Now a bunch of other people want to find Paradise too (mostly Nobles, although it's never really explained how they are different from normal humans, even though it is hinted.) Anyways fairly early on in the series we're introduced to a police detective named Hub. Now in an average anime series, Hub would have been a throwaway antagonist.

But in Wolf's Rain, Hub becomes the everyman. The normal guy trying to make sense of the world around him. Honestly he's one of the most dynamic, interesting characters I have ever seen in anime. Just the amount of attention paid to a seemingly nobody character elevates the series past all the other drek out there.

Now it didn't hurt that the rest of the series was pretty solid. The four wolves were a bit of the stereotypical bunch, but none of them were offensive, and later in the series they really do become a lot more interesting.

In fact, characters are so important I can't think of a show that I liked that didn't have at least solid characters.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Review: Parasite Dolls (OAV)

The entire time I've read reviews of Bubblegum Crisis, I've heard it refered to as cyberpunk. But honestly, I think it's a misnomer. For the most part series like BGC Tokyo 2040 or A.D. Police were cyberpunk-light. None of them had the gravitas, and combination of canny commercialism mixed with socio-political-techological-message that really makes cyberpunk good.

The OAV is divided into three episodes. All of them focus around a super-secret branch of the A.D. Police called Branch. Generally they're structured so there is a side-story and the detectives investigating the crimes. Buzz (Michael Vance) is the classic tough guy detective with a history. Michaelson (Monica Rial) is the somewhat naive pseudo-sidekick.

Each of the story's floats around one aspect of boomers (the series' name for andriods) and their place in society. While they may not be handled as we as say an Isaac Asimov story, they are each interesting and compelling enough to keep watching.

But what really sells this show is the atmosphere. It's dark. It's crowded. People are just trying to survive, using whatever means they can. The animation and the artwork are really the selling points here. Unlike the other BGC series, this does not devolve into campy transformation scenes or have any wierd sexual undertones. (Okay so it does, but more along the lines of what you'd expect.)

The voice acting (I only watched the dub) is pretty top-notch. Monica Rial really is at her best when she isn't doing cutesy girls with soft whispery voices. And Michael Vance manages the tough guy buzz to an at least adaquate level.

The soundtrack is actually pretty good. Especially when it gets creepy. Generally there's a lot of ambient sound and discordant notes.

But overall my main problem is that the series feels unfinished. There's still a lot of questions that the OAV leaves unanswered. But overall it's a good watch. Definitely worth the rental.
Cleverness: 3 out of 5
Characters: 4 out of 5
Story: 4 out of 5
Technical: 3 out of 5
Acting: 4 out of 5
Overall 3.5 out of 5

Originality vs. Cleverness

So what makes my top anime series of all time list? For the next few posts, I'm going to go over the categories that make me fall in love with a series and why certain series have it and certain ones don't.

Category One: Cleverness

I hate the word originality when people use it to describe anime, or it's evil cousins - unique and derivative. Why? Why do reviewers do this to me? It makes my brain hurt. Let me set the record straight: FICTION IS NOT ORIGINAL. Period.

If you want some proof of that take Romeo and Juliet. It's a fantastic play and Shakespeare (whether he wrote it or not) was a genius. No one ever says, "Oh wait but all he did was rip off Pyramus and Thisbe. He's such a hack." Why not? No one holds up a copy of Pulp Fiction and says, "But this is just a rip off of a bunch of other mobster movies." Inherit the Wind, Time to Kill, Goodfellas, 12 Angry Men, Vertigo... the list goes on of moves that were influenced by either books or other movies or other types of stories.

So why do anime reviewers (and yes Zac BertschyI'm looking at you) insist that anime needs to be original or unique or non-derivative? Is it because they have some grudge against the plebeian anime watcher?

Or is it that they can't find a better word?

Maybe both, but I'm not such a conspiracy nut that I think the major blogs are out to get me, so I lean toward the latter. Well here's a better word for you - cleverness.

I know it's not a pretty word and it does have some negative connotations, but it's the right word. So what do I mean about cleverness? Cleverness is the ability to combine already existing archetypes for themes, story lines, character types and worlds. Basically it's what people really mean when they say unique.

For this let me pull out Kenshin. On the face of it, Kenshin is just another shounen action series. Older swordsman swears off a life of killing, but must face off with other swordsmen who are better (and sometimes worse) in duels to protect friends and loved ones and occasionally his country. If you replace swordsmen with demons and you have Yu-yu Hakusho. If you replace it with alien type of things, you get Dragonball Z.

All and all, it's just like every other shounen action series out there.

Except that it has two fairly clever elements to the plot. First, unlike most shounen action heroes, Kenshin can't kill anyone. This adds a whole new level of tension to the series. Not only does he somehow have to manage to defeat the bad guys, he has to do it without killing them. Second, it has a solid historical basis. There really was a Bakamatsu. The Shinsengumi really are folk anti-heroes. In fact in the manga, Nobuhiro Watsuki details where all of his inspirations for these characters came from and which ones really were people.

This is clever.

Another example of this is Twelve Kingdoms, which isn't nearly as hopelessly mired in cliches. But it could have been another Escaflowne or Fushigi Yuugi. Instead it takes a the fantasy world and oh, makes it a world with it's own history, characters and rules. What I especially want to point out is something that seems pretty innocuous when you're watching it - babies are born on trees.

So what, right? That's not anything too exciting, it sounds like that normal claptrap that always pops up in some fairytale/YA/children's book. And if the story had just let it die there, then it wouldn't have been anything. But what happens in a society where women don't give birth? You know, that classic line about why women aren't supposed to be in combat, because we need them to produce young. They can fight, they are regarded as equals, prostitution doesn't have as many ugly side effects. All of those things happen in Twelve Kingdoms, which makes it clever. In fact more clever than it's counter parts which focus on the one strange thing in the world and then base the story around that.

Now on the other hand, there are series that are too clever. Take Lain for instance. That series has a whole bucket of clever. In fact, it has sooooo much clever that it drowns out things like story line and characters.

But on the whole, all of the series in my top eight have some form of clever to them. Some combination of characters and themes and plots that strike me as interesting. And maybe, yes, a little unique.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Why Not Trigun?

So recently, I started rewatching Trigun and it reminded me of something - this show is pretty good. Now it has been a good two years since the last time I sat down to watch the adventures of Vash the Stampede, so I’ve had some distance between the last time and this time.

Not to mention that I finally replaced my lousy bootleg copy of the series with the actual Pioneer release version, so the funny green dots I got about three quarters through the series went away.

There isn’t much to dislike about Trigun. Yashiro Nightow created an excellent character in Vash. He’s alternately funny, cowardly, heroic, modest and vain. Okay, so most people know this already, because this series has been out since Christ was a corporal.

Although I do want to mention the weapons designs in this are some of the most inventive I’ve seen in anime to date. I want Wolfwood’s cross. And I still get a bit of a chuckle out of the line, “That’s because it’s so full of mercy.” every time I hear it.

But seriously, I really want Wolfwood’s cross - badly. If anyone knows how I can combine a half dozen handguns, a machine gun and a rocket launcher into a metallic contraption, I will pay for it. Okay, so I might not pay for it. I would trade sexual favors. Okay, so I might not do that either. But I would show some serious appreciation for it.

But this blog isn’t titled, “Why Trigun is my Number Nine, so I can stop writing.” It’s titled, “Why not Trigun?”

The next part’s going to have some spoilers. If you’re one of the two anime fans who hasn’t watched this series, I suggest you find yourself a copy and watch it so that I won’t ruin your viewing experience. Okay, so is there anyone left? Good. Now onto business.

For the most part, Trigun is a good series, but the show is largely carried by two characters - Vash and Wolfwood. And as much as Vash is an interesting character, after a while he becomes tedious. How many times can a guy stare wistfully off into the horizon thinking, “Oh gee, I’ve got to kill my brother, but I don’t want to kill him. I want to save him. Oh poor pitiful me.”

This mopiness only gets worse when he takes a chunk out of the moon. Now I don’t have any problems with a series having a black moment, when everything seems lost and the odds are so insurmountable that there doesn’t seem to be any hope that the hero could possibly win. But Trigun has an black third of the series.

And let’s face it, it should. Knives is a badass, right down to his Darwinistic approach to survival on the desert planet. He kidnaps entire towns, he forces Vash to commit murder and he kills Wolfwood. I mean he’s more badass than Legato Bluesummer and that’s really something. It’s like Knives managed to find a well of badass and drink straight from the tap and when he was done, he gave his leftovers to a bunch of other badasses.

Which leads me to my real major problem with this series. So on one side, we have the whiny, mopey, how-can-I-do-the-right-thing Vash the Stampede. On the other, we have the devil-may-care, I-will-rule-the-world-no-matter-how-many-pawns-I-have-to-spend-doing-it Knives. They finally have their big confrontation, and how does it end.

Vash shoots Knives four times and the world is saved.

What…the…hell. Let me repeat that so it will sink in.

Vash shoots Knives four times and the world is saved.

It’s like the creators had painted themselves into a corner and needed some suitably vague way of making sure that the hero won. So they invented a completely Deus Ex Machina ending that answers absolutely no questions as to why Knives would ever change his ways. To top it off, they don’t conclude the series in any type of fulfilling way. They leave the watcher to assume that Vash and Meryl hook up, that Knives is rehabilitated and life continues on the planet as it should.

Frankly, I call bullshit. Shooting Knives four times is not going to wipe away a hundred some odd years of festering hatred. It just wouldn’t happen.

The ending would have been far more tragic and more satisfying if Vash had been forced to kill Knives. This is what made Gungrave such a great series and what could have made Trigun a great series.

But instead it just lands on top of a whole bunch of series’ in a heaping pile of anime mediocrity.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

My Mission

In 2003, I started seriously collecting anime. And when I mean seriously, I mean buying one series every two weeks for about eight months. Since then I've had lean times and I've had times when I couldn't buy enough.

But about a year ago something horrible started to happen - I couldn't find anything I really liked. Up and to then there was about a series or two every year that I liked so much it made my top series of all time list. First it was Kenshin, with it's combination of completely outrageous melodramatic shounen goodness combined with an actual historical basis.

Then I watched RahXephon, which blew my mind and still suceeds in blowing my mind every time I watch it. I think I've figured out how everyone is connected, what all the secret little non-sequitor statements mean and what ACTUALLY happens at the end of the show. (Although I have to thank my friend Magnus for his interpretation of it.) The only thing that still haunts me about that show is that stupid bird painting. It shows up way too much to be a coincedence... I'm starting to think it's a conspiracy to drive me insane.

After I finished with that, I managed to watch Last Exile, Ghost in the Shell:Standalone Complex, Twelve Kingdoms and Wolf's Rain almost all around the same time. All of them have their own particular brand of awesomeness which I may or may not go into at a later date.

But when I watched Gungrave, I didn't realize it would take almost a year for another anime to really impress me (Planetes). And since then, nothing, zero, zilch - a big, fat, whopping pit of anime mediocrity.

So I've decided to start this blog, to hopefully reach out to other anime fans, and to detail my search for the infamous Number Nine.