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12 of 12 episodes seen
In pure technicalities, Dusk Maiden is a pretty good-looking series. Productions which feature an element of horror or mystery can sometimes be guilty of straying too far to the “dark” side, but this show's color palette is all about contrast, with the high oranges and yellows of the titular dusk splendidly highlighting the deep purples, greens, and reds of the gloomy setting, as well as the pale features of key characters. The designs are pleasant, if leaning a little towards generic, the backgrounds are solidly detailed, and with the exception of a few off-model moments the art is of above-average quality. Some interesting choices in direction add heartily to the show, and they merit special mention. Many shots are angled to make rooms and hallways appear either smaller or larger than they are, adding an aura of claustrophobia or ominous openness to the setting. During moments of exposition, cuts to a brief black-and-white flashback or a series of still images illustrating a story are sometimes made—these are animation budget saving tactics, sure, but they're creatively used and mesh well with the folklore/legend motif that persists throughout much of the series, so I say “bravo.” The end result is that this show is almost never boring to look at. Quite the opposite; its visuals add greatly to the overall experience.
As impressive, though seldom as noticeable, is the musical score. It tends toward atmospheric noise, often relying on the eerie, echoic notes of a piano to gain the desired effect. Older, more traditional-sounding drums and chimes, slow and foreboding, sound right at home in the remnants of the decaying school building. Drama is sometimes accompanied by more complex orchestral compositions, but even these are usually integrated with a fair amount of subtlety. The most standout piece, a haunting vocal ballad, is used sparingly but effectively. The score can also be goofy, as the show can, but even the more lighthearted tracks usually have a thin coat of creepy applied to them, as if to present a playfully demented take on the school comedy soundtrack. That's a nice touch. Overall, the music does a lot while still feeling relatively minimal and unobtrusive, and I see no problem with that.
If there’s a recurring theme in Dusk Maiden, it’s the thought that unpleasant feelings cannot simply be shied away from; whether consciously or unconsciously, people will be affected by their fears and insecurities. This is most evident in the form of Yuuko, who is literally torn in two by denial. She’s able to maintain her jovial and lighthearted demeanor only because she has dissociated herself from her anger, jealousy, and the memories of her unjust death, which manifest themselves as a malevolent black entity termed Shadow Yuuko. Like the repressed doubts she represents, Shadow Yuuko always lingers in the background, waiting for a moment of weakness to exploit. Moreover, the series uses interesting internal logic to explain the appearances of ghosts. When the students look at a spirit, it takes a shape that is reminiscent of their own emotions. Those who are calm and have no preconceived notions about terrible things lurking about might see something benevolent, like Yuuko. But those who walk the dark halls of the school with anxieties eating away at them might see something altogether more sinister in her place. This is a theme of reasonable weight, and it’s both conveyed consistently throughout the duration of the show and interwoven with the show's audiovisuals to create an atmosphere that can be rather entrancing.
Yuuko as a character is an interesting concept; a decent amount of thought is given to what it would really be like to be a ghost, weird as that may sound. She is starved for human contact, and understandably so—most people can't see her, and those who can usually see her as something to run from, the Yuuko of urban legends. The series is good at conveying the feeling that most of what we're seeing isn't Yuuko as she was in life, but a Yuuko who is a product of her stale environment and the cruel way that her life ended—a teenaged girl trying a little too hard to be a teenaged girl, her carefree and bubbly nature concealing all kinds of resentment, anger, and bitter desires which are all the more frightening because they're understandable.
Ultimately, though, the series struggles to break away from the traditional trappings of high-school romances: despite the good showing of tantalizing ideas and the fair amount of effective artistry, it still desperately strives to be, above all else, a show about a guy with all the verve of a dried-up sponge who is inexplicably loved by three girls. Teiichi himself is poorly characterized, and while he's often described by the rest of the cast as “gentle,” “earnest,” and “dependable,” these traits are perhaps more of a ghost story than anything in the series, discussed in whispers but never truly shown or elaborated on. A more accurate description of him would read along the lines of “he is there” and “he is the main character.” To be sure, he performs what the show dictates are the proper actions, never taking advantage of the loneliness and vulnerability of his female friends, helping Yuuko track down information about herself. Yet, there's no indication that it's because of his personality (and, for that matter, there's no indication that he has a personality). Rather, he's the male protagonist in a romance, and that's just what the male protagonists in romances are expected to do. He's a nice person because he helps people and he helps people because he's a nice person; forgive me for thinking that's far from compelling writing. The result is that most generic of characters, someone who is difficult to dislike but also difficult to notice or care about in the first place.
Equally damaging are the show’s shifts in tone, which are as frequent as they are jarring. Sharp interjections of half-witted slapstick, usually centering on comedic relief character Momoe, sometimes abruptly decapitate more serious moments. Fanservice and boob humor are plentiful and unsubtle, inserted at all of the wrong instances, often overstaying whatever welcome they might have originally had. There’s no avoiding that much of what goes on is fluff unrelated to what could loosely be referred to as the story, an observation epitomized by the fact that they somehow managed to cram a swimsuit episode in here somewhere. And, worst of all, the show’s appreciable atmosphere of somber, reflective melancholy can often give way to a soapy melodrama of poorly thought out and repetitive dialogue (“I’m so lonely…so sad…in so much pain…”) that is downright difficult to listen to, much less take seriously. Drama, romance and mystery seem closer to the real heart of the series, but its peripheral elements end up distracting from, rather than enhancing, its strengths, and some of its strengths aren't that strong to begin with. The series looks good, sounds good, and knows how to get the viewer caught up in the moment—qualities, make no mistake, that I appreciate. However, it's also the kind of show that's very vulnerable to hindsight, and looking back it's clear that there are plenty of issues with pacing, characterization, and tone.
But when it comes down to it, I don’t think it’s unfair to let this series scrape by with a pass. It does a decent amount of things well, and the things it doesn’t do well are frequently irritating but arguably not deal-breaking. Be warned, though, that Dusk Maiden is one show likely to split audiences down the middle; if you don’t mind the sound of some of the attributes I’ve labeled as weaknesses, you’ll probably appreciate the show a lot more than I've indicated, and if you do mind the sound of same, you might not choose to give it the benefit of the doubt, as I have. read more
22 of 22 episodes seen
Studio Gonzo's artistic work here is wholly different from the norm. Red Garden's characters are tall and lanky, distinctly European-looking, mostly pale and thin, as if to emphasize their fragility and their proximity to death. Their hair and their hard, angular faces are rendered with an attention to detail that borders on obsessive. The backgrounds do a competent job displaying the ins and outs of a big city, from elegant party halls and bustling streets to half-vacant, slummy apartments; none of them draw the eye in quite the same way as the characters, but the effort is nonetheless appreciable. Shortcuts are taken in the animation here and there, but for the most part they're at least placed in such a way as to not be obtrusive, neither adding to nor detracting from the visual experience. The fight scenes are more about the emotional element than the actual combat, so I'll look past what could generously be described as uninspired choreography on that front. Red Garden is at its visual best during moments of calm, when its uniquely stylized character designs can draw a breath and do their job.
The soundtrack is orchestral, almost exclusively low and atmospheric, sometimes rising with a subtle and foreboding crescendo during developing scenes of action. On its own two legs, it's humble, not what you're likely to remember as an awesome musical score, but it blends seamlessly into the show, quietly touching the right notes and enhancing the mood from its place in the background. That merits a certain amount of praise. It does its job, and does it well.
Red Garden's biggest strength lies in its characters, who are drawn from different backgrounds and social circles to fight for their lives. We meet Rose, a shy and caring everygirl; Rachel, a rebellious partygoer; Kate, the daughter of a wealthy family who is held to high expectations in school; and Claire, a tough loner with few friends. In the past, they've all been passing classmates at best, and they have no common ground. They simply don't like each other. Their personalities don't mix. Two are meek and timid, two are strong and overly confrontational. They bicker, judge, and throw insults without considering the consequences, as teenagers are apt to do. Combat only amplifies these difficulties—how can you entrust your life to (or risk your life for) someone you don't even respect, someone who talked down to you earlier that same day? The end result, curiously, is that all of the girls are too hesitant. No one makes a move during a fight, out of fear that none of the others will come to their aid.
But necessity's hand is at work. The girls soon realize that the choice between cooperating and dying is really no choice at all, and they begin to work as a team, slaying their opponents with newfound proficiency. In the process, they find their common ground: a strong desire to live. Trust in battle leads the group to new highs, and eventually the stilted pseudo-friendship turns into the genuine article. Interactions under the moon and those under the sun bleed together. The team meets in everyday life, and its members warmly help each other work through personal problems. The girls are well-written, well-developed, and believably frayed. Red Garden's drama can sometimes seem over-the-top, but it's usually justified. After all, its characters live each day on edge, trying to get through school while dreading the summons of Lula, never knowing what might happen at night, frequently haunted by what happened the night before. Anyone would be a nervous, screaming wreck in that situation.
If only the story were handled so gracefully. Early in the series, the girls reach the realization that they're being forced to fight because of two ancient families who cursed each other, and the series takes it from there, delving deeper and deeper into a labyrinthine backstory about the two families and the set of rules by which the curses can be removed or applied. Now, that's a neat (if somewhat trite) idea in its own right, and it could have lead to something rather slick; it has a certain sort of dark, modern folklore appeal to it. But suffice to say that no matter how many ways I look at the dozens of details piled upon this story, they simply don't add up to anything coherent. Every time something is revealed, more inconsistencies and unanswered questions are revealed along with it. At almost any point, they could have (and should have) stopped adding to the top of the structure, and reinforced its base instead. But they don't, they keep stacking and stacking until the house of cards falls. It is a brute-force approach to storytelling which relies on the incorrect assumption that the sheer number of elements is what makes a story intricate and involving. It is dense but ultimately nonsensical, and it ends up serving as a vehicle to carry the infinitely more interesting character drama to us rather than serving as a strong addition to the show.
One other thing: the characters sing. Much as I wish that were a joke, an exaggeration, or just a bad dream that I had, it really happens. Red Garden's characters sometimes burst into song at the drop of a hat, and it is every bit as awkward as it sounds. Where this idea came from, the world may never know; there is nothing else in the show that hints at it being a musical, and the songs occur once per episode at most, sprouting spontaneously out of normal dialogue like tonally-challenged tumors. The singing itself is mediocre (in both Japanese and English) and the lyrics are cringeworthy. I wish I could pass this off as just another little quirk in a series that's full of little quirks, and some might choose to look at it that way, but the truth is that even without this element Red Garden would be a bit of a confused experience, and the moments of song produce an even more heightened sense of unreality, as if begging the viewer to ask: am I really watching this right now? In fairness, they appear to have scrapped this idea about eight episodes in, and the last two-thirds of Red Garden are blissfully singing-free, but the “what were they thinking” damage is pretty well done by that point, and it's not easily forgotten.
I don't see any of these as fatal shortcomings, though combined, they might come close. When Red Garden works, it works surprisingly well, with a unique artistic presence, fitting music, and a group of interesting characters serving as the high points of the series. It's certainly not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but if it sounds like it might be yours, giving it a try couldn't hurt. I can't sing its praises, but I'll give it a soft recommendation. read more
1 of 1 episodes seen
Not so in this case. The pacing is ill-conceived, with three entire films dedicated to episodic situations which ultimately serve no purpose but to establish the setting and the characters in an extremely roundabout way. Much of what happens is of shockingly little consequence, and there's a real lack of suspense and momentum, and, for that matter, a real lack of anything that would make the viewer want to watch the next movie. The idea of the superhumans themselves is poorly thought out and ends up being explained away in a manner that both raises more questions than it answers and calls the structural integrity of the story and its setting into question. The films sometimes can't even cover the easiest of bases, the things that should be the simplest in the world to explain—just what exactly are Quon's superpowers, anyway? He's immortal, and at various points in time he appears to be capable of jumping thirty feet in the air, manipulating metal and water just by touching them, and projecting a blade and shield made out of solid light. Not much rhyme or reason to infer from that, and none is ever explicitly offered up. Lazy writing, plain and simple. Oh, and if you're wondering exactly who the people running the secret hunting organization are or what motivates them, you're in good company, because that little tidbit is never explained. Towa no Quon's story does have a few tricks up its sleeve, and a couple of nice surprises (mostly in the final two movies) help take the edge off some of the disappointment, but by and large it's unremarkable and just a little sloppy.
Quon as a main character is probably the biggest letdown of the entire experience. He's one thousand years old, which means one thousand years to be affected by the tragic death of his brother, one thousand years spent helping the superhumans hide and live peaceful lives. He could have been complicated—bitter, wise, enigmatic, arrogant, worldly, or any number of things. After all, entire civilizations rose and fell with him watching from the sidelines, and he's burdened with the knowledge that he has outlived all of his past friends and will outlive all of his future friends. Doesn't take much imagination to see awesome potential in that concept. But instead, this is Quon: a simpering, simplistic imbecile with all of the onscreen presence of a rock, who mutters something corny like “because I must save everyone” in response to just about any question he's asked. The few attempts made to flesh him out and turn him into something more than that are lackluster. I really can't even fashion a creative way to rip on him, or a creative way to describe him, because he does not have a personality to speak of. He's actually at his most charismatic when he's in superhuman form, fighting a losing battle. The look of silent, dogged resolve on his face is preferable to his incessant smile and his trite shonen-inspired platitudes. He cannot carry a dramatic moment, and he cannot carry these films.
Sadly, the supporting roles all suffer from similar symptoms, and with few exceptions, most of them act like miniature Quons, either full of baseless optimism or quaking in fear—whatever is required of them by the plot. They have, again, little individual voice, or anything that differentiates them from each other, and most of what I begrudgingly call their “character arcs” consist of little more than a hint at a tragic backstory. Some of them are fun to watch, good for a moment's laugh, but that's about as far as it goes. Towa no Quon also has a strange habit of placing huge weight on side characters who have barely been introduced, and in one scene, Quon gives what I assumed was supposed to be a tearful and heartfelt speech to a child who had not yet received forty-five seconds of screentime. The films do strike an interesting note with two secondary villains, both cybernetically enhanced soldiers who fight against the superhumans—the cyborgs are treated poorly by their superhuman-hating superiors, and this causes them to question whether or not they're human anymore themselves, and how much different they are from the emerging superhumans that they're being sent to kill. That's probably the smartest bit of character drama that Towa no Quon manages to pull off, and it's one small drop of good in a pretty big bucket of mediocrity.
Purely in terms of art and animation, Studio Bones has a good reputation, and that, at least, is largely upheld by Towa no Quon. Visually, these movies end up about where you'd expect them to, looking better than the average television series but a few steps short of feature-film level. The backgrounds—dark, expansive cityscapes and forest-covered mountainsides, to name the most prominent—are sharply detailed and sometimes quite striking. The color palette is expansive, with an appreciable use of light artificial greens, blues, and purples that play well against some of the darker, earthier tones. With few exceptions, the animation is spot-on and the scenes of action are deftly choreographed. The design work is rather unambitious, and I'm sad to say there's nothing particularly distinctive or fresh about the way the characters look, either in human form or as superhumans/robots, but throughout all of the movies the quality of the art is at least maintained with a good degree of consistency.
The music is orchestral, and it practically screams “I am a big, important, epic score.” Not in a good way; it's all very one-note, the same deep, thrumming strings, menacingly advancing drum beats, and ominously droning wordless vocals over, and over, and over again. The score does come equipped with just enough variety to match the moments of lightheartedness and atmospheric tension, but even the latter are sometimes accompanied by those seemingly ceaseless drums and vocals. Almost every song sounds fit to herald an apocalypse, and that can help build the mood where it's appropriate, but the returns diminish as time wears on. It's still a competent soundtrack on some levels, but it's typical for this type of production, and it rehashes its heavier elements to the point of being just a little bit obnoxious and largely forgettable.
And, yes, “largely forgettable” is an apt description for Towa no Quon as a whole. There's nothing pushing this series of films into the realm of being truly bad, and at times they can be entertaining. But they represent a tired take on tired concepts, and, overall, an exceedingly bloodless endeavor. The presentation is certainly up to snuff, but the world of Towa no Quon itself and the people within it both feel like the products of cold and hasty construction, empty of thought and effort, devoid of any real heart or voice. These movies are a portrait of what it means to be uninspired. read more
26 of 26 episodes seen
From minute one, Mushishi's representation of a vast world grabs the eye and doesn't let go. Lush forests with dew dripping from every leaf; barren winter mountains peppered with stubborn snow-covered trees; an innocuous pond with lilies on the surface of the still water. The series roams from setting to setting, and all are presented with a lifelike attention to detail. The color palette is richly varied, reaching from the brilliant emerald of vegetation to the deep turquoise of the sea to the dusky red of a far-off sunset. Lighting is used to strong effect, whether it's beams of sun streaming through layers of foliage and mist or a candle's flame struggling to brighten a dark old house.
And within those habitats, the mushi themselves, creatively rendered as a strange mix of the familiar and the utterly alien—like shapeless blobs propelled by twitching motions, like phosphorescent insects scuttling along the earth, like great legless serpents twisting skyward. Some take the shape of a natural phenomenon, and the sight of a living rainbow exploding from the earth, or a long-restrained cloud breaking free, expanding and floating away, is bound to impress. The animation on the whole is excellent, but the mushi in particular seem to move with a vivid otherworldly fluidity. At least part of Mushishi is about making sense of the mysterious, bringing reason to something that seems unreasonable, and the designs of the mushi add some believability to this; it's quite easy to see how they could be thought of as ghosts, beasts, or legends, able to inspire both wonder and fear. The tranquility of the environments is consistently impressive in a low-key way, but the spectacle of the mushi can be eerie, majestic, and everything in between.
Sound is part of atmosphere, and in the same way that cold urban horrors might use reverberations in dark alleys or the foreboding thrumming of electronics, Mushishi might use a chorus of insects or the roar of drifting snow to surround us, allowing the setting to speak its piece. The music is minimal but startlingly effective, in many cases fitting easily alongside and even seeming to mimic the voices of the earth. Slow piano notes overlap with rhythmic footsteps, a woodwind's sad screams resemble those of a forlorn bird. So, too, can the score sound almost unearthly, with an ominous progression of bells and chimes sometimes underscoring a haunting ending or signaling the arrival of the mushi. The result is an immersive ambiance where visuals and sound alone can convey dark, brooding tension or innocent curiosity with equal ease. It isn't just pretty, it's totally engrossing, exuding pure atmospheric mastery in almost every scene.
Through this vast world walks Ginko, revenant of revenants, our looking glass. Perceptive of the nature of human and mushi alike, he uses words as careful and deliberate as his journeying stride to become the voice of reason and, with an air of serene confidence, impart his knowledge to others. To become a witness to needless death, a bearer of bad news, or a participant in deception is sometimes part of his job description. As an admirer of life and truth, he cares for none of these tasks, but he'll defy his own nature and undertake them with solemn dedication if he feels that it's necessary. He is wise, but not infallibly so. Nor is he a complete stoic; outbursts of childlike wonder at incredible sights, sarcastic retorts to smart-mouthed travelers, and emotion-laden shouts of panic and warning to his fellow humans all show him as a little more than just the nonchalant white-haired sage. His development, in the traditional sense, is sparse, but he is afforded a poignant backstory that makes him and his thought process a little less of an enigma.
Of course, Mushishi gently pushes a picture of a sprawling and intricate world where all beings affect each other in ways both seen and unseen, their actions rippling outward in ever-widening circles, and in that sense, Ginko as a character is no different than any other living thing in the show, simultaneously of little and great consequence. He may be our guide, cursed and blessed to ceaselessly wander, but the world doesn't turn for him. Rather, it's in what he represents that we might find significance: The quest for knowledge, the insatiable desire to understand even while knowing that the sheer body of things in existence prevents total understanding. The need to capture the meaning of what surrounds us, spread our wisdom responsibly, and use it to form calculated reactions to the world instead of rash judgments. He truly is that silver fish swimming endlessly through dark water, opalescent barbels probing fathomless black crevices, illuminating them, if only for a brief moment. Much of Mushishi's strength lies in the ability to provoke thought without direct questions, to let an image serve as subtext, and Ginko himself represents an impressively seamless merging of humanity and idea.
Mushishi is episodic, not bound by an overarching plot. It is a series of self-contained stories which vary in theme, but are always skillfully crafted. Most episodes consist of human drama, based on relatable and familiar emotions, infused with an element of the natural world. The episodic format delivers powerful and gripping tales in an extremely brief timetable, a feat which I have no problem appreciating. The scenarios are original, and the writing is rich with little subtleties and metaphors, but each episode can be understood and appreciated as successful story even if you've no desire to peer into them deeply. View Mushishi as a progression of intelligent parables full of interesting ideas, or as a bunch of moving and affecting tales; much to its credit, it is both.
Part of what makes Mushishi work is its steadfast refusal to portray anything in terms as simple as “good” or “evil.” Stories where barbaric man stupidly abuses mother nature, or where nature is a hate-filled monster that comes from the hills to eat scared little man, are a dime a dozen, and while they might pass as entertainment, they often fail to say anything worth saying because they handle man and earth as if they're combatants in a holy war. Mushishi is not so black and white, and it has an idea that scales much better. The mushi are not red-toothed animals seeking to kill in droves. The humans are not greedy savages bent on scorching the earth. Both are just beings, trying to survive in the same place and at the same time. That they will cross paths, have conflicting interests, use each other, and hurt each other is inevitable; such is survival. Each episode is one meeting of mushi and human, one miniscule butting of heads in a massive world, with the implication being that this is simply what happens, everywhere. Instead of vilifying humans or portraying nature as a vengeful power, Mushishi whispers: This is just the way things are. It does give us a small shove by implying that, as the ones with the ability to reason and understand, the responsibility for mitigating the damage that humans inflict (and the damage that humans receive) falls on the humans, but it never degenerates into the preachy heavy-handedness or gross oversimplifications that plague many works with similar themes.
It's that theme which allows Mushishi to navigate the spectrum of human emotion. Conflict in its world does not arise from moral failings or piggish greed, only from a lack of understanding, and understanding is a sword with many edges. Ask the child who learns of death, or the old man who learns of life. Sometimes the knowledge you gain is liberating, sometimes it's disheartening, sometimes it's terrifying. Mushishi can be all of those words and more, but even when it strays to one extreme, it never loses its humanity, its worldliness, or its feeling of being completely natural. Just as it can depict the warm orange rays of the sun and the cold white howl of the snow, it can depict innocent wonder and violent loss, and with equal sincerity. It has balance, and then some.
As a caveat, I will say that this is the kind of series that practically begs me to use the phrase “not for everyone.” It's dialogue-heavy, more about the thought leading up to action than the action itself; it keeps the big guns of its visual spectacle on a tight leash, letting them explode only after a suitable buildup to assure the maximum payoff; it doesn't have the conventional storytelling satisfaction of explicitly coming full circle, instead simply tapering off and fading quietly, as episodic series sometimes do. A few episodes will likely be enough to inform you of whether or not it's to your tastes, and I've no doubt that many have labeled (and will continue to label) it as simply “boring.” I understand the origin of this opinion, but I just can't share it, because Mushishi is strangely beautiful and intensely fascinating on several levels. Imbibe it a little at a time like a fine liquor, or dive deeply into it and become drunk on its atmosphere, intrigue, and insights. In my experience, neither disappoints. read more
26 of 26 episodes seen
It's also worth mentioning that in addition to the design choices, the follow-through on the art and animation in Ryvius is lackluster at best. Stiff, jerky movements abound, and the character art, which is rough to start with, suffers noticeable degradation in quality at many points. The cinematography during some of the space battles is so poor that I genuinely don't think I would have been able to tell what was happening if not for the narration offered by the characters. Still-frames, poor transitions, reused footage—any technique that could shave a dollar off the cost of animation is used, and used frequently. On a more positive note, the space backgrounds aren't half bad, and the mecha and ship designs are pretty impressive in comparison to everything else.
I swear that I'm not trying to beat this show up based only on its technical side, but frankly, whoever thought that this musical score was a good idea deserves to be beaten up, figuratively and literally. To elaborate on that a little, I'll say that the soundtrack is unique—it's a mix of jazzy contemporary, soft atmospheric noise, and grandiose orchestra, all underscored by a distinct flair of hip-hop influence. That sounds strange on paper, and in this particular case, it isn't any better in practice. I've been impressed by hip-hop and electronic soundtracks in the past, but most of the music in Ryvius consists of simplistic beats that sound tinny and uninspired. One track features a man (who I can only assume was hard-up for cash at the time) repeatedly rapping the word “Ryvius.” I wish I could say I was kidding. It is one of the worst pieces of music that I have ever heard. The score has its high points, but they're few and far between; in general, it actively detracts from the show. Good integration is theoretically possible even with a sub-par soundtrack, but the music in Ryvius fails to jive with what's happening at any given point in time. Upbeat tracks play while people are panicking and dying, not just once, but with unerring frequency. Sometimes the music will start, barely manage to reach a point where it's noticeable, play for five or ten seconds, and then stop abruptly to match an awkward scene transition. My impression of the sound in Infinite Ryvius matches my impression of many other things in Infinite Ryvius: It's tacked-on and it feels unnatural.
The series hurries to introduce disaster; it takes all of two episodes to get to the “kids trapped on ship trying to stay alive” premise. The beginning is rushed, clearly, but it works; it breeds tension and arouses curiosity about how the situation will play out. It introduces the large cast, briefly but sufficiently, and tosses them all into the fray. But just as it gets to the point where the pot should start boiling, the series freezes. It has no idea what to do, and perversely, it brings some of its less convincing sci-fi elements to bear in a series of dreadfully uneventful mecha battles which mostly consist of the characters shouting inarticulate technobabble at one another. There's precious little indication that these battles have anything to do with the plot as a whole, and indeed, once the story is complete it becomes glaringly obvious that they serve almost no purpose other than to kill time. Isn't that an oddity; at the points where they occur, these fights lack the context to be suspenseful or engaging, but in retrospect, that context makes them seem silly and unnecessary. Nor do they appear to affect the characters in any way. You would think that these constant reminders of how tiny and mortal they are would drive the kids mad, but it seems like most of the character conflict pushing the story would have occurred with or without eight episodes worth of borderline junk.
Speaking of those characters, it's on their behalf that I can finally give the show some much-needed credit. The cast is huge, and individually they aren't the most complex bunch, but the show manages to juggle a pretty involving web of relationships that ends up bearing some rewards. There is a gritty and understated wit to the way the characters interact that I found myself appreciating more than anything else in the show—they mock each other gently, threaten each other softly, and on the rare occasions where they help each other, they do so with great humanity and sincerity. There is no clear-cut good or evil present in the series; everyone is an antagonist to someone, whether they know it or not. Some of them hate each other, but at the same time they recognize the need for one another. The ship's pilots don't like the thugs and the thugs don't like the pilots, but neither can exist without the other; they know it and it shows in the way they act, which is both clever and true to how a society really functions.
Ryvius also manages to generate a fair amount of effective drama by taking character archetypes and forcing them to react to adversity. The pushy, aggressive, prideful brother? Make him get overpowered by a stronger boy and turned into an unwilling underling, then see how he handles it. The peacemaking, kind-hearted girl who just wants everybody to get along? Make her the target of merciless violence, and see if she can still cling to her optimism. It isn't the most inspired or original formula, but it's played well enough here—even in the very early episodes, the series is careful to drop some subtle hints that everyone might not be who they initially appear to be, and some equally subtle hints that some of the cast are undergoing transformations, for better or for worse. Sometimes those transformations are a bit over-the-top, but I'll forgive that, because in general I found myself having just enough emotional investment in the characters to not want to see them break under pressure. In some of its human elements, at least, the series soundly struck the right note.
To get back to the story for a moment, I talked about the show's beginning and middle, but not about its last third or so, which is the most satisfying part. It's not perfect. It's a plot that definitely requires a stretch on the part of the viewer to appreciate. But the fact that the series actually manages to snap out of its lengthy funk and make something of a story that initially appears to be a complete mess is commendable. Not only do some of the science fiction aspects come full circle, but the show actually manages to draw a meaningful parallel between the unseen antagonists and the children they're targeting, which is a surprising and welcome turn of events. The last third of Ryvius makes all the difference in the world. It manages to pull the series out of the quagmire of mediocrity that the middle nearly drowned it in and breathe some life into it. There still isn't any excuse for the painful ineptitude I mentioned earlier, but that the writers actually managed to pull themselves together for the home stretch is nothing to sneeze at.
To pin down just what ails Infinite Ryvius: It's ambitious to a fault. There are way too many scarcely explained, grandiose sci-fi concepts placed alongside the comparatively grounded character interactions, and for the most part they end up feeling misplaced. Things like the Geduld, the destructive natural phenomenon that suddenly appeared in outer space, or the Sphixes, the beings which are associated with controlling the giant robots. Or the giant robots themselves, for that matter. Some of them do actually end up working, and when that happens they couple quite well with the show's human half. I can see what the series is going for, certainly, but if I had to pick a number, I'd say that it's sixty percent of the way there; not every thread is tied off, not every connection is firm. Its world just isn't made whole on the level that you'd expect a sweeping sci-fi to operate on. But I do think this show earns the privilege of at least some recognition, mostly on the basis of its characters and the way it manages to steer itself into a graceful ending. It does just enough right for me to give it the benefit of the doubt, and a cautious recommendation. read more
13 of 13 episodes seen
It's evident that, from an artistic standpoint, this is a pretty bare-bones production. Expect relatively flat backgrounds, lacking any real depth or detail. Movement is regularly stiff and unnatural looking. The character designs bear the obvious stamp of the esteemed Yoshitoshi ABe, and they're just as distinctive as anything else that he's made, but their quality fluctuates, sometimes becoming more blocky and rough-looking on a scene-to-scene basis. The closest, most direct comparison I can make is to Haibane Renmei; if you've seen that, expect a similar or slightly lesser degree of visual quality from this. NieA's art is never offensively bad, just decidedly shaky and awkward at times. In its defense, I'll say that we're hardly dealing with an action-packed thriller or anything that would have truly benefited from eye candy. A little more consistency in the presentation would be nice, but I personally don't see the budget-afflicted art as a significant detriment to the series. Make of it what you will; I'll leave it at that.
The bulk of the music seems to be devoted to the quieter, more contemplative moments of the series. It's slow and meditative, often consisting of a few gentle notes played on a pair of stringed instruments, or even a lone acoustic guitar. That's not to say it doesn't have a little bit of range in it to meet the interjections of comedy; some tracks are more upbeat, and an intentionally lackluster “trumpet charge” effect that plays during some of those moments adds a nice bit of sarcasm to the score. Like much of the series, it's all a little minimal, but in some spots it's a surprisingly good soundtrack, and it always consistently matches the tone of what's happening onscreen.
The aforementioned humor isn't terribly high-brow. Goofy slapstick is par for the course, and when the humor is verbal or situational, some of it isn't particularly clever. Gags centering around Niea's massive appetite or Mayuko's status as a broke student are common, and none of these represent a breakthrough in comedy. But the characters are endearing and defined well enough that it's easy to laugh along with jokes that might otherwise be labeled as disastrously typical. And, truth be told, there is a certain uncanny, understated bit of wit present in some of the goings-on; for example, an obnoxious alien's antenna accidentally picking up a radio signal from a Chinese restaurant, or Niea trying to fly away in a UFO using a cord to an electrical outlet as the power source. The best jokes in the show aren't complicated, they're just simple, well-timed, effective plays on the setting and underlying concept of the show, often laced with a bit of gentle sarcasm that some will appreciate greatly. There are plenty of hits and plenty of misses, but on average I found myself liking the lighthearted, chuckle-inducing aspects of the show. They balance nicely against its weightier side, seldom feeling out of character.
For all of its general weirdness, ultimately the elements of NieA that work the best are its down-to-earth characters (pun, please believe me, not intended). In particular, the lead, Mayuko, is a surprisingly complicated individual, likable and relatable in the first degree. She's a top student who balances multiple jobs against crushing amounts of schoolwork, yet it isn't through any ambition of her own. She lacks real direction, and her own desires elude her. Constantly on the cusp of being penniless, she has no idea what she wants from life, so instead she does what she needs to do to survive. Her shy and humble nature hides fierce independence; it hurts to watch her take a handout of food from a friend, knowing that she's trading her innate pride for pragmatism. In short, she feels like a real human being, internally confused but trying hard to gather herself. I must admit that I had no idea what to expect from NieA Under 7, and this instance of high-caliber character writing was a wholly welcome surprise.
Niea herself doesn't receive quite the same treatment, but as a point of comparison for Mayuko, she's also a valuable character. She's simple-minded and childish, without a worry in the world beyond what her next meal will be, seemingly lacking any ambitions or grand desires. And therein lies some cleverness; part of what makes Mayuko and Niea so interesting is that they're two sides of the same coin. Both are adrift, without goals, surviving rather than flourishing, but Niea grins and clearly enjoys every minute of it with an air of freedom while Mayuko always looks like a bird in a cage. As time wears on, the series twists and plays with this relationship in increasingly strange ways; Niea, haunted by the alien mothership that floats near the town, slowly becomes more despondent and begins to act differently, further amplifying the intrigue. It'd be easy to mistake the pair as the archetypal “normal girl and weird friend,” but the saving grace of the show is that there's much more to them than that. It's always great to see something complex hiding within something that seems simple at first glance.
I can't ignore a key fault, though; specifically, the series is haunted by incompleteness in several aspects. Some key elements of the setting go largely unexplained. It's an interesting world, but one that's not put to full use. The ending feels anticlimactic and overly explanatory, but paradoxically, it resolves very little. NieA takes frequent jabs at social problems such as discrimination and class warfare, but it feels like it's scraping the surface of these themes rather than delving into them at any real level of significance. Perhaps worst of all, the series periodically hints at an additional point of comparison that could make both of the lead characters shine even more—actually a pretty elegant and potent metaphor—but it takes a step back at the last second and pulls its punch, which is a real bummer. I derived plenty of enjoyment from the series, but I also can't shake the feeling that it's essentially two-thirds of a show. It's missing some things that could have elevated it substantially.
And yet I recommend it. I don't quite know who to recommend it to, because it's in a strange no-man's-land of genres, but I'll recommend it anyway. Occasional moments of less-than-great comedy and some degree of incompleteness hurt my impression of NieA Under 7, but the show is just so darn charming and, at times, so surprisingly clever that it's impossible for me to actively discourage anyone from watching it. read more
12 of 12 episodes seen
To say that Shigurui has high production values would be an understatement. Even by the standards of the frequent overachievers at studio Madhouse, Shigurui is looking at “high production values” in the rearview mirror half a mile back. It's a shame that much of the show takes place in dimly lit dojos and huts, because the outdoor backgrounds are nothing short of gorgeous. I'll be blunt in saying that the character designs are repulsive—everything about them is exaggerated, and from their overblown facial features to their overly pale, shiny skin, they look more like wax caricatures of humanity than anything else. Given the show's general love of putting the disgusting on display, I'd wager that this is intentional, and while the designs aren't aesthetically pleasing, they're fitting, and their remarkable level of detail and consistency can't be denied. The one artistic aspect where Shigurui falls a tad short is the animation; on the rare occasions where fluid animation is actually present, it looks great, but unfortunately the series defaults more to blink-and-you-miss-it shortcuts and fades for its fight scenes, which are less than enthralling (more on that later).
Shigurui is musically minimal. Most of the score consists of slower, more traditional Japanese music. Ominous drumbeats and strings are par for the course, sometimes punctuated by a deep, wailing chant. Atmospheric sound is common and used to good effect, with the old standbys of keening cicadas and chirping birds being the most noticeable. Some of the show's better music actually comes in the form of rhythmic folk songs sung by field laborers or village children as the samurai pass them by. To some degree, this befits both the setting and the “slow but violent under the surface” nature of the series.
And now we come to the writing, which, for the most part, is where I lose the ability to say anything positive about Shigurui. For all of its artistry and its attention-garnering violence and sexuality, the plot is built on fairly typical samurai fare: In the present time, a swordsmanship tournament is being held. Facing each other are two decrepit samurai, one of them blind and one of them missing an arm. They are both students of the same school of swordsmanship, they have a historic rivalry with each other, and the rest of the series is a flashback that delves into that rivalry. Revenge, rivalry, and betrayal can be made powerful with a quality story and good characterization (see Berserk, Gungrave) but it just isn't so here. Shigurui's writers seem to be going for the “slow but deliberate” buildup, and as a result the story dawdles, takes frequent forays into the backgrounds of characters and objects which have a minimal connection with the plot, and all the while fails to generate tension or momentum in any significant amount. A lack of complexity isn't always a bad thing, and good execution can take a simple plot, run with it, and make it compelling. But here is simplicity done wrong: Meandering, directionless, trying its hardest to pull something out of nothing and be more than it really is. Entire episodes could be skipped with minimal loss. You can practically see the seams where the plot is stitched together—in the first half of the show, someone is wronged, and in the second half, that someone seeks revenge in a methodical, predictable fashion while everyone else runs around like chickens with their heads cut off. The show's ending is somewhat fitting, but it's also anticlimactic in the first degree, and leaves many questions unanswered. It's insult to injury, and as a result, Shigurui's story is an absolute drag, a bloody, swerving run-on sentence with no period.
Memorable characters could probably dig the show out of the hole, but to call Shigurui's efforts in that area “paper-thin” would be to short-change paper. The leads, Fujiki and Irako, are both tools of the plot, and they bend to its will in completely unreal turnarounds. Irako goes from “sinister, merciless, master swordsman” to “blubbering, defenseless idiot” seemingly at the drop of a hat, and Fujiki, originally the least offensive protagonist, develops into a brutal, sadistic shell of a man for what appears to be no reason whatsoever. Both characters have motivations that are either completely unknown (Fujiki) or laughably simple-minded and one-note (Irako). As previously mentioned, the show would rather spend time delving into shoddily introduced plot elements than fostering any sort of actual interaction between these two characters; it glosses over their development as fellow swordsmen completely, and in the end the root of their much-touted, show-spanning rivalry seems to be limited to “Irako beat Fujiki in a practice match this one time and then Fujiki punched Irako in the face.” They hardly ever speak to each other; the show seems to be going for effective minimalism in this aspect, but it falls short. We know almost nothing about the ideals of either man, and while they might have good reasons to kill each other, the truth is that they're both cold and simple characters to a nearly inhuman degree, and it's nearly impossible to care about them or relate to them in any sense. Add to that some terribly flat supporting roles who seem to exist for the dual purposes of dying gruesomely and killing time while the show struggles to reach the 12-episode mark and you get a lackluster cast that's utterly incapable of picking up the slack left by the similarly flawed story.
In fact, Shigurui as a whole feels like the result of one big case of writer's block. That there's talent and effort poured into the series is beyond question—the near-flawless artistry, the attention to detail, and the willingness to show things that the audience might not want to see are all hallmarks of a strong creative team. It's even directed by Hiroshi Hamasaki, who managed to score a home-run with similar directorial style in the slow-but-powerful Texhnolyze. I've little doubt that if Shigurui's writing had been handled differently, the show could float above average, maybe even to greatness. I'm all for rooting for the underdog, and I'd love to be able to write a cute blurb along the lines of “despite its outward mask of grotesquely twisted sex and violence, Shigurui has numerous redeeming qualities...”
...but, truthfully, short of the art and the general atmosphere, I just don't see anything worth praising. Shigurui has nothing to say. It has all of the means in the world, but no conceivable ends. It's completely without vision, and as a poor replacement for vision, it reaches onto the shelf and pulls out the book of sheer brutality and shock value. It's the angry pre-teen, screaming (admittedly creative) obscenities, hoping that others will mistake them for maturity. In a sort of sad irony, its positive aspects actually look retrospectively silly when coupled with its writing, like lipstick on a pig. The fight scenes, which amount to staring contests punctuated by swift blows delivered via animation shortcuts, could have been effective if there was any emotion brewed between the characters involved, but lacking that element, they ring hollow. The slow, traditional music and voice-over narration sound absurdly ham-fisted and out of place next to the needless sexual violence. Countless artistic shots of butterflies and cicadas, symbols of change and rebirth, are not a substitute for writing characters who actually undergo convincing development. The show has zero self-awareness; at its best moments it's a halfway entertaining gut-spiller, and at its worst moments it's borderline BDSM smut, yet from start to finish it operates under the misleading pretense that it's an engaging work of art. In all walks of life it's best not to kid yourself, and I can't help but recommend that if you're going to make something as pointless and mind-numbingly gratuitous as this show, you could at least maintain some honesty about it. read more
11 of 11 episodes seen
“Simple, but effective” is a phrase that could describe Wandering Son on a couple of levels, but it's most immediately noticeable in the artwork. The color scheme is warm, consisting mostly of pastel pinks and yellows. Backgrounds are reasonably detailed, and they fade into a sea of off-white around the edges, like a drawing on canvas. At the most basic level, you could call the character designs generic, but they're drawn with the same light, rounded watercolor touch that's applied to the backgrounds, and the result is a world that's appealing to the eyes, as inviting and agreeable as it is distinctive. Each scene looks like a moving painting, remarkably fluid, with no out-of-place elements or sharp contrasts to break the sense of consistency.
The music and sound share many of those same qualities. Short of some obligatory “light and cheerful” music for the more upbeat school scenes, the series mostly relies on a seemingly limitless series of piano melodies. Dramas can sometimes be guilty of leaning too heavily on the sound of the piano, but in this case there are a surprisingly large variety of tracks, and they run the tonal gamut from soft and somber to soaring and hopeful, so it didn't bother me in the least. What's more interesting is the show's willingness to use atmospheric noise in place of music. The soft ticking of a clock during a lull in conversation can become harsh and accusing, as can that normally-harmless loop of muzak playing in the karaoke place. In one heart-stopping scene, the shrill cry of cicadas and the beat of slow footsteps are all we can hear as an antagonistic classmate approaches the vulnerable main character behind a closed door, his motives unclear. In this regard, the series can produce an immense amount of tension and audience involvement from practically nothing.
The characters are both a blessing and a curse. Get ready to be completely and utterly lost as early as three minutes into the first episode: The cast is huge, and with the exception of two leads, Nitori and Takatsuki, none of the characters are explicitly introduced in any sort of depth. To make matters worse, in addition to their given name, every character is also referred to by several nicknames, so you can definitely expect to play a little who's-who early in the series. Many of the characters knew each other in past years, but this is touched on very briefly, and the series seems to take it for granted that we'll be able to grasp everyone's histories. To be fair, if you're paying close attention, you can do just that, but it's definitely a tasking introduction that might be a little more complicated than it needed to be.
The series also falters a little when it comes to making the lead roles feel believable. It's difficult to write children with true accuracy, but this is an extreme case; within this series, there are at least three middle schoolers who, by all indications, are more mature and intelligent than most adults. Nitori and Takatsuki are both unflinchingly honest and up-front about their motivations and desires, and Saori, the third lead, is a little girl who has the steely composure and resolve of a professional hitman. In one scene, Saori's mother asks her what she plans to do with her life, and Saori sullenly responds that, if all else fails, she could “just be somebody's mistress.” You'll pardon me for thinking that seems like an unlikely response from an eleven-year-old, and it's a drop in the bucket of unrealistic behavior exhibited by children throughout the course of the series.
That's not to say the characters are a flop, though. Nitori is a character in a state of internal turmoil, trying his best to make sense of himself and work through confusion that most people could only imagine. It all shows through in his tepid behavior, his shyness, his inability to truly feel comfortable amongst others. He's complex, and believable as a person, just not as a child. By and large, the supporting characters are put to good use—as mentioned, they're many in number, so I can't dig into everyone, but some standouts include: Sarashina, a brazen and upbeat girl whose positive attitude and strong sense of identity make her a good role model for Nitori; Ariga, Nitori's friend and confidant who also has the desire to cross-dress; and Maho, Nitori's sister who, like true family, can somehow manage to be simultaneously spiteful and kind. The sense of realism isn't quite up to par, but there's definitely a lot of good chemistry between the characters.
Even by slice-of-life/drama standards, there really isn't much in the way of a conventional story here. Each episode is just a day or two in the life of Nitori as he faces numerous problems. In many ways, Nitori is the story—numerous subplots raise meaningful inquiries about him and the way that he is going to live his life. He starts to undergo puberty, he finds himself attracted to his sister's friend, he is conflicted about whether or not he should cross-dress at school. These beg some questions; how will he handle it when he is too “boyish” to convincingly cross-dress? Will he be able to have a meaningful relationship with the opposite sex despite his own confused state? Will he live in secrecy, or be open about his desire to be a girl? The series is good at provoking these sorts of thoughts without ever being too explicit about them.
In that same vein, Wandering Son really does have something that's absent from most dramas, and that is a sense of emotional understatement. It generates tension the same way that tension is generated in real life. Awkward silences; sometimes words unspoken are worse than those that are. Simultaneous sidelong glances in which both parties drop their eyes; just returning the gaze of a person you no longer call “friend” can be disquieting. A white flag offered by someone who has wronged you in the past; you want to let bygones be bygones, but you never can tell who's genuine and who isn't. Over time, Wandering Son collects all of these realities and more, hones them to their most disconcerting and incisive forms, and then uses them to great effect. The scene that I would consider to be the show's climax is so soft and unassuming, yet so full of visceral impact, that it's tough to even describe. Bad dramas default to artificially emotional screaming and crying. The good dramas are the ones that are built on the understanding that sometimes life is just so damn cold, silent, and uncomfortable that screaming and crying become a welcome change of pace, the finish line of an emotional gauntlet rather than the start. To that end, this series passes with flying colors.
What ultimately ends up marring Wandering Son more than anything is its treatment of its themes. Don't think for a second that I won't commend the show for taking an idea that's normally denigrated to the rank of a joke and bringing it up to center stage, because I will. It's daring and original, and I respect that to no end. The series is great at presenting insightful questions. But it cheapens itself a little bit when attempting to provide the answers. For all of the inner toiling, the complexity of the problems faced by the characters, the series ultimately ends up being permeated and diluted by the same overly simplistic “just be yourself and everything is gonna be okey-dokey” message that seems to be omnipresent in all forms of media. My own cynicism notwithstanding, there's nothing terribly wrong with that message in and of itself, but in this context, it's little more than a cop-out, a juvenile thematic resolution crudely tacked onto an otherwise mature and involving experience. It turns Wandering Son into an inarticulate meditation on the topic at hand rather than a full-blown attempt to embrace it, and for lack of a better phrase, it's a crying shame.
Nonetheless, there's plenty to appreciate here, and if you lean at all towards the slice-of-life/drama genres, or if you're just intrigued by the idea but sitting on the fence about whether or not it's worth your time, this is an easy enough recommendation. It doesn't carry nearly as much weight as it might have, but it's still the kind of uniquely artistic and effective series that I wish was a little more prevalent in the entertainment landscape. read more
3 of 3 episodes seen
Cossette's story is relatively simple, but for whatever reason, its creators seem eager to make it as difficult to follow as possible. There are frequent changes in setting between the real world and a surrealistic hallucinatory world that the protagonist visits. These transitions take place with little tact, and they give the series a very warped sense of chronology which is only added to by the use of repetitive flashbacks to events that happened only minutes ago. There is little to no explanation offered as to what this surreal world actually represents, and the OVA seems to take it for granted that the audience will be able to interpret the significance (if there is any) of the events that transpire there without much help, a proposition that's dubious at best and downright foolish at worst. What's happening in the real world isn't very interesting, either; the protagonist's group of age-appropriate female friends are noticing that he's having a bit of a mental breakdown, they're all concerned with his well-being, and they take various actions to try to ensure his safety. This story thread ultimately serves very little purpose, and is more or less just a distraction from the central plot. To even understand that plot requires using tremendous amounts of speculation and assumption to fill in the gaping holes left by the writers. I'm confident that I'm a reasonably attentive viewer, and I don't feel at all embarrassed to say that on the first watch of Cossette, I could only guess at what was happening for at least forty percent of the OVA's running length. There's a fine line between minimalistic storytelling and poor storytelling. It gets crossed here, in spades.
I wish I could say that the characters swooped in and redeemed everything, but it wasn't to be. Our male lead, Eiri, an amateur artist who owns an antique shop, is a neat concept, but he has all the personality of a dishrag, and is little more than a tool used to push an overly obvious thematic agenda on the audience. The same can be said of Cossette, the doomed young daughter of foreign nobility whose soul is trapped in a decorative glass; what a great idea, and what a shockingly lackluster execution. Her lack of character might be explained away by the idea that she is supposed to represent an object of obsession rather than a person, but the fact that she responds in kind to Eiri's love sort of voids that entire train of thought. There's an attempt at romance, but I've said it before and I'll probably say it again—romance holds no meaning when neither character is even identifiable as an individual. Supporting roles, you ask? Welcome to the cast of cliches: A close female friend who is in love with Eiri but has difficulty showing it, two local psychics who give Eiri vague spiritual advice (such gems as “there's a soul in everything”), a hard-nosed doctor who notices Eiri's failing mental and physical state, a girl smitten with Eiri who works at a local restaurant. They're introduced haphazardly and, again, we're often left to make assumptions about who they even are and what their relationship is to Eiri. Most of them are cardboard cutouts graced with the privilege of about two or three lines of dialogue, and their role in the story as a whole is rather unnecessary. There's some kind of halfhearted harem drama between the overly zealous friend who is in love with Eiri and the rest of the cast. This element isn't very well thought out, nor does it have any place in the OVA, and it falls more or less flat.
Artistically, Cossette has a lot of merit. The production values are reasonably high. The character designs are inoffensive. The backgrounds are lovely, ranging from verdant forests to foggy city streets, and the atmosphere created in the bowels of Eiri's dusty antique store is suitably eerie. Somewhere along the line, though, Cossette trades all of that for a ridiculous amount of CGI, editing, and visual trickery that's really quite annoying. It turns into a regular slideshow of artistic tricks-of-the-trade. Name a strange camera angle, lighting or filtering choice, or visual distortion, and the odds are pretty good that it's here. Cossette just can't resist: A shot through stained glass here, a weird point-of-view through a digital camera there, an overlay of flickering static, an endless pan over a computer-generated landscape. Words cannot even describe the number of techniques in play here, most of which serve no purpose other than as a sort of directorial “hey, look what I can do!” In terms of the technical implementation, they might very well be flawless, but I'll be damned if I can see a reason for their awkward inclusion. The OVA is actually at its best when none of these are employed. The halls and darkened storage rooms of Eiri's store, with antiques stacked around him like tombstones, are a lot more unsettling than the tactless barrage of seizure-inducing effects.
If you're the type to look at the staff listing, you might be able to guess that there's one aspect of Cossette that is tough to complain about, and that's the music. Yuki Kajiura does what she does best: Sweeping modern orchestral compositions backed by chanted vocals, intricate piano melodies, soft and haunting atmospheric noise. The soundtrack sounds great both in the context of the OVA and on its own. It doesn't sound as clear or as polished as her later work, but it's arguably as good as any other musical score she's been involved with, and that should say just about everything; it's grade-A, plain and simple. It's not terribly difficult to label the soundtrack as Cossette's strongest element. Imagine judging a dog show where the only contestants are a beautiful golden retriever and a dead possum. That's the choice I had to make.
Harsh words all around, and yet, that number does say five, which is far from the worst available score. Cossette might have inexcusably poor writing, but it does have some technical merits to fall back on, and I'll begrudgingly admit that it's a captivating watch even though the visuals are obnoxious. It's also a very creative idea, and while that idea ultimately isn't capitalized on, I can tell that it is trying to make an ambitious statement about art and the nature of human interaction with art. This thematic material isn't handled well at all, but the fact that there's even any thematic material worth mentioning in the first place is something. In a word, Cossette is a mess, and I really can't give it the most enthusiastic praise, but creativity and ambition are present, and if nothing else, it's certainly a unique piece of work. read more
24 of 24 episodes seen
Noein definitely has a unique look to it, albeit one that's fraught with inconsistency. The character designs are far from typical, being thinner and slightly more realistically proportioned than the norm. Although it eventually becomes clear that action was not intended to be the core of the series, the animation does have some strong moments, and, particularly in the first half, there's no shortage of creative futuristic combat. It's also a CGI-heavy show, with the invading ships from Shangri-La as well as many of the backgrounds being the most noticeable examples. The CGI looks good in general, but there are some painful hiccups. In particular, the model for Haruka's house sticks out like a sore thumb. In fact, it's pretty clear that visual quality control is a big issue across the board for Noein—when everything's working and the show is at its best, it looks fantastic, but the art quality varies on an almost minute-to-minute basis, and at its worst, it looks absolutely dreadful. When I think of the show's lovely backgrounds and its unusual use of deep, electric reds and blues in its color palette, I want to sing its praises...but then I recall a couple of action sequences that are reduced to stuttering gray messes by lapses in art and animation, and a multitude of moments where the character designs fall noticeably in quality, and it makes me think twice.
The music is acceptable, though lacking finesse. Noein's plot is an amalgamation of everyday content (like going to school and messing around with friends) and epic sci-fi content (like preventing the universe from disappearing), and the soundtrack strains to accommodate both of these aspects. The former is usually accompanied by tracks in which a recorder is used as the lead instrument, providing a distinctly childish and carefree sound that works well in this context. The more serious content is normally paired with fast-paced orchestral songs and chanted vocals. Both sides of the soundtrack are guilty of going a little over the top at times, and none of the individual songs are particularly memorable, but within the show the score suffices to build the mood.
When it comes to audio track language, I'd choose whatever your preference is, as they're both more than passable. The English dub contains a nice array of veteran voice actors. Crispin Freeman in particular sounds right at home as the haunted Karasu, his voice carrying his trademark dark edge of emotion and power, but that's not to leave some others out—Richard Epcar lends a genuinely creepy touch to Noein's booming, disembodied voice, and Melissa Fahn plays Haruka with conviction. Some secondary characters are not handled quite as well, with some unnatural sounding line deliveries being present. The dub's script also inexplicably changes a supporting cast member's gender from male to female, though that's more of a head-scratcher than a genuine problem. Overall, it's a very serviceable dub. The Japanese audio doesn't have a single hiccup that I can note, and if forced to choose at gunpoint I'd probably say that it's the better track, but it's a close enough race that you should be fine whether you go with the sub or the dub.
Despite all of the elements of sci-fi and action, it's evident that character drama is a little closer to the heart of the series. The main cast consists of Haruka, Yuu, and Karasu (who is Yuu, fifteen years in the future). Haruka is the kind of protagonist that's easy to get behind—kind, level-headed, trustworthy and above all, balanced, not leaning towards any extreme. She's a pretty open book, not written with a whole lot of complexity, but she projects enough likeability and believability to scrape by with a pass from me. The same can't be said of the male lead, Yuu, who is neither complexly written nor likeable. He spends most of the series switching schizophrenically between impotently wallowing in self-pity, and courageously risking his life to try to protect Haruka, and his changes in mood aren't very tactful—you never really know if the Yuu onscreen is the brave, devoted Yuu or the woe-is-me Yuu. Even worse, we don't know anything about his motivation for going to such great lengths to protect Haruka. A few flashbacks show that the two were childhood friends, but it's not elaborated on to any significant degree; the show presents their history in the visual equivalent of about three sentences, which makes it tough to give them a lot of thought as a couple, much less the couple that is supposed to be the centerpiece of the show.
Much to its detriment, Noein also has a colossal number of supporting characters. It has a habit of casting one of them into the spotlight for a portion of an episode, then discarding them and never mentioning them or the importance of their actions again. The show struggles to explain even the basic motivations of some of the characters—we never do learn what exactly drives antagonist Atori's deep hatred of Karasu, why the kids' elementary school teacher is cool with their dangerous encounters with futuristic beings, or the purpose of the awkwardly introduced love triangle between three members of the Dragon Cavalry. Most of these characters' pasts and personalities ultimately end up being explained away with a brief flashback detailing a traumatic moment in their lives, and there's simply no excuse for that. The cast could have been halved, and not only would the series not lose anything, it would probably be better off.
The story, while good on paper, ends up dragging on, and on, and on. I watched intently, but to be honest, that was completely unwarranted; I could probably have slept through a third of the series and still understood the overarching plot, which says a lot about the lack of stringency in the writing. Much as with the characters, the sheer number of subplots that have, at best, a tenuous connection to the story is rather staggering. The show is dangerously lacking in focus, and to quantify that statement a little, I'll point out that Noein contains no less than two doomsday plots and four love stories, which are all occurring simultaneously in three different dimensions. Sadly, all of those dimensions feel like empty stages rather than worlds worth caring about. In theory, it could be done, but it's a tall order that the writers here just couldn't fill, and Noein all but implodes under the workload. The story still has enough interesting content and continuity to be deemed acceptable, but the way that it's organized and presented is decidedly less than good. Perhaps the worst side effect of this is that some great ideas end up getting buried. I think that a character drama in which children encounter their future selves is a superb concept, but many of the cast's “future selves” end up being throwaways—one small aspect of a massive conglomeration of plots.
To give credit where it's due, I actually think that, taken as a whole, Noein is a little bit closer to succeeding than it is to completely failing, and given the amount of elements that it tries to patch together, that's a pretty big compliment. By all indications, Noein should be an utter disaster, but it isn't. It's just not everything that it could have been. In addition, the show feels genuine, and while that's a pretty vague thing to say, I have to imagine that it counts for something. Though it doesn't stand up very well to close inspection, Noein has real heart, a lot of outward likeability, and a lot of ambition. It might be a bit of a mess, but it's definitely not lacking in creativity or artistic vision, and it has at least a couple of powerful moments. So if any aspect of the show interests you, I'd give it the benefit of the doubt and try out a couple of episodes. If you end up disliking it, at least you'll have satisfied your curiosity, and there's always the chance you might get more out of it than I did. read more