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1 of 1 episodes seen
There wouldn't be a movie if they didn't opt for the latter. And they become quite a pair. Age is observant and intelligent, but sullen and despondent; Patema is upbeat and adventurous, but somewhat scatterbrained and clumsy. These are perhaps not the most unique attributes for the protagonists of an animated adventure film to possess, but what distinguishes them as more than lazy cliches is the ease with which we can see how each of them is a natural product of their respective environment. Age, once a dreamer with plans of leaving the ground and flying, has been beaten down in his day-to-day life by a society which believes that the sky is a source of death and destruction. Bereft of anyone to share his thoughts with, he has locked them away and chosen to meet the minimum expectations of his world with begrudging cynicism and indifference. Patema's world is equal but opposite—its rules discourage exploration as well, but out of a real desire to provide safety rather than to control. The people of the underground try to shelter Patema, and the result is a girl whose curiosity and enthusiasm far exceed her capabilities and knowledge. These two are not merely personalities dropped into a world, but characters built from the ground up to make sense in the world of Patema Inverted.
Moreover, their chemistry works with the simple grace that is characteristic of this film. Patema's earnest curiosity pulls the old Age back into the light, unearthing his buried interests and passions, restoring some of the childish happiness and optimism which he was forced to outgrow. He, in turn, provides the reason and restraint that she is lacking. Together, they're a force to be reckoned with, a billiard ball of measured recklessness careening through a world that has never seen their like.
The film follows their lead, rolling along from obstacle to obstacle. It carries the marks of veteran storytellers. It's paced brilliantly, balancing frantic, high-energy chases and momentous events against careful, deliberate exposition and instances of character introspection, maintaining a brisk speed while occasionally giving the film (and the audience) a chance to breathe and consider the impact of events. Despite the thoughtful and curious nature of its concept and setting, it neatly avoids the tar pit of wordiness and overindulgence into which stories of that nature have the chance of sinking; it is never too slow or too obtuse, instead rationing its heavier sci-fi aspects so as not to become overly ponderous. It foreshadows its twists and turns with admirable finesse and carries itself smartly, eventually leading to a conclusion which, while definitely a shock, ends up providing the satisfaction of a story brought to fruition from start to finish as one realizes that all of the requisite hints were provided, and it suddenly all makes smashing, effortless sense.
Visually, there is much to love. While the production values might not stack up to those associated with many feature films, this is nonetheless a pleasant movie to look at. Key character designs are refreshingly simple, yet distinctive, and backgrounds are filled with bright, glossy detail. However, it is Yasuhiro Yoshiura's skillful direction and cinematography which steal the show. A pan across a classroom shows, row by row, each student staring blankly ahead, except for Age, who gazes out the window at the forbidden sky. Patema fears the stars in that same sky until she sees their beauty reflected at an angle in Age's briefcase, truly aligning her perspective with his for the first time. Yoshiura's compositions and shots not only draw the eye with subtle technique, but reflect the theme of the film, wordlessly expose the thoughts of his characters, and imbue each scene with a sense of purpose.
It's worth mentioning, though, that the swift, simple and energetic nature of the film is a double-edged sword. When a light, pleasant story is told with such sure-handed competence, it's not unreasonable to wonder what could have been had the storyteller gone the extra mile in search of more creative ideas, more thematic resonance, more lasting impact. In essence, Patema Inverted is just a little safe. The settings—both Age's oppressive totalitarian society and Patema's underground village of peaceful outcasts—tread well-worn territory for sci-fi. The antagonists—the unquestionably evil, short-sighted dictator and his doubting second-in-command—are also old standbys. They serve their roles adequately, but unlike Patema and Age, they lack the foundation of character needed to be true standouts from their respective crowds. And while the film contains many tidbits about what we can understand and accomplish when we merge our perspectives, and the inherent fragility of close-mindedness, it's lacking the focused thematic punch in the gut needed to make a permanent impression.
That's not to say that Patema Inverted is a brainless work, that it's poor, or even that it's merely forgettable, airy entertainment. The opposite—it's not only entertaining, but also clever, deftly executed, artfully made, and chock-full of those little touches that make the difference between a tired, mediocre creation and one that is palpably bursting with the life, thoughts, and energy of those who created it. It might not aspire to greatness, but it's good with such confidence and efficiency that one can't help but smile. read more
12 of 12 episodes seen
Perhaps fitting for a story that's partially about machines coming to terms with life, the world of Arpeggio seems to be constructed from the ground up using pure CGI. Everything about it, from characters to ships, bears the obvious stamp of computer generation, and this, unfortunately, is CG of a cheap-looking and ugly breed. If there's one thing the show consistently gets right, it's light—explosions, lasers, computer displays and the like look good more often than not, but that's about the only visual aspect that I can genuinely compliment, and I'm reaching pretty far for that one. Backgrounds and other such niceties don't look so nice, with the ocean in particular often being rendered as a noxious purple-black cloud which bears shockingly little resemblance to a body of water. The design and color choices are poor—the characters all have the same pale, waxy complexion and widely spaced eyes. Add some otherworldly hair and wardrobe malfunctions, and everyone starts to look pretty ridiculous. Add some extraordinarily stiff animation (all characters move with an awkward, jerking hobble, all ships move at a stuttering crawl), and, frankly, you'd be hard-pressed to tell who is supposed to be a human and who is supposed to be a member of the more robotic Fog; they all look equally like paste-colored marionettes. This condition is only worsened by the show's repeated attempts to force its decidedly mechanical characters to do something sexy; it's like watching aliens awkwardly attempt to imitate aspects of human sex appeal, and something about it is strangely disquieting. The core of the show's aesthetic is thoroughly repulsive to no real artistic or thematic end.
The music, mostly a mix of cheesy techno and uninspired string/horn compositions that seem tailored to fit the seafaring nature of the series, soars to mediocre heights. Okay, cheesy techno aside, some of it actually isn't too bad, but variety is an issue; this is one of those shows that have two or three songs for battle, two or three songs for dramatic moments, and a few minutes' worth of atmospheric noises that get recycled over and over again. The music direction is sub-par, with tracks often starting too late to have any impact on a given scene, or starting too early and overriding dialogue. Sound certainly isn't the show's worst department—actually, by simple process of elimination, it might be the best—but suffice to say it doesn't excel or help cover the show's weaknesses, as good music sometimes can.
Looking at Arpeggio's story in a “big picture” light reveals interesting results in that, at the end of the day, there's really no detail to it whatsoever. The world-building is virtually nonexistent, to the point where I'd venture to say there's little that you couldn't learn about the world of Arpeggio from reading a three-sentence plot synopsis. The show proffers a fairly elaborate premise, but it stubbornly refuses to answer any questions about its overarching plot or setting—not the ones that will naturally occur to you, and, perhaps worse, not even the ones that it explicitly raises. Among the former will be perfectly logical ponderings, the answers to which would be required to achieve a minimum amount of richness in the setting, like: In a war where both sides have advanced futuristic technology, why aren't there any airplanes? If the Fog mental models are nearly indestructible and visually indistinguishable from human beings, why don't the Fog just send them ashore to covertly destroy vital targets? And so on. Among the latter will be vital, should-really-be-answered queries along the lines of “what are the Fog?”
No, seriously, they never even attempt to address that. The Fog battleships repeatedly refer to themselves as “just weapons” that are “programmed to obey the Admirality Code” (the Admirality Code being an ill-defined set of rules, first mentioned three-quarters of the way into the show, that governs the actions of the battleships). This leads to the assumption that the Fleet of Fog are just tools, and the true masterminds behind the Fog invasion lie elsewhere; weapons require weapons designers, and programs require programmers. The show hints at human interactions with the Fog—it's suggested that the main character's father defected to the side of the Fog—but the idea lies abandoned and utterly unexplored. The mysteries are never solved. Much of the show is spent fighting a shadow enemy whose nature, origin, and motivations remain completely veiled. Several episodes of the series even have the audacity to end with a taunting overlay of text which reads (presumably referring to the Fog): “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” Even after the credits rolled at the end of the final episode, I could still only answer all three with “I don't know,” which spells trouble.
All of that might be forgivable if the setting and war were only a backdrop used to stimulate some excellent characterization—such tactics have been known to work. And, honestly, that might be what the series is going for. Whatever else might be wrong with it, it does expend a fair bit of effort (largely wasted effort, but genuine effort nonetheless) trying to explore its characters. Sometimes it comes within arm's reach of the right notes. Like Haruna, an especially cold and vicious Fog mental model, forming a bond with a perceptive young girl who emotionally disarms her, or Iona's struggle to obey Gunzou's orders while knowing that obeying could potentially cause his death. Those aren't bad ideas at all. The show wants, desperately, to have characters who change, and change they do. It's telegraphed at us, and not very subtle, but it's there.
The problem is that the impetus for change is missing. The series has flawed internal logic—it presents the Fog mental models as thoughtless machines, explicitly stating that they are governed by programs that cannot learn from past mistakes, adapt, or feel. There is never a convincing reason given regarding why they suddenly adopt emotions and human values. And that's kind of a big deal. I don't care how heartwarming the story of a little girl is, or how charismatic a sailor is—if you put robots who have no capacity for emotion next to them, the robots will not suddenly be moved to tears and love. No amount of emotion can overwhelm something that is literally incapable of feeling emotion. Talk to a wall for a little while and you're likely to notice that, no matter how much and how loud you talk, the wall does not respond. This is because your voice's volume does not alter the complete and utter inability of the wall to comprehend and reproduce your language of choice. Same difference here; the presence of emotion in the outside world can't simply inspire emotion in the void of a computer. That's deeply flawed thinking which would require a workaround within the context of the series. If there were some sort of external explanation provided, even a cheap one like “turns out there was a hidden emotion switch in the Fog after all,” some sense might be made of the situation, but, predictably, there's nothing. Which sucks, because that means that half of the equation is missing. If a character changes, I'd like to know why it's happening, or it's just as bad as having a character who is static and unmoving. If you present characters as machines, and then they suddenly sprout the mindset of normal human beings for no real reason, it defeats the entire narrative purpose of presenting them as machines in the first place. It essentially strips the characters of their distinguishing features, and adds a big tint of insincerity to everything that they go through.
The last thing that might have saved Arpeggio would be the battles. It sounds next to impossible to screw up “giant sentient battleships blow each other to hell,” and while good execution of that concept would not necessarily result in a good series, it would at least provide an audience with one reason, lacking any others, to watch it. But even this somehow manages to go awry. Never has large-scale warfare been so boring. The battles, though sometimes as long as ten or fifteen minutes, are dreadfully uneventful, usually consisting of a lot of technobabble about force fields and gravitron cannons and the like. The more strategy-focused crowd will be glad to know that our fearless captain, Gunzou, is the proud creator of such novel naval warfare tactics as “wait for the enemy to fire a bunch of torpedoes at us, then dodge them, then fire back and hope it works.” Battles are regularly concluded with routine and anticlimactic solutions, such as the above, or solutions that appear out of nowhere, such as Gunzou realizing that he can just use some weapon or defensive feature of the submarine that the audience didn't even know existed. Even when things do get dire for all of those aboard, the lack of emotional resonance in the writing assures that the tension level remains at zero.
What I'm getting at is that this show consists of misstep after misstep, and they often work together to form seamless spans of pointlessness which would be a waste of time for anyone to endure of their own free will. The lack of world-building and knowledge about the Fog coincides nicely with the characterization issues to form a gaping hole where the compelling internals should be. The dreadful animation and boring battles sync up all too well, affording the audience a chance to stare at a low-stakes game of chicken that isn't even produced well enough to serve as an eye-candy distraction. When all was said and done, I came away with the impression that I had basically watched a show about things who look like girls that do stuff for some reason. And I wouldn't wish that experience on anyone. read more
1 of 1 episodes seen
There’s nothing remarkable about the way Kimera looks. It’s cheaply made. The backgrounds are flat and minimal, and the color palette consists mostly of a muted mishmash of grays and dark greens which, combined with the generally low production values and lack of ambient lighting, give the OVA a very dull and industrial aesthetic. The design work isn’t much better; Kimera’s human characters have square, blocky, seemingly featureless faces with dime-a-dozen expressions, while its monstrous villains look like half-baked concoctions of various oozing creeps from B-grade sci-fi films the world over. The animation itself can vary, and at its best it’s actually not too bad, offering suitably squirmy movements for the abundance of disgusting, gore-seeking tentacles. However, speed lines, quick cuts away from action, and other budget-savers are just as abundant, providing for a weird fifty-fifty split between modest but acceptable animation and terrible animation. Quality control appears to have been skimped on altogether, and the show can’t maintain a constant level of visual detail for more than seven or eight minutes at a time. Some of the more consistently animated portions of its blessedly short running length include a gratuitous sex scene and a thirty-second shot of a man’s organs exploding out of his chest and forming a neat little pile on the ground. These serve as good indicators of where the priorities of the work’s creators lie, if nothing else.
Kimera’s score bats a perfect zero—without fail, when there was music playing, I found myself wishing there wasn’t. Oh, the music itself is plenty awful; its constituents include squealing, high-speed violin compositions, overwrought operatic organ pieces, and vaguely 80s-sounding synth-rock, none of which should have ever been allowed the privilege of existing, much less coexisting within a single forty-minute span of time. It’s all bad enough that I feel sorry for whoever was tasked with integrating it into the OVA in a way that would benefit all parties involved. That poor soul must have tried, because Kimera usually at least attempts to put two and two together and play music that is supposed to be sad over scenes that are supposed to be sad, fast-paced music over scenes of action, so on and so on…but, honestly, the effort was doomed from the start. The soundtrack is such an ill-considered, intrinsically conflicting mixture that it's pretty much unworkable, and it's the factor that pushes some scenes in Kimera over the thin line between “weird and nonsensical” and “unintentionally laughable.”
In fairness, it's hard to not laugh at a story like this one. Kimera posits that earthly legends about vampires are actually the result of alien beings from another planet (who survive by sucking the life force out of other beings) landing on Earth in the past. Lately there has been turmoil on the vampire homeworld, they're in danger of becoming extinct, and now three vampires/aliens have crash-landed their spaceships on Earth with the intention of starting a population of vampires there and using humans as their livestock. The key to doing so is the female vampire, Kimera, who is captured by the Air Force and kept in an underground lab. Our two lead characters encounter Kimera before she's captured, and one of them falls in love with her. Okay, so the concept itself sounds like the demon-spawn of many terrible, terrible things, but they could make it work if the execution were good enough. Unfortunately, it carries all the hallmarks of hacky storytelling. There are unexplained leaps in time, unexplained transitions from one scene to the next (at one point the setting changes, as if by magic, from an Air Force facility in the middle of nowhere to a bustling city). Most of the backstory is revealed through a short flashback which occurs thirty minutes into the OVA, which is quite untimely, to say the least. The progression of events is hectic, cluttered, and everything in between, and while it's not quite bad enough for me to say I couldn't tell what was happening, it's pretty close.
The next time a work of fiction introduces its two protagonists as “the hardest working corn cereal salesmen in America,” a fact seemingly slipped in just for the purpose of explaining why said characters know each other and why they are driving through a deserted, mountainous, Air Force-patrolled region in the dead of night, I'll probably take the hint and go watch something else. Their names are Osamu and Jay (or Main Character and Blonde Guy, if you prefer). Their personalities initially appear to be pretty clear-cut—Osamu is a tepid and uninteresting everyman, Jay is a constantly ribbing, buddy-buddy jokester type. We've seen them before.
However, there is a gaping discrepancy between what these characters are supposed to be and what they actually are. Our two “cereal salesmen” break into government laboratories plastered with warnings about biohazards seemingly on a whim. One of them spends a good portion of the OVA french-kissing a green-skinned alien succubus who has never even spoken one word to him. Jay is the bystander mentioned above who appears to think that swatting a loaded gun out of someone's hands is a good idea. It's one thing for characters to make devastatingly stupid and irreversible decisions; that's certainly not a problem in and of itself. To err is human, as humans like to say. However, in reality and in well-written stories, these would be weighty choices, potentially carrying great consequences; the kind of choices that nobody would make without putting some good, hard thought into it. But neither of these average Joes appears to have any regard for life and limb. With the exception of an initial, brief “this might not be a good idea” from Osamu, the two treat breaking into an Air Force laboratory like it's a prank, giggling with schoolyard glee about whether or not they'll need a password to breach its giant interlocking doors (and they don't, because that would make sense). And so Kimera rolls on, with nobody ever pausing to consider anything, gape at any of the fantastic events that occur, or do anything that would cause real human beings to understand them or feel a connection to them. Point being that these are only “characters” in the most cold and mechanical sense; they're wheels that turn thoughtlessly to carry the plot to whatever ridiculous landmark it wants to visit.
Ironically enough, it's something in the same vein as that quality which prevents me from giving Kimera the lowest possible score. I don't think this OVA is meant to be taken as a joke, yet, having seen it, it's very hard to think of it as anything but. Do I recommend watching this? No, definitely not. It's excessive, poorly written, poorly presented, cheesy, and constantly straining to cover its own screwups. But it's not truly mean-spirited, and there's a (very) little something to be said for this tiny universe where everyone, good guys and bad guys alike, are brick-stupid, and the switch for common sense, reasoning, and decision-making is covered with cobwebs which permanently tether it in the “off” position. In spite of and because of its silly incompetence, it inspires just the tiniest bit of admittedly condescending affection, enough for me to turn the dial one unit to the right of where it probably should be. Kimera says “take me seriously,” and we can only shake our heads and smile knowingly, as if gracefully rejecting the outlandish request of a child. read more
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