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A depiction of little more than the life of characters within their setting, Aria has often been described as being fully character-centric. It is not nearly the only manga to have been given this description, but seldom has it been a more apt one - as long as the reader keeps in mind what might be meant with 'character' in the first place.
-= Characters =-
As far as the obvious characters go, the reader is presented with a small group of three young girls and their wider world, who have come together in the manga's setting for the sake of apprenticing themselves and learning a profession. There is no greater goal, no overarching deed that needs to be done, so that the manga can focus simply on their everyday lives as they strive towards graduating from their apprenticeship. While there is nothing particularly innovative or even endearing to a series showcasing daily life, there is in Aria's characters at least a sense of purpose, which means that there is room for them to work towards something and, hence, grow.
At first, what is presented is little beyond the wonders and tribulations of everyday life. Blessedly untroubled and unhurried as their lives are, the characters all tend to be shown in just about any chapter in more or less the same way, displaying how generic most of them actually are. The main character, Akari, is sweet, a bit of an airhead and someone who delights in just about anything; her friend Aika remains a bit boisterous while hiding a tinge of uncertainty; the third of the group, Alice, juggles a still somewhat childish mentality with a more mature work ethic and intellect; etc. In all, their thoughts, actions and emotions are far less extreme than is common in anime and manga, and while this tranquillity is certainly a major selling point of Aria that should be taken as an example of how to portray characters correctly, the uniformity of actions and reactions can be a bit predictable and, eventually, uninteresting.
That does not take into account, however, the slow, slight but very sure development of the characters over the volumes. Over the course of multiple years the three main protagonists are seen to slowly but certainly mature, becoming more steadfast and certain in their thoughts and behaviour, without them losing their personality or undergoing major, inexplicable changes - in short, their development reflects the actual maturisation process. In the same time, their mentors slowly fade out of their guiding role, gently coming to stand on a more equal footing with their protégés. As a whole, this development is highly satisfying and convincingly portrayed without having to resort to sudden influxes of disaster and trauma.
Still, most of the time the characters as such remain somewhat flat, not so much acting out of themselves as reacting to their environment. That's to be expected, as Aria as a whole makes very clear where it's focus lies: to depict the life in a fictional world. It's really no exaggeration to say that the world of Aqua, and more in particular the city of Neo Venezia, is the real star of the manga.
And what a world it is! Though it seems as if every one of the chapters of the manga shows a different part of the city and its wider surroundings, at the end it still feels as if there are hundreds of nooks and crannies left to explore, some right behind the corner. It's a rich, vibrant and very much living city, with a new 'wonderful encounter' at the end of each alleyway.
Many tools are employed to attain this sense. The simplest, and most powerful, is the very simple fact of temporal change. Seasons change and with them part of the economy of a city to quite an extent dependent on tourism; festivals come and go; people seen once before return later in a slightly different role; and slowly the characters themselves grow up, reflecting on the passing of the seasons as they continue their business. Another tool is the amount of people passing by, many of them nothing but background actors but all engaged in meaningful activity. Because they are so omnipresent the switch to empty back streets become very much pronounced and enhances the fairytale feeling of some of the chapters.
This fairytale aspect, in turn, helps make Aqua so nice to explore. With no visible crime or squalor, Neo Venezia becomes a little kid's adventure site, filled with delightful moments of discovery and mystery - every chapter containing the native and intelligent Aquan cats and their community in particular enhancing the feeling of mysterious yet benign otherworldliness.
-= Visualisation =-
The manga renders of all of this in gorgeous panoramas, capturing the glory of the city in black and white and many, many shades of grey, in such a manner depicting the very human and living alongside the hazy and mysterious. Not only, though, is the drawing style often simply gorgeous and is splendid use made of the effects of different greys, but Aria just might be one of the best manga out there in terms of its graphical style representing the focus of its story.
Most effectively, it does so by employing differences in scale between chapters, and even between panels. Though most panels, as with almost every other manga, are focused on the characters, showing only their immediate surroundings, ever so often the view widens to show whole buildings, streets, even entire city-scapes. At the same time, angles shift, and one looks up from below, passing the weathered stone of walls to see the sky visible above alleyways, or watches from above or far away the quays of the city. The difference in scale in such scenes is even more pronounced in the manga than in the more widely-know anime based on it, for the simple fact that a page of small panels may be suddenly followed by a two-page panoramic spread.
There is always at least one human figure present, but it's a rarity that the figure is placed in the centre of the shot: the small human person is present only at the sides, looking at something bigger than himself, forming only a small part of the bustling city, the brilliant sunrise or the pristine, newly discovered grounds that command the attention of both the eye and the story filling the chapter's pages.
Equally consistent is the use of backgrounds to emphasise the present focus. Whenever the story is more strongly focused on the characters, the presentation of the background takes a backseat. Colouring becomes more monotone, the environments are more generic (such chapters also more often take place indoors) and there is little differentiation between the buildings, squares and canals. Whenever the story becomes more strongly focused on Aqua and Neo Venezia themselves, though, suddenly there is added detail to all environments and, in particular, a far more pronounced contrast between light and shadow, displaying every little nook and cranny of the setting. Some of the stronger chapters strongly favour this playing with saturation of greys, giving every set of panels its own distinct mood.
Of course, beyond such tricks, the design of the setting itself contributes to its appeal. As a whole, Neo Venezia appears as a sun-drenched city, filled with buildings that are just weathered down enough to become scenic, quaint little alleyways and stairs leading up to yet another bright new spot. Fog rises up from unspoilt fields to enhance mystery, to clear whenever it is called for. Tools, modes of transport, accoutrements, everything is deliberately outdated, to evoke a setting of a more leisurely age. It has all the charm of a tourist brochure, but none of the downsides of the actual place.
Perhaps deliberately, perhaps less so, the presentation of Aqua as a world of exciting new vistas and people to meet, almost wholly devoid of any threat that should hamper exploration, is mirrored in the graphical design and presentation of the characters. It's relatively uncommon to see anyone appear more than mildly annoyed, while in the few instances that it does happen use is made of a deliberately deformed style that takes off the edge. Moreover, more so than in most manga, the design of the characters' bodies is devoid of extremes, and of angles: there is a very 'soft', curvaceous look to most of them. Yet, while a certain basic feminine attractiveness is present, it remains well shy of any implication of sensuality or sexuality.
-= A note on the anime =-
Here, a bit of attention should be given to a comparison of the manga with the anime based on it, as I consider the manga to be by far the better of the two. This at first seems to be a bit strange: Certainly the anime should be better able to use colour and movement to fully visualise the splendour of Aqua?
Well, no. For much of the first two seasons of the anime, the palette was somewhat garish, lines weren't as strong as they should be and the animation itself resulted in some distortions of perspective, something that is highly detrimental to the depiction of the city. Moreover, as a result of infusing colour, much of the play with light and shadow was lost, resulting in a Neo Venezia that was more strongly relegated to the background. Worse, exactly at the point where the quality of the animation went up, the focus of the anime shifted drastically, as more and more episodes were devoted to the characters only, with less attention given to the setting, meaning that the manga is superior in depicting the integration of the characters with their setting.
Much of this is the result of pacing. A few of the very best chapters in the manga, such as 49, are just a bit too dependent on single shots, meaning that any adaptation in anime format would have very little to work with: the chapter just cannot fit within an episode. Yet it is exactly chapters such as that one, showing Akari's reflection on her life on Aqua and her moving through the streets and the seasons, that most clearly show how much the characters form a part of their world, how all the 'wonderful encounters' are the result of both giving and taking and not solely the result of one-sided searching.
-= Final consideration =-
Aria as a whole is peaceful, charming and a tremendous joy to read, a manga to be thought of with contentedness and satisfaction. It matches a very simple premise and a lovely setting with a presentation that can be called mostly flawless in its integration of character and world, which by the end has become a living character of itself.
13 of 13 episodes seen
How could this not turn out to be brilliant?
When discussing Spice and Wolf, the very title of the series is of interest. More particularly, the sequence of the words of that title. Whereas the Japanese original should have produced the sequence 'Wolf and Spice', the reverse is used in the English title; both sequences are used when people talk about the series. The very preference of one sequence of the title's elements over the other might very well show which such element is more important to the viewer. Equally, it will probably betray appreciation of the show as a whole, as one of the two elements is clearly inferior to the other.
-= Wolf =-
One way of looking at this series is to see it as a traveller's tale, perhaps even one of a budding romance: a story of two companions trekking from place to place to reach their goal and becoming more firm friends with each bump in the road - bumps that are present, partly as that's how roads are, but mostly as a method of giving the travellers something to struggle with and to overcome.
Such a view can easily enough be taken, since both protagonists, travelling merchant Kraft Lorenz and his companion Holo, have a penchant of running into trouble at each way stop, either of their own making or by coincidence and plot-convenience, and especially since theirs is an age-old adventure tale, a tale of crossing a continent while finding one's way home. The particular angle from which Spice and Wolf looks at this story is noteworthy, though.
Kraft Lorenz is one of the more unusual characters concepted within the entirety of anime and manga. A travelling trader owning little but his own horse and carriage and dreaming of making enough money to open a shop, he is hardly an archetypal hero. Nor is he concepted to become one. The focus of his character and his actions lie squarely on his business. A generally upright and decent, if competitive, man, his is a less than overly adventurous life of trying to strike a good deal and staving off bankruptcy, trading in commodities and making the best of opportunities encountered by favourable exchange rates or the novelty of trading on credit. At first glance it may not be the most exciting of lives to watch, but it is made up for by the detail poured in each individual transaction and the worries they bring to someone whose very survival hinges on the successful deal.
There is also the little fact that he has made a promise to a spirit of an age past, letting this spirit travel with him and helping her search for her far-off home for as long as their routes overlap. His motivation is partly one of expedience, partly one of awe, and partly one of wishing for a companion on the road.
While Lorenz is simply a character who is able to assess and laugh about himself and who never strays too far from the path of weighing all his options and usually acting from his thoughts instead of his emotions (somewhat rare in itself), only being overcome at times by the greed his profession might by necessity entail, Holo is what, to many, makes the show memorable.
First of all, there's her concept. She's a 'Roggenwolf', a wolf-spirit from folk legend who was a protector of the rye fields and the harvest; the legend depicted in the anime, including the idea that the wolf hides in the last sheaf of rye, comes directly from the actual legend (although the anime most likely speaks about barley, not rye - it's hard to tell, with 'mugi' meaning barley as well as rye and wheat). But Spice and Wolf adds to this simple notion, mentioning how she agreed to be present in the fields in days when the success of the harvest depended on the whims of nature and the supernatural, only to be forgotten when progress and developing technology made her antiquated, until she roused herself from her placidity, longing to return to her old home, a semi-mythical place where everything was bathed in a brilliant silver.
A being who is not human, Holo is shown to enjoy the marvels of the human world with all the lack of solicitude of a child. Seeing herself as better than humans, she is a trickster, toying with whatever interests her, shown to like mind-games, wittiness and swiftness in conversation, all the while seemingly thoroughly enjoying being pampered, being treated to large amounts of alcoholic beverages and socialising.
While this might make her likable, perhaps even charming, it doesn't make her stand out as a character. What does manage to do so is the fact that, every now and again, without too much attention being piled on it, she, and the audience with her, is reminded of the fact that she is, in truth and not only in word, different, a spirit. At such times realisation creeps through that she is, in fact, hundreds of years old and wise in the ways of the world - but in the ways of the world that was and now is gone. She is a stranger in a strange land, having awoken from slumber only to find that what she once knew is lost. It infuses her with a sense of loneliness that might not always be the most convincing, but at least appears to be sincere.
Viewed as a traveller's tale, their story is one of visiting new places and getting involved with the goings-on there, either by becoming embroiled in the affairs of that locale or by interacting with the local markets and traders in a professional capacity. The different tales, more or less one per locale, depicting the ideological problem of Holo being a wolf-spirit and the fiasco of investing in something the market is flooded with, among others, focusing on the interaction of the two travelling companions in their persons and professions with the wider world, generally lead to a calm pacing that give the two ample space to converse with each other and their surroundings and developing the bond between such unlikely bedfellows.
As it should be, that bond is slow to develop. Their travelling together at first being nothing but a marriage of convenience, slowly the practical agreement gains an emotional aspect as trust starts to build up. Equally slowly, their conversations change from the purely economical (in all meanings of that word) to the moral and the emotional, yet both keep their distance, befitting two persons who have only known each other for a short time: though banter is exchanged, sometimes infused with quite a bit of wit and mocking of self, once it starts getting personal both have a tendency to back off unless it is truly important for their travels together. If there is no progress in their relationship, this is because there should not be any: Lorenz and Holo are companions, perhaps friends. By knowing each other, they can work together; by caring, they can travel together. But more would be out of place: they are fundamentally different persons in outlook and goals and their focus on the practical side of things only makes them all the more realistic and mature.
-= Spice =-
Looking at Spice and Wolf as the story of its two protagonists, travelling companions and unlikely friends slowly growing into a stronger relationship is, however, missing the trees for the forest. The super-story isn't but a method to link the little tales together. What makes this series one that stands out from the crowd is the staggering amount of detail poured into the fictional world, a world brought to life in many of its facets by the highly unconventional method of making one of the protagonists a merchant.
As a trader, Lorenz is bound to explore the cities he travels through and while he does so the audience is treated to a setting that is as evocative as it is true to actual history. Though Spice and Wolf is ostensibly set in a fictional world, it becomes clear very soon that this world is the Central Europe of the late 14th, early 15th centuries in all but name. In particular, the cities appear as the market towns of the late Middle Ages, and the trading guilds mentioned are a clear reference to the rising Italian companies and the Hanseatic League.
The actual content of the show has little to do with the relationship between Holo and Lorenz, but is squarely focused on immersing the audience in the particulars of the small-scale trade of a time when pepper was worth more than gold. It is this what makes Spice and Wolf different from almost anything else out there, and the series makes the most of it, being sure to place enough emphasis on minute details to bring both the practice of the trade and its mentality to life.
Through Lorenz and his dealings, the audience is shown the workings of the guilds and bourses of that age, including the modus operandi of the early international trading companies and the limited use (and understanding) of trading on credit, as well as the developing sense of difference between nominal and real value of coinage. While watching Lorenz and Holo exchanging banter, the audience is also shown the more mundane aspects of city life, being taken to watch folk festivals, inns and hostels and a variety of stalls and shops.
The faithful rendition of historical detail of the setting - utensils, architecture, accoutrements all, and even, for once, the ships - surpasses anything I've seen to date in anime, putting your average (and better-than-average) Renaissance fair to shame. From the exact construction of buildings to the fact that trenchers were usually made of bread, it seems as if every single detail of the daily life of people has been carefully checked and incorporated. It does so well that I was honestly miffed when noticing that one letter shown was written in modern, not mediaeval, German.
Equally striking is the general optimism of the general worldview, a sense that people can understand the world and leave their footprint on it. This, too, is an important part of the portrayed setting and true to historical fact. The time was, and is explained to be in the setting, one of technological progress, one wherein more and more tools were developed to aid agriculture and industry and less and less was dependent on chance. Belief systems focus on the human and their mastery of the world, with nothing standing between man and his God but his own mind, resulting in a general outlook of opportunity, contrasting sharply to most fantasy and historical shows and befitting the more grounded story marvellously.
-= And everything nice =-
And then, there is myth. Vague, half-forgotten, impossible but in the dark places of the world. Hidden in plain view, in tales from the countryside and quaint mannerisms of people who should know better, shadows of a system of belief of a world past still remain. Only very seldom made explicit, Spice and Wolf employs one of the more subtle and low-key depictions of magic, neatly integrating it into the overall setting. Spirits being real, they only survive where the remaining tales say they ought to be. Reminding the audience every now and then that there is more to the fictional world than market towns, Holo is made less of a unique phenomenon and her desire to return to a home the continued existence of which she can't even be certain of, is thereby enhanced. The supporting cast, as well, complements the setting very well, living wholly in the world of man's endeavours or still faintly recalling what's outside the walls, considering alchemy to be a science yet still a bit fearful of getting involved in it because of its storied connection to the supernatural.
Being a series with a slow-moving plot and a lot of dialogue, it was a good choice to try and have each conversation be infused with at least an attempt at wit, and it's nice to see how the failing attempts are often recognised as such by the characters themselves. Always remaining on the safe side of the rational-emotional spectrum, the conversations have a lightness and lack of unnecessary outbursts that keeps the overall tone of the series intact.
Mention should further be made of the music. Granted, it's about as standard folk fair as it comes, but it fits the setting, accompanying especially the more festive moments perfectly and has the good graces to sometimes simply not be very good. As far as I can tell, there has been made something of an effort to only use traditional folk instruments and what's left of the musical scores of the time (little of which is certain to be actually old, by the way), and some of these instruments just aren't capable of producing the purer sounds their modern varieties can produce. The opening tune's lyrics also do a very good job of introducing and accompanying the type of story told.
-= Icing and Cake =-
Looking at Spice and Wolf as the tale of Holo and Lorenz is mistaking the icing for the cake. What comes first in this show is the spice, that is, the setting. In many ways, the travels of the protagonists are but a means to show the audience a small piece of a living and breathing world.
Original, if not unique, in focus and angle, superbly detailed in setting and at least decent in adding a glue to fit the separate stories together, Spice and Wolf was, to me, 2008's biggest surprise and an instant favourite. I'll admit that my particular interest in the era alluded to makes me biased, but even without it the originality of the concept, the integration of actual and made-up legend in a detailed world and the soothing charm of the low-key telling of the tales would have me recommend it as one of the very few shows that shirk away from the incessant need to bombard audiences with action and suspense, romance and relationship or like topics.
Charming, enjoyable by all age groups, calm and beautiful in its manifold details, Spice and Wolf is a delight to sit down by after a long day and simply enjoy.
1 of 1 episodes seen
The film opens with the arrival of Kannami Yuuichi, a 'Kildren' ('Kild'?), at a small forward base of his company in Europe, where he is seen settling in amongst his new surroundings. Though a few battle scenes are depicted, most of the film follows a slow, almost languid pace, showing the interactions between Kannami and the small cast of characters of the film, most importantly the base commander, Kusanagi Suito. Over the ensuing days, through the use of slowly moving dialogues and long stretches of silence, rather a few questions are raised on the 'Kildren', their existence and meaning, only a few of which are answered, and, more importantly, attention is given to Kusanagi and the results of her having lived for longer than she perhaps should have. On an interesting note, one major question is left both answered and unanswered: those viewers preferring to see the question unanswered can safely turn the film off when the end titles start rolling, while those who prefer to see an answer can watch the little scene afterwards.
Ostensibly, The Sky Crawlers seems to wax philosophical on the nature of war, mentioning how it is a clean, brutal way of determining winners and losers in whatever game, political or otherwise, is played. Yet, for being constructed around a message on war, there is very little focus on the actual military situation in the story or the battles themselves. Yes, there are a few scenes containing aerial dogfights and a campaign briefing, but they are very short and tend to serve more as scene markers (more on this later).
There is, however, another message, hidden in plain sight. The message is not deep. It is not novel. In fact, everyone watching the film will have the feeling of having seen exactly the same story once before. The Sky Crawlers is simply about interaction between humans - and about interaction between those who can't be called exactly human. The film voices once more the questions of what happiness is, what the effects of change (external and internal) are on it, how it is achieved and, most importantly, how it can be recognised at all. In order to do so, it shows the differences between those who are able to understand both human interaction and human emotion, acting upon it in a natural fashion, and those who have either never had or have lost this ability to understand, to whom it is not natural. Thus, no matter how suggestive a situation, nothing will happen if it is not clearly expressed or shown and no action will be taken unless it has been discussed or asked, while even on acting the hesitation and unease remains.
The effect of this is that those who have an ability to read between lines will undoubtedly be particularly unimpressed by what happens and the slow pace in which the story progresses, but also that those who do need the whole sentence are exposed to scenes that, because they are clearly expressed and/or aided by visual markers, become very powerful in their clarity, at times perhaps even touching uneasily on the recognisable.
It is in this view that the film is strongest and the role of Oshii Mamoru as a visual director appears most clearly. It is no coincidence that one of the greater truths voiced in the film is shown through almost glazed eyes, voiced by a Kusanagi who is pale and dishevelled and clearly has had to much to drink, speaking with that lack of inhibition and that truthfulness of the drunk. It is no coincidence that the intrinsic emotional violence of the passionate encounter is accompanied by the visual promise of physical violence. And while it is a coincidence that the female protagonist is named Kusanagi, her striking resemblance to one of Innocence's gynoids is too strong to be a coincidence, and so it is not surprising to see her with an almost child-like body, a mature poise and an old mind, both as human and as inhuman as that other Kusanagi is.
The film strongly uses both time and space to place its protagonists and enhance their being in the world and their being special. Again, both are clearly presented visually. Most of the film is set in the countryside of what is clearly the British Isles, most likely Britain but perhaps Ireland. It is wholly unclear in what time the film should be set. On the one hand, the advent of world peace and the existence of the Kildren may point to some future date, yet on the other the aeroplanes that we see are all propeller-driven while a prominent car looks suspiciously like one of the big American 1950s vehicles, suggesting an alternate near past. Finally, the map hanging in the commander's office shows present-day Europe.
Whatever the exact time period in which the film is placed, visual markers abound in marking the progress of time, showing both how things change and how things are eternally unchanging: the film shows the characters amidst standing stones, some marked with glyphs, legacies of an ancient past; before the typical dry-stone hedges of the British countryside and collections of chinaware, common in a past that is closer to us; and in a roadside diner where the people of the present day congregate. The same sky rolls over all these temporal markers in an essentially flat land, as day follows unchangeably on day and the markers of the past form part of the spatial realm of the present. In the same vein the viewer is shown paintings of past people hanging in a restaurant, looking over the shoulder of the present characters, while a monologue is uttered on how some things never change.
Spatially, most scenes are cramped in only a few places, connected to each other by societal and economic ties, and the characters move between their barracks, the diner, a brothel and the countryside. Only once in the entire film is a larger settlement shown and for most of the film there is a striking lack of people. It is interesting to note that the mercenaries (and what might almost be termed their camp followers), Japanese all, are shown to speak two languages, Japanese amongst themselves and English to the locals. In this manner is shown how the protagonists differ from their surrounding society that comes on top of their being Kildren, ensuring a type of clinging together.
Because of all this, the concept of change looms large. Living in what is essentially a foreign country, in an area where past and present seem to flow together, the close-knit group of Kildren roam from one placid day to another, while due to their longevity they ought to see the same drama played out time and again, whatever the small changes over time, as well as the same groping for what is essentially simply not well understood.
Change, both temporal and spatial, is quite often accompanied by more action-oriented scenes. Travel and, especially, the few combat scenes in the film have a tendency to serve more as markers separating one time period or area from the following, fast-forwarding as it were the story for a moment.
The characters, as well, are defined by change, or the lack thereof. Long-living, the Kildren's physique simply stops developing at some point, the question remaining whether the mind follows suit. The difference in attitude on aging and changing is what defines both protagonists, Kannami and Kusanagi, and drives much of their interaction. The former emphasises continuously that he is child, still, and entitled to be one, given that he might die at any moment in battle. Thus, he seems to shirk much of an adult's sense of responsibility, not by actively refusing but by not getting involved. Kusanagi, on the other hand, older and with a better sense of time's progress, and, most importantly, being confronted with actions of the past, seems to stand in between child- and adulthood, unwilling to take responsibility but unable to refuse it, in the end having both more to lose and less to look forward to. The result is that the two interact in an atmosphere of palpable carefulness, melancholy and distance, avoiding getting hurt while suggesting offering closer companionship.
All remaining characters seem to function more as walking commentators, divulging snippets of the past without mentioning their own roles therein. Most remain rather flat when compared to the expressed mess the more noticeable characters are in and, even with a hint of an unpropitious romance offered later on, remain really asides. It is telling that one character that is never shown but only referred to seems to be more developed than most of the characters with speaking roles. That said, while development is rather non-existent and characterisation doesn't go beyond each having a clear role, these roles are executed very well and each fulfil a function in the story.
With regard to the art and animation used, the film can be called a hybrid of typical Oshii style and the style favoured by Production I.G in its latest releases. Throughout the film the audience is treated to wide, open vistas of mostly empty countryside. Especially under the intensely blue, cloud-specked skies that dominate many such shots, both buildings and people are kept very small. When the screen shows all in a more human scale, however, the relative emptiness is being replaced by a profusion of detail. Not only is every crack in every wooden beam of some little room visible, but most spaces that are worked and lived in are veritably cluttered with all kinds of apparel, embellishments and personal belongings, capturing the eye in most of the many silent, languid scenes that the film is filled with. Some such trappings, especially the seemingly omnipresent chinaware plates and vases might hint at symbolism, at some meaning, but nothing is explained or even mentioned.
Equally noticeable between the scenes on a grander and on a more human scale is the difference in colourisation. Whereas, barring some rainy skies, though even here rays of sunshine flitter through, the open vistas are coloured in with the brighter spectrum of the colour palette, both soft and sharp, especially the indoor scenes are shadowy, gloomy, sometimes even drab, with all brighter dashes as well being generally more dark of tone in their crimsons and navy blues, the rare light bulb orange and pallid white only giving this stronger emphasis.
In sharp contrast to their detailed surroundings, the characters themselves seem to follow the standard used by Production I.G in their newer releases (Ghost Hound, Toshokan Sensou, et al.), being drawn with a paucity of lines, leaving especially the face as devoid of details as possible. While this has been used to great effect in other shows, where the style provides for the wide range of very visually recognisable expressions asked of the characters, The Sky Crawlers is almost minimalist in this regard, thus leaving the characters rather empty of detail. Mostly likely deliberately, this applies more strongly to the Kildren than to the ‘normal’ humans presented.
As far as design of especially the backgrounds go it seems that the makers opted for realism, even if they went out of their way to prevent having any area entered that can be recognised as actually existing. The realism of setting, even if embellished at times up to a point where it starts deviating from reality, is apparent in almost all details, especially of contraptions of human make. The main exception is formed by the aeroplanes, which for the most part are unlike any that have been in general, active use, added, almost, as if only in this manner can they befit the equally unreal Kildren.
Clearly being intended as a theatrical release, The Sky Crawlers seems to want to disturb your neighbours. Volume levels vary disparately, with sound effects, especially those of the aeroplane engines, being louder by far than music, which in turn has a tendency to overwhelm the voices. The net result is an assault on one’s hearing, especially as one sometimes has to strain to hear what is said.
It doesn’t help that the orchestral pieces that form most of the music is rather lacklustre, accompanied at times by the sort of female chanting that composer Kenji Kawai famously used in the Ghost in the Shell films, which is quite out of place in this film. On the other hand, quite a few scenes are unaccompanied by music. In fact, the film toys with meaningful silences overly much, thereby removing their meaning, though at least then the dialogue is more pleasant to listen to.
The voices are mainly subdued, as per the story at many times properly devoid of extremes in expression.
The Sky Crawlers shook me far more strongly than it ought to have done, all things considered. As has been mentioned above, the interplay between what is said and what is shown on screen is at times strong enough to make for very memorable scenes, especially because the film manages, at times, to visualise some of the concepts it mentions. For all that it might have a predictable story, has a pace that is at times too slow for its own good, has emotions enter the fray in explosive amounts when at all and does not voice anything that can be considered innovative, the questions raised on change and happiness, on how change affects humanity and is needed for continuation remain important ones. As so often with this type of film, it is not the happiest of stories, but there is a certain serenity in its calm sadness. read more
12 of 12 episodes seen
As Ikkitousen: Great Guardians follows on two earlier anime the show assumes that the main characters and their general situations are known. In this review, I will assume the same. This means that there will be spoilers for those unfamiliar with the previous two series.
Ostensibly, the plot of Ikkitousen: Great Guardians (hereinafter, Guardians) focuses on the character of Saji/Zuo Ci, who has been out of the limelight for most of the two previous seasons. Set shortly after the defeat of Sousou/Cao Cao, with Nanyou/Nanyang and Seito/Chengdu still at peace, Guardians involves far less actual serious combat than the previous two seasons. Instead, about half of the show catches the characters in the trappings of a standard romantic comedy series, portraying them having a picnic, going to the beach, etc.
Early on, yet more characters are introduced, among which the long-lost sister of Sonsaku/Sun Ce, though more important than any of these is the return of an old fan-favourite, Ryofu/Lü Bu. Her mysterious re-appearance is only the prelude to a story that focuses more heavily on toying with the characters than having once more some high-powered enemy appear.
As said, though, any pretence of an actual story is discarded very quickly. Only a few references are made to the ‘warrior’ nature that was so prevalent in the previous two seasons and the connections between the characters and their 3rd century Chinese counterparts. Instead, the story toys with the characters, having them act against their usual natures and setting the stage for quite a few scenes wherein all the protagonists can appear at once. In doing so the story is to be able to pit the entire female cast against each other, showing us what would happen if Ryuubi/Liu Bei went against Kan’u/Guan Yu, for instance. Of course, the entire reason for any of this is to have well-endowed girls in various states of undress duke it out in as overblown and ridiculous a manner as possible. Far more so than the two previous seasons, Guardians wholly embraces that premise, in the process consciously making complete clowns out of most of the characters, thereby declaring that none of it should be taken seriously.
Those characters remain as simplistic as ever and, as always, their defining traits, such as Sonsaku’s lack of brains and Kan’u’s shyness in expressing herself, are used for crude jokes. To the already rather large cast of characters a few new names are added, but as always it isn’t by their names or characterisations that one remembers them, but by their gadgets, so to glasses-and-books and eye-patch are now added quoting-Sunzi and traumatic-past. Did the previous two seasons here and there pretend to have some real character development, Guardians blatantly throws the concept out and works with these distinctive traits, mostly for comic effect.
It is also quite apparent that the makers of the show have opted to include as many elements favoured by the fans as possible. Kan’u’s romantic fondness for Ryuubi is used more often and openly, and a few more liaisons between the girls are thrown in to make more of it. Having Ryofu return is, in itself, a fan pleaser, and she is used quite openly to spice up the goings-on.
As a result, the actions of all characters are, by and large, highly predictable, but as the show doesn’t aim for them developing and surprising us, this can be forgiven.
The art is most likely the worst aspect of the show. Whereas the story and characters lack any real plot or development by choice, much would depend on the art to make up for it. The animation almost seems rather dated, however. Backgrounds lack details, with people added that do not seem to be alive or really doing anything. Little use is made of different shades of colours, setting the different elements of the landscape even more strongly apart from each other, while the characters, far more brightly coloured, often seem strongly superimposed on the background. More damning is that, for a fighting series, the animation is somewhat sloppy. Character movement is at times somewhat stilted, while quite a few fighting moves appear as stills on empty backgrounds.
Character designs haven’t changed since the last season, nor is there any more detail added to these generally rather bland designs. Intriguingly, only the ending sequence shows a new graphical take on the characters, and a very interesting one at that.
And then, there is the fanservice. As with the story, in the art as well the creators of Guardians have dropped any pretence. Much of the previous two seasons were all about showing as much skin as possible, with the DVD extras receiving an R+ rating as they showed the bared breasts of many of the girls. Realising full well that this seemed to be what the audience wanted more of, the makers of Guardians have few qualms with showing full frontal nudity even in the main show. The result, though, is ridiculous, defying both gravity and human anatomy, with the plainly drawn bared breasts having a life of their own.
However, the Ikkitousen series form one of the best examples of a franchise that uses fanservice in its more narrow sense (showing as much skin as can be allowed) in the way it was originally intended. No matter that almost every second shot is constructed in such a way that underwear or skin is showing: compared to the hundreds of other shows that try to captivate an audience by exposing their leads, there are very few shots indeed that are added for no reason but pleasing the fans. In Ikkitousen, the shot itself remains an integral part of the ongoing action and would have remained fully functional if the fanservice were to be removed, making it truly an extra service.
There is nothing about Guardians that can be critically acclaimed. But then, it does not opt to be considered highbrow. It knows its fans and what they want to see, plainly giving it to them. What the show lacks in substance it also lacks in juvenile humour: in openly displaying what it is about it is essentially self-aware and does not even try to hide its clownesque antics behind a plot. The entirety of Ikkitousen should be approached as the light-hearted diversion it is and savoured, not with wine and blue cheese, but with salted peanuts and a beer cap. In its self-mocking ridiculousness it is a fun ride and truly a guilty pleasure. read more
12 of 12 episodes seen
Though it seems a sequel to the 2003 Mahou Tsukai ni Taisetsu na Koto, they only share the same fictional rendering of Japan and it is not necessary to have watched the earlier show to appreciate Mahou Tsukai ni Taisetsu na Koto - Natsu no Sora (hereinafter, Natsu no Sora), as all characters and most of the setting have changed.
Within the fictional universe of Natsu no Sora, magic is real. So much so, in fact, that it is considered a commodity and performing magic is a service industry. While the ability to perform magic is still a rare gift, the presence of mages is part of society, meaning that the populace at large will not be stupefied when witnessing it. The interaction of magic and society as a whole is touched upon: the show makes it known that there are laws and regulation for performing magic and that all mages must be registered, and mention is made of magic being used in national defence. Yet what the viewer is presented with is smaller-scale magic used in the practice of everyday life. The magic we see is of a constructive kind, sweet and helpful: broken chinaware is mended, lost items are retrieved, dolphins stranded on the beach are helped back into the ocean.
The magic itself being rather small in scale and quite homely, it becomes clear that it's an extra, something that enhances the plot instead of shaping it. What the show mainly presents us is a glimpse in the life of a small number of mages in training who receive their education during the Tokyo summer. Protagonist Suzuki Sora, a kind, smiling and innocent 15 year-old, fresh from a country town in Hokkaido, and a few of her classmates that have converged in Tokyo for a few weeks are mostly seen wandering parts of the city and taking in the sights of summer.
For most of the show, the actual happenings consist of the achievements and failures of the mages as they try their hand on professional magic and of the interactions they have with each other and the inhabitants of the city. All is calm and gentle, devoid of the outrages of joy and tragedy so prevalent in most shows, and the story happily takes a backseat and shows us the characters' discoveries of small-scale wonders such as a street corner singer who sings for a daily growing audience, the diverse sights of a shopping mall and the sunset over the sea at Enoshima. There are a few cheap jokes added, but since, for once, these manage not to be to someone’s expense they actually enhance the general cheerfulness.
And, slowly, it shows us how the characters get to know each other better, their feelings evolving into friendship and a sweet and innocent puppy love. Of course, not all goes well all the time, and the characters have to struggle with failure in their training and the small fights and arguments that will certainly erupt between people, but most of the time things can be talked over without having to resort to emotional outbursts, as the show takes for granted that everyone will, in the end, try their best to help out in any way they can.
One would suppose that having a romantic relationship enter would steal the focus away from the cheery setting, infusing it with sudden passion and emotion that comes too late for a show of this length. Sadly, it does, even managing to have one of the protagonists have one of the very standard and clichéd secrets that almost promised to destroy any developed story. Natsu no Sora, however, has the good graces not to have this come to the forefront for too long and without too much fuss once more embraces the highly satisfying happiness of summer.
Given how much time is spent showing parts of Tokyo in summer, it should be no surprise that the art is gorgeous. Consisting mostly of photographs with a thin animated overlay, the background show us diverse sights of a city bathed in sunlight and occasional shadow. Superimposed on these stills is the hustle and bustle of people going their business, cats yawning and stretching and traffic moving purposefully. All these latter elements are drawn in a rather minimalist animation style which contrasts sharply with the realism of the background and makes it quite clear what the focus of the eye should be upon. In very many cases, this focus should be on the smiling faces of the people inhabiting this fictional world.
The main characters as well are devoid of many details. Their facial features consist of rather simple lines, angles and curves, giving all of them a distinct facial shape accompanying their personalities. This lack of detail gives them very clear expressions, a wide range of which are visited. Lips and lip sync are done very well, yet ever better are the many shots in which the camera's focus is on a character not speaking but replying only by means of her visible expressions. Moreover, what the characters lack in detail they gain in a very well developed sense of poise, the way they're standing, walking and sitting oozing personality, be it shuffling in a slump or happily moving with a spring in the step.
As varied and contrasting as the major art styles are is the music. Natsu no Sora has one of the more diverse soundtracks of the series coming out lately, with music ranging from a cheery flute and fiddle, via the rock/pop of the street corner singer, who we hear singing a different song every few episodes, to what the show itself describes as 'British new wave electro'. Despite the variety, most songs are happy or uplifting, with only a very few sadder pieces added to the mix. To this diversity is added a distinct way of using it: music is considered a part of the background and often switches with the elements of setting show. An example of this switching, which is by and large done exceptionally well, is the aforementioned shopping mall, where the music changes with each shop visited, culminating in silence on a floor that is empty.
The best element of the sound in Natsu no Sora, however, would be the use of voices. Unlike most shows, the camera doesn't always focus on the person speaking, showing equally often the listener, resulting in the voices coming from outside of the screen. This enhances both the feeling of being in the conversation and the effect of noting the expressions visible on the faces of the listeners. Moreover, many sounds coming from elements outside of the screen altogether add to the idea that the show is set within a living, breathing world.
As said above, characters are easily distinguished graphically and are able to express a wide range of emotions. Most characters of importance are fairly young and innocent kids who spend their days in pleasant companionship, though, of course, they all have quite distinct personalities that blend well together even if these are somewhat clichéd: from the sweet and innocent Suzuki Sora and the initially brooding yet kind-hearted Midorikawa Gouta to the domineering but insightful Asagi Honomi. Most of the characters are also given a personal quirk, which is something of a cheap shot yet works remarkably well to give them personality. A good example would be Asagi’s tendency to always call people by both their family and given names. Most importantly, because all of the characters are, by and large, kind and content folk, talking in pleasant tones and properly polite, the few times that their rawer emotions come out are special and memorable and, hence, have far more of an impact than even the most dramatic scenes from most other series.
Natsu no Sora is a show that moves slowly through summer days, both of the city and of the characters, and that shows the best both have to offer. We are invited to simply take a look around and see the simple beauty in many small things, leaving for a while those issues of importance that elicit stronger feelings. Calm and cheerful conversations, subdued and down-to-earth negative emotions and an innocent love are bound to make you smile for a bit and help you recuperate from the generally completely irrational outbursts of emotion most other shows bombard you with.
Sweet, simple and charming it makes you look upon a potato harvest, city highlights and a sweet girl's smile with the same feeling of contentedness. read more
13 of 13 episodes seen
Set in the near future, in a fictional nation that very strongly looks as if it should be positioned on the India-China border, somewhere in the Kashmir region, Flag recounts the story of the civil conflict that crippled said nation and of the UN sponsored peace talks following a photograph (containing the Flag the series is named after) that became a powerful symbol of cooperation between the parties involved. It follows the photographer of said photo, who is officially installed as reporter of a special UN strike force created to recapture the flag in question after it was stolen by insurgents in order to damage the peace talks, while at the same time following that photographer's mentor, who has arrived as a journalist in the fictional nation's capital.
The story remains firmly focused on what the main characters, the two photographers, see, one at the UN strike force base, and one mostly in a bar in the capital. In fact, what we get to see is mostly what they see through the lenses of their cameras.
This should be taken quite literally. Almost every shot is as if viewed through the lens of a camera, meaning that what we get to see is what is shown to the camera's front. Both reporters showcase the life that goes on around them. The female reporter attached to the UN base films the goings-on with the crew, takes shots of the landscape from a helicopter, and is witness to a few battles. Her mentor in the capital shows how people live their lifes in the uneasy cease-fire, showcasing often their religious believes, and taking not a few shots of the journalistic community that preys on new scoops. Though there is some action to be seen, and quite nicely done at that, Flag focuses as much on showing the lifes of the different groups of people in the fictional nation, and on interviewing people about their believes concering all that is going on.
And what it shows, it shows very nicely indeed. Flag is, without a doubt, endowed with very good graphics. While the scenes themselves are crisp and especially the equipment looks very good (this is one of very few shows where a bit of 3D doesn't hurt, especially when employed on the military materiel), this quality is mostly apparent in design. For one, all the different cameras through which the series is viewed show different images: some images are more grainy than others, some show heat-vision, some even are in black and white. What they show is mostly quite well researched, as it is apparent that a lot of time and effort has gone into making the military materiel, surroundings of the cities, general apparel, and even the fictional OS showcased on computer screens look realistic (in the sense that it could be real, not that it is). Moreover, the series clearly differentiates between ethnicities, again opting for a somewhat realistic look, even if faces in particular are not very detailed. The result is that persons are highly recognisable, sometimes even delightfully so: especially the main female reporter, Shirasu, is utterly, and charmingly, Japanese in looks as well as actions and phrasing.
Characters are generally outlined in pretty broad strokes, each occupying their very own niche within the characterisation spectrum. This becomes readily apparent in the quicker interviews with the UN strike force personnel in the earlier episodes. It is not a let-down, though, as Flag uses most of these characters, not very well developed in more than a few aspects, mostly to portray different views or opinions on a situation. To ask more for a plethora of characters would not only mean having to use far more time, but would also mean that the effect of having each person only appear as portrayed through a camera lens within specific situations would be destroyed. In fact, quite a few characters are memorable even though they aren't very well developed: often it is enough to see them smiling to the camera and voicing their beliefs very strongly.
Considering voicing, voice acting also is generally very well done, as a lot of effort is made to use just the slightest touch of accent without ridiculing. Also, the 'natives' are consistently speaking their own language (I think I can recognise Tibeto-Burman roots, though this might be effected by the surroundings; I'd be very happy if anyone could actually understand or name the language and mention it to me). On a less positive note, the music in general aims towards the dramatical. Though, personally, I like this Hollywoodesque touch in a series such as these, I readily acknowledge that it is somewhat over-the-top and can be off-putting, or even be enough to raise a scene from the somewhat dramatic into the pompous and self-important, thus effectively destroying the effect aimed for.
All in all, I was somewhat impressed with how the story was handled, both graphically and epistemologically (as concerns the cameramen). It looks good and sounds fine, and is simply quite interesting to watch, both design-wise and not so much story-wise as concept-wise. This was only the less difficult part of reviewing Flag, however. The far more tricky question is what this series is or aims to be. As has been commented upon, almost all scenes are portrayed as if viewed through a camera lens or some equivalent thereof. This has two results that are almost antithetical. On the one hand, many scenes, especially those viewed from the on-board camera of armoured vehicles when in action, can be described as, for lack of a better word, intense: the first person view seems intended to throw the viewer in the midst of the situation.
On the other hand it seems, and I feel very strongly that this is the case, that the use of looking at the portrayed situations through a lens creates a sense of distance. The very literal spectator's role you are taking distances you from the situation. The fact that all scenes are introduced by the opening of a file containing the piece of film in question on a computer screen indicates that you are looking at a record that stands further from you in time. This suggestion is strengthened by the jumps in time and place when a film snippet ends and another piece is opened, as well as in jumps in intensity, quite often having the newly started piece of film have a different pacing than the preceding. Moreover, the few scenes which are not portrayed as if viewed through a lens are deliberately grainy or even blurry, to indicate that you are still viewing a piece of film or looking at a photograph.
It is visible that the makers have gone to great lengths to create this distance. While this may have been done for its own sake, a move to show a type of anime series different from others, perhaps one is allowed to search a bit for further reasons.
One of the main effects of this distance is that it gives the impression of impartiality: the camera records whatever is going on, regardless of who is doing or saying something or of what is done or said. Switching between the cameras of a multiple reporters and other persons gives the series the chance to display multiple takes on the same situation. As in a documentary format, most people speak directly into the camera, giving their personal views, while the recorder in the main stays quiet. Quite a few times, when said reporter is reacting or expressing his or her views, the view switches to another camera, thus once more distancing what is said from who records.
Having the main story involve a military conflict in which the UN gets involved, and focusing on the issues of the justifiability of said involvement and actions taken during its course, and on the role of the media in such situations, is, of course, not the pinnacle of innovation. Many pieces of film (though not animated film, as far as I know) show a reporter's view on war, official intervention, the reaction of the media, and, of course, official censure, often in a documentary format. However, it is quite seldom that what is seen is portrayed through more cameras than one, and is thus portrayed, quite literally, from different angles.
This might be the main difference between the method of 'filming' that makes up Flag and a documentary, which is usually directed from one perspective. It does not seem as if Flag wants to convey a message: it seems as if it wants to stay neutral, and it does play it safe. It has been noted in another review on this site that it would have been more bold if Flag would have portrayed an actual conflict, and though it might be bold, I don't believe if would have been for the better. By keeping the setting, and thus the story, fictional, Flag can maintain a more or less neutral disposition. If a real situation would have been portrayed, there would have been no room for errors of research or animation without it being possibly considered a view on the situation. Quotations and portrayals of actual persons would of necessity be selective, which may very well lead to misrepresentation. The very choice of what to portray within the frame of time would immediately convey a certain bias - which is the major fault of most, if not all, real-life documentaries. The above goes for a fictional situation as well, but at least it would prove impossible to find any true misrepresentations or factual errors, thus maintaining at least the illusion of factuality and impartiality.
I get the impression the makers were aiming at quite simply showing a situation through the eyes of the camera, focusing on the act of recording and the presence of the recorder and keeping, as much as possible, the portrayed situation itself value-free. If this were to be indeed the case, I'd say they managed to do this to quite a decent degree.
What this means, in the end, is that I got the impression that we should view this series as it is presented: as a collection of footage. That is to say, I think, and I actually hope that this is what the makers intended, that we should take every scene at face value. What the manifold cameras shoot is just what it seems to be: films and photographs. Therefore, we should not be surprised that we get to see a lot of different scenes, and, within those scenes, a lot of different opinions, voiced by different people speaking from different positions in the conflict that forms the background story. If anything is meant to be conveyed through this series, I'd say it is wonderfully portrayed in the final episode, when in the background, in a nearly deserted bar, a singer seems to sing with all her heart put into it, regardless of whether many people have come to listen: Flag is about the photographer and his love for his art. read more
4 of 4 episodes seen
As I'm not an aficionado of the games myself, having played them only every now and again, it's somewhat difficult for me to say whether or not the anime really ties into the games, so this review will mainly focus on the OVA as is.
As might be expected from an anime based on a fighting game, the story is the weakest point. By and large the main plot consists of a human world that has been ruled for some time now by monsters and creatures of legend called Darkstalkers (mainly Demitri Maximoff, for those who know the games) having evolved too much, giving rise to an invasion of robots (Huitzil/Phobos) that are programmed to wipe out advanced civilisation, while at the same time some universal overlord (Pyron) descends on the world to find someone who is strong enough to oppose him. As could be guessed, this someone of course shows up, in the guise of a man tormented by his being half human, half Darkstalker (Donovan). Or, to put it even more simplistic, it boils down to "Hero battles Villain".
Moreover, the plot takes itself far too seriously for something based on what is in fact a somewhat goofy, over-the-top series of fighting games, resulting in overly dramatic scenes tied to a plot that is paper thin and clichéd at best.
In the meanwhile, a few other characters from the game appear with their own back stories, which are touched upon and sometimes played out for a bit, but these stories are only very loosely, if at all, tied to the greater plot. This in effect means that the story becomes a garbled mess, with many a character running around seemingly without a purpose.
On the other hand, the presentation of the characters themselves is not half bad. Most anime based on fighting games opt to pick one main hero and one main villain and have them duke it out, with all the other characters dropping in for a cameo at one time or another to please the fans, leaving the uninitiated utterly confused as to who this or that new guy that never reappears was. Vampire Hunter, on the contrary, picks up about half a dozen of the characters, and expanding a bit on the background of each of these. Running for 4 episodes with a total length of about 160 minutes, Vampire Hunter seems to have found the ideal length for its approach: each of the characters is given a fair amount of time to be introduced and play his or her plot line, while none of them are given too much screen time. Characterisation itself is based heavily on the snippets of information given in the games, making the characters have somewhat distinct (even if largely clichéd) personalities, and having them act on these.
What makes the characters all far more interesting is the way they are portrayed. Now, the art is without a doubt the high point of this OVA. Like in most OVA's of the time, backgrounds range from quite good to simply gorgeous, often giving the impression as if they were hand-drawn. The setting in general shows quite a few distinct locales, and the colorisation is very good: as could be guessed, use is made mostly of the darker colours of the palette, with much of the story taking place under a darkened sky or in the shadows. Brighter colours are generally more subdued, with the occasional dashing reds if the situation warrants it.
The characters are all very well animated. Not only do they move fluently and have a wide range of facial expressions, they all follow the designs from the game very nicely. Not only are all characters very different in basic design, but many of them sport different styles of drawing and animation, again following the differences in style from the games closely.
This being a fighting series, it should come as no surprise that the main attention of the show, and thus the art and animation, is on the fights. These are done very well. As far as I can say, the animators have copied many of the fighting styles and moves from the game, making each fight and each fighter distinctly different. This not only applies to the special moves, or whatever name you would give those, but also, and perhaps even more successfully, to the basic attack patterns, many of which are a joy to watch, being far more interesting than the special attacks, in fact. I'm sure the real fans will notice differences between the anime and the games, but for the rest of us it seems as if the anime follows the games closely.
Being generally cautious of animated versions of fighting games, I have to say this one is by far one of the best I've seen to date. The story is ridiculous, pompous, and far to self-important, but this major downside is more than offset with the fairly decent character introduction and development and the more than decent art and fighting direction.
12 of 12 episodes seen
The series is based on an old and at the time successful arcade game in which you play a valiant knight entering a leveled tower to slay the evil overlord and rescue the princess. What made the game popular were the various almost random actions you had to perform in order to be able to ascend to the next level. The original game had a number of sequels, of course all involving some even greater evil and an expanded tower.
The background explains why the series plays out in an enormous tower of multiple levels, each with their own hazards and enemies. As a fantasy series, this is as clichéd as it gets; as a series bearing the Druaga name, this is proper.
Using this all too familiar fantasy theme has its uses. There really is no need to have to introduce much of the world, background story, and characters: everyone watching the series immediately knows he's in fantasy video game-territory, where everything and everyone has a standard role to play. Within the first few episodes all major characters are introduced, with the main roles being those of the somewhat naive young man who wants to fight for justice and peace, the girl with clerical powers and a dark secret, and of course the more experienced powerful adventurer with his own share of secrets. The cast is filled out with the usual bunch of rugged fighters, silent rogues, and whining but powerful mages, all planning to ascend to the top of the tower, slay the evil monster, and gain the heroes' reward. Of course, the animation and design of the characters is geared to making sure there are no doubts to their roles, as is the vocal cast, which includes some high-profile names but takes absolutely no chances: everyone sounds as their archetype should.
The first half of the series is used to pound every single trite and generic characteristic of standard fantasy series, from Wizardry to whichever animation of the Tales-video games, into the viewers perception. Expediently enough, it does this by making the episodes comical, even farcical at times. The first episode shows the main character's own vision of his heroics in the most generic manner possible, for instance, while later on the inherent greed of all adventurers is relied upon to have them unite against a common enemy. It is in this half that the series also pays its homage to the roots of the Druaga franchise, as not only are there a few instances wherein the drawing style switches to the top view, 2d, 8 bit look of the original game, but the game itself appears as well, and has a functional role too.
But I started this review by stating that Tower of Druaga is not a comedy series. This is because, halfway through, it suddenly takes a turn for the dramatic. Usually, this would mean the end of any interest the series would hold, as far too many broken romcoms and action comedies testify to, but in the case of Tower of Druaga, the first, somewhat comical, half turns out to be used to make the viewer comfortable with the generic setting and characters. It makes no sense for the viewer to expect some sort of realism in the setting, and he also has come to expect some sort of volta stemming from the characters' unspoken but clearly known backgrounds.
The effect is that the viewer does not have to be disappointed by this generic plot twisting or the reactions of the characters to it, as it was already clear that nothing overly original would happen. It is, in fact, this basis in generality that makes the drama fairly strong. As each and every character acts according to its archetypal fashion, a plot point that is as archetypal can be convincingly raised as a source of dramatic tension: for instance, if all characters have their own motives, and if only one reward can be gained from slaying the big evil, what would this imply for intra-party integrity and inter-party rivalry? The friction resulting from the fact that, while slaying the big bad would be beneficial for everyone, only one brave adventurer can become the true is convincingly exploited.
Granted, the drama and tension aren't very evolved or deep, and the fact remains that almost any single happening can be predicted. The way it was portrayed, however, was, to me at least, thoroughly enjoyable, even if entirely forgettable. What makes me shirk from giving the story an extra point for the way it is handled, however, is the simple fact that Tower of Druaga - the Aegis of Uruk is an unfinished series, with a sequel in the making, and I fear that many of the more interesting points will in the end be strung out and hung out to wither.
As for the art, in general it is pretty good, with clear lines and a strong design treading the middle ground between expected fantasy trappings and some more inspired vistas. A definite plus is the use of the graphics of the original game at times, and a definite minus would be the use of CG for the main monster, but that's just my personal hatred towards CG animation speaking. As said, the voice acting, though relatively high profile, was as generic as possible, ranging from the heroic to the positively annoying. Music is utterly forgettable.
The characters, as said, are as generic as they come. I didn't expect more, and I didn't get more. I have never understood why character development and connection with characters is such a dearly held item in reviews, as characters should portray their roles within a certain story (background in general is irrelevant) and should be convincing and consistent in their roles, whether or not the role is likable or not. In the case of Tower of Druaga, the roles aren't meant to be developed, or to offer some insights, or to portray either 'real' humans or ideals. They're consistent, clear-cut, and utterly generic, and this serves the series well. Just don't expect to be blown away by either their lines or their expressions. read more
13 of 26 chapters read
Welcome to France, anno 1429, in the later part of the Hundred Years' War, where we meet the leader of a band of mercenaries, aptly named, as per the title, Pierre, who, when not on the field of battle, spends his time marauding and plundering. So doing, he tries to rob three men of all their goods, including their clothing, to find out one of them is actually a girl. Wanting to do the dirty, he is stopped when the girl begs him to leave her unravished, so she can travel to Orléans and fulfill her tasks there, to which she has been appointed by God Himself, after which she will submit willingly. For some reason he cannot really fathom, Pierre indeed does leave her be, thus allowing her to in fact become the Maid of Orléans, and from then on he will fight at her side.
Mercenary Pierre is yet another rendering of the story of Jeanne d'Arc, this time focusing solely on her campaigning years, as seen through the eyes of a man who starts out as a gruff and worldly dog of war, and who slowly is being redeemed by the grace of La Pucelle. As the first two volumes don't range beyond the victorious first campaign towards Reims, as of yet little more can be said about the greater story.
The art is great, reminding one perhaps mostly of the past arcs of Berserk. There is a lot of attention to detail, visible in the arms and armour, but also in the buildings, trappings, and backgrounds, making it in this aspect a lot akin to other historical series as Historie and Vinland Saga, but being more gritty and detailed in depicting the faces, and being without the annoying empty spaces especially Historie shows far too often: every panel in Mercenary Pierre is fully put to use.
It is obvious the illustrators know what they are drawing. Not only is there much attention to detail per se, but it is also quite correct, and it is clear that the creators of the manga have to some extent studied available work on the War and d'Arc's campaigns: not only are arms and utensils quite correct, for instance, but so also is the lay-out of the fortresses and cities mentioned. The attention to detail can also be found in little touches such as the (correct) map of the strategical situation around Orléans at the end of volume 1.
Quite a few pages show art with sexual content, and though these drawings are not fanservice per se, as they do tie in to the story, one may question the real use the profundity of sexual scenes has with regard to the quality of the story.
The attention to detail mentioned above is also visible in the story. Though the language used is at some points somewhat unwieldy (though this might be result of difficulty of translation), it is clear that attention is paid to making the characters think to some fashion as people of the place and age would think, and act as they should act. The issue of plunder by bands of mercenaries, including the enslavement of persons, especially women, is used often in this fashion, and though the phrasings used would make the reader think that we're dealing with stereotypical images of rape and destroy, the manga shows how such tours of marauding had an impact on logistics and the local economy, even showing the soldiers' camp as a movable economic unit in and of itself.
Issues of sexual morals and gender are raised somewhat overly often, and it is here that all too often modern-day morality seems to raise its head, though the manga tries to portray the facts of mercenary life and how it conflicts with Christian morality.
With regard to the characters, as always happens when she appears in whatever story, Jeanne steals the show. Portrayals of the Maid of Orléans are almost as varied as those of Jesus, ranging from a madwoman to one truly divinely inspired, from a naive pawn to a master tactician and demagogue. Recent approaches tend to emphasize Jeanne's human side, her doubts about her mission, and her intelligence, or common sense, when dealing with the more learned and more worldly.
Mercenary Pierre plays it somewhat more simple, displaying Jeanne as a young girl, overly naive, believing in her mission, and focusing heavily on Christian morality and propriety. Much is made, too, of her charisma, which is strong enough to make her appear larger than life and encourage men on the battlefield with her presence alone.
Her charisma and conviction seem to strongly influence the men and women she interacts with, most notably Pierre and his band, and their manners change visibly. Quite touching is how her sense of mercy and equality of all life is portrayed and shown to rub off on the gruff mercenaries.
Of course, there are downsides. Focusing so heavily on Pierre and Jeanne, much of the greater story is left somewhat vague. Jeanne seems overly naive, irritatingly so at times, while Pierre and his band seem to be redeemed somewhat too quickly. More annoying is that much use is made of the old "good simple soldier, bad conniving noble" cliché, though the fact that Jeanne was actively opposed by many nobles takes some of the steam out of the annoyance. Somewhat irritating, too, is the heavy emphasis placed on issues of sexual practice and morality.
As for the translation, in general it is of a good quality. The story is clear, and many names and terms are consistently used. A nice touch, too, is how the actively mentioned use of a northern vernacular by the mercenaries vis-a-vis the official French is shown through use of some dialect in English, though I wouldn't know whether such use is made of dialect in the Japanese original. Sometimes the translation is somewhat unwieldy, especially when it seems that a technical term is used with which the translator is unacquainted. More grating is that many proper names are incorrect (such as the consistent use of 'Tourel' for the fortress of 'Les Tourelles', and, more seriously, 'Lens' for 'Reims'), though, again, this might be an issue in the original Japanese version.
All in all, I'm pretty impressed by the manga, and am actively awaiting more translated chapters and am hoping for an official release. read more
110 of 110 episodes seen
Which is a shame, as it's only after about 20 episodes that this series progresses from something that is slow, somewhat overly bombastic, and hinting at more to come to show itself to be one of the most intelligent pieces of anime that's been made to date.
When I say 'intelligent', I don't mean it to be cunning, surprising the viewer with unsuspected plot lines or new angles to view something. Nor does it delve deeply into some obscure theory of science or arts, bombarding the viewer with ideas he couldn't have come up with himself. In fact, there's absolutely nothing in this series that is wholly unexpected or very deep. What it has, though, is a sense of scale that's unsurpassed in any anime - or, for that matter, any television show - I've seen.
Legend of the Galactic Heroes centers around - you guessed it - a bunch of people who, according to populace at large that inhabits the fictional future this series plays in, are of heroic proportions. That is to say, heroic in a very classical sense, being possibly a negative thing as well as a positive.
The series is set in a future wherein the universe known to man is divided into two camps, the aristocratic and absolutist Galactic Empire, and the democratic Free Planets' Alliance, who have been embroiled in a war for some time, seemingly
being evenly matched. This balance is shattered when a military genius with a far-reaching ambition rises on the Imperial side, prompting the Alliance to, somewhat grudgingly, give ever greater backing to the most capable officer on their own side. Both men surround themselves with able staff, who become legends in their own right.
It sounds like your average hero of freedom-versus-tyrant story, but it turns out to be anything but. First of all, the heroes do have a sense of their own importance, but also the sense to question whether they are all that special, or whether the circumstances of their times have just brought them to a spotlight which people equal to them could never have aimed at. More importantly, the main question on which the whole series hinges remains an open one. This question is the age-old one of which is better, autocracy or democracy, the problem being that a good autocracy is usually better than a good democracy, but a bad autocracy being worse than a bad democracy. Within the happenings of the show, it becomes apparent that, militarily speaking, at least, a good autocracy has an edge over democracy in terms of speed and decisiveness, and this shows in how the series progresses.
A large part of the series is devoted to showing the war and its subsequent smaller-scale rumblings. The war is fully shown from the side of the commanding officers - one of only a very few shows to do so - and does show an appropriate sense of scale. With battles involving thousands of battleships and millions of men, simple depictions of large-scale tactics take the place of views of the battlefield itself, and a considerable part of the show is, laudable, devoted to discussions on logistics and military intelligence.
A larger part still, though, is devoted to discussions on politics, all within the greater autocracy versus democracy question. Again, these thoughts never go very deep, but what strikes one is that so very many possible variables are brought up. Almost any motive of rulers or the general populace that might affect a political decision is included at some point in the show, making me at least think to myself: 'They even thought of thát one.' The show does tend, here and there, to lean toward the old 'good soldier, bad politician' cliché, but, overall, it really lacks a clear villain, instead showing each possible side (apart, perhaps, from religious fanatics) from every possible angle. Moreover, all this is shown within a future universe that is highly consistent over the full 110 episodes, even if differences between the warring sides tend to be somewhat exaggerated: in many cases whole societies seem to act a bit too much according to a somewhat radical ideology, only to make their following actions be true to form.
This being true to form applies also to most of the actions that, at first glance, seem to be overly dramatical, in the first place many of the actions of the dozen or so main protagonists. However, when thinking about the how and why of their actions, it usually becomes clear that they cannot have but acted as they did, according to cultural mores and individual character. A case in point would be the reliance of many Imperial officers on the character of some military commander to predict his battlefield tactics. This would seem lunacy, until it is remembered that the Imperial commanders are a tight-knit group, mostly of noble birth, and known to each other: each commander would know the peculiarities of all others, which become all the more predictable as the importance of gaining personal glory and honour in battle are taken into the equation.
This reliance on known characteristics of all personalities is also possible because the characters don't evolve all that much. Now, I've never understood why 'character progression' in general seems to mean having characters make a full volte-face, and I am, in fact, happy with a series that shows all characters as being fully grown, and fixed in their ways. Each has a specific role to play, and a mind-set that might be predictable, but is, again, true to form. This doesn't make the character shallow. Far from it: their characteristics mean that each takes a single position to a fitting extreme, making for interesting differences between the characters, and accompanying differences in outlook.
That said, it is indeed true that the characters may be somewhat flat, and quite a few seem to be included only to show a different point of view toward a specific situation or theory, but it is exactly this relative flatness that makes it possible for them to discuss so many situations.
As for the art, it is old and outdated, but that can't be held against the show. It is a shame that, mainly in the first season, the series is at times simply bad: persons walk in an awkward way, scenes are recycled, and even relative positions of facial structures change from frame to frame. There's no excuse for that. Technically, though, the art definitely gets better during the course of the show.
In fact, the show being old might be a boon. The creators have opted to make the drawing style relatively realistic, which fits the series splendidly. One has only to look at the manga to see how different it could have been: the style of the manga doesn't fit the show at all.
Real points have to go to the design. Again, nothing is really innovative, from the spaceships to the almost 19th century looking setting to the uniforms of the soldiers. It is, however, solid, and consistent, and really brings the world to life.
The music is outstanding. It mainly consists of generally well-known classical compositions, which, granted, have been often used before, but never have they been used to such splendid effect: especially the use of pieces during battle sequences, fitting the individual scenes to the music, is a joy to watch.
As a whole, Legend of the Galactic Heroes never tries to be overly deep, and, though it tends to be somewhat bombastic, never loses itself to any glorification. It is slow and quite meticulous, focusing on a lot of details, and consists for the largest part of dialogue, not action. The story progresses slowly, and only after about a season's worth of episodes the real story starts to evolve.
And this show never, ever tries to evoke an emotional response. The whole series is based on having the viewer have an intellectual understanding of what happens, not an emotional one. There are, thus, no cheap tricks to elicit emotional response, nothing overly dramatic (barring a few strokes of bombast), and no characteristics that make a main protagonist or villain.
I can only applaud this, considering it a feat to produce such a good series without relying on drama. Legend of the Galactic Heroes is, in this sense, the absolute antithesis of my other personal favourite, Le Portrait de Petit Cossette, appealing to the rational side of the viewer, even when the protagonists act with all their vaunted 'foppery and whim'. read more