Building on an existing storyline isn't an easy thing to do - especially when the ending of the original tale has a degree of finality to it. That doesn't stop people making the attempt though, and nowhere is this more prominent than in the world of fanfiction. This rather odd realm of amateur (and not-so-amateur), writers is filled with continuations, alternate retellings, character side-stories, non-canon additions, and a host of other works that reflect the fan's passion for the source material. Although they often lack the quality and direction (and sometimes the logic and common sense), of professional pieces, they're generally imaginative yarns that can ... sometimes lead the reader to new insights about the original work.
That said, there are occasions where the story has been created not out of love, but simply because the author feels that they can do better.
Eureka Seven AO (which stands for Astral Ocean, but is also the name of the lead character), is the sequel to 2005's extremely popular Eureka Seven - and with director Kyoda Tomoki at the helm again and Bones producing both shows, it's easy to see why fans of the original would be excited. Written by Kato Yuichi, the new story focuses on Fukai Ao - a 13 year-old boy living with his grandfather on the island of Iwato Jima in the independent nation of Okinawa. Considered an outcast by the residents who blame the disaster that occurred ten years before on his mother Eureka - who has been missing since that time - his life changes when an accident delivers a strangely familiar bracelet into his hands, which in turn brings him into contact with a mysterious robot called Nirvash.
The tale begins in relatively familiar territory and progresses at a decent pace for the first few episodes, but as the series continues more things are added to the plot until it grows into a ponderous, shambling behemoth of ideas and concepts that simply don't go anywhere. In addition to this the storyline degenerates into a mediocre monster-of-the-week narrative for a good portion of the show, and elements of the original series have either been left out, crowbarred in, or completely altered - sometimes for no logical reason at all - creating some major continuity issues. The problems are further compounded by the addition of time travel and alternate realities, all of which lead to a rather lukewarm, confusing, and decidedly unsatisfying ending that lacks the catharsis of the original series.
Eureka Seven AO takes many of its visual cues directly from its parent, and Bones have worked hard to maintain the style while updating the design. That said, there are some odd decisions about clothing (Ao's school uniform resembles a costume used by male strippers), but some good animation and effects work balances the strange outfits. Much of the aerial combat is fluid, and although there are some minor issues the character movements are handled in a reasonable manner. In addition to this the mechs - which are clearly influenced by the original series - have a definite "man-made" feel that highlights the creator's desire for Eureka Seven AO to be more than just a run-of-the-mill sequel.
The show features two opening sequences that serve as bland-yet-functional introductions to the story thanks to the use of the check-box approach (protagonist running, birds flying, people looking pensive/cheerful/heroic/constipated, [insert cool action sequence], [insert suggestive minor spoiler that may have no connection to the plot at all], rinse, repeat, end with cool and/or spicy action still featuring the protagonist (and his love interest - male or female, species is optional), adverts, etc). The first closing sequence is equally unimaginative (and ticks all the boxes), but the second is something of a departure as it adopts a "pop-art" style and relies on still images to suggest that Ao's playtime is over.
"Escape" by Hemenway (the first opening track), is the type of bland rock song that seems to grace every major shounen title at least once, but FLOW's "Bravelue" manages to capture at least some of the magic of "Days" - the opening theme from Eureka Seven. "Stand By Me" by the oddly named Steropony is a rather dull, brooding affair that doesn't really fit with the formulaic closing sequence, while Joy's "Lolite" is a poppy little number that works surprisingly well with the associated imagery.
Eureka Seven AO is a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to overall audio quality, and the uninspiring opening and closing themes are reflective of the music throughout the show. The predominantly well-chosen background tracks often work within the context of a given scene, but there are far too many attempts at enhancing a humourous moment using a comedic tune, and many of these attempts fall short of the mark. In addition to this the diverse array of effects can be let down by a lack of care with choreography or poor production quality, and the issues are further compounded by a script that is sorely lacking in emotional intensity. With little to work with the Japanese cast are unable to showcase their talents effectively - resulting in performances that vary wildly as the voice actors struggle to breathe some semblance of life into their roles. Unfortunately things don't get any better with the English dub as, true to form, the approach is literal and the scope is limited.
One thing that should be pointed out is the continuous inability of the Western license holders to find people with accents to play particular roles, and it's painful to hear Sainty Reid as 16 year-old French pilot Fleur Blanc - especially when she macerates her way through terms like "maman" - the colloquial form of "mère" (mother). It's unfortunate that her first serious role is one that really needed a specific vocal style, and the truly sad part is that in an era where talented people can be found under every rock, viewers are still being subjected to the idea that everyone in the world speaks English (with an American accent), as their native language.
The wastelands of anime are littered with the shades of forgettable characters, and the numerous problems with the storyline and script deal what could only be called a killing blow to Eureka Seven AO. The foundation of good characters lies in the logical development of the plot together with an organic approach to dialogue - both of which require time, patience, an understanding of relationships, and a healthy dose of criticism. The original series featured some good character dynamics that added personality to each role, making Renton, Eureka, and several others believable to a degree - but more importantly they became interesting and likeable. Unfortunately logic appears to have gone out of the window with this "sequel" - resulting in a set of bland "people" with few saving graces.
The decision to treat Ao in a manner similar to Ikari Shinji from Neon Genesis Evangelion has backfired, and although some attempts have been made to save him from the pit of obscurity, he stands at the head of a queue of unlikable, uninteresting, and excruciatingly dull characters - all of whom shove him steadily towards the precipice. Truth initially serves as a decent antagonist, but his development is sorely lacking as he is quickly relegated from that role - becoming little more than a force of nature whose actions serve no purpose whatsoever. As for Naru, her status as Ao's love interest quickly loses all meaning once the plot shifts into monster-of-the-week mode, and like Truth her purpose in the story is ultimately rendered irrelevant. That said, there are some intriguing interactions between the supporting characters, but the approach to relationships is surprisingly lacking in emotional depth - becoming little more than background noises that are eventually swallowed by the confusing plot.
Eureka Seven AO is a strange, lumbering beast that struggles to maintain its balance before the weight of its collective flaws sends it careening into the realms of logical fallacy, but the odd thing is that nobody appears to have noticed any of the obvious problems during the planning, production, or ADR stages of the show - which raises quite a few questions. Kato Yuichi's confusing, poorly written storyline has a mechanical feel that lacks emotion or passion for the original series, and in truth has more in common with amateur fanfiction written by someone whose ideas, imagination, and belief that they can do better are greater than their talent. The shoddy dialogue makes it difficult to like or believe in the characters, and fans of the original series may find this addition to the franchise painful to watch. That said, the show does feature some rather nice action sequences that can distract the audience from the mundanity, and there are some interesting aspects of the story that really should have been more prominent. If all the viewer wants is something to pass the time then Eureka Seven AO isn't the worst show available, and if it isn't examined too closely then the show may attract its own fan base.
The decision to make a "sequel" to a successful show is understandable (anime is a business after all), but Eureka Seven AO highlights some issues that lie at the heart of the industry - in particular the lack of understanding about what the wider audience wants and a serious need for quality control at all levels. The simple fact is that the series has broken under the weight of too many unnecessary straws, and aside from the visuals the show lacks the finesse and polish that one would expect from a mainstream title.
Jun 29, 2014
Mixing very different themes together can sometimes produce surprising results, but there's a big risk involved with this approach to storytelling and original concepts that are formed using this process often fall at the first hurdle. There are always exceptions to this guideline, but in anime these are usually adaptations of some other media that are often the result of hopeful popularity forecasts and a severe lack of common sense.
Thankfully, Tasogare Otome x Amnesia (Dusk Maiden of Amnesia), manages to steer its way through the conversion rapids - but not without taking some damage along the way.
Based on the manga by Maybe, the story revolves ... around the unusual relationship between Niiya Teiichi - a middle school student at Seikyou Private Academy and a senior member of the Paranormal Investigation Club - and the club president Kanoe Yuuko - the spirit of a female student who died in the abandoned school building 60 years before. The story begins with a rather humourous series of events that are initially shown from the perspective of Okonogi Momoe - a girl who is blissfully unaware of Yuuko's presence - and the beauty of the scene is that it not only forms a surprisingly good introduction to the main characters, but that the impact of this is reinforced when the events are replayed to expose the joke.
Unfortunately things don't really proceed so well for the rest of the series as, although there is an actual story behind everything, the plot is broken up into a series of short arcs that only last one or two episodes. It's an approach that can be surprisingly flexible when used correctly, and given the importance of the ubiquitous "seven mysteries of [insert name here] school" it's understandable why this method was used. Sadly the move from manga to anime has been far too rushed, and the compression of information causes too great a shift in pace between each arc. In addition to this there are several major plot points that are noticeably absent in the anime - mainly because the shadow of early adaptation reared its ugly head again. Dusk Maiden is yet another show that has suffered the ignominy of being animated before the manga was complete, and this causes a few contextual problems that the writers have tried to gloss over - with varying degrees of success.
As with most adaptations the character designs are taken directly from the source material, and as with the majority of school-based romantic comedies there isn't really anything special in this department. That said, Dusk Maiden is stylistically and aesthetically pleasing to the eye - mainly because director Oonuma Shin has applied a number of the visual tricks and techniques that he used in the "ef" series. Unfortunately the character animation isn't as crisp as it could be and some of the movements are a little odd, but aside from that (and several moments of shoddy line work along with the repeated use of low angles and sunsets - which can become a little tiresome after a while), SILVER LINK have produced a good-looking show. The design mentality works particularly well in a number of scenes, serving as a pleasing visual reference to reinforce the show's genre foundations of horror and romantic comedy.
Dusk Maiden does contain some fanservice (it's a school-based romantic comedy with harem elements after all), but the approach is far less aggressive than that of a number of anime out there. These moments are often caused by Yuuko's carpicious nature and the amusement she derives from making Teiichi uncomfortable - which is a nice change from the usual protagonist falling face-first onto a random girl (or her falling on him).
One interesting aspect of the series that does bear mentioning is the overt symbolism related to Noh and Kabuki theater - Momijigari. The meaning of the repetitive red and yellow maple leaves is something that can be easily passed of as a way to make the scene look good, but it's actually a subtle reference to stories about a beautiful maiden/princess who was actually a demon in disguise, and who is ultimately killed by the man she is attempting to seduce. It's a surprisingly telling visual device that, once understood, gives the plot some extra weight and sets a performing precedent that the voice actors and scriptwriters can build on.
Dusk Maiden opens with Suzuki Konomi's "Choir Jail" - accompanied by a straightforward visual medley to introduce the main characters mixed with the maple leaf metaphor. The closing theme is somewhat noteworthy - showing Yuuko sitting against a window in what is presumably the abandoned school building, singing "Karandorie" by Okui Aki while the sun sets. Both sequences feature some decent audio/visual choreography, and this is largely true for the majority of the series. The score contains a variety of tracks that add some nice background to scenes and jokes, and there's some surprisingly good effects work on display - although this is offset by a degree of untidiness, and the usual comedy-centric noises can sometimes feel out-of-place.
Given that the series crosses two very specific genres there's always the danger of the script going from one extreme to another - especially with an adaptation of an unfinished work - and while this does happen on some occasions the writers have maintained a pretty good balance between the disparate elements for the majority of the story. The Japanese dub fares particularly well because of this, but the translation into English could have been approached in a more intuitive manner as it is a bit too ... literal. Tsubasa Yonaga handles the role of the befuddled and slightly put-upon Teiichi very well, and Hara Yumi delivers a good performance as the precocious amnesiac ghost Yuuko. Kitamura Eri (Kanoe Kirie), and Fukuen Misato (Okonogi Momoe), also work rather well in their supporting roles, and while the all of the voice actors have moments that don't quite fit, their collective efforts are pretty decent.
On the other hand the English dub is rife with issues that could easily have been resolved during the translation and ADR processes - which is probably why Clint Bickham seems to struggle with the role of Teiichi and Emily Neves (Yuuko), seems unable to pronounce her love interest's name correctly. Jessica Boone offers some solace as Kirie, but it's the talented and highly experienced Britney Karbowski who suffers the most as Momoe. The lacklustre scripting issues are underlined by the adherence to literal translation, so the entire English dub is littered with out-of-place terms and the rage-inducing 'kun', 'san', etc - all of which have a big effect on the viewer's perception of the characters.
At first Teiichi appears to be little more than the common-or-garden lead male in a romantic comedy (with some harem elements), but he does have some good points as, unlike other stories of this type, he is determined to stay with Yuuko. In this respect he has more in common with the likes of Morisato Keiichi from "Ah! Megami-sama" than the usual harem leads of the last decade. As for the ghost herself, Yuuko is very clearly an extremely lonely character who, upon finding that someone can see and touch her, displays her affection in much the same way an abandoned puppy would to someone who fed and cared for it. The development of the relationship between these two is one of the central pillars of the storyline, and it's interesting to see the progression of their relationship clash with Teiichi's desire to know how Yuuko died and her desire to run away from anything that hurts or upsets her.
It's unfortunate that time restraints and the need to leave a major chunk of the plot out of the ending (because it hadn't been written), meant that Kirie's growing friendship with Teiichi and her relationship with Yuuko are never fully realised - especially as the latter adds a competely different tone to the ending of the series. The sad part is that anyone who has read the manga will understand just how much has been left out, and the meaning behind the sinister shadow becomes much more horrifying than the anime depicts.
Dusk Maiden of Amnesia is predominantly a story of what could have been. The decision for early adaptation, combined with the limitations of a twelve episode series, has forced a number of edits and alterations that are noticeable - but only if the viewer has read the manga. While it lacks the punch of the source material - particularly at the end - the series offers some interesting concepts, a few laughs, and a rather sweet relationship between a boy and a ghost. The stylish visuals work surprisingly well with the storyline, and although the series plays fast and loose with some of its elements, several themes are dealt with in an astute manner. Aside from the issues with the English dub the narrative holds together quite well - which is an achievement for an adaptation of an unfinished story that has been crammed into a short series while trying to cover the holes in the plot.
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Jun 27, 2014
Every genre has certain themes that are considered its staples - the building blocks of stories that have been, or are yet to be told. One of the most common elements in science fiction is the Earth being attacked by an alien force with superior technology, and there are numerous stories about this topic in everything from radio plays to comic books (with a few Hollywood blockbusters thrown in for good measure). These tales are usually resolved by the use of human ingenuity and courage, together with a healthy dose of serendipity (the battleship just happened to be there).
But what happens when the enemy really ... is unbeatable?
Heroic Age is set in a future where Earth has been conquered by two alien races that are hell-bent on the total annihilation of the ones they call the "Iron Tribe". Over a century has passed and humanity continues to live in hiding across the universe, hoping and praying that the saviour promised by the all-powerful Golden Tribe would appear. After a short introduction concerning the major tribes in the series, the story begins with the spectral image of Princess Dianeira Y Laisha Arturia Ol Yunos floating in space as she attempts to locate the traces of a ship that has been lost for over 120 years. Together with the crew of the Argonaut she has journeyed through uncharted areas of the cosmos, and after four long years of searching it seems as though their quest may end on a half-destroyed planet that appears to be cut off from the rest of space.
That world is Olone, and upon it lives a young man called Age (and his tentacled friend Food).
Science fiction tends to be a pretty common genre in anime, but only a few shows can truly call themselves space operas - and even amongst those Heroic Age is more than a little unusual. Much of the plot has been inspired by greek mythology - in particular the legends surrounding Hercules - and this is very clearly reflected in not just the nomenclature or the tasks given to the Nodos, but also in the language used throughout the series. The narrative adopts a measured, formal tone which may not sit well with viewers who want a frenetic pace and minute-to-minute excitement - even though this approach is fitting because of the heavy classical influencel.
That said, Heroic Age does contain a lot of combat and tension, but instead of the usual gung-ho attitude of other space-based anime (certain parts of the Macross and Gundam franchises for example), there's a tangible sense of desperation within the series. This stems from the fact that humanity is very clearly outnumbered, outgunned, and vastly inferior in terms of technology - factors which place far more emphasis on the need for a miracle, and like all such things the Nodos are both a blessing and a curse.
In terms of design the characters are something of a mixed bag. The clothing for the humans is generally in keeping with the plot (utilitarian outfits for the most part), but their features are often unremarkable. As for the aliens, aside from the insectoid Bronze tribe and Food's species on Olone, everyone seems to be humanoid. It would have been nice if a little more imagination had been applied to the other inhabitants of the universe - variety is the spice of life after all. That said, the Nodos are interesting as they look more like an armoured creation of Doctor Moreau - which gives them a degree of familiarity, but also makes them appear far more monstrous than every other alien species.
Character animation is surprisingly consistent throughout the series, and while the usage of CG is generally good (the transformation sequences or the pitched space battles for example), there are several moments that are decidedly clumsy in both execution and integration. Thankfully these are relatively minor issues that don't really have any impact on proceedings, and the show features some great audio-visual effects and choreography (although the mechanical servo noise used for Belcross has caused some confusion about the Nodos).
One of the things that people will remember about Heroic Age is the exceptional music. The score is filled with tracks that appeal to any number of human emotions, and in all honesty the entire soundtrack (especially the main theme), seems to have two main purposes - add to the atmosphere of the story and make the viewer feel just a little bit epic.
The opening sequence is a decent compilation of the main characters and a few action scenes, combined with Gravitation by Japanese pop band Angela - and thankfully there's almost nothing that could be counted as a spoiler. Each episode ends with Azurite - a melancholy ballad sung by Urakabe Tae - and the accompanying imagery shows Dianeira walking along the shore alone and then floating in space above a planet. Now this may seem like a fairly typical anime closing sequence, but it's actually a rather clever bit of foreshadowing that fits very well once the viewer understands the context.
Possibly the biggest issue with Heroic Age is the dialogue - in particular because of the formality inherent in the series. The Japanese script is rather cumbersome in its use of language and is filled with repetitions of words and phrases - sometimes just in one scene. Thankfully this approach fits the tone of the anime and the experienced voice cast have managed to overcome this hurdle to deliver some good performances. Unfortunately the English dub is even more convoluted, and things only get worse with the use of incorrect nomenclature (Dianela should actually be Dianeira - after the wife of Hercules, Age is pronounced Eiji, and so on). It's clear that the rewriters have tried too hard to turn the series into an animated saga poem, and many of the voice actors audibly struggle with their lines during certain monologues and declamations.
That said, if the viewer is able to move past these issues then they're likely to find some rather interesting characters.
Heroic Age is filled with lots of people who have their own beliefs and circumstances, but it's the numerous questions that surround the Nodos, the tasks assigned to them, and their purpose in the universe that lead to evolution of several major supporting roles on both sides of the war. In addition to this the series clearly highlights the dual nature of humanity as both protectors and destroyers - which is something of a rarity in the genre - and the repercussions of these acts have a lasting effect on storyline.
Dianeira isn't the typical vapid lead female, but she is a bit too kind, trusting and forgiving for her own good - especially where her brothers are concerned. She also displays a great deal of courage on a variety of occasions, not the least of which is her decision to lead the crew of the Argonaut across uncharted space while the two most powerful tribes in the universe try to kill them. Her character is particularly unusual because of the dichotomy of her role - she is both protected by the crew of the Argonaut, but also acts as their guide and protector across space.
On the other hand Age is something of a conundrum - which is why there are a few misconceptions about him. He is a teenager who has been young for a very long time (over 120 years), and has an innocent mind but possesses knowledge of the future. He can be charming and endearing at times, but also terrifying in his rage - and his straightforward mentality hides a surprisingly deep character. His childhood with beings who are effectively gods and his years sharing his body with Belcross - a surviving member of the legendary Heroic Tribe - have effectively isolated him from the race that he is fated to protect, but his carefree attitude and sunny disposition add some much-needed comic relief to the story. More than anything, he is a departure from the usual heroes found in anime as he is not driven by courage or the desire to protect his friends, but by faith in the future that he has been shown.
Heroic Age has a lot in common with shows like Battlestar Galactica (the new version), Ulysses 31, Guin Saga, and surprisingly - Shingeki no Kyojin, and fans of those titles may find themselves on familiar ground with the storyline. The layers of subtext about the nature of man and humanity's place in the universe fit very well with the narrative and themes of the show, and the series contains a lot more symbolism than one might expect (the similarity between Dianeira's astral projections and the figureheads found on sailing ships, the five tribes being named after Hesiod's Ages of Man, the number of labours assigned to each Nodos, and more).
The decision to adopt a cerebral approach to a very common theme in science fiction and to follow classical themes and influences has created a space opera that - although formal - adds a dose of intelligence and thoughtfulness to the action and tension. The show may not be for everybody, but those who do give it a chance will understand why the name "Heroic Age" is so appropriate.
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Nov 3, 2012
"Quod Subigo Farinam" - Terry Pratchett (Feet of Clay, 1996)
Once upon a time Sega were a powerhouse of the videogames world, but these days they appear to have lost much of their former glory - mainly because their most visible releases are little more than revisions of Sonic the Hedgehog. Fortunately the blue rodent isn't the only weapon in Sega's arsenal, and the company have a plethora of titles just waiting to be rereleased or resurrected (Phantasy Star, Rolling Thunder, Kid Chameleon, Strider, Afterburner, Space Harrier, Daytona, Panzer Dragoon, Sakura Taisen, Wonder Boy, Alex Kidd, and many others). There are even a few rare ones ... that fans would love to see completed (Dear Sega, Please finish Shenmue. Thanking you in advance).
In addition to their massive back catalogue of games, Sega also own a role-playing franchise that is quite possibly the largest and most diverse in the genre - the Shining series (and before all the fans have a collective apoplexy, according to Nintendo there are only eighteen official Zelda titles).
The first game - Shining in the Darkness - was a straightforward dungeon crawler that appeared on the Megadrive/Genesis back in 1991. Subsequent additions to the franchise ventured into the realms of turn-based strategy, tactical role-playing, third-person action/adventure, and even first-person RPG - and repeatedly demonstrated Sega's desire to experiment with the fantasy genre. Since that time the series has proven to be extremely popular in various parts of the world, and the release of the 30th title - Shining Blade on the Playstation Portable - only serves to highlight the strength of the franchise.
With such a history behind it, what could possibly go wrong with an anime adaptation of the 29th game - Shining Hearts: Shiawase no Pan.
Set on the quaint little island of Wyndaria, the story follows the deeds of Rick - a handsome amnesiac castaway who now works at the island's bakery alongside the three young ladies who appear to own the business - Airy Ardet, Neris Filiam and Amil Manaflare. Everything is peaceful as Rick learns how to heroically knead the dough in order to bake loaves of manliness, croissants of courage, baguettes of bravery, and other such things on his journey to make the titular "Bread of Happiness".
Unfortunately the arrival of another castaway called Kaguya throws his world into the mixing bowl and forgets to add any sort of raising agent.
There are many varieties of bread in the world, and some of them are quite tasty in their own right. Shining Hearts is, unfortunately, nothing more than a mass-produced white loaf that's in dire need of a little bit of cheese or some kind of filling in order to make it palatable. The formulaic plot is made up of basic storytelling ingredients that appear to have been added using a shovel as a measuring cup, and the resulting narrative tends to fall apart - even though the writers have struggled to mix everything together before getting baked.
The first half of the series is little more than a glorified meet-and-greet as Rick and his female companions find themselves in the middle of several rather placid adventures that all seem to be resolved using bread - and no, they don't hit each other with baguettes (more's the pity). The storyline does show some improvements during the latter half of the show, but by that point there's simply not enough broadcast time to offer the answers to some important questions (i.e. Who is Rick? What is the Island of Wyndaria? Why am I watching a fantasy adventure about bread? etc). This results in a string of important storyline events occurring one after another as the show tries to cram as much as possible into the narrative in order to tie up various loose ends.
Shining Hearts is filled with all manner of quaint buildings and pastoral scenes that highlight the rural nature of the island, but while everything looks pleasant enough, there's a distinct lack of imagination on display. The problem lies in the fact that this is an adaptation of a fantasy JRPG - and in many cases these games will feature towns and villages that have a certain ... continental flavour to them. No-one seems to fully understand why, but for some reason there's a tendency amongst developers to assume that all fantasy adventure games take place somewhere in Europe (e.g. Sword Art Online, Tears to Tiara, .Hack//, Ragnarok, Druaga no Tou, etc).
When it comes to animation things are a little more muddled as there's a surprising blandness that permeates a number of scenes - even though the quality is generally pretty decent for the majority of the show. Part of the reason for this is the character animation and the tendency to rely on stereotypical behaviour patterns in order to make specific female roles more appealing to a certain audience. This mentality lies at the heart of the character design as well, and aside from a few minor modifications, everyone looks much the same as they do in the game - but that's nothing to be proud of as pointy chins and almond-shaped faces are the order of the day.
Which brings up an interesting point about the aims of the producers - but more on that in a bit.
The opening sequence features a track called "Jisei-kai ~Toki Sekai~" sung by Aizawa Mai (Neris), Itou Kanae (Amil), and Mikami Shiori (Airy) - alongside some tourist-friendly images of Wyndaria and the seas around it, scenes where the lead characters run in a group or gaze heroically off into the distance, birds flying, and the obligatory bread shots. It's a fairly typical beginning that ticks many of the boxes in the "How to Make an Anime OP" handbook, and the ending is no better. The closing sequence features lots of background bread in different shapes and sizes, and the three lead actresses perform "Fuwafuwa no Mahou" while their respective characters pose and dance in a manner that is designed to pander to fans with a tendency to shout "kawaii!" and "moe!" at anything female, humanoid and vaguely attractive.
Shining Hearts features some diverse and well-crafted audio effects, but their usage is hampered by repeated issues with timing, choreography and intensity. The background music - a mixture of light-hearted fluff pieces, medieval-inspired ditties and dramatic/serious melodies - is more subtle than one might expect, but several scenes can have an odd feeling to them because of the style and composition of the tracks on offer. In addition to this the script is fairly bland and doesn't appear to have taxed any of the voice actors - which has resulted in the dialogue being delivered in a rather banal style that is typical of many shounen anime where action scenes involve lots of shouting and pouting.
Sadly this workaday attitude extends to the characters themselves - many of whom are little more than eye-candy that moves around and does ... stuff. The reason for this is the lack of any real conviction where relationships are concerned - which is basically what happens when someone decides to remove a major familial bond without thinking it through or replacing it with something equally important. In addition to this the speed of the narrative appears to have caused the producers to ignore or forget the purpose of supporting characters, and because of this the lead roles are severely under-developed for a show of this type.
Which brings us back to the aims of the producers - a factor that is closely tied into the design of the characters.
In a very real sense any visual media is similar to food in that the first bite is with the eye, and many people will make a snap-judgement about something based solely on how it looks. This is the reason why games developers are often quick to capitalise on popular trends - especially those that are rooted in otaku or geek culture - and the most common is to utilise the talents of well-known artists - some of whom have made their names in hentai or eroge. Unfortunately this approach does not guarantee success as titles that rely on the marketability of the lead designer are often aimed at specific audiences - and even though there may be lucrative merchandising opportunities, the lack of publicity will severely affect the popularity of a game.
In the case of Sega's primary RPG franchise, Shining Hearts is the third of four titles that feature the talents of popular eroge artist Tony Taka - and therein lies the problem with the anime.
Like many adaptations the producers have simply regurgitated the character designs from the source material, but in this case that means that the lead female roles consist of a buxom tavern maid, a busty milk maid and a sexy nun - all of whom apparently work as bakers. Add to that a supporting cast of female characters who are little more than walking merchandising opportunities and it becomes obvious that this is simply an attempt to capitalise on the popularity of the franchise, and to a lesser degree the artist.
The sad thing is that even though the story that lacked the depth of other food-based shows (Yakitate Japan! for example - and that's saying something), Shining Hearts still had potential if the adaptation had run for longer and been more true to the game. Unfortunately the titular "Bread of Happiness is nowhere to be found, and viewers are left with nothing but a bitter selection of inane details that would be right at home in any middle-class anime fan's conversation book.
Bread isn't famous for its peacemaking abilities. Cake would have been an understandable alternative (unless the story is about the French Revolution).
Or Parfait. Everybody loves parfait.
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Oct 21, 2012
"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" - Lord John Dalberg-Acton, 1837.
There are many types of power - financial, military, political, religious, etc - and at one time or another each has been used to further the goals of individuals, organisations, and even nations. The odd thing though, is that even though it has been referenced for thousands of years in everything from legends and myths to folktales and history, magic has rarely been placed in the same category. The problem is that people don't really believe in magic any more, and the subject has been relegated to the realms of fiction and ... fantasy - even though it was often said that practitioners had the ability to wield primal forces, command spirits, and shake the foundations of heaven.
Everything has a price though, and in order to achieve or seize power of any sort you have to be willing to give up certain ... things. So the question is, what would you sacrifice for the chance to be a god?
The continuation of Fate/Zero opens with two F-15 jets that have been dispatched by the Japanese Air Force with orders to investigate the situation on the Mion River. Archer/Gilgamesh watches with disdain from on high as Sabre, Rider and Lancer continue their temporary alliance, and the pitched battle with the giant creature summoned by Caster/Gille de Rais rages on.
Little do they know that a new player is about to enter the field ...
One of the most noticeable differences between the first and second halves of Fate/Zero is the shift from preparation and planning to all-out action - something that is rather eloquently symbolized by the battle on the Mion River. With much of the preamble over, the storyline is able to place the kid-gloves to one side and ramp-up the tension between the combatants. This is most often achieved by drawing on the conflicting ideologies of each of the characters - with some thoroughly unscrupulous tactics thrown in to drive home the fact that the participants are involved in a war. The plot remains as focused as ever, but there's a palpable change in the atmosphere of the series, and many episodes have a less forgiving, more brutal air about them.
This shift in "attitude" has been handled extremely well by series director Aoki Ei and his writers, and a great deal of attention has been paid to the impact the numerous action scenes have on the characters - something that's becoming a rarity in modern anime. It's an interesting and effective usage of screentime that is markedly different from the patient build-up of the first half of the story, but crafted with the same care and attention to detail that have become a hallmark of Type-Moon/Ufotable collaborations. This prevents the show devolving into a legendary free-for-all, and allows for some very interesting confrontations - several of which have their roots in the layers of subtext that were added during previous series.
With the focus on action instead of intrigue, one might have expected there to be some differences in the visuals. Thankfully there are almost no major alterations present throughout the series - aside from a few cosmetic differences in clothing and apparel. The high production standards have been maintained and character movements are as sharp and crisp as ever. There are a few relatively minor issues with the blending of CG and standard animation, but these are pretty easy to ignore. What does stand out are the rather dazzling visual effects, many of which are bigger and bolder due to the shift from preparation to action. The choreography and timing of these - together with the quality of the character animation - make for some truly stunning combat sequences.
Composer Kajiura Yuki's all-female band Kalafina - the long-time muses of Type-Moon/Ufotable collaborations - open the second season with the operatic rock ballad "To the Beginning", while the main participants in the Holy Grail war are re-introduced in a well-choreographed montage that contains a few hints of things to come. On the other hand the closing sequence is a rather simple yet moving account - told through a series of still images - of the relationship between Emiya Kiritsugu and Irisviel von Einzbern - with Luna Haruna's pop ballad "Sora wa Takaku Kaze wa Utau" adding an uplifting and slightly bittersweet tone. Kalafina also return with the martially themed operatic ballad "Manten" as a special closing track for episodes 18 and 19.
The first season of Fate/Zero featured a very high standard of audio production, and it's nice to see that sound director Iwanami Yoshikazu hasn't allowed anyone to rest on their laurels. The background music is as diverse and atmospheric as ever, and while there are a few tracks that may sound a little off-kilter, this appears to be a purposeful move in order to heighten the mood of certain scenes. That said, there are two areas where this series is arguably superior to its predecessor - both of which have been pushed to the fore by the move to action.
The audio effects are as sharp and clear as ever, but the increase in combat means that the production standards need to be pushed even higher and more diversity needs to be added. In addition to this the quality of the audio/visual choreography - which was already excellent in the previous series - often went unnoticed because of the focus on preparation and planning. Thankfully Iwanami is arguably one of the most experienced sound directors working in the industry, and his skills - developed over many years working on a variety of different anime - really make the difference. The superb effects and remarkable choreography really set the second series of Fate/Zero apart from other shows released this year, and mark it as a front-runner for any potential awards in this department.
Unlike many other anime, the move to an action footing hasn't caused the script to devolve into random shouts, grunts and screams, and the writers have done well to retain the maturity and intelligence of the first season. There is a bit of a change in the delivery though, as with the goal in sight, some of the actors appear to have been encouraged to add more emotion to their roles. This works surprisingly well with characters who were cold or aloof in the first series - Sabre and Archer for example - and the differences in their feelings becomes more pronounced as the story progresses and the battles take their mental toll.
One of the biggest criticisms of Fate/Zero is that it has tried to weave a coherent narrative from too many character and plot threads without relying on a lead role. Now this may seem like an anathema to those who prefer their development to follow a distinct linear progression, but those tales often suffer from an age-old problem in storytelling - every good protagonist needs an equally good antagonist. It's an issue that has affected anime for many years as - contrary to popular belief - creating and developing a good opposite (the antagonist doesn't have to be a villain after all), to a hero/heroine is not an easy task.
Thankfully Fate/Zero takes its cues from shows like Baccano!, and the lack of a lead role is actually a boon to the series as it allows multiple perspectives to come to the fore. Each of the participants in the war for the Holy Grail is effectively the antagonist of one or more of the other combatants, and all of the players bounce around the plot like peas on a drum - colliding into each other and changing their directions, alliances and enemies in the blink of an eye. It's a rarely used and fascinating approach to character development that highlights in particular the ever-changing nature of the battlefield. One big plus is that while the first season was rather staid in its portrayal of the heroes, the second half of the story pulls very few punches - showing clearly the lengths to which several of the combatants will go in order to win, opening the scars of old wounds, and ensuring that the viewer knows exactly what everyone has put on the line for the ultimate prize.
Over the years there have been many anime that have changed focus and tone from one season to the next, but rarely does it happen in the space of one series. The reason for this is because it's often extremely difficult to reconcile what may eventually turn out to be conflicting portrayals of the story and characters - and therein lies the greatest achievement of Type-Moon, Ufotable, and author Urobuchi Gen. The successful blending of two different perspectives has created a remarkable story that isn't afraid to show off its intelligence or maturity, and the second half of Fate/Zero successfully builds upon the carefully laid foundations of the first season - even with the increase in action and combat.
Prequels are often tricky to deal with as they are very easy to get wrong, which is one of the reasons why this series is a little bit special. In addition to shedding new light on the events that occur in Fate/Stay Night, Fate/Zero is also a singular example of just how good seinen action tales can be, and a testament to the quality that can be achieved through long-term studio collaborations.
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Jun 24, 2012
Dairy farming isn't something that one would normally associate with anime and manga, especially as there's nothing really entertaining about looking after or milking cows. There is, however, a rather improbable connection between these seemingly disparate industries, and nowhere is this more apparent than when dealing with popular franchises - like Full Metal Alchemist.
With a successful manga, two anime adaptations, two movies, six light novels, two series of drama CD's, around a dozen video games across several formats, and a mountain of merchandise ranging from art books to key chains, Arakawa Hiromu's tale of two brothers is undoubtedly one of the most profitable titles of ... recent years. That said, the jewel in Bones' crown does lack the marketing clout of long-running franchises like One Piece, Bleach and Naruto, and in order to maximise profits the studio has decided to follow a tried and tested method to "advertise" the main series.
Which is a much nicer way of saying that Full Metal Alchemist is the prize cow, and Bones have decided to milk it (again).
The movie opens with a girl dreaming of her past, in particular the moment when a group of soldiers take her and her family away from what looks like a refugee camp. She wakes up to find her brother studying their parent's alchemy research book, but before she can go to bed the siblings hear a strange noise inside the house. Her brother goes to investigate but she secretly follows, only to witness a nightmarish scene that causes her to pass out.
Several years later Central city, the capital of Amestris, is rocked by a prison break on the day of the harvest festival, and a confrontation with an escaping convict leads the Elric brothers on to another adventure.
Okay, it all sounds pretty straightforward, and therein lies one of the main problems with this addition to the Full Metal Alchemist franchise. The overly linear plot and the fact that this is nothing more than another tale about a specific ancient power mean that the storyline is highly predictable - even though the feature is set in a new country with its own history. In addition to this there's a fairly noticeable lack of cohesion with the sequence of events, which may be due to the speed at which the narrative progresses. In order to fit the entire storyline into 110 minutes certain corners needed to be cut, but this has been done with very little care so things can often get a little ... disjointed.
Aside from the over-churned plot, The Sacred Star of Milkos - sorry, Milos - also suffers from a similar "anime-by-numbers" methodology that was prevalent in Guilty Crown, and this becomes obvious when one considers the relevance of characters like Roy Mustang, Riza Hawkeye, and even Winry Rockbell. It's likely that their presence is nothing more than a nod to the fans as their addition adds nothing to the narrative, and this only serves to highlight the fact that this movie has been made for one reason only - and that isn't to tell a story.
Visually this is a bit of a departure from the clean lines and smooth animation that one might expect of the franchise, and the techniques used during action set-pieces have an experimental feel. That said, the detailed artwork lacks the finesse of Brotherhood, and while the character designs are pretty much what one might expect, the movie has a rushed atmosphere that no amount of familiarity can counter. This is reflected by the quality of the animation the attempts to make the action scenes more visceral often has bodies contorting in odd ways. The experimental nature of the visuals also makes the CG stand out, and the obvious disparity can make certain scenes look more than a little odd.
The movie does have an opening theme, but viewers will have to wait ten minutes before they can listen to Miwa's dulcet tones as she sings "Chasing Hearts", a pleasant rock-pop song with an adventurous atmosphere which unfortunately has been relegated to background music for the on-screen action. The Sacred Star of Milos closes with a rather simple sequence depicting a train journey across various landscapes while L'Arc-en-Ciel's serenade viewers with their fourth contribution to the franchise - an upbeat rock ballad called "Good Luck My Way". The rest of the movie has a variety of musical accompaniments composed by Iwashiro Taro ranging from dramatic martial themes to medieval-style ditties and mysterious piano pieces, and for the most part these tracks fit their respective scenes quite well.
Sadly, the movie suffers from the poor scripting that has plagued many shounen titles over the years, and although the actors are as competent as ever, not even their vaunted skills can do much with the typical formula of cheese, shout, run, hit people, shout louder, more cheese, run faster, scream, hit more people, etc, etc. The rather pedestrian dialogue means that The Sacred Star of Milos lacks the emotional charge of its predecessor - a fact that is borne out by the predominantly static characters.
The problem is that this movie is little more than a sideshow rather than a main event, which ironically places this feature below the much maligned Conqueror of Shamballa in terms of development - especially where the Elric Brothers are concerned. The only character who shows any sign of growth is the main heroine - Julia Crichton - but this alone cannot support the weight of a story that relies on previous familiarity with specific characters. While this method of storytelling isn't necessarily a bad thing, it does place limitations on the storyline regarding the actions of particular individuals, and when one adds the fact that several characters are nothing more than window dressing, viewers may find themselves disappointed with the overall lack of depth.
That said, although this addition to the Full Metal Alchemist franchise has more moo than milk, fans will probably find themselves warming to it as it offers them a chance to see the Elric Brothers in action once more. The feature may not be of the same standard as Brotherhood, the original anime adaptation, or even the first movie, but it does offer some moments of pure enjoyment. Although the storyline is relatively simplistic compared to what has gone before, anyone familiar with the franchise will probably find this an easy film to watch - even with the blatant and somewhat redundant reminders of certain past events.
It's just a little sad that a great title is being treated as nothing more than a cash cow, but with The Sacred Star of Milos, hopefully Bones will decide it's time to put the franchise out to pasture.
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May 18, 2012
Many people are aware of the financial problems faced by the anime industry, and one of the methods that studios have adopted over recent years to try to shore up their crumbling foundations is to adapt popular manga, games, and more recently, Western comics. This approach has become a tried and tested moneymaking endeavour for the majority of studios, but in many cases this is simply due the fact that the source material caters to the lowest common denominator - which usually means fanservice. Unfortunately, the relative success of these shows have allowed them to become the norm rather than the exception, and with that ... comes a number of problems.
The sad fact is that while it's okay to find inspiration from other sources, the industry has become so used to the adaptation that studios and writers find it difficult to produce work that could be considered "original". Instead, what passes for a unique story tends to be nothing more than a collection of concepts and ideas from other tales that are thrown together in the vain hope that people will rush to buy the end product because ... well, because someone tells them to.
But rather than dwelling on such things, let's take a look at Guilty Crown.
Set in Tokyo in the year 2039, a decade has passed since a mysterious outbreak known as the "Apocalypse Virus" killed thousands of people and brought Japan to its knees - a disaster that would later be called "Lost Christmas". Since that time Japan has lost its independence, and has become a martial state governed by an international organisation known as GHQ. The story opens with a pink-haired girl and a small robot escaping from a futuristic-looking facility, but security forces injure and corner her until she falls off a bridge. The next morning is just like any other day for highschool student Ouma Shu, an awkward young man who is a fan of the pop-group Egoist, whose lead singer just happens to be a waif-like girl with pink hair.
And then everything gets ... weird.
Guilty Crown is a bit of an odd duck as it attempts to blend several disparate themes, but doesn't quite manage to finish the job. The plot has clearly been influenced by several popular franchises - which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but the execution is where the writers have let themselves down. The narrative is often disjointed, and many events in the storyline appear to have no logic behind them other than to put Shu through an emotional wringer. In addition to this, the writers appear to have taken a rather nonchalant approach to reasoning and rationale, one example of which is how GHQ's repeated massacres are never covered by any sort of media outlet. This seemingly lackadaisical attitude is apparent in several areas of the plot - which is littered with "coincidences" - and these cause the narrative to have a mechanical feeling. In many ways it's almost as if the story was nothing more than a collection of bits that would apparently appeal to the largest number of people.
Aside from the inclusion of numerous well-known aspects that have clearly been transplanted from other popular stories and the "plot-by-numbers" approach, Guilty Crown also suffers from the rather obvious idea that most adults are evil and only kids are able to save the world. That said, the series does have some good points, in particular the way it attempts to recreate a situation similar to that found in "Lord of the Flies" by putting all of the students in one place and imposing self-rule. There are other, similarly dark influences that add a veneer of maturity to proceedings, but sadly these aren't enough to support the inherent weaknesses in the narrative - the main one being the decision to make yet another school-based anime.
In terms of production quality, Guilty Crown is arguably up there with some of the better shows of recent years, but the sometimes stunning visuals and effects are tempered by a few issues that may initially appear to minor, but in actuality are representative of the mentality of the show's creators. It's obvious that a great deal of thought has gone into the background artwork and set designs, but the same isn't true of the characters. For the most part they look good, but the decision to feature highschool students places an immediate limitation that becomes obvious when one considers the variety of features and body shapes found amongst the adults.
The problem lies in the fact that the design of the younger roles includes an element of stereotype in order to impart a degree of familiarity - thereby making the show more accessible to people. It's an old marketing trick that has become a staple of the anime industry over the years, and while Guilty Crown has tried to be a little bit more subtle than most in its usage, one does have to question the logic behind Tsugumi. A cat-eared tsundere loli wearing what is effectively a plug suit (and a maid costume later on), only serves to highlight the thought processes of the show's creators.
Thankfully Production I.G. maintain their standards when it comes to the animation, and the series is littered with flowing, well choreographed action scenes. The characters are well-balanced in their movements, and a degree of care has been taken with those that are injured, disabled, or suffer from an affliction.
Like many anime that run for over twenty episodes, Guilty Crown features two opening and ending sequences - each with an original track written by Supercell. The first OP is a rather dizzying blend of effects, character montages and action scenes while the song "My Dearest" - a suitably fast paced and dramatic pop song performed by Koeda - sets the tone for the series. "The Everlasting Guilty Crown" performed by the fictional band Egoist is the track of choice for the second opening sequence, but while the artwork and design ethic have clearly shifted to promote a bittersweet atmosphere, the actual content is much the same as that of the first OP. Egoist also perform the melancholy ballad "Departures ~Anata ni Okuru Ai no Uta~" for the first ending sequence, which features Ouma Shu and Yuzuriha Inori walking away from each other against a backdrop of character art and effects. The second ED contains a mixture of video footage of landscape speeding by, scenes from the series and a few still images of the school environs that are "projected" onto a screen behind Inori and Shu as they decide to run - all while Koeda performs the rather upbeat rock song "Kokuhaku"
Which brings up one small issue.
Although it's true that some thought has gone into the composition of the opening sequences and that they are very well choreographed, both also feature overt plot spoilers. Now this does happen in other anime, but in general there are efforts to avoid such things occurring - which doesn't appear to be the case with Guilty Crown.
Aside from that minor niggle, the high production standards are also reflected in the quality of the music and audio effects. Sawano Hiroyuki has taken care to ensure that the background pieces are varied and suitably dramatic where necessary. The wide range of sounds and noises are clear and distinct, and the audio/visual choreography shows just how much effort has been made to produce a show that looks and sounds great.
Unfortunately the same can't be said of the actual dialogue.
Now while it's true that Guilty Crown features a range of characters and personality types, for some reason the decision was made to revert to old anime stereotypes and then write justifications into the storyline. The script is littered with monologues, diatribes, conversations and arguments that would grace any show where the "hero" has to lead his people to salvation whilst fighting against the enemy and his inner demons, forming a pseudo-harem along the way, and showing the world just how much of a tragic-yet-heroic figure he is. Thankfully the actors are more than capable, but no matter how good their skills are, prosaic and formulaic dialogue will always be just that.
As for the characters themselves, Ouma Shu is the kind of leading man who can be found in a number of other titles - quiet, reserved, doesn't have many friends, and a bit of a loser - and therein lies the problem. The writers have taken great pains to try to show him as a "human" more than anything else, but in their efforts to promote Shu as the tragic hero, they've ignored one of the most basic rules of characterisation.
In other words, Shu has no personality whatsoever - even at the end of the series when all his "suffering" is over.
It's this apparent inability to develop the characters in any meaningful way that makes them appear as nothing more than inane, and the lack of any real growth means that everyone pretty much ends the series having learned very little (aside from maybe Daryl). In addition to this there's an element of ridiculousness to the choice of characters, the prime example being Yuzuriha Inori (although Tsugumi does come a close second). One has to wonder what chemically induced delusion could have persuaded the show's creators that having the lead singer of a hugely popular band stealing from the enemy in the opening scenes while wearing her stage outfit was a good idea.
Apparently students can recognise her even though she's wearing a school uniform, but soldiers and officers of the military forces controlling Japan have no idea who she is since pink-haired girls wearing fluttery costumes are a dime a dozen in Japan.
Guilty Crown is one of those anime that can only truly be enjoyed if you have never watched any of the titles that it takes its inspirations from - and that becomes a problem if one has watched, and enjoyed, most of them. The main issue is that there are several character types and plot elements that are better used in their original anime, so their inclusion here makes them stand out in less than flattering ways.
The real problem with Guilty Crown though, is the element of arrogance that is prevalent throughout the series, and this comes solely from the show's creators. The basic premise of Guilty Crown is perfectly fine, but everyone from the director and series composers to the producers have assumed that the "anime-by-numbers" approach that they have so clearly used here is enough to make a hit franchise. There appears to have been a major assumption that the audience will swallow the whole thing without automatically referencing other shows that they may have watched, and that's where everything begins to fall apart.
Storytelling is, after all, an art form, and a good writer can captivate their audience without overtly referencing where there inspiration came from. Unfortunately the folks behind Guilty Crown appear to have forgotten this simple fact, and it leaves one with the sad realisation that this anime had the potential to be so much more than it is.
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Mar 17, 2012
Superheroes have long been a staple of popular culture, especially in the West, and over the years characters like Superman, Batman, Spiderman, and even The Hulk have become household names. With their popularity at an all-time high thanks to video game tie-ins and movie adaptations, it's only natural that pretenders to the thrones that Marvel and DC sit upon should crawl out of the woodwork.
The most obvious attempts to capitalise on the success of these comic-book creations have come from television and cinema, but while shows like "Heroes", "Chronicle" and "Misfits" have found a degree of success, the majority of attempts to reinvent, reboot or ... revamp the superhero genre have ended in ignominy.
Which is where Tiger & Bunny swagger onto the stage.
Set in Sternbild City (a fictional version of New York), the story begins 45 years after super-powered humans known as NEXT first began to appear. In the decades that followed, individuals with superhuman abilities took on the roles of heroes and villains, and over time the constant to and fro between both sides became a form of entertainment. Fast forward to NC 1978, where the forces for good have their own specialised broadcast - "Hero TV", corporate sponsorships, and a chance to accrue points in order to win the coveted title of "King of Heroes".
Every day brings new challenges for these intrepid do-gooders, but Sternbild City has been built upon many secrets, and when Barnaby Brooks Jr. takes his place amongst those who stand for truth and justice, the shadows of the past begin to move once more.
At first glance Tiger & Bunny may seem like nothing more than a super-powered "buddy" show, and to a certain degree that's a fair assessment. The plot is relatively straightforward (but also rather predictable), and although there are several elements that add a veneer of complexity, none of these affect the pacing or progression of the storyline - mainly because it has been split into two major chapters. This has the effect of setting a "deadline" for the conclusion of certain arcs, which in turn adds a brevity to the narrative that prevents the atmosphere becoming stale.
Unfortunately some viewers may find themselves annoyed by the fact that certain episodes appear to deviate from the main plot by focusing on one or more of the supporting characters. Now while this usually a valid complaint, these "fillers" often serve as a platform to introduce themes, characters or events that may have a lasting effect on the story proper. In addition to this, the episodes in question have very little impact on the flow of the narrative, and in a very real sense this show is a good example of how "fillers" can add to the whole story.
When it comes to the visuals, Tiger & Bunny certainly looks the part, but it's not without its flaws. The artwork is of a good standard, with a nice variety of character designs, settings, and outlandish costumes that uphold the reputation of superheroes everywhere. The series is well animated for the most part, and while there are the usual (and very minor), anime-related problems when it comes to wardrobes, one particular issue continues to crop up throughout the show.
Technology has progressed to the point where computer generated imagery can often be blended with more traditional animation to good effect, but for some reason Sunrise has decided to be a little more ostentatious in its approach - which has led to a few complications. The main problem lies in the movement of the heroes after they don their costumes, and in several action sequences the studio's attempts to exaggerate the actions of the characters can make the entire scene look more than a little ... odd.
That said, many viewers may forgive the slightly weird feeling they get from the CG, but only because the overall look is decidedly refreshing and the show makes very good use of some rather nice visual effects.
Tiger & Bunny features two opening sequences, both of which introduce the main heroes (with particular attention paid to their sponsors), alongside a few short scenes that display their powers. The only real difference between the two OP's are the songs attached to them - "Orion o Nazoru" by Unison Square Garden (a rather upbeat rock song), and "Missing Link" by Novels (a surprisingly bittersweet rock ballad). The series also features two closing sequence, the first of which is a fairly simple affair that focuses on the characters of Kaburagi Koutetsu and Barnaby Brooks Jr. while "Hoshi no Sumika" by Aobozu plays out. The second ED is much more in keeping with the great traditions of the anime industry as it uses still images of the characters alongside some fairly basic visual effects - all to the J-Pop stylings of Tamaki's "Mind Game"
When it comes to background music it seems like Tiger & Bunny is on firmer ground, and much of the soundtrack is littered with anthems that echo of heroism, action, and good old comic-book cheese. In addition to this there are a wide range of well defined audio effects, and overall the series is remarkably balanced in terms of its choreography.
As one might expect from a superhero tale, the dialogue is awash wish one-liners, catchphrases and other sentences that tend come out of the mouths of costumed vigilantes. That said, the script is surprising in both its intelligence and humour, and although there's the ever-present shadow of cheese, it's not enough to deter the voice actors from delivering some fine performances. Hirata Hiraoki and Morita Masakazu are in good form as the laconic veteran Kaburagi Koutetsu (a.k.a. Wild Tiger), and the fiery young Barnaby Brooks Jr., but while the two have a good on-screen rapport, the cornerstone of the dialogue is the camaraderie between the heroes as a group.
One of the nice things about Tiger & Bunny is that the characters represent a wide range of ages and backgrounds, and although the majority of them are adults, the show also tries to offer some insight into the personalities of the more prominent teenaged heroes. Koutetsu is a particularly interesting individual - a widowed father who rarely sees his ten-year old daughter (who lives with her grandmother), because of his "work", and this lays a very strong and unusual (for anime that is), foundation for development. A big plus is that rather than travel down the Ikari Gendou route towards a "bad end", the writers have decided to adopt an approach that's more akin to "Lethal Weapon", with Koutetsu in the role of the aging veteran.
On the other hand, Barnaby Brooks Jr. is Batman.
The problem is that where Barnaby is concerned, nobody has tried to think outside of the box (as they do with Koutetsu), and it's for this reason that his background is one of the biggest stereotypes in the world of superheroes. Because of his origins, many of the changes in his personality over the course of the series can feel derived, and this is especially true where his relationship with Koutetsu is concerned. Thankfully the show has a pretty good set of supporting characters, and unlike many other anime, the series uses the relationships between the majority of the characters rather well.
If one compares Tiger & Bunny to its Western counterparts then it manages to hold its own, but only just as the weight of the superhero genre in America and Europe is enough to crush almost any challenger. That said, the series is a refreshing change from the shounen fare that's being served these days, and one of the most laudable aspects is that Sunrise haven't been afraid to take inspiration from Western media.
Which brings up one small but important point.
The majority of popular heroes were created decades ago, and since then there have been many attempts to update them so that they always appear to be in keeping with modern trends and tastes. Unfortunately these changes are only skin-deep, and aside from recent titles like "Heroes", "Misfits", "Kick Ass", "Chronicle" and "Super", the majority of Western tales don't really serve as a good reflection of modern times, even if their core message remains valid. It's in this particular area where Tiger & Bunny stands above many other stories, mainly because of its focus on "reality TV", celebrity culture and corporate sponsorship. In a very real sense the anime highlights a direction that has been blatantly ignored, and while the whole concept may seem alien to diehard fans of Western comic-books, the simple fact is that modern superhero stories tend to follow the same formula that has been the mainstay of the industry for decades.
Overall, Tiger & Bunny is an enjoyable take on the genre that blends several old ideas and puts them in a setting that, while futuristic, is more a reflection of modern society than many people might initially believe. The mixture of super-powered shenanigans, comedy and drama is very much in keeping with the best traditions of action movies everywhere, and in all honesty that's probably the best way to approach the series.
But that doesn't automatically make it no-brain entertainment.
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Jan 27, 2012
Times are hard, and in these days of global economic crisis and recession more and more people have joined the hunt to find the best bargains. As with anything in life though, experience is what counts, and veterans in the ways of saving money will usually have the upper hand in the war of the aisles. While there are a few young hotshots who have a natural talent for finding a store's bargain products, the truth is that wherever there are discounted groceries, there will undoubtedly be kings and queens who rule over them.
Now it may sound as though that whole paragraph is nothing more ... than a flowery representation of Ben-Tou, Asuara's light novel series (and its anime and manga adaptations), about Satou You, a highschool student who unwittingly becomes embroiled in an all-out brawl between people wanting half-price ready meals, but that's actually incorrect. Surprisingly, it's more akin to the reality of discount shopping than most people think, but while there's generally a lot of shoving, actual combat is ... uncommon.
Ben-Tou has a relatively simple storyline that isn't encumbered with complex philosophical questions or existential uncertainties. The plot is straightforward, but very typically shounen in its repetitiveness and predictability, which may explain why there are attempts towards the end of the series to add a layer of depth to the narrative. Unfortunately it doesn't really work as the show spends too much time trying to be funny, justifying all out brawls in grocery stores (which never seem to attract the attention of the police), and servicing hormone crazed teenagers.
The sad thing is that Ben-Tou has potential as a concept, but when it comes to execution the author, and then everyone else, seem to have left their artistic sensibilities by the wayside. There are some genuinely good flashes of inspiration in the narrative that come about because of the fact that each territory is "ruled" by the strongest fighter (or "wolf"), in that area. Sadly these sparks of inspiration never really amount to anything, and the anime becomes little more than a parade of characters, brawls, inane comedy and pointless fanservice.
Given that this is supposed to be an action anime, one would assume that the emphasis would be on making the combat scenes look good, but unfortunately that isn't the case. The characters are decent enough, but the reliance on stereotypes can make some viewers think that the designers lacked imagination. In addition to that, the settings for many of the show's fight scenes are grocery stores, so it's remarkable that the post-battle shop floors remain unscathed. The animation quality is fairly reasonable, but it's not up to the standard that David Production are capable of (they made Tatakau Shisho: The Book of Bantorra), and the series can sometimes look like a rush job (which may explain the unusual postures and the odd jumps and glitches).
The opening sequence features the song "Live for Life: Ōkamitachi no Yoru" by Manami, an upbeat rock song set against a backdrop of character introductions, action and fanservice that make a surprisingly accurate presentation of the show's content. There's also an additional introduction for episode four that focuses on Shaga Ayame while "Treasure" by Kato Emiri plays out in the background. The melodic ballad used for the ending theme, "Egao no Housoku" by Ise Mariya, serves as a nice counterpoint to each episode, and the rather placid sequence fits well with the idea that it's a post-battle scene.
As for the rest of the music, although the series is well served in the variety of pieces on offer, the usage of particular tracks can seem a little repetitive.
Ben-Tou likes to wear its shounen heart on its sleeve, so the dialogue is filled with juvenile sentiment and lots of shouting. Like almost every other action/harem/comedy/fanservice anime out there, the script is a little too reliant on familiarity with the genre, but within that there are a few decent little deviations from the norm (mainly about fighting for discounted food). Unfortunately the acting is pretty much what one would expect from this type of show - lots of effort and not much actual skill, but maybe that's to be expected. The four leads have little experience with serious roles, which isn't an indictment of their abilities, but rather an observation about the anime industry's propensity for churning out mediocre titles that cater to the minority of fans.
Seriously, stop wasting talent. It's too hard to come by.
In true shounen fashion the characters are about as one-dimensional as they come, and there's very little in the way of refinement throughout the series. That said, the main focus of the story isn't to develop each person, but rather to put them in situations where the warrior mentality can be prominently displayed. Unfortunately it doesn't work out that way as Ben-Tou is a veritable who's who of stereotypes, and pretty much every trait and personality associated with genre are on display, especially the wishy-washy lead male - Satou You. The problem is that viewers may become too familiar with a character's behaviour outside of combat, so watching them fight can often raise several questions, the main one being why does someone who is supposedly capable keep getting slapped around by Shiraume Ume.
Like many harem lead males, Satou You seems to be a bit of a masochist.
As a concept, Ben-Tou has some merit, but somewhere along the way a decision was made to try and appeal to a specific fanbase, and that's what ultimately lets the show down. The addition of multiple love-interests, inane comedy, innuendo and fanservice seem tacky at best, and can often feel more like hasty additions to the plot. Although there is some entertainment value in the series, this is mainly due to the fact that audiences can watch this as though it was a half-decent action movie.
The truth is that Ben-Tou could have held up a mirror to the real-life tribulations of discount shopping, but sadly the show fails to realise its potential because it tries too hard to jump on the harem/comedy bandwagon, and this gets in the way of it being a true parody.
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Jan 14, 2012
Type-Moon have made a habit of finding success with their dark blend of magic and supernatural elements in modern day settings, but with the release of the Fate/Stay Night visual novel on the PC in 2004, the developer seemed to have found its flagship title. Unfortunately things never really work out the way people expect, and while Studio Deen's 2006 anime adaptation of the "Fate" storyline was well received by fans, many who were unfamiliar with the source material found it all a bit ... juvenile.
At the end of 2006 the developer began collaborating with Nitroplus in order to create a prequel light novel series, ... but this time the story was penned by the relatively unknown Urobuchi Gen (with Type-Moon co-founder Takeuchi Takashi providing illustrations). Set ten years before the events in the visual novel, Fate/Zero chronicles the events leading up to and during the fourth Holy Grail War in Fuyuki City, Japan - the same place where the battle will be held in Fate/Stay Night. After three successive failures in the contest, the Einzbern family recruits the notorious mercenary Emiya Kiritsugu, also known as the "Mage Killer" - a man who is willing to use whatever means are necessary to realise his goals.
Meanwhile, the other principal magic families - Matou and Tohsaka - are preparing for the coming conflict, and although the church is taking part as well, they have also sent someone to assist the Tohsaka family - Kotomine Kirei.
At first glance it may seem as though Fate/Zero is just another action anime, but nothing could be further from the truth. The series has a very different tone than either Fate/Stay Night or Unlimited Blade Works, and in many ways it has more in common with the dark, brooding atmosphere of the Kara no Kyoukai movies. That said, the series does assume that the viewer has some familiarity with the franchise, but this is balanced by a much tighter plot than that of either of its predecessors, and more focus on preparation, planning, and even dialogue between the different parties. The result is that the narrative has far more depth and structure than one might expect in a supernatural action anime, and there are layers of subtext that are gradually added as the series progresses.
One of the most noticeable aspects of Fate/Zero is that it's a far more mature story than the original visual novel or its adaptations, and unlike many other shows, there are very few occasions where the characters engage in pointless conflicts or endeavours. The series carefully tries to avoid insulting the viewer's intelligence by adopting a patient, methodical build-up to the action set pieces, and on many occasions the story focuses on information gathering and planning. In addition to this, the battle lines shift constantly as the combatants form short-term alliances in order to counter the moves of other opponents, but there's always the understanding that the foundation of these is nothing more than "the enemy of my enemy".
In truth, this anime has far better examples of tactics and strategy than anything found in Code Geass, and certain plots are Machiavellian enough to give Death Note a run for its money.
When it comes to production values, Fate/Zero could be considered the final evolution of everything Type-Moon and Ufotable have learned from each other during their long collaboration on the Kara no Kyoukai franchise. The series looks every bit as good as one might expect, and the darker colour palette is offset by the high standard of animation. That said, although the action sequences are fluid and very well choreographed, the real testament to the quality of Ufotable's work are the subtle differences in the way the characters move.
While there are plenty of new faces in this prequel, it's actually the design of recurring characters like Sabre that really sets the standard. Fate/Stay Night's popularity turned her into one of the most iconic female leads in anime, but while she may appear to be exactly the same in Fate/Zero, there's an edge to her features and a preciseness to her movements that was missing in the original series. This fact is also true for the characters that are unique to this show, and even Tohsaka Rin's "adventure" has been given the same level of care and attention to detail.
The series opens with a well choreographed sequence that blends action with a montage of the main participants in the Holy Grail War, all set to the rather pacey rock song "Oath Sign" by LiSA. Each episode closes with "Memoria" by Eir Aoi, a bittersweet rock ballad that fits well with the images of the heroic spirits as pieces on a game board and at moments in their own history. Fate/Zero also has one of the most diverse scores in a 13 episode anime, with martial themes, operatic pieces, strange little tunes with drums or pianos as the major instrument, and more besides. The audio effects or of a very high quality, and the clash of steel on steel is as sharp and clear as the sound of the lightning whenever Rider makes a dramatic appearance.
One of the areas where Fate/Zero excels is the dialogue, and while there are occasions where conversations go on a bit too long, the script is intelligently written, rational, and insightful. One of the best examples of this is Rider's discourse on the true nature of kingship and Saber's reaction to it, but even that is nothing more than words on paper as everything lies in the delivery - so it's a good thing that the acting is of a high standard.
Kawasumi Ayako reprises her role as the King of Knights (Saber/Arturia) from Fate/Stay Night and Unlimited Blade Works, but her performance here is markedly different. Her portrayal of Saber is colder, deadlier, and far more focused than before, while Tomokazu Seki's performance as the King of Heroes (Archer/Gilgamesh), is more arrogant, more proud. That said, it's Ootsuka Akio in the role of the King of Conquerors (Rider/Iskander), who really steals the show, and his testosterone-fuelled proclamations and battle-born wisdom are one of the pillars that support the series.
When it comes to development, a large group of characters often means that some will undoubtedly fall by the wayside. Fate/Zero neatly sidesteps the entire issue of development because it's first and foremost a prequel of an existing story, but in addition to this the series has created a set of individuals who leave extremely strong impressions on the viewer, and much like Baccano!, there is a distinct lack of a true main character. Because of these factors the series can focus on showing how each of the combatants became what they are, and this plays a major part in one's enjoyment of the anime.
The emphasis on characterisation rather than development allows for a remarkable degree of definition, and although it's ultimately the personalities of each individual that captures the viewer's attention, standing at the top of them all is the King of Conquerors - Rider. His addition to the franchise has been nothing short of a revelation, and while die-hard fans will continue to worship the ground that Saber and Archer (not Gilgamesh, the other one), walk on, Rider's enjoyment of life, his exuberance and almost boyish eagerness for battle and glory, have captured the imaginations of many fans.
In many respects he, more than any other character, is the epitome of the heroes of old, but simply having a bunch of overzealous combat junkies beating each other to a pulp isn't really entertainment (unless you have an IQ equal to your shoe size), so there has to be something to balance it - and there is. Each of the mages taking part in the Holy Grail War is more like a chessmaster, planning as many moves ahead as possible, whilst preparing themselves for anything their opponents may try.
The simple fact is that Fate/Zero wouldn't work as either a story or entertainment if it was just the mages or the heroes, and it's this aspect of the series that separates it from not just its predecessors, but also many other action anime out there.
Unfortunately it's not all sweetness and light.
One of the main criticisms of this series is the episode about the young Tohsaka Rin, which many people found unnecessary. Now although there's some truth to that perception, one could also have the opinion that Rin's actions tie-in to an event in the previous episode, and together they lead up to the end of the series. Both are fair arguments, but in all honesty the whole thing doesn't really fit with the rest of the anime, and it seems like nothing more than an attempt to allow Matou Kariya some long overdue screen-time.
Fate/Zero isn't a perfect show, but while it does have several minor issues (and one "filler" episode), it does exactly what it sets out to do - capture the attention of the audience and make them want more. The story is intelligent, and while conversations and discussions can sometimes feel a little tedious, the dialogue is often quite interesting - moreso than the show's predecessor's anyway. Although the series can boast stylish, fast-aced action set-pieces, it also studiously avoids combat for the sake of gratuitous violence.
That said, Fate/Zero is still a prequel series, and at this point only half of the story has been told. Unfortunately the anime industry has a habit of messing things up, but given the quality of this show, the fact that the original story was written by Urobuchi Gen, and the knowledge that the series is being produced by Type-Moon's long time collaborators - Ufotable, fans can be cautiously optimistic about the second installment.
All we can do is wait and see ...
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